Terminology topics 3: Dál Riata

The Irish annals, in entries referring to the 7th and 8th centuries, use the title rex Dáil Riata (‘king of Dál Riata’) to describe a number of Argyll-based rulers. These kings originated in different parts of Argyll but each appears to have gained sovereignty over the whole region. At first glance, the implication seems to be that ancient Argyll, the land of the Gaelic-speaking Scots, comprised a single large realm called Dál Riata (also known as Dál Riada). This fits the picture presented by Bede in the early 8th century. In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede told of a man called Reuda who led the Scots from an original homeland in Ireland to a new domain in northwestern Britain. Reuda and his people (whom Bede says are ‘still called Dalreudini’ in c.730) acquired land from the native Picts ‘either by friendly treaty or by the sword’ (HE, i, 1). Bede evidently believed – or wanted his readers to believe – that the Dalreudini were a homogeneous people ruled by a single paramount leader from whom they took their name. It is likely that this story was invented by the Picts as their own way of explaining why their neighbours in Argyll spoke Gaelic, the language of Ireland. The story probably came to Jarrow, where Bede lived as a monk, in the early 700s via the monastery’s Pictish contacts. Later, the Scots themselves created their own ‘origin legend’, tracing their kings back to a king called Fergus Mór who supposedly flourished around AD 500. Like Reuda, Fergus was portrayed as a mighty ancestor who led his people from Ireland to Britain. This idea of a large-scale influx of Irish migrants turning Argyll into a Gaelic-speaking colony became the accepted view of Scottish origins until the end of the 20th century.

Legendary origin of the Scots

Ireland to Argyll: the Scottish origin-legend

A closer examination of the sources reveals a different picture. The notion of Dál Riata as a homogeneous regional kingdom collapses. Instead, we see a patchwork of smaller realms, each with its own king, jostling one another for positions of dominance. Kingship was monopolised by powerful extended families called cenéla, some of whom fragmented into sub-kindreds who eventually became rivals. This seems to have been the normal state of affairs in Argyll from the late 6th century to the middle of the 8th (when much of the region fell under Pictish dominance). Collectively, the cenéla and their little kingdoms represented the geographical entity ‘Dál Riata’ but they were never united politically and were probably not brought together under a regional overking until the last quarter of the 7th century. Even then, their artificial unity was fragile and temporary, its weakness being starkly highlighted when the Pictish king Oengus (Onuist) launched a full-scale invasion of Argyll in the 730s.

Kindreds of Dal Riata

The leading kindreds of Dál Riata

The long-held belief that Dál Riata was founded as an Irish colony also collapses when the sources are closely examined. In an earlier blogpost on Scottish origins I looked at this topic alongside the archaeology of Argyll. Here, my focus turns to Ireland, to the northern coastlands of County Antrim. Like Argyll, this area was known in early medieval times as Dál Riata. Historians long assumed it to be the original homeland of the Scots, the place where the legendary ancestors Fergus and Reuda came from. Such a belief is now regarded as obsolete. Archaeological data and a more critical approach to the textual sources suggest that the Scots were not descended from Irish immigrants but were indigenous to Britain. Gaelic was spoken in Argyll because it was the common language of the northwestern seaways, not because it was imported from Ireland by colonists who expelled the native Britons or Picts. The Scots were the native people of Argyll, just as the Picts were indigenous to Perthshire or the Britons to the Clyde Valley. Some Scots lived in northern Ireland; others lived in northern Britain. Their ancestral territory straddled a network of shorelands and seaways from Antrim in the south to Lochaber in the north. Within this large maritime area a number of small kingdoms had emerged by AD 650, their kings eventually competing for a regional supremacy represented in the sources by the Latin title rex Dáil Riata.

Dal Riata

Dál Riata: homeland of the Scots


The primary sources are the Irish annals (which incorporate the lost ‘Iona Chronicle’) and two 8th-century Dál Riatan texts:
Cethri primchenéla Dáil Riata (‘The four principal kindreds of Dál Riata’) and Miniugud senchusa fher nAlban (‘Explanation of the genealogy of the men of Alba’)

The most accessible modern discussions of the various texts and legends can be found in the first two volumes of the New Edinburgh History of Scotland: James Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland (2009) and Alex Woolf’s From Pictland to Alba (2007).

For detailed studies see:

David Dumville, ‘Cethri Prímchenéla Dáil Riata’, Scottish Gaelic Studies 20 (2000), 170-91
James Fraser, ‘The Iona Chronicle, the descendants of Aedán mac Gabraín and the Principal Kindreds of Dál Riata’, Northern Studies, 38 (2004), 77-96
David Dumville, ‘Ireland and North Britain in the earlier Middle Ages: contexts for Miniugud Senchasa Fher nAlban’, pp.185-211 in C. O’Baoill and N. McGuire (eds.), Rannsachadh na Gáidhlig 2000 (Aberdeen, 2002)


20 comments on “Terminology topics 3: Dál Riata

  1. badonicus says:

    Very interesting Tim. I’d just been reading about the exact same subject for something I’m going to post on my blog.

    I noticed no mention of Aedán mac Gabraín in here. Do you not think he was the first to hold a united Dál Riata for a while? He seems to have been conquering everywhere else?


    • Tim says:

      I certainly agree, Mak, that Áedán was one of the most successful warlords of his era. Although the Irish annals and Vita Columbae probably painted a slightly embellished portrait, carefully crafted on Iona, Bede’s account of the battle of Degsastan should leave us in no doubt that Áedán was indeed a very powerful king. I tend to regard him as an overking whose imperium extended far beyond the Kintyre heartlands of Cenél nGabráin, especially eastward into the lands of the Picts and Britons. Acknowledgment of his authority by other Dál Riatan kindreds seems less certain. So, although he often seems to be regarded today as a very early ‘King of Scots’, I’m not sure if his neighbours in Argyll would have gone along with that. For me, the jury is still out on whether or not we can call him rex Dáil Riata.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Amerikanaki, William Wallace. William Wallace said: Senchus: Terminology topics 3: Dál Riata http://bit.ly/gt9QeA […]

  3. I was going to mention that paper of mine, indeed, as it bears on the question of why we might suppose Áedán to have been accepted more widely than he could drive a warband; my answer in that paper is, roughly, because he was in league with Bruide mac Bile and they placed his sons all over Southern Pictland. In fact I more or less blamed him for Atholl. It was extremely young work, which then took eight years to be published and came out missing its endnotes and graphics. Even the version Mak links to, which is my preferred one, is still ten years old, very naïve and lacks the family tree, which I couldn’t resurrect from the old Postscript file I had it in. So although I think the argument is still worth something, I’d ask that you treat it with all due caution if you do find it interesting.

    • Tim says:

      It’s a worthy paper, Jon, and it still stands up to scrutiny. Like Alan Macquarrie in 1997, you made a strong case for placing Áedán in the same league as Báetan and Aethelfrith. Although both your paper and Macquarrie’s have been around for a while, I don’t think their broad conclusions have been much affected by recent developments in scholarship north of the Border.

  4. badonicus says:

    You know, if you did want to resurrect it or rework it Jon, you can copy and paste from PDF files.


    • Well, I still have the Word versions, even, but it’s published now, I don’t think I can really get another version of the same work out. The PDF version corrects the publication glitches, that’ll do. I do have plans to revisit the general field of kingship in Scotland (once I’ve caught up with Tim’s work, among others!) and that’ll provide some space for any revisions.

  5. badonicus says:

    I’m interested to hear (both) your thoughts on why in the poem that tells us Arthur son of Bicoir was on some (possible) aire echta work in Ulster, it describes both Islay (Cenél nOengusa) and Kintyre (Cenél nGabráin) …

    ‘Cold is the wind across Islay,

    there are warriors in Kintyre’

    Do you think this just poetic license or that it was a joint venture showing that these two kindred where united in this cause at least?



  6. badonicus says:

    Just some of my own thoughts on the above question. It could mean:

    * He was in Kintyre and would have to pass through Islay on his way to Ulster.
    * The two kindred were acting together.
    * He was from Islay but acting for Kintyre.


    • I’m not sure that I know the poem you mean, but I’m perhaps readier than Tim is, to judge from the above, to allow for pan-Dalriadic overlordships and alliances sometimes. I think Áedán had one or he could never have operated so far from home and come back to a kingdom, other kings must have been able to do this too. So we might there have a temporary point when the two kindreds were ranged together rather than against each other.

      • Tim says:

        I tend to see an alliance (of sorts) between Cenél nGabráin and Cenél Comgaill in the early 7th century, due to their common descent from Domangart (Áedán’s grandfather). They may have agreed on an alternating overkingship of southern Argyll (Kintyre, Cowal, Bute, possibly Arran too) from the point when they became distinct cenéla – presumably in the generation of Domangart’s great-grandsons.

  7. badonicus says:

    It appears in the The Annals of Tigernach. The annals gives a fragment of a poem by Bec Boirche, a 7th century Ulster bard.

    “625 Mongan, son of Fiachna of Lurga was struck with a stone by Arthur son of Bicoir the Briton, and was crushed. About this, Bec Boirche said:

    ‘Cold is the wind across Islay,

    There are warriors in Kintyre,

    They shall commit a cruel deed in retribution,

    They shall kill Mongan, son of Fiachna.

    Where the Church of Cluan Airthir is today,

    Renowned were the four there executed;

    Cormac Caem, with screaming

    And Illann, son of Fiachra;
And the other two, –

    To whom many territories paid tribute,–
Mongan, son of Fiachna of Lurgan
and Ronan, son of Tuathal.


    • Tim says:

      Over the years, I’ve made several attempts to figure out who ‘Arthur, Bicoir’s son’ really was. I always end up going round in circles, or down a blind alley. The annalists seem to call him Pretene, ‘a Briton’ (or a Pict), but this doesn’t get us very far. As the killer of Mongan, who later became a famous hero in Irish tales, Arthur seems to be the villain of the annal entry. Using a stone to bash a heroic warrior looks like a low-down trick, so whoever wrote the entry was probably pro-Mongan and anti his enemies. As to the context, Bec Boirche’s verse suggests that Arthur slew Mongan on Islay, in a battle at which warriors from Kintyre fought on Arthur’s side. James Fraser in ‘From Caledonia to Pictland’ (p.159) discusses the possibility that Arthur was a Pict or a Briton fighting on behalf of Cenél nGabráin against the Dal Fiatach of Ulster. He wonders if the Dal Fiatach (to whom Mongan belonged) were at that time the rulers of Islay. One branch of Dal Fiatach claimed descent from ‘Óengus the Hebridean’ whom Fraser tentatively equates with the ancestor of Cenél nÓengusa. It’s strange that Cenél nÓengusa don’t get noticed by the annalists but perhaps they didn’t exist (= weren’t a distinct kindred) at the time of Mongan’s slaying. The idea of Arthur being from Islay is something I don’t recall seeing before, not until Mak mentioned it. It’s another possibility to add to the mix.

  8. badonicus says:

    There’s a slightly different translation to be found in the Chronicon Scotorum:

    “Annal CS625

    Kalends seventh feria.

    Maedóc of Ferna rested.

    The son of Fiachna i.e. Mongán was struck by Arthur son of Bicuir the Briton with a stone and died, of which Bécc of Bairche said:

    Cold is the wind across Ile
    Which blows against the youth of Cenn-tire;
    They will commit a cruel deed in consequence;
    They will kill Mongan, son of Fiachna.
    Cormac caem and Illand son of Fiachu die.
    Ronan, son of Tuathal died:—

    The church of Cluain-Airthir to-day—
    Illustrious the four on whom it closed:
    Cormac the mild, who submitted to tribulations,
    And Illann, son of Fiacha.
    And the other pair,
    To whom many territories were obedient—
    Mongan, son of Fiachna Lurgan,
    And Ronan, son of Tuathal.

    This one says the wind blew ‘against’ the youth of Cenn-tire.” It certainly makes it clearer that this is where Arthur was coming from.

    The Annals of Ulster don’t even mention Arthur:


    Áedán son of Cumuscach and Colmán son of Comgallán migrate to the Lord; and Rónán son of Tuathal, king of Ind Airthir, and Mongán, son of Fiachna of Lurga, die.

    Remarkable are the four over whom it has closed without recall,
    The earth of Cluain Airthir churchyard today:
    Cormac the Handsome,
    And Illann son of Fiachu.

    The other two—
    Many territories do service to them—
    Are Mongán son of Fiachna of Lurga,
    And Rónán son of Tuathal.

    They obviously weren’t getting along terribly well with Dál Riata, as two years later …

    “Annal CS627

    Kalends second feria.

    The battle of Ard Corann won by the Dál Riata in which fell Fiachna son of Demán by the king of Dál Riata.”


  9. badonicus says:

    Sorry Tim, something else I just discovered: An early genealogy of the Úa Bresail Airthir (Armagh) shows Rónáin m. Tuathail. ‘Cluain Airthir’ could just be ‘meadow in the east’ I believe, but couldn’t it also refer to a meadow in Armagh? Of course, it doesn’t mean they were killed there.

    The different rendition of the poem in the CS:

    “Cold is the wind across Ile
    Which blows against the youth of Cenn-tire;
    They will commit a cruel deed in consequence;”

    … makes it sound, to me, as if the ‘cold wind’ was coming from Ulster and sweeping over Islay towards Kintyre. As a consequence, those doing the ‘blowing’ must be stopped (killed). That could have been on Islay or in Ulster … or both.

    Just a thought,


    • Tim says:

      The different versions of the poem show just how complicated the whole Arthur/Mongan episode is. As you say, Mak, the context could be Islay or Ulster. And when we factor in the battle of Ard Corann it gets even more foggy – especially as the victor was Áedán’s kinsman and successor Connad Cerr. The possible permutations of allies and enemies in this (probably connected) sequence of events make a very tangled pattern.

  10. […] across the water, there was a fascinating post recently on the term Dál Riata and the origin of the Gaelic speaking population in Scotland. And speaking of Scotland, a new […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s