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).

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4 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.:-)

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