Many readers of this blog will be familiar with the hillfort of Dunadd. Some of you will have walked up the stony path to the famous carved footprint on the summit. It’s an enthralling place, with great views from the top and a rich aura of history all around. I’ve been there a couple of times, though my last visit was at least ten years ago.
Today I’m writing about Dunadd because I’ve recently been reminded of why it’s one of my favourite Dark Age sites. The reminder came in an article by Jo Woolf, over at her website The Hazel Tree. Jo’s reports on her visits to historic places always capture the essence and atmosphere, and her article on Dunadd is no exception. It’s worth checking out for the photographs too, which give a virtual tour of the hill and the surrounding landscape.
Jo refers to Dunadd’s importance as a place of ritual where early Scottish kings were inaugurated. She writes about the footprint, which would have played a central role in the royal ceremonies, noting that the original carving lies protected beneath a modern replica. She also mentions the carved image of a boar, which is often identified as Pictish. In AD 736, as Jo observes, an army of Picts attacked Dunadd during a major war with the Scots. At that time, the main territory of the Scots was Dál Riata, a region comprising much of Argyll and the Isles. The later kingdom of Scotland lay a couple of hundred years in the future.
The Pictish army in 736 was led by Óengus, the mightiest warlord in northern Britain. His main enemies in Dál Riata belonged to a royal family known as Cenél Loairn (‘Descendants of Loarn’) whose name still survives in the district of Lorn around the town of Oban. This family was at the height of its power in the early eighth century and probably used Dunadd as a major stronghold. The fortress was no doubt a key target for Óengus, whose attack upon it was noted by contemporary annalists. The record in question, written in Latin, is preserved in the Annals of Ulster:
Oengus m. Fergusso, rex Pictorum, vastavit regiones Dail Riatai & obtenuit Dun At & combussit Creic & duos filios Selbaich catenis alligauit, .i. Donngal & Feradach; & paulo post Brudeus m. Oengusa filii Fergusso obiit.
[‘Óengus son of Fergus, king of the Picts, laid waste the territory of Dál Riata and seized Dunadd and burned Creic and bound in chains two sons of Selbach, i.e. Dungal and Feradach; and shortly afterwards Brude son of Óengus son of Fergus died.’]
Not only was the fall of Dunadd a massive setback for Cenél Loairn, the capture of Selbach’s sons deprived the family of two prominent military leaders. Óengus pressed home his advantage and, within a few years, had imposed his authority throughout Dál Riata, establishing a Pictish overlordship in the heartland of the Scots. This was not the end of the story: archaeological evidence suggests that Dunadd remained in use, at least into the early 800s. By then, however, the presence of Viking raiders in the western seaways was already putting pressure on the Scots, prompting some of their leading families to migrate eastward into Pictish territory. In such circumstances, Dunadd is unlikely to have retained its status as a crowning-place of kings.
Click the link below to go to Jo Woolf’s blogpost.
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You make history interesting. Always makes me want to look up stuff and find out more
You’re welcome – and thank you for reading my blogposts.
Thank you so much for your kind words, Tim! It was such a pleasure to visit Dunadd – a long-standing ambition fulfilled. Fascinating to read your historical account. I can almost imagine the scene of the Picts’ attack – terrifying.
Thanks Jo. I’m thinking of writing a longer post on this war, which is one of the few campaigns in this period for which we have a fair amount of detail.
I look forward to it!
A very enjoyable read.
Thank you for visiting this blog (which is a bit thin on Bute-related topics at the moment).
I’ve often wondered about the cultural and linguistic landscape at and after the arrival of the Irish clergy. Were the Britons adopting Gaelic due to it’s high perceived status or did the Cumbric language experience a last revival before it was swept away by a Gaelic tide? Great essay!
Thanks – and thanks also for the Facebook link. The Gaelic/Cumbric interface on Bute, and in the Cowal peninsula too, is an interesting topic in itself. It would be good to know what was really going on instead of having to speculate like I did in the Kingarth post. On a similar note, I’ve always been fascinated by Betty Rennie’s ideas about a cultural border running down the length of the peninsula, dividing Scots from Britons. It’s a while since I looked at this, so I can’t recall what she said about the mix (or clash) of cultures on Bute.
Some readers may be interested in the excellent study of the inaugural sites of Irish kings completed by Dr. Elizabeth Fitzpatrick (which whom I was privileged to be in graduate school at Trinity College Dublin in the mid-1990s) and published by Boydell Press. It can be found here: http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/498
A very useful reference, Susan. It puts a site like Dunadd in a wider context, so thank you for mentioning it here.
On a slightly different note, people who visit this blog may also be interested in your book Burial in Medieval Ireland, 900-1500.
That little bit of Latin was much more easily read than the stuff flung at us at school. Has anyone ever tried teaching Latin starting with Dark Ages and Middle Ages Latin, rather than the Classical stuff?
I expect not, but it would be a great way to get more people interested in Dark Age history 🙂