The woman from Dun Guaire

Aed, son of Cinaed mac Ailpin (‘Kenneth MacAlpin’), succeeded his brother Constantine as overking of the Picts in 876. According to the Annals of Ulster Aed’s reign ended violently, after only two years, when he was slain by his socii (‘companions’ or ‘associates’). His death precipitated a dynastic crisis, a period of uncertainty, for which no clear picture emerges from the sources. One text, the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba (‘CKA’), identifies Aed’s successor as his nephew Eochaid, a grandson of Cinaed mac Ailpin. Interestingly, CKA regards Eochaid not as a Pict, nor as a Scot (like Cinaed’s alleged ancestors in Kintyre), but as a Briton. It names Eochaid’s father as Rhun ab Arthgal, king of Strathclyde, whose own father had been murdered by Vikings in 872 following the capture of Alt Clut, the royal citadel of the Clyde Britons, in 870. Eochaid’s mother, according to CKA, was a daughter of Cinaed, thus making Eochaid eligible for the overkingship of the Picts held by the mac Ailpin dynasty since the 840s. CKA gives Eochaid a reign of eleven years and adds that ‘others’ – presumably other written sources or oral traditions – say that he ruled simultaneously with a certain Giric. The latter is called the alumnus (‘foster father’) and ordinator (‘governor’) of Eochaid. Both men were eventually toppled from power in c.889.

At first glance the above sequence of events looks fairly straightforward. Unfortunately, when we turn to various other sources, the picture becomes quite confusing. The king-lists showing a line of succession from Cinaed via his brother, sons and grandsons make a space for Giric’s reign but not for Eochaid’s. This led the historian Archie Duncan to wonder if CKA might be wrong in describing Eochaid as king of the Picts after Aed’s death. Professor Duncan suggested a correction to CKA’s wording to show Giric as Cinaed’s grandson and Aed’s true successor, with Eochaid simply succeeding his own father Rhun as king of Strathclyde. In this scenario Giric, not Eochaid, becomes king of the Picts. Although this makes the situation clearer it requires tampering with CKA to make its wording conform with other texts, such as the king-lists, which are not necessarily more reliable.

One of the most enigmatic sources for this period is Berchan’s Prophecy, an eleventh-century history of early medieval Scotland presented as a ‘pseudo-prophecy’, i.e. a series of predicted events that had already happened at the time of writing. It does not mention kings by name but drops enough hints to enable most of them to be identified. Thus, it describes Eochaid as an Britt a Cluaide mac mna o Dhun Guaire, ‘the Briton from the Clyde, son of the woman from Dun Guaire’ and seems to lament his tenure of the mac Ailpin kingship with the cry ‘Alas! In the West and in the East a Briton is placed over the Gaels!’ It refers to Giric as mac rath, ‘son of fortune’, whatever that might mean.

Historians continue to debate the puzzle of Eochaid and Giric, with no firm consensus emerging on which of these mysterious men ruled the Picts in the period 878-89. The debate is a very interesting topic by itself but here, in this post, I want to focus instead on one small aspect of it: the identity of Eochaid’s mother, ‘the woman from Dun Guaire’. Who was this lady and where did she come from?

My starting point is an acknowledgement that we do not know her name. CKA tells us her father was Cinaed mac Ailpin who died in 858 but gives no more information about her. Only one of Cinaed’s daughters is known by name: the long-lived, twice-married Mael Muire (died 913) whose husbands were two very powerful Irish kings. Mael Muire’s first marriage was almost certainly a political union arranged by the mac Ailpin family, perhaps by her brother Constantine who ruled as king of the Picts from 862 to 876. Her unnamed sister, the future mother of Eochaid, was probably betrothed to Rhun of Strathclyde for similar political reasons. In a time of war and dynastic rivalry, with the added peril of Viking raids, Cinaed’s family would have sought mutually-beneficial relationships with powerful allies. By marrying Mael Muire and her sister to kings and princes in Ireland or on the Clyde the mac Ailpins were able to seal these important alliances with bonds of kinship.

The earliest possible birth-dates for Cinaed’s daughters lie around 858, the year of their father’s death. Mael Muire must therefore have been in her mid-fifties or older when she died in 913. If her first Irish marriage took place at some point during Constantine’s kingship (862-76) she would have been a bride of at least eighteen (e.g. if she was born in 858 and married in 876) but this is a minimum age based on the deaths of her father and brother. Her first Irish marriage, to Aed Findlaith who died in 879, could just as feasibly have occurred when she was in her twenties. She was Aed’s third wife. We do not know that she was younger than her brother Constantine, who must have been born, at the latest, in c.846 to be eligible for kingship in 862 (i.e. at least 15 or 16 years old when he became king). Nor can we assume that Mael Muire was an older sibling of Eochaid’s mother. The latter’s husband, King Rhun, ruled the Strathclyde Britons during the 870s. Rhun’s father Arthgal was assassinated in captivity, probably in Dublin, by Vikings who carried out the murder at the request of Constantine, son of Cinaed. Although we might imagine Rhun grieving at the news of his father’s violent death we cannot be certain that this was the case. Family strife may have divided father and son, caused (for instance) by Arthgal overlooking Rhun and grooming another son as his designated heir. If so, then Rhun may have been installed as king of Strathclyde in opposition to his father, seizing the throne with Constantine’s help, or with the help of the same Dublin Vikings who besieged Alt Clut in 870. Rhun’s kingship could even have begun as early as 870 or 871, a year or two before his father’s assassination at Viking hands.

The chronology of Eochaid’s reign, as given in CKA, leaves us in no doubt that Rhun’s marriage to Cinaed’s daughter occurred before the siege of Alt Clut. This is because Eochaid’s alleged kingship of the Picts began, according to CKA, after the death of Aed, son of Cinaed, in 878. Even if Eochaid attained the kingship at a young age, in his mid-teens for example, he must have been born in 863 at the very latest. His parents’ marriage should therefore be placed in or before 862, which was also (perhaps significantly) the first year of Constantine’s reign. Eochaid’s mother, even if she was a young bride of fifteen or sixteen at her wedding to Rhun, must have been born before 847. The sources tell us that her father Cinaed became paramount king of the Picts in c.842, after previously ruling as a king in Argyll, the homeland of the Scots. Genealogical information associated with Cinaed locates his original power-base in Kintyre, the ancient home of the Cenel nGabrain dynasty whose kings had dominated Argyll during the seventh century. Cinaed’s ancestry was linked to Cenel nGabrain by later Scottish genealogists who possibly fabricated it. His true ancestry is unknown, nor can we be certain that he ruled from a domain in Kintyre. The most we can say with confidence is that he held some kind of authority in some part of Argyll in the period c.839 to c.842, after which he staked a claim on the Pictish overkingship and migrated east to Perthshire. He evidently consolidated his rule over the Picts in 848 or 849, after defeating a series of rivals. It seems likely that his older children were born in the West, among the Scots, in the 830s or 840s rather than in his later power-base in the Pictish heartlands. His sons Constantine and Aed and daughter Mael Muire might therefore have been Argyll-born. Another daughter, the future wife of Rhun and mother of Eochaid, might also have been born there.

Berchan’s Prophecy calls Eochaid’s mother ‘the woman from Dun Guaire’. Historians usually identify this place as Bamburgh, the ancient citadel of Northumbrian kings which previously bore the Brittonic name Din Guayroi. Prior to c.550 the Britons held control of Din Guayroi before losing it to the English who gave it a name in their own language: Bebbanburgh, later Bamburgh. A Gaelic equivalent of the original Brittonic name seems to be recorded in the title of an old Irish tale Sluagad Fiachnai maic Baitain co Dun nGuaire i Saxanaib (‘The hosting of Fiachna mac Baitan to Dun Guaire in Saxon-land (i.e. England)’). Fiachna was an Irish high-king of the early seventh century but we do not know anything about his attack on ‘Saxon-land’: the story behind the Sluagad is lost and only the title survives, leaving the event devoid of historical context. Historians have generally assumed, nonetheless, that the Dun Guaire targeted by Fiachna was Din Guayroi, Bamburgh, at a time when it lay under English control. This is the only instance of a place called Dun Guaire appearing in an English geographical context. We might wonder if this lone reference – the title of a lost Irish tale about an otherwise unrecorded seventh-century event – is secure enough to sustain a superstructure of scholarly speculation. The fragility of this obscure and solitary piece of data has not, however, discouraged the frequent identification of Eochaid’s mother, Cinaed’s daughter, the unnamed ‘woman from Dun Guaire’, as a lady with Northumbrian connections. To some historians she has become, in effect, ‘the woman from Bamburgh’ and has duly acquired a fairly plausible but completely speculative biography in which her betrothal to Rhun of Strathclyde precedes (or follows) an unrecorded marriage to a Northumbrian.

I first became puzzled by ‘the woman from Dun Guaire’ last year, while researching the kings of Strathclyde. The Bamburgh connection somehow didn’t feel right, chiefly because it requires us to imagine a daughter of Cinaed mac Ailpin living among the English of Northumbria long enough to be described as being ‘from Bamburgh’. This seems, in any case, an odd description to be bestowed by a Scottish text (Berchan’s Prophecy) on a woman who was either a Scot or a Pict. Even if she spent time at Bamburgh as the wife of an Englishman it is hard to see why she would be regarded as being ‘from’ there in any real sense. From an eleventh-century Scottish perspective she was surely ‘from’ her homeland rather than ‘from’ a foreign kingdom where her (alleged) English husband dwelt.

At the root of my scepticism lay the distant memory of a childhood holiday in Ireland when I visited a castle in Galway. I remembered its name: Dun Guaire. Although this place seems too far from Scotland to be associated with Cinaed’s unnamed daughter (but not, of course, with her sister Mael Muire) I began to wonder if it might have a Scottish namesake. A web search revealed two locations in Argyll, both called Dun Guaire and both listed on the Canmore database as ancient stone-walled forts. Neither site has been the subject of detailed archaeological study so in neither case can a date of occupation be firmly fixed. One fort is on the island of Mull, the other on Islay. Curiously, both islands lie outside the heartlands of Cenel nGabrain – the royal dynasty to which Cinaed’s family allegedly belonged – being instead controlled respectively by the rival kindreds of Cenel Loairn (based in Lorn and Mull) and Cenel nOengusa (in Islay). However, our uncertainty about Cinaed’s origins means that we cannot rule out any region of Argyll from a search for his family’s ancestral domains (nor, it should be said, can we rule out any Pictish region). At this point I again bring the mysterious Giric into the puzzle, as a brief digression from my main topic.

Giric, like Cinaed, is a man without a verifiable ancestry. In some sources his father’s name appears as Dungal, a name borne by an ambitious eighth-century king of Cenel Loairn. Some historians think Giric himself was a member of the Cenel Loairn kindred, perhaps a man of mixed parentage who – like Cinaed – held a minor kingship among the Scots before pursuing a legitimate claim on the Pictish overkingship. Another theory sees Giric as a usurper, an intruder into the sequence of mac Ailpin kings, whose right to rule as ‘king of the Picts’ was imposed by force of arms. Less dramatic, and perhaps more plausible, is the suggestion that he was related to the mac Ailpin family by blood and merely asserted a lawful claim on the Pictish throne. This conforms to Professor Duncan’s suggested emendation of CKA, mentioned above, in which Giric rather than Eochaid succeeds Aed as king of the Picts in 878. Perhaps Giric’s mother was a mac Ailpin princess, another unnamed daughter of Cinaed, and perhaps his father was a king of Cenel Loairn who bore the auspicious royal name Dungal? Unfortunately this takes us too far into the realm of speculation. In so far as Giric has any documented connection with the mac Ailpin family it centres on his role as foster-father of Eochaid, as described by the (unaltered) wording of CKA.

Returning to the main thread of this post, I should point out that I am not alone in feeling sceptical about the idea of Eochaid’s mother being ‘the woman from Bamburgh’. Quite recently, while hunting for information on the Argyll forts called Dun Guaire, I came across an interesting note by Henry Gough-Cooper on the website of the Scottish Place-Name Society. Writing in the Society’s newsletter, Gough-Cooper expressed doubts about the Dun Guaire=Bamburgh equation and drew attention to the two namesake forts on Mull and Islay as well as to the castle in Galway and another Irish site in Mayo. Pointing to the strong marital links between Cinaed’s family and Ireland (via Mael Muire’s two marriages) Gough-Cooper wondered if Mael Muire’s sister might also have married an Irish king, the latter ruling from either the Galway or Mayo Dun Guaire before (or after) her marriage to Rhun of Strathclyde. To me, this scenario is at least as plausible (if not more so) than the Bamburgh connection so often assumed by historians. On the other hand, it incorporates a similar premise, namely that Eochaid’s mother was regarded in eleventh-century Scotland as being ‘from’ a place where her first (or second) husband resided. My scepticism still points me towards an alternative view in which Berchan’s Dun Guaire is a reference to a mac Ailpin stronghold or residence in Argyll where the family nurtured its children in the 830s and 840s. This may have been one of the two ancient sites still bearing the name (which, as Henry Gough-Cooper points out, has a variant form Dun Guaidhre) or a different Dun Guaire whose name has not survived. Wherever it was, it might have been the birthplace or childhood home of Mael Muire, her sister and their brothers Constantine and Aed. Or it might not. Maybe the author of Berchan’s Prophecy got himself in a muddle about Eochaid and Giric and, in striving to be as enigmatic as possible, mistakenly applied the label ‘son of the woman from Dun Guaire’ to the wrong man. We are unlikely to ever solve the puzzle.

Keeping an open mind is fundamental to any objective study of early medieval Scotland. The sources rarely allow us to make definite statements, or to pin our theories too firmly to the mast. We simply know too little about too many things. This is why so many well-argued theories can be challenged by simply looking at the old sources in different ways, and by trying to understand what the authors of these texts hoped to achieve. Having issued this disclaimer I feel at liberty to end this post with my own conclusions about the mysterious ‘woman from Dun Guaire’. Here, then, are my (cautiously) confident answers to the question ‘Who was she?’

* she was a daughter of Cinaed mac Ailpin, ‘king of the Picts’.
* like Cinaed she was a Pict or a Scot.
* she was born before 847.
* her primary language was Gaelic.
* she married Rhun ab Arthgal, king of the Strathclyde Britons, before 863.
* in 863, or earlier, she bore a son who was given the Gaelic name Eochaid.
* she became a ‘queen mother’ when Eochaid attained the kingship of the Picts (or of the Britons) in c.878, if indeed she was still alive at that time.

———————————-

References

Alan Orr Anderson, Early sources of Scottish history, AD 500 to 1286. vol.1 (Edinburgh, 1922), p.363-6

Archibald Duncan, The kingship of the Scots, 842-1292 (Edinburgh, 2002), pp.11-14

Henry Gough-Cooper, ‘Dun Guaire’ SPNS Newsletter, Autumn 2001 click here and scroll down the page

Benjamin T. Hudson, Kings of Celtic Scotland (Westport, 1994), pp.55-7

Alan Macquarrie, ‘The kings of Strathclyde, c.400-1018’, pp.1-19 in A. Grant and K.J. Stringer (eds.) Medieval Scotland: crown, lordship and community (Edinburgh, 1993) [discusses Rhun and Eochaid at p.13]

Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070 (Edinburgh, 2007), pp.117-21

* * * * * * *

This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde

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22 comments on “The woman from Dun Guaire

  1. James Hynes says:

    King Guaire who lived in Dun Guaire, Kinvara, Irekland had a daughter, Creide who fell in love with Can of Scotland.

  2. […] the first king to rule from Govan. We can’t be certain who succeeded him. One of his sons by Cinaed’s daughter was Eochaid, a man with a Gaelic name who seems to have ruled the Picts in the 880s. It is possible […]

  3. Erica says:

    There’s another way she could be “from” somewhere beyond it being a mac Ailpin stronghold nor a place she’d married into: fosterage. I’m not sure what centuries it had more or less popularity, but the Irish at least had quite a history of fostering children in other families which would, again, increase kinship ties between prominent families. This royal daughter could well have been fostered with whatever family controlled Dun Guaire (wherever it might be) and then might be thought of as being from there if she had been raised there.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for this, Erica. Fosterage is an explanation I had not considered before but it is certainly possible. In fact, it was such a normal part of inter-dynastic relations in this period that we might even expect at least one of Cinaed’s children to have been fostered. The more I think about it, the more plausible it sounds in this particular case.

      • But where girls fostered or just boys?

        • Tim says:

          Ah! Good question. I guess I’m assuming girls were fostered, presumably as ‘ladies in waiting’ to a queen or princess. But I can’t think of a specific example. If any of Aethelfrith’s daughters were fostered in Dal Riata they maybe don’t count as they were exiles.

          • Erica says:

            It’s true that most of the stories I can think of involving fosterage concerns boys, though it’s tickling my mind that one of the women in, perhaps, the Ulster Cycle (it’s been too long since I actually read this stuff) has a foster-father refered to… The law on fosterage, Cáin Íarraith, refers to fosterage of girls as well as boys. In fact, it sets a different fee by gender, higher for girls than boys. (There could also be fosterage of affection which wouldn’t have a fee associated with it). But I don’t know when Cáin Íarraith was written. A quick google search gave me scholarly articles using it for evidence in early medieval fosterage in Ireland, but I couldn’t find a manuscript date quickly. Two of the articles mentioned that the discepency in fee might be because girls would be less able to help support their foster-parents once she was grown.

            • For Æbbe of Bamburgh, sister of Oswald and Oswiu, it would be Anglo-Saxon tradition governing fosterage. Do we have evidence of fosterage (as opposed to refuge in exile) between the Irish and Saxons?

              • Erica says:

                Hmm…it would be an interesting question to research. Given how much intermarriage there was between the ruling classes of the different early medieval kingdoms in the British Isles, I’d be surprised if there wasn’t fosterage between them provided both cultures had fosterage. After all, they could be fostered with, essentially cousins, re-strengthening kinship ties that might have been formed a generation or two earlier by marriage. But that’s just speculation. I’d have to do some digging to see if we knew of any actual examples. And most of my research time right now is focused on preparing for the class I’m going to teach in August on Pictish Women. It would be interesting to know though.

                Surely for Cinead’s daughter, it would be the Irish (and perhaps the Pictish) fosterage traditions that would be most pertinant.

  4. Tim says:

    This is an interesting discussion of a topic I have been wanting to know more about for a long time. I don’t even think I’d heard of Cain Iarraith until Erica mentioned it, but clearly it’s something I need to look up.

    Michelle raises an interesting point about exile which prompts the question: does offering a refuge count as fosterage in certain circumstances? If we think of Oswald and his brothers riding on campaign with Dal Riatan warbands are we looking at ‘foster sons’ rather than protected refugees?

    I think Erica is on the right track with her suggestion that fosterage between ruling families may have helped to strengthen existing inter-dynastic kinship links. We could maybe see it as another strand of diplomacy (i.e. ‘international relations’), possibly a very important strand as well.

    Erica – your class on Pictish women sounds interesting. I’m curious to know if the question of female warriors is on the agenda.

    • Erica says:

      As I pull together material, I’m beginning to see what a whirlwind tour this class is going to be. I only have one hour. So yes, the question of female warriors will be raised–if nothing else, there is Scathach & family to bring up in terms of legendary figures said to be Pictish. But we won’t have time to dwell on any one aspect very long. But I will be trying to write things up as I go and afterward, and the write up will have more room.

      • Tim says:

        Sounds like quite a challenge. I expect you’ll include the controversial topic of Pictish matriliny (which probably connects with fosterage at a few points). Those of us who still think matrilinear succession was the rule rather than the exception seem to be a dwindling species right now.

        • Erica says:

          Yup, we’ll touch on that too. I don’t actually have strong opinions on that one yet. Lots more reading required first. There are a few theories that seem reasonable to me. And I’m not at all sure that the system for chosing kings stayed stable throughout the Pictish period. In fact, it seems somewhat inevitable that a combination of matriliny and political marriages to cultures that favored patriliny would slowly shift opinion by bringing in rulers–at least periodically–who had Pictish mothers but fathers from patrilineal cultures, most of whom would have been raised in their father’s home. And I rather wonder if that’s exactly what was happening in the generations around and following Cinead. But as I said, I need to read up more on it all.

          Really I’ve been mostly focused lately on individual women, and implications of the lives of (high-born) Pictish women (names, material culture, status, activities, education, etc.). Questions of their effect on succession would certainly play into that, but it’s such a famously complex and controversial question I’ve shied away a bit in favor of compiling data on aspects more often neglected (like figuring out a full list of the women we know anything much about and what we know about them and then seeing where we may stand with that data.)

          • Tim says:

            I’ll be interested to hear what your research into Pictish women turns up. Like you, I’ve been trying to learn more about individual women, hence my blogposts on Coblaith of Skye, Princess Eithne and Mael Muire and her unnamed sister (Cinaed’s daughters)

            I agree with you about the probable weakening of matriliny through contact with patrilineal cultures. The matrilineal theory certainly isn’t dead yet, as long as it can still be shown to be a plausible interpretation of the enigma of Pictish royal succession.

  5. Claire says:

    Thanks for writing this post! Afraid I have nothing intellectual to add to this very interesting discussion in the comments section but just wanted to say I enjoyed the read. I’ve been researching Cinaed’s daughters and this is the most interesting post I’ve come across. The second time I’ve read that there could be a ‘speculative’ 3rd daughter …

    • Tim says:

      Thank you, Claire. I’d be interested to hear more about your research on Cinaed’s daughters, so feel free to mention any interesting snippets you’ve found, or any ideas of your own, in this comment thread.

      • Claire says:

        Will do! I have a wild hypothesis I’m exploring (part inspired my your point above). Could Cinaed have a third daughter who was not married but who had an (illegitimate?) son with a claim to become King. This son was Giric…there seems to be lots of confusion around Giric. Some things I’ve read suggest his is Cinead’s Grandson, some his nephew, some the Uncle of Eochaid. Could Giric be the son of Cinaed’s brother, Domnal, who illegitimately fathered a child of Cinaed’s third daughter? More fantasy than history at the moment. I’m new to this and trying to unravel the tanist and pictish matrilineal lines is boggling my mind

        • Tim says:

          I believe you’re on the right track in thinking Giric was a member of Cinaed’s family. To have a legitimate claim on the Pictish throne, I think Giric must have had a clear blood-link with the mac Ailpin dynasty. His father is named as ‘Dungal’ but some historians think this might be a misprint for another name such as Domnall. The whole thing is a muddle, but suggesting Giric as a nephew of Cinaed sounds plausible enough to me.

  6. Claire says:

    He’s a really interesting character! Do you have any recommendations of what I could read to find out more about the Pictish side of the Mac Ailpin bloodline? e.g. Cinaed’s mother/grandmother. I stumbled across something that suggested it could be Lagertha of Ragnar Lothbrok fame, which sounds a bit fantastical but quite a fun idea given the timings

    • Tim says:

      Cinaed’s ancestry is so mysterious that even his father Alpin cannot be fixed securely in place and time. The only certainty seems to be that Cinaed must have had a legitimate claim on the Pictish kingship via some kind of blood link to the ruling dynasty. This might have come from Alpin – which was a name borne by a Pictish king in the previous century – or from Cinaed’s mother. Yet the Prophecy of Berchan appears to call Cinaed’s brother Domnall ‘the wanton son of a Foreigner wife’, which suggests that she was a Norsewoman (Gaelic Gall=’Foreigner’=Norse). If she was Cinaed’s mother too, then this might link up with the Lagertha tradition you’ve encountered. At the root of the problem is the fact that any or all references to Cinaed’s parentage and lineage could be propaganda devised by medieval Scottish writers who lived two or three hundred years after his death.

      • Claire says:

        Yes propaganda does make it rather difficult to unpick! But thank you very much for giving me a thread to hold on to with the ‘wanton son of a Foreigner wife’ – i’ll certainly be using that one.

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