Ghosts of Nechtanesmere

Dunnichen Moss

Dunnichen Moss, looking north towards Dunnichen Hill (Photograph © B Keeling).

On 20 May 685, at Dun Nechtáin (‘Nechtan’s Fortress’), an English army from Northumbria was massacred while advancing deep into Pictish territory. As well as being associated with a fortification, the battle was also close to an area of wetland known as Linn Garan (‘Heron Pool’ in the ancient Brittonic language of the Picts) and as Nechtanesmere (Old English: ‘Nechtan’s Mire’).

The location of the battlefield is a matter of debate. Some historians place it near Dunnichen Hill in Angus; others look further north to Dunachton in Badenoch. My own preference is for the Angus site, although I continue to keep an open mind.

Many years ago, while reading Graeme Cruickshank’s 1991 booklet on the battle, I encountered an intriguing tale, a sort of Pictish ghost-story. This told of a strange apparition allegedly seen by Miss E.F. Smith, a resident of the village of Letham, after her car skidded off the road on a dark night in January 1950. According to Miss Smith, she left her vehicle in a ditch and began the 8-mile walk home, taking a route along unlit country roads. Eventually, just before 2.00am, she drew near the outskirts of Letham and saw the black shape of Dunnichen Hill looming ahead. It was then that she noticed shadowy lights moving in nearby farmland. These gradually became clear, to be revealed as flaming torches held by a group of figures clad in what seemed to be medieval garb. Miss Smith glimpsed another group of torch-bearing figures in a field some distance away, and finally a third group near some farm buildings. As she watched, she saw members of the third group periodically stooping to the ground to inspect dead bodies lying face-down on the grass, turning them over as if to identify them. Continuing on her way, she left the figures behind in the darkness and soon reached the safety of her home.

More than 20 years later, Miss Smith’s strange encounter came to the attention of Dr James McHarg, a member of the Society of Psychical Research, who interviewed her in 1971. Dr McHarg gave cautious credence to the genuineness of her tale, partly because he did not think her the kind of person who would make it up. Miss Smith did, however, admit to knowing – before the alleged sighting took place – that the battle was believed by many local folk to have been fought near Dunnichen Hill. Also, she had subsequently acquired further information from an academic article written by the renowned archaeologist Frederick Threlfall Wainwright.

So, what really did happen on that January night 65 years ago? Did Miss Smith gaze straight back through the centuries to the grim battlefield of Nechtanesmere? Did she really see Pictish warriors conducting a solemn search for their dead comrades? Or did the darkness and the cold, together with the alcohol she had consumed at a cocktail party in Brechin, cause her to hallucinate on the long walk home?

We will probably never know, but it makes a good tale nonetheless.

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Notes & references

I was reminded of this story a couple of weeks ago when the Picts Facebook page posted a link to a blogpost written by Mike Dash in 2010: ‘A Scottish spinster at the Battle of Nechtanesmere, 685 AD’. As with much of the information I find online these days, my initial source was Twitter – in this instance, a tweet by Debra Torrance (@FewArePict) on 4th March 2015.

Graeme Cruickshank, The Battle of Dunnichen (Pinkfoot Press, 1991).

James E. Fraser, The Battle of Dunnichen, 685 (Tempus, 2002).

Frederick T. Wainwright, ‘Nechtanesmere’ Antiquity 86 (1948), 82-97.

Alex Woolf, ‘Dun Nechtáin, Fortriu and the Geography of the Picts’ Scottish Historical Review 85 (2006), 182-201. [Woolf suggests Dunachton, not Dunnichen, as the site of the battle]

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11 comments on “Ghosts of Nechtanesmere

  1. Jo Woolf says:

    Delicious Tim! I love stories like this. I would be inclined to believe Miss Smith. It’s one thing to imagine the scene of a battle, but you don’t immediately think of people visiting the fallen warriors at night, trying to identify them (or take what was valuable). Plus, I genuinely believe that some landscapes have a ‘memory’ in a way that we can’t logically explain. So, might this be a way of finding Brunanburh? 🙂

    • Tim says:

      Thanks Jo. Yes, it’s interesting that the vision showed the aftermath of the battle rather than the actual fighting. I agree with you on the ‘memory’ preserved in a landscape. Although I don’t usually pick up on this kind of aura, I have felt it (or imagined feeling it) at a couple of places. Someone with more sensitivity to such signals might be able to pick up a lot more – maybe even to the point of finding a lost battle. In the case of Brunanburh, this may be our only hope 😉

  2. Fossie says:

    Did Miss Smith see a ghost; depends what one means by a “ghost”?
    Most paranormal researchers agree that there are several types of ghost.
    One such type is the so-called “stone tape theory”, seemingly, a “recording” type of apparition. As defined by TC Lethbridge, this is when certain phenomena recur at the same places time after time. Some people have hypothesised that the phenomenon is a recording of a past traumatic event, somehow imprinted onto the local surroundings. However, no one seems to know what triggers the recall in receptive people.

    • Tim says:

      I hadn’t heard of the term ‘stone tape theory’ but it does seem to fit the circumstances of Miss Smith’s experience. This, rather than returning spirits or whatever, is probably the best explanation (assuming the whole thing wasn’t a hallucination). On a personal note, I’m a bit reluctant to let go of the ‘ghosts’ after using them to create a snappy title for my blogpost 🙂

  3. Helen McKay says:

    The odd thing about this story is that whenever the battle of Dunnichen is being talked about, this story is sooner or later brought up, sort of presented apologetically as though the writer doesn’t really believe it, but actually does. Which is odd to me, but then I have no experience of living in a land where battles have been fought on the earth around me.
    But it brings up another thing I find odd. The locations of so many battles, even fairly recent ones, seem to have been ‘lost’. These battles must have been utterly horrific, yet the local traditions don’t usually seem to keep the story going. I do wonder if its just that some events are too dreadful to deal with, that they’re not spoken about casually, that they’re not discussed with the younger generation, and so the local story is quickly lost. How many of us have casual conversations about 9/11? very rarely for most of us I think, some things are just too difficult.
    I remember one night at a B&B in Inverness after I’d visited Culloden, and the lady of the house told me that she shudders each time she goes past, so she would try to drive a route to avoid going near it. And she had never told her two young sons about it. To me, Culloden was a story from the distant past, but to her, it was as real as yesterday.
    On the other hand, the ability to hand down some stories and collapse the timeline can be startling. One sunny day, an old Highlander sitting on the steps greeted my sister with a Who are you? to which she innocently assumed she was being asked her name. To which he scowled and retorted: You burnt down our cathedral! My sister understands nuclear physics but not history, so she came inside to me, quite distressed. Did we really burn down the cathedral, she asked. Yes, I said, but that was 800 years ago, we can get over it now, you were being invited to a flighting match… after all its a beautiful sunny day out there…

  4. Helen McKay says:

    Here’s another story, a true story, about Dunnichen hill, the Fort (dun) of Nechtan. As David Henry showed in exquisite detail in his book Dunnichen Hillfort, the Building of a Modern Myth, there never was a fort on the top of this relatively small hill of Dunnichen. He does come up with a unproven tiny fortlet on the outer edge of Dunnichen, but the main strongholds in Pictish days were on Turin Hill to the north of Dunnichen hill, and there were probably other royal centres on the main islands of Loch Forfar, to say nothing of all the centres around the loch and out to Meigle and up to Aberblemno that are marked with symbol stones. So here’s the next question: If there is no fort on Dunnichen, why is it called the Dun of Nechtan? (and I’ve no doubt now that I’ve asked the question, some of you will see the answer …)

    So one day, I was staying with a friend at a B&B just below Dunnichen and over breakfast I asked the lady of the house – What’s significant about Dunnichen hill? She thought for a moment, then gave me one of those delightful replies, something like: Well, my cousin who lives down the road opposite the house with the red door and the cat in the window, well she has a friend in the next street, and there was a very old man living nextdoor to her who once said: There are wells up there … So off we drove, up the hill, and within a minute or two we had spotted them, big wells on the side of the hill. We walked across the field to them, but they were boarded up, but by poking a camera through a hole and taking a flash, we found that these wells were in wonderful huge bricked in enclosures. And that’s not something a farmer is going to do to stop his cow from getting muddy.
    There is of course a famous big well further up Dunnichen hill, the well that drains to the ‘moss’ and which has attracted the church to sanctify it. But the older maps of Dunnichen also show other wells on the hill as well. Of course Scotland does wells rather well, but Dunnichen seems to do them especially well (so sorry bad pun). And there I was, suddenly with a picture in my head of an overhead map of Dunnichen, and I sat down with a thump in the bracken cracking up laughing. Because another story had just popped into my head, and its the story of Dunnichen, and Dunachton, and other places with a similar name.
    And that’s the story of yet another dun of Nechtan, but one that you all know, so I’m going to leave you with the fun of the riddle of why Dunnichen is called Dunnichen …

    • Tim says:

      Many thanks for sharing your thoughts, Helen. Regarding the sites of battles, I agree it does seem strange that so many are lost – even important ones like Brunanburh and Mons Graupius (to name only two with Scottish links). The issue is confused by local folklore about battles that didn’t actually happen, such as the ones invented to explain the existence of local antiquities such as burial mounds.

      You’re right to draw attention to David Henry’s booklet about the lack of evidence for a Pictish fortress on Dunnichen Hill. Re-reading it again today has made me think I should stop referring to ‘Nechtan’s Fortress’ and instead use the more neutral term ‘Nechtan’s Hill’. David also points out the little-known fact that the hill was formerly called Dod Hill and did not become known as Dunnichen Hill until the 1700s – which is slightly disheartening for those of us who think the battle of 685 was fought in its shadow.

      I wonder if the wells are associated in some way with the old quarry workings on the hill?

      David’s booklet deserves a blogpost of its own, so I will add it to the list. Thank you for reminding me of it.

      [If anyone wants a copy of the booklet, it is available from the Pinkfoot Press in Brechin:]

      • Helen McKay says:

        Hi Tim, The wells are further up the hill so not near the quarry. There are also other wells marked on old maps.
        I don’t think we have to worry about Dod Hill. On old maps, as David Henry said, the furthest east hill of the three-hill ridge of Dunnichen Hill was given that name, not the whole hill, which still has Dunnichen on the south and west areas. A ‘dod’ is apparently Scots English for a small bare round hill, and its a word used in placenames quite heavily in southern Scotland, but very rarely in the highlands. There is another Dodd Hill near Tealing, and you can see quite easily this is another small round hill. So I’d say that Dod Hill being applied to one point of Dunnichen is just a later Scots renaming. David Henry also talks about other bits of Dunnichen Hill being renamed in historical times by owners, so its not unexpected. The older name of Dunnichen is at least Gaelic, although the Pictish form of Nechtan was so close to the Gaelic its not unexpected for it to be translated either.
        And please don’t be disheartened. Dunachton is not in the running, I’d like to see you do what you say should be done in relation to other battles sites – look at the *logistics* – because that is one area that is amenable to critical investigation.
        As for Dunnichen, there is only one core reason why people are uncertain that the Dunnichen battle stone is really portraying the most famous battle of its day, and that is the dating of CII stones, which is one of those dreadful insidious ‘historical factoids’ that people assume is correct, but they’ve forgotten what it was based on. There’s really no reason to not assume that the stone was erected in the few years immediately after the battle. Sorry, so many things, its hard to know where to start, or end. Oh here’s a good site about ‘dod’ hills.

    • Helen McKay says:

      Sorry I meant to get back to this story sooner. So, why is Dunnichen so-called, a small hill with big wells including a famous one beside the church with an ancient dedication, but no fortress? Well, there’s another story.
      There was once a well, some say it was at the bottom of the sea, but others say it was at the source of the Boyne and Shannon rivers. Around it grew hazel trees which dropped their nuts of wisdom into the water, where salmon ate them, and if you were so lucky, you could catch a salmon of wisdom and receive mystical powers of wisdom and foresight. But that’s not all, this well was the source of the Boyne (Boand goddess) and the Boyne flowed to the sea but then continued through the other great rivers of the entire world, until it finally returned to become the Shannon. This story of the great river that circles the world, and from which all things including wisdom are created from the great serpent that lies within it, is an ancient creation story told in some form all over the human world. .
      Now the owner of this sacred well was a god called Nechtan, whose name means pure or fresh. And beside the well he lived in the Sidh of Nechtan. In Scotland the word ‘sidh’ isn’t used so often in placenames as in Ireland, but it can easily transfer in this case to a mystical ‘dun’ with the meaning of hill/sidh. Making Nechtain’s well a significant aspect of the Celtic worldview.
      So is Dunnichen the Pictish localised version of Sidh Nechtain? Certainly it has a significant well. Dunnichen lies at the north-eastern edge of what was once a large shallow lake around today’s Forfar. Out from this lake beside Dunnichen , at the later major church of Restenneth and the island of Triduana, flows the Lunan Water to the east. To the west, the Dean Water (possibly another Dea=goddess name?) flows out past the Cossans stone with its boat lady, through the large nemeton of Nevay-Eassie and Meigle, to finally meet the Tay and flow south with it to the mouth of the Tay estuary. To the north, flows the Lemno, again past the ‘wood nemeton’ of Findavon, which soon joins with the South Esk to flow north eastwards to the sea at Montrose Basin. So Dunnichen, while a mystical hill, sits at the lake from which rivers flow in all directions over Angus. And this location, especially given that it also sits at the heart of political power based at Forfar and the fort of Turin Hill, gives it all the right criteria for a local Dun/Sidh of Nechtan.
      Let’s go now to Dunachton, and ask the same question – is this another localisation of the Sidh of Nectain? Dunachton sits high up on the top of the mounth in a very central position, just as the Irish Sidh Nechtain does (although Dunnichen is the centre of Angus-Mearns). The path north-south passes by the old church and farm of the name, but there is no settlement here. Opposite the farm though is another large shallow lake, Loch Insh, into which the mighty River Spey runs, and finally continues out the other side. In this central location, with the great river in either direction, Dunachton fits well with the Irish story. Unfortunately so far I cant locate a well (although the likely place to look is at the old church, otherwise seemingly in the middle of nowhere). But Dunachton farm itself is huddled at the foot of a great craggy hill called An Suidhe, The Seat, another form we come across in Scotland that seems to be often interchangeable with sidh/dun. Lots of streams flow off An Suidhe down to the Spey, so I’d expect the well if there was one to be on one of these.
      So, that’s the story of Dunnichen. Its not all about men and territory and aggression, other things in the universe are equally important. A final note, the symbol stone at Dunachton has a deer-head and cauldron, the same pair as at Glamis on the Dean exit of Lake Forfar. Glamis isn’t far from Dunnichen, which gives pause to think …

      • Tim says:

        Thanks again, Helen, for raising these additional aspects. Makes me wonder if there might be a connection between the pagan cult of Nechtan the Celtic god and the later Christian cult of St Nechtan (who is quite a mysterious figure anyway).

        • Helen McKay says:

          I wonder too, its probably like Bridgid, there isn’t a distinct line between the saint and goddess in the old way of thinking. Now that we have 3 sidh/dun of Nectan at the mystical source of rivers, then we can look at other ‘Nectan’ instances. For example, Tullich is where the saint was born and buried. Its at the southern foot of the massive mountain Morven, ‘Great Mountain’, (with other symbol stones on the eastern edge), and the Tullich burn flows south right off its top to the Dee at Tullich. The mountain has the same relationship to the Don which flows across its north edge. So a fantastic mountain as mystical source of the twin ‘goddess’ rivers, the Dee and Don. And saint Nechtan’s story centres around a salmon, just as the god Nechtan’s does. And so it goes, on and on …

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