Discussing Degsastan (again)

In an earlier post I set out my views on the location of the battle of Degsastan, an event described by Bede and dated by him to the year 603. The post attracted a large number of comments, which turned into a useful discussion of the various places that have been proposed as the site of the battlefield. In the end, with more than 70 comments attached to the post, I closed the thread because it had reached what I consider to be its allotted space at this blog.

However, due to continuing interest in the topic and several requests for the discussion to resume, I’m adding this post as an area for new comments. Please feel free to add your views and theories below.

For information, the old discussion can be found via this link.

Some questions we may want to consider:
* Where was Degsastan?
* Is Dawston in Liddesdale a plausible candidate?
* Did the Britons take part in the battle and, if so, on which side did they fight?
* What was the real political outcome of Aethelfrith’s victory?

* * * * * * *

72 comments on “Discussing Degsastan (again)

  1. Mick Deakin says:

    Hi Tim,

    Just another perspective here, but might it be possible that instead of looking for a single stone, more than one could be involved. Does Brythonic ‘Deg’ = 10 ? and if Degsastan is in any way derived from Deg then we might be looking for what may originally have been eg. A circle of ten ?


    • Tim says:

      Worth thinking about, Mick. Bede seems to refer to Degsa as some kind of entity, either a being or a place, but this needn’t preclude the possibility that Deg- is a distinct element in the name Degsa. If it signifies ‘ten’, I wonder what the entire name might mean.

  2. Edwin Hustwit says:

    Some consideration must be given to Aedan’s motive in all this: was he attacking Bernicia; or was Aethelfrith the aggressor? Both are possibilities, and if either is correct the battle must have taken place in an area of direct concern to both parties, perhaps placing the battle somewhere to the northwest of Bernicia, possibly in Manaw?

    Dawston, I think, cannot be seen as a credible option: too far south.

    As for the Britons, perhaps we shouldn’t think of them as heterogeneous: there could have been Britons fighting on either side. Given what we know about Penda and the Britons, it makes it at least plausible that a number of the most powerful Northumbrian kings had British allies: it was, however, something that neither the Britons nor Bede wished to publicize in all probability. That some British polities survived west of the Pennines into the later seventh century, seemingly, makes it even more likely that they rendered some form of military assistance to their overlords.

    The outcome of the battle, in the long-term, must be viewed in light of Oswald and Oswy’s exile amongst the Scotti. Some form of accord must have been reached as the flight of the aethelings into the hands of some of their most recently defeated opponents appears rather poorly though-out if they were regarded still as hostile. We might read Bede’s statement regarding the peace between the Northumbrians and DalRiata as motivated by his fondness for the Irish missionary work in Northumbria, and therefore unconnected to the political realities of the period, which saw continued aggression between the pair. In this case, however, I prefer to regard Bede’s statement, corroborated by the exile of Oswald and Oswy, as broadly correct.



    • Tim says:

      Yes, I agree on accepting Bede’s testimony about peaceful relations between the heirs of the Degsastan protagonists. I think you are right to make the point about different groups of Britons supporting either Aedan or Aethelfrith, depending on which of these two overlords commanded their allegiance, if indeed any British kings were directly involved.

      I, too, would look towards Manau for the battlefield. This area seems a more plausible interface for the clash of royal ambitions. For me, Dawston and its environs are interesting for other reasons, mainly because of archaeological remains that I was previously unaware of until they were mentioned in the old thread.

  3. Firstly I would like to heap praise on Senchus and also all the participants on the earlier chat. Some of you might be aware that I was seeking information on Degsastan for a historical fiction I was writing (the sequel to one which features Catreath – well my verion of it anyway ;-)/

    That discussion a year ago and a visit to Dawstone with the guidance of various maps and images you nice people provided has resulted in me using that site for my Degsastan in Child of Loki. If you want to find out want more on that subject poddle over to my website http://www.richarddenning.co.uk. Enough with the free advertising!.

    Is Dawstone a Plausable candidate??

    I have visited this place with my family . It is a remote location and at first glance seems an unlikely place for a great battle. It does, however, have some supporting evidence. Geographically it occupies the watershed where rivers and streams flow away west and east and gives access to routes through the hills of the Scottish borders and Northern Pennines. Thus an army heading for Carlisle might just go that way.

    Furthermore, archeological digs on the site in the early 20th century found evidence of iron weaponry and arrowheads in the area. The top of the rig is littered with the vague remnants of stone cairns – possibly raised over the bodies of the fallen.

    It was at some point fortified. Forts in the valley and the Catrail or ambankment running accross the rig.

    So possible – yes. That really is as far as one can go.

  4. Geoffrey Kolbe says:

    I too would like to say thanks to Tim for opening up discussion on Degsastan again. I thought the quality of the discussion on the first blog was exceptional, but happened upon it only when it had closed.

    Yes, the Dawston/Degsastan site is remote and difficult to get at today – but I live just a mile down the road and so for me, this is very much ‘local history’.

    Is the fact that it is remote and difficult to get to today a good reason to dismiss this as a battle site between two great armies? Looking at a map of this area for around 600 AD, Dawston/Degsastan was right on the boundary of Bericia and the lands of Gododdin, who joined with the coalition of Ulstermen and the Dalriada army to have a poke at Aethelfrith.

    What route would Aedan have been using to make his attack Bernicia? He could have made a frontal assault going East via the fertile valleys of the Tweed and the Teviot to meet Aethelfrith coming West from Bamburgh. But I suggest that Aedan could have diverted South via what is now Hawick and Bonchester Bridge, and followed the River Tyne down into the soft underbelly of Bernicia around Newcastle. The Tyne rises from a peaty bog just a mile or so away from Dawston Rig, and is a natural route into Bernicia. There were drovers roads from Newcastle into Scotland going through here until recent times.

    While the etymology of Dawston is not encouraging, That of Caddroun Rig immediately to the East is much more promising. Roy Perkins, writing in a blog in the year 2000 (I hesitate to cite the URL as I don’t know what filters are in place – but Google will find it) wrote:

    “Cad is British for battle, war or fight, whilst although ‘roun’ as such does not exist there are two very similar British words, rhuon meaning a soldier and rhon meaning a spear or lance.Thus one
    can, I think sensibly, translate Cadroun Rig to mean the hill where the war of the soldiers or spears was.”

    Standing on what is now Hudshouse Rig and looking over to the now forested slopes of Caddroun Rig, one can imagine two armies looking at each other across the Caddroun Burn and waiting for the nerve of one to break and give up their defensive position to charge in strength across the burn and try to divide the opposing force.

    Geoffrey Kolbe

    • Tim says:

      Caddroun Rig looks like an interesting place-name, Geoffrey. I wonder if early forms are recorded, perhaps in the Jedburgh charters? I’m always on the lookout for possible Brittonic derivations.

  5. By cooincidence a guest post by me on English Historical Fiction Writers today is on the very subject of Degsastan. I did the post with the general historically interested reader in mind. So its an overview

  6. One question of interest to me was WHY the battle happened in the first place. Now it seems that with Bernicia pushing in to the areas of the Goddodin and Strathclyde that the Scots got interested. I believe there was a diplomatic effort made and that two of Aedann Mac Gabhrain’s sons died at of soon after that.

    Is it posisble then that the Scots were meeting Aethelfrith with offers of peace, something went wrong and out of the deaths of the princes animonsity sprang up which led to battle?

    • Geoffrey Kolbe says:

      If the Scots were meeting Aethelfrith with offers of peace, why come with a large army? That form of diplomacy is mighty expensive and very provocative to boot.

      And why did Aedan bring all his friends? Ulstermen came over from Ireland – and Aedan didn’t go through the territory of Strathclyde and the Gododdin (as he would have needed to) unless they intended to join in.

      It would seem that Aethelfrith was probably the best general around at that time. He was busily knocking over the neighbouring states and expanding his empire. I think Aedan et al thought that they should mount a collaborative overwhelming attack before Aethelfrith picked them off one by one. But even with what was evidently an inferior army, Aethelfrith was still way too good.

      I will return to the site over the next few weeks, while the grass and ‘bent’ is still short, and see what the moles have dug up.

      Geoffrey Kolbe

      • ah i think you misunderstand what I was getting at. The diplomatic mission (or whatever it was) was about 2 pr 3 years before Degsastan (at least from some comments I have found, Life of St Columba is one reference) . So he did NOT turn up with a huge army in 599/ 600. Supposedly it was Bran , Domanghast and Herring (the exiled cousin of Aethelfrith) plus presumably some companions.

        Of course it may not have been a diplomatic mission. It might have been raid or an unrecorded battle.

        Something goes wrong and Bran and Domanghast die. 2 years later Aedann turns up with his huge army.

        • Geoffrey Kolbe says:

          Ah yes, I see now. Thanks for clearing that up Richard


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  7. David Hillman says:

    Pity this is definitely after the battle against the Miathi – else we could say : then Arthur fought against them in those days.

  8. mick Deakin says:


    I note that Cairnpapple saw continued use over a 4000 year period up to the 5thc AD. One of the large central stones stood to 2.4 metres high. It certainly would qualify for a ‘famous place’ known at the time of Bede, but a posssible battle location ?

    • Tim says:

      A group of stones with a prominent standing-stone at the centre would certainly seem to fit the criteria. Such places could have been famous as meeting-points for large public gatherings in Bede’s time.

  9. David Hillman says:

    Is Richard Denning suggesting that, according to the life of Columba, there might have been battles between the Scots and the Bernicians before Degsastan?

    • Not a huge battle but I have read in a few places that certainly contact between the races occurred. I ssume that some form of diplomacy went on.

      I have seen it suggested That at on of these meetings something went wrong and mac ga brains sons might have died and aetelfrith might have been blamed

      Sorry I am vague . I am away fromo home and books on Arran for a few days then visiting dunnad hill fort (looking forward to that)
      When I get home I will try and flesh out the evidence … Such that there is.

  10. David Hillman says:

    I think Richard might be right if the Miathi were under the overlordship of the Bernicians rather (or as well as) the kings of Fortriou. I do not think there is any real evidence of this though it fits with the oldest stories of why the Saxon kingdoms were set up.

    • Tim says:

      I wonder if the clientship of the Miathi may have been a key factor in the Degsastan campaign…..

      Richard wrote:
      ‘Now it seems that with Bernicia pushing in to the areas of the Goddodin and Strathclyde that the Scots got interested.’

      To me, this starts to link up with what Edwin said earlier about looking for the battle in Manau rather than further south. I’d place the interface between Gododdin, Bernicia and the Clyde Britons in the Antonine Wall area, specifically in southern Manau between the rivers Avon and Carron. We know Aedan defeated the Miathi and (presumably) used his victory to claim overlordship over some portion of Manau. If Aethelfrith likewise gained the submission of Gododdin, then his own ambitions may have carried his gaze across the River Avon into Manau. A hint in the Life of Columba suggests that the Clyde Britons were under Aedan’s overlordship at this time. If their eastern borderlands (in the Kelvin Valley?) were threatened by Aethelfrith this might have been enough to provoke Aedan into pre-emptive military action.

      This would not necessarily rule Dawston out of the picture, but it would shift the initial political flashpoint further north into Stirlingshire.

  11. mick Deakin says:

    I dug this out of the archives earlier today Tim,
    certainly adds ‘spice’ to the subject 😉


    DEAGH, good, OIr. deg or dag, after the creator-goddess Dag,
    a daughter of the Dagda. Cy. da, Gaul. Dago-, the “good” one.
    Allied with the Lat. dexter, right-handed. Gaelic deas, south,
    right. The superlative of this word is maith. See Da. The old
    nominative case was daig, the genitive dega, thus the
    modern word. Daig was the word for “fire” and corresponds
    with the G. Aod. The former is less often used as a family or
    personal name than the latter. Dundee is based on Dun
    Deagh, the “good (well-build, enspirited) fortress

    • Tim says:

      This is useful stuff, Mick. Taking it further, we could be looking for a standing stone somewhere in southern Scotland associated with a British equivalent (or namesake) of Dagda. The genitive form dega is particularly suggestive, as is the second element of Dundee. I wonder if ther might be a suitably prominent monolith on a Roman road leading south into Bernicia? The roads in question would be Dere Street in the east and the Clyde/Crawford route in the west.

  12. mick Deakin says:

    The following is taken from May G Williamsons unpublished Thesis (1942) ‘The Non Celtic Placenames of the Scottish Border Counties’ The reference to ‘Day Sick’ is interesting.


    Battle of Degsastan

    The fullest account of this encounter between the Angles and the Scots is to be found in
    Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, Book I, Chapter 34. From it we learn that Æðelfrið had been
    ravaging the territory of the Britons. The extent of his campaigns is not stated, but evidently
    they were extremely thorough for Bede says that the inhabitants of the conquered territories
    were treated with great brutality. They were either driven out entirely or forced to serve under
    Anglian rule. No doubt the reference to Saul and the “ravening wolf” can be discounted, as
    Bede, like Gildas before him, was not unbiased in his opinions. Nevertheless, Æðelfrið’s
    methods were evidently unusual as we are told that no other English king “made more of their
    lands either tributary to the English nation or habitable by them”.
    The reason of Ædan’s rising against Æðelfrið is not stated. It is unlikely that Æðelfrið had
    penetrated to Scottish territory but no doubt he had advanced sufficiently far into the British
    area to endanger Scottish integrity. That Ædan received support from Ireland we learn from
    the Annals of Ulster. Mael-umae, who came to his aid, probably sailed up the /xlii/ Firth of
    Clyde to meet him, for Ædan’s seat was at Aberfoyle (CPNS, 129, 225).
    The whereabouts of Æðelfrið’s army is unknown. Most historians take it for granted that the
    Anglians had crossed to the West Coast and conquered Dumfriesshire, but there is no proof of
    this. It is equally likely that they marched up the East Coast and proceeded along the southern
    shores of the Forth. The battle is as likely to have been fought near Stirling as at the head of
    Strategically, of course, a decisive victory in the latter area would drive an effective wedge
    between the Britons of Cumbria, and those of Strathclyde which would make possible future
    English penetration into the lowlands of Cumberland and Dumfriesshire. Since evidences of
    fairly effective Anglian settlement are to be found both in place-names of an early type and in
    the Anglian monuments of the 7th and 8th centuries in these areas, it is obvious that the Celtic
    population must have given way either of their own free will or to the persuasion of war about
    this period.
    A point near the Dawston Burn in Castleton parish is usually accepted as the site of the battle.
    As a meeting place it is very convenient. The Angles could have come up Tynedale and the
    Scots up Liddesdale from /xliii/ the shores of the Solway where the Irish had perhaps landed.
    A stream called Day Sike, running to join the Border at Bell’s Burn, may also have taken its
    name from Dægsa stan. This was according to Bede “a famous place”, and some kind of
    obelisk may have marked the limit of British territory, for it is here that the Catrail ends, an
    ancient earthwork which may have marked the boundary between Anglian and Celtic lands
    before this decisive battle drove the Britons farther westward. The name is variously spelt:
    æt Egesan stane, 603 ASC A; æt Dægstane, 10th century gloss on this text; æt Dægsan stane,
    603 ASC E; Degsastan, c730 Bede HE; Flo Wig;Degsa stone, ib.
    The first element seems to be an OE personal name Dæg(i)sa, an -isa derivative of Dæg-,
    seen in Dæghræfn, Beowulf, etc. This recalls the unexplained runes on the Ruthwell Cross:
    dægisgæf, which seem to contain the same name, which is of a very early type: cf
    Dickins and Ross, 4 n4. The association with the Cross strengthens the belief that the battle
    was fought in Dumfriesshire

    • Edwin Hustwit says:

      There have been several interesting posts highlighting the archaeology of the Liddesdale area, though little of this aids our understanding of Degsastan. The above long quotation taken from the thesis merely highlights the improbability that a battle between the forces of Bernicia and Dal Riata took place there. Why the Scots of Dal Riata would land on the Solway is unclear, particularly if the outcome of such a landing resulted in the Bernician’s driving the Britons ‘farther westward’, Such comments merely muddy the water and go against the evidence of the primary sources which suggests Aedan’s interests lay in Manau, making it far more credible that the battle took place somewhere in that region, particularly if Aethelfrith was in control of Lothian. If this was a clash of hegemonic powers, a ‘natural’ place for them to clash would be a region in which they shared interest or marched with one another, a notion that favours Manau/Stirlingshire over other sites.

      • mick Deakin says:

        One of the primary sources for information on the Battle of Brunanburh, John of Worcester, informs us that Anlaf landed at the mouth of the River Humber. He has certainly muddied the waters, as most modern day historians and scholars (with the exception of Michael Wood and Cyril Hart) believe the conflict to have taken place on or near the West Coast – which seems very credible in my opinion.
        Brunanburh is still hotly debated and yet historical accounts provide us with far more information regarding the battle than it does for Degsastan.

        • Edwin Hustwit says:

          I rather think that John of Worcester’s account of Anlaf’s landing at the mouth of the River Humber was influenced by far more recent events in English history, particularly those of 1066. But since you disagree with his account, it’s hard to see what your point might be. What is the evidence for Dal Riatan interest in the Solway region? I am not aware of any, although if some is presented that would excellent. What I am suggesting is that rather than begin our theories from guesses connected to similar sounding place-names, we examine the source material in order to comprehend where the interests of the protagonists lay. Surely a major part of this is to suggest a credible motivation for Aedan to be in the Dawston area, which seems to be entirely absent from this discussion.

      • Geoffrey Kolbe says:

        Well, if an army from Ulster was to join in the fray, then it would be good military logistics for them to land at the Solway, meet up with Aedan and his Scots and make their way to Northumberland via the Liddel valley and the Tyne valley – particularly if Aethelfrith was in control of Lothain. If Aedan can get into the Newcastle area and establish a base on the flat plains there, he can bottle up Aethelfrith in the North at his capital in Bamburgh. This will put Aedan in a much stronger position than a head on attack from the North.

        However, all this is speculation. I would be interested to know when the first link was made that Degsastan was modern day Dawston. Was the link purely made on the basis that both names start with a D and end with an N as has been stated? Or was there some other reason why.

        In his book “Liddesdale”, John Byres included a copy of an old map at the back, but was sloth in giving us a provenance for the map. I believe it a military map dating from the 16th century. However, the point I am coming to is that on this old map, the burn in question is called “Dasten” burn. Now, I think this is a lot closer to Degsastan or “Day Stone” than Dawston and the etymology starts to have longer legs!

        In the spirit of completeness though, James Johnston in his “Place-Names of Scotland”, 1892, spelled it “Dawstane”, but does not give his source. In the first Ordnance Survey map of the area, surveyed in 1858-9, the spelling is the modern Dawston. It was this map which probably first cemented the modern spelling in place – but how did the surveyors determine the spelling of place names in those days?


        • Edwin Hustwit says:

          Would it not make more logistical sense for an Ulster army to meet up with Aedan in Dal Riata, rather than a site miles away from his core territory? Even if this unlikely rendevous occured in the Solway, what was its purpose? Why would Aedan march down through British territory to meet up with an army that could have sailed to his front door, only to then turn around and try an penetrate through some extremely difficult terrain into Aethelfrith’s territory? Even if we assume that Aethelfrith held British Solway under his hegemony in this period, which is perhaps likely to have been the case, it seems rather a complicated way of explaining a confrontation that makes far greater sense as a battle between two powers competing directly over lands that were accessible overland from their heartlands.

  13. mick Deakin says:

    I have tried to find Day Sike on the Web Streetmap facilty but to no avail. (and I did spell it correctly).
    I have some I :25000 OS maps of the area in the attic – I will dig these out later and have a scan.

    • Geoffrey Kolbe says:

      Nice piece you dug up there Mick

      Put NY600950 into Streetmap and that should get you within a stones throw of Day Syke


  14. Tim says:

    I’m glad I opened up this new thread as it’s turning out to be just as active as the previous one. At this rate I’ll be opening ‘Degsastan 3’ before too long.

    Readers of the first thread and the original post won’t be surprised to hear that my own views mesh very closely with Edwin’s. Picking up on one of Edwin’s points about the limitations of using ‘sounds like’ etymology, I think we can summarise the origin of the Dawston theory as follows:

    1. Assume the name ‘Degsa’s Stone’ has survived in some modern form.
    2. Look on a map to find a place with a name that sounds a bit like ‘Degsa’s Stone’.
    3. Devise a historical explanation to justify identifying this place as the battlefield of 603.

    It seems to me that a more objective approach would be:

    1. Given what we know of 7th-century political geography, draw up a shortlist of the most likely areas for a clash between Aedan and Aethelfrith.
    2. Look on a modern map and try to find a place with a name that sounds a bit like ‘Degsa’s Stone’.
    3. If no such place exists, assume that the name ‘Degsa’s Stone’ has not survived.

    This is why I would move the search for Degsastan away from the Solway and towards Stirlingshire instead. I do think there is a good chance that Degsa’s Stone itself has survived, perhaps as a prehistoric monolith, but I am not confident that we shall ever identify it. It might be known today by a different name, or by no particular name at all. There are several anonymous standing stones along the ancient routeways that the armies of Aedan and Aethelfrith may have used. Any or none of these might be the ‘very famous place’ where Bede tells us the great battle was fought.

    • What is infuriating here is that bede tells us where the battle is, refers to it as a. Very famous place. How frustrating that what was very famous to him was not referred to by any one else

      • Tim says:

        Frustrating indeed, Richard. It sometimes gets me wondering if the place wasn’t quite as famous as Bede makes out.

  15. mick Deakin says:

    Very interesting piece I have read Tim relating to the standing stone on the summit of Dabshead Hill (Lauder) The stone stands 3.50m high, but leaning somewhat and held in position by a large modern stone cairn. There are five large cup marks on the stone and several other depressions. It has been suggested that the stone was originally located north of the circle on Borrowston Rig.

    I reproduce in full below, the Folklore and Fieldnotes taken from the website.
    The reference to ‘Dye Water’ certainly strikes a chord !


    The stone was probably erected in its current location as a monument in the 19th century, on the marriage of the Countess of Meath. Another reference, original unknown, mentions the Baron’s Stone, sepulchre of a great Chief who died on the battle field. It has been suggested that the stone was originally located north of the circle at 048 Borrowston Rig and may have formed part of the rituals associated with the area. Whether it was lying prone on the ground or erect as a standing stone is not known, although the latter seems most likely.

    Several references seen to point out that this stone was erected only recently, some time in the 19th Century. However, another reference in an old book, the title of which I’ve lost, refers to the “Lang Stane” on Dabshead Hill (“lang” means long in Lowland Scots). There is also a note that the stone originated from Dye Water, about 10 miles to the west, as the crow flies. I suppose this is entirely possible, as the stone could easily have been moved on a strong cart with a good team of heavy horses. Ordnance Survey Explorer 345 reveals a number of interesting place names. Lylestone Hill, Lylestane farm, Lylestane Burn and Lylestane Plantation hint at other earlier associations with the stone. The two names, “Lyle” and “lang” also seem to close to be mere coincidence.

  16. mick Deakin says:

    If the stone did originate from Dye Water, then this area would be close enough to the Dere Street to be of interest. In the Old Roads of the Lammermuirs (Angus Graham) , there is mention of a route “of great antiquity” – The Stanepeth that passes through the area.

    I have contacted the owner of the website ‘Ancient Stones’ asking him for details of the original references in his Fieldnotes.

    I am not getting overly excited at this point as there is also a ‘Water of Dye’ in Aberdeenshire – whether the names are connected or not is a matter for further discussion 🙂


  17. mick Deakin says:

    Apologies Tim if I seem to be hogging this space of late !

    Based on the possibility that Dye Water might have a connection with Degsastan and the stone on Dabshead Hill originated from that vicinity, I have looked around the area of Dye Water to try and see where such a monolith might have stood. If the original purpose of the stone was to mark the burial place or site of rememberance of ‘Daegsa’ and if this was such famous a place as the venerable Bede describes, then there may be have been more than just a single monolith marking the spot. Im presently looking at the ‘Mutiny Stones’ long cairn which must have been a mightily impressive landmark in its time.

    Is it at all likely that ‘Dye’ could develop from Daeg ?


    • Geoffrey Kolbe says:

      Nice work Mick, but you should be warned that there are long cairns all over the place which must have been “mightily impressive” landmarks at the time. I visited Long Knowe chambered cairn in Newcastleton forest last week, and it is still an impressive mound of stones some 200 feet long. And that is only one of three or four of similar size within ten miles of my house, here near Dawston Rig!

      The chambered cairn near Whisgills, just West of Newcastleton, has a number of nearby standing stones associated with it.

      I would agree that ‘Dye’ could be a corruption of ‘Day’


  18. Tim says:

    The Dabshead Hill stone has certainly sparked my interest, Mick. It’s within what I regard as a plausible zone of interface between Aedan and Aethelfrith. But while the stone itself looks like a possible candidate for Degsastan the hope of finding a ‘sounds like’ place-name in the vicinity seems slim, and probably not worth the time. Dye Water, for instance, rings the usual alarm bells and has the distinctive whiff of a red herring. Long ago, in his book on Scottish toponyms, Johnston proposed that the northeastern River Dye might get its name from a local form of Welsh dwy (‘god’ or ‘goddess’) which is a common element in river names. The southern Dye Water may have a similar origin.

    Geoffrey is right about the plethora of stones, cairns, etc. so it’s a bit of a needle-in-haystack situation. On the other hand, the Dabshead stone does tick a few of the geographical boxes on my own Degsastan checklist so I’d be happy to hear more about it. Seems to me that one way forward might be to pinpoint the exact original position of the stone, then look at the wider context of routeways and terrain. A key question would be: why would a stone in such a place be described by Bede as very famous?

  19. Mick Deakin says:

    If Degsastan did not survive as through time as a placename, then perhaps it may have done so but not in such a directly developed form. I have been looking at Stenton in East Lothian Tim. Could this possibly mean ‘settlement of/by the stone’. In which case the stone must have been of some significance for the placename to have developed from it.
    That is of course unless the Sten- element was the name of the founder of the settlement?
    Just another angle of thought – thats all !


    • Tim says:

      East Lothian fits the general picture for me. The tricky part is identifying where the sten– element comes from. It could simply mean ‘stony’, as in rocky ground, or ‘stone-built’ (i.e. ‘settlement of stone buildings’). I’m assuming the root is OE stan -> Scots sten.

      • Buannan says:

        Located to the west of Stenton in east lothian there is of course Traprain Law (old names: Dunpendyrlaw (Dun-pen-dyr-law) and Dunpelder).

        Immediately below the western end of the hill there is a large level area occupying the 100m contour lying between Cairndinnis farm to the north and the single track road to the south.

        The map shows that a standing stone once stood on the south side of this level park, presumably the same stone that was moved to a location just south of the the original position, to a farmyard lying between the single track road and Luggate burn, this is the stone is known today as the Lot Stone.

        So is Traprain worthy of consideration as a likely contender for Bede’s Degsastan? One could certainly concoct a convincing context for this location, as this would have been the “most famous” place in that region and in 603 it would be bang slap in the fluid border lands between the receding Gododdin kingdom and the expansionist Bernicians.

        If you held Traprain and surrounding area you controlled the bulk of old Lleuddiniawn. Perhaps Aedan was seeking to check Aethelfrith’s designs on further conquest of the lothians.

        • Tim says:

          Thanks for mentioning this, Buannan. The Lot Stone seems to me a plausible candidate for Degsastan, especially if its original native name meant ‘Stone of Leodonus’ (i.e. ‘Stone of Lothian’). It’s possible that the English-speaking Bernicians had their own name for it, a name that commemorated someone or something called Degsa. To me, this stone is in the right part of North Britain to be the scene of a battle in 603 between two ambitious kings. As you say, it would have lain in the contested borderlands of Gododdin and Bernicia. As a setting for a major battle it would have been a suitably prominent landmark for Aedan to grab as a symbolic challenge to Aethelfrith.

  20. damo says:

    I was just wondering why, when it comes to Degsastane, nobody mentions the name given for the battle in the oldest recension of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – THEAKSTONE. This is a village a couple of miles to the south of Catterick which, if it was the site of the battle of Catraeth – a battle that took place at around the same time – suggests that Degsastane & Catraeth were the same battle.

    • Mick Deakin says:

      Thomas Stephens in his book ‘The Gododin of Aneurin Gwawdrydd’ also suggests that Degsastane and Catraeth were one and the same battle. He believes Sigston (stone of victory) East of Catterick was a possible location for the site of the battle.

      • Tim says:

        Stephens was also responsible for the theory that Catraeth was Catterick, an identification I don’t buy at all. Sigston has an interesting place-name but seems an implausible setting for a battle between Scots and Bernicians in 603 (though not 300 years later).

        • Geoffrey Kolbe says:

          Mick’s idea is interesting in that it raises the prospect that Degsastan was “famous” because of, or subsequent to the victory, and may not have been a famous place for some other reason before the victory. Because of that, its ‘famous-ness’ would fade as the culture changed and the meaning of that victory for the incumbent culture of the time ceased to have any weight.

          Of course, soon after Bede wrote his enigmatic piece, the Vikings swept over the land and they would not have had much interest in why Degsastan was famous.

          • Damo says:

            I just checked the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle up at the national Library in Edinburgh, & none of the recensions actually use the word ‘Theakstone.’ Another example of the historian having to check every source.

            I’m happy, actually, as I was convinced that the word Catraeth comes from the Scots-Gaelic Cat-Raeth, i.e. Plain of the Cat(rail), & this was a reference to Degsastan’s Liddesdale, where the Catrail roughly terminates. The Catrail was known in antiquity as the Pictsworkditch, & the ogham letters on Pictish stones suggest that the Pictish language was related to Gaelic.

          • Tim says:

            Geoffrey – I agree, the 9th-century upheavals in Northumbria provide a possible context for the decline of Degsa’s Stone as a famous place, especially if it stood in an area later taken over by the Strathclyde Britons.

            Damian – It’s a pity we don’t know more about the Catrail as it was clearly an important feature. If we knew it belonged to the 6th-7th centuries we might be able to start looking at it as a major political boundary like the linear earthworks of Yorkshire around the old kingdom of Elmet.

  21. Mick Deakin says:


    I just got to thinking if Degsastan – Daystone, could be a reference to a sundial ? I know of only one ancient stone in the region ‘The Bewcastle Cross’ which has a sundial on one of its faces. Some sources I have heard, date the stone to the early 8thc which if accurate, might mean that the stone was standing whilst Bede was still alive and therefore that the stone was a marker for a famous place in his own time ?


    • Tim says:

      Interesting idea, Mick, although it would presumably require ‘Stone of Degsa’ to be ‘Dega Stone’ with the ‘s’ in Degsa being a scribal error for the original form. The correct OE form would then be Degastan not Degsastan. Also, we’d need to know that a sundial would be referred to as a ‘day stone’ by English-speaking Northumbrians c.700.

      • Damo says:

        The Catrail may hold the key to the Degsastan question. IA Richmond in his Roman Britain (1955) highlights a tradition of naming stones after deities in the area;

        Literature mentions the Locus Maponi, or meeting place of Mapons, the Celtic god who was equated with Apollo in his double aspect of youth & harper. This place may reasonably be identified with Clochmabenstane on the North shore of the Solway, where in later days the medieval English & Scottish wardens of the Marches met to settle common affairs

        In light of this, Degsa could be an Anglo-Saxon corruption of the god Dagda. This powerful Irish diety gargantuan was the High King of the Tuatha-de-Danaan, who was said to pull a massive, eight-pronged battle club behind him on a wheel. As he went forward, one side of the club killed the living & the other revived the dead, & in its wake the wheel left a deep track dividing the two provinces. This giant border-trench invokes images of the Catrail, & we can imagine a Celtic bard alluding to Dagda when describing its origin to his bewildered people. The god also carried with him a huge cauldron called the Undry, brimming with everlasting food & a boar that never stops roasting; a symbolic icon perfect for public occasions such as fairs or councils. IA Richmond continued;

        …the stone of Maponus was a traditional meeting place, & in Roman frontier politics played its part as one of those permitted places of assembley for markets & public business which enabled Rome to control tribal gatherings. It is significant, too, that the god under whose auspices the assemblage took place was not a war-god, but a bardic god whose function was the peaceful entertainment of music.

        This would then explain the famousness of the place as a sub-roman festival site.

        • Tim says:

          Yes, I think the idea of ‘Degsa’ being an important North British deity like Maponus is certainly plausible. Even if it isn’t Dagda, the two names are similar enough to suggest two separate deities – one Irish, the other British – who were named from some common Celtic root-word deg-/dag-. I think it quite likely that Degsa’s Stone was an ancient meeting place like the Stone of Mabon. Such places would have been prime locations for muster-points and battles.

      • Mick Deakin says:

        In the various known spellings (below) would ‘æt Dægstane’ = Daystone?
        Also, I am confused by the aet Egesan stane – what is your view on this variation Tim?

        æt Egesan stane, 603 ASC A; æt Dægstane, 10th century gloss on this text; æt Dægsan stane,
        603 ASC E; Degsastan, c730 Bede

        • Mick Deakin says:

          Just done a spot of romancing again Tim!

          If there is any substance in the ‘Egesan stane’ variation, then OE ‘Egesa’ can have a meaning of fear,dread, awe. We would then have a possible meaning of Stone of fear/dread/awe etc.
          I am wondering therefore if this might bring the Stone of Scone into our radar as this was known as the Stone of Fate or Stone of Destiny. Its place of rest was (if I am correct) was the lost city of Evonium, which would certainly have been a very famous place indeed 😉


        • Tim says:

          I’ve always thought of Egesan as a scribal error and therefore a red herring. It might be worth looking up the spelling in the other versions of ASC.

          ‘Stone of Dread’ would however be a good name for a battle-site 😉

  22. Mick Deakin says:

    It is interesting that Stenton points out the significance of Aethelfriths defeat of the Britons at Chester sometime between 613-616 as bringing about a separation of the Britons in Wales from those in the North. Could the Battle with Aedan have been a similar strategy in 603 – Pushing towards the Cumbrian coast and creating a northern divide ? Stenton does go on to say :-

    “There is no direct evidence as to the date at which the Bernicians reached the Cumbrian coast. But there are enough ancient place-names in Cumberland and Lancashire to suggest that Aethelfrith could have ridden from the Solway to the Mersey through territory in the occupation of hid own people”

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for bringing this up, Mick. It’s one of my pet topics.

      I don’t agree with Stenton’s idea of such an early date for the English conquest of Lancashire/Cumbria. Groups of English-speaking settlers may have come west of the Pennines before c.600, or pockets of Britons may have adopted ‘Englishness’ via acculturation with powerful Anglo-Saxon elites, but I don’t envisage mass Anglicisation at this stage. Nor do I think these putative Lancastrian/Cumbrian English were necessarily answerable to Aethelfrith.

      Regarding the supposed ‘separation’ of the North Britons from those of Wales after the battle of Chester, I suspect this has more to do with 20th-century notions of military strategy (especially in the European battlegrounds of the two world wars) when maps in newspapers showed dramatic spear-like advances and ‘pincer movements’ slicing through France and Belgium. For me, Aethelfrith’s march to Chester was more likely to have been a large-scale raid, a display of power designed to challenge the ambitions of North Welsh kings. In spite of what Stenton and others believed, there is no evidence that the Welsh and the North Britons saw themselves as a unified people who should naturally co-operate against foes who spoke a different language.

  23. cywarchhen says:

    Considering the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to a bishop of (if I mind right) Hereford as “Camlac” or some such, who was the same person as Cyfeiliog, and considering the penchant for using your own language (e.g. Edin-burh instead of Din Eidyn) at the time, it strikes me that “Degsastan” may well be a reasonably well-known place today, but with a name deriving from some Celtic language rather than English. It would probably include an element like “craig” or “creag” (rock) or “maen” or “clach” (stone). As for the “degsa” bit, that could be a translation, a part-translation or just a transliteration of something untranslated..

    Anyway, it’s interesting to see places as far afield as Richmond and Stirling being proposed for the site! At that time things were, indeed, pretty fluid. For instance, the Angles didn’t stop at Lothian, but went right up the east of Scotland, till they were turned back at the battle of Dùn Nechdain (Dunnichen) – and there is a recent, and fairly well substantiated, theory that the site of that battle was actually between Aviemore and Kingussie! (Woolf) So yes, Degsastan could be almost anywhere, although the traditional location of Dawston Rigg does seem quite possible.

    • Tim says:

      I think your idea of Degsa’s stone now having a name with a Gaelic or Cumbric/Welsh prefix is a possible way forward. Someone should do a survey of all the prominent standing stones and sacred rocks within the likeliest area for these two kings to clash. Such an area would be pretty big, so it would be no easy task. The political situation was certainly fluid, as you point out, and the survey would have to encompass a very broad zone from (for example) the Antonine Wall southwards to the Solway..

  24. Hugh Slaney says:

    Reading all these comments, I can’t help to think that the location of Dagsastan must be within Bernicia for the following reasons.

    Bede knew where Dagsastan was, and from what he wrote he gives the impression of Aedan invading Bernicia, otherwise his sentence that since the defeat no Scottish king has dared to invade England, would be pointless unless this was the last invasion until Bede wrote the book. If there was no invasion then the reason for the lack of invasions would have to have occurred before the battle.

    The most important question must be how much warning would Aethelfrith had received of the attack? The only chance I see of any warning is if travellers overtaking the army then giving the warning when they arrive in Bernicia. For a traveller to take the threat seriously it must be obvious that Bernicia is the target, if the traveller saw the army in Dalriada then the target could be anyone of the Pict or British nations closer, it is only when for example they get past Edinburgh coming south will Bernicia be identified as the target and the traveller be alarmed enough to pass on the warning. If the traveller overtook the army in Edinburgh (76 miles away) and assuming that an army can cover 12 miles a day and the traveller 25 miles, the traveller would get to Bamburgh in 3 days but by this time the army is now only 40 miles away, so if the armies moved at the same speed they would meet only 20 miles away from Bamburgh!

    The idea that the defending army could get as far as Dawstane seems far-fetched especially if the Scots came by boat, to meet there, Aethelfrith would have had to set off a few days before Aedan!
    The other problem is the reaction of the neighbouring kingdoms for an army marching though their land, the last thing an army would want is to fight two battles.

    Since there were no standing armies, it is likely that they would have to quickly round up an army from the local settlements but they would have the advantage that they would be instructed to go direct to a well-known landmark near where they expect the battle to take place, standing stones would be a good example. The location can’t be too advanced, otherwise there would be a possibility of the early arrivals meeting the enemy before the main force has arrived.

    The advantage that the defending side would have is that they would be able to travel much quicker since they would be in small groups and there would be no baggage train which is the main reason for the slow movement of an army.

    Taking all the above, the place I would be looking at is near a crossing point of a large river, this will ensure that they can’t take another road and miss you. The other point about a river is that Bede said that the Scots army was wiped out, this is very unusual, the usual process is that when a side starts to lose they run away, unless they can’t because they are trapped by the river! Also they will be very compressed and at a disadvantage.

    I would be looking at a distance of around 20-25 miles away from Bamburgh. The obvious choice is the River Tweed if the Scots are coming from the north. At Coldstream there was a ford and on the English side there is a standing stone called The Kings Stone, obviously not its original name. Whilst we do not know which route they took, crossing at Coldstream makes sense, since if they came from Edinburgh down Dere Street and then branched off since there was a ford there you would expect a good road to meet Dere Street. If they were coming from Glasgow, Coldstream is on a direct line to Bamburgh.

    The other reason why I think the battle took place a lot nearer to Bamburgh, is that Bede says that Aethelfrith had the smaller army. Normally I would expect the defending army to be the bigger since they would drag up every available body to defend whilst an attacking army would be smaller but made up of the best warriors. The only two reasons for this not to be the case is that Aethelfrith was surprised and therefore only had time to get a small army together or that he was facing a combined force from several kingdoms. They would have met up on route, if the battle did take place around Dawstane then it is unlikely that the army of Gododin would have been there, but it would have been a golden opportunity for them to attack in any direction since they would have the only army at full strength.

    • Edwin says:

      Some interesting points here. However, I think we have to be careful with our terminology here. I’ve not got the HE to hand, but I rather certain that Bede does not refer to Aedan invading ‘England’; he merely states that no Irish king dared meet any English king subsequent to the the loss at Dagsastane – the concept of ‘England’ was still far off in the eighth century, let alone the sixth.

      As for the size of Aethelfrith’s army, Bede often states that the Bernicians had a smaller force (Heavenfield; Winwaed) than the opposition: it fitted his general providential scheme.

    • Edwin says:

      Just one more quick point: Aedan survived the battle, so he was obviously in a position to withdraw. In fact, when compared with other battles noted by Bede, it was unusual for armies NOT to be wiped out. The defeats of Edwin, Cadwallon, Oswald, Penda, and indeed Aethelfrith, suggest that victories were normally achieved by one army being totally overwhelmed and the leader slain. There might be survivors, but the most significant persons, politically, were killed. This is the major characteristic of early medieval warfare as described by Bede; and presumably the primary aim of attacking armies. The Taliesin poem ‘Gweith Argoed Llwyfein’, whatever its preicse date and provenance, paints a similar picture.

      • Tim says:

        Thanks to Hugh for reviving this thread on Degsastan, and to Edwin for his remarks on Bede.

        Hugh’s points about military logistics (distance, routes, provisioning, etc) touch on an aspect of the debate that I’ve always regarded as crucial. Like Hugh, I’d look for Degsastan somewhere along the River Tweed or along one of its major tributaries running down from the north. The Roman road system in this region is, I believe, a key factor in the search for Degsa’s Stone.

        My own view on the scope of the search is that it should include the widest possible extent of Aethelfrith’s hegemony. So not just his core territory in the eastern coastlands but also those areas lately under British control that acknowledged his overkingship in 603. I envisage his imperium or ‘personal empire’ reaching to the southern shore of the Firth of Forth and extending westward to the River Almond at least. Within this area there are obviously a large number of standing stones and glacial erratics that might be candidates for Bede’s ‘very famous’ Degsa Lapis.

      • Hugh Slaney says:

        I am wondering if Aedan was actually present at the battle! Because I don’t see how he was allowed to remain as king after this disaster. There are many examples in Ireland of kings being replaced because they have just lost a battle or even they have won but had to step down because they received some injury. It is not that it was only the defeat but it must be seen as an act of cowardice that he was one of the few people to survive on the Scottish side. In other words he ran away whilst the rest of the army fought to their death.

        According to the ASC the army was led by Hering son of Hussa, which seems to be near identical to events 30 years later at Heavenfield where the Scots army was led by Oswald rather than Domnall Breac and I can’t find any record of Domnall being present and there are good reasons why Domnall wasn’t. Oswald had to give the impression that HE was a great leader and stamp his authority on the kingdom rather than appearing that he was just a puppet of Domnall.

        I always view battles of this era like games of chess, once the king is taken then the battle ends, especially in cases like this where it would appear the aim was to install Hering as king of Bernicia, so when he dies then there is no point in continuing since even if they win they do not have a king who would be acceptable to the Bernicia people to place on the throne.

        Looking at Bede’s writings around this time, this is the only battle that Bede talks of great slaughter, for example at Hatfield he talks of Edwin’s defeated army being displaced, at Winwaed it states that because the river was in flood more died by fleeing and drowning than was killed by the sword, which would suggest that the actual number killed in the battle was relatively small.

        It is hard to reconcile Bede’s report of the battle, because it is obvious that Aedan and his small group of followers would not have been the last men standing on the Scots side and then was able to escape! so if Bede was correct they must have left in the confusion of battle, seeing your king run away, why didn’t everyone else do the same? The only 2 explanations I can think of is 1). that the battle took place on the banks of a big river (or other physical barrier) at some point in the battle Aedan and a small part of the army got separated and managed to retreat across a river crossing and the small group were able to defend the narrow path until Aedan escaped but of course now Bernicia has control of the crossing and if it was at a loop in the river, the rest of the army would be faced with water on 3 sides and the Bernicia army on the other with no escape. But if something similar to this happened, I can’t see him remaining as king or 2). Bede believed that Aedan was present but could not explain how he didn’t die until a few years later so he invented the escape. If Bede’s sources for the battle were just from Northumbria would they know who the leader actually was? i.e. If they saw the Scottish army would they presume it was Aedan leading it rather than Hering. Am I right in supposing that this battle predates personal coat of arms?

        • Edwin says:

          There’s not really enough contextual information to explain the circumstances of Aedan’s withdrawal, though Bede definitely places him at the battle. Domnall himself survived a few losses before finally being slain at Strath Caruin, so there are parallels of unsuccessful war-leaders continuing in the kingship after their defeat in battle.

          The ASC’s reference to Herring son of Hussa perhaps explains how the Dal Riatan army was able to move into ‘provincia’ of the Bernicii, if, indeed, that was where the battle was fought. However, I think we need to be a little more careful in describing Oswald as leading a Scots army. Oswald was a returning exile, not a puppet ruler. And whilst he may have had Scots warriors in his following, these men were, presumably, sworn to Oswald on a personal basis and were not expected to return ‘home’ following the battle (there is isotope evidence from the Bamburgh cemetery which indicates that people interred there were raised in Ireland). Bede states, moreover, that Eanfrith and Oswald were accompanied by a number of young nobles during their exile, enough, perhaps, to form the core of a retinue. Presumably, Oswald’s force was augmented by warriors drawn from amongst the Berncii who were rallying around an aetheling. It’s difficult to reconcile the image of Oswald in the EH (though of course this may be an idealised image) and Adomnan’s Life of Columba with an individual who was merely a puppet ruler. His involvement in southern politics, amongst the West Saxons, also counts against such a view.

          Bede’s reporting of the size of Bernician armies generally follows a similar pattern, and is part of his providential scheme. Whilst the river Winwaed may have claimed more lives than the sword (itself drawn from a biblical exemplar; can’t remember exactly where – Tim?), the pattern is nevertheless similar throughout. Cadwallon’s superior (in numbers) force, for example, was wiped out along with the British king by Oswald’s smaller force who trusted in God.

          The opposite is also the case, as with Aethelfrith at the River Idle in 616. Here Bede states that Aethelfrith was not attended by his entire army, contingents of which, presumably, had already withdrawn to their respective regions.

          Links between Bernicia, Ireland, Iona, and Dal Riata were significant enough for Bede to have known who the Irish leader was. After all, the Bernicii were converted maninly through the influence of the Irish church, so the question of how Bede gained such knowledge isn’t really a problem. Certainly there were no coats of arms in the seventh century.

  25. Mick says:

    An interesting possible association here Tim with the ‘Stone of Destiny’ and Irish Celtic mythology. The Lia Fáil was said to have ended up in Scotland in the first decade of the sixth-century, when it was loaned to Fergus the Great for his coronation. Apparently, the stone remained in Scotland. The Lia Fáil was said to have been acquired in the Otherworld by Dagda the chief of the Tuatha De Danann. Dagda may derive from PIE *Dhagho-deiwos ‘Shining Divinity’ with the first element Dhagho suggested to be cognate with OE dæġ (day).

    Something to chew on there dare I say !


  26. William Rock says:

    At the risk of being ridiculed for bumping this post back up, I just now discovered it (and the original Degsastan post).

    In response to Hugh’s comment that Aedan should not have remained King after this defeat, he might not have. There are references in the Prophecy of Berchan and I believe John of Fordun that Aedan was not “king at the time of his death,” which took place six years later. Everything I have read from Bannerman onward assumes that for whatever reason, Eochaid Buide became king while his father was still alive. Then again, the Annals of Tigernach make Aedan 74 at the time of his death, so he could have abdicated in favor of Eochaid Buide because of age and infirmity rather than military defeat.

    Which would have made Aedan a whopping 68 years old when he led the coalition to defeat at Degsastan. That seems unheard of today, much less at the turn of the 7th century. Obviously we will never know how much his age affected the outcome.

    But it begs the question that if more of Aedan’s sons had lived, would they have led the battle in his place? Surely there is an alternative history novel in the idea of a fortysomething Artur mac Aedan winning the battle that his teetering father lost. If not for some unknown Miathi foot soldier we could be having this discussion in Gaelic.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for this, William. I agree that there are hints of Aedan relinquishing the kingship before his death. A possible precedent exists in the following century, when the Dal Riatan king Selbach of Lorn seemingly ‘opted out’ to become a monk (unless he was forced to abdicate).

      I like the idea of speculating about ‘what if…’ and imagining an alternative history in which Artur became a real ‘King Arthur’ who fought the Saxons. The implications of a Scottish victory at Degsastan might have been far-reaching indeed!

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