The documentary sources for early medieval Scotland represent the historical record of a patriarchal society and therefore mention few women. The small number of females whose existence was acknowledged by the annalists and chroniclers were usually of high status, like the kings and clerics with whom they were associated as wives, mothers and sisters. In a previous post (‘Two Pictish Princesses’) I turned the spotlight on an obscure royal lady called Eithne whose father ruled the Picts in the late 8th century. Here I draw attention to another woman of royal status, this time of Scottish rather than of Pictish origin.
My starting-point, as with Princess Eithne, is an entry in the Irish annals:
695 Tomnat uxor Ferchair moritur (‘Tomnat, Ferchar’s wife, died’)
This is the only mention of Tomnat so she is often overlooked by historians and omitted from modern studies of the period. A clue to her identity, however, is provided by a later entry:
697 Ferchar Fota died.
The proximity of these two entries suggests that the Ferchar mentioned in each is the same man: Ferchar Fota (Ferchar the Tall), a powerful king and warlord of Dál Riata. He is an interesting figure because his career was played out against a backdrop of dynastic upheaval among the Scots. He rose to power as king of Cenél Loairn, one of the great royal kindreds of Argyll, whose heartland lay around the modern town of Oban. His ambitions led him to challenge Cenél nGabraín of Kintyre, another powerful kindred, for paramount kingship over the whole of Dál Riata. A series of fierce battles was fought until, in 695, Ferchar defeated his rivals to attain overall sovereignty. But his reign as over-king of the Scots was brief and within two years he was dead.
We should probably regard Tomnat as Ferchar Fota’s queen. An alternative view, namely that she was the wife of an earlier Ferchar – a king of Cenél Comgaill (rulers of Cowal) who died c.651 – requires that her death-notice in the annals is a misplaced entry that belongs four decades earlier. I see no compelling reason to relocate her death to the middle of the century. Identifying her husband as the great warlord Ferchar Fota of Cenél Loairn seems more logical, especially as he was such a significant figure in Dál Riatan politics. His importance may have meant that events concerning his wife (or wives) were likewise deemed worthy of note by the annalists.
Sadly, Tomnat passed away around the time her husband gained the over-kingship of Dál Riata, hence she was only briefly an early ‘Queen of Scots’. Nevertheless, it is likely that she was the mother of two princes – Selbach and Ainfcellach – both of whom grew up to be famous war-leaders of Cenél Loairn in the first quarter of the 8th century. These mighty sons of Ferchar Fota continued their father’s struggle against his Cenél nGabraín rivals. Their own sons carried the fight into the next generation before being finally overwhelmed in a disastrous conflict with the Picts.
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Although Tomnat is a fairly obscure figure in Scottish history, it’s good to see that she has an entry in the Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women published by Edinburgh University Press in 2006. The entry was written by renowned historian James Fraser whose work on early medieval Scotland will be familiar to many readers of this blogpost.
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[edited on 5 November 2019]