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.
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.
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.
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)