In 603 the English king Aethelfrith of Bernicia defeated Aedan mac Gabrain and the Scots of Dál Riata in a great battle. Bede names the site of Aethelfrith’s victory as Degsastan (the Stone of Degsa) and calls it a “very famous place”.
Can Degsastan be pinpointed on a modern map? Some historians believe that the answer to this question should be Yes. They suggest that the battle took place at Dawston in Liddesdale near the present Anglo-Scottish border, thirty miles north of Carlisle. This is not a new theory: it made its first published appearance in 1692. Since then it has been cited so frequently that its origin as an unproven hypothesis seems to be forgotten in some quarters and it has consequently acquired the status of a factoid, a fact-shaped object.
What, then, are the merits of the Degsastan=Dawston theory? Is it based on geographical hints in Bede’s account of the battle? Does it derive from cryptic clues in obscure Scottish chronicles? The answer to these questions is a resounding No. Dawston was suggested as the battle-site for no other reason than that its name begins with ‘D’, ends with ‘n’ and has ‘st’ in the middle. This is the sum total of supporting evidence for the identification. The name does not derive from Degsastan which, in its modern form, would today be something like Daystone. Not a very convincing argument for the Dawston theory, you might think, but its flimsy foundations have not halted its unstoppable march into the pages of many an undergraduate text. Look in the index at the back of any book on early Scottish or Northumbrian history and you may see Dawston lurking there, either on its own or – more worryingly – in authoritative parentheses attached to the Bedan place-name, e.g. ‘Degsastan (Dawston)’.
The name Degsastan or Stone of Degsa was presumably borne by a prominent monolith in the early medieval landscape. The name Dawston, on the other hand, is borne by an insignificant stream – the Dawston Burn – which runs for a short distance beside a small patch of barren moorland called Dawston Rigg. Both stream and moor are situated in a bleak and very remote location among the hills at the head of Liddesdale (the valley of the River Liddel). Not the easiest place to get to, even by car, and not the kind of spot where one might expect a major battle to be fought.
Rival theories are few and not very convincing, being based on various experiments with modern place-names using sounds like etymology. Dawston still runs far ahead of these rival sites because it is the only one with an enticing sequence of consonants (d-st-n) in its name. I don’t have any useful alternatives to pitch against Dawston but I do like to keep two thoughts in mind whenever this issue comes up:
1. The Degsastan=Dawston theory is a red herring and should be buried, preferably somewhere deep where it can be safely forgotten.
2. The battle of 603 was probably fought near a standing-stone or prominent (sacred?) glacial boulder in a location easily accessible to both armies.
In the final analysis the only theories about Degsastan that carry any real weight for me are those which identify the site of Aethelfrith’s great victory as one of the lost battlefields of Britain.