Druim Alban: the Spine of Alba

Druim Alban

The Scottish Highlands (black square shows the area described in this blogpost). Original topographic map by Equestenebrarum via Wikimedia Commons.

During the late ninth and early tenth centuries, the Picts and Scots united to become a single, Gaelic-speaking people whose principal rulers were the descendants of Cináed mac Ailpín. The union or merger led to the formation of a ‘Picto-Scottish’ kingdom called Alba which took its name from an older Gaelic term formerly applied to the whole island of Britain. Sometime before c.900, this term seems to have narrowed to define a particular region in the far north of Britain, hence its adoption as a name for the new realm of the mac Ailpín kings. It is possible that Alba had long been in use among the Gaelic-speaking Scots as a synonym for ‘Pictland’, or that the name also encompassed Dál Riata – their own homeland in Argyll.


Before their union, the Picts and Scots had been separated by a geographical feature known as the ‘Ridge of Alba’ or ‘Ridge of Britain’. In medieval texts these names appear respectively as Druim Alban (Gaelic) and dorsum Britanniae (Latin). Our earliest references to the ridge occur in Vita Columbae, the ‘Life of Columba’, written on Iona by Abbot Adomnán at the end of the seventh century. Adomnán mentions the ridge five times, telling us that it divided the Picts and Scots ‘inter quos utrosque dorsi montes brittannici disterminant’ (‘between which peoples the mountains of the Ridge of Britain are the boundary’). He clearly had a specific feature in mind – a recognisable natural frontier in a mountainous area – but neither he nor any later writer gave enough detail to enable us to identify the feature on a modern map.

Some historians think we should translate druim and dorsum not as ‘ridge’ but as ‘spine’, and also that we should apply this term in a more general way. Rather than imagining a specific upland feature, they suggest that the ‘Spine of Alba’ might simply be the entire range of hills and mountains between Pictland and Dál Riata. Against this argument we may note that the range in question is not a continuous line or barrier, being punctuated by various glens and passes. Nor does it run north-south, a direction we might expect of a border between the Pictish east and the Gaelic west. For these reasons, it is hard to see why Adomnán and his contemporaries would regard such an unconnected line of hills as a druim or dorsum.

Another possibility is that the Ridge or Spine was a name given to just one section of this upland range, an idea examined in recent years by Philip Dunshea of the University of Cambridge. In an article published in Scottish Historical Review in 2013, Dr Dunshea highlighted the watershed between Glen Lochy and the village of Tyndrum as a likely location for Druim Alban or dorsum Britanniae. The rivers running west off this watershed flow into the Firth of Lorn, while those running east join the mighty Tay. Moreover, the watershed itself marks the boundary between the old counties of Argyllshire and Perthshire. Dr Dunshea further noted that the name ‘Tyndrum’ comes from the Gaelic tigh an droma, ‘house of the ridge, and that a lost placename in the vicinity is Carndroma, ‘cairn of the ridge’. He suggested that the remains of this cairn might lie beneath a grass-covered mound near the A85 highway, close to the county boundary.

Druim Alban

Tyndrum and Glen Lochy. The grey line is the Argyllshire-Perthshire boundary.

A third possibility is that the names Druim Alban and dorsum Britanniae referred, quite literally, to a feature that did indeed resemble a backbone. I first encountered this idea fifteen years ago in an article in the Pictish Arts Society Journal. The authors – David Dorren and Nina Henry – had noticed something unusual as they stood on top of Beinn Bheag, a hill slightly north-west of Tyndrum:

‘From its summit, looking south across Glen Lochy to the Ben Lui range, one sees a remarkable sight. Running straight up the hillside above Lochan na Bi and continuing in a straight line over the top of Meall Odhar is a ridge, resembling a massive field dyke superimposed on the hillside. It has a low cover of vegetation, except for a central strip on the top of the ridge, where the bare rock is exposed, forming a rocky line of approximately constant width. The rock is quartz-veined schist, which gives it a whitish appearance, so that it stands out prominently against the hillside.’ [Dorren & Henry 2000, 42-3]

The feature to which they referred can be seen in the following images:

Druim Alban

The ridge from Beinn Bheag looking south across Glen Lochy and the Lochan na Bi.
(© David Dorren 1999)

Druim Alban

View south from Beinn Bheag showing the north section of the ridge (foreground) and the more prominent section across Glen Lochy and Lochan na Bi.
(© David Dorren 1999)

Dorren and Henry also noticed that the ridge reappeared on the north side of Glen Lochy, where the white quartz is hidden under grass. This section is followed by the old county boundary (now the boundary between the Argyll and Stirling council areas). The section on the south side of the glen climbs the hillside above Lochan na Bi before curving over the top where it is known as Drochaid an Droma, ‘The Bridge of the Ridge’. Here, the rocks have a segmented appearance, just like the vertebrae of a backbone. Glen Lochy lay on one of the main routes between Dál Riata and Pictland and was perhaps crossed here by an ancient frontier which later became a county boundary. In their article, Dorren and Henry suggested that this frontier may have been marked by the quartz ridge running across the glen, and that the ridge might be the Druim Alban and dorsum Britanniae of the medieval texts.

I’ll end this blogpost with three images of the Drochaid an Droma. David Dorren – who took these photographs – tells me that when sunlight strikes the ridge, illuminating the rocks, the white quartz gleams in a stunning display.

Drochaid an Droma

The top of the ridge south of the Lochan na Bi – the Drochaid an Droma.
(© David Dorren 1999)

Drochaid an Droma

The Drochaid an Droma.
(© David Dorren 1999)

Drochaid an Droma

The Drochaid an Droma from the west. Glen Lochy to the left.
(© David Dorren 1999)

* * * * *

Notes & references

I am very grateful to Dr David Dorren for granting permission to reproduce his photographs.

J.D. Dorren and N. Henry, ‘Identification of Druim Alban’ Pictish Arts Society Journal (no.15, 2000), 42-8.

Philip M. Dunshea, ‘Druim Alban, Dorsum Britanniae – the Spine of Britain’ Scottish Historical Review 92 (2013), 275-289.

Philip M. Dunshea, In search of Carn Droma: exploring the boundaries between Picts and Gaels. [published at the blog of the ASNC Department, University of Cambridge)

Dr Dunshea’s investigation of the possible site of Carn Droma can also be seen in a site report at the West of Scotland Archaeology Service.

Adomnán’s ‘Life of Columba’ mentions Dorsum Britanniae in Book I (chapter 34), Book II (chapters 31, 42 & 46) and Book III (chapter 14).

See also the Annals of Ulster, under the year 717:
Expulsio familie Ie trans Dorsum Brittanie a Nectano rege.
‘Expulsion of the community of Iona beyond the Ridge of Britain by king Nechtan.’
[Nechtan, king of the Picts, expelled the Columban monks from his kingdom during a programme of ecclesiastical reforms.]

* * *

Additional notes [22 February 2015]

Since uploading this blogpost, I have received more information from David Dorren about the article in the Pictish Arts Society Journal (cited above). David is happy to send a copy of the article to anyone who is interested. He can be contacted at jddorren@gmail.com. A copy was also deposited at the National Library of Scotland and is on file there.

The quartz ridge can be seen on satellite images, and David has kindly provided the following links (via Bing Maps) –
1. Overall view (best viewed full-screen, from which you can zoom in or out and move around)
2. Close up of the area of the Drochaid an Droma

* * *
Additional notes [4 March 2015]

I’ve had further discussion with David Dorren on a number of points relating to Druim Alban. David has drawn my attention to a couple of points that I feel are worth adding to this blogpost. Both relate to place-names previously mentioned above.

1. Carndroma/Carndrome/Carn Druim
In their article in the Pictish Arts Society Journal, David and Nina suggested that Carndroma or Carn Druim is probably the Drochaid an Droma rather than a specific cairn. In this instance, Gaelic carn would refer to a cairn-like natural feature, a description that certainly fits the rugged appearance of the Drochaid.

2. Tyndrum
Also in the same article is the suggestion that Tyndrum, the ‘house of the ridge’, perhaps takes its name from the linear feature of which the Drochaid an Droma is the most spectacular part. This might be the case even if the feature in question is not the Druim Alban of ancient lore. Tyndrum is about 1½ miles from the Drochaid and does not itself sit on a ridge, but was presumably named from such a feature in the local landscape.

* * * * * * *

17 comments on “Druim Alban: the Spine of Alba

  1. Brunlees says:

    Hi Tim, hope you don’t mind me asking you this question. If I was trying to find out about early Medieval kingdoms in Scotland and their rulers would I have covered everything off with the following; Alt Clut, the Picts, Dal Riata, what minor kingdoms am I missing?

    • Tim says:

      I think you’ve got the main ones covered. The Britons of Lothian had a kingdom called Gododdin (probably centred on Edinburgh), a sort of eastern counterweight to Alt Clut, Some of the minor kingdoms of the Britons can’t be located with certainty, even if their names are known (e.g. Calchfynydd, which might be Kelso; and the mysterious Rheged). The Picts may have had several kingdoms, grouped at times under two over-kingdoms centred on Moray and Perthshire respectively. A similar situation is likely in Dál Riata, where each of the main kindreds (cenéla) seems to have ruled a separate kingdom, e.g. Cenél Loairn in Lorn, Cenél nGabrain in Kintyre, Cenél Comgaill in Cowal. The overall pattern across Scotland, at least until the Viking period, looks like a patchwork of small kingdoms, some of which got grouped together as larger realms under the rule of powerful over-kings – though often the grouping only lasted as long as the over-king lived.

  2. Jo Woolf says:

    Wow, this is fascinating! I love the third option, the idea of a natural ‘backbone’, and those photos are very convincing.

  3. Has anyone ever considered that ‘alban’ might be a conflation of two words? Later assumed to be related to Alba/Albu?

    ail: rock, boulder, rocky boundary marker
    bán: white, bright

    ‘droim/druim ail bán’, would give us ‘the ridge of the white/bright rock’, or perhaps the ‘ridge of the white/bright rocky boundary’… something which would certainly match the wonderful pictures at the end there. And thats not even touching upon latin albus/album, ‘white’…

    • Philip Dunshea says:

      Alba is the nominative form, Alban is gentive, i.e. ‘of Alba’, also seen in combinations like ‘fer n-Alban’, ‘men of Alba’.

      • Of course, I have no doubt that’s what it represents and how it was understood. But when OI ‘ail ban’ and ‘albain’ are vocalized they are almost identical. I’m suggesting that perhaps an original name denoting the landscape attributes was conflated with the identity attribute when it came to designate a regional polity in itself.

        Several similar placenames in Ireland, which have been reversed to mean scotland.

        Also, tends to happen in scottish placenames. Eg, Ive come across a gaelic ‘ealu’-‘swan’ name thats obviously been confused from original ‘ealud’,’sanctuary’. The meaning changes, the sounds stay the same.

  4. Tim says:

    Picking up on Terry’s suggestion, I certainly like the idea of Druim Alban meaning something like ‘ridge of white rock’, leading to a possible link-up with the quartz ridge. But if the name is a sort of synonym for dorsum Britanniae, then Alban should mean ‘of Alba’ (perhaps in the old sense of Albion=Britain) as Phil points out in his reply.

  5. Quite possible, but I’d be surprised if dorsum brit. wasn’t just a translation of the Irish. Adomnán was writing in Latin, but still thinking in Irish. Tírechan does very similar ‘code switching’ in his text. eg. Campo album, the white plain. The landscape, and dare I say the language was there long before the politics and identities 😉

  6. jimthemorr says:

    Hi Tim

    Fascinating about Drochaid an Droma – I like the idea, but hadn’t heard it before. I wasn’t even aware of the ridge – I don’t often drive along Glen Lochy and when I am, I’m usually rushing for the Mull ferry.

    There are several more spectacular quartz ridges in the vicinity, especially the huge one on the north side of Ben Udlaidh which is conspicuous from the A82 from B of Orchy to Rannoch Moor – especially on a wet and sunny day – the ancients must have been impressed with that one – it is very eye-catching. There are also some in Strath Orchy.

    When Googling around this, I came across a recent geological article about the quartz veins in this area (they are of interest because some of them are gold-bearing). Among the references was one by a friend of mine in the Geological Society of Glasgow – Geoff Tanner, a very distinguished metamorphic geologist and acknowledged as a magnificent field geologist. He identified the Drochaid an Droma ridge as ‘The Mother Lode’. He will be interested to hear of its possible historical significance.

    Geologists often use ‘sweated’ to describe the formation of quartz veins in rocks – imagine very hot, quartz saturated fluids forcing their was up through cracks and faults and sometimes carrying other minerals, eg gold


    • Tim says:

      Hi Jim. Interestingly, your comment was noticed by David Dorren who recognised Geoff Tanner’s name. David tells me he corresponded with a geologist called Jack Treagus and became aware of journal articles in which Tanner was a co-author. Here’s a reference David sent me this week – the article in question may be one you’re already familiar with:
      J.E. Treagus, R.A.D. Pattrick & S.F. Curtis, Journal of the Geological Society. 156, 1999, pp. 591-604, “Movement and mineralization in the Tyndrum Fault Zone, Scotland and its regional significance”.

  7. Tim says:

    Update – I’ve added some new information to this blogpost today, as a second additional note at the end.

  8. Peter MacDonald says:

    Hello Tim, just wondering if you have any future plans to write a book with its sole focus on Dal Riata, or one of its various parts (something similar to the Picts)? Interested to hear either way.

    • Tim says:

      Hi Peter. I toyed with the idea of writing a book on Dal Riata a few years ago, having already covered the Picts and Northern Britons. After giving it some thought, I decided to leave it for someone else to tackle. It’s a huge topic, probably even bigger than the Picts, and would require a thorough analysis of Irish as well as Scottish data. To be frank, the scale of the task looked too daunting. Also, I felt physically distanced from the project in a way that I didn’t when writing my other books. Being based in England I can just about reach the old lands of the Picts and Britons (to visit sites and take photographs) via the motorway network, but even the nearest Dal Riatan territory seems too far away.

      • Peter MacDonald says:

        Hello Tim, sorry to this (and for my tardy reply)!!! I think if you did decide to write a book focused on Dal Riata it would be the the first of its kind (and also vey well received by readers). Every book I have read on Dal Riata usually focuses on one or two matters and fails to give an overarching narrative. From my perspective there seems to be little interest within the current academic/historic environment to tell the overarching story of Dal Riata from its inception to the eventual metamorphosis into the Kingdom of Scotland/Alba.

        I don’t think many (if any) historic writers would be able to write the story of Dal Riata with the combination of historic detail and engaging writing style which you are well know for. I will keep my fingers crossed that you will reconsider this project at some point in the future.

        • Tim says:

          Thanks again, Peter. I wholeheartedly agree that a book-length narrative history of Dal Riata, in a straightforward chronological format, would be a good thing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s