King Ecgfrith of Northumbria

Ecgfrith, king of the Northumbrians
This blogpost is about a book published last year – a biography of the Northumbrian king Ecgfrith who ruled from 670 to 685. Ecgfrith was an ambitious warlord whose army campaigned far beyond the frontiers of his kingdom. During his reign, Northumbrian forces clashed with those of Mercia – the main English power in the midlands and a frequent adversary of Ecgfrith’s forebears – as well as with various Celtic peoples. In 684, Ecgfrith sent one of his henchmen across the Irish Sea at the head of a raiding army. The ensuing assault on the territory of the Southern Uí Néill also targeted churches and monasteries, much to the dismay of clergyfolk back home in Northumbria. Ecgfrith’s belligerence finally came to an end on 20th May 685 at the battle of Nechtanesmere in the land of the Picts. There he perished with nearly all of his warriors.

Ecgfrith’s new biography is written by Professor Nick Higham, well-known as author or editor of a number of books on the Anglo-Saxon period. Nick supervised my PhD in the 1990s and helped me to navigate a path through the intricate maze of early medieval history. Many readers of this blog will, I am sure, be familiar with his published works, such as The Kingdom of Northumbria, AD 350-1100 (1993), King Arthur: Myth-making and History (2002) and The Anglo-Saxon World (2013, co-authored with Martin Ryan).

Much of what we know about Ecgfrith comes from the Venerable Bede, whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People (published in 731) documented the rise of Northumbria as a major political power. Bede was himself a Northumbrian, so a lot of his information on the kingdom came from local sources. Some of his contemporaries had known Ecgfrith personally. In 685, when news of the disaster at Nechtanesmere reached English ears, Bede was a young monk of twelve or thirteen, living at the monastery of Jarrow beside the River Tyne. In later life, when writing his Ecclesiastical History, he interpreted the Pictish victory as divine retribution for the callous destruction unleashed by Ecgfrith’s soldiers on Irish religious sites in the previous year

Nick Higham’s book is more than just a study of Ecgfrith’s reign. The first two chapters set the scene by introducing the reader to seventh-century Northern Britain and to the various (often enigmatic) literary sources that purport to describe what was going on. Here we also obtain useful information on ethnic/cultural identities, on the nature and practice of early medieval kingship, and on the beginnings of Anglo-Saxon settlement in the North. In the third chapter, we get to know King Oswiu, Ecgfrith’s father, who ruled the Northumbrians until his death in 670. This brings us to the mid-point of the book and to the start of Ecgfrith’s reign. Those of us with a keen interest in Northumbrian relations with the Picts may find the fifth chapter especially useful, in particular a 15-page narrative under the sub-headings ‘Ecgfrith and the North’ and ‘685’. The same chapter ends with what is, for me, a major highlight of the book: a detailed discussion of how Ecgfrith’s death was reported and interpreted by contemporary observers in Northumbria and elsewhere.

This is a book I heartily recommend (and would do so even if the author had not influenced my own approach to the early medieval North). Writing a biography of a seventh-century Northumbrian king is a challenging project for any historian, even for one who understands the scale of the task better than most. I believe Nick Higham has done a great job here.

N.J. Higham, Ecgfrith: King of the Northumbrians, High-King of Britain (Donington: Sean Tyas, 2015)

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Links

Check out Nick Higham’s article on Ecgfrith at the History Extra website: The Anglo-Saxon who (almost) united Britain

I’ve blogged previously about the battle of Nechtanesmere where Ecgfrith was slain by the Picts – Against iron swords: Dun Nechtáin, AD 685

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A Roman reference to Pictish tattoos

Stilicho

Flavius Stilicho, with his wife and son, portrayed on an ivory carving of c.395 AD, now in Monza Cathedral, Italy. (photograph from L’art Byzantin, 1932)


At the end of the fourth century AD, the western half of the Roman Empire was in serious decline. Barbarian invasions by Vandals, Goths and other Germanic peoples were a constant drain on imperial resources. Internal revolts likewise removed any hope of stability or recovery. The emperor Honorius, whose reign spanned the years 384 to 423, was barely able to cling onto power. He relied heavily on the support of his father-in-law and former guardian, Flavius Stilicho, a highly respected general who was himself of Vandal ancestry.

A prominent figure at the imperial court was the poet Claudian (Claudius Claudianus) who was close to both Honorius and Stilicho. He composed panegyric poetry in praise of both men, boosting their reputations while denigrating those of their political opponents. In modern parlance we would probably call him a spin doctor. In one poem, composed in May or June of 402, Claudian refers to a great gathering of Roman troops by Stilicho, who was preparing for a battle against Gothic invaders in Italy. Among the assembled forces was a unit that had seen service in Britain:

‘there came the legion, shield of the frontier Britons,
check of the grim Scot,
whose men had watched the life leave the tattoos on the dying Pict.’

Contemporary sources imply that there were many clashes between Romans and Picts, from the late third century to the beginning of the fifth. Several legions were part of the permanent garrison of Britain during this period and would have seen action on the northern frontier. Also, other legions came and went, usually to bolster the garrison in times of crisis or to participate in one-off campaigns. The identity of the legion mentioned by Claudian is therefore unknown.

But what makes these lines of verse especially fascinating is the reference to Pictish tattoos.

The precise meaning of the name ‘Picts’ (Latin: Picti) is uncertain. It seems to be connected with pictures of some kind and is usually translated by modern historians as ‘The Painted Ones’. The likeliest explanation is that it refers to a particular custom practiced by certain groups of people in northern Britain. Tattooing is probably the custom in question.

Pricking an inked design on the skin, as opposed to daubing or painting, had evidently been common practice in pre-Roman Britain, before the stamp of Mediterranean culture made it unfashionable. It may have been maintained thereafter among native communities living outside the Empire, in the untamed northern lands beyond the Forth-Clyde isthmus. Further south, in the Romanised part of Britain, tattoos probably came to be regarded as old-fashioned and uncouth, a form of body ornamentation favoured by hairy savages who lurked beyond the reach of civilisation.

Pictish warrior

A Pictish warrior, from Cassell’s Illustrated History of England.

At some point, probably in the third century, soldiers in the frontier forts along Hadrian’s Wall coined the term Picti. This may have originated as a derogatory term for any group of suspicious-looking natives prowling on the far side of the Wall, whether they had tattoos or not. The name caught on, finding its way from army slang into highbrow literature. It eventually narrowed to describe the inhabitants of what are now northern and eastern Scotland. By c.600 AD, and for reasons unknown, these people were using Picti as a collective name for themselves. Despite its origins in the vocabulary of their ancient enemies, they presumably regarded it as a convenient label in their quest to establish a new ‘national’ identity. Whether any seventh-century Picts still tattooed their bodies is, however, a matter of debate. I’m inclined to think some of them probably did.

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Notes and references

Here is the original Latin text from Claudian’s poem:

venit et extremis legio praetenta Britannis,
quae Scotto dat frena truci ferroque notatas
perlegit exanimes Picto moriente figuras

*ferroque notatas….figuras —> literally ‘iron-marked figures’

In another poem, Claudian seems to credit Stilicho with a victory over the Picts. There is no mention of such a campaign in other sources, so it might be an example of political ‘spin’. It is unlikely that Stilicho ever visited Britain. He was mainly concerned with Italy and the eastern Mediterranean.

I discussed Stilicho’s alleged Pictish campaign in an article published 20 years ago:
Tim Clarkson, ‘Stilicho, Claudian and the Picts’ Pictish Arts Society Journal, 6 (Autumn 1994), 27-30

My views were largely based on an earlier study:
Molly Miller, ‘Stilicho’s Pictish War’ Britannia, 6 (1975), 141-5
(Miller is probably better known to readers of this blog for her articles on the North British kingdoms of the sixth century)

The Scots mentioned by Claudian were as likely to have hailed from Ireland as from the ancestral Scottish homelands in Argyll. The Latin word Scotti seems to have been another ethnic term from the repertoire of Roman army slang. It was probably applied to any group of raiders who spoke Gaelic. I touched on this topic in an older blogpost on Scottish origins.

For a detailed analysis of Claudian’s poetry, see Alan Cameron’s Claudian: Poetry and Propaganda at the Court of Honorius (Oxford, 1970).

Chapter 3 of my book The Picts: a History includes a short discussion of Pictish tattooing. There I note that the seventh-century writer Isidore of Seville specifically states that the Picts were so named because they used needles to imprint designs on their skin.

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Dunadd

Dunadd

The River Add from the summit of Dunadd (Photo © T Clarkson)


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.

Dunadd

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.

Dunadd: behold the king!

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Remembering Aethelflaed

Aethelflaed of Mercia

Aethelflaed of Mercia with her young nephew Athelstan (a modern sculpture at Tamworth Castle).


Today is the 1097th anniversary of the death of my favourite individual from the Dark Ages.

I refer, of course, to the Anglo-Saxon princess Aethelflaed, the Lady of the Mercians. She was the daughter of Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, and sister to his successor Edward the Elder.

Aethelflaed married Aethelred, the ruler of Mercia in the western midlands of England, and joined him in a programme of fortress-building that strengthened his people’s defences against Viking raids. After Aethelred died in 911, his widow became sole ruler and – unusually for a woman in those times – a commander of armies in the field. She led military campaigns in person and achieved several major victories. Working in tandem with her brother Edward, she not only held off the Viking menace but won back a number of conquered territories in eastern England.

As part of her wider anti-Viking strategy, she formed a three-way alliance with the kings of Alba and Strathclyde. This northern and Scottish dimension is one of the reasons why I have long been fascinated by her career. Another reason is her connection with Mercia, my homeland, which she governed and protected during a time of great peril and uncertainty.

She died on 12 June 918, at the ancient Mercian settlement of Tamworth.

I’ve mentioned Aethelflaed here at Senchus quite a few times and, six years ago, devoted a blogpost to her. Last year I wrote about her again, at one of my other blogs. Here are the links to those posts…
‘The Lady of the Mercians’ [Senchus blog, 2009]
‘Aethelflaed’ [Strathclyde blog, 2014]

Her alliance with the Scots and Strathclyde Britons is described in a medieval text known as The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland. The passage in question gives an idea of the high regard in which she was held by contemporaries in lands far beyond the borders of Mercia. The relevant passage, with an English translation, can be seen in my blogpost on the Fragmentary Annals.

I also recommend Susan Abernethy’s article ‘Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia’ and Ed Watson’s ‘Aethelflaed: the making of a county town’.

I discuss Aethelflaed and her relations with the northern kings in my book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age (on pages 58-63).

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The Battle of Gwen Ystrat

Six years ago, in a post at this blog, I discussed the battles of Catraeth and Gwen Ystrat. The former is mentioned in a medieval Welsh poem (or group of poems) known as Y Gododdin (‘The Gododdin’) where it is presented as a defeat for the Britons of Edinburgh at the hands of Anglo-Saxon foes. Gwen Ystrat was the scene of a victory for the North British king Urien Rheged, apparently over Pictish enemies, in a poem attributed to the bard Taliesin. The poem has the title Gueith Gwen Ystrat (Welsh gueith = ‘strife, battle’) and its historical setting is the sixth century AD.

In my blogpost from 2009, I referred to a suggestion by the Celtic scholar John Koch that the battles of Catraeth and Gwen Ystrat were one and the same. I also mentioned an objection to this idea by Graham Isaac, who proposed that Gueith Gwen Ystrat should be seen not as an authentic poem from sixth-century North Britain but as an ‘antiquarian’ composition from eleventh-century Wales. I ended the blogpost on a rather sceptical note, sharing Isaac’s doubts as to whether the battle of Gwen Ystrat was a historical event rather than a literary creation.

Fast forward to 2015 and to the latest issue of the journal Northern History. This contains an article by Andrew Breeze in which the case for seeing Gueith Gwen Ystrat as a genuine North British poem of the sixth century is re-stated. Professor Breeze also discusses the possibility that the battle may have been fought in the valley of the River Winster in southern Cumbria. This idea was first proposed by the nineteenth-century Welsh scholar Thomas Stephens who observed that another poem attributed to Taliesin mentions a place called Gwensteri as the scene of a battle fought by a northern king called Gwallawg. Stephens wondered if Gwensteri might be an error for Gwen Ystrat and suggested that both names refer to Winsterdale. Breeze thinks Stephens was right to identify Gwensteri as the River Winster but sees the name Gwen Ystrad as an error for Gwensteri rather than the other way around. He proposes Gwensteri as a native Celtic (Brittonic) name for the Winster.

Other river-names in Cumbria certainly have names of Celtic origin but Winster has generally been regarded as Norse. An explanation of this name based on Norse vinstri (‘left’) was suggested by the Swedish philologist Eilert Ekwall nearly 100 years ago but Andrew Breeze thinks a more likely base is Brittonic gwen (‘white’). A name with the simple meaning ‘white river’ does indeed seem more likely than the harder-to-explain ‘left-hand river’. Taliesin’s poem also mentions a place called Llech Wen (‘White Stone’?) which Breeze identifies as Whitbarrow, a high fell on the east side of Winsterdale. Whitbarrow has a name of Anglo-Saxon origin meaning ‘White Hill’ and a prominent crag called White Scar.

Placing the battle beside the River Winster fits with Breeze’s broader vision of the geography of Urien’s kingdom (Rheged) which he envisages as straddling the Pennine hills to encompass parts of Yorkshire and Cumbria. This is in keeping with a consensus view on sixth-century political geography in which Urien is envisaged as ruling an extensive realm centred on the Solway Firth. I am not with the majority on this matter, nor do I think the name ‘Rheged’ can be written on a map with any measure of confidence – or without an accompanying question mark. The reasoning behind my scepticism (or heresy?) is set out in my book The Men of the North.

Andrew Breeze makes a good case for amending Gwen Ystrad to Gwensteri and for identifying the latter as a Celtic name for the Cumbrian river Winster. His article builds on his other recent work on the Old North and adds further weight to conventional opinion on the location of Urien’s realm. Heretical voices, such as mine, can only respond with a rather pessimistic view on the authenticity of Taliesin’s poems, or with the bleak suggestion that Rheged’s geography might be irretrievably lost.

River Winster

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References

Andrew Breeze, ‘Urien Rheged and Battle at Gwen Ystrad’ Northern History 52 (March 2015), 9-19. [I am grateful to Andrew Breeze for sending me a copy of this article]

Other Rheged-related articles by Andrew Breeze….
‘The Names of Rheged’ Transactions of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society 86 (2012), 51-62.
‘Early Welsh Poetry and Rossett, Cumbria’ Northern History 49 (2012), 129-34.
‘Northumbria and the Family of Rhun’ Northern History 50 (2013), 170-9.
‘Yrechwydd and the River Ribble’ Northern History 47 (2010), 319-28.

Graham Isaac, ‘Gweith Gwen Ystrat and the Northern Heroic Age of the Sixth Century’ Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 36 (1998), 61-70.

Tim Clarkson, The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh, 2010) [see pp.68-78 for a discussion of Rheged]

My blogpost from 2009: Catraeth and Gwen Ystrat.

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Stones of the Britons

Clach nam Breatann

Clach nam Breatann (© David Dorren 1998)


One of the main roads to the Scottish Highlands is the A82 which carries travellers from Glasgow to Inverness via Fort William. After leaving the outskirts of Glasgow, this well-known highway passes Dumbarton and Alexandria before running north along the side of Loch Lomond. The loch is eventually left behind as the A82 continues onward through Glen Falloch to Crianlarich and Tyndrum.

High up on the western slopes of Glen Falloch, on the opposite side from the picturesque Falls, stands Clach nam Breatann, ‘The Stone of the Britons’. Like a space-rocket ready to launch, this enigmatic monument leans up from its base to point towards the sky. The topmost piece or capstone rests on deep-set boulders that seem to grow out of the ground. These foundations are sunk so deeply in the hillside that they might indeed be a natural rocky outcrop. The whole assemblage sits on a conical mound of earth and stone which appears to be partly man-made, like a large cairn now covered with grass.

Clach nam Breatann

Clach nam Breatann (© David Dorren 2002)

Clach nam Breatann

Clach nam Breatann (© David Dorren 2002)

Tradition asserts that Clach nam Breatann marked the boundary between Picts, Scots and Britons. Its association with the latter suggests that it lay within their territory and therefore belonged to them in some way. Historians generally assume that it defined the northern limit of the kingdom of Alt Clut or Dumbarton (c.400-870 AD) and also of the successor realm Strat Clut or Strathclyde (c.870-1070). The assumption is no doubt correct, although we should also keep in mind the possibility that the stone simply commemorated a famous battle involving the Britons. In the nineteenth century, the Scottish antiquary W.F. Skene suggested that an unidentified ‘Stone of Minuirc’, scene of a battle between Scots and Britons in 717, may have been Clach nam Breatann. The geographical setting of Glen Falloch would certainly be consistent with a frontier clash between opposing forces from Dál Riata and Clydesdale, but Skene’s theory was only a guess and Minuirc remains elusive.

Clach nam Breatann

Clach nam Breatann (© David Dorren 1998)

I visited Clach nam Breatann some fifteen years ago. I had never seen anything quite like it before. Not only did it look imposing and ancient, it also had a strangeness, an eccentricity, that I found hard to explain. Since then, I’ve mentioned the stone in my book The Men of the North (with an accompanying photograph) and in several posts at this blog. I would like to make a return visit, to refresh my memory and to take more pictures. Getting there is by no means easy, for the approach involves a trek up a steep hillside over rough, boggy terrain. However, the effort is definitely worth it, especially on a clear day when the view is truly breathtaking.

Clach nam Breatann

Clach nam Breatann (© David Dorren 1998)

Clach nam Breatann

Clach nam Breatann (© David Dorren 2002)

As well as re-visiting Clach nam Breatann, I’m keen to see another impressive landmark for the first time. This is a gigantic boulder known as Clach A’ Bhreatunnaich, ‘The Briton’s Stone’, a glacial erratic nestling on the southern flank of Ben Donich near Lochgoilhead. As with Clach nam Breatann, tradition asserts that this solitary megalith stands on an ancient boundary between the Clyde Britons and their neighbours – in this case, the Scots of Cowal. Both stones may in fact be part of a single frontier – they are, after all, only 12 miles apart. The possible course of such a divide was traced by the late Betty Rennie who published her findings in the Pictish Arts Society Journal in 1996 (see reference below). Rennie’s pioneering work on ancient boundaries has been continued by two of her former colleagues in the Cowal Archaeological Society – David Dorren and Nina Henry – whose research on the mysterious Druim Alban (‘Ridge of Alba’) was highlighted in an earlier post at this blog.

The following images of Clach A’ Bhreatunnaich give a good idea of its size and of its position in the landscape.

Clach A' Bhreatunnaich

Clach A’ Bhreatunnaich (© David Dorren 2010)

Clach A' Bhreatunnaich

Clach A’ Bhreatunnaich (© David Dorren 2010)

Clach A' Bhreatunnaich

Clach A’ Bhreatunnaich (© David Dorren 2010)

Clach A' Bhreatunnaich

Clach A’ Bhreatunnaich (© David Dorren 2010)

Clach A' Bhreatunnaich

Clach A’ Bhreatunnaich (© David Dorren 2010)

Clach A' Bhreatunnaich

Clach A’ Bhreatunnaich (© David Dorren 2010)

Clach A' Bhreatunnaich

Clach A’ Bhreatunnaich (© David Dorren 1999)

Stones of the Britons

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Notes & references

I am again grateful to Dr David Dorren for allowing me to reproduce his photographs here at Senchus.

Elizabeth B. Rennie, ‘A possible boundary between Dál Riata and Pictland’ Pictish Arts Society Journal 10 (Winter 1996), 17-22.

Armand D. Lacaille, ‘Ardlui megaliths and their associations’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol.63 (1929), 329-32. [This article describes Clach nam Breatann and can be accessed via the PSAS online archive]

A link to my blogpost on Druim Alban.

Entries on the Canmore database for Clach nam Breatann (under its alternative name Clach na Briton) and Clach A’ Bhreatunnaich.

From the Annals of Ulster, under the year 717:
Congressio Dal Riati & Brittonum in lapide qui uocatur Minuirc, & Britones deuicti sunt.
(‘An encounter between Dál Riata and the Britons at the rock called Minuirc, and the Britons were defeated.’)

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This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde

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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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