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