Terminology topics 1: Strathclyde

I’m hoping this will be the start of a series of posts on the names of early medieval kingdoms in northern Britain.

Strathclyde is a good place to begin because it’s a name I used to bandy about quite casually. I now use it in a much more limited, more specific way than before.

When people speak of Strathclyde they generally refer to one of two territorial entities:
1. a modern administrative region comprising Glasgow and adjacent districts.
2. an early medieval kingdom of the native Britons.

The first of these had a short life in the last quarter of the twentieth century before giving way to a further reorganisation of UK local government. The second had a rather longer existence – but how much longer? To answer this question we need to go back to Late Roman times, to the 4th and 5th centuries, when the kingdoms of the North Britons first came into being.

One of these kingdoms emerged in the territory of a people known to the Romans as Damnonii (some historians now see this as an error for Dumnonii). Its chief centre of power was Alt Clut, the Rock of Clyde, upon which Dumbarton Castle stands today. The kings of Alt Clut were major players in northern politics, outlasting their neighbours and countrymen to become the last independent realm of the North Britons. They were still ruling at Dumbarton in 870 when a Viking fleet sailed up the Firth of Clyde to besiege and plunder their ancient citadel. After this disaster we hear nothing more about Alt Clut in the sources. It seems safe to infer that the old kingdom was regarded by contemporary observers as defunct.

In 872, however, the Annals of Ulster give the following information:
Arthgal, king of the Britons of Strat Clut, was killed at the instigation of Constantine, son of Cinaed.

This is the earliest mention of Strathclyde in any source. Arthgal had been the king at Dumbarton when it was attacked by the Vikings but, in the eyes of the annalists, he was no longer associated with the great Rock of Clyde. Instead, his primary association was now with the strath or valley of the river. After his death his son Rhun became king and the royal dynasty continued to rule until the 11th century when the kingdom was conquered by the Scots. Between 870 and c.1070 the main centre of royal power on the Clyde lay upstream from Dumbarton in the vicinity of Govan and Partick. During these two hundred years the kingdom is consistently referred to as Strat Clut in the annals and other sources. This, then, is the true period of Strathclyde’s existence as an early medieval kingdom. It is indeed the only context in which the name has any accurate meaning. The realm of the Clyde Britons had a remarkably long existence but it would be erroneous to refer to it as Strathclyde before 870. Its earlier rulers are more accurately described as the kings of Alt Clut.

* * * * * * *
This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde

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5 comments on “Terminology topics 1: Strathclyde

  1. Michelle says:

    A good reminder of the difference between Alt Clut and Strathclyde. We do let the terms slide too easily. I have to wonder why they moved upstream. Was Alt Clut destroyed so badly it was a liability? It can’t be that they were safer later.

    It does make me wonder why the switch unless the kings later ruled a larger area, beyond the original fortress.

  2. Phil says:

    I think the area ruled did change. I see a loss round about Lennox/Loch Lomond (to the Scots) but an increase in influence eastwards into Tweeddale and south into what is now Cumbria. However it is obvious the areas of control of all the main players waxed and waned over the period in question.

  3. Tim says:

    The territorial extent of the post-870 kingdom may be indicated by the distribution of “Govan School” sculpture. The stonemasons who carved these monuments were Britons and so too (presumably) were the elite patrons who commissioned them. Examples of the Govan sculptural style are found not only in Lower Clydesdale (i.e. around Glasgow) but also to the southeast along the middle reaches of the Clyde near Hamilton in Lanarkshire. Southwest of Glasgow the Govan style is seen in North Ayrshire while a northern limit is perhaps defined by the sculpture from Luss on the shore of Loch Lomond. Phil mentions Tweeddale as a likely area of Strathclyde expansion and this does seem to be implied by the inclusion of Tweed estates in landholdings allocated to the Scottish king David I when he was made “prince of the Cumbrian region” in c.1100 (Cumbrian was a term often applied to the Strathclyde Britons). Place-names in the former county of Cumberland (now the northern part of post-1974 Cumbria) suggest a southward expansion of Strathclyde power in the tenth century via the replacement of English lords by a Brittonic-speaking elite.

    Tenth-century sculpture from Dumbarton implies that the old royal fortress of Alt Clut was not totally abandoned but its status was probably downgraded. Its location in the Firth of Clyde would have made it vulnerable to further Viking attacks.

  4. Tim says:

    I also wonder where the Attacotti came from, Phil. They are certainly a very mysterious bunch. Dawson’s theory seems to rely on removing the letter ‘l’ from Alt Clut to make ‘Atcut’ which he then connects to the name ‘Attacotti’. This was a method used by 19th century local historians before the study of place-names became more scientific. Current thinking leans towards an Irish origin for the Attacotti but it’s just another shot in the dark and we can’t run very far with it.

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