A number of powerful families competed for wealth and status in Argyll and the Hebridean seaways during the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries. In Gaelic sources of Scottish and Irish origin we find some of these kindreds identified by the name of an ancestor, usually prefixed by Cenél (‘Descendants of…’). This was commonly translated as gens or genus in contemporary Latin texts. Until recently, most historians understood Gaelic cenél (plural: cenéla) as a term denoting a kindred of Scots, the Gaelic-speaking inhabitants of Argyll. Long-established ideas about ethnic and linguistic divisions reinforced this belief and ensured that other inhabitants of the Hebridean zone, such as Picts, were assumed not to be grouped in cenéla. Picts and other ‘non-Scots’ were generally regarded by historians as speakers of languages other than Gaelic. This kind of simplified ethnic labelling underpinned Scottish early medieval studies throughout the twentieth century but is now increasingly seen as unhelpful and obsolete. The change is largely due to a more rigorous approach to the sources, several of which have been thoroughly prodded and pulled apart to see what their authors were actually trying to say. One result of this long-overdue purge is an understanding that the boundaries between the Scots of Argyll and their Hebridean ‘Pictish’ neighbours were too blurred to be marked with firm pen-strokes on our maps of western Scotland. The region’s linguistic and cultural affiliations were unlikely to have been static or monolithic. Shifting allegiances, political rivalries, transient hegemonies and personal ambitions will have influenced how ‘Scots’ and ‘Picts’ viewed one another at any one time. Under such circumstances the ethnicity of a king or chieftain was probably less important to his neighbours than the level of threat he posed to their interests. Whether he or they were Scots or Picts was surely an issue of far lower priority.
In this post I want to focus on one particular group, a single high-status kindred, who provide a good example of the blurred ethnic picture. Its members comprised a Hebridean cenél who came to prominence in the second half of the 7th century. The monks of Iona called this family ‘Gens (or Genus) Garnaith’, a name meaning ‘Gartnait’s Descendants’. Historians now recognise this as a rendering into Latin of an original Gaelic name: Cenél nGartnait. In a series of chronicle entries written on Iona, later incorporated into the Irish annals, this cenél was strongly associated with Skye. It evidently ruled some part of the island but whether its personnel were indigenes, long-established immigrants or recent incomers is unknown.
Several generations of Gartnait’s family became embroiled in a prolonged conflict on Skye with another group whose leaders apparently came from elsewhere. The main protagonists on both sides were named by the Iona chroniclers and will be mentioned here in due course. Unsurprisingly, in an era when patriarchal societies were the norm, all of these warlords and chieftains were male. It would be easy to select one of them as a key player and weave this blogpost around him. Instead, I have chosen the only woman mentioned in the entire sequence of events, an obscure figure whose possible significance has hitherto been overlooked. Here, I intend to give her a more visible presence by musing on the role she may have played in her family’s political dealings. Her name was Coblaith and she was a member of Cenél nGartnait. She is the earliest named female inhabitant of Skye known to history.
We do not know when Coblaith was born but a date in the 650s seems plausible. Her grandfather Gartnait, a man selected by his descendants as an important ancestor, was the son of an obscure figure called Accidán whose lifetime probably spanned the end of the 6th century and the beginning of the 7th. Nothing is known of Accidán but his family made their first appearance in recorded history in 643 when the Iona annalists noted the death of one of his sons, a man bearing the distinctly Pictish name Talorc. The circumstances of Talorc’s passing are unknown but it was followed a year later by the violent demise of Iarnbodb, son of Gartnait. If Iarnbodb’s father was the same man as Gartnait, son of Accidán, then Iarnbodb was Talorc’s nephew and Coblaith’s uncle. Iarnbodb died by burning, an event which the annalists regarded as significant enough to note. His death was probably no tragic mishap caused by an untended hearth in his timbered hall. To be noted in the annals it must have been newsworthy for the monks of Iona, perhaps even relevant to their monastery’s political interests. Did Iarnbodb perish at the hands of enemies who attacked his residence with fire? Were these enemies associated in some way with Iona’s secular patrons?
Our attention now runs five years ahead to 649, to a Gaelic entry in the annals:
Cocath hUae nAedhain & Gartnaith mc. Accidain
‘War between the grandsons of Aedán and Gartnait, son of Accidán’
The grandsons mentioned here were those of Aedán mac Gabraín, a powerful warrior-king who carved a large hegemony or imperium in the late 6th and early 7th centuries. Aedán’s family comprised one of the major cenéla of Argyll and are more usually known as Cenél nGabraín. In so far as we may wish to place them in an ethnic or ethnolinguistic category they were Gaelic-speaking Scots of the maritime region commonly called Dál Riata or Dalriada. The heartland of Cenél nGabraín lay on the long peninsula of Kintyre but the principal royal church was some distance away on the isle of Iona off the western coast of Mull. Neither the annals nor any other source tells us the cause of Cenél nGabraín’s war against Gartnait, nor are we told where it took place. It was probably characterised by raids and counter-raids, as the two sides competed for territory and influence. At some point Gartnait disappears from history but his heirs and descendants, Cenél nGartnait, fought on under the leadership of his sons. One phase of hostilities seems to have ended in 668 when the Iona annalists noted the following event :
nauigatio filiorum Gartnaidh ad Hiberniam cum plebe Sceth
‘The voyage of Gartnait’s sons to Ireland with the people of Skye’
Here we see an event recorded in Latin rather than in Gaelic. The choice of language is significant – it might reflect a different attitude or emphasis on the part of an annalist or of a later scribe – but this is a large topic in itself and I won’t delve into it here. My main concern in this post is the story of Coblaith and her relatives in so far as the sources felt a need to reveal it – or suppress it. What the annal for 668 tells us is that the family sailed to Ireland with some portion of the populace of Skye. A plausible scenario imagines ‘Gartnait’s sons’ being forced out of their domains with their dependants and supporters. One of these sons was Cano, Coblaith’s father. Later Irish folkore wove an imaginative tale around him: Scéla Cano Meic Gartnáin (‘The Tale of Cano, Gartnait’s Son’). This portrayed him as the central figure in a ‘love triangle’ involving an Irish princess called Cred and her husband King Marcan. The story has themes common to other medieval tales such as the Tristan legend and is a literary product rather than a reliable historical source. Its cast of characters includes people whose lifetimes never touched in reality. Nevertheless, the status it accords to the real Cano implies that he was considered worthy of selection as a hero of saga. We can tentatively identify him as the most prominent of Gartnait’s sons and as head of the family in the 660s. His daughter Coblaith was probably quite young, perhaps not yet a teenager, when she made the sea-crossing to Ireland.
Although the family’s reasons for leaving Skye are not given, the explanation probably lay in the warfare of the 640s. We can envisage the departure as Cenél nGartnait’s response to a political setback. Perhaps Cano suffered a major defeat in 668 at the hands of Cenél nGabraín who subsequently expelled him from his lands. If the historical backdrop to the annal is indeed a catalogue of defeat and dispossession we might wonder why the exiles chose Ireland as their refuge. This begs the additional question as to which of the various Irish kingdoms offered sanctuary. Geographical factors suggest that a group of Skye refugees would make landfall in some northern part of Ireland but, with so little knowledge available to us, we cannot rule out other areas. We can, however, rule out any notion of Gartnait’s sons finding shelter among the Irish friends of their Cenél nGabraín foes. Unfortunately, given the plethora of small realms in seventh-century Ireland, neither geography nor politics narrows the shortlist of available candidates very much. It is generally accepted that the branch of Cenél nGabraín descending from Aedán’s son Eochaid Buide lost much of its Irish support after a disastrous battle in 639 but we do not know if other branches were affected. In Scéla Cano Meic Gartnáin the eponymous hero spends time in Connaught but the tale’s dubious link to genuine history means that its geographical hints carry little weight.
The Cenél nGartnait exiles in Ireland are unlikely to have been particularly numerous. They were an elite group, an aristocratic kindred whose leaders possibly regarded themselves as royalty. If they were defeated and dispossessed in 668 their expulsion would not have caused a major demographic upheaval back home. Their former estates on Skye would simply have been taken over by a new elite, the victorious warrior-aristocracy of a rival group who, in this case, were presumably a segment of Cenél nGabraín. Peasant farmers toiling on the newly-conquered lands as bonded tenants would have seen their old masters depart and new ones arrive, without much disruption to the routine of agricultural life. Thus, when the annalists refer to the plebs (‘people’) of Skye following Cano into exile what they are describing is one small element of the population, an uprooted portion of the island’s landowning nobility.
Historians have traditionally viewed Cenél nGartnait as a family of Pictish origin. The names of its prominent figures – Talorc, Gartnait and Cano – look distinctly Pictish. However, as stated at the beginning of this post, defining the ethnicity of particular groups in early medieval Scotland is not necessarily a useful exercise. Cano’s kin and other inhabitants of Skye may have displayed some aspects of ‘Pictishness’ but we should avoid the temptation to call them Picts. Nor should we feel tempted to describe their island as a Pictish territory. The survival of three stones bearing Pictish symbols testifies to cultural links between Skye and the eastern Pictish heartlands where such artefacts are numerous. It does not necessarily mean that the Skye-folk imagined themselves and the inhabitants of Perthshire or Moray as one people. On geographical grounds alone, the idea of a single ‘Pictish nation’ stretching from Fife to the Outer Isles seems rather doubtful. The people of Skye surely had closer ties – in social, economic and cultural terms – with neighbours in the western islands and coastlands, including the Scots of Lorn, Kintyre, Cowal and Islay. All of these groups, Scots and Skye-folk alike, inhabited a Hebridean zone unified rather than divided by the sea. All were members of a larger maritime region encompassing coastal communities in northern Ireland and northwestern Britain. Irish influence seems to have brought the Gaelic language to Argyll as far back as Roman times. By c.500, Gaelic had supplanted whatever remained of a native British (‘Brittonic’) language among the Scots and was probably making inroads among the Brittonic-speaking ‘Picts’ of Skye before the 7th century. Thus, although the leaders of Cenél nGartnait had Pictish names, their everyday speech may have been Gaelic. This idea finds support in Cano’s choice of destination when he left his home in 668: his voyage to Ireland suggests that he and his kinsfolk were part of the Gaelic-speaking world. If an ethnic label must be attached to his family the most appropriate would seem to be ‘Picto-Scottish’, a rather vague term which does not really add much to the overall picture.
Cano’s Irish sojourn did not last long. His return to Hebridean waters was noted by the Iona annalists in a Latin entry under the year 670:
venit genus Garnaith de Hibernia
‘Cenél nGartnait came back from Ireland’
Although no additional clues are offered, the implication of this brief entry is clear: the exiles returned to their old estates on Skye. If armed force was involved, the family’s swift recovery was probably due to hospitality and material support given by Cano’s Irish hosts. Since such help was not usually offered without a promise of mutual benefits, Cano is likely to have sworn an oath of friendship to his patrons, pledging gifts and treasures if he succeeded in regaining his lands. In a period when agreements between powerful families were frequently sealed with a marriage alliance Cano may have offered the hand of his daughter Coblaith to an Irish prince or king.
It is possible, then, that Coblaith remained in Ireland as a bride and did not return to Skye. Alongside her father on the homeward voyage went her brother Conamail, no doubt a young man of weapon-bearing age. How the kindred fared after their homecoming can barely be discerned but a new round of hostilities broke out. The family’s next appearance in the annals, in 672, implies a military defeat:
Gabail Eliuin m. Cuirp & Conamail filii Canonn
‘The capture of Eliuin, son of Cuirp, and of Conamail, son of Cano’
Eliuin is something of a mystery. His name has been variously interpreted as Pictish Alpin, British Elffin, Anglo-Saxon Aelfwine or even as a Gaelic place-name meaning ‘island’. Another theory interprets m[ic] cuirp as a scribal error for moccu irp ‘descendant of Irb’ and associates Eliuin with a Pictish royal family who apparently claimed descent from an obscure ancestor called Irb, Erp or Uerb. A simpler alternative accepts the annal entry as it stands, without any hypothetical embellishment. Eliuin might thus have been a kinsman or ally of Conamail taken captive alongside him. The two men perhaps led a Cenél nGartnait warband which lost a battle in 672. Assuming that the captors were Scots of Cenél nGabraín, heirs of the men who had fought Conamail’s grandfather in 649, can they be identified more closely?
By the middle of the 7th century Cenél nGabraín, the descendants of Gabrán, comprised several branches. Two of these were descended from Eochaid Buide, a son of Aedán and grandson of the dynastic forefather Gabrán. The paramount kingship of Kintyre frequently alternated between these two branches throughout the 7th century as both competed with other cenéla for a wider sovereignty over neighbouring territories. One of Eochaid’s brothers was a certain Tuathal, a shadowy figure identified by historians as the father of a man called Eóganán who died in 659 or 660. Although the circumstances of Eóganán’s death are unknown, two of his grandsons were slain in battle on Skye in 701. Eóganán’s family were therefore, in all likelihood, the Cenél nGabraín adversaries of Gartnait, the group described by the annalists as Aedán’s grandsons. By c.670, the war on Skye had been raging on-and-off for more than twenty years, its roots no doubt formed in a clash of territorial ambitions in the 640s. The earliest phase of rivalry may have been fought by Eóganán and Gartnait as leaders of their respective cenéla, with Eóganán possibly the main aggressor. Was he squeezed out of Kintyre by his powerful cousins – the sons of Eochaid Buide – and forced to pursue his own interests further north?
In 687, the annalists noted a major setback for Cenél nGartnait. As suggested above, Cano’s daughter Coblaith may have been living in Ireland at that time, as the wife of a prince or king. If so, the tidings she heard from her kin on Skye were grim indeed:
Occisio Canonn filii Gartnaidh
‘The slaying of Cano, Gartnait’s son’
Nothing is known of the circumstances behind this entry but it probably refers to another Cenél nGabraín victory. Ironically, it followed what seems to have been a successful period of warfare for Cano and his folk: two sons of Eóganán were slain between 676 and 679, presumably on Skye. This, at least, is a plausible inference from the sparse data in the annals. A further tragedy struck Cenél nGartnait in 689, two years after their leader’s demise:
Choblaith filia Canonn moritur
‘Coblaith, Cano’s daughter, died’
She was still a young woman by any modern reckoning of longevity. Her chronology, in so far as it can be estimated from the death-notices of her forebears, suggests that she was under forty years old at the time of her death. Early medieval chroniclers paid scant attention to women, a point made in previous posts here at Senchus and immediately apparent from a glance at the sources. Thus, the Iona annalists routinely penned obituary notices for kings, princes, abbots and bishops but rarely acknowledged the deaths of women unless they were saints. Few prominent females from the secular world are named at all but those deemed worthy of mention must have been exceptional in some way. One famous example from Scotland is Mael Muire, daughter of the Pictish king Cináed mac Ailpín. Her long and eventful life spanned the ninth and early tenth centuries. Both of her husbands were Irish high-kings, as also was one of her sons. It is hardly surprising, given her paternal ancestry and marital history, that the annalists chose to mention her passing in 913.
There must have been something similarly special about Coblaith to preserve her from obscurity and anonymity. Had the annalists on Iona not regarded her as important her death would have gone unnoticed. In the context of the patriarchal, aristocratic milieu into which she was born her options for achieving great things were limited: she could pursue a career in the Church, perhaps becoming abbess of a great monastery; or, if her father so wished, she could be given as a bride to seal an alliance with a powerful family. It is possible, then, that her adult life followed the path trodden two hundred years later by Mael Muire. Perhaps the daughter of Cano of Skye, like the daughter of Cináed mac Ailpín, became the wife of a powerful king? If so, three different marital scenarios emerge as possibilities. In one, Coblaith weds an Irishman of royal blood, perhaps the heir of her father’s host and patron during Cenél nGartnait’s exile from Skye in the years 668 to 670. In another, she becomes the wife of a prince or king of Cenél nGabraín in a dynastic union sealing a temporary truce between the two warring families. In the third scenario she marries into one of the other Hebridean cenéla, perhaps Cenél Loairn whose kings ruled the district around Oban still called Lorn today. This Gaelic kindred were southern neighbours of Cenél nGartnait and bitter rivals of Cenél nGabraín. In an article published in 2004 (cited below) James Fraser argued that Cenel Loairn may have aligned themselves with Cenél nGartnait in the years around c.700. Perhaps the two kindreds were already connected by a political marriage?
After Coblaith’s death the war on Skye continued into the next century. Her brother Conamail, whose capture in 672 has already been mentioned, was slain in 705. Leadership of Cenél nGartnait thereafter passed to Conamail’s son Congus whose own sons became embroiled in a new war, this time against the Picts of the East, in the 730s. In that decade the powerful Pictish king Óengus, son of Fergus, defeated Cenél Loairn and seized their lands.The annals imply a simultaneous conquest of Cenél nGartnait by Óengus, despite a staunch resistance led by Cano’s great-grandsons. After the last of these men died in 740 their family disappears from history.
For a definitive modern discussion of Cenél nGartnait see James Fraser’s article ‘The Iona Chronicle, the descendants of Aedán mac Gabraín and the Principal Kindreds of Dal Riata’ in the journal Northern Studies, 38 (2004), 77-96, at pp.85-8. Fraser offers a useful short summary in his book From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795 (Edinburgh, 2009) at pp.204-6.
Alan Macquarrie examines Cenél nGartnait [although he does not use this name] on pp.167-71 of his book The saints of Scotland: essays in Scottish church history, AD 450-1093 (Edinburgh, 1997).
An older study is Marjorie Anderson’s Kings and kingship in early Scotland (Edinburgh, 1973) at pp.154-5.
For a detailed analysis of the genealogical texts containing the ‘pedigrees’ of Cano and his heirs see David Dumville, ‘Cethri Prímchenéla Dáil Riata’, Scottish Gaelic Studies 20 (2000), 170-91.