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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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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Nigg Pictish stone

Nigg Pictish stone

Nigg cross-slab. Illustration from The Early Christian Monuments Of Scotland, 1903.


The old parish church at Nigg in Easter Ross probably stands on the site of an important Pictish monastery. The present building dates from the 1600s and is home to one of the most famous examples of Pictish sculpture: a magnificent cross-slab, 7 feet high, carved in the late eighth century. The slab’s decoration is very intricate. On the front face, above the cross, is a cameo showing Saint Paul and Saint Anthony receiving bread from a raven sent by God. The cross itself is surrounded by delicate interlace, swirling snakes and circular bosses. The back of the stone shows figures of humans and animals, with a Biblical scene (King David of Israel slaying a lion) and, at the top, an eagle above a mysterious ‘Pictish beast’.
Nigg Pictish stone

Nigg cross-slab: Paul & Anthony. Drawing by C. Petley, from The Early Christian Monuments Of Scotland, 1903.


The slab has suffered considerable damage over the past 1200 years. It once stood near the entrance to the churchyard, until it was toppled by a storm in 1727. It was then re-positioned beside the church but, during a later move, it broke into three pieces. One piece – a narrow middle section containing part of the Pictish beast – was thrown away when the upper and lower pieces were joined together with metal staples. The discarded piece disappeared and was thought to be lost for ever.
Nigg Pictish stone

Top section of slab: eagle & ‘Pictish beast’. Drawing by C. Petley, from The Early Christian Monuments Of Scotland, 1903.


A major project to conserve the slab was undertaken by Nigg Old Trust, the guardians of the church, who obtained funding for detailed restoration work by a stone conservator. The work was painstaking and time-consuming, because the monument had sustained so much damage in the past. The project also included a new display-area inside the church to enhance the experience for the many visitors who come to admire this masterpiece of Pictish art. This year, at the beginning of April, the restored slab was unveiled to the people of Nigg.

Nigg Pictish stone

Nigg cross-slab. Drawing by C. Petley, from The Early Christian Monuments Of Scotland, 1903.


An interesting footnote to the project is the fate of the middle section which vanished when the slab shattered in the 18th century. In 1998, a fragment of this missing piece was discovered in a nearby stream by Niall Robertson (former editor of the Pictish Arts Society Journal). It has now been reunited with the rest of the monument.

Nigg Pictish stone

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Useful links

The website of Nigg Old Trust has information on the Pictish stone and the restoration project.

Site record for Nigg at the RCAHMS Canmore database

BBC news report from 10 April 2013 on the completed restoration

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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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Largo Pictish Stone

Largo Pictish Stone

J.R. Allen’s drawing of the Largo cross-slab (1903).


A recent conversation with Roger Frehen at my blogpost on the Pictish symbol known as the double disc & Z-rod prompted me to write about an interesting stone from the southern coast of Fife. This monument, formerly known as the ‘Largo Cross’, has a double disc & Z-rod carved on the reverse.

It is actually a cross-slab rather than a free-standing cross. Chronologically and stylistically it is a ‘Class 2′ Pictish stone, its sculpture incorporating both Christian and pre-Christian symbolism. It was discovered in 1839 by General James Durham, a veteran soldier whose family owned land at Largo. At that time the stone was in two pieces, both of which were found separately. One part was found covering a drain on the the General’s lands while the other turned up a mile away at Norrie’s Law, a tumulus from which a famous hoard of Pictish silver ornaments was unearthed in the early 19th century. The two sections were reunited and the mended slab was erected in the grounds of Largo House, General Durham’s residence. There it stood on a pedestal inscribed with the year of discovery. After the General died in the following year his widow moved to Polton House, south of Edinburgh, taking the stone as an ornament for her new garden. It was eventually returned to Largo where it was placed in the churchyard within a protective shelter.

Largo Pictish Stone

The cross-slab in its shelter (Photo © B Keeling)


The slab is six and a half feet tall and was carved from a block of red sandstone. It was probably erected in the 8th century, at a time when wealthy Pictish families were eager to display their allegiance to Christanity alongside the ancient symbols of their ancestors. On the front face is a huge, ringed cross adorned with interlace patterns that are now difficult to see.
Largo Pictish Stone

The weathered cross on the front of the slab (Photo © B Keeling)


In the space to the right of the cross-shaft are two intertwined creatures, possibly seahorses, but the space on the other side is too weathered to discern much detail. The rear face shows three horsemen hunting with a pair of hounds. To the left is a double disc & Z-rod, placed vertically to fit the narrow space, while below the lowest horseman is the mysterious ‘Pictish beast’ or ‘swimming elephant’. At the bottom of the stone two deer run from right to left, presumably fleeing the hounds.
Largo Pictish Stone

From John Stuart’s ‘Sculptured Stones of Scotland’ (1857).


My own tentative theory is that the Largo stone is a memorial to a high-status Pict whose name I believe is represented by the double disc & Z-rod. According to the symbol/name identifications suggested by W.A. Cummins in his book The Picts and their symbols this symbol represents the personal name Drust. Cummins further suggested that the enigmatic ‘Pictish beast’ might represent the name Edern. Applying these ideas to the Largo stone, and if the uppermost horseman is the person commemorated by it, the intended message to local Picts may have been ‘This is a memorial to Drust, the son of Edern’. Other people will no doubt wish to devise their own interpretations which they are welcome to add in the comments below this blogpost.
Largo Parish Church

Largo Parish Church (Photo © B Keeling)

It is a pity that the Largo slab is so weathered, and that so much of the carving is invisible. It is also a pity that the protective structure makes photography so difficult. The roof reduces the light and the iron railings constrict the available angles. Nonetheless, this is definitely one of the highlights of a visit to East Fife by anyone seeking the area’s Pictish heritage. It can easily be combined with a visit to the Crail cross-slab and the St Andrews Sarcophagus.

Fife

Notes & references

Location: The parish church at Upper Largo, off the A915 road in the East Neuk of Fife.

It is interesting to note that the illustration from John Stuart’s The Sculptured Stones of Scotland (1857) appears to show a human figure on the left of the cross-shaft and, on the back, a bird preening or biting itself. Romilly Allen’s drawing of 1903 leaves both areas blank.

John Romilly Allen and Joseph Anderson, The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1903) [pp.344-7 of Part III] Reprinted in facsimile by the Pinkfoot Press in 1993.

W.A. Cummins, The Picts and their Symbols (Stroud, 1999), p.25

John Stuart, The Sculptured Stones of Scotland, Volume 1, plate lxvi. (Aberdeen, 1857)

Information on the Largo stone can also be found on the RCAHMS Canmore database.

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Three Picts, three symbols … three names?

St Madoes Pictish Symbol Stone

Reverse of the Pictish cross-slab at St Madoes

Seems I just can’t let go of the idea that Pictish symbols represent personal names. I’m not even sure why I prefer this theory over the alternatives, some of which are far more popular, or at least far more creative. I can’t even say I’m 100% swayed by this one myself. But it remains alive and kicking until someone finds a Pictish Rosetta Stone to solve the mystery of the symbols once and for all. I’m aware of the other theories – astronomical, agricultural, mythological, territorial or whatever – but this is the one I choose to run with at the moment.

As usual with blogposts on this topic I’ll be referring to a book called The Picts and their symbols by W.A. Cummins which supports the symbols=names theory. I begin however with a short article by the archaeologist Craig Cessford. This was published in the Pictish Arts Society Journal in 1997, under the title Re-reading St Madoes 1. Its focus was a cross-slab that used to stand near the parish church in St Madoes, Perthshire, before being moved to the main museum at Perth. As the older of two Pictish stones from the village it is usually known as St Madoes 1. It was carved in the 8th century and has a large cross on the front face. The above photograph, which unfortunately isn’t very clear, shows the back of the stone, which is divided into six panels. The three upper panels each contain a hooded horseman, while the lower three contain symbols. In diagrammatic form the carvings can be represented thus:

horseman A
horseman B
horseman C
crescent & V-rod, double-disc & Z-rod
‘Pictish beast’

Horseman C carries what looks like a book in a leather satchel. This and the hoods suggest that all three figures are monks. But what is their relationship to one another, and to the symbols beneath them?

Craig Cessford questioned the popular notion that each horseman is represented by one of the three symbols. As Craig pointed out, symbols usually occur in pairs and seem intended to be viewed as a twosome rather than individually. He proposed instead that we should see this trio of symbols as an inverted triangle designed to be read clockwise as three conjoined symbol-pairs, like so:

crescent & V-rod, double-disc & Z-rod
double-disc & Z-rod, Pictish beast
Pictish beast, crescent & V-rod

I think this works quite well. But if it is indeed the correct ‘reading’, what do these symbol-pairs mean? Craig wondered if they might denote names, ranks or titles, or something else.

We come now to W.A. Cummins whose belief that Pictish symbols represent personal names led him to see the symbols on St Madoes 1 as the names of the three horsemen. His reading of the stone can be illustrated in the following way:

Horseman A’s name is crescent & V-rod
Horseman B’s name is double-disc & Z-rod
Horseman C’s name is Pictish beast

Elsewhere in his book, Cummins proposed that some of the more common symbols can be matched to certain Pictish names that appear frequently in old chronicles and king-lists. By applying these matches to St Madoes 1 he saw the figures and symbols as a genealogical statement which looks something like this:

Horseman A = Brude
Horseman B = Drust
Horseman C = their father Edern

But if we then blend the Cummins symbol/name matches with Cessford’s triangle of conjoined symbol-pairs we get three men with different patronyms:

Brude, son of Drust
Drust, son of Edern
Edern, son of Brude

Taking this a step further, we could possibly read St Madoes 1 as a memorial to three monks who, although not related by kinship, were commemorated together because they lived in the same monastery and died at roughly the same time. Or maybe they were three abbots who succeeded each other in the same abbacy? I’ll leave the final words of this blogpost to Craig Cessford. Although not committing himself to a particular theory about Pictish symbols, he ended his brief study of the stone with this thought: ‘Are we looking at three members of a monastic community with similar names?’

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References

Craig Cessford, ‘Re-reading St Madoes 1′ Pictish Arts Society Journal no.11 (Summer 1997), p.32

W.A. Cummins, The Picts and their symbols (Stroud, 1999), p.112

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Pictish patronyms

Dunfallandy Pictish Stone

Dunfallandy Pictish Stone

The Pictish stone at Dunfallandy, near Pitlochry, shows two seated figures facing one another above a cloaked rider. The trio are accompanied by the following symbols:

Seated figure (left) – ‘Pictish elephant’ possibly above another, badly-eroded symbol
Seated figure (right) – double-disc above crescent & v-rod
Rider - crescent & v-rod above ‘Pictish elephant’

Nobody knows for certain why the Picts used symbols but various theories offer more-or-less plausible explanations. It’s a case of ‘take your pick’, unless you fancy devising your own theory. For myself, the one that gets my vote (at the moment) explains the symbols as personal names and sees the many ‘symbol pairs’ as patronyms meaning ‘X, son of Y’ (or ‘Z, daughter of Y’). Pictish symbols mostly appear in pairs, with only a few instances of a lone symbol. Three or sometimes four symbols occasionally appear together, but the paired combinations account for more than half of the total. Elsewhere in Britain we find another type of symbol pair on Early Christian memorial stones where a Latin inscription tells us that ‘X, son (or daughter) of Y’ is buried or commemorated nearby. The carved Latin names are symbols, like the Pictish designs, but unlike the Pictish designs their meaning has not been forgotten.

The Dunfallandy stone is a good way to illustrate the patronymic theory. It was used as an example by W.A. Cummins in his book The Picts and their symbols (1999). Cummins suggested that the crescent & v-rod might represent the Pictish male name Bridei (Gaelic Brude), the most common name in the Pictish king-lists . The strange ‘Pictish elephant’, which could be a stylised image of a dolphin, was regarded by Cummins as possibly representing the Welsh name Edern (related to Latin Aeternus). He made this suggestion on the grounds that the name Eddarrnonn, perhaps a Pictish equivalent of Edern, was inscribed in the ancient Ogham alphabet on two stones bearing the ‘elephant’ symbol. As he pointed out, the Irish annals note the presence in Pictland of someone called Itarnan who died in 669. Could Itarnan be the same name as Eddarrnonn, and could both represent a Pictish form of Edern? No name has so far, to my knowledge, been proposed as a possible match for the double disc symbol.

On the Dunfallandy stone, then, we seem to have two figures associated with symbol pairs and one figure associated with just one symbol (unless, as Cummins suggests, this is all that remains of a badly-weathered pair). If the symbols represent names, and the pairs represent patronyms, I think we can interpret the stone as a genealogical statement:

‘Figure A (the rider) is the son of Figure B (seated left) and Figure C (seated right)’

Adding the names proposed by Cummins puts flesh on the bones:

‘Brude, son of Edern, is the son of Edern (the son of ?) and ? (the daughter of Brude)’

In the picture below, I’ve attempted to show how a Pict might have ‘read’ the Dunfallandy stone as a statement of parentage for Brude, son of Edern.

Dunfallandy Pictish Stone: interpretation

Dunfallandy symbol-pairs interpreted as patronyms

Double disc & Z-rod

Meigle Pictish symbol stone

Reverse of Pictish cross-slab at Meigle (from ECMS 1903).

This is the Pictish symbol known as the double disc & Z-rod as it appears on the back of a cross-slab from Meigle in Perthshire. The stone in question is usually listed in guidebooks as Meigle 7.

What does this strange symbol mean? Here are three theories that have tried to find the answer….

Cummins (1999): ‘It is possible that it represents a sudden loud noise produced by the banging together of two discs: the clashing of cymbals. It is also possible that it represents a flash of lightning between two thunderclouds.’

Jones (1998): ‘Perhaps it represents the two worlds: the here-and-now and the otherworld; life and death.’

Sutherland (1997): ‘Often associated with the Druidic duality of the sun which lights this world by day and the Otherworld by night. The sun’s two faces, benign in summer, malevolent in winter.’

These are just three theories among many. Some no doubt have more merit than others. My own view is the one I voiced in an earlier blog post on another symbol, the crescent & V-rod (title: ‘Brude’s symbol’). I lean tentatively towards the idea that most of these abstract, enigmatic designs represent personal names.

References

W.A. Cummins, The Picts and their symbols (Stroud, 1999), p.25.
Duncan Jones, A wee guide to the Picts (Edinburgh, 1998), p.21
Elizabeth Sutherland, A guide to the Pictish stones (Edinburgh 1997), p.17.

Deconstructing Nechtan

Pictish symbol: tuning fork
The Pictish symbol shown here is usually described as a tuning-fork. It has been suggested that it represents the name Nechtan which was borne by several Pictish kings (Cummins 1999, 130). The name itself had a widespread popularity across the British Isles and appears in various texts of the early medieval period.

Four of the attested Nechtans appear in contexts suggesting that they lived at the beginning of the seventh century. This contemporaneity has led some historians to suggest that they were the same person (e.g. Smyth 1984, 64-5).

The four Nechtans of c.600 are listed below. The texts in which they are found are in square brackets.
Nechtan, king of the Picts, nepos Uerb, i.e.grandson or nephew of Uerb or Verb [Pictish king-list]
Nechtan son of Cano, nationality unknown, who died in 621 [Annals of Ulster]
Neithon son of Gwyddno, a North Briton, father of King Beli of Dumbarton [Dumbarton royal genealogy]
Peithan (presumed to be a mis-spelling of Neithan) father of a North Briton called Gwid [from a verse of heroic poetry in the Gododdin]

The conflation of these four individuals into one figure was prompted by the ancestry of the Pictish king Brude who defeated Ecgfrith of Northumbria at the battle of Dunnichen in 685. In the Pictish king-list Brude’s father is named as Bili, a variant of Beli, and in a Life of Saint Adomnan Brude is called “son of the king of Dumbarton”. There is no doubt that Brude was the son of the Dumbarton king Beli, son of Neithon, but some historians take the identification process much further by seeing this Neithon as the same man as Nechtan nepos Uerb, king of the Picts. We are clearly dealing with variants of the same name but this is really as far as we can push the textual data. An old Irish poem describes Brude fighting at Dunnichen “for his grandfather’s inheritance”. Because Dunnichen means “Nechtan’s Fort” the inheritance has been seen as Pictish territory formerly ruled by Neithon of Dumbarton and defended in 685 by his grandson Brude. From this theory historians have developed a political scenario in which Neithon and his son Beli ruled not only the Dumbarton Britons but also some part of the Picts. This scenario is then proposed as an explanation of why the father of Brude, a Pictish king, turns out to be a Briton. The final segment of the conflation identifies Brude’s grandfather Neithon of Dumbarton as Nechtan, Cano’s son, and also as Peithan, father of Gwid, by assuming that Cano is an error for Gwyddno and that Peithan is an error for Neithan.

To me, these conflations seem unwarranted and unnecessary. The texts themselves do not give any hint that the same Nechtan/Neithon is meant in all four cases. Two of the quartet can in fact be removed from the equation:
Nechtan, son of Cano, could be the Irish king Nechtan Cendfota whose son died in battle in c.632 (Anderson 1922, 145, n.3), or an otherwise unknown king or cleric – the name was fairly common in ecclesiastical as well as in secular contexts.
Peithan, father of Gwid. If this man was alive today he might wonder why his perfectly normal Brittonic/Welsh name was being altered to Neithan. Nothing in the rhyme or metre of the Gododdin requires such alteration (Koch 1997, 207) which looks to me like wishful thinking by supporters of the “One Nechtan” theory.

This leaves Neithon of Dumbarton and Nechtan nepos Uerb, king of the Picts. The latter is unusual in that he appears in the Pictish king-list without the name of his father. He was a nephew or grandson of someone called Uerb or Verb whose name may be the attested female name Ferb. The lack of a patronym (X son of Y) points to something odd about this Nechtan’s ancestry and suggests that his father was unknown, unworthy or irrelevant to the compilers of the king-list. Since the scribes of the Dumbarton genealogy had no such doubts about the identity of Gwyddno, father of Neithon, his absence from the Pictish list seems strange (if we try to make him the father of Nechtan nepos Uerb). Why would the Pictish scribes ignore Gwyddno if their Dumbarton counterparts were happy to include him in a royal genealogy? It surely makes more sense to see Gwyddno’s son and nepos Uerb as two individuals who had the same name.

Instead of supporting the conflation theory I prefer to envisage three separate Nechtans:
Neithon, father of King Beli of Dumbarton and son of Gwyddno (but only Beli is securely identifiable as holding the kingship).
Nechtan, nepos Uerb, king of the Picts.
Nechtan, son of Cano, perhaps an Irish king or abbot.

The Nechtan who gave his name to Dunnichen (Gaelic Dun Nechtain) probably lived a long time before the battle of 685. He may have been one of the semi-legendary Pictish kings whose names appear in the earlier generations of the king-list, e.g. the Nechtan who allegedly founded the church at Abernethy in Fife. The grandfather’s “inheritance” connected to this battle may have been adjacent territory once ruled by Brude’s mother’s father, a high-status Pict whose name we do not know.

Brude’s kingship of the Picts does not demand that his father and/or grandfather also held sway over this people. As a supporter of Pictish matriliny (royal inheritance through the maternal line) I would not expect Brude’s immediate male forbears to be Pictish kings. Eanfrith, an exiled English prince, fathered a future king of the Picts on a Pictish princess before he himself became king of Bernicia in 633. Beli of Dumbarton may have likewise spent his youth as an exile among the Picts, during which time he and a Pictish royal lady together produced the future king Brude. A political context is provided by the long reign at Dumbarton of a king called Rhydderch Hael who sprang from a separate branch of the royal family. Perhaps Beli fled into exile in this period, as a fosterling – like Eanfrith – of Pictish royalty, before returning home to claim the kingship of Dumbarton after Rhydderch’s death?

Other strands of this topic include the maternal ancestry of Owain, king of Dumbarton, who was another son of Beli, plus the alleged kinship of Brude and his Northumbrian adversary Ecgfrith, not to mention the long-running debate about Pictish matriliny.

References

A.O. Anderson (ed) Early sources of Scottish history, vol.1 (Edinburgh, 1922)
W.A. Cummins The Picts and their symbols (Stroud, 1999)
J.T. Koch (ed) The Gododdin of Aneirin: text & context from dark age North Britain (Cardiff, 1997)
A.P. Smyth Warlords and holy men (London, 1984)