Deconstructing Nechtan

Pictish symbol: tuning fork
The Pictish symbol shown here is usually described as a tuning-fork. It has been suggested that it represents the name Nechtan which was borne by several Pictish kings (Cummins 1999, 130). The name itself had a widespread popularity across the British Isles and appears in various texts of the early medieval period.

Four of the attested Nechtans appear in contexts suggesting that they lived at the beginning of the seventh century. This contemporaneity has led some historians to suggest that they were the same person (e.g. Smyth 1984, 64-5).

The four Nechtans of c.600 are listed below. The texts in which they are found are in square brackets.
Nechtan, king of the Picts, nepos Uerb, i.e.grandson or nephew of Uerb or Verb [Pictish king-list]
Nechtan son of Cano, nationality unknown, who died in 621 [Annals of Ulster]
Neithon son of Gwyddno, a North Briton, father of King Beli of Dumbarton [Dumbarton royal genealogy]
Peithan (presumed to be a mis-spelling of Neithan) father of a North Briton called Gwid [from a verse of heroic poetry in the Gododdin]

The conflation of these four individuals into one figure was prompted by the ancestry of the Pictish king Brude who defeated Ecgfrith of Northumbria at the battle of Dunnichen in 685. In the Pictish king-list Brude’s father is named as Bili, a variant of Beli, and in a Life of Saint Adomnan Brude is called “son of the king of Dumbarton”. There is no doubt that Brude was the son of the Dumbarton king Beli, son of Neithon, but some historians take the identification process much further by seeing this Neithon as the same man as Nechtan nepos Uerb, king of the Picts. We are clearly dealing with variants of the same name but this is really as far as we can push the textual data. An old Irish poem describes Brude fighting at Dunnichen “for his grandfather’s inheritance”. Because Dunnichen means “Nechtan’s Fort” the inheritance has been seen as Pictish territory formerly ruled by Neithon of Dumbarton and defended in 685 by his grandson Brude. From this theory historians have developed a political scenario in which Neithon and his son Beli ruled not only the Dumbarton Britons but also some part of the Picts. This scenario is then proposed as an explanation of why the father of Brude, a Pictish king, turns out to be a Briton. The final segment of the conflation identifies Brude’s grandfather Neithon of Dumbarton as Nechtan, Cano’s son, and also as Peithan, father of Gwid, by assuming that Cano is an error for Gwyddno and that Peithan is an error for Neithan.

To me, these conflations seem unwarranted and unnecessary. The texts themselves do not give any hint that the same Nechtan/Neithon is meant in all four cases. Two of the quartet can in fact be removed from the equation:
Nechtan, son of Cano, could be the Irish king Nechtan Cendfota whose son died in battle in c.632 (Anderson 1922, 145, n.3), or an otherwise unknown king or cleric – the name was fairly common in ecclesiastical as well as in secular contexts.
Peithan, father of Gwid. If this man was alive today he might wonder why his perfectly normal Brittonic/Welsh name was being altered to Neithan. Nothing in the rhyme or metre of the Gododdin requires such alteration (Koch 1997, 207) which looks to me like wishful thinking by supporters of the “One Nechtan” theory.

This leaves Neithon of Dumbarton and Nechtan nepos Uerb, king of the Picts. The latter is unusual in that he appears in the Pictish king-list without the name of his father. He was a nephew or grandson of someone called Uerb or Verb whose name may be the attested female name Ferb. The lack of a patronym (X son of Y) points to something odd about this Nechtan’s ancestry and suggests that his father was unknown, unworthy or irrelevant to the compilers of the king-list. Since the scribes of the Dumbarton genealogy had no such doubts about the identity of Gwyddno, father of Neithon, his absence from the Pictish list seems strange (if we try to make him the father of Nechtan nepos Uerb). Why would the Pictish scribes ignore Gwyddno if their Dumbarton counterparts were happy to include him in a royal genealogy? It surely makes more sense to see Gwyddno’s son and nepos Uerb as two individuals who had the same name.

Instead of supporting the conflation theory I prefer to envisage three separate Nechtans:
Neithon, father of King Beli of Dumbarton and son of Gwyddno (but only Beli is securely identifiable as holding the kingship).
Nechtan, nepos Uerb, king of the Picts.
Nechtan, son of Cano, perhaps an Irish king or abbot.

The Nechtan who gave his name to Dunnichen (Gaelic Dun Nechtain) probably lived a long time before the battle of 685. He may have been one of the semi-legendary Pictish kings whose names appear in the earlier generations of the king-list, e.g. the Nechtan who allegedly founded the church at Abernethy in Fife. The grandfather’s “inheritance” connected to this battle may have been adjacent territory once ruled by Brude’s mother’s father, a high-status Pict whose name we do not know.

Brude’s kingship of the Picts does not demand that his father and/or grandfather also held sway over this people. As a supporter of Pictish matriliny (royal inheritance through the maternal line) I would not expect Brude’s immediate male forbears to be Pictish kings. Eanfrith, an exiled English prince, fathered a future king of the Picts on a Pictish princess before he himself became king of Bernicia in 633. Beli of Dumbarton may have likewise spent his youth as an exile among the Picts, during which time he and a Pictish royal lady together produced the future king Brude. A political context is provided by the long reign at Dumbarton of a king called Rhydderch Hael who sprang from a separate branch of the royal family. Perhaps Beli fled into exile in this period, as a fosterling – like Eanfrith – of Pictish royalty, before returning home to claim the kingship of Dumbarton after Rhydderch’s death?

Other strands of this topic include the maternal ancestry of Owain, king of Dumbarton, who was another son of Beli, plus the alleged kinship of Brude and his Northumbrian adversary Ecgfrith, not to mention the long-running debate about Pictish matriliny.


A.O. Anderson (ed) Early sources of Scottish history, vol.1 (Edinburgh, 1922)
W.A. Cummins The Picts and their symbols (Stroud, 1999)
J.T. Koch (ed) The Gododdin of Aneirin: text & context from dark age North Britain (Cardiff, 1997)
A.P. Smyth Warlords and holy men (London, 1984)

6 comments on “Deconstructing Nechtan

  1. Michelle says:

    Interesting. I wonder if Gwid son of Peithan is the Gwid who is the father of three Pictish kings in the time of Oswiu?

  2. Tim says:

    Smyth in Warlords & Holy Men sees the two Gwids as one person (i.e. a Pict) but the names might be mere coincidence if Gwid was not an exclusively Pictish name.

  3. What you wrote makes sense. King Brude son of the famous king named Maelchom of Gwynedd in North Wales, united the Southern Picts and Northern Picts in 560 C.E.

    Goddodin is the Votadini of Ptolemy’s map of 140 C.E. Go = Fo (Vo, Dwarves = the Irish), -do =
    -taidh (multitude, the dh is not pronouced), and
    -din, of course = -daoine (people). The Pictish warriors on the Battle Stone of Aberlemno commemorating their victory at Dunichean in 683 B.C. shows them wearing Irish clothing.

    The Picts having been matrilineal explains the great mixing of Irish and Welsh in Southern Pictland. It’s not really necessary if even possible to separate the Welsh element from the Irish element in Pictish history. Sort of like the Celt-Iberians.

    Check my web-page for more details.

    Na Fineachan Gaidhealach: The Day Before Mons Graupius

  4. Douglas Henderson says:

    Which Nechtan was the purported ancestor of the Hendersons of Glencoe, please?

    • Tim says:

      Clan Henderson tradition seems to identify the Pictish king Nechtan son of Derile (early 8th century) as the father of the legendary ancestor Eanruig Mor. This is the Nechtan mentioned by Bede as a religious reformer who corresponded with Abbot Ceolfrith of Wearmouth-Jarrow.

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