Galloway’s lost kingdom?

TDGNHAS2013
Some weeks ago I received my copy of the latest TDGNHAS through the post. This year’s volume contains the customary banquet of history and archaeology, with Senchus-related topics featuring in three articles and a book review. One of the articles, written by Warren Bailie of GUARD Archaeology Limited, gives an interesting summary of an investigation at Carzield Roman Fort near Dumfries. It is preceded by an article from Ronan Toolis (also of GUARD) and Chris Bowles (Scottish Borders Council) on the excavations undertaken at Trusty’s Hill by the Galloway Picts Project in 2012. I’ve given occasional updates on this project, usually with links to relevant posts at the Galloway Picts website, but the article in TDGNHAS is the first lengthy printed report.

As many of you will know, Trusty’s Hill is famous for the Pictish symbols carved on a stone near the summit. What makes them special is their presence at a site so far away from the Pictish heartlands further north. On the summit of the hill are the remains of an ancient fort long assumed to have been a major Dark Age stronghold. The Galloway Picts Project set out to place both the fort and the symbols in a clearer historical context. In particular, it was hoped that the question of whether or not the symbols were fakes could be settled once and for all.

Trusty's Hill Pictish Symbols

The Pictish symbols at Trusty’s Hill. Illustration by J.R. Allen (1903).


The TDGNHAS article contains far too much good stuff to summarise in this brief blogpost, but I’ll mention three of the most significant findings. First, there is now no doubt that the fort was occupied by people of high status in the fifth to seventh centuries; second, the fort was destroyed by fire – presumably at the hands of enemies – in the early seventh century; and third, the two Pictish symbols are indeed ancient and were almost certainly carved in the time of the historical Picts (the horned head turns out to be of nineteenth-century origin).

A fuller, more detailed report on the excavations is in the pipeline. It will appear under the intriguing title The Lost Kingdom of Rheged: the Dark Age Royal Stronghold of Trusty’s Hill, Dumfries & Galloway and will be published by Oxbow Books of Oxford. Rheged appears in medieval Welsh tradition as one of several places ruled by a sixth-century king called Urien and his son Owain. Our main source of information on these figures is a group of poems attributed to Taliesin who sems to have been Urien’s principal court-poet or personal bard .

While eagerly awaiting the publication of the full report, I do wonder about the title, which links the archaeological data from the excavations to the rather less solid evidence for Rheged. In the TDGNHAS article, Ronan and Chris describe Trusty’s Hill as ‘a strong contender as a royal centre from which Urien and Owain struck out.’ This is probably true, but I’m not sure the point can be pressed any further. Fixing the location of Rheged on a modern map has always been a guessing game, like the one where a blindfolded person tries to pin a paper tail on a drawing of a donkey. None of the old Welsh texts actually tells us where Rheged was, or even what it was. The idea that it was a kingdom (rather than a smaller territorial unit) emerged in the nineteenth century and is not a necessary inference from the Taliesin poems. I’ve said all this before, in print and online, and I’ll continue to repeat it, even though it puts me at odds with the popular belief that Rheged was a very large realm straddling the Solway Firth. The theory put forward by Ronan and Chris in their article conforms to the conventional view. So does the statement by Andrew Breeze in his review of Beyond The Gododdin 150 pages later. Professor Breeze, an expert on Celtic place-names, asserts that ‘the territories of Urien Rheged stretched from the Ayr to the Yorkshire Ouse’, thus encompassing the Solway lands (present-day Cumbria with Dumfries & Galloway) and of course Trusty’s Hill itself. I’m not convinced. ‘The simple truth is that we cannot deduce the location of Urien’s kingdom from the data currently available’. I wrote these words on page 75 of The Men of the North and I still stand by them four years later. Perhaps the full report of the Trusty’s Hill excavations will go some way towards thawing my scepticism? I shall wait and see.

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TDGNHAS = Transactions of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society. The contents of Volume 87 (2013) include the following:

Ronan Toolis and Christopher Bowles ‘Excavations at Trusty’s Hill, 2012′ [pp.27-50]

Warren R. Bailie ‘Recent Investigations at Carzield Roman Fort, Kirkton, Dumfries and Galloway’ [pp.51-80]

D.C. McWhannell ‘Gaill, Gáidheil, Gall-Gháidheil and the Cenéla of Greater Galloway’ [pp.81-116]

Andrew Breeze: Review of Alex Woolf (ed.) Beyond the Gododdin: Dark Age Scotland in Medieval Wales (St Andrews, 2013) [pp.197-9]

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Here’s a link to the website of the Galloway Picts Project

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I discuss the location of Rheged on pp.68-75 of The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2010)

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The Imaginary Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian's Wall
One aspect of the current debate on Scottish independence is the depiction of Hadrian’s Wall as a symbolic boundary between England and Scotland. Newspaper journalists and other media folk, especially those based in London, seem to like the idea of an Anglo-Scottish border defined by a massive stone rampart. The fact that the Wall has never marked the actual Border is evidently less important than its value as a symbolic frontier between North and South, between ‘Us and Them’. This is nothing new, of course. Back in the sixth century, a writer called Gildas used the Wall for a similar rhetorical purpose. Gildas presented it as a barrier between the Romanised Britons and the barbarous Picts whom he regarded as pagan savages lurking in the untamed, unchristianised northern lands. As far as he was concerned, Hadrian’s Wall was designed to keep the Picts at a safe distance. Not strictly correct, but it made a good tale for his readers. In common with some present-day journalists, Gildas didn’t really know much about the history of the Wall, but its solid permanence helped him to make a point about the difference between Us and Them.

Hadrian's Wall
In a recent article at the Almost Archaeology blog, Adrián Maldonado looks at the various ways in which Hadrian’s Wall has been perceived since Roman times. He considers the monument’s use as a symbol – not only in modern political writing but also in fictional narratives such as movies. Along the way he examines how people living north of the Wall have often been portrayed according to a stereotype – the ‘blue-painted ginger maniac’ – which is still a familiar caricature. Variations on the theme turn up in movies such as Braveheart, King Arthur and Centurion (see image below).

Centurion movie

Adrián’s article is well worth reading – a fine blend of ancient history, modern politics and movie criticism. Take a look and share it around.

Adrián Maldonado: The Imaginary Hadrian’s Wall: Archaeology and the Matter of Britain

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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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How British is Scotland?

Pictish warriors

Warriors on a Pictish stone at Aberlemno (8th century AD)


A recent post by Ross Crawford at the website of the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Scottish & Celtic Studies summarised a two-part lecture on the theme How British is Scotland? Archaeological Origins of Scotland. The speakers were Professor Stephen Driscoll and Dr Ewan Campbell – familiar names to students of early Scottish history and archaeology.

Modern perceptions of ‘Britishness’ and ‘Scottishness’ are obviously topical in the run-up to September’s referendum, but their roots lie deep in the past, reaching back to the so-called Dark Ages of the first millennium AD. As with all abstract notions of nationality, the origins of both terms are too complex for a simple explanation. Current thinking envisages a fluid pattern of ‘ethnicities’ and cultural affiliations in early medieval Scotland. Older theories are being questioned, among them a popular belief that the Scots originated in Ireland – a subject I’ve blogged about before. As far as the Picts are concerned, it is now becoming increasingly difficult to write the name ‘Pictland’ on a map without wondering if such a concept ever existed in the Pictish mindset.

Below is a link to Ross Crawford’s post at the CSCS website.

How British is Scotland? Archaeological Origins of Scotland

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Two Crosses

Dupplin Cross and Barochan Cross
End of April already, which means Springtime is underway and Summer is on the horizon. This is a good time to think about visiting museums, historic sites and other heritage attractions.

If you’re planning a trip to Scotland this year, and hoping to see some fine examples of early medieval sculpture, the above illustration offers a couple of ideas. It incorporates two drawings by John Romilly Allen from an old book called The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (published in 1903).

On the left, the Dupplin Cross, a magnificent Pictish stone from the early 9th century AD. It’s on display at St Serf’s Church in the village of Dunning in Perthshire.

On the right, the Barochan Cross, probably carved in the late 9th century. It’s Dark Age and Celtic, but not Pictish. This is a fine example of ‘Govan School’ sculpture and can be seen at Paisley Abbey.

Both crosses formerly stood outside on bare hillsides, exposed to the elements, but now they’re safely indoors. Both are impressive reminders of the artistry and craftsmanship of two of Scotland’s ancient peoples: the Picts and the Strathclyde Britons.

Either of these impressive crosses is well worth seeing, whether you’re heading north through Perthshire en route to the Highlands or traversing the southern edge of Glasgow.

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Picts at Brunanburh

Battle of Brunanburh

The Battle of Brunanburh, AD 937 (illustration by Alfred Pearse)


January is almost done, so this is a long-overdue first blogpost of 2014. As usual, the delay has been due to a lack of time for blogging. Among other distractions, I’m writing a new book – my fifth on early medieval history – of which more will be said in the near future. This post is a kind of spin-off from that project and deals with a topic I’ve blogged about before: the battle of Brunanburh, fought in AD 937, one of the most famous events of the Viking Age.

Our earliest source is an Old English poem, probably composed within ten years of the battle and inserted in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In stirring words, the poet celebrates the great victory at Brunanburh in which the English king Athelstan defeated an alliance of Vikings, Scots and (not mentioned in the poem) Strathclyde Britons. Some thirty years later, a briefer account of the battle was written by Aethelweard, a high-ranking English nobleman, in his Latin version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Aethelweard refers not to ‘Brunanburh’ but to ‘Brunandun’, one of several alternative names for the battlefield.

The Old English poem describes Scots fighting at Brunanburh under their grey-haired king Constantin, but Aethelweard mentions Picts as well. This requires a bit of explanation, as the Picts are usually thought to have ‘disappeared’ by about 900. Not that they vanished in a physical sense – they simply merged with the Scots or, to put it another way, they adopted a ‘Scottish’ identity.

Constantin’s kingdom, known by the Gaelic name Alba, was created in the late ninth century. Its royal dynasty – founded by Constantin’s grandfather, Cináed mac Ailpín, who died in 858 – was basically a family of Gaelic-speaking Picts. And, although Constantin’s predecessor was the first of the dynasty to be described in the Irish annals not as rex Pictorum (‘king of the Picts’) but as ri Albain (‘king of Alba’), the name Alba might really mean ‘Pictland’ anyway. So, even though Pictishness was being replaced by Scottishness before 900, the change was still fairly recent when Aethelweard wrote his chronicle in c.980, and even more recent in 937. Aethelweard’s reference to Pictish warriors fighting at Brunanburh might not be as anachronistic as it seems.

More could be said, of course, especially if we bring in the modern scholarship on Aethelweard’s writings to discuss his use of the term Picti. But this is meant to be a quick blogpost, so I’ll simply end it with the relevant passage from Aethelweard’s chronicle:

‘Nine hundred years plus twenty-six more had passed from the glorious Incarnation of our Saviour when the all-powerful king Athelstan assumed the crown of empire. Thirteen years later there was a huge battle against barbarians at Brunandun, which is still called the `great battle’ by common folk to the present day. Then the barbarian forces were overcome on all sides and no longer held superiority. Afterwards, he drove them from the shores of the sea, and the Scots and Picts alike bent their necks. The fields of Britain were joined as one, everywhere was at peace and had an abundance of all things. No fleet has since advanced against these shores and stayed without the consent of the English.’

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Notes & References

The standard edition of the Latin text is by Alistair Campbell, The Chronicle of Aethelweard (London, 1961).

See also: Leslie Whitbread, ‘Aethelweard and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ English Historical Review vol.74 (1959), 577-89.

Aethelweard is one of the few writers from this period who wasn’t a monk. His career as an ealdorman (royal official) involved him in high-level politics, on which see Scott Ashley ‘The lay intellectual in Anglo-Saxon England’, pp.218-45 in Patrick Wormald & Janet Nelson (eds.) Lay Intellectuals in the Carolingian World (Cambridge, 2007).

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Pictish warrior women (again)

Pictish female warrior

Axelle Carolyn as ‘Aeron’ in the movie Centurion (2010)


The most popular post at this blog – by a very long way – is one of the first I ever wrote. It appeared in July 2008, just a few weeks after the launch of Senchus. In writing it I hoped to spark a discussion on the question of whether or not Pictish military forces included female soldiers. I voiced my own views on the topic and waited for a response from readers. What I got was a mixture of useful feedback and vitriol, the latter reminiscent of what we used to call ‘flames’ in the Ansaxnet and Arthurnet forums twenty years ago. I wasn’t surprised to receive fairly strong reactions from some readers. This is a topic that inevitably touches on wider issues, like gender stereotyping and inequality, which are bigger and more emotive than a single question about the Picts. What did surprise me were comments from people who had misinterpreted my words as a personal sermon against the right of women to fight in battle alongside men. This wasn’t what I was saying at all. My point was that the written record – sparse though it is – does not suggest that female Picts participated in warfare as combatants.

The comments from people who had plainly not bothered to read or understand the post didn’t get past my blog dashboard. I deleted them as if they were spam. This doesn’t mean I’m thin-skinned in the face of opinions that don’t agree with mine. I always welcome criticism of my views – if it adds meaningful data to the debate. I am less welcoming of comments from folk who assume I’m a misogynist or anti-feminist, simply because I’ve questioned the historical reality behind fictional female characters such as the one depicted above. But I might still respond to such comments in a rational manner – if I think they add something useful to the mix.

Regular visitors to this blog will know of my longstanding interest in the roles played by high-status women in the political history of early medieval Britain. Over the past five years I’ve put the spotlight on a number of queens and princesses who appear in the sources as mere names – or as anonymous characters – with little or no indication of who they were or what they achieved. I think I’ve mentioned somewhere that this is part of my wider interest in the untold stories of ‘mute groups’ – those sections of society who didn’t get a voice in the contemporary written record – such as women, children and the ‘unfree’ or semi-free peasantry.

Well, it’s five years since the original blogpost, and I don’t have anything new to add. My views on the lack of evidence for Pictish warrior women have not changed. In fact, my scepticism has been reinforced by two online articles published in July of this year. Although these refer primarily to the valkyries and shieldmaidens of North European tradition, many of the points made by their respective authors – Dr Martin Rundkvist and Professor Judith Jesch – are relevant to the question of female participation in Pictish military campaigns.

Take a look…

Martin Rundkvist – Shield Maidens! True Or False?

Judith Jesch – Valkyries Revisited

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Two additional links: the original blogpost on Pictish female warriors and all my posts on early medieval women

P.S. – I enjoyed the Centurion movie.

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