The disaster of 839

Constantine, son of Fergus

Carved horseman from the Dupplin Cross, c.820, probably representing the Pictish king Constantine, son of Fergus.


An entry under the year 839 in the Annals of Ulster (AU) begins with these words:

bellum re genntib for firu fortrenn
‘A battle by the Gentiles against the men of Fortriu’

The Irish annalists used ‘Gentiles’ (i.e. ‘heathens’) as a blanket term for Vikings, regardless of whether they were Norsemen or Danes. We are therefore unable to identify the group of ‘heathens’ referred to here. Their opponents, however, are identifiable as Picts from Fortriu, a region now regarded by historians as broadly coterminous with Moray. The AU entry continues by naming three prominent casualties of the battle:

‘and in it fell Eoganán, son of Óengus, and Bran, son of Óengus, and Áed, son of Boanta; and others fell, almost without number.’

Eoganán succeeded to the paramount kingship or overkingship of the Picts in c.836. His father Óengus had ruled from 820 to 834, succeeding his own brother Constantine (also known as ‘Custantin’ or ‘Causantin’), the king commemorated on the magnificent Dupplin Cross. Bran was presumably Eoganán’s brother. Áed, Boanta’s son, was paramount king of the Scots, ruling from a power-base in Argyll. His participation in the battle of 839, fighting alongside the Picts, suggests that he was an ally or vassal of Eoganán. This is consistent with the views of modern historians who envisage a longstanding Pictish dominance of the Scots reaching back to c.790. Oaths of fealty to his Pictish overlord would have required Áed to render military service whenever the need arose, even if it meant a long eastward march to fight a Viking army in Fortriu.

We do not know where the battle of 839 took place. Given the mention of warriors from Moray a location there seems likely but we should also allow the possibility that Eoganán led an army from Fortriu to a battlefield further south in Perthshire. Any Pictish territory would in fact be a candidate. Of one thing we can, at least, be fairly sure: the battle was a catastrophe for Picts and Scots alike. At a single stroke, both peoples were deprived of their kings, both kingdoms now lay at the mercy of the victors. No doubt the triumphant Vikings immediately went on a rampage, plundering the lands of the Picts and sending raiding-parties westward to harrass the Scots. In the ensuing chaos several ambitious figures claimed the vacant Pictish overkingship, among them a certain Cináed mac Ailpín (‘Kenneth Macalpine’) whose origins are shrouded in mystery. After vanquishing his rivals Cináed established a new royal dynasty which eventually brought the Picts and Scots together as one people.

It is hard to see how Cináed could have made his mark on posterity if Eoganán had defeated the Vikings in 839. Medieval Scottish history might have turned out very differently if the men of Fortriu had tasted victory on that fateful battlefield. The slaughter of the Picts and their allies is sometimes called ‘the disaster of 839’, an apt description of an encounter whose political consequences were indeed far-reaching. Alex Woolf suggests that it ‘may be one of the most decisive and important battles in British history’, an observation which surely ranks the disaster of 839 alongside two other famous ‘lost’ battles: Degsastan (603) and Brunanburh (937). All three were events of great significance in their own time, all three were turning-points in the early history of Scotland, but their precise geographical contexts unfortunately elude us.

References

Alan Orr Anderson, Early sources of Scottish history, AD 500 to 1286. vol.1 (Edinburgh, 1922), p.268 [for the translation of AU 839 used here]

Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070 (Edinburgh, 2007), p.66

5 comments on “The disaster of 839

  1. […] Vikings. After all, they were responsible for the end of Pictland dontcherknow, or at least so Tim Clarkson argues at Senchus. But what on earth were they up to with these strange stones in their graves? Melissa Snell, […]

  2. darren says:

    Intreasting to read that where I live in clackmananshire we have the battle of Dollar that local people say it was between vikings and Constantine. and the survivors from Constantines deafted army fled northwards to Atholl.im just intreasted in this often overlooked side of our history ,but when you think of the vikings they may havesailed up the Forth as Alloa,good land good hills for grazing.Love to find out more.But I can’t get any further.

    • Tim says:

      Eight years ago, I visited Dollar to try and get some idea of where the battle might have been fought. It was only a quick visit so I didn’t really get chance to explore. I think this battle was most likely a significant event, leaving the victorious Vikings with a free hand to plunder Clackmannanshire (good farming country, like you say) and other places as well. They stayed a whole year, depleting Constantine of the kind of resources that enabled him to stay in power. The same bunch may have tangled with him again, in 876, when he was slain in battle (location uncertain, but maybe at Inverdovat in Fife). As you point out, these events are often overlooked. It’s a pity they’re not more well-known, because they form part of a broader sequence in the big transition from Pictland to Alba and from Pictish to Scottish identity.

  3. I’m doing research on early Pictish kings and have come across a stumbling block. Drest IX and Talorc IV apparently had a joint rule, for some reason, between 834 – 837. Both ruled at the exact same time and died at the exact same date. But I can’t find out why. Was it simply a battle against the Vikings? I’d love to know.

    • Tim says:

      [This reply was sent to Trisha during an email conversation, but I’m copying it here so that others can see it]

      Hi Trisha. Having now refreshed my memory on this topic, here is my response to your question.

      Drest/Drust is shown in the Pictish king lists as a son of Constantin/Causantin (whose reign ended with his death in 820, when he was succeeded by his brother Oengus/Unuist).

      Talorc/Talorcan is shown as “son of Wthoil”, the latter otherwise unknown and seemingly not a king. There is no hint that Drest and Talorc were related, but Alfred Smyth suggested that they might be cousins in a speculative ‘family tree’ diagram in his 1984 book Warlords And Holy Men. Smyth showed Wthoil as possibly a husband of a sister of Constantin and Oengus (although we cannot be sure that any sisters even existed). If Smyth is right, Talorc, Drest and Eoganan/Uuen were all cousins.

      Drest succeeded his uncle Oengus as king of the Picts. Talorc may have been a rival claimant who set himself up as an alternative king, or he may have set himself up as ruler of the northern Picts (if, for instance, the Pictish overkingship divided into its former northern and southern parts after the death of Oengus in 834), or he and Drest may have shared the overkingship in some fashion as co-rulers.

      Given their short reigns and their deaths in the same year, I think it quite likely that both Drest and Talorc died in battle, possibly the same battle (foreshadowing the swathe of royal deaths in the disaster of 839). Your guess that they were slain in a clash with Vikings certainly seems plausible.

      Historians see Drest as a fairly straightforward case of nephew succeeding uncle. But there is a fog of mystery surrounding Talorc, whose background and family origins remain uncertain because his father Wthoil is not mentioned elsewhere. The Pictish king lists are notoriously vague and ambiguous, presenting us with various obscure figures who don’t appear in other sources such as the Irish annals. This is why it’s impossible to make any progress with Talorc.

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