Terminology topics 2: Fortriu

A handful of references in the Irish annals refer to a Pictish kingdom or region called Fortriu. Until recently this area was usually equated with Strathearn, the valley of the River Earn in Perthshire, together with an adjacent district to the south called Menteith. Historians based this identification on a number of assumptions made in the nineteenth century by well-respected scholars such as William Forbes Skene. In his famous three-volume work Celtic Scotland, Skene saw a close parallel between the seven ancient ‘divisions’ of Scotland listed in De Situ Albanie (c.1200) and an earlier vision of Pictish political geography presented by the Irish annalists. He believed the annal references to Fortriu referred to a region described by DSA as situated between the rivers Forth and Tay, an otherwise unnamed area corresponding to the later medieval earldoms of Strathearn and Menteith. Skene and those who shared his views seem to have been influenced by a vague similarity between the names Forth and Fortriu, which are in fact unrelated linguistically.

The location of Fortriu, according to WF Skene.

Outside the annals Fortriu is named as one of seven Pictish provinces in the tale of Cruithne, legendary ancestor of the Picts, which appears in various Scottish and Irish texts. Of these provinces some can be identified fairly securely (e.g. ‘Fib’ = Fife, ‘Fotla’ = Atholl, ‘Cat’ = Caithness) while others, including Fortriu, are more puzzling. The dubious historical value of the Cruithne legend did not, however, prevent historians from trying to match its seven provinces to the seven divisions of Scotland given in De Situ Albanie. The mysterious Fortriu was duly matched to a blank area comprising Strathearn and Menteith, an equation which fitted neatly with Skene’s earlier ideas about Pictish geography.

The name Fortriu derives from, or is closely related to, the Latin name Verturiones which the Roman writer Ammianus Marcellinus applied to one of two divisions of the Picts in the late fourth century. The other division, the Dicalydones, was plainly a manifestation of the Caledones or Caledonians who had resisted Rome’s first invasion of Scotland three hundred years earlier. The place-names Dunkeld, Rohallion and Schiehallion all contain a Gaelic form of the root term ‘Caledon’ and show that the heartland of the Caledonian Picts lay in Perthshire along the Tay valley. A perception that the Verturiones, the Picts of Fortriu, dwelt south of this area in a region between Forth and Tay became part of the bedrock of Scottish medieval studies throughout the twentieth century. Few people paused to wonder if Skene and his contemporaries were wrong in placing Fortriu south of the Caledonian heartlands. Few questioned the wisdom or necessity of trying to match the seven provinces in the Cruithne legend to the seven territories described in De Situ Albanie. A large measure of trust was therefore placed in data of dubious reliability. The guesses and unsupported assertions went unchallenged for more than a century, with only a small number of scholars voicing their unease.

During 2007, while attempting to write a narrative history of the Picts, I followed conventional wisdom by equating Fortriu with Strathearn and Menteith. This was despite having already encountered a 2006 paper by Alex Woolf in which the old perceptions of Pictish geography were rigorously questioned. Woolf’s argument incorporated two related threads, the first being a suggestion that the great battle of Dun Nechtain in AD 685 was not fought at Dunnichen in Perthshire but further north at Dunachton in Badenoch. The second cast doubt on the conventional placement of Fortriu and suggested that it, too, should be moved northward. Woolf made a strong case for locating Fortriu and the Verturiones in Moray. He drew attention to Bede’s belief that the Picts were divided into two parts, a northern and a southern, separated by the Grampian Mountains. If this division corresponds to the one observed by Ammianus Marcellinus three hundred years earlier, it seemed logical to assume that the people dwelling south of the Grampians – the Dicalydones or Caledonian Picts of Perthshire – were Bede’s southerners, thereby leaving us in little doubt that their northern cousins were the Verturiones, the ancestors of the Picts of Fortriu. Using this and other arguments Woolf suggested that historians should relocate Fortriu north of the Grampians in a territory centred on Moray.
Woolf employed other pieces of evidence in support of his ideas, drawing not only on Scottish and Irish sources but also on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to present a convincing case for a major re-think of Pictish geography. It turned out to be so convincing that it has now replaced Skene’s older theory as the new consensus on Fortriu.

Fortriu relocated

I saw Woolf’s paper in 2007 but, at the time, chose not to sign up to the ranks of the converted. Looking back, I think I see the reason for my reticence: I was unconvinced by the argument in the first thread, namely the proposed relocation of the battle of Dun Nechtain (‘Nechtanesmere’ in English sources) to a site north of Perthshire. My scepticism about this part of Woolf’s geographical challenge prevented me from supporting the rest of it. With hindsight, this is the only rational explanation I can come up with for dragging my heels over the relocation of Fortriu. That was in 2007. I finished writing my narrative history of the Picts in the autumn of that year, having stuck resolutely with the old theory which placed Fortriu in southern Perthshire. Within six months, after re-reading the second half of Woolf’s paper and seeing what he (and others) had written since then, I became a belated convert to the new orthodoxy. Although remaining unconvinced by the Badenoch argument for Dun Nechtain my mental map of early medieval Scotland now placed Fortriu north of the Grampian Mountains. This Damascene conversion occurred soon after the publication of my book The Picts: a history in Easter 2008. The book therefore reflected my earlier understanding of Pictish geography, together with another ‘unreconstructed’ viewpoint concerning the ninth-century king Cinaed mac Ailpin. On both issues my views were changing.

Two years later and an opportunity has arisen to publish a new edition of the book. A revised and updated version is scheduled to appear in September 2010. The original was never intended to be a highbrow text and its non-academic flavour has been preserved, although an expanded bibliography gives the new edition a bit more scholarly beef. The title is also the same but other aspects have changed, including the geography of Fortriu which now reflects my conversion to Alex Woolf’s ideas. I intend to deal with my similarly altered perception of Cinaed mac Ailpin and the Gaelicisation of the Picts in the near future, in a separate post on this blog. As far as Fortriu is concerned the new edition abandons a Perthshire location for the Verturiones or ‘Verturian Picts’ in favour of a location in Moray. Dundurn hillfort, the palace at Forteviot and the Dupplin Cross are powerful testaments to Strathearn’s status as a major zone of Pictish royal power but I now acknowledge that the valley itself can no longer be coupled to Fortriu. Menteith, like neighbouring Strathearn, was presumably Pictish too but its royal connections are less evident and the absence of symbol stones suggests an area of less political importance. So, the Verturiones were not a Perthshire-based people after all. They emerge from the writings of Ammianus as the fourth-century inhabitants of Moray and as the ancestors of Bede’s northern Picts. It all seems a much better fit with the scattered references to Fortriu in the Irish annals.

Alex Woolf, ‘Dun Nechtain, Fortriu and the geography of the Picts’ Scottish Historical Review 85 (2006), 182-201


20 comments on “Terminology topics 2: Fortriu

  1. Agh! I haven’t yet found time to read my copy of your book and now I shall have to get the new one. What to do with the old one? 🙂

    • Tim says:

      I see what you mean, Jon. I’m not sure what to recommend but your comment reminds me that I need to add a little note to my blogpost about the old edition.

  2. Phil says:

    Until reading ‘From Pictland to Alba’ I too went along with the orthodox view that Fortriu was around Strathearn. The place-name Forteviot seemed (to me) to back that belief up. However Woolf has made a pretty convincing case for Fortriu’s location being in Moray.

    With regards to Dunnichen I’m with Woolf in leaning towards a Speyside location. Based on Bede’s description of the topography of the route taken by Egfrith and that of the battle site, Dunachton on the shores of Loch Insh near Kingussie looks a more likely candidate than the conventionally accepted Dunnichen in Angus. I was there just a couple of weeks ago and it just looked so right – high mountains and extensive marshland -if we are to believe Bede of course :-).

    If Fortriu was indeed in Moray and Egfrith’s expidition was of a punitive nature, it makes sense that he would try to strike at the Pictish political heartland (taking the route of what is now the A9).

    • Tim says:

      As you say, Phil, it boils down to whether or not we believe Bede. Should we take his topographical description of the battlefield as fact or rhetoric? If it’s fact, then Dunachton seems a much better fit than Dunnichen. If it’s rhetoric, the actual topography becomes less significant. As the issue is quite an important one for Pictish studies I think I’ll do a separate post about it, with a summary of the opposing arguments.

  3. Henry Gough-Cooper says:

    Has John Koch’s Foirtrinn restoration been abandoned? He says (in The Gododdin of Aneirin, lxiii) “(The) OIr form of the tribal name is attested only as gen. Fortrenn. It is often erroneously restored as nom, *Fortriu, as though Fortrenn were a gen. singular… we must restore nom. pl. *Foirtrinn. Nom. sing. *Foirtriu would mean a single inhabitant of southern Pictland, a fer Fortrenn, Rom.Brit. Verturio.”

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for mentioning this. It does seem as if Koch’s restoration of Fortrenn has been abandoned, or possibly just overlooked. Given his expertise in philological matters I do think we need to keep it in mind whenever Fortriu crops up. His argument that the Romano-British ethnic term Verturiones would develop into a similarly plural Pictish-British form such as Fortrenn or Foirtrinn looks fairly convincing to me.

  4. […] perceptions of two aspects of Pictish history: the location of Fortriu, a topic mentioned in a recent post on this blog; and the 9th century ‘merger’ of Picts and Scots traditionally associated with Cinaed […]

  5. Joe McLean says:

    Is it the case the the kingdom of Fortriu moved south from Moray to Strathearn with its king (Brude II)?
    What of Fidach, which was traditionally viewed as being principally Moray?

  6. Tim says:

    Current opinion seems to favour long periods of supremacy over Strathearn (and other parts of Perthshire) by the kings of Fortriu, rather than an expansion of Fortriu itself. I suppose we can think of a ‘Greater Fortriu’ covering a large area south of Moray, but it would be a temporary expansion which depended on the continuing success of Fortriu’s kings. Whenever one of these got toppled, or killed in battle, his personal hegemony/mini-empire would be at risk of collapse. A weaker successor would then have to start from scratch, with just Moray and whatever else he could grab quickly. Districts like Strathearn would presumably revert to their own home-grown rulers, until another ambitious and powerful king from Fortriu (or somewhere else) turned up to demand their submission.

    Fidach is a mystery. You’re right about the old theory of its location, which began as an antiquarian guess. If Fidach ever existed outside the Pictish origin-legends, its true location was already forgotten when the legends were written down in medieval times. Watson in ‘Celtic Place Names of Scotland’ mentions Glen Fiddich (of whisky fame) when he discusses the idea of Fidach=Moray, but he doesn’t run too far with it.

  7. Dave says:

    What of the name Fothriff, as in Fife and Fothriff, the mediaeval Scottish province ? This province also appears as Fif cum Fothreue -the latter name bearing a notable resemblance to the modern construction Fortriu.

    • Tim says:

      According to William Watson in History of the Celtic place names of Scotland, Fothrif or Fothreve was an ecclesiastical district ‘containing roughly the parishes of what is now Kinross and West Fife’ (p.114). Watson then lists alternative spellings in medieval charters: Fotriffe (11th C), Fothryffe (1363) and Fothrik (1450). He derives the name from Brittonic Vo-treb, ‘sub-settlement’ which corresponds to godref, ‘small town’, in modern Welsh. It’s safe to assume a Pictish origin.

      Fothrif does bear a resemblance to Fortriu (and to the River Forth) particularly if we accept Forthridge, recorded on Blaeu’s map of 1654, as yet another variant spelling (as Watson suggested).

  8. Dave Kelday says:

    As I understand things De Situ Albanie is an 18th century invention. This of course seriously undermines Skene’s or anyone else’s placement of Fortrenn based on that document.
    However do you think that the notes on ‘mediaeval’ boundaries within DSA might reflect genuine mediaeval districts ?

    Also what do you make of the Fothrif = Fortenn idea. This is partially based on DSA’s matching of it’s mediaeval districts to the Pictish kingdoms I believe but the presence of Fothrif as a genuinely old district remains. I have found it odd that such a significant Pictish region as Fife/Fib, including west Fife and Kinross (i.e. Fothrif) goes unmentioned in the sources realting to Pictland, unlike Atholl for instance. Fife and environs must have been important in Pictish times just as they were in mediaeval days.
    I can see an at least superficial resemblance in the names Fortrenn (and it’s varients) and Fothrif (and it’s varients); and a logic in making that district Pictish and important-enough to have been Fortrenn.
    I am as yet unconvinced by the Fortenn-Moray connection. I can see that the arguments put forward are good ones but also that in each case there could be a counter-argument advanced.
    That said I am much less convinced of the Fortrenn-Strathearn and Mentieth connection and have my doubts, based on likely ancient communications and topography that Mentieth was under PIctish command at all.

    • Dave Kelday says:

      I can only apologise for a temporary brain fade. It is course De Situ Britanniae that is the fake not DSA. – I’ve been trying to puzzle out the value of each of the various abd varying dates surrounding Saint Patrick in order ot try and date Drust son of Erp and my head is spinning with it.

      • Tim says:

        I agree with you on your point about the Pictishness (or otherwise) of Menteith, which I tend to see as a possible borderland between a culture that was recognizably ‘Pictish’ and another that was recognizably different. Perhaps Menteith sometimes leaned towards Manau (Stirlingshire etc) rather than to the Pictish heartlands of Strathearn. I usually think of Manau as ‘North British’ not Pictish, but I’m wary of pushing these cultural labels too far. On a personal note, the landscape around the River Teith always has a kind of frontier feel whenever I travel through it.

        On the matter of Fothrif I’m still where I was a couple of years ago (see the earlier comments in this thread). In other words, I’m sticking with Watson until some new information comes to light.

        • Dave Kelday says:

          I agree that cultural labels probably have little meaning here. I don’t see the Picts as radically different in culture from their neighbours immediately to the south or south-west. I was thinking only of poltical/military ties and control and considering the obvious geography of the area.

          I’ve just been reading again through Alex Woolf’s Dun Nechtain paper and while it’s still fair to say I’m not completely convinced, I am less convinced by the alternatives. I think for me the strength of his proposal comes down to the entries surrounding King Dubh in the 960s and just how much we can rely on the record of Dubh’s death in Forres and on Berchan’s physical point of view when he notes Dubh crossing the Mounth to Fortrenn. I think if I could rely on those records I’d be pretty convinced.

          • Tim says:

            Yes, it all seems to hinge on how far we trust these snippets of information in Berchan’s Prophecy and elsewhere. At the moment I’m with Woolf on the question of Fortriu, but still take on board the counter-arguments. As you point out, it’s a case of weighing one particular theory against the alternatives and making a personal judgement as to which of them sounds more convincing.

  9. polychronicfreak says:

    I was wondering, if Fortriu was the “major” kingdom in the North, what was the major one in the South around the same time ? Or had it been absorbed by Fortriu (the only king of the Picts mentioned at the time is Constatin mac Fergusa as king of Fortriu) ?

    • Tim says:

      The identity of the main southern Pictish kingdom remains unknown but it seems to have been centred on Strathearn or Angus (or both). Some historians suggest that it fell under the dominion of the Fortriu dynasty and, in some sense, became part of Fortriu. This looks plausible enough, but other scenarios could be devised.

      • polychronicfreak says:

        Thank you for your answers. I’ve been studying the British Isles and surroundings areas for a little while now (for a novel) and came to this same conclusion, that the southern kingdom seemed to have been assimilated by the North in the 700’s. The only Pictish kingdom’s name mentioned in most research/articles is Fortriu. What about the “Orcades”, the Orkney Islands ? Do you think they might have been considered part of Fortriu too by 800 ?
        Thanks again !

        • Tim says:

          Orkney was no doubt under pressure from the kings of Fortriu in the 8th century. A carved stone from Brough of Birsay shows three spearmen, one of whom is assumed to be a king, but whether he represents an independent Orcadian king or a Verturian over-king is uncertain. Any period of overkingship imposed in the 700s is likely to have collapsed in the early 800s when the Vikings started colonising Orkney.

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