The Battle of Dorsum Crup

Alba was the name of the kingdom of the Scots and Picts ruled by the descendants of Cinaed mac Ailpin. In 962 the kingship was contested by rival branches of the mac Ailpin dynasty represented by Dub mac Mael Coluim and Cuilen mac Ilduilb. The sources suggest that these two princes, sons of previous kings, ruled jointly for several years before their rivalry erupted in open war. According to the Old Scottish Chronicle (otherwise known as the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba) the decisive encounter was fought in 965 at a place called Dorsum Crup:

[A battle occurred] between Niger and Caniculus on Dorsum Crup, and in it Niger had the victory. And there fell Dunchad, abbot of Dunkeld, and Dubdon the satrap of Atholl.

Niger and Caniculus are Latin translations of the Gaelic names Dub (“Black”) and Cuilen (“Little Hound”). Dorsum Crup is also Latin and means “Ridge of Crup”. In modern Gaelic this would appear as Druim Crub, a name seen by some historians as an echo of Duncrub in Perthshire. Duncrub is a minor place-name borne by a farmhouse and a small stream in the valley of the River Earn near the village of Dunning. It seems an unlikely location for the battle of 965, chiefly because there is no obvious druim or ridge in the immediate vicinity. The only plausible candidate for the druim is a fairly unimpressive length of higher ground overlooking the farmhouse of Duncrub Mains and the Duncrub Burn. This rises to a maximum height of 64 metres above sea-level and is not a particularly striking feature in the landscape. Its identification as Dorsum Crup seems, at first glance, to be a wild guess based on a superficial similarity between the names. On the other hand we find Duncrub being referred to as Drumcroube in one medieval source, a significant reference which appears to indicate that local people in the Middle Ages regarded the aforementioned patch of high ground as a “ridge”. If this was so, why did they subsequently change their perceptions and re-designate the feature as a dun or “hill”? A sceptical response to this question might see Drumcroube as an incorrect form of Duncrub arising from a one-off error committed by a single scribe while transcribing a single document. If Drumcroube is indeed a “ghost” name we would need to look elsewhere for the site of Dub’s victory over Cuilen.

Alex Woolf has recently reminded us that other crub names exist in the present-day Scottish landscape. He quotes as an example the name Cruban borne today by the hills Cruban Beg and Cruban Mor near the border between Atholl and Badenoch. These two peaks rise above a major highland pass, a setting no less plausible than Strathearn for a tenth-century royal battle. The presence of Dubdon, the satrap (“ruler” or “governor”) of Atholl, among the casualties would certainly be consistent with such a location. We should nevertheless consider the possibility that the place-name Dorsum Crup or Druim Crub has not survived in any form recognisable today. We cannot even hazard a tentative guess that the battle of 965 occurred in the Perthshire heartlands of the kingdom of Alba, either in the fertile valley of Earn or on the rugged northern frontier among the glens of Atholl. Both Dub and Cuilen had far-ranging political interests which encompassed a very wide area, their deaths occuring respectively in Moray and Clydesdale. Dorsum Crup could potentially lie anywhere within a broad tract of territory stretching from Glasgow to Inverness. Thus, although Duncrub seems to offer a quick fix, we cannot be certain that an important tenth-century battle occurred there.

References:

Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba (Edinburgh, 2007), p.202
W.J. Watson, The history of the Celtic place-names of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1926), p.56

For recent discussions of the name Duncrub see:
James Fraser, The Roman conquest of Scotland: the battle of Mons Graupius, AD 84 (Stroud, 2005), pp.72-6
Andrew Breeze, “Philology on Tacitus’ Graupian Hill and Trucculan Harbour” Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 132 (2002), 305-11

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