Scottish independence and the idea of Britishness

I don’t have a particular axe to grind as far as Scottish independence is concerned. I’m not a Scot, nor do I live in Scotland. I don’t have a vote in the referendum. However, as someone with a keen interest in Scottish history I do take an interest in the debate. I’m particularly interested in how the terms ‘Scottish’ and ‘British’ (and ‘Scot’ and ‘Briton’) are used by people on both sides, usually when a point about identity is being raised. In recent years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time studying how these terms were used in Scotland in the early medieval period or ‘Dark Ages’, the era of the Picts and Vikings. In two books (one already published, the other forthcoming) I’ve looked at what it meant to be a Briton in the Scotland of a thousand years ago, and why people in those days regarded ‘Britishness’ as different from both ‘Scottishness’ and ‘Englishness’. Early medieval texts show that even the umbrella term ‘Britain’ could be used in ways that excluded Scotland and England, to distinguish the territories of the Britons from those of the Scots and English.

The Britons of early medieval times were descended from the people we used to call ‘Ancient Britons’ in the school history lessons of my childhood. We were taught that the Britons fought the Romans, then the Anglo-Saxons (the ancestors of the English) and that their language survives today in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. All of this is broadly true, although more could be said. In Scotland, the clearest reminder of the Britons of old is the distinctive, twin-peaked mass of Dumbarton Rock, which gets its name from Gaelic Dùn Breatann, ‘Fortress of the Britons’.

Dumbarton Rock

‘Fortress of the Britons': Dumbarton Rock, viewed from the south bank of the River Clyde.


Fast forward a thousand years and we’re all Britons now, regardless of whether we live in England, Scotland or Wales. The modern notion of a common British identity is fairly easy to grasp – or at least it should be. Unfortunately, not everyone who voices an opinion on Scottish independence seems to understand what ‘Britishness’ means in the twenty-first century. Some commentators think the name ‘Britain’ applies exclusively to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They believe a Yes vote on 18th September will herald the ‘end’ or ‘break up’ of Britain. They’re mistaken. Britain is a geographical entity, a large island in the North Atlantic, known as ‘Great Britain’ to distinguish it from Brittany or ‘Little Britain'; the UK is a political entity, constituted in the early twentieth century after the creation of the Irish Free State. An independent Scotland will still be part of the island of Great Britain. The people of an independent Scotland will still be British. Separation from the UK will not dilute their ‘Britishness’ in any way. This is a simple geographical fact. It is not affected by the outcome of next week’s referendum.

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Epilogue: Some references to ‘Britishness’ in early medieval Scotland
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1. Scots, Britons and English (Anglo-Saxons) as separate peoples.

From the Annals of Ulster:
952 AD – Cath for Firu Alban & Bretnu & Saxonu ria Gallaibh.
‘A battle over the men of Alba [Scots] and the Britons and the Saxons [English] was won by the Foreigners [Vikings].’

From the Prophecy of Berchan:
c.960 AD (reign of King Ildulb of Alba) – ‘Bretain, Saxain, maircc fria a linn, fria a re an lonsaiglithigh airmglirinn mo glienar Albancha leis idir thuaith is eglais.
‘Woe to Britons and Saxons in his time, during the reign of the champion of fine weapons; joy to the Scots with him, both laity and clergy.’

[The Britons mentioned in these two references were the people of Strathclyde, the last surviving kingdom of the Britons in the North.]
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2. Britain = ‘territory ruled by Britons’ (not ‘the island of Britain’ as a whole)

From the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba:
c.972 AD – Cinadius filius Maelcolaim regnavit [xxiv] annis. Statim praedavit Britanniam ex parte.
‘Cináed son of Máel Coluim reigned 24 years. He frequently plundered part of Britain.’

['Britain' here means Strathclyde which lay on the south-west border of Cináed's kingdom.]

Govan The Sun Stone

Sculpture of the Strathclyde Britons: the Sun Stone at Govan (tenth century AD).

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The last king of Strathclyde

Earl Siward

From the front cover of History Scotland magazine, Nov/Dec 2013. The illustration of Earl Siward and his children is from a painting by James Smetham (1821-89).


‘The last king of Strathclyde’ is the title of my article in the current issue of History Scotland. It’s a discussion of the final phase of the kingdom of the Clyde Britons, from the Battle of Carham (1018) to the eventual takeover by the Scots (sometime before 1070). I consider several possible candidates for the label ‘last king of Strathclyde’ during a time of political upheaval involving famous figures such as Earl Siward of Northumbria, the English king Edward the Confessor and the Scottish king Macbethad (Macbeth). In the end, I acknowledge that we cannot be certain who ruled the last remaining kingdom of the Cumbri on the eve of its demise, for the information presented by the written record is incomplete. We can only note that the last king named in the sources is Eugenius Calvus (‘Owain the Bald’) who, in alliance with the king of Scots, achieved a memorable victory over the English at Carham.

History Scotland
Here’s the full reference for my article:
Tim Clarkson, ‘The last king of Strathclyde’ History Scotland vol.13 no.6, Nov/Dec 2013, pp.24-7

- and here’s a link to the History Scotland website (issues are available in print and digital formats)

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Trusty’s Hill and Rheged

Latest news from the Galloway Picts Project….

Radiocarbon dates from material unearthed at Trusty’s Hill have been analysed. They confirm that the fort on the summit was occupied in the sixth century AD.

Putting this into context, it means we now know people of high status were living on the summit in a period when kings were using hilltop fortresses as primary centres of power. Galloway had not yet been conquered by Anglo-Saxons moving westward from Bernicia, so we can cautiously identify the sixth-century occupants of Trusty’s Hill as native Britons. I say ‘cautiously’ because a rock at the site has Pictish symbols carved on it, so the question of cultural affiliations is rather more complicated.

Many historians think Galloway was part of a kingdom called Rheged which seems to have been a major political power in the late sixth century. The little we know about Rheged comes from a handful of texts preserved in the literature of medieval Wales. These suggest that the kingdom rose to prominence under Urien, a famous warlord whose deeds were celebrated by his court-bard Taliesin.

Although we cannot be certain of Urien’s chronology, our scant knowledge of sixth-century events makes it likely that he was dead by c.590. A reference in the poems to his survival into old age allows us to tentatively place his birth c.520-530. His father Cynfarch, whom we know only from a genealogy preserved in Wales, was perhaps born c.490-500. The same genealogy names Cynfarch’s father as Merchiaun (born c.460-470?) who may represent a ‘historical horizon’ for the royal dynasty of Rheged. Merchiaun’s forebears belong to the earlier fifth century, a very obscure period of British history, and their historical existence is doubtful.

Urien’s great-granddaughter Rhieinmelth, whose birth can be placed c.610, was given in marriage to the Bernician prince Oswiu in the early 630s. She is the last of Urien’s kin to be named in the Welsh sources and is regarded by some historians as the last princess of an independent Rheged. Her marriage to Oswiu was undoubtedly a political union and is often seen as symbolising her family’s submission to Bernicia. She therefore stands at the end of Rheged’s documented history, just as her ancestor Merchiaun may stand at the beginning. Whether the kingdom began before Merchiaun’s birth c.470 or lasted beyond Rhieinmelth’s marriage c.630 is unknown, for the Welsh sources give no further information that we can treat as reliable.

Interestingly, the radiocarbon dates from Trusty’s Hill suggest that the occupation phase may have run from as early as 475 to as late as 630. For those historians who see Galloway as the heartland of Rheged, this chronology is a tantalisingly close match to the span of Urien’s dynasty as indicated by medieval Welsh texts. In other words, the documentary record for Rheged’s royal family is consistent with the date-range for elite settlement at Trusty’s Hill. This point was noted by Ronan Toolis, co-director of the Galloway Picts Project, when he announced the radiocarbon results at the project website. See the link below.

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Galloway Picts Project: radiocarbon analysis

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The graves of the queens

Govan cross-slab

Early medieval cross-slab at Govan, re-used in 1723. From Stirling-Maxwell’s Sculptured Stones in the Kirkyard of Govan (1899).


Yesterday on Heart Of The Kingdom I published a post which asked, and attempted to answer, a question about royal tombs: How many queens of Strathclyde are buried at Govan?

This isn’t a question that can be answered by browsing a book or searching online. No information – neither historical nor archaeological – can currently give a definitive answer. The best we can hope for is to make a rough guess, and this is what I’ve done in my blogpost.

Take a look and see if you agree with my reasoning. Comments are always welcome, either here or at the blogpost itself.

Heart Of The Kingdom: Female royal burials at Govan

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The lively maiden of Dumbarton

Clyde Rock & Dumbarton Castle

Clyde Rock, Dumbarton (from ‘Souvenir of Scotland’, 1892)


A number of medieval Welsh manuscripts contain information relating to the Cumbri or North Britons, the native Celtic people of Northern England and Southern Scotland. One of these is ‘Peniarth 47′, written in the 15th century and preserved at the National Library of Wales. It contains a collection of ‘triads’ – brief texts in which three items from the medieval storytelling tradition are grouped under a common theme. Triads were used by the bards of Wales as a kind of subject index to a huge repertoire of poems and stories originally retained in their own memories.

Some triads listed famous events, such as ‘Three Futile Battles of the Island of Britain’. Others listed military forces such as ‘Three Faithful Warbands’ or renowned individuals such as ‘Three Chieftains of Arthur’s Court’. One triad refers to a trio of notable young women:

‘Three Lively Maidens of the Island of Britain’
Angharad Ton Velen, daughter of Rhydderch Hael,
and Afan, daughter of Meic Thick-Hair,
and Perwyr, daughter of Rhun of Great Wealth.

Afan’s father Meic (sometimes spelled ‘Maig’) was reputedly a 6th-century ruler of Powys, a part of Wales bordering the territory of the Anglo-Saxons or English. Not much is known about him, although the district of Meigen in Powys might preserve his name.

Perwyr’s father Rhun is identified in Welsh tradition as a prince of the North Britons and as a son of the famous warrior-king Urien Rheged (active c.580). Contrary to popular belief, the precise location of Rheged is unknown. It is no more than a modern guess that the name refers to a kingdom rather than to a smaller territorial unit such as a river-valley or group of estates.

One of Urien’s contemporaries among the North Britons was Rhydderch, king of Alt Clut, whose epithet Hael means ‘Generous’. Alt Clut (‘Rock of Clyde’) is an old Welsh and North British name for the imposing, twin-peaked volcanic ‘plug’ where Dumbarton Castle stands today. Rhydderch reigned in the late 6th and early 7th centuries and is one of the most recognizable figures in medieval Welsh literature, a key player in the so-called North British Heroic Age. Peering behind his literary fame among later Welsh bards we are probably seeing a powerful king of the early medieval period, a competent warlord who launched plundering raids against his neighbours. His adversaries apparently included Anglo-Saxons, Scots and fellow-Britons. Among his network of high-level contacts were Saint Columba of Iona and, less certainly, Saint Kentigern of Glasgow. In later Welsh folklore Rhydderch emerges as an oppressor of Merlin during the latter’s time as a ‘Wild Man’ in the forest.

According to the triad of the Three Lively Maidens, Rhydderch had a daughter Angharad. Although we know very little about her, we cannot assume she was nothing more than a literary invention. It is entirely possible that she was a real princess of Dumbarton, a genuine historical figure like her father. Her epithet Ton Velen (‘Yellow Skin’ or ‘Yellow Wave’) denotes a defining physical characteristic and must have originated in a poem or story in which she featured. This tale, although now lost, was presumably well-known among the bards of medieval Wales and may have been circulating for a long time before it got ‘catalogued’ in the triad.

Some of the earliest and most famous examples of Welsh poetry and saga originated in what the bards called Yr Hen Ogledd, ‘The Old North’, the land of Urien Rheged and Rhydderch Hael. It is possible that the poem or tale featuring Angharad Ton Velen originated in this region rather than in Wales, either to praise her while she lived or as an elegy following her death. Such a tribute may have been composed by a bard at the royal court of Alt Clut, perhaps in the years around 600.

In the absence of additional information about Angharad we can do no more than sketch a hazy picture of her life.

Her name means ‘much loved’ and is pronounced ‘Ann-Harrad’ (stressed on the second syllable). Traditions of uncertain reliability, preserved at Glasgow Cathedral in the twelfth century, identify Rhydderch Hael’s wife as Languoreth, Queen of Alt Clut. This lady, who may have been a native of the Hamilton area, was presumably Angharad’s mother. The same traditions mention a son of Rhydderch called Constantine, who gave up the secular life to become a priest. He and Angharad are the only offspring credited to Rhydderch and, although neither is historically secure, they are not necessarily fictional. Constantine is the namesake of the mysterious saint commemorated in the dedication of the old parish church at Govan, 12 miles east of Dumbarton, and the two are perhaps one and the same.

Let us assume, for the moment, that Angharad existed. A tentative chronological guess would place her birth in the period 570-590. As a princess of Alt Clut she would have been a Christian like her father (and, no doubt, her mother too). During her early years, until she was old enough to marry, her time would have been divided between the old fortress on the summit of Clyde Rock and other royal residences visited by her father’s entourage. Displays of wealth and status were an important part of early medieval kingship and a royal daughter was expected to play her part. We can imagine Angharad wearing jewellery of gold and silver, and clothes woven from the finest fabrics. In her father’s feasting hall she would have eaten roast meat served in expensive bowls manufactured in France. The wine in her drinking-cup would have been imported from the Mediterranean lands. Servants and slaves would have been ever-present throughout her entire life.

Later Welsh bards regarded Angharad as a ‘lively maiden’ (whatever that means). A particular characteristic of her physical appearance was Ton Velen, for which we may envisage either a striking mane of curly blonde hair (‘Yellow Wave’) or an unusually sallow complexion (‘Yellow Skin’). The late Rachel Bromwich, to whom we owe a huge debt of gratitude for her magisterial study of the Welsh triads, interpreted Ton Velen as ‘Yellow (or tawny) Wave’, noting that ‘the reference may be to the girl’s hair’. This is reminiscent of the Gaelic word buide, which also means ‘yellow’, borne as an epithet by the Dál Riatan king Eochaid Buide (died 629) a son of Áedán mac Gabráin. Eochaid evidently received the epithet very early in life, for we find it being used by Columba when he greeted Áedán’s sons at a time when Eochaid was a small child. A number of sources suggest that Áedán fought at least one major battle against Angharad’s father Rhydderch.

Like Angharad, Eochaid is usually assumed to have had ‘yellow’ (i.e. blond) hair, but alternative interpretations of buide are possible. Eochaid and Angharad seem to have belonged to the same generation, and either or both may have had strikingly fair hair or, if ‘yellow’ is a reference to complexion, unusually sallow skin.

If Angharad survived the many perils of childhood to become a teenager she would probably have had little say in her future when the time came to choose a husband. As the daughter of a powerful king she was not only a lady of high status and considerable wealth but also a useful political commodity. Marriage to a prince of a foreign kingdom seems a likely scenario, the wedding perhaps putting a formal seal on a newly forged political alliance. Such a marriage would have taken the ‘lively maiden’ away from her lofty home on the Rock of Clyde, perhaps to a strange new land whose speech and customs she found totally unfamiliar.

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Notes & References

In modern Britain, the most well-known bearer of the name Angharad was the Welsh actress Angharad Rees (1944-2012), who starred in the popular 1970s TV series Poldark.

More pronunciations of Welsh (and North British) personal names:
Rhydderch – ‘Hrutherkh’
Rhun – ‘Rhinn’
Urien – ‘Irri-yen’

Five years ago, Andrew Breeze suggested that ‘Languoreth’ might be an error for ‘Iunguoret’ (or ‘Unwared’ in Modern Welsh).
[See his article 'Telleyr, Anguen, Gulath, and the Life of St Kentigern' Scottish Language 27 (2008), 71-80.]

Rachel Bromwich (ed. & transl.), Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads. 2nd edition* (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1978).
The triad of the Three Lively Maidens appears on page 199 as ‘Triad 79′.
Professor Bromwich briefly discussed Angharad Ton Velen in the extensive ‘Notes to personal names’ (at page 270).
* I haven’t consulted the 3rd edition for this blogpost.

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This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde

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The son of the king of the Cumbrians

Govan hogback

Viking Age hogback tombstone at Govan (Photo © B Keeling)


A new post at my Govan blog deals with a series of events around the middle of the 11th century – a fairly mysterious period in Scottish history – and with a shadowy figure described as ‘the son of the king of the Cumbrians’. It also mentions various other people who were major players in the political events of the time: King Cnut (‘Canute’), King Edward (‘The Confessor’), Macbethad (‘Macbeth’) and Earl Siward of Northumbria. The main purpose of the blogpost is to seek an answer to a question: Did a man from Govan become king of Scotland in AD 1054?

Heart of the Kingdom: A Govanite on the Scottish throne

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Is King Arthur buried in Scotland?

Yarrow Stone

The Yarrow Stone (Photo © B Keeling)


The answer to this question is Yes, at least according to Damian Bullen of Edinburgh, whose thoughts on the topic have been reported fairly widely in recent days. He thinks Arthur’s grave-marker is the Yarrow Stone, an Early Christian monument standing in the valley of the River Yarrow near Selkirk. A number of Scottish newspapers have picked up on his theory, two of these being the Daily Record and the Southern Reporter.

The Yarrow Stone is one of the most important ancient monuments in Scotland. It bears a Latin inscription, probably carved in the early 6th century, commemorating the princes Nudus and Dumnogenus (‘Nudd’ and ‘Dyfnyen’), two sons of Liberalis. Nothing else is known about these people but they belonged to a prosperous ‘royal’ family that had been Christian for at least a generation. The names of the deceased show that they were Britons or, more precisely, that their family favoured the use of Brittonic names rather than Anglo-Saxon or Gaelic ones. Liberalis (‘Generous’) presumably held land and authority in the Yarrow Valley.

There is no mention of Arthur in the inscription, nor is there any obvious reason to connect him with the stone. Hence, not everyone agrees with Mr Bullen’s view that it marks the grave of the historical figure behind the legends. Simon Stirling, author of the forthcoming book The King Arthur Conspiracy: How a Scottish Prince Became a Mythical Hero, is rightly sceptical of the Yarrow theory and has his own views on Arthur’s true identity. Simon supports the idea that the historical Arthur was really Artúr of Dál Riata, a son of Áedán mac Gabráin. On his blog he offers an alternative location for the burial-place and will no doubt say more about it in his book. In the meantime, I recommend Michelle Ziegler’s comprehensive study of Artúr mac Áedáin in the Arthurian-themed first issue of The Heroic Age. Dál Riata is also the setting for another ‘Historical Arthur’ candidate, as explained in an interesting blogpost by Mak Wilson.

Another note of caution on Mr Bullen’s theory is sounded by Melissa Snell who, like me, prefers to keep an open mind on the question of Arthur’s historicity. After discussing the Yarrow idea, Melissa adds a summary of her own views: ‘Arthur may have existed — I have never denied the possibility. But until some real, physical, unequivocal, archaeological or documentary evidence comes to light that supports his existence, I must continue to tell you We don’t know.’ More of Melissa’s wise words can be found in an older post entitled The Truth of Arthur.

It’s always interesting to see what local historians think of a new theory relating to their area. Selkirk-based Walter Elliot, well-known for his research on the Roman fort of Newstead (Trimontium), was reported by the Selkirk Weekend Advertiser as saying: ‘Mr Bullen has certainly researched the Yarrow Stone and the various stories about Arthur very well. Whether the two can be joined together is a matter of question.’ Walter’s comments appear in a longer article which can be found via this link.

Historic Scotland also reserve judgment on the matter: ‘The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) records indicate that ‘the Yarrow Stone was set up to mark the grave of two British Christian chieftains. It dates from the early 6th century and falls into place in the early Christian series more richly represented in Wales and Cornwall.’ As such, we certainly believe it is of national importance.’ This quote is from an article in Archaeology Daily News.

I can’t see many people being convinced by Mr Bullen’s theory. On the other hand, I do think he might be on the right track when he suggests that the name Dumnogenus means ‘born of the Dumno’ in the sense of ‘member of the Dumnonii’. The latter were a people of Devon and Cornwall who gave their name to the early medieval kingdom of Dumnonia. A Roman map shows a similar name Damnonii on the western side of the Forth-Clyde isthmus around what is now the Greater Glasgow urban area. If, as seems likely, Damnonii is a misprint for Dumnonii, then the ancient Glasgwegians and their Cornish compatriots belonged to two geographically-separated groups who happened to bear the same name. If the prince Dumnogenus/Dyfnyen buried at Yarrow was given this name because he was a member of a northern Dumnonian gens then we might envisage the territory of this people extending a considerable distance southward and eastward of Glasgow. This seems broadly consistent with later evidence (or a very strong hint, at least) that the kingdom of Strathclyde – the presumed successor of the Damnonii or Dumnonii – encompassed Teviotdale and other tributary valleys of the Tweed in the 10th and 11th centuries. The River Yarrow eventually flows into the Ettrick Water which itself joins the Tweed near Selkirk. Perhaps the native inhabitants of this area considered themselves ‘Dumnonian’ in post-Roman times as well as answering to Clyde-based kings five centuries later?

Postscript: I discuss the Yarrow Stone and its historical context on pp.34-5 of my book The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland.

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