Picts at Moncrieffe Hill

Moncrieffe Hill Pictish fort
A new project to promote the history and archaeology of the Carse of Gowrie is set to run for the next four years, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other sources. One of the key sites involved in the project is Moncrieffe Hill which has a large Iron Age fort on the summit. The fort has never been excavated before, but the new project will see the first ever ‘dig’. This is likely to shed light on how the hill was used by the ancient inhabitants of Perthshire, not only in the Iron Age but in the Pictish period that followed.

The name Moncrieffe is an Anglicised form of Monadh Craoibh (Gaelic: ‘Hill of Trees’). A glance at the Latin text of the Annals of Ulster turns up an interesting item from the year 728:

Bellum Mónidchroibh inter Pictores inuicem, ubi Oenghus uictor fuit & multi ex parte Eilpini regis perempti sunt. Bellum lacrimabile inter eosdem gestum est iuxta Castellum Credi, ubi Elpinus efugit.

‘The battle of Monadh Craoibh between the Picts themselves, in which Óengus was victor, and many were slain on the side of king Alpín. A woeful battle was fought between the same parties near Castle Credi, where Alpín was put to flight.’

Castle Credi is unidentifed, but Monadh Craoibh is undoubtedly Moncrieffe Hill. The context of the battle was a power-struggle between rival claimants for kingship in southern Pictland. Four ambitious men – Óengus, Alpín, Nechtan and Drust – fought a bitter war that lasted through the 720s. By the summer of 729, a victor finally emerged in the shape of Óengus, who defeated Nechtan, his last remaining rival, on 12 August. In the previous year, Óengus had trounced Alpín’s forces at Moncrieffe Hill and Castle Credi.

Moncrieffe Hill Pictish fort
Óengus (pronounced ‘Oyn-yus’) went on to become one of the greatest of all Pictish kings. In the 730s he conquered Dál Riata, the land of the Scots, which thereafter seems to have lain under permanent Pictish overkingship. One result of the long period of Pictish supremacy was the gradual merging together of the Scots and Picts as a single, Gaelic-speaking people inhabiting a new kingdom called Alba. If we credit Óengus as one of the main architects of this process, his victory at Moncrieffe Hill should perhaps be seen as an important milestone in the birth of the Scottish nation.

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I deal with the Pictish dynastic war of the 720s in my book The Picts: a History (at pp.150-3).

The image below shows the Israelite king David, as depicted on the eighth-century St Andrews Sarcophagus. It is possible that the stone-carver tried to capture the likeness of Óengus, king of the Picts, who may be the person commemorated by this famous monument.

St Andrews Sarcophagus

The new heritage project for the Carse of Gowrie is described in an article in The Courier. The project also has its own website.

Check out these photos of Moncrieffe Hill in a blogpost by Keith Savage.

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The location of Rheged

Pictish symbols Trustys Hill

Pictish symbols carved on a rock at Trusty’s Hill (from John Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland, 1857)

Back in May, in a blogpost about the hillfort on Trusty’s Hill in Galloway, I wrote the following:

‘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.’

Galloway is not the only area proposed as the heartland of Urien’s kingdom. The English county of Cumbria is another popular candidate, frequently appearing alongside Dumfries & Galloway as part of ‘Rheged’. This idea that Urien’s rule encompassed lands on both sides of the Solway Firth has recently received a boost from two different quarters. Cumbria’s claim is strongly endorsed by Professor Andrew Breeze in the published version of a 2011 lecture on place-names, while archaeological data from the Galloway Picts Project has prompted a suggestion that Trusty’s Hill may have been a key centre of power for Urien’s family.

I continue to regard Rheged as an elusive territory whose precise location is unknown. I’m not convinced we can even call it a ‘kingdom’. All we can say with confidence is that the poetry attributed to Taliesin associates a place called Rheged with a North British king called Urien. We have no evidence that Rheged was a large territory of greater extent than, say, a river valley of sufficient size to support one or more aristocratic estates. It may have been Urien’s core domain, to which he added other territories (such as the equally mysterious Goddeu and Llwyfenydd) as his power expanded.

Modern maps of sixth-century Britain often show Rheged as a huge realm straddling the Solway and parts of the Pennines. Sometimes it stretches down into Lancashire, prompting some mapmakers to divide it into sub-kingdoms called ‘North Rheged’ and ‘South Rheged’. This goes way beyond the information provided by Taliesin, and is as far away from serious historical scholarship as the maps in The Lord Of The Rings (which are at least consistent with textual evidence relating to the kingdoms of Middle Earth).

It’s actually quite rare to see the lack of certainty about Rheged’s location being acknowledged. One writer who has taken a cautious approach is Carla Nayland, whose blog includes many useful thoughts on historical subjects. Carla examines the geography of Rheged in a couple of recent posts, both of which I recommend to anyone who has an interest in this controversial topic. While voicing her own preference for a Solway location, Carla points out that nobody really knows for sure. This is an important point which can’t be brushed aside, regardless of how many people preface their theories with ‘Historians now accept that Rheged lay in the Eden Valley….’ [or in the Lake District or Galloway or wherever]. Carla summarises, in a few words, what we actually do know: ‘Rheged could have been anywhere on the western side of Britain from Strathclyde to Lancashire’.

Until we can be certain where Urien’s kingdom was situated in relation to other kingdoms (and we’re unlikely to ever know) a reconstruction of sixth-century political geography based on where we think he ruled won’t get us very far. We also need to keep in mind the sobering fact that many specialists in medieval Welsh literature have now moved away from the older view – held by Sir Ifor Williams and other Celtic scholars of his generation – that the Taliesin poems can be used as valid sources of North British history.

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Carla Nayland’s blogposts:
Rheged: location
Location of Rheged: the poetry

Galloway Picts Project – New exhibition on the Trusty’s Hill excavation (an information board on ‘Rheged: the lost kingdom’ can be glimpsed in one of the photos)

Andrew Breeze: ‘The Names of Rheged’, Transactions of the Dumfriesshire & Galloway Natural History & Antiquarian Society, vol.86 (2012), pp.51-62. A summary of the lecture upon which the article is based can be found at the DGNHAS website.

P.S. As I’ve said in a comment at Carla’s blog, I’d be more than happy to locate Urien in the Solway area, mainly because he’d conveniently fill a gap in a part of Northern Britain where plenty of elite activity was going on in the sixth century. But other areas can’t be ruled out, and I believe a no-less-plausible case can be made for the upper valley of the River Tweed around Peebles (on which I hope to say more in a future blogpost). This won’t mean I think Rheged was centred on Peebles. It will merely demonstrate that the conventional theory is not the only one we can explore.

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Trusty’s Hill: Guided Walk Training

Here’s a great idea from the Galloway Picts Project – a training session on how to conduct a tour of the hillfort on Trusty’s Hill. Archaeologist Ronan Toolis, co-director of last year’s excavations, will be running this free event. It will be held on Saturday 8 June at the Mill on the Fleet in Gatehouse-of-Fleet, starting at 10.00am and finishing at 1.00pm after a visit to the hillfort. This is a training session for non-specialists who just want to be able to show family and friends around one of the most fascinating Dark Age sites in Scotland.

Click the link below to see a flyer for the event at the Galloway Picts website:

Trusty’s Hill: Guided Walk Training, Saturday 8 June 2013

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Discover Dark Age Galloway

‘In Galloway, on the fringes of what had been Roman Britain’s northern frontier, the kingdom of Rheged emerged in the fifth and sixth century AD.’

So says Discover Dark Age Galloway, a new leaflet produced by GUARD Archaeology for the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society. This attractive little publication is available free of charge from a number of tourist venues in the area.

It’s well-written and informative, and also nicely illustrated. The colourful reconstruction drawings of the hillforts of Tynron Doon, Mote of Mark and Trusty’s Hill, and of the monastic site at Whithorn, are certainly worth a look. As previously reported here at Senchus, last year’s excavations at Trusty’s Hill yielded a wealth of data relating to what was happening there in the sixth to eighth centuries AD. People of high status lived on the summit, in a settlement associated with a rock on which Pictish symbols were carved.

This was indeed the era of Rheged, a place identified by the authors of the new leaflet as a kingdom centred on Galloway. They believe that the archaeological evidence from the fort on Trusty’s Hill supports the view that it was an important site within the kingdom. They may be right. If they are, I’ll stop musing on the possibility that the core of Rheged lay further north in the valley of the River Tweed.

Click the link below to see an announcement about the leaflet (and a reduced online version) at the Galloway Picts Project website. Those of you with your own theories on the location of Rheged may be interested in this part:
‘Rheged, for so long a lost kingdom, thought to be somewhere in South-west Scotland or North-west England, can now perhaps for the first time be fixed to the ground, not in Cumbria or Lancashire or Dumfriesshire, but in Galloway.’

The Galloway Picts Project – Discover Dark Age Galloway

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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 Galloway Picts Project: update

Latest news from this fascinating archaeological project at Trusty’s Hill near Gatehouse-of-Fleet.

The ‘Data Structure Report’ from last year’s excavation is now available as a PDF file on the project website. It’s an interim publication in which the results are presented in a way that allows specialists to understand the archaeological context of each ‘find’ unearthed during fieldwork.

For the non-specialist, the report gives an excellent overview of what was discovered. Trusty’s Hill has long been known for the Pictish symbols incised on a rock near the summit, but nobody really knew who carved them, or when, or why. Some people even doubted that the carvings were ancient, and wondered if later graffiti offered a better explanation. Likewise, not much was known about the hillfort itself, although there were several theories about Pictish raiders using it or attacking it.

Thanks to the 2012 excavation we now know that the hilltop was a fortified settlement of major importance in the 6th-7th centuries AD. The people who lived there were wealthy and powerful. They imported the kinds of luxury goods associated with sites of very high status, such as Dunadd in Argyll. On the summit of Dunadd is a group of features associated with royal inauguration rituals – not only the famous footprint but also a rock-cut basin and a carved Pictish boar. At Trusty’s Hill the 2012 excavation found a similar rock-cut basin near the Pictish symbols, so it seems likely that important ceremonies were performed there too.

Anyone with an interest in early medieval Galloway will find this report useful and thought-provoking. It brings a little more clarity to our understanding of what was happening on the northern side of the Solway Firth in the time of shadowy figures such as Saint Ninian and Urien Rheged (both of whom are traditionally linked to the region). Evidence of high-status activity at other Galloway sites such as Whithorn and Mote of Mark has been the bedrock of scholarship for many years, but the information now emerging from Trusty’s Hill is a game-changer. It really does seem as if something ‘Pictish’ was going on there after all.

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Ronan Toolis & Christopher Bowles, The Galloway Picts Project: Excavation and Survey of Trusty’s Hill, Gatehouse of Fleet. Data Structure Report (March 2013).

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I am grateful to Ronan Toolis for letting me know about the report when it went online yesterday.

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The Galloway Picts Project

In July last year, during one of my occasional ’roundups’ of interesting news, I mentioned the Galloway Picts Project. This is what I wrote back then:

‘Another excavation is hoping to unravel the mystery of Trusty’s Hill, a site overlooking the Solway Firth, where Pictish symbols are carved on a rock at the summit. Why are these carvings found here, so far away from the Pictish heartlands? Who occupied the fort on top of the hill? This was territory ruled by Britons, not Picts – or so conventional wisdom tells us. Yet the name Trusty seems to relate in some way to Tristan, and both may derive from the Pictish name Drostan, so are we looking at a genuine connection with the Picts?’

Here’s a link to the project website. It’s definitely worth a look, to see what the archaeologists found at Trusty’s Hill. In November last year, the project’s directors – Chris Bowles (Scottish Borders Council) and Ronan Toolis (GUARD Archaeology Ltd) – gave a presentation at a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Check out the video link below.

The Galloway Picts Project and the discovery of a royal stronghold of a lost early medieval kingdom*

* Towards the end of the video, Ronan Toolis suggests that Trusty’s Hill may have been an important centre of power for the kings of Rheged in the 6th/7th centuries.

The lecture was given at the Anniversary Meeting (Annual General Meeting) of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland on Friday 30 November 2012.

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Gododdin: where’s the beef?

Edinburgh Castle

The Grassmarket and Edinburgh Castle

The Old Welsh heroic poem Y Gododdin (‘The Gododdin’) is a series of elegies on an army of Britons who died at the battle of Catraeth. It is sometimes referred to as ‘Scotland’s oldest poem’ because it was probably composed at Edinburgh. The battle it commemorates took place in the late 6th or early 7th centuries at a time when Edinburgh and adjacent parts of Lothian formed the heartland of the kingdom of Gododdin. In the poem, the Gododdin warriors are given a sumptuous feast by their king in his royal hall at Din Eidyn (Edinburgh) before setting out on their fateful journey to Catraeth. We know enough about the rituals of feasting in early medieval times to guess that the main item on the menu was beef from the king’s own cattle-herd. Beef, of course, had high-status connotations in this period. Ownership of cattle was a key indicator of wealth and status, hence the many references to cattle-reiving in the heroic poetry of Britain and Ireland.

A recurrent theme in Y Gododdin is the link between the generous feast provided by the king and the burden of debt this placed on his warriors. The beef they consumed at Din Eidyn came with a hefty price-tag at Catraeth: they paid for it with their lives. But they fought courageously, fighting hard until all were overwhelmed. The poem gives vivid portraits of individual heroes in the thick of battle, highlighting their skill and bravery. Among them was a warrior called Edar who, with his sharp sword and white-washed shield, went to war ‘after the feast’.

Cynydyniog, calchdrai, pan grynied grynai,
nid adwanai, rywanai, rywaned.
Oedd mynych gwedi cwyn i esgar ei gyflwyn,
oedd gwenwyn yd traethed.
A chyn ei olo o dan dydwed daear
dyrllyddai Edar ei fedd yfed

‘Unyielding, with shattered shield, when pressed he thrust forward,
the man that he had struck did not strike back.
Frequent after the feast was his gift to the enemy,
he was cruelly treated.
Before he was buried beneath the cover of earth
Edar deserved his drink of mead.’

Before riding off to war, Edar and his companions would have chewed their way through an impressive amount of beef during the banquet in the royal hall, high up on the crags where Edinburgh Castle stands today. But where did the meat come from? Where was the royal cattle-herd kept, and where were the animals slaughtered?

Archaeological excavations at the castle between 1988 and 1991 found traces of human settlement from the time of the Gododdin kings but didn’t turn up any indication of cattle being butchered there. The evidence, or rather the absence of evidence, suggested instead that the beef for the feasting-hall must have been brought up to the fortress from below, as ready-to-cook carcasses. Presumably the king maintained a cattle-pen and slaughterhouse somewhere close by, on the lower land near the base of Castle Rock, and sent his servants down to fetch the meat. Pinpointing the exact location wasn’t going to be easy. Centuries of building and development in the heart of old Edinburgh made it unlikely that anything of significance would be found.

Remarkably, it now looks as if the site in question may have been discovered. According to an article in the latest volume of PSAS, a recent excavation in the Grassmarket (an old part of the city below the Castle) found evidence of a settlement with a long history. It was clearly of lower status than the royal citadel but seems to have been occupied continuously throughout the early medieval period (c.300-1100) and beyond into the time of the first burgh. The site was used for various purposes, ranging from crafts such as metalworking and leatherworking to food processing (of fish, shellfish and cattle). The remains of certain species of dung-beetle imply a lot of manure such as would be found in a holding-area for cattle or horses. Specific evidence for cattle came from a foot bone and a jawbone, the latter with cut-marks indicating a butcher’s blade.

Although the data cannot confirm that this is indeed where cattle were slaughtered for the feasts of Din Eidyn the hints do seem fairly strong. If butchery wasn’t being undertaken on the summit of the Rock it must have been happening somewhere. To quote from the excavation report, maybe it was being done ‘at a nearby site, such as the Grassmarket, established to service the high status site above.’ Perhaps the place where Edar and his fellow-warriors got their beef has at last been found?

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Notes & references

* The full details of the PSAS article are:
James McMeekin et al, ‘Early Historic settlement beneath the Grassmarket in Edinburgh’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 140 (2010), 105-128. The excavations took place between September 2007 and November 2008.

* The extract and translation from Y Gododdin is from A.O.H. Jarman (ed.) Aneirin: Y Gododdin (Llandysul, 1988), p.64-65 except for the penultimate line which uses John Koch’s translation from his book The Gododdin of Aneirin (Cardiff, 1997), p.17.

* On the lack of evidence for the slaughter of cattle at the royal fortress of Gododdin see Finbar McCormick ‘The faunal remains from Mills Mount’, pp.201-12 in S.T. Driscoll & P.A. Yeoman, Excavations within Edinburgh Castle in 1988-91 (Edinburgh, 1997).

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Crail Pictish cross-slab

Crail Pictish Stone

(click to enlarge)

Crail is a picturesque village on the coast of Fife. It lies 9 miles south of St Andrews in an area called the East Neuk which forms part of the northern shore of the Firth of Forth. Near the centre of the village stands the parish church with its fine 13th century tower. Formerly known as St Mary’s, the church once had a much older dedication to St Maelrubha, an Irish missionary who reputedly preached among the Picts in the late 7th and early 8th centuries. Among many items of historical interest inside the church is a Pictish cross-slab of c.800, now standing against a wall near the main entrance.

Crail Pictish Stone

from Scotland in Early Christian Times (1881)

The slab was retrieved in 1815, having been used as a paving-stone in the floor for about fifty years. Its carvings are therefore quite worn and any detail is difficult to see. There are no Pictish symbols and the style of the cross is late, hence the slab’s usual designation as a ‘Class III’ stone carved at the end of the Pictish period when the symbols were probably obsolete. Because of the slab’s position against a wall the reverse is no longer visible but, given the date, it is most likely blank. Current thinking among archaeologists and art-historians identifies the following sculptural features on the front face:

* a large cross of a common ‘Celtic’ type surmounted by an arc containing key-pattern decoration. The arms of the cross and the upper and lower parts of the cross-head are decorated with interlace. A key-pattern adorns the shaft below the head.
* the legs and arms of a human figure who is holding or supporting the base of the cross.
* left panel: various unidentifiable beasts.
* right panel: a seated figure with another standing behind; a horseman; two beasts, one of which could be a cow with a bell around its neck.

Crail Pictish Stone

The seated figure

The seated figure seems to be holding a child in its lap and might represent the Virgin Mary, with Joseph standing behind the chair. Other interpretations are elusive because the badly-worn carvings are too indistinct. The horseman is clearly a secular figure and presumably represents a member of the local nobility, perhaps the individual commemorated by the stone.

Crail Pictish Stone

Horseman on the Crail cross-slab

In the absence of a modern archaeological excavation we cannot trace the early history of the church but the Maelrubha dedication and the cross-slab hint at an ecclesiastical presence in Pictish times. The churchyard contains an ancient well which may have been a focus for pagan rituals before the arrival of Christianity. Was a monastery founded here by Irish missionaries, disciples of Maelrubha, on land granted by a local Pictish family? It is interesting to consider the possible relationship between such a settlement and the ecclesiastical centre at St Andrews which lies only nine miles to the north. A monastery certainly existed at St Andrews before 747, when the death of its abbot was noted by the monks of Iona. At that time it was known as Cenrigmonaid, ‘the end of the royal grazing’, but had not yet achieved the importance it held in later times. If a religious community was indeed established at Crail in the 8th century was it independent of Cenrigmonaid or was it merely a satellite?

Crail Kirk

Crail Parish Church

The place name Crail, earlier Caraile, is often seen as being of Gaelic origin, comprising carr+ail where both elements mean ‘rock’. This kind of duplication using two synonyms from the same language doesn’t look right to me. I prefer Watson’s suggestion that the name is more likely to be a contraction of Cathair Aile, where Gaelic cathair represents a North Brittonic (Pictish) term related to Welsh caer, ‘fort’. A castle formerly stood near the harbour and might have occupied the site of an old Pictish coastal stronghold, perhaps the residence of the patrons of the church. This leaves us with the second element aile which Watson left unexplained. If it is indeed Gaelic ail, ‘rock’, this would make Caraile a Pictish-Gaelic hybrid meaning ‘Fort of the Rock’. Such a name is certainly consistent with the craggy landscape around the harbour and would not be the only hybrid place name in the East Neuk. A few miles along the coast, at Pittenweem, we find Pictish pett, ‘portion’, with Gaelic na h-uamha, ‘of the cave’. Another possibility is that Caraile is not a hybrid name at all and that aile has simply replaced a synonymous Pictish term related to Brittonic al (Welsh alt), as in Alt Clut, the Old Welsh name for Dumbarton (‘Rock of the Clyde’). I’ve not seen this explanation given for Crail but it’s the one I feel inclined to run with at the moment, although I also wonder if Aile could be the name of a person (e.g. ‘Aile’s Fort’) or of a nearby topographical feature (e.g. ‘the Fort beside the Aile’).

Map of Fife

Notes & references
* The photographs used in this post are all copyright © B Keeling
* My information on the place names comes from William Watson’s The History of the Celtic Place-names of Scotland (1926) and George Mackay’s Scottish Place Names (2002).
* A detailed history of Crail Church can be found in a booklet produced by the congregation entitled The Kirk of Crail. The latest edition was published in 2003. It has an interesting drawing of the Pictish cross-slab by Reverend William Macintyre who served as minister from 1956 to 1989.
* I’m hoping to delve deeper into Crail’s early history and will put any new findings on this blog. A separate post on Pittenweem is in the pipeline.

Crail harbour

Crail harbour

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Oswald and the Rock of Blood

King Oswald of Northumbria

Oswald, king of Northumbria (from a drawing of the 12th century Hildesheim Reliquary)

The English king Aethelfrith of Bernicia was slain in battle in 616 or 617. His defeat allowed his rival, Prince Edwin, to replace him as overking of Northumbria. Edwin’s ancestral kingdom was Deira, the southern part of Northumbria, but he quickly seized power in Bernicia and drove Aethelfrith’s family into exile.

Aethelfrith’s children sought sanctuary among the Celtic peoples of the North. One son, Eanfrith, came to the Picts, while other siblings found refuge with the Scots. At that time, the ethnic label ‘Scots’ applied to a number of Gaelic-speaking groups in mainland Argyll and the Inner Hebrides. They were divided into various small kingdoms, each dominated by one or more high-status families known as cenéla. Together these kingdoms comprised a region or overkingdom called Dál Riata, which included most of Argyll together with part of northern Ireland. One of the most powerful cenéla ruled the long peninsula of Kintyre. Its members claimed descent from Gabrán, an earlier king who lived around the middle of the sixth century. At the time of Aethelfrith’s defeat, this family was starting to call itself Cenél nGabráin, ‘Gabrán’s Descendants’. Its king was Eochaid Buide (‘Yellow’ or ‘Blond’ Eochaid), a grandson of Gabrán, and it was to him that the young Bernician princes and princesses came seeking shelter and protection.

Map of North Britain, c.600 AD

Among the English exiles was Oswald, a boy of eleven or twelve when he arrived in Dál Riata. Seventeen years later, he would return to his homeland to reclaim his father’s kingship. In the meantime, he dwelt among the Scots as an honoured guest of King Eochaid. He became a Christian and learned the Gaelic language. In his teens he probably repaid his foster-father’s hospitality by fighting as a Cenél nGabráin warrior. He may have travelled extensively throughout Eochaid’s domains, not only on military ventures but also as a member of the king’s entourage on visits to outlying districts. As a high-status Christian convert he most likely visited the monastery of Iona on more than one occasion. But where else did he reside during these years of exile?

Like many early medieval kings, Eochaid Buide would have maintained several residences in different parts of his kingdom. He and his family, together with their entourage of friends, priests, servants and bodyguards, would have used these places at particular times of the year, such as Easter and Christmas, or during periodic tours of the lands under his authority. Some residences served specific purposes as ceremonial venues where the king’s vassal-lords offered homage and tribute. Others had sacred or religious significance, or were associated with revered ancestors of the royal dynasty. One place that seems to fall into this second category was an imposing sea-girt fortress at the southern tip of Kintyre. On modern maps it is usually marked as the site of Dunaverty Castle.

Few traces of the castle now remain. It was occupied in medieval times as a stronghold of the Macdonalds and was the scene of an infamous massacre in the 17th century. Like many coastal promontory fortresses it was built in a commanding position on top of a great mass of rock. At Dunaverty this bulky foundation has a strange, irregular shape that makes it particularly distinctive, especially when viewed from a distance. Memories of the massacre of 1647 were slow to fade and the site is still known as the Rock of Blood.


Dunaverty: view from the west.

The slaughter of 300 members of Clan Donald was the grim climax in a siege by Cromwellian forces led by General Leslie. It was the last of a number of assaults dating back to the 13th century, when an Anglo-Norman lord, an ancestor of Clan Bissett, seized the castle during the reign of the Scottish king Alexander II (1214-49). Five hundred years before Alexander succeeded to the throne, the Irish annals noted the first recorded attack on Dunaverty:

712 Obsessio Aberte apud Selbacum (‘Siege of Aberte by Selbach’)

Selbach was an ambitious Gaelic king whose core domains lay in Lorn, the district around present-day Oban. He belonged to Cenél Loairn, a powerful family who competed with Cenél nGabráin for the overkingship of Dál Riata in the late seventh and early eighth centuries. In 712 he attacked and burned the Cenél nGabráin fortress at Tarbert in central Kintyre before laying siege to Aberte. Although the annalists tell us little about the geography of these campaigns there is little doubt that Aberte was an ancient stronghold on the rock of Dunaverty. The latter name is an Anglicised form of Gaelic Dun Abhartaigh, ‘Abhartach’s Fort’. In the 8th century this would have been written as Dun Abartaig.

Dunaverty: modern buildings on the slipway below the Rock.

A little further along the shore, but still within sight of watchers on the Rock of Blood, lies a place called Keil Point. The caves in the cliffs behind are signposted as a tourist attraction, as are the nearby ruins of St Columba’s Chapel. On a small outcrop next to the chapel two shallow footprints have been carefully carved in the stone. They are known today as ‘St Columba’s Footprints’ and, like the caves, are regularly visited by tourists. One carving is relatively modern, having been made in the 19th century, but the other is much older. The outcrop was almost certainly used in past times as a sacred place of inauguration. A new king or chieftain would have placed his foot in the ancient footprint to signify his bond with the land. A similar, more famous footprint can be seen on the summit of Dunadd, a hillfort situated somewhat north of Kintyre on the road to Oban. In the early eighth century, when Selbach and his sons stood at the height of their power, Dunadd was one of the main strongholds of their family. It is likely that the footprint on the summit was used in Selbach’s inauguration ceremony when he became king of Cenél Loairn (c.701) and likewise by his son Dungal in 723. The footprint at Keil Point in southern Kintyre surely served the same ceremonial purpose for the kings of Cenél nGabráin. If so, then the nearby fortress of Dun Abartaig was probably their main centre of power.


Dunaverty: view from the summit, looking towards the slipway.


The summit of the Rock, viewed from the northeast.

The photographs accompanying this post were taken ten years ago during a holiday in Kintyre. They give an idea of the impressive setting of ancient Dun Abartaig and the castle that succeeded it. As with many centres of power in early medieval Scotland the habitable area on the summit is fairly small but to me there seems little doubt that this is one of the places where the young Prince Oswald lived among his Cenél nGabráin foster-kin. It might even have been the royal residence he and his siblings regarded as their main ‘home’ during the long years of exile from Bernicia.



* Cenél nGabráin is pronounced ‘Kenel Navrain’

* The identification of Aberte as Dunaverty is usually credited to William Reeves in his edition of Adomnán’s Life of St Columba (Dublin, 1857). It was supported by W.F. Skene later in the same century, by Alan Orr Anderson in 1922, by the place-name scholar William Watson in 1926 and, more recently, by James Fraser in 2009 (to name but four).

* On Oswald’s exile see two articles by Michelle Ziegler in The Heroic Age: The Politics of Exile in Early Northumbria and Oswald and the Irish. Michelle has also posted a useful Oswald bibliography at her Heavenfield blog.

* On Selbach of Cenél Loairn and his rivalry with Cenél nGabráin see James Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795 (Edinburgh, 2009), pp.273-4 and 282-5.