Queen Tomnat

Dunollie Castle

Dunollie Castle, site of the Cenél Loairn stronghold Dun Ollaigh (a Victorian illustration from the book Souvenir of Scotland: its cities, lakes and mountains, published by T. Nelson in 1889)

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.

Dal Riata

This map shows five of the principal cenéla or elite kindreds of Dál Riata.

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.

* * * * *


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.

* * * * * * *

[edited on 5 November 2019]

8 comments on “Queen Tomnat

  1. I’m not quite happy about the identification, though I agree that given the state of knowledge, it’s this or there isn’t one. However, unless the Annals were written piecemeal with backfilling, it seems odd to me that Ferchar is specified as Fota at his death but beforehand there was no need felt to identify him. Again, I wonder how many texts of the Annals these entries are in; do we have to account for Ulster’s peculiar abbreviation or is it in enough to consider it genuine Iona data? Either way, the different standards of reference suggest to me two scribes, at the very least, which in turn very much weakens the chance of them being part of the same ‘project’ in the Annals.

    Even if she be Ferchar’s wife, however, the mystery is less in her identity than in that she’s mentioned at all. What do you think she did, to get mentioned when so few others did? Another Iona donor? or some less tangible connection? There’s no way to say, I know…

  2. Tim says:

    Here is my response to Jonathan’s comment. In pursuing his line of thought I found myself musing on the numerous problems presented by old chronicles and other controversial sources. I began to wonder if a new post dealing with the Irish annals might be a better way of responding to the issues he raised. In the end I decided to reply in the usual way, by staying ‘on topic’ and adding a comment of my own – which has turned out to be a far more lengthy exercise than I had originally intended.

    I’ve addressed Jonathan’s main points individually.­

    ­1. Jonathan wrote: ‘it seems odd to me that Ferchar is specified as Fota at his death but beforehand there was no need felt to identify him’

    Leaving the reference to Tomnat aside these are the annal entries for Ferchar Fota. AU is an abbreviation for the Annals of Ulster, AT is the Annals of Tigernach.

    678­ A slaughter of the tribe of Lorn in Tirinn, between Ferchar Fota and the Britons, who were the conquerors (AT) [AU also mentions the battle but omits Ferchar]

    ­697 Ferchar Fota died (AU & AT)

    ­698 The expulsion of Ainfcellach, Ferchar’s son, from the kingship and he was taken, bound, to Ireland (AU only)

    ­719 The battle of Finglend between two sons of Ferchar Fota; and there Ainfcellach was slaughtered on the fifth day of the week, the Ides of September (AU & AT) [The other brother in this battle was Selbach]

    ­730 Selbach, Ferchar’s son, died (AU only)

    ­Of these four entries, the two exclusive to AU omit the nickname Fota while the two common to AU and AT include it. This could mean that AU’s original source saw no need to distinguish Ferchar of Lorn from other bearers of the name. Perhaps the two AU entries containing Fota came from a different source which was used also by the compilers of AT?

    ­Tomnat’s obit in 695 appears in AU but not in AT. Her description as the wife of Ferchar, rather than the wife of Ferchar Fota, is consistent with what we should expect from AU in its unique entries about Ferchar of Lorn.

    2. Jonathan wrote: ‘I’m not quite happy about the identification, though I agree that given the state of knowledge, it’s this or there isn’t one’

    ­Jonathan’s justifiable doubts prompted me to look again at an alternative identification for Tomnat. In 1922 the Scottish historian Alan Orr Anderson highlighted a number of misplaced entries in the Irish annals which erroneously noted the deaths of two Dal Riadan kings, and a battle involving one of them, more than forty years too late. The misplacements are:

    ­678 A battle in Calathros, and in it Donald Brecc was conquered (AU & AT) [This battle actually occurred in 635)

    ­686 Donald Brecc, son of Eochaid Buide, fell by Owein, king of the Britons, in the battle of Strathcarron (AU & AT, both repeating similar information entered at 642 which is the correct date of the battle)

    ­694 The death of Ferchar, son of Connad Cerr (AU only) [Both Connad and his son belong to the first half of the seventh century]

    ­Anderson shifted the death of Ferchar, Connad’s son, to the more correct date of ‘circa 651’ by subtracting 43 years. He then applied a similar correction to another entry which he also believed was misplaced:

    ­695 Tomnat, Ferchar’s wife, died (AU only)

    ­By subtracting 43 years Anderson moved Tomnat’s obit to 652 and suggested that she was the widow of the earlier Ferchar, Connad’s son. This would make her a queen of Cenel Comgaill (the ruling kindred of Cowal and Bute) rather than of Cenel Loairn. There is nothing implausible about Anderson’s suggestion but I still prefer to identify Tomnat as the wife of Ferchar Fota, simply because he was more of a ‘celebrity’ in the annals whereas his earlier namesake got mentioned only once. Or, putting it into modern parlance, why would the annalists mention the wife of a B-list celeb like Connad’s son?

    It’s all hypothesis and counter-hypothesis, of course. The Irish annals are not sufficiently well-understood to allow much speculation about obscure figures such as Queen Tomnat (who is mentioned nowhere else). For me, the most interesting thing about her is that she is one of the few women who got noticed by the annalists, which brings us to the questions raised by Jonathan at the end of his comment.

    3. Jonathan wrote: ‘Even if she be Ferchar’s wife, however, the mystery is less in her identity than in that she’s mentioned at all. What do you think she did, to get mentioned when so few others did? Another Iona donor? or some less tangible connection?’

    ­I certainly agree that she must have done something to please the Church but the beneficiary might not have been Iona. Many years ago Isabel Henderson suggested that the unique Scottish and Pictish entries in the Annals of Ulster may have originated in a chronicle compiled at Applecross, a monastery founded independently of Iona by the Irish monk Maelrubai in 673. Applecross lay on the mainland opposite Skye in territory that was probably still partly Pictish in the late seventh century. Its nearest Dalriadan neighbours were in Lorn, the homeland of Ferchar Fota and his kin. Henderson wondered if the unique AU entries relating to Cenel Loairn came originally from a lost chronicle written by Applecross monks whose geographical location may have given their monastery a special interest in Lorn, Skye and other regions on the northern fringe of Argyll. Having looked again at Henderson’s article I would tentatively add Tomnat’s obit to these entries. Speculating even further I wonder if the monastery at Applecross benefited from Tomnat’s patronage, perhaps via gifts of Cenel Loairn land or by endowments of cash from Ferchar Fota’s royal treasury. If Applecross seems a little too far from the Lorn heartlands near modern Oban an alternative scriptorium for the annal entries (and therefore an alternative beneficiary of Tomnat’s patronage) is the monastery at Lismore which lay only a short boat-voyage from the Cenel Loairn stronghold of Dunollie.

    ­Hopefully this addresses some of the points raised by Jonathan. The Irish annals do tend to produce twice as many questions as solutions but this is maybe why they are so fascinating (or frustrating!).

    Isabel Henderson, Applecross and the Pictish and Dalriadic entries unique to the Annals of Ulster, c.675-c.730 AD. Appendix A to her paper ‘North Pictland’, pp.37-52 in E. Meldrum (ed.) The Dark Ages in the Highlands (Inverness, 1971)
    ­Alan Orr Anderson (ed.) Early sources of Scottish history. Volume 1 (Edinburgh, 1922)

  3. Thankyou, Tim, for going to such lengths to make this all clearer. Understanding the annals as a group is work no one person can hope to manage, I fear, but with individual entries like this the kind of context you’ve exactly provided is really helpful. I would now withdraw that quibble about the style Ferchar is given.

    I’d forgotten (or never knew) Henderson’s Applecross theory. Lismore almost seems more comfortable, but only because there’s (I think?) historical writing there later too, which obviously isn’t a very logical argument. On the other hand, AU’s been through so many mangles, and Iona clearly had interests in Skye and that area as the Vita Columbae tells us; there’s this uncomfortable possibility that the unique stuff in AU is only there because some editor higher up the chain thought he would keep this stuff that the other few cut, and really it was all in the source text. How does Chronicum Scotorum fit into this tangle, I wonder? I’m sorry, I’ve asked you enough…

  4. Tim says:

    You’re right about all this being a tangle, Jonathan. Making sense of these sources is like trying to assemble a jigsaw picture from a dozen separate sets, each showing a slightly different view of the image and all with pieces missing. Chronicon Scotorum is a case in point: a fairly informative collection of annals belonging to the Clonmacnoise group (which includes Tigernach) but also a text with “credibility issues”. Its manuscript, for instance, is mid-17th century and has a big gap of missing entries between 723 and 807. After reading your comment I went back to CS for another look at its entries for the late 7th century but my search drew a blank. Like the Annals of Tigernach, CS omits any mention of Tomnat.

    Your point about Iona being interested in Skye and other parts of northern Argyll is a useful reminder that Applecross had no monopoly over those areas. I must confess minimal knowledge about Lismore and its scriptorium. The monks there were independent of Iona and would have written their own chronicles or annals(i.e. notes added to Easter tables) but so far I have not seen any reference to surviving texts.

  5. Lismore’s writing is much much later, as in fifteenth-century; I think I only know about it because the Book of Lismore contains texts of some important saints’ lives. Whether that counts as history or not, well…

  6. Tim says:

    I think the Book of Lismore is the one from Lismore in Ireland. There is also a Scottish “Book of the Dean of Lismore” which is a collection of poems from the 16th century or thereabouts. I don’t know much about either of these texts. My guess would be that the monastery at Lismore in Argyll has not left any trace of its literary output. Perhaps the Vikings burned the monastic library and all of its contents?

  7. I hadn’t realised there were two! Gosh darn you Gaels, think of some new names! How many `dark mountains’ can any one people name? etc.

    Er, yes, sorry, my mistake there.

  8. Tim says:

    The duplication of place-names does rather complicate things. Plenty of instances from the Celtic regions and a few from England as well, e.g. the two Hatfields (Bede), all of which just give us more puzzles to deal with – as if we didn’t have enough already 🙂

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