‘Against iron swords’: Dun Nechtáin, AD 685

Aberlemno Pictish stone

A mounted warrior, possibly a Northumbrian, on an 8th-century Pictish stone in the kirkyard at Aberlemno in Angus. (Copyright © B Keeling)


Today is the anniversary of the battle of Dun Nechtáin in which the Picts, led by their king Bridei, defeated the English of Northumbria. It was fought on 20th May 685, one of the most famous dates in early Scottish history. The Pictish victory was decisive: the Northumbrian king Ecgfrith was cut down and nearly all his warriors were slain. His people back home regarded the defeat as a catastrophe, a disastrous reversal of fortune for the royal dynasty.

Years later, the Venerable Bede wrote about the battle in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. He had been a young boy of twelve, a novice monk in the Northumbrian monastery of Jarrow, when news of Egcfrith’s fall came south from the land of the Picts. Looking back in the twilight of his life, Bede recalled the battle with sadness and regret. ‘From that time,’ he wrote, ‘the hopes and strength of the English kingdom began to ebb and fall away.’

Bede does not name the battlefield, saying only that it took place in Pictish territory ‘in a tight place of inaccessible mountains’. Geographical detail, although useful to modern historians, was less important to him than his key point or ‘message’. To Bede, the Pictish victory was God’s revenge on Ecgfrith for an event of the previous year: a savage Northumbrian raid on Brega in Ireland in which defenceless monasteries were plundered. Another English monk, writing at Ripon in Yorkshire, was similarly vague on the geography of Ecgfrith’s defeat. He was more concerned with describing the battle as ‘a woeful disaster’ inflicted by an enemy who sprang from ‘the bestial Pictish peoples’.

Much of our information comes from other sources, from writers in the Celtic lands where people in the seventh century were no strangers to English aggression. From the Irish annalists, for instance, we learn the Gaelic name of the battlefield:

The battle of Dun Nechtáin was fought on the 20th day of the month of May, a Saturday, in which Ecgfrith son of Oswiu, king of the Saxons, having completed the fifteenth year of his reign, was killed with the greater part of his warriors by Bridei son of Bili, the king of Fortriu.’

An Irish monk, probably based at the great monastery of Bangor on the shore of Belfast Lough, composed a poem on the battle. He described Ecgfrith’s demise with grim satisfaction and, like Bede, saw the Pictish victory as God’s punishment for the brutal Northumbrian raid on Brega in 684:

Today Bridei gives battle
over the land of his grandfather,
unless it is the wish of the Son of God
that restitution be made.
Today the son of Oswiu is slain
in battle against iron swords.
Even though he did penance,
it was penance too late.
Today the son of Oswiu is slain,
he who took the black draughts.
Christ has heard our prayer
that Bridei would avenge Brega
.’

Among the Britons there was a similar absence of affection for Ecgfrith, whose forebears had waged many wars against the native kingdoms of Wales and the North. A Welsh chronicler, writing in the early 800s, compiled a list of Northumbrian kings for his book Historia Brittonum (‘History of the Britons’). When he reached Ecgfrith he paused to add this note: ‘He is the one who made war against his kinsman who was the Pictish king called Bridei, and he fell there with all the strength of his army, and the Picts with their king emerged as victors, and the Saxon thugs never again ventured forth to take tribute from the Picts.’

Such sentiments appear to conform to the ‘Celt versus Saxon’ view of seventh-century warfare. However, before we run too far with the idea of an inter-ethnic dimension to these military campaigns, we might take note of an old Northumbrian tradition on the fate of Ecgfrith’s body. According to a chronicle written at Durham in the 1100s, the dead English king was not left on the battlefield to be devoured by wolves and ravens. Instead, his Pictish foes carried him away with honour, to be buried in the most hallowed place in the Celtic Christian lands. In the words of the Durham chronicler, Ecgfrith was defeated and slain…

at Nechtanesmere, which is the Lake of Nechtan, on the 20th of May in the fifteenth year of his reign. His body was buried on Iona, the island of Columba.’

* * * *

Notes

* In this blogpost I have avoided any discussion of the location of Dun Nechtáin. I still think it was Dunnichen Hill near Forfar in Angus. Others think it was somewhere near Dunachton in Badenoch. The arguments and counter-arguments are set out by Alex Woolf in an important article: ‘Dun Nechtáin, Fortriu and the geography of the Picts’ Scottish Historical Review 85 (2006), 182-201.

* Bridei represents the likely Pictish form of a name written in Gaelic sources as Brude.

* The usual pronunciation of Ecgfrith is ‘Edge-frith’.

* In the quoted extracts above, the English translations are based on those in the appendices of James Fraser’s book The Battle of Dunnichen, 685 (Stroud, 2002).

* The ‘black draughts’ in the Irish poem are thought by some historians to represent dark, gaping wounds received by Ecgfrith at Dun Nechtáin.

* * * * * * *

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34 comments on “‘Against iron swords’: Dun Nechtáin, AD 685

  1. Tim. Thanks for this. A wonderful dose of history while savoring my morning coffee! Made it twice as enjoyable.

  2. Susan Abernethy says:

    Another excellent post! You’ve taught me all I know about the Picts Tim.

  3. badonicus says:

    Very interesting post Tim. Thanks.

  4. So fascinating. Thanks for pulling all the info together – you notes/comments add so much to history’s story. Love the Pictish stone warrior

  5. It finally makes sense….. not gaping wounds.

    Black draughts = blood welling up in the mouth

    To drink a black draught is to drink your own blood – a sign of a fatal wound. Almost any fatal sword or spear wound to the body would cause blood in the mouth. As the blood coagulates in the dead it becomes black as coal.

    Great post Tim!

    • Tim says:

      I think you may have got this nailed, Michelle. Your suggestion fits well with James Fraser’s translation of this particular line, which I replaced with Alan Anderson’s ‘black draughts’. Fraser translated las mbidis dubha deoga as ‘who was wont to have dark drinks’, which could easily be a metaphorical description of blood welling in the mouth and darkening after death.

  6. deliahugel says:

    I am glad you clarified how to pronounce the king’s name. I would have stuttered in my mind the rest of the day.

  7. […] Today is the anniversary of the battle of Dun Nechtáin in which the Picts, led by their king Bridei, defeated the English of Northumbria. It was fought on 20th May 685, one of the most famous dates…  […]

  8. Mick says:

    Tim,
    Out of curiosity, has anyone yet proposed an interpretation for Luith Feirnn ?
    I know Alex Woolf has suggested that if this place can be identified it would help to narrow down the location for Dun Nechtain.
    I have one or two suggestions that would tie in closely with Loch Inshe in Badenoch.

  9. Mick says:

    “I know Alex Woolf has suggested that if this place can be identified it would help to narrow down the location for Dun Nechtain”

    Insofar as helping to identify where Fortriu is – I hasten to add !

    • Tim says:

      Hello Mick. It’s a while since I looked at this battle, so I’ve dug out the relevant entry in the Annals of Ulster:

      AD 664 Bellum Lutho Feirnn, .i. i Fortrinn (‘The battle of Luith Feirnn in Fortriu’)

      Alan Anderson in Early Sources of Scottish History chose not to hazard a guess at the location, observing that ‘This place has not been identified’. But James Fraser in From Caledonia to Pictland seems to be on the right track with his translation of Luith Feirnn as ‘alder gate’. Fraser points to the south side of Loch Oich, where he highlights the place-names Leitirfearn and Leitir Fearna (both meaning ‘alder hillside’) but I suppose any district where alders were a notable feature could be a candidate. To me, Loch Oich seems too far southwest of Loch Ness to be in Fortriu (assuming the heartland of Fortriu was Moray).

      I think we’re in a ‘chicken and egg’ situation here. If we think Fortriu is Moray, then that should help us to narrow our search for Luith Feirnn. And if we knew for certain where Luith Feirnn was, we’d know the location of Fortriu.

      It would be interesting to hear your own ideas on this. Are you going to publish them?

  10. Mick says:

    Too early to even consider publishing Tim. I have a lot more digging to do yet. I am in general agreement with Fraser’s ‘Alder Gate’ – do you think that the ‘gate’ could be a pass or gap ? My initial interest in Badenoch stems from its interpretation of ‘the drowned lands’ and the fact that Alders would have thrived in this environment. Fernsdale (gaelic Fearnasdail) and Allt Fhearnagan do have ‘Alder’ in the first element of the name.

    Mick

    • Chris Pickles says:

      Regarding Bede’s ‘inaccessible mountains’, Bede was not actually there, and he didn’t see the landscape for himself. He must have relied on the accounts of a raggle-taggle band of survivors, who would have had little idea of where they were and maybe exaggerated the difficulties they faced – who would want to admit to losing a battle on easy terrain.

      Badenoch itself is wild and bleak, and there are certainly mountains, but it is hardly inaccessible, after all you can get there on an Inter-City train. So I don’t think the traditional location of the battle is ruled out, far from it.

    • Tim says:

      Mick – If you’re looking for a pass or gap, the one that springs to mind is the Drumochter Pass which has always been the main link between Atholl and Badenoch.

      The point made by Chris about Bede’s description is one I’d share. Here, as elsewhere on matters of geography, we would be unwise to accept Bede at face value. Also, although ‘inaccessible mountains’ is the usual translation, I suspect others might be available.

  11. Interesting.

    “To Bede, the Pictish victory was God’s revenge on Ecgfrith for an event of the previous year: a savage Northumbrian raid on Brega in Ireland in which defenceless monasteries were plundered. “

    “He was more concerned with describing the battle as ‘a woeful disaster’ inflicted by an enemy who sprang from ‘the bestial Pictish peoples’.”

    The first destroyed monasteries, shrines of the emerging culture and greenhouses where develop seeds of writing and colorful lattices of illumination.

    The second were even not yet Christianized (?)

    Indeed, who is the more bestial? They were all so in this time. Charlemagne fought against the Saxons, against the Lombards. It was a kind of duty for a King to make war all the time and everywhere, to show him to other peoples, gain or at least maintain his prestige, when failing to earn truly new territories.

    That he was eventually buried in a hallowed place seems to me less probable.

    Daniel Pisters
    Belgium

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for your comments, Daniel.

      You’re right, of course. The Picts were no more ‘bestial’ than the Northumbrians, or indeed anyone else at this time. What we’re seeing in the English accounts is propaganda from churchmen pursuing several agendas, one of which was the demonizing of the Picts because of their religious beliefs. Some Picts might still have been pagan in 685, but I suspect the main issue was the adherence of their Christian clergy to old-fashioned ‘Celtic’ customs despised by the English. The Pictish churches didn’t abandon their Celtic ways until the early 8th century, a process in which Bede himself probably played a role.

    • Chris Pickles says:

      You are being unfair to Bede here, Bede never described the Picts as bestial, that was the monk from Ripon, by whom is presumably meant St Wilfrid’s biographer Stephen.

      There is nothing in Bede’s writings which is so negative about the Picts, indeed he seems to have held them in fairly high regard.

      • Tim says:

        Absolutely right. Most of Bede’s vitriol was reserved for the Britons, whose clergy he certainly despised. His account of the Pictish king Nechtan and the Anglo-Pictish peace treaty is quite positive. I suspect he regarded the Pictish army of 685 as an instrument of divine retribution against Ecgfrith. Stephen of Ripon, on the other hand, has a negative outlook on the Picts, almost like a throwback to the way Gildas described them as savage barbarians.

  12. tsmorangles says:

    I do not know if there was an ethnic twist in this battle but the mention of Iiona sounds curious. After all, Ecgfrith was Oswiu’s son. The king of Whitby Synod who chose to follow Roman rule over Iona/Irish version.
    Wilfrid was certainly not an Iona man; though Ecgfrith half-brother will suceed him.

    Was the Ionan burial a way for the Irish Church a way to sort of claim back Northumbria? And supposedly Aldfrith was in Iona at the time.His wife seems to be issued of a Roman Christianity family.

    And for a man supposedly immersed in religion, he certainly had a few sons legitimate or not scattered about.

    I suspect the waters around this Iona miraculous business are murkier than the miraculous succession described by Bede.Firstly Oswiu’s daughters would know about their siblings. Secondly. raising bastards sons among one’s legitimate was no problem for a king. In Frankia, Chlothar the Elder raised Chramm along his sons by Ingoberga and Aregunda, right?

    Hence Iona burial may have happen but there is a lot more to it than the generous attitude of Scots for a fallen enemy.

    • Tim says:

      Yes, I think you’re right about there being a lot more to the Iona burial story, and a connection with the fallout from the Synod of Whitby does seem possible.

      Aldfrith is certainly a puzzling figure. I’m never quite sure where he fits in with the political situation of the 680s. Bede doesn’t seem convinced that he was actually Oswiu’s son and Ecgfrith’s half-brother. Oswiu’s own daughter Aelfflaed – a full sister of Ecgfrith – was unaware of Aldfrith’s existence until St Cuthbert mentioned it.

      Murky waters indeed….

  13. […] Clarkson of Senchus and Heart of the Kingdom writes about all things early medieval […]

  14. Mick says:

    Tim,
    I note that Watson (Celtic Place Names of Scotland) comments E.Celtic -ct- becomes in Welsh -th- and gives as an example the River Nethan (12th c Neithan) in Lanarkshire as being an early ‘Nectona’ – pure one. Would we have here Nectona-Nectan-Neithan -Nethan? in which case do we then need to re-consider the interpretation of Dun Nechtain/Nechtansmere?

    Just a thought !

    Mick

    • Tim says:

      An interesting thought, Mick. And the river name is obviously related to the personal name. But the context of Ecgfrith’s campaign as reported by Bede and other English sources points to a location further north. I think Lanarkshire would be British territory in 685, perhaps under the authority of Alt Clut (whose kings may have grudgingly acknowledged Ecgfrith’s overlordship).

  15. Graham says:

    Was Northumbria part of England at this time?

    • Tim says:

      Yes, though in the rather broad sense of being an area where ‘Englishness’ had become the dominant identity, having replaced the ‘Britishness’ of the indigenous Celtic-speaking population. The notion of England as a unified political entity lay nearly 300 years in the future. In the seventh century, Northumbria was one of a number of kingdoms where power lay in the hands of an English-speaking elite claiming descent from earlier Anglo-Saxon settlers whose ancestral homelands lay in Germany. It’s fair to say Northumbria was part of ‘Anglo-Saxon England’.

  16. Fascinating post! I am curious about the twelfth century Durham reference to what happened with Ecgfrith’s body and, of course, twelfth century perceptions of the Picts and their past. Are there other accounts of Picts acting in a similar way towards their fallen enemies, or is this a unique instance?

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for visiting, Marian. As far as I know, this is the only recorded instance of Picts honouring a fallen enemy in this way. The source is History of the Church of Durham, attributed to Symeon. The reliability of the reference to Ecgfrith’s burial on Iona has, understandably, been questioned by modern scholars. A useful discussion appears on pp.91-2 of the James Fraser book cited in the blogpost. Fraser suggests that the burial might actually have been on Inchcolm which was also known as ‘Columba’s Island’. Such a location – in the Firth of Forth between Pictish Fife and English Lothian – does seem less controversial. On the other hand, Ecgfrith’s appearance as a figure of veneration in Irish martyrologies perhaps brings Iona back into the frame.

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