Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age

Eamont 927
Regular visitors to Senchus may have noticed a lack of activity this year, with barely one new blogpost per month. The slowdown has been due to a major distraction – I’ve been writing a new book on early medieval history.

The title of my latest tome is Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age. It’s my fifth book on Dark Age Scotland and my second on the North Britons. It can almost be described as a sequel to The Men Of The North – or more accurately as an expanded version of the last couple of chapters – and is similarly pitched as an undergraduate-level textbook. The primary focus is on the relationship between the Strathclyde Britons or ‘Cumbrians’ and their English neighbours in the Viking period (roughly 800 to 1100 AD). Much of this relationship was characterised by mutual hostility, which is why an early working title for the book was The Cumbrian Wars. These wars, although now absent from the title itself, still represent a major theme running through the book. Many of them are obscure and little-known, partly because Strathclyde has all too often been overlooked or ignored by historians, and partly due to misconceptions about what the term ‘Cumbrian’ actually means in an early medieval context.

Most of these conflicts were fought in the tenth and eleventh centuries. They were recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and in other contemporary texts alongside periods of uneasy peace or temporary alliance. This was a volatile era in which ambitious kings in Britain and Ireland competed with one another for land, wealth and status. Treaties were forged, pledges were given and oaths of fealty were broken. Each generation brought a new set of alliances and a reshuffle in the balance of power. Add a few Viking warlords to the mix and it starts looking a bit like Game Of Thrones.

The book is scheduled for publication by Birlinn of Edinburgh in September 2014. At the moment, the front cover is being created (by a designer) and a final ‘proof’ of the text is being checked (by me). In the meantime, I’ve set up a WordPress blog where I’ll post updates on the book’s progress, as well as information on the Viking period in general.

I invite all readers of Senchus and Heart of the Kingdom to take a look at the new blog, which went online today. Click on the link below…

Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age

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The Kilmorie Cross

Kilmorie Cross

Illustration from J. Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland


My list of ‘must see’ monuments includes this magnificent cross-slab from the Rhinns of Galloway. It originally stood near St Mary’s Chapel at Kilmorie but was moved in the early nineteenth century to Kirkcolm, two and a half miles away, where it was used as a door-lintel in the parish church. It was moved again in 1821, to the grounds of nearby Corsewall House. There it was photographed by a Mr Hunter of Newton Stewart, the resulting image being reproduced in Allen and Anderson’s Early Christian Monuments of Scotland of 1903. In 1989, the slab was returned to Kirkcolm church and placed in the churchyard where it resides today.

The slab is sometimes known as the Kilmorie Cross because of the large hammer-headed crosses on both sides. It stands a little over five feet high and is made of ‘greywacke’ sandstone. On one side, the hammerhead cross carries a rough representation of the Crucified Christ. Another figure stands below, flanked by two birds, a set of blacksmith’s tongs and an unidentified rectangular shape. It has been suggested that this lower figure is the Scandinavian hero Sigurd, juxtaposed with the Crucifixion to highlight the mingling of pagan and Christian beliefs in a region colonised by Vikings. On the other side of the slab, the hammerhead cross is decorated with spiral patterns, below which are two horns, a coiled serpent and a panel of interlace terminating in a pair of snakes.

Kilmorie Cross

Photographs from Allen & Anderson’s Early Christian Monuments of Scotland


The slab was probably carved in the tenth century, a very obscure period in Galloway’s history. The region takes its name from a people known as Gall-Gaidhil (‘Foreign Gaels’) whose origins are uncertain. They first turn up in the ninth century, as warbands serving Irish kings, probably as mercenaries. Their name suggests that they were Vikings who spoke Gaelic, or Gaels who behaved like Vikings. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, groups of Gall-Gaidhil seem to be in control of various seaways and coastlands in what is now South West Scotland, from Kintyre down to Galloway. At what point they gave their name to Galloway is unknown, but medieval chroniclers suggest that Gall-Gaidhil or ‘Galwegian’ lords ruled as far east as the district north of Carlisle. Current thinking envisages a sort of ‘Greater Galloway’ by c.1050, extending northward through Ayrshire to the Firth of Clyde, but whether this was a single realm or a patchwork of independent lordships is a mystery. The amount of Scandinavian culture introduced into this very large area is likewise a matter of debate. What the Kilmorie Cross seems to be telling us is that pagan Viking settlers and indigenous Christians were able to live side-by-side in one small corner of Galloway.

Map of Galloway

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Notes & references

Having not yet visited the Kilmorie Cross I don’t have any photographs of my own to accompany this blogpost. A couple of nice images can however be seen at the website of Kirkcolm parish church via these links to the ‘front’ and ‘back’ of the slab.

Kilmorie is a Gaelic place-name which may mean ‘Church of Mary’. Kirkcolm means ‘Church of Columba’, with Gaelic cille replaced by Old Norse kirkja.

The cultural affinities of Galloway’s early medieval sculpture have been discussed in a number of publications. A useful article is Derek Craig’s ‘Pre-Norman sculpture in Galloway: some territorial implications’, in Richard Oram & Geoffrey Stell (eds), Galloway: Land and Lordship (Edinburgh, 1991), pp.45-62.

The Kilmorie Cross is described on the Canmore database, which also has an entry for the old chapel of Kilmorie.

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Battle of Clontarf anniversary

Battle of Clontarf
This year marks the millennium of the Battle of Clontarf, fought on the outskirts of Dublin on 23 April 1014. The battle is often depicted as a defining moment in Irish history: a great victory by King Brian Boru over the Vikings. In popular mythology, it heralded the end of two hundred years of Viking influence in Ireland. But, as with many of the best myths, the true picture is somewhat different. Like most battles of the Viking period, Clontarf was first and foremost a clash between ambitious rulers rather than a struggle between Celts and Scandinavians. Both sides mobilised Irish and Viking forces, each contingent serving the interests of its own leader, with scant regard for the ethnic origin of friend or foe. It would have been no great surprise to Brian’s Irish warriors to learn that their enemies were led not only by Sihtric Silkbeard, king of the Dublin Norse, but also by the Irish ruler Mael Morda, king of Leinster, or that their own allies included Vikings from Limerick.

By setting aside the myths we can see the battle for what it really was: a mighty contest for superiority in which forces from all over Ireland took part. Its significance will be highlighted in 2014 with a series of commemorative events. Links to some of these can be found at the end of this blogpost, but more are being announced as the anniversary of the battle approaches.

The battle has a Scottish connection, too, which is why it gets a mention here at Senchus. For, although the causes of the conflict lay among a complex web of rivalries and overlordships in Ireland, the pattern of wider allegiances brought warriors from further afield into the fray. On Brian’s side, the list of slain commanders included Domnall, son of Eimin son of Cainnech, the lord of Mar (now part of Aberdeenshire), while on the other side the casualties included Earl Sigurd of Orkney.

Click the links below for more information on the millennial celebrations:

Battle of Clontarf

Battle of Clontarf

Battle of Clontarf

Battle of Clontarf

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Notes:

Boru is an Anglicised form of Bóruma which might mean something like ‘taker of cattle-tribute’, a suitable epithet for a Dark Age king.

The information about Sigurd of Orkney and Domnall of Mar comes from the Annals of Ulster.

Much of the mythologising which turned Clontarf into a contest between the native Irish and the Vikings is due to the twelfth-century text Cogadh Gaedhil re Gallaibh (‘The War of the Irish with the Foreigners’), written as propaganda for Brian’s descendants. In its account of the battle of Clontarf it tells of a fight between the Scottish nobleman Domnall of Mar and a Viking called Plait who may have come from Normandy.

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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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Govan hogbacks redisplayed

Govan hogback stone

‘Viking’ hogback gravestone at Govan Old Parish Church (from Sir John Stirling-Maxwell’s Sculptured Stones in the Kirkyard of Govan, 1899).


Last week at my other blog Heart Of The Kingdom I mentioned that the hogbacks have recently been moved to their new positions in Govan Old Parish Church. I also posted a link to a nice gallery of photographs from the Facebook page of the Weaving Truth With Trust project. These images are well worth seeing, so I’m re-posting the gallery link below.

The Govan hogbacks redisplayed

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More Brunanburh links

Athelstan

King Athelstan depicted on a Victorian cigarette card.


The Battle of Brunanburh was a great victory for the English king Athelstan over an alliance of Vikings, Scots and Strathclyde Britons. It took place in 937 but its location has long been a mystery.

This blogpost adds four more links to the two I noted in an earlier post relating to the battle.

In a new paper uploaded to his webspace at Academia, Mick Deakin examines the case for locating the battle near Kirkburn in Yorkshire. Using old chronicles alongside place-name data, Mick reminds us that we should not be too quick to place the battlefield west of the Pennines (as many of us do – including myself). Several pieces of information in this paper were completely new to me, and it has certainly got me thinking about my own westward-leaning view of the campaign.

Those of you who follow the comment thread below my previous ‘Brunanburh links’ blogpost will have seen Damian Bullen’s recent comments supporting the case for Burnley. Damian sets this out in more detail at his blog where, among other things, he looks at possible clues offered by local place-names. Lancashire antiquarians of the 18th and 19th centuries were happy to believe that Athelstan’s great victory was indeed won on the moors above Burnley, just as their Yorkshire counterparts thought that its true location lay in the White Rose county. Whatever our own individual views on the location of Brunanburh, the important point is that neither Burnley nor Kirkburn can be ruled out as long as the site of the battle remains a mystery.

It’s good to see these and other theories being brought into the limelight, not least to keep the debate alive, and to remind everyone that the mystery still persists. At the moment, there’s a real risk of the debate being pushed aside by a growing academic consensus that the battle took place at Bromborough on the Wirral. In the paper cited above, Mick Deakin quotes from the recently published Brunanburh Casebook, a collection of articles dealing with various aspects of the topic. The book’s editor Michael Livingston writes: ‘…put simply, the case for Bromborough is currently so firm that many scholars are engaged not with the question of whether Brunanburh occurred on the Wirral, but where on the peninsula it took place…’. While it is true that Bromborough has a strong case on place-name grounds, its identification as the battlefield of 937 remains unproven, and this uncertainty needs to be acknowledged. Alternative theories should therefore be kept in the foreground, to be studied alongside Bromborough, and with equal scholarly vigour.

My third link is to an item by Kevin Halloran, an expert on 10th-century history and the author of two fascinating studies of the Brunanburh campaign (both published in Scottish Historical Review). In a paper recently uploaded at his Academia webspace, Kevin looks in detail at Athelstan’s invasion of Scotland in 934, a military venture that turned out to be a prelude to Brunanburh. Much of the background to the latter campaign was put in place three years earlier, so Kevin’s paper will be useful to anyone with an interest in the wider political context. Some of you will already be aware that Kevin has made a strong case for identifying Burnswark, a prominent hill in southwest Scotland, as the location of Brunanburh.

Finally, a valuable resource is Jon Ingledew’s Battle of Brunanburh website which summarises the respective arguments for Burnley, Bromborough and Broomridge (in Northumberland). Jon has also gathered the various chronicle references, which makes it easier to see the different names given to the battle by medieval writers.

And so the debate continues……

N.B. You’ll need to be signed up to Academia to download the papers by Kevin and Mick.

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Vikings and other things

Dingwall, Easter Ross

A view of Dingwall by I. Clark (1824).


Interesting news from Dingwall in Easter Ross which is soon to get a new visitor centre celebrating its rich Viking heritage. The town is located at the mouth of the River Peffery, hence its Gaelic name Inbhir Pheofaran, and was once a thriving port giving access to the Cromarty Firth. Dingwall is a name of Norse origin meaning ‘field of the thing’ (thing = ‘assembly’) and indicates a public meeting-place where disputes were settled and judgments pronounced. The venue was most likely a substantial artificial mound in the vicinity of the old parish church of St Clement’s. No trace of the mound survives today but archaeologists believe that the site is now occupied by the Cromartie Memorial Car Park.

The recent archaeological survey and the new heritage centre are linked to a wider initiative called the THING Project (the acronym means ‘Thing Sites International Networking Group’). This involves agencies and experts from Scottish regions such as Orkney and Shetland which were intensively settled by Vikings, together with partners from Iceland, the Faroe Islands, the Isle of Man and Norway itself. Among the project’s long-term aims is a nomination for the thing sites as a group entry on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites.

More information on these interesting developments can be found via these links:

Heritage hub for Dingwall (Highland Council/Dingwall History Society)

Norse heritage and thing site (Dingwall Business Association)

THING Project

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