Catraeth and Gwen Ystrat

Edinburgh Castle, site of the Gododdin stronghold Din Eidyn.

Edinburgh Castle, site of the Gododdin stronghold Din Eidyn.

In the introductory chapters to his radical reconstruction of the Old Welsh poem Y Gododdin John T. Koch suggested that the sixth-century battle of Catraeth, described in the poem as a defeat for the warriors of Gododdin (Lothian), was a victory for their fellow-Britons of Rheged. Koch believed that a poem known as Gweith Gwen Ystrat (The Battle of Gwen Valley) attributed to Rheged’s court-bard Taliesin was composed to celebrate the event from the victors’ perspective. He suggested that Catraeth and Gwen Ystrat were different names for the same place. In adopting this radical stance he challenged the conventional view of the Gododdin defeat which has long seen it as a triumph by the English kingdom of Bernicia over one of her British neighbours.

I was sceptical about Koch’s theory as soon as I saw it, not least because I don’t see any need to conflate the two battles. In Y Gododdin, Catraeth is clearly stated to be the location of the Gododdin defeat: there is no mention of the Gwen Valley. In Taliesin’s poem, Catraeth is mentioned as a territory associated with Rheged but is not described as the site of a battle. My unease about these and other aspects of Koch’s vision (or revision) of sixth-century history prompted me to discuss his book in the first issue of The Heroic Age back in 1999.

Recently, I looked again at a 1998 paper by Graham Isaac in which the Catraeth-Gwen Ystrat conflation was subjected to detailed linguistic scrutiny. When I first read Isaac’s analysis some years ago I welcomed his rejection of Koch’s theory – having no expertise myself in the complex field of Old Welsh literature I was glad to see a scholar from this area putting the theory under the microscope. Since returning to this topic in the past few weeks I was reminded of something I had forgotten, something quite significant for anyone with an interest in Rheged, namely Isaac’s belief that Gweith Gwen Ystrat should not be regarded as a poem composed in sixth-century North Britain.

In his paper Isaac questions the long-held view that the poem contains archaic linguistic features indicative of an early date of composition. Instead, he proposes that it was composed not by the northern bard Taliesin but by a Welshman of the period 1050 to 1150. If Isaac is right, the implications could be very severe, not just for Koch’s conflation of the two battles but also for conventional perceptions about other poems attributed to Taliesin. As Isaac observes near the end of his analysis: “It may be regarded as regrettable in some quarters that Gweith Gwen Ystrat in particular probably tells us nothing about sixth-century North British history” (p.69). If the poem is a product of eleventh- or twelfth-century Wales, then how confident can we be that any of Taliesin’s poetry about Rheged was composed in the sixth-century North? If one or more of these poems were composed centuries later by a Welsh “antiquarian” poet, how much of their political and geographical information about sixth-century Rheged can be trusted?


 John T. Koch, The Gododdin of Aneirin: text and context in Dark Age North Britain (Cardiff, 1997)

G.R. Isaac, “Gweith Gwen Ystrat and the northern heroic age of the sixth century” Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 36 (1998), 61-70

 My review of Koch’s book for the online journal The Heroic Age can be found here.

Additional note: The place Gwen Ystrat has never been satisfactorily located, nor (in my opinion) has Catraeth. I am unconvinced by the conventional identification of Catraeth as Catterick in Yorkshire, which I believe is too far south to be considered part of the Gododdin borderlands. Similar techniques of “sounds like” etymology have been employed to identify Gwen Ystrat with places in northern England such as Wensleydale, Winster, etc, but these are nothing more than wild shots in the dark.

Some of my early doubts about the Catterick hypothesis can be found in an article published sixteen years ago:
Tim Clarkson, “Richmond and Catraeth” Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 26 (1993), 15-20

65 comments on “Catraeth and Gwen Ystrat

  1. Michelle says:

    Nice picture of Edinburgh!

    I’ve always been skeptical about the title Lord of Catraeth because the battle took on such mythic proportions. I do like Fraser’s hypothesis that its a fusion Scots-British word of a type that is found elsewhere in Scotland. That could mean that the cad-rath (Battle-fort) is quite close to Din Eidyn. On the other hand with a name like ‘battle fort’ is would be easy to turn into myth, the place where every great hero fights a battle.

  2. Tim says:

    Translating Catraeth as “Battle-fort” seems to fit with the context of Y Gododdin, i.e. a specific site where one or more battles occurred, but to me it fits less well with Taliesin’s image of Catraeth as a district or domain of sufficient size to sustain the “men of Catraeth” who acknowledged Urien as lord.

  3. Mike says:

    Catraeth- I read that it might mean waterfall/cataract. Might it be the region containing the Grey Mares Tail and several other smaller cataracts which pour off the hills, over which the Gododdin must have ridden (Down modern A72), passing the source of the Clyde (Pen Clwyd)? Seems like a more realistic route and battle site.

  4. Tim says:

    If we take Catraeth to mean cataract (as opposed to battle-fort or whatever) then I guess we would need to look for some distinctive waterfalls to explain the name. The Grey Mare’s Tail is certainly a distinctive landmark, despite being in a fairly remote location off the Moffat-Selkirk road.

  5. How mnay places in southern Scotland have Latin derived names? I can’t think of any….

  6. Tim says:

    I suppose the only circumstance in which a Scottish place name could derive from Latin cataracta would be if a name coined by Roman soldiers passed into local (Brittonic) use. An unlikely occurrence, admittedly. My instincts point me instead to Catraeth deriving from cat/cad + traeth as the name of some place on the southern fringe of Lothian.

  7. Phil says:

    What are your thoughts on the battle having been fought at Raith in Fife ? There is a local tradition suggesting this.

  8. Tim says:

    Curiosity led me to look up the Raith tradition. It has an entry on Wikipedia (Battle of Raith) and seems to derive from local folklore or antiquarian theories about Aedan mac Gabrain. Hard to see any real connection with Catraeth or the Gododdin poem but I suppose there may be some residual folk-memory of an ancient battle in the area.

  9. Mak says:

    I wonder if Catraeth was on the Tweed, around Melros. To its west is a place called Caddonfoot. Cad (cat/cath)=battle+don=hill+foot=bottom of. It sits beneath Caddonlee and Caddon Shank.

    However, WILLIAM JOHN ROBERTSON in his ‘PLACE-NAMES OF SCOTLAND’ has this to say:

    CALLANDER (S. Perthsh. and Falkirk). The parishes of Falkirk, Polmont, and Muiravon were once called Calatria,in Ir. annals Calathros, and by Britons Catraeth or fort of Che (G. catliair Caith, c lost through aspiration). Calatria is commonly supposed = Callander ; but c. 1190

    There is one slight fly in the ointment with a northern placing of Catraeth (Katraeth) and that is Urien Rheged’s overlordship of it and the Battle of Gwen Ystrad (Gwen Valley), just putting aside Isaac’s theory for the moment. This battle is identified with Wensleydale, just south of Catterick, which makes sense if Catraeth is Catterick. However, it could simply be because of the supposed Catterick connection. If Catraeth is where Skene thought it to be, or on the River Tweed, for example, then a different location of Gwen Ysrad needs to be found. Winsterdale in Cumbria has been suggested, but this makes no strategic sense to me.

    This means trying to find a River White/Gwen/Wen/Finn somewhere near and, so far I haven’t been able to find any, unless Urien did travel all that way to Wensleydale or to the River Gwenfro near Wrexham, otherwise he’d have to go to the Isle of Sky to find a River Finn. There is another explanation: ‘Gwen’ is the name of the valley but, as mentioned in the poem, ‘Garanwynyon’ is the name of the rive (garan=heron+wyn=white+yon=?) which could, conceivably, be the River Carron (Scottish Gaelic: Abhainn Carrann) – near Falkirk… right on the border with the Gododdin.

  10. Tim says:

    I too think Tweeddale deserves consideration in any search for Catraeth and as a far more plausible candidate than Catterick. It’s interesting, Mak, that you mention Caddonfoot, this being a traditional muster-point for medieval Scottish armies assembling for raids on England.

    I can’t see how Robertson made a connection between Catraeth and Calatria. His Gaelic etymology for the former is obviously wrong and the equation of Calatria with Calathros has no basis, as Watson showed in Celtic Place-names of Scotland (p.105). In 736, according to the Irish annals, a battle between Scots and Picts was fought “in Calathros” near Loch Ederline in Argyll. Calathros and Calatria appear to be different places, one in the west the other in the east.

    Getting back to Gwen Ystrat, I like your idea about Garanwynyon possibly deriving from “heron”. I don’t speak Welsh so I don’t know if a meaning such as “River of White Herons” works philologically or not. But it seems a good name for a river, just as Linn Garan, “Pool of Herons”, is a far more evocative name than “Nechtanesmere” for the famous battle of 685.

    I agree with you about the River Winster making no sense at all as a location for Gwen Ystrat. It’s the kind of red herring that gets picked up and carried along until it finds its way into our history books as a serious theory.

  11. Mak says:

    There is also, as I have just discovered but I’m sure you know well, Cademuir hill fort:

    … on the other side of the Tweed, is a hill called Cademuir, anciently Cadhmore, signifying in Gaelic, “the great fight;” on the top of which are four British camps, one of them much stronger than the rest, surrounded with stone walls, without cement, in some places double, and where single, no less than five yards in thickness; without which, and out of the ruins of which, have been erected near 200 monumental stones, many of them still standing, and others fallen down, — indications that in very early times [..] a great battle had been fought on that hill, and that at the strong camp on the top of it, numbers that had been killed, and were buried.

    (From the Statistical Account of Scotland by Sir John Sinclair, 1791-99, volume 12.)

    I tried to find out more about Cademiur and whether or not there was any post-Roman occupation, but can’t find any. There’s a fleeting reference in
    ‘Aspects of Settlement and Territorial Arrangements in South-east Scotland’ (…/41_033_050.pdf ).

    If Caddon and its environs were Catraeth (including the Trimontium Tweed crossing?) there should be plenty of Early Medieval archaeology. Do you know of any?

    There is still the problem of the mention of a river called Aled in ‘Y Gododdin’.

    “Once more were seen on Aled’s banks war-horses with bloody harness.”

    (Joseph Clancy’s translation)

    I don’t know the ancient name for the Tweed and the only Aled is in North Wales.

    What we do know is it was at a ford (mentioned three times) and they had to charge a hill:

    “Early he rose, at dawning, for a spear-fight before the line.
    A breach, a blazing breakthrough, like a boar he charged the hill.”

    (Joseph Clancy’s translation)

    The ford could describe Catterick, but the hill?

    I came across this poem, which you probably know too:

    The king was comin’ through Caddon Ford,
    And full five thousand men was he ;
    They saw the derke foreste them before,
    They thought it awesome for to see.”

    (Tiu Outlaw Murray)

    Interestingly, local tradition has it that Arthur’s seventh battle of Coit Celidon took place here, although I’m not sure if this was just started by Skene?

    I’m sure you also know it’s also the region where Merddyn, fleeing from the field of battle at Arderydd (Arthuret) in 573, is suppose to have retired to and where his grave is supposedly found.

  12. Phil says:

    Hi Mak. I suspect translating Cademuir as ‘the Great Fight’ may be a false etymology. Gaelic is not thought to have been widely spoken (if at all) in the Peebles area. Indeed the local language in the early post-Roman period, supported by place-name evidence, seems to have been P-Celtic.

    I know Cademuir and the surrounding area pretty well (it’s a regular walk I do – only 30 mins from Edinburgh where I live) and my understanding is that the ‘200 monumental stones, many of them still standing, and others fallen down, — indications that in very early times [..] a great battle had been fought’ are in fact ‘chevaux de frise’ – stones placed in the ground in order to break up an attacking charge.

    The hills surrounding Peebles are full of ‘hill forts’ – if that is what they were – however little recorded archaeological work seems to have been done.

  13. Tim says:

    My thanks to Mak and Phil for their interesting and informative comments. I’ll pick up a couple of Mak’s points about the etymology of Caddon and Cademuir. For the benefit of anyone without easy access to a map these two places are situated in the valley of the River Tweed. Caddon is primarily the name of a tributary river, the Caddon Water, which joins the Tweed three miles west of Galashiels. Cademuir is an upland area two miles southwest of Peebles.

    I agree with Phil that the Old Statistical Account’s explanation of the name Cademuir as Gaelic “Great Fight” must be wrong: the suffix -muir is more likely to be Lowland Scots “moor”. Not sure about “Cade-“, which might indeed mean “battle” (in the language of local Britons) if it is not a topographical term coined by speakers of Scots and deriving ulimately from a northern English dialect word.

    The old poem about Caddon Ford was unknown to me and I am grateful to Mak for posting it here – the use of this place as a mustering site for Scottish warbands is a topic I’m particularly interested in at the moment. “Caddon” is a name which, according to Watson’s Celtic Place Names of Scotland of 1926, derives from early Brittonic catu (“battle”) through a later form corresponding to Welsh cad. Watson then suggested Catona, meaning “the warring one” (i.e. “the battler”), as an ancient name for the Caddon Water, in the sense of a fierce torrent. Interestingly – and especially in relation to Mak’s comments – the name Catraeth is also thought to derive from catu/cad prefixed to traeth, “shore”, to give the meaning “battle shore”.

    Watson noted the nearby place-name Dail Chosnaidh, a Gaelic name meaning “meadow of fighting”, which local tradition associated with a battle fought by Robert Bruce. “But,” Watson added, “the tradition may be much older than his time.”

    The River Aled mentioned in the Gododdin verses is, I suspect, the North Welsh river. It was probably slotted into the Gododdin after the verses arrived in Wales, by a Gwynedd bard who wanted to give his audience an item of local interest.

    Arthur’s battle of Coit Celidon (“Celidon Wood”) was, as Mak points out, traditionally associated with the area around the River Tweed. This was indeed where Myrddin (Merlin) sought refuge after the battle of Arderydd in 573. I think I’ll post something about Merlin’s Scottish connections fairly soon, maybe with a photo of the cave near Moffat where he allegedly lived as a hermit.

  14. Mak says:

    Thanks to both very the interesting information.

    Just a note on Coit Celidon. IF this battle did happen (with or without Arthur) I can hardly see how a forest in this region would be known as the Caledonian Forest at this time, as many translated as. Any Caledonian Forest would have to be north of the Antonine Wall, in the Caledonian’s region. It would be like calling of forest north of the Antonine ‘Brigantes Wood’.

    However, we may just be confused by the name, and it actually was the Celidon (celi=heaven or celli=grove+don=hillfort or don=the ancient British goddess) Wood (coit/modern Welsh coed). This could be anywhere!

  15. Phil says:

    Re the etymology of ‘Cademuir’, I agree with Tim that ‘muir’ will be from the lowland Scots for ‘moor’. Altho’ Cademuir is a hill of around 1200ft it is (very) steep only on the side facing south towards the Manor valley. The route to the summit forts from Peebles is a gradual incline (very moor-like). I believe Cademuir was, in the past, designated as common grazing land.

    As for the ‘cade’ part of the name I’m flummoxed. Best I can come up with is the Scots word ‘cadies’ meaning watchman or messenger. This could work as the hill is a great viewpoint – or perhaps a cadie watched over the livestock. But I’m just guessing….

    • Dave says:

      It should be noted the until fairly recent times ‘moor’ could be and was applied to a variety of ‘wastelands’ including marshes so such an old ‘muir’ need not be taken to be too specific.

  16. Mak says:

    I think that it would come from the same etymology that Caddon came from and that the ‘cad’ aspect is ‘battle’. It could, possibly, come from a ‘cad-y-muir’ mix, which may, in Brythonic, have been ‘cad-y-morfa’ (morfa=marsh/fen) or possibly ‘cad-y-mur'(mur=wall)… but I’m just guessing too! Any Welsh speakers out there?

  17. Mak says:

    I’ve been rethinking my ideas on this etymology of all these ‘cad’ places. ‘Cad’ is, of course, EARLY/MODERN WELSH for battle, before that it would be ‘cat’ (‘kat’). Since the Angles overtook this area when the language was Primitive Welsh (Brythonic) it should have remained ‘cat’ and there would be no reason for it to become ‘cad’, unless it was simply a Scottish/Anglizisation (Inglis)?

    I’ve search for possible Old English connections but haven’t found any as yet.

  18. Phil says:

    Think you may be being hard on yourself Mak. I doubt there was a complete language replacement in the early medieval period. As late as the 12th century there was mention in charters of there being ‘walensibus’ (britons) in the Tweeddale area. So it is possible for ‘cat’ to have become ‘cad’.

    As an aside ‘Caddon’ was recorded in 1175 as ‘Keledenlee’ and ‘Kaledene’ in 1296. Food for thought re the location of Coit Celidon?

  19. Mak says:

    Thought I’d be hard on myself before anyone else was!

    That is very, very interesting Tim and probably changes everything! It really looks as though either Kelidon (Celidon) or Kaledon (Caledon) got Anglisized to Keleden, Kaledene and that, possibly, this led to Ca(le)ddon. This is odd in itself as it seems to have gone back to Welsh. You don’t happen to know when it’s first recorded as Caddon, do you?

    Of course, they would mean different things in each language: Kaledene=Kaled(OW=hard, rough) + dene (OE=valley) or for Keledenlee either=Kelli/Keli(OW=grove/heaven) + den(OE=den) + lee(OE=pasture/meadow) or Kele could be Céle(OE=a cold thing, coldness)… or a mixture thereof.

    As you say, it is indeed food for thought for Kat Koit Kelidon (Kaledon). Whether they are one and the same we’ll never know, but it points to the fact that, for some reason, this may have been once called Kaledon/Kelidon, which may have had nothing to do with the Pictish Caledonians, or it could possibly be because a battle with them was fought here? It adds great weight to the Mryddin story though!

    Thanks again Tim.

  20. Phil says:

    Er, Mak – it was me (Phil) who replied (not Tim) 🙂 !

  21. Mak says:

    Doh! Sorry Phil!

  22. Mak says:

    What will be difficult to discover is whether the 12th an 13th century names were the result of existing legends of Arthur’s battle, or Myrddin’s madness, or if it had been called Kaledon/Kelidon since the 5th/6th centuries?

  23. Mak says:

    Sorry to be hogging the blog Tim, especially since it’s about Catraeth and Gwen Ystrad, but there are a couple of questions I have for Phil, which I forgot to ask:

    1) What is the source of the 12th/13th C. place names?
    2) Any idea when the name became Caddon?

    Interestingly, there’s a Caledon just west of Armagh, in Ulster.

    Getting back to Catraeth; Tim, you mentioned thinking the Aled was added when the text got to Gwynedd and is the Aled that runs into the Conwy. Do you think the whole mention of Gwynedd being at the battle was added?

  24. Phil says:

    Mak – my source for the dates was ‘Welsh Origins of Scottish Place-names’ by William Oxenham (2005,Gwasg Carreg Gwalch). An interesting read – but I’m not sure I agree with many of his ideas! Not certain if the book is still in print, I bought mine several years ago and only got round to reading it last month after re-reading Watson.

    I’ve no idea of the earlies use of ‘Caddon’ – certainly that name is on 18c maps.

    Re the 1175 record of Keledenlee – note from my trusty O/S map that there is a farm called ‘Caddonlee’ close by……….

  25. Tim says:

    I just got back after a couple of days away and caught up with the Mak/Phil discussion on place-names. Phil’s mention of the Keledenlee/Kaledene names has sparked my enthusiasm to delve into the whole subject of what was happening around the mouth of Caddon Water in medieval times. The kaled- names do seem, at first glance, to show a connection between the Caddon area and the elusive Coit Celidon. The geography is consistent with the locality of the “northern Merlin” who supposedly died not far way at Drumelzier. Mak is right about Celidon having no connection with Caledonians.

    In answer to Mak’s question about the River Aled and the Gododdin, I do think the Gwynedd heroes were parachuted into the verses (with much other stuff from Wales). In the same way (thinking about Merlin again) the alleged presence of Maelgwn Gwynedd at the battle of Arfderydd must be fictional. Merlin’s exile in the wild northern woods after the battle fits well with a location in Upper Tweeddale and could have originated in the area’s medieval folklore. Whether he actually existed outside Welsh poetry or northern folktales is a different matter.

    Caledon in Ulster is a very curious name, Mak. It looks like Celidon (or Calidon) but must surely have a Gaelic origin?

    • Dave says:

      Just a thought on the Ulster name Caledon. I was just reading through John Marsden’s thoughts on the place-name Cladrois from the Senchus fer nAlban, (John Marsden Alba of the Ravens), in which he notes Bannerman’s derivatin for this name as ‘cladh’ ‘rois’, meaning ‘ditch’-‘promontary’ – i.e. a promontary fort. This is from gaelic – could this apply to Caledon in Ulster ? i.e. ‘cladh dun – ‘ditched fort’.

      • Dave says:

        Sorry – just read the addition to this re the transplanting of the name and the original being Kinnaird – ignore the above.

  26. Mak says:

    Having looked into the Ulster Caledon I found it was originally called Kinnaird, with Caledon transplanting it by the Ulster Scots.

    With regards to Kaledene etc., I’ve posted a question on Arthurnet about it. I was talking to Chris Gwinn about Coit Celidon and thought he might both be interested in what Phil mentioned and perhaps be able to help with etymology.

    The one thing I did discover is there was no use of the letter ‘K’ in Anglo-Saxon.

    I’ll post more thoughts on Catraeth soon.

  27. Phil says:

    For what it’s worth Mak, William Oxenham suggests Catraeth could be from ‘Cader Arth’ (Arthur’s Chair/Seat). A lot closer to Din Eidyn than Catterick!

  28. Mak says:

    If it were Arthur’s Chair then the Gododdin’s border must have be very close to the heartland and had they lost the battle I would have thought it would have been the end of Gododdin, which it wasn’t. But this depends on where Din Eidyn was and whose ‘Y Gododdin’ translation you go with. If it’s Koch’s then he translates the men of Manaw Gododdin being across the Firth (Merin); this isn’t how Jarman translates it.

    Either way, the poem does say it was at the border, at a ford, at a defended ‘hillfort’ and they’re fighting the men of Bryneich and Deira. Gododdin didn’t border Deira, as far as we know, but they did border Bryneich, which was probably once part of Gododdin at an earlier time. Where would a border be with them? At the River Wansbeck, The Lyne? The Coquet? The Aln? The Tweed? The Eye? Or any one of the other numerous smaller rivers in between them? (On the Aln is a Cat Huegh (Battle Cliff), but not a hillfort in sight). You’d think these descriptions in the poem should help tie it down… but no.

  29. Mak says:

    Just some food for thought Tim. I searched the OS online map for ‘Cat’ names in Northumberland and the Scottish Borders and here’s what came up (excluding Cat Huegh:

    Catcleugh (Northumberland): Redesdale. No forts.

    Catton (Northumberland): On Catton Burn near the River East Allen. No forts, unless Allendale Town was once one.

    Cathpair (Scottish Borders): on Cockholme Burn, near Gala Water at Stow. Two forts nearby above the Gala.

    Catslackburn (Scottish Borders): on Catslack Burn, runs into Yarow Water. No forts.

    One can see why Catterick is so attractive even, if it wasn’t on the Gododdin’s border!

  30. Mak says:

    One more possibility Tim:

    G(C)attonside/G(C)attonsidehaugh (Roxburghshire): on the north and south of the Riiver Tweed, respectfully, at Melrose. Camp Knowe fort north of the river, the famous Eildon Seat Hillfort (once very important to the Gododdin) to the south of the river (supposed resting place of King Arthur). The Roman fort of Trinmontium (Newsteads) is to the east. If anywhere would be a strategic spot it would be this, where the Roman road crossed Tweed, and I believe there is evidence of post-Roman activity at Eildon.

    Of course, Melros (coming from either ‘Mail-rhos’ or ‘Moelros’) dates back to this time, with the monastery being set up by King Oswald of Northumbria not long after the battle of Catraeth.

  31. Mak says:

    Sorry Tim, me again.

    I’ve just discovered something, which you probably know of already, and that’s the linear earthwork called ‘The Catrail’ (‘Battle Fence’) that winds its way south and north of the Tweed and Yarrow for 45 miles(?) or so. The Victorian, William Skene, may may be way out of date in many ways now, but in his ‘The Four Ancient Books of Wales’ he has the following to say on Catrail, and some other interesting information:

    “Mr. Williams supposes that the Catraeth was the Catrail in Roxburghshire, and that this was the rampart meant ; and that the battle was fought between the Cymry and the Saxons in the year 570.

    …Villemarque, in his Poemes des Bardes Bretons, places the battle on the banks of the river Calder in Lanarkshire, from which it was called Kaldrtraez or Kaltraez, the name which he gives the battle, and fixes its date at 578.”

    The “Mr Williams” Skene refers to is John Williams who translated ‘Y Gododdin” in the mid 19th century. I hope you don’t mind me including this detailed quote, which also has something to say about Gwen Ystrad:

    “This was the famous CATRAIL, which we presume to be
    identical with CATTRAETH, where the disastrous battle of that name, as sung by Aneurin, was fought.

    Catrail means literally “the war fence” (cad-rhail), but on the supposition that it is synonymous with Cattraeth, the rhyme in the Gododin would determine the latter to be the correct term, or that by
    which Aneurin distinguished the line. The meaning of Cattraeth would be either “the war tract” (cad-traeth), or “the legal war fence” (cad-rhaith) [in modern Welsh ‘rhaith’ actually means ‘arbitrament’ – Mak]; the latter of which would give some countenance to the idea that it was formed by mutual agreement.

    The whole course of the Catrail, which may be traced from the vicinity of Galashiels to Peel-fell, is upwards of forty five miles. The most entire parts of it show that it was originally a broad and deep fosse; having on each side a rampart, which was formed of the natural soil, that was thrown from the ditch, intermixed with some stones. Its dimensions vary
    in different places, which may be owing to its remains being more or less perfect. In those parts where it is pretty entire, the fosse is twenty seven, twenty six, and twenty five feet broad. But in those places where the rampart has been most demolished the fosse only measures twenty two and a half feet, twenty and eighteen, and in one place only sixteen feet wide. As the ramparts sloped on the inside, it is obvious that in proportion as they were demolished, the width of the fosse within would be diminished. In some of the most entire parts the ramparts are from six to seven, and even nine or ten feet high, and from eight to ten and twelve feet thick. They are, no doubt, less now than they were originally, owing to the effects of time and tillage. {5a}

    Such is the Catrail, and were it identical with Cattraeth, we should naturally expect to meet with some allusions to a work of that description in the body of the Poem. Nor are we herein disappointed, for
    the expressions “ffosawd,” {5b} “clawdd,” {5c} “ffin,” {5d} “cladd clodvawr,” {5e} “goglawdd,” {5f} “clawdd gwernin,” {5g} and “gorffin Gododin,” {5h} are undoubtedly such allusions, though we readily admit
    that some of them may, and probably do, refer to the ordinary circular forts of the Britons, of whom there are several along the line. It may be added here that Taliesin in his description of the battle of Gwenystrad, where the men of Cattraeth fought under Urien, speaks of a “govwr” or an intrenchment, that was “assailed by the laborious toil of warriors.”

    (All quotes taken form The Project Gutenberg eBook texts)

    Hope this is of use and interest.

  32. Mak says:

    I should have mentioned that whilst Mr Williams may say, “…the latter of which would give some countenance to the idea that it was formed by mutual agreement,” the Catrail is thought to predate the Romans, as Dere Street cuts across it. It may have been used as a boundary in the Early Medieval period, but it wasn’t constructed then.

  33. Tim says:

    Quite a few interesting points raised in your latest comments, Mak.

    I was unaware that Dere Street cuts across, and so presumably post-dates, the Catrail. I had always assumed the Catrail to be post-Roman. As far as its alleged connection with Catraeth is concerned I generally take the old antiquarian views with a pinch of salt. We will always be indebted to Skene for re-discovering the lost battlefield of Arfderydd (Arthuret) but he and his contemporaries often got carried away in their discussions of similar-sounding place names. I don’t think modern philology would find equivalence between Catrail and Catraeth. On the other hand we cannot entirely rule out a connection, at least not until a philologist dissects the origins of the name Catrail.

    Phil mentions a proposed derivation Cader Arth for Catraeth. I’m not familiar with the author (Oxenham) but Welsh philologists seem fairly unanimous on the name being a compound of cad/cat+traeth. Also from Phil comes a mention of a Scots word “cadies” meaning “watchmen”. I wonder where this word comes from and how old it is? At first glance it looks like “caddies” as in “golf caddies”. I think I’ll browse a Scots dictionary to see what turns up.

    Mak’s search of cat names in the Border area yields some interesting possibilities. I wonder, though, how many of them derive from English “cat”, as in wild felines. My own instinct on the name Catraeth is that it is totally lost, i.e. with no relic of it surviving in any modern name. The poetry suggests, however, that Catraeth was an important territorial unit with sufficient economic value to make it worth fighting over. I have often wondered if it corresponded to a chunk of Tweeddale, perhaps the part of the valley containing the historical centres of power around Melrose-Newstead-Eildon. Mak’s earlier comment about these places led me to muse on the possibility that Mailros, the British precursor of the Northumbrian monastery, could have been the main ecclesiastical centre of Catraeth.

  34. Mak says:

    Even in 1861 they were doubting the Catrail/Catraeth theory Tim. A certain Mr. D.W. Nash in the THE CAMBRIAN JOURNA of that year said:

    “To this theory, however, we must object, that the
    name of this famous boundary dyke has been preserved
    to modern times as the Catrail, which we believe to be
    cad-rhyll the war-ditch, and that it seems impossible to believe that Aneurin and succeeding British Bards should have given it the name of Cattraeth, without once mentioning its original appellation.”

    However, many of the hillforts in the region are either beside or near The Catrail and according to ‘Rambles in Northumberland and on the Scottish border’ by William Andrew Chatto (1835):

    “Towards the head of Jed-water there are paths called the Cat roads…” (p173)

    I think these might be what became the drovers roads that cut across here… maybe for giant pussies!

    One could wonder if, because of all the ‘cat’ sites and the Catrail, Catraeth (Battle Tract) could have been a name for the whole area, besides being a place. (Whilst modern Welsh makes ‘traeth’ a shore or beach, it makes ‘traethawd’ a tract. So it’s very possible in Old Welsh ‘traeth’ meant tract).

    The Melrose-Newstead-Eildon theory does look attractive, especially if I’m right about Gattonside. This must have been a site of conflict and the river’s shores could very well be called the Catraeth. Of course, it may have nothing to do with a ‘battle’ name and, as you say, the name may be “totally lost”.

  35. Mak says:

    Just to give some defense to the cat=battle argument (no pun intended), it’s worth mentioning the Yarrow Stone (also known as the Liberalis Stone) at Yarrow Kirk, eight miles west of Selkirk. Thought to date c.550AD, upon it is the inscription:

    This is the everlasting memorial
    In this place lie the most famous prince Nudus and Dumnogenus
    In this tomb lie the two sons of Liberalis

    To its northwest is Dead Lake, where tradition says there is a mass warrior grave. Close by is a standing stone and old cottage both with the name ‘Warrior’s Rest’ and it’s around the ‘Yarrow Stone’ and the ‘Warrior’s Rest’ stone we find Cat Craig, Catslackburn, Catslack Knowe and Cat Holes.

    (Sources: Arthur & The Lost Kingdom by Alistair Moffat 1999, BBC Radio 4 ‘Making History’ 29th April 2008, The Modern Antiquarian)

    IF Catreath is in this region, and IF Urien was its lord at some point, then Rheged, or his overlordship, must have extended a lot further than we think!

  36. Phil says:

    ..’IF Catreath is in this region, and IF Urien was its lord at some point, then Rheged, or his overlordship, must have extended a lot further than we think!’

    Or Rheged was not where most people now think it was……:-)

  37. Mak says:

    “Or Rheged was not where most people now think it was……:-)”


  38. Tim says:

    In the last two comments both Mak and Phil seem sceptical about the traditional or conventional geography of Rheged. I share the same scepticism. The question of Rheged’s location has major implications for the current discussion about Catraeth. At the risk of repeating opinions posted by me elsewhere on this blog here is a quick summary of my own views on Rheged.

    First, the conventional view of the kingdom’s geography which places Rheged in the lands around the Solway Firth, either in Galloway or Cumbria (or both), with outer provinces stretching southward into Lancashire and eastward across the Pennines to Catterick.

    This view, which has long been accepted as a consensus among historians, is based largely on a 12th-century Welsh poem which appears to associate Rheged with Carlisle. There is no evidence that the poem’s composer, Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd, had ever visited Carlisle or anywhere else in northern Britain. He apparently had no antiquarian interest in the old North British kingdoms of six hundred years earlier. He did, however, have a keen literary interest in drawing parallels between his father King Owain of Gwynedd and the famous northern heroes Urien of Rheged and Owain ab Urien. The deeds of these heroes had long been celebrated in poems recited by the court-poets of Wales. The modern idea that Hywel had some special knowledge about the precise location of Rheged (or of any other long-vanished realm in the “Old North”) is completely bizarre. In an entry for Rheged in Celtic culture: a historical encyclopedia (2006), Professor John Koch calls Hywel’s poem “our best evidence” for the kingdom’s location. Upon this so-called evidence a massive edifice of theories about 6th-century political history has been constructed, much of it based on wild guesses about the origins of various “sounds like Rheged” place names (such as Dunragit in Galloway).

    My own view is that we don’t really know where Urien’s kingdom lay. Wherever it was, we should not think of it as a huge, sprawling entity called “Rheged”. The typical Early Historic (i.e. Dark Age) kingdom in the British Isles seems to have been an amalgam of smaller territories welded together under the authority of a powerful king. The poems of Taliesin – whatever their historical value – suggest that Rheged may have been a core domain of Urien’s family, an ancestral territory where the primary estates were located. Operating out of this heartland Urien used successful war-leadership to bring neighbouring territories – such as Catraeth, Llwyfenydd, Goddeu, etc – under his rule. The rulers of these subjugated districts acknowledged him as their overlord and swore oaths of allegiance to him. This did not make them part of an expanding “empire” of Rheged but simply kept them in clientship to Urien as long as he was alive to impose his authority over them. Upon his death this personal hegemony – a network of client lords and sub-kings – would have dissolved, perhaps leaving his successor ruling the family domain of Rheged and very little else.

    The territorial unit known as “Rheged” could have been quite small, maybe encompassing a defined area of fertile farmland capable of supporting the estates of a warrior-aristocracy. We cannot place it with any precision on a modern map, nor should historians feel absolutely compelled to do so. It may be enough to know that Urien’s sphere of operations lay in northern Britain, and that he was capable of launching raids across the entire region. If we set aside the search for “sounds like Rheged” place names and rely instead on the testimony of Taliesin, whom Welsh tradition identifies as Urien’s bard, together with the 9th-century Historia Brittonum, we find Urien striking east as far as the North Sea coast, west into Clydesdale and Ayrshire, and north to the borders of Stirlingshire. To me, the range of these campaigns points to a heartland or core domain in some central district such as the Tweed Valley. An alternative location around the Solway Firth is, by the same criteria, no less plausible – but nor is it supported by any “evidence” that stands up to scrutiny.

  39. Phil says:

    You’re correct in your assumption of my scepticism re the conventional geographic location of Rheged (Carlisle area). Skene placed it much further north (Stirlingshire). I suspect it was somewhere in between.

    I’ll probably now be stripped of my family membership of the Rheged Centre (just outside Penrith) 🙂

  40. Mak says:

    (Apologies that the following is so long).

    I see one problem with Rheged only being between the Walls: if Rheged didn’t (also) lie between Hadrian’s Wall and the Mersey, what did? There are no other kingdoms mentioned between Rheged and Powys in the west either by the Britons or the Anglians. But, as they say, absence or evidence isn’t evidence of absence!

    Forgetting “sounds like” place names (Dunragit in Dumfries & Galloway. Rochdale, recorded as Recedham in the ‘Doomsday Book’ and – my very dubious inclusion – Rigodumum Roman fort (Castleshaw) on the Pennines of West Yorkshire), if the Northumbrian territorial gains can be any judge of things, and who is mentioned as their enemy (and ally) then, at some point, Rheged could indeed have stretched from the Scottish lowlands to the Mersey, west of the Pennines, as many argue, and Phil can keep his membership of the Rheged Centre! Urien’s cousin, and supposed king of South Rheged, Llywarch Hen, was also the king of Ynys Manau (Isle of Man), which would figure if Rheged was a powerful kingdom across the Irish Sea.

    There is a theory postulated by Anne Dornier (‘The Province of Valentia’, Britannia, Vol 13, 1982) that the fifth Britannian Roman province of Valentia stretched west of the Pennines from the Wall south, possibly including Powys and some of North Wales. (A 16th century Breton document (‘Leon Breviary’, 1516) calls Brochmael, a known king of Powys, king of ‘Guelentius’. Latinized Breton for Velentia, which must have been only its remnants). This dissected a possible powerful and troublesome Brigantian nation. It could be argued that the Brigantian confederate portion of this, after Valentian fell apart, from the Mersey to the Wall, is what, eventually, became Rheged or part of the Rhegedian ‘empire’; expanded beyond the Wall by Coel and his descendants. (Although I’m not so sure about the Brigantes>Brigant>Breged>Reged name transition argument. Koch believes the name relates to the Welsh ‘rheg’, meaning gift. (‘Celtic culture: a historical encyclopedia, Volumes 1-5’ by John T. Koch).

    To throw a fly into my own ointment, one has to wonder why, if Rheged and, indeed, Brynaich extended north and south of the Wall, some of the defenses were reestablished in the mid to late 5th century, as the archaeology shows. Did they lose ground? Were they just being careful or, once again, have we just got it all wrong?

    There’s also the question of whether Rheged fought with or against the Gododdin Alliance. Koch believes it was against (as Tim has mentioned, Koch also thinks Gwen Ystrad and Catraeth are the same place, but I can’t see this myself). Koch translates a line in the poem as being: “…but it was not immortals that they fought for territory _against_ the descendants of Godebawg, the rightful faction”. However, Jarman translates it as: “In hardship, in ease, they fought for their lands _with_ the sons of Godebog, an evil race” . (It doesn’t quite make sense saying they fought with them, but calling them “evil”). Clancy makes this: “In hosts, in hordes, they fought for the land _with_ Godebawg’s sons, savage folk”. The Victorian, John Williams has it: “ There will be a dominion without a sovereign and a smoking land. The sons of Godebog, an upright clan”. (It should be noted that any translator going into this work with the assumption that Rheged _must_ have been on the same side as their fellow Britons (and Picts and possibly Scots), will affect the interpretation).

    If Godabog/Godebawg refers to the descendants of Coel Hen Godebawg, and most think it does, meaning Urien or his predecessor or heir, depending on when the battle took place (c.570 or c.600) and Koch is right, then Rheged would be in alliance with the Angles (oo, sacrilege!) or, more, likely, Anglo-Britons of Bernicia. Brian Hope-Taylor, Yeavering Bell hillfort’s excavator, tells us that his findings point to a relationship that “…had been found to be mutually convenient and congenial…” (Yeavering 282 ). If Jarman, Clancy et al are right, then this supposed disaster doesn’t _appear_ to have given any major geo-political gain to the victors, unlike other recorded battles against the Angles.

    I see several points that need making or explaining:

    1. How did the Angles manage to field 10,000 warriors, if this isn’t an gross exaggeration. Even if this is a Anglo-British coalition how did they outnumber an alliance of several British kingdoms, supposedly including Rheged, as well as Picts and possibly Scots?
    2. Whilst the poem says the Gododdin and its allies only fielded 363, this is impossible, of course, as they would have had their warbands with them, making it more like 3000 to 5000. Even so, if Rheged were on their side, the supposed most powerful kingdom/’empire’ in the north, why are there so few?
    3. If Catraeth was under Rheged’s control and had been taken from them, why is it the Gododdin who lead, or appear to lead this British alliance? Surely it would be Rheged; the sons of Godebawg.
    4. If Catraeth was in the Tweed area and this battle was a defeat for the Gododdin and its allies (and that included Rheged) then they should have lost their lands to the victors, or come under their control. It doesn’t _appear_ to be the case. It could be that this wasn’t as big a defeat as the poem makes out, of course. It gets no mention in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (unless the succession of Æthelfrith to the Bernician throne in 593 has anything to do with it) but they are more Wessex central so it’s not surprising.
    5. IF the the Gododdin Alliance did face 10,000, what hillfort could hold that number? None. Not even the massive Eildon. It would have to have been fought along a front as well. (The ‘Battle Tract’?).
    6. What might explain 10,000 against an inferior number? A Rheged and Anglo-British alliance? Would such an alliance, and victory by Rheged, be the reason why a king of Gododdin (Morcant) supposedly had Urien assassinated when they were in alliance against the Angles at Lindisfarne (Ynys Metcaut)? This could be the case if this happened AFTER Catraeth. If it happened BEFORE it, then it could be a reason why the battle happened. This could be a weakening and fragmenting Rheged, now under Owain, after Urien’s death, who needed the Bernician and Deirian assistance. The problem is not knowing the exact dating and floruits of all the players.
    7. If Koch is right, and Rheged were on the winning side, they could be the ones, under the terms they may have agreed, to have taken Gododdin into their ‘empire’. But what did the Anglians (or Anglo-Britons) gain?

    So many questions, so few answers. If you have any, I’d by very interested to hear them.

  41. Mak says:

    Don’t know why I said 363, when it was 300!

  42. Tim says:

    Well, Mak, my short answer is that I don’t have many answers to your questions. All I can offer by way of response are comments on some of the points you raise.

    The figures for army sizes can generally be ignored. Numbers such as 10,000 are completely unrealistic for this period and are merely meant to convey the idea that the bad guys outnumbered the good guys. Writers of Bede’s time found plenty of precedents for this kind of exaggeration in biblical accounts of Israelite wars. The main factor to keep in mind is the aristocratic nature of Early Historic warfare, i.e. it was a pursuit of the nobility, just like hunting and feasting. The peasantry seem to have been a weaponless class who were excluded, by law, from military service. An army of 1,000 noblemen would probably have been a viable campaigning force, its components being the personal warbands of senior lords. Overkings such as Penda and Cadwallon may have been capable of assembling larger armies of several thousand warriors but I can’t imagine any army in Britain or Ireland exceeding a total of 5,000 in the seventh century.

    The figure of 300 had sacred overtones in antiquity and was regarded by the Byzantines as a suitable number for the manpower of a bandon (cavalry unit). The warbands of Gododdin, Rheged, etc may have been composed of roughly 300 men for the same symbolic reason. Where the sources mention specific figures such as 303 (“three hundreds and three”) or 363 (“three hundreds and three score and three”) these can be ignored as literary symbolism for a force protected by God. In the case of 363 the poet is telling his audience that the Gododdin warband enjoyed the special protection offered by a triple multiplier of the sacred number 3. Giving an accurate figure for the number of warriors was unimportant and would have bored the listeners.

    I don’t have anything useful to add to my earlier musings on the location of Rheged. I do however think we can leave Rochdale out of the equation: it is another “sounds like” name which leads us down a blind alley. Likewise the old theory about Llywarch ruling a Southern Rheged in Lancashire has no real foundation.

    On the position of Catraeth in Early Historic politics I tend to adopt a minimalist stance. In other words, I don’t think we can run very far with ideas about how this mysterious district fared between the ambitions of various competing kings. We have no evidence for any alliance between Gododdin and Rheged, or between Rheged and Bernicia, nor do we know how long Urien held Catraeth under his sway. The political situation is impenetrable beyond a few general observations and not much can be reconstructed from the limited data we possess. Neither Taliesin nor Aneirin shed much light on why Catraeth was important to Urien and the Gododdin kings (and presumably to their English neighbours). I suspect it was an economically attractive area containing estates of prime agricultural land, a district worthy of conquering and defending. It need not have had any “strategic” importance beyond its proximity to ancient fords, Roman roads or other locations where kings could levy tolls from travellers.

    I’ll finish with a quick note about Morcant. Contrary to a widespread belief, there is no reason to associate him with Gododdin. The idea comes from a 1970s paper by Molly Miller in which she proposed Morcant as a Gododdin king. Miller had a deservedly high scholarly reputation and this probably led to some people accepting her theories as facts. The truth of the matter is that we don’t know the name of any Gododdin king (if “Mynyddog” of the poetry is a red herring) nor can we locate Morcant.

  43. Phil says:

    I’ve just finished reading the recently published ‘A New History of the Picts’ (Stuart McHardy, Birlinn). In it McHardy, when discussing the Seige of Lindisfarne, Refers to ‘Guallauc from the Goddodin’ and says ‘It is tempting to see Morcant as representing a specifically Pictish power….’.

    McHardy is very anti the idea of ‘warrior elites’ proposing that North British society was tribal along the lines of the later Scottish highland clans – ie all able bodied male members could bear arms and many battles were essentially ‘raids’.

    An interesting read.

    • Tim says:

      I must buy a copy of Stuart McHardy’s book. It’s hot off the press, having been published only a week or so ago. Stuart’s knowledge of the Picts is encyclopaedic – I once heard him deliver an impromptu lecture at a Pictish Arts Society conference, straight off the top of his head with no notes. He might be on the right track in making Guallauc a king of Gododdin, which is far more likely than the old Elmet theory. I’m less warm to the idea of non-aristocratic warriors but I’ll read the book before commenting further.

      Btw, Phil, I think the publisher is Luath not Birlinn (although both are in Edinburgh).

      • Phil says:

        You’re quite right Tim, publisher is indeed Luath – unforgivable error given I was at the book launch! I know Stuart quite well, we’ve had a few discussions on matters Pictish and Arthurian. I believe his next book will be on Pictish symbol stones.

    • Mak says:

      Must buy that too!

      • Tim says:

        One book by Stuart which I keep meaning to buy is a study of possible Scottish locations for Arthur’s battles. Even though I’m not a “believer” I like to keep up with current theories on the topic and this is no doubt a good read. If I pick up a copy I might review it here at Senchus.

    • stuartmchardy says:

      Nice to be appreciated. In general re Catraeth someone who doesn’t seem to figure too often these days is EWB Nicholson who was certain it was at Raith in Fife. His articles on the subject are
      The Battle of Raith and its Song-cycle Celtic Review Vol 6 No 23 Jan 1910 pp 214-236
      A postscript to the Battle of Raith
      Celtic Review Vol 7 No 25 Feb 1911 pp 81-88
      These are accessible through JSTOR. He also wrote Keltic Researches Henry Frowde London 1904 which has lots of intersting stuff amidst mind-befuddling linguisitc mystifications!
      Someof his ideas re the Gododdin, Dundee and the wholeperiod are well worth a bit of consideration. Typical to come across this after I have just published!
      If anyone cant get them through JSTOR I can e-wheech them on

      • Tim says:

        Good to hear from you, Stuart.

        I expect Nicholson’s thinking on Catraeth might seem pretty outlandish to modern philologists but his Raith idea is probably no less plausible than the Catterick factoid (especially if we take the Anglo-Saxons out of the Gododdin poetry, as Craig Cessford once suggested). Finding alternatives to the monolithic Catterick hypothesis is a healthy pursuit, so I’m glad Nicholson got a mention here.

  44. Mak says:

    Thanks Tim. Lot’s of very valid and interesting points there to which I’ve nothing to add.


  45. Phil says:

    I’ve not read Stuart’s ‘Quest for Arthur’ book but I did attend a series of evening classes on ‘Arthurian Scotland’ he hosted via Edinburgh Uni this time last year. From memory I’m sure he had Cademuir as a possible site of one of the battles.

  46. Dave says:

    Regarding the concern over Catterick being far from the bounds of Gododdin lands it might be, and this is speculation, that Gododdin lands reached as far south as the river Wear or even the Tees (this is not my own speculation but has come from other historians), in which case Catterick would indeed be within a march of the border.
    However it is possible, and again this has been suggested by others for some time, that the warriors of Gododdin marched south beyond their own lands to make a ‘pre-emptive strike’ as it were, against the rising power of the Deiran Northumbrians or perhaps a strike from the rear at the Bernicians.

    The ideas above about strikes into Northumbrian lands come from John Morris’s intriguing but extremely speculative study ‘The Age of Arthur’. The problem with his book is that he introduces a great deal of ‘evidence’ for all aspects of the age but it is almost impossible to tell the real primary source material from Morris’s own speculation and ‘infill’. Still, a good source of theories if nothing else.

    That said I too would see the identification of Catraeth with Catterick as open to question. Of course Catterick’s position on the great route south would make it a strategic location but I agree that a proper focus on the name Catraeth might well bring other locations to the fore.

    • Tim says:

      You’re right about the Morris book, Dave. It runs too far with too many speculative theories but is still worth the occasional browse. For me it has sentimental value as the book that first introduced me to the ‘Men of the North’ about 25 years ago. I’m indebted to Morris for making me aware of Rheged, Gododdin, Urien, the battle of Arthuret, and all the rest.

      On the theory of Gododdin reaching as far south as the Wear or Tees, I don’t see the kingdom (and the tribal area that preceded it) being so extensive. My own view is that the Votadini were confined to a Lothian heartland by c.550. I just don’t think of any of these North British kingdoms being very big. But, like John Morris, I’m merely speculating 😉

      • Dave Kelday says:

        I do agree with you here and would see the Gododdin lands being primarily in Lothian and ‘Manaw’, although this latter might suggest distinct districts within the wider kingdom – an idea which, of course, fits well with the layers of kingship apparent in many ‘Celtic’ kingdoms. To what extent such sub-kingdoms remained within the control of any wider realm or over-king is probably open to question.
        I have wondered on this regarding Orkney and the Pictish ‘kingdom’ – Orkney was explicitly noted as under the command of Bridei son Maelchu in the late 500s but other than that I wonder just how Pictish the isles were, both culturally and politically.
        The same question could be advanced for Manaw and for the lands south of Lothian, Bamburgh for example. This district separated sometime in 6th century seemingly if indeed it had been under Gododdin control first. What then of other districts further south or further west into the hills ?

        • Tim says:

          Orkney is certainly an interesting case, Dave. From a modern viewpoint the archipelago looks like a pretty straightforward ‘Pictish’ cultural area, albeit an offshore one. At first glance the carved stones seem to clinch the cultural label. But things don’t look quite so simple when we start delving deeper, such as when you say “I wonder just how Pictish the isles were, both culturally and politically”, which goes to the heart of the issue. It’s a question of how much the people of Orkney c.580 felt an affinity – or some sense of shared ethnicity – with the inhabitants of Bridei’s core domain around Inverness. Neither group would have called themselves Picts in the 6th century. Even the old idea of a homogeneous ‘Pictish nation’ doesn’t seem to hold much water with today’s historians. If Bede had written about the people of Orkney in his own time he would have described them as Picts without really bothering to analyse the term. In the early 8th century it was a convenient label to pin on all and sundry who lived north of anywhere important, just as it was when the Romans invented it four hundred years earlier. I rather suspect the 6th-century Orcadians regarded themselves as a different people from Bridei and his henchmen, even if both groups understood the Pictish symbols a whole lot better than we do.

          The same kind of heterogeneity vs. homogeneity can be applied to Gododdin, as you point out. I envisage Votadinian territory in post-Roman times as a patchwork of more-or-less independent groups periodically held together (in different permutations) by particularly powerful and ambitious overkings. There must have been several Votadinian equivalents of Bridei, and maybe the enigmatic ‘Mynyddog’ was one such individual. Assuming the core of Gododdin lay around Edinburgh, it’s feasible to imagine southern parts of Manau (e.g. the part north of the River Avon, around Slamannan) being fairly easy to subjugate, though not in any permanent sense. Northern parts around Dumyat and Clackmannan might never, or only rarely, have been under the heel of Gododdin kings. Same with Lothian (in its widest sense) which was presumably made up of many different lordships and mini-kingdoms, any permutation of which might have acknowledged the authority of a Gododdin king at any time before Bernicia started to hoover them up around c.600. Bernicia itself – in its native British guise – might not have been ‘Votadinian’ in any meaningful sense since Roman times.

          • Dave Kelday says:

            Some of the suggestions regarding the Northern Isles made in Stephen Oppenheimer’s ‘The Origins of the British’ are interesting in this context. An apparently strong strain of prehistoric dna deriving from Scandinavia found in the Northern Isles seems to show considerable settlement into the Isles in those distant times and it may have been sufficient to bring some cultural distinctiveness with it.
            The questions over the apparent ‘wipe-out’ of ‘Pictishness’ in the Northern Isles in the 8th and 9th C (‘loss’ of place-names and language) and the dna evidence advanced by Oppenheimer could lead to ideas that perhaps the culture, as well as the dna, of Scandinavia was evident in Orkney and Shetland before the ‘viking’ era. Was there interchange across the North Sea in the Iron Age and beyond ?
            Were the ‘Pictish’ traits in the Northern Isles (art, stones etc) something of an outside influence ?
            Could the apparent total wipe-out of Pictish language and place-names in the Northern Isles following the ‘viking’ advent be nothing more than the result of a very light veneer of ‘Pictish’ culture and political control being wiped off the surface of a deeper Scandinavian influenced native culture – a culture perhaps not the same as that of the ‘vikings’ but suffiently similar for the new settlers and the old residents to have some common ground and with the new settlement acting as something of a ‘refresher’, and ‘update’ to the existing culture ?

            • Tim says:

              Contact between Scandinavia and the Northern Isles before the ‘Viking Age’ does seem feasible, even likely, perhaps even to be expected. How far back any significant dealings, as opposed to casual contact, should be envisaged is a different matter. I tend to think of fairly regular commercial interaction, at beach markets and such, as far back as the 7th century. These contacts would probably leave no archaeological trace. Actual early settlement by Scandinavians can’t be ruled out, I suppose, but I’m not sure we can rule it in either, not without some hint from archaeology. But I’m venturing out of my comfort zone with all of this, so maybe the hints are already there.

  47. Dave says:

    Sorry to hi-jack this theme somewhat but I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of the place-name Caladros/Calathros as found in the annals (AU, AT and FragAnns 678 and AU 736). This place is variously named Caldros, Calitros, Calatros, Calathros. There is also the note of Cladrois in the Senchus fer nAlban. This last seems fairly firmly placed in Islay but the context of the annal entry for 736 does not fit at all well with Calathros et al being in Islay –

    “The battle of Cnoc Cairpri in Calathros at Etarlinde between Dál Riata and Foirtriu, and Talorgan son of Fergus goes in pursuit of Ainfchellach’s son who had taken flight, many nobles falling in this encounter.” (AU736)

    Taking a look at the names in this entry I came across suggestions that Cnoc Cairpri was Carriber between Linlithgow and Stirlingshire,and indeed this name appears in 1296 as Cairbre which looks convincing on the face of it.
    It’s location doesn’t seem to fit a battle between the men of Fortriu and the Dalriadan Scots whether you place Fortriu in the north or not.
    If this battle took place at Loch Edarline instead what can we make of Cnoc Cairpri and Calathros ?

    Might consideration of the place-name meanings, and the language to which they belonged make any sense. Cnoc Cairpri seems clear enough, a gaelic named meaning Cairpri’s hill. Calathros might be gaelic or British, whilst Etarlinde might be Edarlin, ‘between pool(s)’ or it might by Eadar Linn dhu – ‘between dark pool(s)’.

    Any more thoughts on this.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for this, Dave. It’s good to see the battle of Cnoc Cairpri getting a mention on this blog. I’ve been meaning to write a post about it for some time, and maybe I’ll get down to it now that it’s been brought up. I’ve been calling it the battle of Ederline for a good few years, ever since I first checked the place-name debate about Calathros.

      My own belief is that the battle was indeed fought near Loch Ederline, in the vicinity of the village of Ford, in the south of Cenel Loairn territory. The annal entry for 736 associates it with the Pictish invasion of Lorn. Other entries identify Talorcan and Ainfcellach’s son as key players in this campaign. Talorcan was a brother of the Pictish king Oengus (Onuist) while Ainfcellach’s son (Muiredach) was a leading figure of Cenel Loairn.

      I see Cnoc Cairpri as one of the small hills in the Ford/Ederline area and Calathros as the name of the surrounding district. Cladrois in Islay may or may not have a name related to Calathros but I see the two as different places in any case. You’re right about the origin of the names: Cnoc Cairpri = Gaelic, Etarlindu = British or Pictish.

      An alternative theory locates the battle further north in Benderloch, on the north side of Loch Creran above Oban, on the basis that the name means ‘between lakes’ like Etarlindu.

  48. You know Tim, responding to your response above on Gododdin. It just occurred to me that perhaps the Romans forced some overkingships in the Borders region by recognizing certain kings and giving them not just loot but also weapons. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Romans only wanted to deal with 2-4 kings in that region, one east (Gododdin), one west on the Clyde, maybe another down near the Rhinns of Galloway and one in the central uplands. I would think that coastal kings would be the most important.

    • Tim says:

      Sounds feasible to me, Michelle. I’m sure the Romans developed clever strategies for disrupting and manipulating the patterns of power in this region to suit imperial interests. Nurturing some high-status families while isolating others, and maybe boosting the military capabilities of a chosen few who could then dominate the rest as stooges of Rome. This kind of musing brings up all the usual questions about continuity: are the ‘Roman’ aspirations of certain groups of North Britons c.500 a legacy of the Empire’s favouritism to their ancestors? I’m thinking now of Patrick’s ‘fellow-citizens of the holy Romans’ on the Clyde and the Latinity of the Yarrow Stone or the Catstane.

  49. […] league than one who could raise, well, 300 heroes after a year’s feasting, especially if those two then face off against each other. He could do more things. He could probably build dykes and so on, but he could also defend larger […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s