King Dunmail

Replica sculptured cross at Govan

Strathclyde sculpture: carving of a horseman on a replica cross-shaft at Govan

In the middle decades of the 10th century the Strathclyde Britons were ruled by a king called Dyfnwal ab Owain who died in 975. His father was probably the same Owain who, in alliance with Scots and Vikings, was defeated by Athelstan at Brunanburh in 937. Dyfnwal himself saw his realm invaded by the English in 945, a campaign in which two of his sons were taken captive and blinded. Later, during the reign of the English king Edgar, Dyfnwal seems to have been present – with his son Malcolm – at an important meeting of kings at Chester in 973. Two years after this event, according to the Irish annals, Dyfnwal died while on pilgrimage to Rome.

An old tradition in what is now the English county of Cumbria refers to a king called Dunmail who bequeathed his name to a cairn or ‘raise’ – a heap of stones – on a hill in the Lake District. The cairn is known as Dunmail Raise and is supposed to mark his grave. Some historians think that the various Dunmail legends may have originated in old stories about one of the several Strathclyde rulers called Dyfnwal: the two names appear to be related. In the 10th century, the northern part of Cumbria (the part that used to be the county of Cumberland until 1974) was indeed under the authority of the Clyde kings. The language spoken by these kings – a form of Brittonic (Brythonic) which we now call ‘Cumbric’ – sounded similar to Old Welsh. Between c.900 and c.1030 it was the speech of power and authority in an extensive region stretching from the River Eamont near Penrith to the northern tip of Loch Lomond. A favoured candidate for the ‘Dunmail’ of Cumbrian folklore is the Dyfnwal who died in 975, chiefly because his reign spanned such a large chunk of the 10th century. This Dyfnwal was clearly quite famous in his own time. He attracted considerable interest in the textual sources, appearing in the Irish annals, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and a vita (‘Life’) of St Catroe.

In the dim-and-distant past I did a fair amount of hillwalking in the Lake District but I never visited Dunmail Raise, nor have I fully explored the local legends about it. Maybe the old tales of ‘King Dunmail’ preserve a genuine kernel of truth? This possibility is explored by Diane McIlmoyle in her interesting blog on Cumbrian history and folklore. Her recent post on Dunmail Raise gives a neat summary of the old traditions and has a nice photo of the cairn itself.

* * * * * * *

I’ve looked at the name ‘Dyfnwal’ (its origins and pronunciation) in a previous blogpost.

Further Reading:
My musings on Dyfnwal ab Owain can be found on pages 179-85 of my book The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland. Alternatively, those of you with a copy of Alex Woolf’s From Pictland to Alba can turn to pages 183-4 and 188-9. The nearest thing to a concise biography of Dyfnwal is by Alan Macquarrie in his paper ‘The kings of Strathclyde, c. 400-1018’, pp.1-19 in A. Grant & K.Stringer (eds.) Medieval Scotland: crown, lordship and community: essays presented to G.W.S. Barrow (Edinburgh, 1993).


This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde

18 comments on “King Dunmail

  1. […] Here you can see a post on Dunmail by Tim Clarkson, author of The Men of the North. […]

  2. esmeraldamac says:

    Thank you for mentioning my blog entry on Dunmail. He looms very large in the Cumbrian imagination… and not just because of the large pile of stones in the middle of the main road through the Lake District!

    • Tim says:

      Since reading your blogpost, Diane, I’ve made a belated New Year’s resolution to visit the pile of stones before 2011 is over. Hopefully the hill-fog won’t shroud everything just as I’m snapping a photo (a frequent occurrence whenever I take a camera to the Lakes).

      • esmeraldamac says:

        Problem is that the pile of stone is LITERALLY in the middle of the road, between the two carriageways! You can park at a nearby layby, but have to snap quickly between the cars, zooming past in both directions on the main route through the Lakes!

      • Phil says:

        Jeez – I’ve just realised I must have driven past the cairn at Dunmail Raise literally scores of times as we regularly holiday in the Lakes (usually Ambleside and Langdale). I’ll keep an eye out for it next time!

        • Tim says:

          I think I may have driven past it, too, without so much as a respectful nod to the old king, probably muttering “not another heap of Lakeland stone!” or something similar.

  3. […] website (a great resource for medieval Scottish studies) recently published a post on King Dunmail, who may or may not be the Dunmail after whom a cairn is named in Cumbria. And via the King […]

  4. Very interesting and worth exploring in more detail. I would love to see this cairn.

    • Tim says:

      Next time I’m in the vicinity I’ll take a few photos and post them here. If they turn out half as clear as the one on Diane’s website I’ll be happy.

  5. Buannan says:

    When I was a small boy I would be allowed to watch Nogin the Nog on TV if I behaved, the grainy black and white images of the strangely attired puppets, complete with winged helms, inspired many questions. My mother, for her part, informed me that Nogin the Nog and the villain of the peace, Nogbad the Bad, were Ancient Britains who once lived on Edinburgh castle rock & Arthur’s Seat respectively. She had the full attention of her infant son!

    Winding the clock forwards a decade or so I found myself on a mini bus driving through Cumbria on a lothian school climbing club hill walking trip in the lakes. The teacher in charge, Peter Main, a native of the district, stopped the bus by a cairn of stones at the side of the road in a misty pass. Upon disembarking the bus he informed us that this was the grave of the last King of Cumbria.

    On the move again the question from the back of the bus, what’s Cumbria Pete? Then Pete’s brief explanation. On mention of Ancient Britain, I knowingly said to my pal Al, who was having difficulty with the concept, “don’t you remember Nogin the Nog Al? He was and an Ancient Britain”. Pete, was impressed.

    That brief stop by a mossy cairn in misty Cumbria, plus a connection made with memories of grainy puppets I imaginatively associated with my immediate childhood landscape, was to inspire three decades of amateur interest and study.

    Thirty years on and stacks of books later I’m still seeking the answers to those same old questions.

    • Tim says:

      Thank you for sharing this little piece of nostalgia, Buannan. I have a very faint memory of Nogin the Nog and had forgotten how he looked. Might now trawl the web for a picture, just for old times sake!

  6. […] Tim Clarkson at Senchus has a post on King Dunmail of Strathclyde. […]

  7. Tim says:

    This is the second post where I’m listed as one of the people who ‘Likes’ it. Strange…. Make of it what you will, but the evidence suggests either a careless click on the wrong tab or – more worryingly – that I’m my own Number One Fan.

  8. Greetings from Seattle. I am a writer working on a book about rock cairns and had an odd little question in regard to a word that I have read has its origins in Cumbria. The word is raise, as you use in Dunmail Raise, and which also means cairn. I wondered about the history of this word.

    Do you by chance know the origin of this use of raise?

    Do people still use raise to describe a cairn?

    Any help would be appreciated. I look forward to hearing from you.

    David Williams

    • Tim says:

      Hi David. The word ‘raise’, in a Westmorland context, seems to derive from Old Norse hroysi, ‘cairn or mound’. This is the derivation I’ve seen in old books about Cumbrian place-names, but it might not be the only one. In the former county of Cumberland, to the north of Dunmail Raise, the equivalent term seems to be Brittonic (British Celtic) carn, ‘cairn’, as found also in the place-names of Wales.

      Diane McIlmoyle who runs the Cumbrian History & Folklore website might have additional info about this.

  9. Stephen Lewis says:

    Tim, Thanks so much for reading my articles. I’m still absorbing your amazing book and now your blogs here. Stephen.

    See my latest effort:

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Stephen. I’m glad you’re enjoying The Men Of The North. Your latest blogpost is a real gem. I like the way you’ve collected all those Lakeland poems and antiquarian references, most of which are new to me.

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