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 or 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, Ferchar’s wife, died.
This is the only mention of Tomnat so she is usually 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. Ferchar 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 Cenel Loairn, one of the great royal kindreds of Argyll, whose heartland lay around the modern town of Oban. His ambitions led him to challenge Cenel nGabrain, the most powerful kindred, for paramount kingship over the whole of Dál Riata. A series of fierce battles was fought until, in 696, Ferchar defeated his rivals to attain overall sovereignty. His reign as over-king of the Scots was brief and within less than 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 who died in 651, requires that her death-notice in the annals is a misplaced entry that belongs in the middle of the century. There seems no justification in relocating her to this earlier generation. Identifying her husband as the great warlord of Cenel Loairn seems more logical, especially as Ferchar Fota’s importance in Dál Riatan politics may have attracted the annalists’ attention to other aspects of his life. His marriage may thus have been worthy of note and, when his wife died, news of her death would have reached the monastery on Iona where the annals were being compiled.
Sadly, Tomnat passed away a short time before her husband gained the over-kingship of Dál Riata so she missed her chance to be an early ‘Queen of Scots’. Nevertheless, she left a significant legacy to her people by bearing two mighty sons who grew up to be great war-leaders of Cenel Loairn in the early years of the 8th century. These men were Selbach and Ainfcellach, both of whom would eventually continue their father’s struggle against his Cenel nGabrain rivals. Their own sons, the grandchildren of Ferchar and Tomnat, carried the fight into the following generation before being finally overwhelmed in a disastrous conflict with the Picts.