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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Degsastan discovered?

Degsastan
Hot on the heels of his suggestion that the battle of Brunanburh (AD 937) was fought in County Durham comes another thought-provoking theory from Professor Andrew Breeze. This time, the battle in question was fought not in the tenth century but in the seventh, in the year 603. On one side stood an army of Scots from Dál Riata, led by King Áedán mac Gabráin. Facing them were the English of Bernicia under the command of their king Aethelfrith. The ambitions of these two mighty warlords clashed at a place called Degsa’s Stone, a name rendered in Latin as Lapis Degsa and in Old English as Degsastan.

The Venerable Bede, writing more than a hundred years after the battle, described Degsa’s Stone as a ‘very famous place’. Unfortunately, he didn’t give its precise location, although he did hint that it lay within the extensive territories controlled by Aethelfrith. As an Englishman and a Bernician, Bede resorted to triumphal rhetoric when describing the battle’s political repercussions:

‘From that time, no king of the Scots in Britain has dared to make war against the English nation to this day.’

As with many ‘lost’ battlefields, people have tended to begin a search for Degsastan by looking for similar-sounding names on a modern map. Long ago, this quest turned up the place-name Dawston, borne today by a stream and hillside in Liddesdale, the valley of the Liddel Water on the border between England and Scotland. Dawston has attracted many supporters, partly because it not only has the enticing D-st-n combination but is in an area where Áedán and Aethelfrith might have met in battle.

I’m not a supporter of Dawston. It’s too far south for me, and too far off the beaten track. In fact, I’m wary of using ‘sounds-like etymology’ as a starting-point when searching for lost battlefields. All too often, this technique brings forth a large red herring, which then slithers away in all kinds of strange directions with a posse of enthusiastic hunters in frantic pursuit. Much time is wasted, I believe, on the ‘sounds-like’ game. I don’t think it is necessarily the best way to begin the quest. Would it not make more sense to start from a different point, by using political considerations, landscape reconstructions and logistical factors to establish a likely geographical context, which could then be searched for possible place-name matches?

Andrew Breeze, an expert on place-names, thinks Dawston doesn’t even pass the test on linguistic grounds. He suggests instead a site further north, on the upper reaches of the River Tweed, near the village of Drumelzier between Biggar and Peebles. Here he notes the place name Dawyck, whch he says means ‘David’s settlement’ (where the first element is a North Brittonic personal name equivalent to Welsh Dewi). He proposes that a nearby monolith might once have been known as ‘Dewi’s Stone’, a name subsequently part-translated by speakers of Old English as Degsastan.

It’s an intriguing theory. While not being entirely swayed by the ‘Dewi’ argument, I am inclined to believe that this is the kind of area where we should be looking for the battlefield of 603. Upper Tweeddale lay on a key route linking the Clyde valley – and places further north and west – to the Bernician heartlands on the east coast. This seems to me a plausible setting for the earliest recorded clash between English and Scottish armies.

Andrew Breeze’s theory appears in a recent article in the Peebleshire News:
Ancient mystery battlefield discovered in Tweeddale

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I am grateful to Andrew Breeze for sending me the link.

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Searching for Brunanburh

Brunanburh
The battle of Brunanburh, fought in AD 937, was a notable victory for the English king Athelstan. On the losing side stood an alliance of Scots, Vikings and Strathclyde Britons, led by their respective kings. Contemporary annals, later chronicles and an Anglo-Saxon poem have left us in no doubt of the battle’s importance. Some modern historians regard it as a defining moment in the history of Britain: the moment when ‘England’, the territory of the Anglo-Saxons, became a true political entity.

But where was Brunanburh?

Where was Wendune, another place associated with the battle?

Where was the stretch of water called dinges mere – mentioned in the Brunanburh poem – if indeed this is a place-name at all?

Many theories have been put forward to answer these questions, but none has so far solved the mystery. Bromborough on the Wirral peninsula is often promoted as the best candidate for Brunanburh, primarily because it was recorded as Bruneburgh and Brunburg in twelfth-century documents. The place-name argument for Bromborough is certainly strong, but it is by no means decisive. Even if it was once known as Brunanburh, there is no certainty that the great battle of 937 was fought nearby, for we have no reason to assume Brunanburh was a unique place-name in Anglo-Saxon England. There might have been several places so named, in different areas, with not all of them being identifiable today behind modernised forms. It is also worth considering the position of Bromborough relative to tenth-century political geography: the Wirral peninsula is a long way from Scotland. Why would a combined force of Scots and Strathclyders choose to fight a battle there? If these northerners wanted to raid Athelstan’s territory and challenge him to a showdown, they could achieve both objectives without marching so far south.

Professor Andrew Breeze of the University of Navarre has recently proposed Lanchester in County Durham as an alternative candidate for Brunanburh. Andrew draws our attention to the nearby River Browney as a possible source of the Brun- element in the name. Could he be right? Lanchester clearly has a body of support and could even emerge as a strong rival to Bromborough, especially if the local media keep it in the spotlight.

For myself, I prefer to look west – not east – of the Pennines. I’ve said so in a couple of comments at Revealing Words, the fascinating blog run by Anglo-Saxon specialist Karen Jolly. Fans of the Brunanburh debate might like to know a few of us have been discussing the battle at Karen’s blog in the past week or so. Some interesting ideas are being bounced around, with input from various points of the spectrum.

The map below shows Lanchester, Bromborough and other candidates. More places could be added, but then things would get rather cluttered. These five sites should, however, be enough to show that Brunanburh has not yet been identified.

Brunanburh

I’ve been working on a Brunanburh-related blogpost of my own, to show where my thoughts are heading at the moment. It means I’ll be dusting off my old thesis to refresh half-forgotten memories of early medieval military logistics, as well as reading some newer stuff. I now have in my possession a pristine copy of the ‘Brunanburh Casebook’, which I’ll be examining closely in the next couple of weeks. Not sure when the blogpost will appear, but it won’t be imminent. It will be preceded by a couple of others from the Senchus backlog, one of which will be on St Columba.

I will also be looking at Brunanburh in my fifth book, which I’m due to start very soon. It’s about the kingdom of Strathclyde and will probably include an entire chapter on the Brunanburh campaign. An announcement of this new project will appear here at Senchus and at my other blog Heart of the Kingdom.

In the meantime, here are some interesting links to explore….

Karen Jolly’s blogpost on Brunanburh (with discussion)

Andrew Breeze on Lanchester as a candidate for Brunanburh

The case for Bromborough, summarised by Michael Livingston, editor of The Battle of Brunanburh: a Casebook.

A concise blogpost from three years ago, written by Diane McIlmoyle.

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Columba and the Pirates

Pirates
Two hundred years before the first Viking longships appeared off the west coast of Scotland, the Hebridean seaways were stalked by home-grown pirates. One band of cut-throats plied their trade in the late sixth century, when Saint Columba was abbot of the monastery he had founded on Iona. They were led by the sons of Conall mac Domnaill, an obscure figure of whom we know almost nothing beyond the name. According to Adomnán, author of Vita Columbae (‘Life of Columba’), Conall’s sons were members of the royal house of Gabrán, by which he presumably meant the Cenél nGabráin dynasty of Kintyre, but their position within this powerful kindred is unknown. They may have belonged to a rogue branch, perhaps to a family regarded as rivals of the chief lineage headed by Columba’s royal patron Áedán mac Gabráin. The actual number of Conall’s sons is unknown, as are the names of all but one of them: Ioan mac Conaill mac Domnaill, a ruthless sea-robber far removed from the image of the ‘jolly buccaneer’ embodied by Jack Sparrow.

Adomnán introduces us to the sons of Conall in the tale of a visit by Columba to the mainland, to the peninsula of Ardnamurchan above the north end of the Isle of Mull. There dwelt a farmer called Colmán whom Columba had befriended. Columba sometimes stayed with Colmán as a house-guest, presumably when he needed a base for religious work on the mainland. The saint was not there, however, on one fateful day when the sons of Conall came to Ardnamurchan in search of easy pickings.

Columba
The pirates came ashore and attacked Colmán’s house, breaking in to snatch whatever they could find. Filling their boat with the farmer’s belongings, they headed back out to sea. Colmán and his family survived the assault, no doubt by running to safety as soon as the raiders appeared, but their ordeal was far from over. In a grim replay of the first attack, the sons of Conall paid a return visit and did the same thing all over again. Colmán was not a wealthy man and had no means of defending his home and kin. The pirates were no doubt aware of this, hence their return for a third raid. This time, however, Columba was on Ardnamurchan with some monks from Iona. Although not at Colmán’s house when the attack came, the saint was not far away and reappeared just as the raiders were about to sail off with their loot. He confronted them on the seashore, urging them to yield up their plunder and abandon their violent ways. His pleading brought a scornful response from the pirate-chief Ioan, who promptly sailed away without any hint of remorse.

Stung by Ioan’s mockery and indifference, Columba waded out into the water and lifted his hands in prayer. There he stayed until the pirate ship disappeared over the horizon. He rejoined his monks, who had watched the entire incident, and together they went up to a higher point above the shore. Columba told his companions that Ioan’s wickedness would not go unpunished, for God was about to deal out a suitable retribution. Sure enough, even as the monks gazed out to sea, a terrible storm arose in the distance. Sweeping southward, it caught the pirates as they sailed between the islands of Mull and Coll, capsizing their vessel and drowning all who were aboard.

The sudden storm did not, however, end the menace of the sons of Conall. It appears that not all of Ioan’s brothers were on the boat that capsized, for Columba encountered the gang again during a visit to the island of Hinba. On this occasion he found himself in serious danger and only narrowly avoided being slain. The encounter came after he received disturbing news that these same pirates were attacking churches on Hinba, where one of his own satellite monasteries was located. Arriving on the island, he gathered a small party of monks and again confronted the sons of Conall. Castigating them for defiling the sanctity of churches he announced that he had decided to excommunicate them. This threat clearly enraged the pirates, who were at least nominally Christian. One of them – a henchman of Conall’s sons who went by the nickname Lám Dess (‘Right Hand’) – strode towards Columba and lunged viciously with his spear. A quick-thinking monk called Findlugán bravely put himself in the way and took the thrust, but was miraculously unharmed (according to Adomnán, this was because Findlugán happened to be wearing Columba’s hooded cloak). Amid the confusion, Lám Dess was sure he had hit his intended target and believed that a mortal wound had been given to the saint.

What happened afterwards is not reported by Adomnán but the excommunication was presumably put in place. Whether it changed the behaviour of the sons of Conall seems unlikely, given that they plainly had no qualms about attacking religious settlements. It was, nevertheless, the most drastic punishment Columba could deal out and, in an age of superstition, it may have worried some of the gang. It was evidently of little concern to Lám Dess, who was still living a life of violence one year later when he was killed in a fight on another island. After a brief notice of his death, we hear nothing more of the sons of Conall in Vita Columbae.

Saint Columba

A depiction of St Columba by J.R. Skelton (1907)

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The story of the pirates appears on pages 118 to 121 of my book Columba.

The relevant references in Vita Columbae are in chapters 22 (Ioan) and 24 (Lám Dess) of Book Two.

Although Adomnán mentions the island of Hinba a number of times its precise location is unknown. Several theories have been proposed, based on clues given in Vita Columbae. One theory identifies Hinba as the two-part island formed by Colonsay and Oronsay, and this is the one I favour at the moment. See my blogpost on The lost island of Saint Columba.

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The legend of the Saltire

Scottish Saltire flag
Scotland’s national flag, the Saltire, is reputedly the oldest in Europe. According to legend, its origins can be traced back to the ninth century AD, to a battle fought by a combined army of Scots and Picts against the English of Northumbria. On the night before the battle, the Pictish king ‘Hungus’ vowed to make Andrew the patron saint of Scotland if the English were defeated. In response, the Apostle himself appeared in a vision, promising Hungus and his Dál Riatan allies a great victory. The next morning, as the opposing forces prepared to fight, a strange cloud-formation in the shape of a huge diagonal cross appeared in the blue sky. Flushed with hope, the Picts and Scots attacked their enemies ferociously, despite being heavily outnumbered. The English and their king ‘Athelstan’ were soundly beaten, and the Cross of Saint Andrew became the emblem of Scotland.

Hungus, king of the Picts

The Pictish king Hungus: stained glass window at Athelstaneford parish church, East Lothian.


It’s a good story, even if it isn’t based on real events. It may have been created in the thirteenth century, around the time when Saint Andrew’s Cross started being used as a national emblem. Before 1286, the diagonal cross traditionally associated with the Apostle’s crucifixion had been used in Scotland but only in religious contexts, as an emblem of St Andrews Cathedral. The fabled Pictish king ‘Hungus’ turns up as a key figure in the cathedral’s own origin-legends, so his appearance in the Saltire story is certainly appropriate.
Scottish Saltire memorial

Battle-scene on the Saltire memorial at Athelstaneford.


The battle in which the Saltire appeared in the sky supposedly took place in the year 832, near the present-day village of Athelstaneford in East Lothian. The village proudly proclaims its status as the birthplace of Scotland’s flag. In the graveyard of the parish church stands an impressive memorial commemorating the great victory. The main panel shows King Hungus and his army facing the defeated English, who have thrown down their weapons in token of surrender. Above is a smaller panel containing an inscription with these words:

‘Tradition says that near this place in times remote, Pictish and Scottish warriors about to defeat an army of Northumbrians saw against a blue sky a great white cross like Saint Andrew’s, and in its image made a banner which became the flag of Scotland’

Scottish Flag Heritage Centre

Doocot (built 1583) now the Scottish Flag Heritage Centre.


Behind the church is a doocot (the Scots word for ‘dovecote’) constructed in the sixteenth century as a nesting-place for pigeons. Inside this tiny building is the Flag Heritage Centre where visitors can learn about the Saltire legend via an audiovisual presentation. A leaflet describing the battle, the memorial, the church and the doocot is also available. It gives additional information, telling us that the battle was said to have taken place at an ancient ford on the Peffer Burn. The village of Athelstaneford takes its name from this crossing-point.

Scottish Flag Heritage Centre

Scottish Flag Heritage Centre: lightshow image of a warrior during the audiovisual presentation.


A few snippets of real history are embedded in the legend. We know, for instance, that the figure of King Hungus is based on one or more genuine Pictish kings who bore the name ‘Angus’ (Óengus in Gaelic; Onuist or Unust in Pictish). The most famous of these was the great warlord Óengus, son of Fergus, who conquered Dál Riata in the eighth century. A slightly later namesake – probably a member of the same family – ruled the Picts from 820 to 834 and is usually identified as the king in both the Saltire legend and the foundation-tale of St Andrews Cathedral. The Scots who fought alongside Hungus at Athelstaneford were commanded by Eochaid, grandfather of Cináed mac Ailpín. Little is known of Eochaid but he appears in the genealogical traditions attached to Cináed and may have been a historical figure. The defeated Northumbrian ruler ‘Athelstan’ is presumably based on the famous English king of this name, a West Saxon by birth, who lived a century after the Saltire battle. In 832, the traditional date of the legendary encounter, the Northumbrians were actually ruled by a king called Eanred.

Scottish Flag Heritage Centre

Sign outside the parish church.


The true origin of the name Athelstaneford is unknown. It might commemorate the real King Athelstan – who campaigned in Scotland in the 930s – or perhaps a local namesake who happened to own land around the Peffer Burn. Whatever the truth of the matter, this quiet East Lothian village is forever linked to the most recognizable symbol of Scottish nationhood. If you like old folklore, Pictish legends and half-forgotten history, it’s well worth a visit.

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The Flag Heritage Centre is maintained by the Scottish Flag Trust.

Information about the Cross of Saint Andrew can be found at the National Archives of Scotland.

Athelstaneford village has its own website.

Photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling.

In an earlier blogpost I wrote about the two Pictish kings named Óengus and their connection with St Andrews.

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Discussing Degsastan (again)

In an earlier post I set out my views on the location of the battle of Degsastan, an event described by Bede and dated by him to the year 603. The post attracted a large number of comments, which turned into a useful discussion of the various places that have been proposed as the site of the battlefield. In the end, with more than 70 comments attached to the post, I closed the thread because it had reached what I consider to be its allotted space at this blog.

However, due to continuing interest in the topic and several requests for the discussion to resume, I’m adding this post as an area for new comments. Please feel free to add your views and theories below.

For information, the old discussion can be found via this link.

Some questions we may want to consider:
* Where was Degsastan?
* Is Dawston in Liddesdale a plausible candidate?
* Did the Britons take part in the battle and, if so, on which side did they fight?
* What was the real political outcome of Aethelfrith’s victory?

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Lady Macbeth

Dame Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, 1889 (from a painting by J.S. Sargent)


Mael Coluim mac Cinaeda (‘Malcolm, son of Kenneth’) succeeded his cousin Cinaed, son of Dub, as king of Alba in 1005. The succession was apparently contested by the rulers of Moray in the person of Findlaech, son of Ruaidri, who lodged a rival claim for the kingship. Findlaech, the mormaer (‘great steward’) of Moray, was described in the Irish annals as ‘king of Alba’ when they reported his death in 1020. His nephew Mael Coluim, son of Mael Brigte, died nine years later and was likewise accorded the same royal title by the annalists. Both men must have claimed the throne of Alba when its legitimate incumbent was Mael Coluim mac Cinaeda, who reigned from 1005 to 1034. On two occasions, then, the authority of Cinaed’s son was challenged by the lords of Moray.
The kingdom of Alba

The kingdom of Alba


The Moravians themselves appear to have been riven by internal strife. Rivalry between Findlaech and his brother Mael Brigte led to the former’s death at the hands of the latter’s sons. The most likely context was a military struggle for the mormaership. After Findlaech’s slaying in 1020 his murderous nephews – Mael Coluim and Gilla Comgain – ruled Moray for a further twelve years. Mael Coluim was the above-mentioned claimant on the kingship of Alba, the man whose death in 1029 was reported in the Irish annals. After staking his royal claim, as a rival of his namesake Mael Coluim mac Cinaeda, he seems to have appointed his brother Gilla Comgain as mormaer of Moray. But Gilla Comgain was in turn challenged by Findlaech’s son Macbethad, an ambitious individual who was soon to emerge as a key player on the wider political stage. In later centuries Macbethad found greater fame on a different kind of stage, being borrowed by William Shakespeare as the inspiration for his devious character Macbeth. In the meantime, the historical Macbeth made his first appearance around the year 1030, as a challenger to Gilla Comgain’s authority in Moray. This may have prompted Gilla Comgain to strengthen his own position with a political marriage, for his bride was a lady of high royal blood. Her name was Gruoch, daughter of Boite, and she was a close kinswoman of King Mael Coluim mac Cinaeda, perhaps his niece or the daughter of one of his cousins.

Gilla Comgain continued to rule as mormaer of Moray until his death in 1031 or 1032. His grisly demise was noted in the Irish annals:

Gilla Comgain, son of Mael Brigte, mormaer of Moray, was burned together with fifty people.

This was probably the final act in a bitter kin-strife that had started in the previous generation. Although the annalists do not say who was responsible for the burning it was surely the work of Macbethad, who thus became the new mormaer of Moray. In a politically astute move he quickly married Gruoch, Gilla Comgain’s widow, thereby linking himself to the royal dynasty of Alba. The marriage also made him stepfather and protector of Gruoch’s son Lulach, Gilla Comgain’s heir, who was probably a small child at the time. Whether Gruoch entered this union willingly or grudgingly is unknown, for the sources give no further information. If, as seems likely, Macbethad was the instigator of her first husband’s death, she might have been his reluctant bride. Alternatively, she might have regarded Macbethad as a useful match for her own ambitions. Did she perhaps play some part in Gilla Comgain’s downfall? Such speculation, although interesting, could tempt us to cross the line between fact and fiction, for Gruoch is the historical figure behind the ruthless Lady Macbeth of Shakespeare’s play.

Mormaers of Moray in the 11th Century


Macbethad’s career was as dramatic as any playwright’s narrative. Within months of his seizure of power in Moray he joined Mael Coluim mac Cinaeda, the king of Alba, in a pledge of fealty to King Cnut of England. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which placed this event under the year 1031, Macbethad is described as a king. The label need not be taken at face value, for it is unlikely that he had launched a bid for the throne of Alba at so early a date. Indeed, he may have continued to rule Moray not as a potential rival to Mael Coluim but as a loyal subordinate or vassal guarding an important territory on the king’s northern frontier.

Gruoch’s kinship with the royal dynasty would have proved useful to Macbethad. It brought him closer to the centres of power and would have enabled him to forge useful alliances at the king’s court. His wife’s connections with the ruling elite undoubtedly helped him gather support for the coup d’etat which would one day elevate him to the throne. But he nurtured his ambitions slowly and carefully, biding his time until the right moment. Thus, after Mael Coluim’s death in 1034 brought his grandson Donnchad (‘Duncan’) to power, Macbethad gave his allegiance to the new king and played the role of loyal henchman. He eventually made his move in the summer of 1040, not long after Donnchad suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the English. The Irish chronicler Marianus Scotus, writing forty years later, gave a near-contemporary account of Donnchad’s fall:

Donnchad, king of Scots, was killed in the autumn, on 14 August, by his dux Macbethad son of Findlaech, who succeeded to the kingdom for seventeen years.

In this context, the Latin term dux (‘duke’) might be an attempt by Marianus to translate Gaelic mormaer. In a more general sense it indicates that Donnchad was slain during the revolt of a subordinate lord. It was this deed of treachery that prompted later Scottish writers, and eventually Shakespeare himself, to cast Macbethad in the role of villain. In an 11th-century context, however, the toppling of a king by an ambitious rival was a normal method of regime-change.

Her husband’s victory made Gruoch the most powerful woman in Alba. She was now the Queen of Scots, a position she may have coveted from afar during her years of marriage to two successive lords of Moray. As queen, she would have played an important part in the smooth running of royal business. She would have had her own entourage of courtiers and retainers, as well as her own network of clients and friends. At times she would have accompanied the king on his periodic tours of the realm, and we have documentary evidence of this in a charter to which she bore witness alongside her husband. The document in question recorded a gift of land to the monastery of Loch Leven in Fife. Its scribe began by naming the royal benefactors: Machbet filius Finlach …. et Gruoch filia Bodhe, Rex et Regina Scottorum (‘Macbethad, son of Findlaech …. and Gruoch, daughter of Boite, King and Queen of Scots’).

In late 1049 or early 1050, Macbethad embarked on a pilgrimage to Rome. This was not an unusual task for a king from the British Isles to undertake. Others had made the same journey before him, seeking forgiveness for past sins by visiting the Eternal City. Most royal pilgrims were in their later years, or had already offloaded the reins of power to designated heirs. Macbethad was certainly a man of middle age when he began his pilgrimage. From a rough chronology of his career we can deduce that he was around fifty years old. It is likely that Gruoch did not accompany him, and that she stayed at home to maintain a royal presence at court. How much authority might then have been delegated to her in Macbethad’s absence is hard to say but he must have trusted her to support his kingship while he was away. This is actually a key point, because potential royal claimants were surely lurking in the wings. The probability that Macbethad left his wife behind suggests that he had no doubts about her political loyalty. It might also suggest that he perceived little or no threat from Lulach, Gruoch’s son by Gilla Comgain, whose own claim on the throne she might otherwise have promoted.

Macbethad thus returned from Rome to find his kingship still intact. He resumed his reign and faced no serious challenge to his position for a number of years. His subjects clearly respected him, as did folk living beyond the borders of Alba. Ambitious warriors from other lands were attracted to his court, perhaps because he gave rich rewards for military service. One group of Norman adventurers, having been made unwelcome in England, travelled north to place their swords at his disposal. These men died in battle in 1054, fighting to defend Macbethad from an English invasion which succeeded in casting him from the throne. The architect of his defeat was Earl Siward of Northumbria, a powerful henchman of the English king Edward the Confessor. What happened to Macbethad in the aftermath is not recorded but he may have sought refuge among his kinsmen in Moray, unless he found a safer haven elsewhere. Wherever he went, we can be fairly sure that Gruoch and her son accompanied him. Siward, meanwhile, appointed a man called Mael Coluim as the new king of Alba. Despite his Gaelic name, this Mael Coluim was a prince of the Strathclyde Britons. His eligibility for kingship of the Scots must nevertheless have derived from ancestry, and his name seems to hint at mixed Gaelic-British parentage. His father was the king of Strathclyde; perhaps his mother was a royal princess of Alba?

Mael Coluim’s reign did not last long. His position would have weakened considerably after Siward’s death in 1055. With the menace of the Northumbrian earl removed, Macbethad was able to expel Mael Coluim and take back the throne. He ruled for a few more years until his own death at the battle of Lumphanan in 1058. His nemesis was Mael Coluim mac Donnchadha, a figure otherwise known as ‘Malcolm Canmore’ (Gaelic ceann mor, ‘big head’). Mael Coluim’s victory thus avenged the slaying of his father, King Donnchad, whom Macbethad had destroyed eighteen years earlier.

We do not know what happened to Gruoch in the wake of her husband’s death. Her son Lulach seems to have held the kingship of Alba for a few months until he, too, was defeated and slain by Mael Coluim. Widowed and alone, Gruoch may have found herself at the mercy of the new king. Her fate would then have depended on her usefulness as a dowager queen, a royal lady of wealth and influence – if indeed she could be persuaded to pledge allegiance to Mael Coluim. The fact that she was his kinswoman, a female elder of the royal dynasty, would not have guaranteed her survival. Against whatever political value she still retained was the threat she undoubtedly posed to the stability of the realm. She might, for instance, become a figurehead for disgruntled supporters of Macbethad, especially in Moray where Mael Coluim’s authority was unlikely to have been strong. So what were her options, if indeed she was not murdered, or chased out of the kingdom, or imprisoned in some dark dungeon? If she somehow managed to survive the upheavals of 1058 she may have been allowed to enter monastic retirement, becoming the abbess of a religious house to which she had been a benefactor in former times. Alternatively, she may have simply retired to one of her estates, in semi-exile from the royal court, quietly living out her remaining years as a relic of past troubles.

Probable ancestry of Gruoch, daughter of Boite.


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References

Archibald Duncan, The Kingship of the Scots, 842-1292 (Edinburgh, 2002), p.32.

Benjamin Hudson, Kings of Celtic Scotland (Westport, 1994), pp.136-8.

William Kapelle, The Norman Conquest of the North (London,1979), pp.41-2.

Archibald Lawrie (ed.), Early Scottish Charters prior to 1153 (Glasgow, 1905), pp.5-6.

Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070 (Edinburgh, 2007), pp.247 & 255-65.

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The place name ‘Paisley’

Paisley Abbey

Paisley Abbey (photograph © B Keeling)

Paisley is a large town on the southern fringe of the Greater Glasgow urban area. It lies on the White Cart Water, a tributary of the River Clyde, and is the largest settlement in Renfrewshire. Paisley’s best-known landmark is the impressive abbey which developed from a priory founded in the 12th century by Walter FitzAlan, High Steward of Scotland and forefather of the Stewart dynasty. The abbey has connections with the Stewarts and Bruces, and with the great Scottish hero William Wallace. Among its treasures is a sculptured tomb said to be that of Princess Marjorie, daughter of Robert the Bruce of Bannockburn fame. Marjorie married into the House of the Stewards in 1314 and was the mother of Robert II, the first Stewart king. A more recent addition to the abbey’s monuments is the Barochan Cross, carved c.900, a fine example of sculpture from the old kingdom of Strathclyde. It formerly stood in an exposed position at Barochan five miles to the northwest before being brought to Paisley Abbey for protection.

The abbey reputedly stands on the site of a church founded by Saint Mirin in c.600. Mirin, also known as Mirren or Murrin, was an Irish monk who came to Scotland as a missionary. Little is known about him but he presumably preached among the Britons of Renfrewshire. Today he is commemorated in Paisley by a modern statue and the name of the local football team ‘St Mirren’. Inside the abbey his carved image can be seen in wood and stone.

Saint Mirin at Paisley

Paisley Abbey: wooden carving of St Mirin (photograph © B Keeling)

Older forms of the place name Paisley include Passaleth (1157), Paisleth (1158), Passelet (1163) and Passelek (1296). Although the suffix -ley is reminiscent of Old English leah, ‘a clearing’, the medieval forms belong to a period when Celtic languages were spoken in the area. The dominant speech around c.1100 was Gaelic but its arrival in this part of Scotland was fairly recent at that time and most people in Renfrewshire had previously spoken Cumbric, the language of the North Britons. The shift from Cumbric to Gaelic began in the second half of the 11th century after the Scottish king Mael Coluim III conquered Strathclyde and deposed its native rulers. Mael Coluim and his fellow-Scots spoke Gaelic but the place name Paisley did not originate in their language. Its early recorded forms show it to have been formed in Brittonic, the language group to which Cumbric belonged.

Strathclyde churches

Three major churches of Renfrewshire, c.950 (Note: Govan was partly in Lanarkshire)

The consensus of opinion sees Paisley deriving ultimately from Greek basilikos, ‘royal’, a word borrowed into Latin as basilica which in Christian times came to mean ‘church’. From Latin the term basilica passed into the Brittonic languages where it evolved into forms such as Old Welsh bassalec. The latter is still preserved in Wales as the village-name Bassaleg, written as Basselek in medieval documents. Paisley, too, is generally assumed to mean ‘basilica’. The change from initial B to P may have been due to local dialect and is not unknown in Celtic borrowings from Latin, e.g. Irish peist, ‘monster’, from Latin bestia. In Paisley’s case, the 12th-century forms Passaleth and Passelet probably arose from mistranscription of -ec by medieval Scottish scribes, perhaps under the influence of Irish baslec which also meant ‘basilica’. Passelek, recorded in the 13th century, might be a fairly close rendering of how the original Cumbric name was pronounced.

Basilica is actually very rare in place names in the British Isles. It occurs in Ireland only twice, at Baslick in County Roscommon and Baslickane in County Kerry. The former was originally Gaelic Baisleac-mor, ‘Great Basilica’; the latter derives from Baisleacan, ‘Little Basilica’. In Britain the only examples are the Welsh village Bassaleg and, if we accept the conventional view, Paisley itself. In places where Brittonic speech survived until quite late (i.e. to the 11th century) we might expect native ‘church’ names to contain eccles (from Latin ecclesia) or the prefix llan-, ‘enclosure’ (i.e. ‘monastic enclosure’) rather than basilica. The latter’s rarity in place names is consistent with its specialised use in Continental Europe where it denoted an important relic-church containing the bones of a major saint. Did the original church at Paisley hold the remains of such a person? By this definition the tomb or shrine was unlikely to commemorate a local or regional saint such as Mirin but one of international renown like a famous martyr or even an Apostle. It may seem surprising, then, to find no folklore at Paisley comparable to the elaborate foundation-legends of St Andrews which claim that the eponymous Apostle’s bones were brought from Constantinople to Fife. If Paisley did indeed have an early basilica, and if the latter term is usually associated with an important saint, why is there no local tradition of major relics being enshrined? The absence of such lore may seem, at first glance, to cast doubt on the usual derivation of the place name.

Or maybe the term basilica was not used so narrowly in the British Isles? Perhaps the Britons and their Irish neighbours associated it with any category of saint, even a minor local one? When we look at Baslick in Ireland, for instance, we find stories about St Sacell, an obscure disciple of Patrick and hardly a figure of international importance. At Bassaleg in Wales we find a similar picture: tales of a local saint (the female hermit Gwladys) but nothing about anyone of major significance. To me, this raises the possibility that the Irish and Britons regarded basilica as simply another word for ‘church’. Its occurrence (or survival) in only a handful of place names suggests that it was well down the list of preferred terms, perhaps being seen as exotic and pretentious. If Baslick and Bassaleg are the relic-churches of Sacell and Gwladys respectively, then maybe Paisley is in fact St Mirin’s basilica and the place where his bones were venerated.

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Barochan Cross

The Barochan Cross (now in Paisley Abbey)

Notes
* Alternative Brittonic origins for Paisley from Welsh pasgell llethr, ‘pasture slope’ or pas lle, ‘exit place’ have been suggested (by James Johnston and William Oxenham respectively).
* Although basilica is usually associated with churches of the highest status in Western Christendom this appears not to be the case in Eastern Orthodox areas.
* William Oxenham makes the following interesting observation on Paisley: ‘Kuno Meyer the originator of the suggestion that the name is a corruption of Latin Basilica later withdrew it as being based on unsatisfactory evidence.’ (Oxenham 2005, 210) Having not yet tracked down Meyer’s text I’m not sure what reason he gave for withdrawing the basilica idea.

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References

Stephen T. Driscoll, Oliver O’Grady and Katherine Forsyth, ‘The Govan School revisited: searching for meaning in the early medieval sculpture of Strathclyde’, pp.135-58 in S.M. Foster & M. Cross (eds) Able Minds and Practised Hands: Scotland’s Early Medieval Sculpture in the Twenty-First Century (Leeds, 2005) [see p.151 on Paisley as an early relic-church]

James B. Johnston, Place-Names of Scotland. 3rd edition (London, 1934)

William Oxenham, Welsh Origins of Scottish Place-Names (Llanrwst, 2005), pp.210-11

William J. Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1926), p.194

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This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde

A battle in 952

Vikings

Those of you who are familiar with Kevin Halloran’s articles in academic journals will know that he has a special interest in the political history of 10th century Britain. Kevin recently sent me his thoughts on a little-known event from this period: a Viking victory dated by the Irish annalists to the middle years of the century. In giving a summary of his views Kevin produced a useful and original piece of research which I think deserves a wider audience. As it relates to Scotland I’m publishing it here as a blogpost, with Kevin’s permission.

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A Small Matter Of Identity
by Kevin Halloran

In his excellent overview of early Scottish history, From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070, Alex Woolf considered the identity of the victors in an obscure battle of 952. The event is mentioned in two Irish annals: the Annals of Ulster 952.2 and the Annals of the Four Masters 950.14. The entries are fairly similar, recording that ‘The foreigners won a battle over the men of Alba, the Britons and the Saxons.’ One question at issue is: were the ‘foreigners’ led by the Eric, son of Harold, who took over as king of York that year, by the ousted Amlaib Cuaran and his Irish-based Vikings or were they Vikings from elsewhere?

In both annals the Irish text uses the word Gallaibh to mean ‘foreigners’ and it is evident from many entries in both annals of the period that this term was used to describe the Vikings based in Ireland. The very fact that the event was mentioned in two separate Irish annals suggests strongly in my view that the victors were from Ireland. There is further support for this view. The AFM 940.9 records a battle between Irish-based Vikings and other ‘foreigners who came across the sea’ and is the only entry from either source in the period that refers to Vikings definitely based other than in Ireland. The Irish Vikings are as usual described as G(h)allaibh but their enemies are not, instead being called Goill dar muir. The annal’s use of Goill cannot be simply to differentiate between two groups of Vikings as there are many entries that depict conflicts between Irish Vikings where both sides are described as Gallaibh.

The annals give no context for the battle of 952. The fact that Alba, the Britons (presumably of Strathclyde) and the Saxons (again, presumably of Bamburgh) were in alliance suggests, as Woolf argues, that this was a north British event and also in my view that the alliance was a defensive one as I know of no precedent for such a coalition invading southern Northumbria or elsewhere. Four possibilities come to mind, although there may well be others. Firstly, that Amlaib left York to attack Lothian or Bernicia and Eric usurped the throne in his absence. Secondly, that the ousted Amlaib fought the battle after being driven from York. Thirdly, that supporters of Amlaib fought the battle en route to an attempt at reinstating him in York. Fourthly, that this was simply an unconnected large-scale raid by Irish Vikings into lowland Scotland.

The annal entries give no hint as to the cause of the conflict and, so far as we can tell, there appear to have been no significant or lasting political consequences. There are, however, two events in Ireland prior to the battle that might bear some relation to it. The first took place in 951 and is recorded in AU951.3, AFM949.10, Chronicon Scotorum CS951 and the Annals of Clonmacnoise under 946=951. These all record major raids against Irish churches by the Dublin Vikings under Guthfrith, son of Sihtric, in which 3000 captives and a great spoil of cattle, horses, gold and silver were taken. Similar attacks in Ireland preceded other Viking incursions into Britain and may well have provided the necessary finance for an expedition.

The other event occurred over the winter of 951-2 and is recorded in three of the annals, AU951.7, AFM949.15 and AClon 947=952. The first two refer to an outbreak of leprosy and dysentery among the Vikings of Dublin while the third states that ‘The pox ran over all Ireland’ and describes it as ‘Dolor Gentilium’. It is possible then that the Vikings abandoned Dublin temporarily and crossed over to Britain to escape the outbreak of disease.

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Kevin examines other aspects of the 10th century in these articles:

‘The Brunanburh campaign: a reappraisal’ Scottish Historical Review 84 (2005), 133-48
‘The identity of Etbrunnanwerc’ Scottish Historical Review 89 (2010), 248-53
‘Welsh kings at the English court, 928-956′ Welsh History Review 25 (2011), 297-313

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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

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

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

Dunaverty

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.

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Notes

* 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.

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