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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King Arthur in Strathclyde

Arthur's O'on

Arthur’s O’on (Oven), a Roman monument near the eastern end of the Antonine Wall, demolished in the 18th century (from Roy’s Military Antiquities of the Romans in North Britain, 1793).


The search for a ‘real’ King Arthur is a topic I usually try to avoid, mainly because I don’t think it adds much substance to the study of early medieval history. I say this as someone whose interest in the early medieval period began more than 30 years ago with a book called The Age of Arthur. In this controversial text, written by John Morris, the original Arthur behind the legend was depicted as a powerful warlord in post-Roman Britain. Gathering numerous scraps of information, Morris managed to weave a detailed historical narrative that many people still find compelling today. Although I initially came to the book via a fascination with Arthur, my attention was soon distracted by what Morris wrote about the Britons of the North. I had previously known nothing about this obscure people, yet their story of heroic kings and long-vanished realms soon held me enthralled. Since then, the North Britons have been at the forefront of my research on early medieval history, while Arthur has become a more shadowy figure in the background.

I simply don’t believe the legendary King Arthur is based on a real person who lived in the fifth/sixth centuries AD. This is why he rarely gets mentioned on this blog or in my books. My opinion on his historical existence is pretty much in line with the position taken by Professor Guy Halsall in Worlds of Arthur, a book I reviewed in the Scottish Archaeological Journal last year. In the review, I supported Halsall’s deep scepticism about Arthur’s historicity.

Like I said at the start of this blogpost, I generally prefer to avoid getting involved in the Historical Arthur debate. Avoidance isn’t difficult, because I don’t feel any great need to include Arthur in my own research on post-Roman Britain. To me, the overall picture is clearer without him. Sometimes, however, he nudges against subjects in which I have a keen interest, prompting me to take notice. This is what happened last week, when a new contribution to the Arthurian debate caused quite a stir in Scotland. ‘Academia up in arms over King Arthur’s Glasgow roots’ said a newspaper headline, referring to a controversial theory by distinguished Celticist and place-name expert Andrew Breeze. Whatever I think of Arthur, any suggestion of a Scottish connection is bound to make me sit up, especially when the source is a renowned philologist who knows a thing or two about Dark Age history.

According to Professor Breeze, the Arthur of legend was a real warlord, a North Briton from the kingdom of Strathclyde, who fought a series of battles in what are now southern Scotland and Northumberland. This runs against a more conventional belief that the historical Arthur was associated with Cornwall and other parts of south-west England. Using the (in)famous battle-list in the Historia Brittonum – a text compiled in Wales in the ninth century – Breeze suggests that all except one of Arthur’s victories were won in the North. The exception is Mons Badonicus or Mount Badon, which he identifies as Braydon in Wiltshire.

Of the other battlefields in the ninth-century list, the river Glein is identified by Professor Breeze as the Glen in Northumberland while the river Dubglas is seen as the Douglas Water near Lanark. I often wonder if these rivers did indeed bear witness to victories won by a Dark Age warlord – perhaps not a northern Arthur, but a Briton nonetheless – and the famous king Urien of Rheged springs to mind. The same might be said of the battle of ‘Celidon Wood’ which, as Breeze observes, must be somewhere in the Southern Uplands. These three identifications are fairly uncontroversial, unlike those proposed for the battlefields of Bassas, Tribruit and Agned, which Breeze locates respectively at Tarras Water (Eskdale), Dreva (Tweeddale) and Pennango (Teviotdale). He sees Bassas as an error for Tarras, which is the kind of typo a careless scribe might make when copying a manuscript. Castell Guinnion, which some historians identify as Vinovia, the Roman fort at Binchester in County Durham, is associated by Breeze with Kirkgunzeon near Dumfries. Again, I think the battle at Guinnion might be a genuine northern event – a victory won by Urien or some other historical hero – that the Arthurian legend has subsequently absorbed. Finally, the battle-site named in Historia Brittonum as ‘City of the Legion’ is often placed at the Roman legionary bases of Chester or Caerleon (in Wales) but Professor Breeze offers his own suggestion of Kinneil at the eastern terminus of the Antonine Wall. It will be interesting to learn the detailed argument behind these theories when he presents them at the International Congress of Celtic Studies in Glasgow in July 2015.

Those of you who are familiar with J.S. Glennie’s old book Arthurian Localities (1869) will be aware that the idea of a Scottish context for the Historical Arthur has been around for a long time. However, a number of places identified by Professor Breeze have not previously been linked to the Arthurian battle-list so, in that sense, his theory is certainly a new one. It will inevitably spark further debate when the conference paper is presented.

Last week, in an article in the Scottish newspaper The National, Professor Breeze was quoted as saying “I know that my views will be controversial”. His ideas have already been challenged by Stuart McHardy and Simon Stirling, two authors of books locating Arthur in Scotland, who quickly responded via the comments thread at the newspaper’s website. Last Friday, also in The National, Professor Thomas Owen Clancy of the University of Glasgow gave a strong rebuttal, arguing not only against the identification of Arthur as a Strathclyder but also against the whole notion that the battles listed in the Historia Brittonum were fought by a Dark Age warlord. I share Clancy’s doubts. Much as I would welcome a narrative to plug the gaps in Strathclyde’s early history, I don’t think Arthur brings us any closer to finding it. On a more positive note, if Professor Breeze’s theory inspires more people to take an interest in Dark Age Scottish history, then even the diehard sceptics among us ought to see this as a good thing.

Take a look at the links below and see what you think…

‘Was King Arthur a Glaswegian from Govan?’ The National, 3 March 2015.

‘King Arthur battle site unearthed near Peebles’ Peeblesshire News, 3 March 2015.

‘Academia up in arms over King Arthur’s Glasgow roots’ The National, 6 March 2015.

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Notes

I am grateful to Andrew Breeze for drawing my attention to the first two links and to Michelle Ziegler for sending me the third via Twitter.

J.S. Glennie’s book Arthurian Localities is available as a facsimile reprint from Llanerch Press.

Tim Clarkson: Review of Guy Halsall, ‘Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages’ in Scottish Archaeological Journal, vol.33, Issue 1-2, pp. 84-86.

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[This blogpost was edited and expanded on 13 March 2015]

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The Battle of Mugdock (AD 750)

Battle of Mugdock

Pictish warriors on an 8th-century sculptured stone at Aberlemno in Angus.


In the eighth century, under the rule of their king Onuist son of Urgust (Óengus mac Fergusa), the Picts became the dominant power in North Britain. Onuist had secured his position as the paramount Pictish king by destroying various rivals during a series of bitter conflicts in the late 720s. Early in the following decade he invaded Dál Riata, the homeland of the Scots, ravaging much of it and bringing the rest under his authority. By 740, the two main kingdoms of Dál Riata, based respectively in Lorn and Kintyre, were effectively his vassals.

From this position of strength, and with formidable military resources at his disposal, Onuist turned his eye southward to the land of the Clyde Britons. These people were ruled by their own kings whose stronghold lay on the summit of Alt Clut, the towering ‘Rock of Clyde’ at Dumbarton (Gaelic Dùn Breatainn, ‘Fortress of the Britons’). To Onuist, the Britons were a rival power whose independence posed an obstacle to his ambitions. so he challenged them to battle. The ensuing clash occurred in 744, at a site whose name is not recorded. We do not know the result: it may have been inconclusive, with neither side claiming victory. Six years later, the two armies met again, but this time the outcome was not in doubt:

‘A battle between Picts and Britons, and in it perished Talorcan, son of Urgust, and his brother; and there slaughter was made of the Picts along with him.’

This information comes from from the Annals of Tigernach, a medieval Irish chronicle. The same battle is mentioned in another Irish source, the Annals of Ulster, where the location is given a name:

‘The battle of Catohic between Picts and Britons, and in it fell Talorcan, son of Urgust, the brother of Onuist.’

The name ‘Catohic’ is obscure and otherwise unknown. It appears in no other source, nor can it be identified on a modern map. The same can be said of the name ‘Ocky’ which appears in a third Irish chronicle, the Annals of Clonmacnoise (see Appendix 3 below). A more intelligible name is provided by Annales Cambriae, the Welsh Annals:

‘A battle between the Picts and the Britons; that is, the battle of Mocetauc, and their king Talorcan was slain by the Britons.’

Also from Wales comes Brut y Tywysogion (‘Chronicle of the Princes’) which has the following entry:

‘In the same year [i.e. 750] was the battle of Mygedawc, where the Britons were victorious over the Pictish Gaels after a bloody battle.’

A different version of Brut y Tywysogion also refers to the battle but, like the Irish chronicles, it names the Pictish commander:

‘750 years was the age of Christ when there was a battle between the Britons and the Picts, in the field of Maesydawc. And the Britons slew Talorcan, king of the Picts.’

Mocetauc and Mygedawc are variant spellings of the same name. Their pronunciation is similar: in both, the consonants are pronounced ‘hard’, i.e. c has the sound of k (not s) and g is not softened to j. Maesydawc seems to be a different name, although it shares a similar ending with Mocetauc and Mygedawc and might be related to them in some way.

Our final piece of information comes from the Annals of Tigernach which report a death under the year 752:

‘Teudubur, Beli’s son, king of Alt Clut [died].’

This king is also named in a medieval Welsh genealogy or ‘pedigree’ of the kings of Alt Clut. He seems to have ruled the Britons for thirty years, from 722 to 752, and is probably the man to whom the great victory of 750 should be credited. There is some doubt as to whether he really did die in 752, with some historians wondering if the Irish annalists noted his death a couple of years too late. The Welsh Annals assert that he died in 750 and it is possible that this is correct.

Taken together, then, the Irish and Welsh sources tell us that a major battle was fought in 750, at Mocetauc or Mygedawc, a place which may also have been called Maesydawc, ‘Catohic’ or ‘Ocky’. It was a massive setback for the Pictish king Onuist, whose own brother Talorcan fell among the casualties. The victor was most likely Teudubur, king of Dumbarton, who died later in the same year or in 752. In Pictland, the defeat seems to have had major repercussions, for the Annals of Ulster tell us that the year 750 marked ‘the ebbing of the sovereignty of Onuist’. Maybe his rivals at home perceived that he was not invincible and began to stir against him? The Britons, by contrast, would have celebrated one of the greatest military successes in their history. They had thwarted the ambitions of the mighty Onuist. They had slain his brother Talorcan, a seasoned commander who had played a key role in the Pictish conquest of Dál Riata. The importance of the battle is therefore not in doubt. But where was it fought?

Battle of Mugdock

North Britain in 750.

Location

In the late nineteenth century, the Scottish historian William Forbes Skene identified Mocetauc/Mygedawc as Mugdock in Strathblane, the valley of the Blane Water. This was a logical deduction and is now generally accepted by place-name experts. At the time of the battle, Strathblane was an area where Cumbric – a language closely related to Welsh – was the everyday speech of the inhabitants. Cumbric was the language of the Clyde Britons, whose kings almost certainly held authority in Strathblane from their stronghold at Dumbarton. It is likely that Mugdock is a name of Cumbric origin, a relic of the period when many places around the Clyde had ‘Welsh-sounding’ names.

Skene was a leading figure in Scottish antiquarian circles and his influence is still felt today. His identification of Mugdock as the site of a famous Dark Age battle seems to have prompted his contemporary John Guthrie Smith, a resident of the Strathblane valley, to pinpoint the location more closely. In his book The Parish of Strathblane, published in 1886, Smith connected the battle with various local sites. He called the Britons ‘Cymry’ (pronounced Cum-ree), a term still in use today among native-speakers of Welsh. It means ‘compatriots’ or ‘fellow countrymen’. The northern equivalent was Cumbri, hence Smith’s use of Cumbria as a name for the land of the Clyde Britons. In the following passage, he offers a detailed account of the battle of Mocetauc:

“The field of this battle can be traced with but little difficulty. The Cymric army was posted on the high ground on Craigallian – then part of Mugdock – above and to the east and west of the Pillar Craig, with outposts stationed on the lower plateau to the north, and there awaited the Picts, who came up Strathblane valley through Killearn from the north on their way to the interior of Cumbria. Near the top of the Cult Brae, in a line with the Pillar Craig, there is a rock still called Catcraig, i.e., Cadcraig, meaning the “Battle Rock,” and in their efforts to dislodge the Cymric army, whom they could not leave in their rear to fall upon them when they had passed, the Picts doubtless had penetrated thus far and here the battle began. It was continued all over Blair or Blairs Hill, i.e., the “Hill of Battle” – the rising ground on Carbeth Guthrie which commands the valley of the Blane – and Allereoch or Alreoch, i.e., the “King’s Rock,” was certainly so named from being the place where King Talargan fell when the defeated Picts were being driven back to the north-west. The standing stones to the south-east of Dumgoyach probably mark the burial place of Cymric or Pictish warriors who fell in the bloody battle of Mugdock.” [Smith, Parish of Strathblane, p.8].

This romantic reconstruction owes more to Victorian imagination than to eighth-century history. Nevertheless, some parts of it can be accepted as broadly accurate. The Pictish army probably did come down from the north before marching south along the valley of the Blane Water, and the Britons may indeed have relied on lookouts or ‘outposts’ for news of the enemy’s advance. But the rock Catcraig is unlikely to commemorate this battle or any other, despite Smith’s belief that the name is significant (cat or cad is a common word for ‘battle’ in both Gaelic and Cumbric). There are, in fact, many Catcraigs in Scotland but most – if not all – have a name meaning simply ‘rock of the wildcat’. Blair Hill or Blairs Hill likewise has a first element formed from Gaelic blar (‘field’ or ‘plain’), another common element in Scottish place-names. Although blar occasionally appears in the context ‘field of battle’ this is not its primary meaning and it generally appears without any military connotation. The supposed ‘King’s Rock’ at Alreoch is more likely to be ‘speckled rock’ (from Gaelic riabhach) and, although the standing stones of Duntreath near Dumgoyach are undoubtedly ancient, there is no reason to associate them with an early medieval war-grave. Their origin lies much further back, in prehistoric times.

The simple truth is that we cannot reconstruct the progress of the battle of Mugdock in any great detail. We cannot even be sure that it was fought near the present-day Mugdock hamlet rather than elsewhere in Strathblane – the name ‘Mugdock’ was formerly attached to a medieval barony encompassing much of the valley. In cases such as this, where precise geographical details are unknown, it is often tempting to look for suggestive clues in minor place-names. This was the strategy chosen by John Guthrie Smith but it didn’t bring much clarity to the picture and merely threw up a few red herrings. A more objective approach is to step back from the local maps to consider the battle of 750 in its broader geographical and political contexts.

Alt Clut, Dumbarton Rock

Alt Clut, the Rock of Clyde at Dumbarton, Fortress of the Britons (Photo © B Keeling).

Allies and enemies

In 2009, the Canadian historian James E. Fraser discussed the significance of the battle of Mugdock in his book From Caledonia to Pictland. Fraser believed that the Pictish defeat and the subsequent ebbing of Onuist’s power ‘probably shook northern Britain’. He also suggested that the Clyde Britons may have regarded their victory as comparable to the famous defeat of an invading English army by the Picts at Dun Nechtain in 685. Both battles, as Fraser observes, seem to have thwarted ‘the imperial designs of a neighbouring superpower’. We should therefore be in no doubt that the clash at Mugdock was one of the most important battles in the history of early medieval Britain.

Fraser suggested that the battle should be seen not in isolation but as part of a much wider picture of wars and alliances. Ten years earlier, in 740, Onuist had previously come into conflict with Northumbria, the powerful English kingdom beyond his southeastern border. Contemporary English sources claim that he had an alliance with Mercia, Northumbria’s traditional enemy in the English midlands, and that the Mercians invaded Northumbria from the south in the same year. During the 740s, Onuist managed to settle his differences with the Northumbrian king Eadberht and, by the end of the decade, the two had become allies. They had much in common: both were men of ambition, keen to expand their respective realms; both faced a serious obstacle to their expansion – the kingdom of the Clyde Britons. In 750, Eadberht marched west into what is now Ayrshire, seizing the plain of Kyle together with ‘other districts’. These lands were almost certainly taken from Britons, perhaps from subordinates of the king of Alt Clut. One key question is whether the conquest of Kyle occurred before or after the battle of Mugdock. Before is surely more likely, for Eadberht may have been less keen to menace the fringes of a kingdom whose army had recently smashed the fearsome Pictish war-machine. This would be consistent with Northumbria’s apparent neutrality when Talorcan moved against the Britons: Eadberht probably thought the Picts fully capable of rampaging all the way down Strathblane to threaten Dumbarton itself. If he had foreseen that his allies would fail so spectacularly, he might have been tempted to bring his own forces into Clydesdale from the south, to boost Talorcan’s chance of victory.

Battle of Mugdock

Places connected with the Battle of Mugdock, superimposed on a modern map.

The road to war

Turning now to the circumstances of the battle, we can make a few observations about its logistical aspects: the routes of approach to the battlefield and how long each army took to get there. There can be little doubt that the Picts entered Strathblane from the north. As John Guthrie Smith envisaged, they probably came via Killearn. This village stands on an old route running from Dumbarton to the ancient Fords of Frew, a crossing-point on the River Forth still used by armies as late as 1745. It is likely that Talorcan and his warriors, marching south from their Perthshire heartlands, crossed at Frew before turning southwest towards Killearn. The Pictish army would have been a mixture of horsemen and foot-soldiers, all travelling at an average rate of no more than 25 miles per day. The terrain would not have been easy, for there were no long stretches of well-maintained highway. Moreover, this was long before the extensive wetlands of the Forth Valley were drained and reduced. Progress across the treacherous mosses would have been slow for man and beast alike. The distance from Strathearn, a plausible mustering-point for Talorcan’s army, to the area around Mugdock is roughly 30 miles. This probably meant a 2-day journey for the Picts, even if they maintained a steady march-rate of 15 miles per day, with essential rest-periods for horses. After crossing the Fords of Frew they probably came into lands that acknowledged Teudubur as king. Here, the invaders no doubt began to ravage the countryside by burning farmhouses and terrorising the people, before making camp as evening fell. Meanwhile, news of the onslaught would have been sent to Alt Clut by the swiftest means, prompting Teudubur to respond by mustering his own forces quickly. He may even have been expecting an attack, or it may have come without warning.

The Britons had a shorter and less arduous trek to the battlefield. From their fortress at Dumbarton, they would have gone via Duntocher and Milngavie to enter the Strathblane valley, picking up the route of today’s A81 highway. The entire distance from Dumbarton to Mugdock hamlet was only 10 miles, a distance easily completed within a half-day’s march. The Britons probably reached the middle of the valley some hours before the enemy. This would have allowed them enough time to choose the battlefield and to post lookouts – the ‘outposts’ imagined by Smith. The ensuing contest would have been brief and bloody, a horribly gruesome spectacle involving a tangled mass of foot-soldiers hacking and stabbing amid a clamour of yells and screams. Cavalry did not necessarily play a major role, even if some warriors rode to the battlefield. Although we see carvings of armed horsemen on Pictish stones, there is no strong evidence that mounted combat was a regular feature of warfare in eighth-century Britain. The battle of Mugdock is more likely to have been a fight between two infantry armies. At some point, after a few hours of relentless carnage, the Picts broke and fled. Few would have escaped the field alive; fewer still would have come home to the farmlands of Perthshire.

Mugdock Castle

Mugdock Castle (from J.G. Smith’s Parish of Strathblane)

Aftermath

Teudubur’s great victory enabled his people to avoid the fate of their Scottish neighbours: Dál Riata seems to have remained under Pictish overlordship until the middle of the ninth century, when Viking raids disrupted the status quo, but the Clyde Britons appear to have remained independent. This is remarkable when we consider that they endured another Pictish invasion six years after their triumph at Mugdock. The aggressor was again Onuist, but this time he was taking no chances. Not only did he command the army himself, he co-ordinated the attack with his English ally Eadberht who simultaneously led a Northumbrian force into Clydesdale. Faced with overwhelming odds, the king of the Britons – Teudubur’s son Dyfnwal – surrendered at Dumbarton on 1st August 756. This was a war Dyfnwal could not hope to win. However, there is no hint that his capitulation heralded a long period of subjugation to Pictish or English overlords. Eadberht tasted the fruits of victory for a mere nine days: on 10th August, his army was butchered in a sudden ambush as it marched home from Govan on the south bank of the Clyde. Some historians think the unidentified attackers were vengeful Britons, others think the Picts were responsible. Onuist himself returned home safely, laden with plunder, but he had fought his last campaign. We hear no more of him until his death in 761. His successors maintained the Pictish overlordship of Dál Riata but there is no evidence that the kings of Alt Clut were similarly reduced as vassals. Not until the eleventh century, when the Picts and Scots were united in the powerful new kingdom of Alba, did Teudubur’s descendants finally relinquish their independence.

St Andrews Sarcophagus

This image of the Israelite king David on the 8th-century St Andrews Sarcophagus may be a contemporary likeness of Onuist, king of the Picts (Photo © B Keeling).

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Appendix 1: Dineiddwg

In the early twentieth century, a large mansion was built at Mugdock for the wealthy Glasgow baker William Beattie. It was given the name ‘Dineiddwg’ because this was commonly assumed to be the ancient name of Mugdock. The assumption was actually not much older than the mansion itself, having arisen from a footnote in one of W.F. Skene’s books, The Four Ancient Books of Wales, published in 1868. Skene drew attention to a medieval Welsh poem attributed to the bard Taliesin who allegedly lived in North Britain in the sixth century. The poem ends with the following lines:

Rwg kaer rian a chaer rywc
rwg dineidyn. a dineidwc
eglur dremynt a wyl golwc.
Rac rynawt tan dychyfrwymwc.
an ren duw an ry amwc.

(‘Between Caer Rian and Caer Rywg,
between Dineiddyn and Dineiddwg;
a clear glance and a watchful sight.
From the agitation of fire, smoke will be raised,
and God our Creator will defend us.’)

The poem in question was composed long after the sixth century by an anonymous Welsh poet who was not Taliesin. It is allusive rather than narrative, with obscure references to nature and magic. The final lines, however, include a mention of Dineiddyn, the ancient Welsh name for Edinburgh. This led Skene to believe that the other three places – Caer Rian, Caer Rywg and Dineiddwg – were also in North Britain. Din is an old Welsh word meaning ‘fortress’, hence Edinburgh is ‘Fortress of Eiddyn’. Dineiddwg is presumably ‘Fortress of Eiddwg’ but the second element is difficult to identify. Skene wondered if it might be echoed in the names Mocetauc, Mygedawc and Maesydawc, with Dineiddwg being yet another alternative name for Mugdock. This was only a guess, but it was enough to encourage John Guthrie Smith to go even further: ‘Dineiddwg means therefore the Fort of Eiddwg or Edawc, who may have been a Cymric chief, with his castle Dineiddwg or Dinedawc standing in a commanding position on his estate Maeseiddwg or Maesedawc’. Here, Smith was simply using his imagination to create a dramatic picture out of virtually nothing. Needless to say, his 1886 book is almost certainly where William Beattie found a suitably eye-catching name for a new mansion at Mugdock.

Appendix 2: Folklore

I visited Mugdock Country Park a few years ago but didn’t have much time to explore the surrounding area. Since my visit I have learned that a sign at the nature reserve beside Loch Ardinning tells of a Dark Age battle fought in the vicinity. The sign dates this battle to 570 AD and associates it with the famous King Arthur. John Guthrie Smith knew of the tradition and connected it with a curious discovery in 1861 when railway workmen unearthed ‘an immense deposit of human and horse bones’ nearby. He also drew attention to a boulder known as Arthur’s Stone on a hillside near Craigbarnet, slightly northwest of Mugdock. I’m no great believer in the idea of a historical figure behind the Arthur legends and rarely mention the topic on this blog. The legends were, of course, widely popular in the Middle Ages and many places in Britain enthusiastically claim an Arthurian connection. At Mugdock, however, we find the curious coincidence of an alleged Arthurian battle near the site of a genuine historical one. At first glance, it is tempting to wonder if the two are connected, with the legendary King Arthur being grafted onto local traditions of the great battle of 750. Unfortunately, the possibility that a folk-memory of the Pictish defeat survived among the people of Strathblane is very remote. The area was caught up in the upheavals of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, which saw a southward expansion of the kingdom of Alba. By 1070, the land of the Clyde Britons had been conquered and absorbed. One effect of the conquest was the introduction of Gaelic speech and a new sense of ‘Scottishness’, leading to the demise of the old Cumbric language and the cultural identity it represented. Many indigenous traditions faded away and, within a few generations, the Clyde Britons had become Gaelic-speaking Scots. Almost everything of their former history was soon forgotten, including tales of heroic kings and ancient wars. By the end of the twelfth century, it is unlikely that anyone in Mugdock knew that a once-famous battle had been fought there.

Appendix 3: Primary sources

The original entries from the medieval chronicles mentioned at the start of this blogpost are listed below. Most of these texts were written in Latin, with two exceptions: Brut y Tywysogion (in Welsh) and the Annals of Clonmacnoise (a translation in seventeenth-century English).

Annals of Tigernach

750 – Cath eter Pictones et Britones, i testa Tolargan mac Fergusa & a brathair, & ár Picardach imaille friss.
752 – Taudar mac Bile, rí Alo Cluaide.

Annals of Ulster
750 – Bellum Catohic inter Pictones & Brittones in quo cecidit Talorggan mc. Forggussa, frater Oengussa.

Annals of Clonmacnoise (misdated the battle by 4 years)
746 – The battle of Ocky between the Picts & Brittans was fought where Talorgan mcffergus, brother of K. Enos, was slaine.

Annales Cambriae or ‘Welsh Annals’
750 – Bellum inter Pictos & Brittones, id est gueith Mocetauc. Et rex eorum Talargan a Brittonibus occiditur. Teudubur filius Beli moritur.

Brut y Tywysogion (‘Red Book of Hergest’ version)
Deg mlyned a deugeint a seith cant oed oet Crist pan vu y vrwydyr rwg y Brytanyeit ar Picteit yg gweith Maesydawc ac y lladawd y Brytanyeit Talargan brenhin y Picteit.

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Notes & references

I was inspired to write this blogpost after conversations on Twitter with Debra Torrance of Milngavie.

Indigenous Archaeology in and around Milngavie is a local heritage group whose interests cover the Mugdock area. Take a look at their Facebook page.

John Guthrie Smith, The parish of Strathblane and its inhabitants from early times : a chapter in Lennox history (Glasgow, 1886)

James E. Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795 (Edinburgh, 2009)

W.F. Skene’s note on Dineiddwg appears on page 401 in Vol.2 of his book The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Edinburgh, 1868).

I mention the battle of Mugdock in my books The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland and The Picts: a history.

James Johnston in his 1904 book The Place-Names of Stirlingshire suggested (at page 54) that the name Mugdock is of Gaelic origin: mag-a-dabhoich, ‘plain of ploughed land’. But it is more likely to be a pre-Gaelic, Cumbric name, as both W.F. Skene and John Guthrie Smith implied in their notes on Dineiddwg.

The name ‘Catohic’ from the Annals of Ulster is very obscure. I have been unable to find any information on it. The same can be said of ‘Ocky’ in the Annals of Clonmacnoise. Both might be scribal errors due to miscopying of the original names.

A description of the Duntreath standing stones can be found on the Canmore database.

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This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde

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The Legend of Luncarty

Shield of Clan Hay

Shield of Clan Hay


Although this blog is mainly concerned with history and archaeology, it does occasionally feature myths and legends, especially those in which real historical figures from the early medieval period are mentioned. Needless to say, the boundaries between history and myth are not always clear-cut. Take, for example, the origin-tales of Scottish clans. These traditional stories – often passed down through countless generations – purport to explain when, where and by whom a particular clan was founded. Such tales are important literary relics in their own right – as repositories of old folklore – but they also have special value to genealogical researchers, particularly to present-day bearers of a clan surname who want to know how old their name is and what it means.

I have no Scottish ancestry (as far as I know) but I do have an interest in the origins of a number of Scottish clans, mainly those which claim to have been founded before c.1100. I am especially interested in clans with alleged Norman, Viking or Pictish origins, as well as in a few others (such as Clan Galbraith) whose beginnings seem to lie in the ancient kingdom of Strathclyde.

In this blogpost I’ll be looking at the origins of Clan Hay, whose principal line has held the earldom of Errol in Perthshire since the late twelfth century. The traditional story associates the founding of the clan with a battle at Luncarty, 4 miles north of Perth, sometime around the year 980. The two opposing sides were Scots and Vikings, the former being led by a king called ‘Kenneth’. According to this tale, the Vikings (described as ‘Danes’) succeeded in routing the right and left flanks of the Scottish army. King Kenneth, still fighting in the centre, could only watch in dismay as a large number of his warriors fled in panic. Meanwhile, in a nearby field, a local farmer and his two sons were ploughing with oxen. Pausing to watch the battle, they were enraged to see their fellow-Scots running away, so they decided to block the escape-route. Unfastening the wooden yokes from their oxen they used these heavy implements as improvised weapons, smiting not only their fleeing countrymen but also any Viking pursuers. They then rallied the Scots for a counter-attack which utterly surprised the Danes, who thought a new Scottish army was charging at them. Victory was thus snatched from the jaws of defeat. A grateful King Kenneth rewarded the farmer – whose name was Hay – with a generous gift of land and a coat of arms, instantly elevating him from lowly peasant stock to the ranks of the landowning aristocracy. The coat of arms was a background of argent (‘silver’ or white in heraldry) emblazoned with three bloodstained shields. To define the location and size of Hay’s new territory, the king released a falcon from the summit of a hill, decreeing that the course of the bird’s flight would mark the boundaries. The land in question comprised what would later become the earldom of Errol, the ancestral domain of Clan Hay.

map_luncarty2

This tale, sometimes known as the Legend of Luncarty, first appeared in written form in Hector Boece’s Historia Gentis Scotorum (History of the Scottish People) of 1527. Boece is not regarded as a reliable historian. In fact, his work is even less trustworthy than the imaginative pseudo-chronicles produced by earlier writers such as Walter Bower and John of Fordun (fifteenth and fourteenth centuries respectively). No ancient source mentions a tenth-century battle at Luncarty. The earliest reference comes from Bower who briefly describes the battle, though without connecting it to the origins of Clan Hay. Most Scottish historians in the centuries after Boece have regarded both the battle and the legend as fictional. Some have even proposed that Boece invented the entire story – a rather extreme opinion, since it is probably more likely that the key elements originated with the earls of Errol themselves as a suitably heroic account of their family’s origins. Indeed, the roots of the legend seem to lie in the landscape around Luncarty, where prehistoric burial-mounds and standing stones may have inspired local storytellers to imagine an ancient conflict having been fought there. In the vicinity stands Turnagain Hill, whose enigmatic name may have demanded a dramatic explanation (such as an unexpected counter-attack by fleeing Scots). There is also a farm called Denmarkfield that is said to mark the site of the battle.

One element of the legend that seems at least to be based on real history is the figure of ‘King Kenneth’, who is presumably Cináed mac Maíl Coluim (Kenneth, son of Malcolm), king of Scots from 971 to 995. Cináed appears in a number of fairly reliable sources such as the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba. From these we learn that he fought against the English of Northumbria and the Strathclyde Britons, but there is no record of a war against Danish invaders in his Perthshire heartlands. In 977, at an unnamed battle, he defeated and killed a rival who bore the distinctly Scandinavian name Anlaf. Although this Anlaf was a Scottish prince and a kinsman of Cináed, he may have had Viking ancestry and was possibly the grandson and namesake of one of the Norse kings of Dublin (two of whom were called Anlaf). Perhaps the historical tenth-century battle in which Anlaf perished was the inspiration for the Hay legend? If so, it may even have been fought at Luncarty. Whatever the truth of the matter, there can be little doubt that the legend was already in existence when Boece published it in 1527. Walter Bower’s brief mention of a victory won by King Kenneth over Danish invaders at Luncarty seems to be drawn from the same tradition, suggesting that a version existed in the 1400s. Bower thus provides us with a historical horizon for the legend. Unfortunately we cannot trace its roots back any further.

Clan Hay now acknowledges a more authentic account of its ancestry in which the clan forefather was not a tenth-century Scottish peasant but a twelfth-century Norman knight called William de Haya. William was probably born sometime around the year 1130 on his family’s estates at La Haye Hue in the southern part of Normandy’s Cotentin Peninsula. He may have been a direct descendant of the Viking settlers (‘Northmen’) from whom Normandy is named. The place-name La Haye derives from an old Germanic word meaning ‘hedge’, perhaps a reference to defensive stockades or field boundaries. La Haye Hue is now La Haye-Bellefond.

Map of Normandy

William de Haya’s mother Juliana de Soulis came from another Norman family whose lands lay adjacent to those of his father (also called William). Juliana’s brother Ranulf de Soulis (born c.1090) acquired land in England through his friendship with the Scottish prince David, who had spent much of his early life at the English royal court. At that time, England was ruled by a Norman dynasty founded by William the Conqueror in 1066. When David left England and returned to Scotland – probably in 1113 – he was accompanied by many Anglo-Norman knights. At that time, his brother Alexander held the Scottish throne. Alexander allowed David to rule a large region known as ‘Cumbria’ – the former kingdom of Strathclyde – as a kind of autonomous princedom. Within this area David installed his Norman friends as barons, effectively setting them up as powerful Scottish lords. One of these was Ranulf de Soulis who received the barony of Liddesdale on the English border. In 1124, David succeeded Alexander as king of Scotland and reigned for nearly thirty years. Ranulf remained at his side as a faithful companion, eventually becoming the king’s Cup-bearer – a symbolic but highly influential position at the royal court. David’s long reign saw more Norman knights settle in Scotland, one of these being the younger William de Haya, who was no doubt invited over from Normandy by his uncle Ranulf. William’s career can be traced through contemporary charters in which his name appears as a witness to land-grants made by Scottish kings. These documents support the view that he was the first member of the de Haya family to arrive in Scotland. It has been suggested that the English branch of the Hays are related to their Scottish cousins through an ancestor who arrived with William the Conqueror’s invasion force in 1066.

King David I of Scotland

After David’s death in 1153, the Scottish crown passed to his grandson Máel Coluim. By 1160, Máel Coluim’s Cup-bearer was none other than William de Haya, who had risen to become a powerful figure at court. William married a Scottish noblewoman called Eva, through whom he acquired estates at Pitmilly in Fife. He later received the lands of Errol and erected there a motte (artificial mound) for a new castle. His descendants, the earls of Errol, became the hereditary chiefs of Clan Hay. William is believed to have lived to a ripe old age, probably dying sometime around the year 1201.

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Notes & links

Clan Hay is not the only Scottish clan whose origins lie in Normandy. I intend to look at one or two others in future blogposts.

Clan Hay has an official website.

The clan’s Norman ancestry was explored by Sir Anthony Wagner in his two-part article ‘The Origin of the Hays of Erroll’, published in the Genealogists’ Magazine in 1954-55 (volume 11, pages 535-40 and volume 12, pages 1-6).

Aerial photographs of the alleged site of the Battle of Luncarty can be seen at the Canmore database.

A picture of the Hawk’s Stone, where King Kenneth’s falcon supposedly landed after its flight, can be seen in a post at the Bletherskite website.

The second edition of Hector Boece’s Historia was published in 1575. An online version of this, edited by Dana F. Sutton, is available via the University of Birmingham’s Philological Museum. The Legend of Luncarty appears in Book XI and can be accessed via the links below, in both Latin and English. I’ve also included a link to Professor Sutton’s introduction, which places Boece in the wider context of Scottish medieval historiography.

The Legend of Luncarty: Latin text / English translation.
Introduction to Dana F. Sutton’s edition of Boece’s Historia.

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Brunanburh in 937: Bromborough or Lanchester?

King Athelstan

Athelstan, king of the English (924-39), in a manuscript of Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert.


Last Thursday evening (4th December) the eminent philologist Andrew Breeze gave a lecture to the Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries at their headquarters in London. His main topic was the battle of Brunanburh, fought in 937, one of the most famous events of the Viking Age. The victor was the English king Athelstan who thwarted an alliance of Norsemen, Scots and Strathclyde Britons. Frustratingly, the site of this mighty clash of arms is unknown. Some historians think it took place on the Wirral Peninsula in Cheshire, near the present-day village of Bromborough. Others think Cheshire is too far south and instead suggest alternative locations, one of these being the River Browney in County Durham. Professor Breeze believes that the Roman fort of Lanchester, slightly north of the Browney, may be the lost ‘fort of Bruna’ implied by the Old English place-name Brunanburh.

The lecture is now available on YouTube. Although I’m not convinced by the Lanchester theory, I like to keep up with the Brunanburh debate so I enjoyed watching the video. At the heart of Professor Breeze’s argument is his belief that the Norsemen sailed in via the Humber estuary – as indeed the twelfth-century chronicler John of Worcester said they did – before mooring their ships and marching to the battlefield. Not everyone is happy to accept the chronicler’s words on this important logistical point. Some sceptical folk (myself included) think it more likely that the Norse commander Anlaf Guthfrithsson brought his army across the Irish Sea to a landfall on the western coast of Britain. The earliest source for the battle of Brunanburh is a tenth-century poem which says that Anlaf fled across the sea to Dublin after his defeat. I support the theory that he probably arrived at the battlefield via the same western route rather than by sailing all the way around Scotland to come down to the Humber.

The link below will take you to the video of the lecture. Look out for a glimpse of my latest book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age. Needless to say, Professor Breeze isn’t convinced by what I’ve written in the book’s fifth chapter, which mostly deals with the Brunanburh debate. There I suggest that the great battle may have been fought in North Lancashire, although I conclude that the true location is likely to remain elusive for the foreseeable future.

Society of Antiquaries [YouTube] – Brunanburh in 937: Bromborough or Lanchester?

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Notes

I am grateful to Andrew Breeze for telling me about the lecture and video.

A brief summary of the lecture can be seen at the Society of Antiquaries events pages.

I mentioned both Lanchester and Bromborough in a blogpost published here last October.

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The English invasion of Strathclyde

Edmund of Wessex

A thirteenth-century depiction of Edmund, king of Wessex (939-946)


In 945, the English king Edmund – a grandson of Alfred the Great – launched a devastating raid on the territory of the Strathclyde Britons. Contemporary annalists noted the event in their chronicle entries and some of these brief reports have survived (more or less) in later texts. Last month I wrote a short article on Edmund’s campaign for the website of History Scotland magazine. This is now online and can be accessed via the link below:

History ScotlandThe English invasion of Strathclyde

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This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde

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Bannockburn (and other battles)

Battle of Bannockburn
I recently visited the heritage centre at Bannockburn which commemorates Robert Bruce’s famous victory over the English. The centre and the nearby monuments have been given a makeover to commemorate the battle’s 700th anniversary.

Because this is a fourteenth-century battle (fought in 1314, just in case anyone needs reminding) it lies beyond the usual horizons of Senchus and is well-documented elsewhere. I don’t tend to blog about the period of Bruce and Wallace unless the topic has direct relevance to something from before c.1150. However, I wanted to show some pictures of the Bannockburn monuments, partly because I think their recent makeover has turned out pretty well. Also, they remind me that commemorations of major Scottish battles from earlier periods are rare, with only a few receiving any kind of acknowledgment in the modern landscape. In many cases, this must be because the site cannot be pinpointed, not even approximately. In others, it may be because the historical significance of the event has yet to be recognised/promoted by the heritage tourism sector. I’m thinking here of important ‘Dark Age’ battles whose outcomes affected the wider balance of power, such as Strathcarron (642/643 – location uncertain), Dun Nechtáin (685 – location disputed) and Carham (1018 – location known but barely publicised). Two others in which Scottish forces were involved – Degsastan (603) and Brunanburh (937) – were undoubtedly very significant but, as well as being impossible to locate, their sites may lie south of the Border.

I remember visiting Mugdock Castle (near Milngavie) some years ago and wondering why local tourism authorities hadn’t tapped into the Pictish heritage market by putting up an information board saying ‘Historians believe that the famous battle of Mocetauc was fought near here in AD 750′, maybe with a bit of text and some coloured drawings of Picts fighting Britons. Mocetauc was a major defeat endured by the powerful Pictish king Onuist (Óengus) at the hands of an army of Britons led by the king of Dumbarton. It was famous enough to be mentioned in contemporary chronicles on both sides of the Irish Sea. Modern historians think it very likely that the battlefield lay in the vicinity of Mugdock in the valley of Strathblane, a few miles north of Glasgow. People in the Mugdock area have long been aware of this battle and have linked it – via their own folklore – to places in the local landscape. It may even be the historical event behind vague traditions of a victory won by ‘King Arthur’ at nearby Loch Ardinning, where there is apparently a sign dating the Arthurian battle to 570. With such stories already circulating in the area, and with plenty of academic support for the identification of Mocetauc as Mugdock, a project to commemorate the historical eighth-century battle with some kind of permanent marker wouldn’t come out of the blue. I imagine this is the type of project that could apply for resources from one of the community-based strands of the Heritage Lottery Fund. As I said, it’s a while since I visited the area, so if anyone knows of something already in place, or in the pipeline, please let me know.

At Dunnichen in Angus the Pictish victory over the English at Dun Nechtáin in May 685 is commemorated by a cairn with a small plaque giving a bit of historical info. Unfortunately, opinion is divided on whether Angus is the correct setting for this battle, so a more substantial memorial is hard to justify. Personally, I’m with the Dunnichen folk as far as the location is concerned, but the counter-argument (for Dunachton in Badenoch) has been well-argued by Alex Woolf and cannot be lightly set aside.

Meanwhile, at Carham on the River Tweed, we hear that the defeat of the English earl of Bamburgh in 1018 (at the hands of the Scots and Strathclyde Britons) is to be commemorated in the millennial year 2018. Perhaps a battlefield memorial is already planned? There are no doubts about the identification of Carham as the place called Carrum in a Northumbrian account written in the following century, so some kind of marker or monument would be justifiable. I discuss this battle at some length in my new book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age.

After these musings on Dark Age battles we return to Bannockburn and to the monuments behind the new visitor centre. The following images show how Scotland’s iconic national victory continues to be commemorated on a suitably grand scale.

Battle of Bannockburn

Sculptured timeline at the rear of the visitor centre.


Battle of Bannockburn
Battle of Bannockburn
Battle of Bannockburn
Battle of Bannockburn
Battle of Bannockburn

The refurbished Rotunda (built in the 1960s) and its Victorian flagpole.


Battle of Bannockburn

Plaque on the memorial cairn within the Rotunda.


Battle of Bannockburn

The new ring beam encircling the Rotunda carries a poem by Kathleen Jamie.


Battle of Bannockburn

The Bruce Monument.

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Here’s a link to the Battle of Bannockburn visitor centre.

All photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling.

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