The Torbeckhill Sword

Burnswark

Burnswark Hill (in the distance). Photo: B Keeling.

In 1913, an iron sword was found buried beside the River Mein at Torbeckhill near Ecclefechan in Dumfriesshire. It was made in the 9th century, probably in England, and shows evidence of ‘pattern welding’, a technique involving the intertwining of iron and steel strips which were then hammered flat to form a single, strong blade. When the sword was discovered it was identified as a ‘Viking’ weapon but it could equally, or perhaps even more probably, have been wielded by an Anglo-Saxon warrior.

I was unaware of this artefact until Kevin Halloran drew my attention to it recently. The geographical context seems to add weight to Kevin’s theory that the battle of Brunanburh (AD 937) took place in the vicinity: the River Mein runs south of Burnswark Hill which is a prime candidate in the long-running search for the battlefield. Brunanburh was one of the most important battles ever fought in Britain and also one of the most mysterious. We know it was a victory for King Athelstan of Wessex over an allied force of Vikings, Scots and Strathclyde Britons but its location is irretrievable from the sources. Kevin’s articles in Scottish Historical Review (cited below) lay out a detailed argument in favour of Burnswark. If his theory is correct, the Torbeckhill sword might be a genuine relic of the great battle.

The SCRAN website has an x-ray image of the sword.

The original notice of the discovery, reported in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, is accessible online. The full reference is:

Curle, A O (1914) ‘Notices of the discovery of a hoard of rapier-shaped blades of bronze at Drumcoltran, in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright, and of a Viking sword at Torbeckhill, near Ecclefechan’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot, vol.48. pp. 334-5
[Go to the Society’s website and follow the Publications link to ‘PSAS’]

Kevin Halloran’s articles on Brunanburh:
‘The Brunanburh campaign: a reappraisal’ Scottish Historical Review 84 (2005), 133-48
‘The identity of Etbrunnanwerc’ Scottish Historical Review 89 (2010), 248-53

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