Oswald and the Rock of Blood

Oswald of Northumbria

Oswald of Northumbria in a 13th-century manuscript

The English king Aethelfrith of Bernicia was slain in battle in 616 or 617. His defeat allowed his rival, Prince Edwin, to replace him as overking of Northumbria. Edwin’s ancestral kingdom was Deira, the southern part of Northumbria, but he quickly seized power in Bernicia and drove Aethelfrith’s family into exile.

Aethelfrith’s children sought sanctuary among the Celtic peoples of the North. One son, Eanfrith, came to the Picts, while other siblings found refuge with the Scots. At that time, the ethnic label ‘Scots’ applied to a number of Gaelic-speaking groups in mainland Argyll and the Inner Hebrides. They were divided into various small kingdoms, each dominated by one or more high-status families known as cenéla. Together these kingdoms comprised a region or overkingdom called Dál Riata, which included most of Argyll together with part of northern Ireland. One of the most powerful cenéla ruled the long peninsula of Kintyre. Its members claimed descent from Gabrán, an earlier king who lived around the middle of the sixth century. At the time of Aethelfrith’s defeat, this family was starting to call itself Cenél nGabráin, ‘Gabrán’s Descendants’. Its king was Eochaid Buide (‘Yellow’ or ‘Blond’ Eochaid), a grandson of Gabrán, and it was to him that the young Bernician princes and princesses came seeking shelter and protection.

Map of North Britain, c.600 AD

Among the English exiles was Oswald, a boy of eleven or twelve when he arrived in Dál Riata. Seventeen years later, he would return to his homeland to reclaim his father’s kingship. In the meantime, he dwelt among the Scots as an honoured guest of King Eochaid. He became a Christian and learned the Gaelic language. In his teens he probably repaid his foster-father’s hospitality by fighting as a Cenél nGabráin warrior. He may have travelled extensively throughout Eochaid’s domains, not only on military ventures but also as a member of the king’s entourage on visits to outlying districts. As a high-status Christian convert he most likely visited the monastery of Iona on more than one occasion. But where else did he reside during these years of exile?

Like many early medieval kings, Eochaid Buide would have maintained several residences in different parts of his kingdom. He and his family, together with their entourage of friends, priests, servants and bodyguards, would have used these places at particular times of the year, such as Easter and Christmas, or during periodic tours of the lands under his authority. Some residences served specific purposes as ceremonial venues where the king’s vassal-lords offered homage and tribute. Others had sacred or religious significance, or were associated with revered ancestors of the royal dynasty. One place that seems to fall into this second category was an imposing sea-girt fortress at the southern tip of Kintyre. On modern maps it is usually marked as the site of Dunaverty Castle.

Few traces of the castle now remain. It was occupied in medieval times as a stronghold of the Macdonalds and was the scene of an infamous massacre in the 17th century. Like many coastal promontory fortresses it was built in a commanding position on top of a great mass of rock. At Dunaverty this bulky foundation has a strange, irregular shape that makes it particularly distinctive, especially when viewed from a distance. Memories of the massacre of 1647 were slow to fade and the site is still known as the Rock of Blood.


Dunaverty: view from the west.

The slaughter of 300 members of Clan Donald was the grim climax in a siege by Cromwellian forces led by General Leslie. It was the last of a number of assaults dating back to the 13th century, when an Anglo-Norman lord, an ancestor of Clan Bissett, seized the castle during the reign of the Scottish king Alexander II (1214-49). Five hundred years before Alexander succeeded to the throne, the Irish annals noted the first recorded attack on Dunaverty:

712 Obsessio Aberte apud Selbacum (‘Siege of Aberte by Selbach’)

Selbach was an ambitious Gaelic king whose core domains lay in Lorn, the district around present-day Oban. He belonged to Cenél Loairn, a powerful family who competed with Cenél nGabráin for the overkingship of Dál Riata in the late seventh and early eighth centuries. In 712 he attacked and burned the Cenél nGabráin fortress at Tarbert in central Kintyre before laying siege to Aberte. Although the annalists tell us little about the geography of these campaigns there is little doubt that Aberte was an ancient stronghold on the rock of Dunaverty. The latter name is an Anglicised form of Gaelic Dun Abhartaigh, ‘Abhartach’s Fort’. In the 8th century this would have been written as Dun Abartaig.

Dunaverty: modern buildings on the slipway below the Rock.

A little further along the shore, but still within sight of watchers on the Rock of Blood, lies a place called Keil Point. The caves in the cliffs behind are signposted as a tourist attraction, as are the nearby ruins of St Columba’s Chapel. On a small outcrop next to the chapel two shallow footprints have been carefully carved in the stone. They are known today as ‘St Columba’s Footprints’ and, like the caves, are regularly visited by tourists. One carving is relatively modern, having been made in the 19th century, but the other is much older. The outcrop was almost certainly used in past times as a sacred place of inauguration. A new king or chieftain would have placed his foot in the ancient footprint to signify his bond with the land. A similar, more famous footprint can be seen on the summit of Dunadd, a hillfort situated somewhat north of Kintyre on the road to Oban. In the early eighth century, when Selbach and his sons stood at the height of their power, Dunadd was one of the main strongholds of their family. It is likely that the footprint on the summit was used in Selbach’s inauguration ceremony when he became king of Cenél Loairn (c.701) and likewise by his son Dungal in 723. The footprint at Keil Point in southern Kintyre surely served the same ceremonial purpose for the kings of Cenél nGabráin. If so, then the nearby fortress of Dun Abartaig was probably their main centre of power.


Dunaverty: view from the summit, looking towards the slipway.


The summit of the Rock, viewed from the northeast.

The photographs accompanying this post were taken ten years ago during a holiday in Kintyre. They give an idea of the impressive setting of ancient Dun Abartaig and the castle that succeeded it. As with many centres of power in early medieval Scotland the habitable area on the summit is fairly small but to me there seems little doubt that this is one of the places where the young Prince Oswald lived among his Cenél nGabráin foster-kin. It might even have been the royal residence he and his siblings regarded as their main ‘home’ during the long years of exile from Bernicia.



* Cenél nGabráin is pronounced ‘Kenel Navrain’

* The identification of Aberte as Dunaverty is usually credited to William Reeves in his edition of Adomnán’s Life of St Columba (Dublin, 1857). It was supported by W.F. Skene later in the same century, by Alan Orr Anderson in 1922, by the place-name scholar William Watson in 1926 and, more recently, by James Fraser in 2009 (to name but four).

* On Oswald’s exile see two articles by Michelle Ziegler in The Heroic Age: The Politics of Exile in Early Northumbria and Oswald and the Irish. Michelle has also posted a useful Oswald bibliography at her Heavenfield blog.

* On Selbach of Cenél Loairn and his rivalry with Cenél nGabráin see James Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795 (Edinburgh, 2009), pp.273-4 and 282-5.


11 comments on “Oswald and the Rock of Blood

  1. Thoughtful post, Tim, and some very atmospheric photographs. I’d always assumed that actually the princes spent most of their time on Iona, where they would be in some kind of sanctuary, but you writing this reminds me that ready-made kings don’t come out of nowhere! I think you’re right that they would have been where the court was a lot of the time.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Jon. At one point I was thinking of adding a map of the places where Oswald & Co possibly spent their exile. This would have shown Dunaverty and Tarbert (both in Kintyre) plus Dunseverick (Antrim) as the main royal residences, with Kilkerran (Kintyre), Armoy (Antrim) and Iona as the ecclesiastical equivalents. In the end I shelved the idea, but it might get an airing in a future post.

  2. Cool post and thanks for the links. Where exactly in these pictures was the fortress? That summit looks pretty difficult to build on but also very difficult to assault. Did it have a well?

    Looking at that rock makes me think of Bamburgh, and that Oswald and Oswiu kept it as their main residence. So much Northumbrian legend developed in the time of Oswiu that its hard to tell how important Bamburgh really was before Oswald. Aethelfrith giving it to his wife Bebbe could mean that it wasn’t his main center.

    • Tim says:

      The summit doesn’t look very inviting, does it? It’s difficult to imagine anyone living there, but this watercolour painting by Andrew Spratt gives an idea of how the site could be used as a viable residence. I imagine they had a well somewhere.

      Interesting thoughts about Bamburgh, Michelle. I wonder if the real history of the place was already lost in Northumbrian folklore when Bede wrote about it.

      • Between the map and the painting, it looks to me like this is a key place to regulate or watch sea traffic. Is there any evidence of a port or trading center?

        Excavations are going on at Bamburgh right now. I think it was occupied by the royal family, I just don’t know that it was always their main residence. I have to wonder about Oswald spending time in York. I think Bamburgh was Oswiu’s main residence and he was so dominate that it may have become the main residence from then on.

        • Tim says:

          Dunaverty Bay, which lies between the Rock and Keil Point, is fairly sheltered and has a good beach for dragging light boats ashore. It would have been an ideal spot for a market like the one envisioned for Crinan Harbour (shown as a reconstruction drawing on pp.44-5 of Ewan Campbell’s Saints and Sea-kings).

          I think the Bamburgh project is likely to give us an idea of how similar coastal strongholds, such as Dunaverty, were used. Following your train of thought, Michelle, it looks like Bamburgh’s fame might owe much to Oswiu.

  3. […] Clarkson of Senchus writes about the likelihood of the exiled prince Oswald living at Dunaverty during his time among the […]

  4. esmeraldamac says:

    That’s very interesting. Fascinating to have a second instance of the footprint in rock – that ceremony positively thrums with antiquity, doesn’t it? I wonder how many other ‘footprints’ there were…

  5. Tim says:

    Thanks, Diane. Many years ago I saw an article which mentioned similar stone footprints being used in medieval times at the inauguration ceremonies of Irish chiefs. I probably still have the reference somewhere. If I find it, I’ll make a note of it here.

  6. David McDonnell says:

    Did you take these photos? I would like permission to use the Dunaverty castle site photos for a book I’ve written. I can provide you with more details

    • Tim says:

      I didn’t take the photos but I know who did. Email me at etarlindu[at]gmail[dot]com with details of your book and we’ll take it from there.

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