A mounted warrior, possibly a Northumbrian, on an 8th-century Pictish stone in the kirkyard at Aberlemno in Angus. (Copyright © B Keeling)
Today is the anniversary of the battle of Dun Nechtáin in which the Picts, led by their king Bridei, defeated the English of Northumbria. It was fought on 20th May 685, one of the most famous dates in early Scottish history. The Pictish victory was decisive: the Northumbrian king Ecgfrith was cut down and nearly all his warriors were slain. His people back home regarded the defeat as a catastrophe, a disastrous reversal of fortune for the royal dynasty.
Years later, the Venerable Bede wrote about the battle in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. He had been a young boy of twelve, a novice monk in the Northumbrian monastery of Jarrow, when news of Egcfrith’s fall came south from the land of the Picts. Looking back in the twilight of his life, Bede recalled the battle with sadness and regret. ‘From that time,’ he wrote, ‘the hopes and strength of the English kingdom began to ebb and fall away.’
Bede does not name the battlefield, saying only that it took place in Pictish territory ‘in a tight place of inaccessible mountains’. Geographical detail, although useful to modern historians, was less important to him than his key point or ‘message’. To Bede, the Pictish victory was God’s revenge on Ecgfrith for an event of the previous year: a savage Northumbrian raid on Brega in Ireland in which defenceless monasteries were plundered. Another English monk, writing at Ripon in Yorkshire, was similarly vague on the geography of Ecgfrith’s defeat. He was more concerned with describing the battle as ‘a woeful disaster’ inflicted by an enemy who sprang from ‘the bestial Pictish peoples’.
Much of our information comes from other sources, from writers in the Celtic lands where people in the seventh century were no strangers to English aggression. From the Irish annalists, for instance, we learn the Gaelic name of the battlefield:
‘The battle of Dun Nechtáin was fought on the 20th day of the month of May, a Saturday, in which Ecgfrith son of Oswiu, king of the Saxons, having completed the fifteenth year of his reign, was killed with the greater part of his warriors by Bridei son of Bili, the king of Fortriu.’
An Irish monk, probably based at the great monastery of Bangor on the shore of Belfast Lough, composed a poem on the battle. He described Ecgfrith’s demise with grim satisfaction and, like Bede, saw the Pictish victory as God’s punishment for the brutal Northumbrian raid on Brega in 684:
‘Today Bridei gives battle
over the land of his grandfather,
unless it is the wish of the Son of God
that restitution be made.
Today the son of Oswiu is slain
in battle against iron swords.
Even though he did penance,
it was penance too late.
Today the son of Oswiu is slain,
he who took the black draughts.
Christ has heard our prayer
that Bridei would avenge Brega.’
Among the Britons there was a similar absence of affection for Ecgfrith, whose forebears had waged many wars against the native kingdoms of Wales and the North. A Welsh chronicler, writing in the early 800s, compiled a list of Northumbrian kings for his book Historia Brittonum (‘History of the Britons’). When he reached Ecgfrith he paused to add this note: ‘He is the one who made war against his kinsman who was the Pictish king called Bridei, and he fell there with all the strength of his army, and the Picts with their king emerged as victors, and the Saxon thugs never again ventured forth to take tribute from the Picts.’
Such sentiments appear to conform to the ‘Celt versus Saxon’ view of seventh-century warfare. However, before we run too far with the idea of an inter-ethnic dimension to these military campaigns, we might take note of an old Northumbrian tradition on the fate of Ecgfrith’s body. According to a chronicle written at Durham in the 1100s, the dead English king was not left on the battlefield to be devoured by wolves and ravens. Instead, his Pictish foes carried him away with honour, to be buried in the most hallowed place in the Celtic Christian lands. In the words of the Durham chronicler, Ecgfrith was defeated and slain…
‘at Nechtanesmere, which is the Lake of Nechtan, on the 20th of May in the fifteenth year of his reign. His body was buried on Iona, the island of Columba.’
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* In this blogpost I have avoided any discussion of the location of Dun Nechtáin. I still think it was Dunnichen Hill near Forfar in Angus. Others think it was somewhere near Dunachton in Badenoch. The arguments and counter-arguments are set out by Alex Woolf in an important article: ‘Dun Nechtáin, Fortriu and the geography of the Picts’ Scottish Historical Review 85 (2006), 182-201.
* Bridei represents the likely Pictish form of a name written in Gaelic sources as Brude.
* The usual pronunciation of Ecgfrith is ‘Edge-frith’.
* In the quoted extracts above, the English translations are based on those in the appendices of James Fraser’s book The Battle of Dunnichen, 685 (Stroud, 2002).
* The ‘black draughts’ in the Irish poem are thought by some historians to represent dark, gaping wounds received by Ecgfrith at Dun Nechtáin.
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