The Siege of Edinburgh?

A well-known entry in the Irish Annals gives the following information for AD 638: obsesio etin. This means “the siege of Etin” and is usually seen as a reference to an otherwise undocumented attack on Edinburgh. In the early medieval period Edinburgh was the chief citadel of the Britons of Gododdin who called it Din Eidin. In Irish this name would normally appear as Eitin which corresponds closely to the annalists’ Etin. The timescale seems to fit with our knowledge of what was happening in southern Scotland at that time: the English of Northumbria, led by King Oswald, were steadily encroaching on British territory. A Northumbrian siege of Edinburgh would therefore seem consistent with a major inroad by Oswald’s army into the heartland of Gododdin. In 1959 Kenneth Jackson took this idea further by suggesting that the annal for 638 represents not only an English siege of Din Eidin but also the final phase in the conquest of Gododdin. Many writers have followed this line of thought in subsequent studies of seventh century history.

Like other isolated snippets of data relating to this period the “siege of Edinburgh in 638” has evolved from a plausible explanation of an obscure annal into a rather large factoid (i.e. a fact-shaped object). This is why so many books and articles dealing with Oswald or Gododdin say that the kingdom fell under English control in 638 without warning the reader that this “fact” is no more than a guess. In a paper of 1989 David Dumville drew attention to what he called the “enthusiasm and historical mileage” generated by this annal but he is one of the few writers to counsel a cautious approach to its testimony. He was right to do so. The words obsesio etin may indeed preserve a genuine record of the collapse of Gododdin but equally they might refer to a wholly unrelated event at a place called Etin somewhere else in the British Isles. Writers of Scottish or Northumbrian history books should therefore sound a note of caution when their narrative reaches the late 630s, if only to remind their readers that the picture is not as clear-cut as we might wish it to be.

Kenneth Jackson, ‘Edinburgh and the Anglian occupation of Lothian’, pp.35-42 in Peter Clemoes (ed.) The Anglo-Saxons: some aspects of their history and culture presented to Bruce Dickins (London: 1959).

David Dumville, ‘The origins of Northumbria: some aspects of the British background’, pp.213-22 in Steven Bassett (ed.) The origins of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (Leicester: 1989).

9 comments on “The Siege of Edinburgh?

  1. nicola says:

    On a possibly more whimsical note, and at the risk of indulging in sounds-like etymology, is it possible etin is related to eotan/etan, meaning giant, monster, and/or enemy?

  2. Tim says:

    Nicola’s question prompted me to look up the derivation of Etin/Eiddin in Watson’s Celtic Place-names of Scotland (1926). Watson suggests Old Irish etan (Modern Irish eadann), meaning “face”, as a possibility but adds that the place-name “is quite obscure”. George Mackay’s handy little book Scottish place names (2002) takes Watson’s idea further by calling Edinburgh “Fort of the Rock Face”.

    The jury seems to be out on this one, Nicola, so your suggestion might not be so whimsical after all.

  3. nicola says:

    Interesting. Thanks for that–and for this blog.

  4. Michelle says:

    Remember that Edinburgh features in a lot of early Celtic and Arthurian myths and its name may reflect a legend about it. For example, how far is Arthur’s Seat from Edinburgh? I believe its a mountain that overlooks Edinburgh. If the mountain is Arthur’s Seat, then Arthur is a mythical giant. I also seem to recall an Arthurian poem that makes Edinburgh the home of dog-headed men.:-)

  5. Calum says:

    I am excited to find this blog and your books, Tim. I am very sceptical of this siege of 638 referring to any final phase of Northumbrian advance and conquest of Lothian. Even if it refers to Edinburgh, which is not certain as you say, I don’t see why it could not be another assailant, rather than the Northumbrians. I think the Northumbrian influence (anglicization) and control of Lothian has been vastly overstated (because it lays the groundwork for later claims to the English right to rule Scotland). Weren’t the Northumbrians driven from Bamburgh and besieged on Lindisfarne only a few decades earlier by a British coalition? That doesn’t sound much like the Anglian powerhouse they are portrayed as. I also suspect that their influence over Lothian may have been pretty much broken after Nechtansmere. I’ve just bought your book ‘The Men of The North’ and will be interested to see what your take on these things is, but so far it looks like you do subscribe to Jackson’s ‘guess’ and to the idea of an ‘Anglian Lothian’ subject to 300 years of Northumbrian rule and settlement?

    • Tim says:

      Thank you Calum for buying my book and for commenting here at Senchus. On pages 126-8 of The Men of the North under the sub-heading “The Fall of Gododdin” you will see that I broadly accepted Jackson’s interpretation. While also acknowledging that this might not be correct, I suggested that the English takeover of Gododdin should probably be assigned to Oswald’s reign anyway. My opinion didn’t shift much in my subsequent books, being repeated most recently in 2014 (in Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age). But I think I might adopt a more cautious stance in future publications (including the second edition of The Men of the North), partly because I feel this would be more consistent with my deep scepticism about other “factoids” such as Catraeth=Catterick and the conventional geography of Rheged. On the Anglicisation of Lothian I will however be sticking with the traditional view which sees the Northumbrian takeover as thorough and long-lasting. For me, the archaeological evidence from places such as Abercorn and Aberlady makes it hard to accept an alternative. I don’t see any real lessening of English power and influence in this area until the tenth and eleventh centuries. The defeat at Nechtanesmere in 685 was certainly a massive setback to Northumbrian ambitions on the opposite side of the Firth of Forth but the Anglicisation of Lothian seems to have continued into the eighth century and beyond. In the Strathclyde book I’ve written at some length about the eventual decline of English power north of the Tweed, highlighting the possible significance of the battle of Carham in 1018.

      • Calum Hunter says:

        Thanks for your response Tim. Very interesting.i hope you don’t mind me discussing these things further. I’m researching the finds at Abercorn and Aberlady (Both Celtic names, if I’m not mistaken) at the moment. I suppose I’m not that persuaded by archaeology which has or can have an ecclesiastical interpretation. Given that the Northumbrians and the Celts were both Christian and the Northumbrian Church was Celtic and full of Irish monks, then I don’t see the Northumbrians ability to create a few ecclesiastical sites in Lothian as that significant when it comes to assessing occupation and certainly not when it comes to settlement. I see it as a status thing, a sign of regional prominance but of the most benign kind unlikely to irk the natives of Lothian, who were already Christian and for whom Lindisfarne must have been a respected holy site. But I’m certainly open to being shown otherwise. Even the odd Anglian military outpost doesnt persuade me much – the Romans had them everywhere but ultimately, so what? It didn’t really chang the Votadini/Gododdin way of life.

        • Tim says:

          I’m happy to discuss this topic, Callum. Relations between the Northern Britons and their neighbours lie at the heart of much of my own research. On the archaeological front, the finds unearthed by the Aberlady Angles Project suggest that there was more than an ecclesiastical foothold for the English in Lothian by c. 700. I envisage a secular elite of Northumbrians displacing native Britons as landowners in the wake of Gododdin’s collapse sometime around the middle of the 7th century. The initial numbers of incomers need not have been large but their control of resources and economic networks may have given sufficient incentive for local Britons to learn the language of the new masters and, eventually, to embrace a Northumbrian culture and identity. I think this scenario provides one possible model for the apparent ‘Englishness’ of Lothian in the pre-Viking period. It could also explain why even a faint memory of the old kingdom of Gododdin failed to survive into the post-Northumbrian era of the 11th and 12th centuries. The Britishness (and Celticness) of Lothian’s post-700 population might not have been totally lost but I don’t see any hint that it remained culturally significant, or that its preservation was seen as important.

          • Calum Hunter says:

            Hi Tim, thanks for getting back to me and being willing to discuss. I agree, there was likely more that an ecclesiastical foothold. But not much. The ‘foothold’ we have hard evidence for which is what I’m interested in – was overwhelmingly ecclesiastic. Yes, I’m sure the priests had some Northumbrian ‘bodyguards’ watching over their churches and as I said there may even have been a few military outposts (but, if memory serves these were generally on the coast, ready for a quick get away) and were the only palisaded Anglo-Saxon buildings of their type in the country, which speaks of Anglo-Saxon insecurity in Lothian – which could at any moment become a killing floor for foreign settlers given the powerful Celtic kingdoms to the North, North West and West. Considering too that this presence was coming from Bernicia or North Northumbria, which had the most minimal, minority Anglian presence of any English Kingdom, then for Lothian we must be talking about an even more minimal presence, even if they did feel secure enough to settle. In fact, you seen to be according Lothian more Anglian presence then historians are generally willing to allow even for Bernicia in England, which is something I often see. But I am aware of no hard evidence of Anglian settlement in Lothian, and a small amount of evidence of a tenuous military presence, which is a very different thing, as the previous Roman presence in the region showed.The about of archaeology for the Anglo-Saxons is absolutely pitiful – as it is even in Bernicia where historians have been forced to conclude that North Northumbria (in England) remained overwhelmingly Celtic. I am very interested in your comments about the the apparent “Englishness of Lothian in the pre-viking period” and would like to know what the evidence is for this? As for a remaining trace of a memory of Gododdin. Can you explain why south east Scotland emerges during and after the period of Northumbrian ascendancy with the name Lothian? I see a Gododdin connection there, and certainly a British Celtic one don’t you? It’s not a preserved Celtic name in the same way as ‘Bernicia’, because, as far as I can tell, the whole region wasn’t called Lothian before the Bernicians carried out their ‘occupation’ (by priests). Couldn’t this be the Celts of Gododdin asserting their identity and presence with a new name? Thanks again for being willing to talk.

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