The Last Of The Free

The Highlands
With next year’s referendum fast approaching, the question of whether Scotland should regain her independence is being hotly debated. It’s a serious issue for everyone involved and emotions are running high on both sides. The entire process is something I’ll be observing from a distance, as I’m not a resident of Scotland (nor, indeed, am I of Scottish descent). We who dwell south of the Tweed, and especially those of us with no ancestral connections north of it, are mere bystanders. This is how it should be. Whatever the outcome, the referendum is a matter for the people of Scotland to decide among themselves.

I am, however, interested in Scottish history, both the old and the new. Recently, I was reminded that the fundamental issue at the heart of the independence debate has a very long history indeed. The notion that the far northern parts of Britain should be free to govern their own affairs goes back much further than the arguments around the Act of Union in 1707, back even further than the Declaration of Arbroath and the wars of Wallace and Bruce. It finds echoes deep in the ancient past, in a time when the term Scotland had yet to come into being. It even pre-dates the Pictish period of c.300-900 AD.

The reminder came as I was leafing through my own historical study of the Picts in advance of its re-issue this month in a slightly smaller format. In the book’s second chapter (‘Caledonia and Rome’) I deal with campaigns waged by the Roman governor Agricola against the Caledonian tribes of the Highlands in the late first century AD. The Caledonians were one of the ancestral groups of the Picts, whose own descendants are a major component in today’s multi-faceted Scottish nation.

Agricola’s campaigns were well-documented by Tacitus, his son-in-law, who has given us a unique contemporary record of ancient Scottish history. Tacitus was a great admirer of Agricola and portrayed him in a glowing light – as a talented general respected by junior officers and held in high regard by ordinary soldiers. Looking past the dutiful tribute of a writer whose wife was Agricola’s daughter, we have no reason to doubt that Tacitus paints a fairly accurate portrait of the most dangerous individual ever unleashed by Rome upon the peoples of Northern Britain.

In this blogpost I want to focus on Agricola’s final campaign, which probably commenced in AD 83. Leading an army of 25,000 men, he marched north from what is now England to launch a massive assault on the untamed tribes of Caledonia – a wild region of hills and glens beyond the reach of Roman civilisation. In earlier campaigning seasons he had conquered all the lands up to the River Forth, crushing the native tribes and stamping out any pockets of resistance, but the people whom he encountered across the Firth of Tay were not so easily cowed. He soon learned that these highlanders were masters of guerilla warfare, adept at using hit-and-run tactics to disrupt his advance. At night, they pounced on the Roman camps while the soldiers slept, wreaking havoc among the tents before vanishing into dark forests. By day, they shadowed the marching columns and – to Agricola’s profound annoyance – refused to be drawn into a pitched battle. Tacitus noted that the Caledonians had a close relationship with their landscape, which became their ally against the invaders. Agricola expressed his own frustration with the constant guerilla attacks by describing the Caledonians as ‘just so many spiritless cowards’. In reality, he knew that these lightly-armed warriors were as brave as any adversary he had ever met. He also knew that what they were doing, in military terms, was exploiting the tactical advantages of their homeland’s rugged terrain. Their strategy was so successful that Agricola’s own officers urged him to abandon the campaign, but he was determined to continue the long northward march.

Eventually, as summer faded towards autumn, the Caledonians decided to make a stand by meeting the enemy in a head-on clash. Gathering their scattered forces together in one place, they massed on the slopes of a prominent hill known to the Romans as Mons Graupius. With their families hidden away in places of safety, the native warriors waited for Agricola to arrive. According to Tacitus, they were commanded by a great chieftain called Calgacus, whose name means ‘The Swordsman’. They knew what was at stake: their land, their independence, their right to govern their own affairs. But they also knew what was coming to meet them: a large Roman army, spearheaded by three war-hardened legions and commanded by a seemingly invincible general.

What the Caledonian warriors needed in that crucial moment was something to rouse their hopes, something to put iron in their veins and fire in their hearts. They needed encouragement, and leadership, and strong words spoken from the soul. And so they turned to Calgacus, who responded by urging them to put aside their fear. He pointed out that no invader had ever conquered them, and that even their isolation on the edge of the world was a protection.

Below is a shortened version of his speech, with its main points retained. The ancient Caledonians spoke a Celtic language, the ancestral tongue of Pictish and Welsh, but theirs was a pre-literate culture that bequeathed no documents to posterity. Everything we know about this proud people comes from Roman texts written in Latin. But what follows is essentially what Calgacus is supposed to have said to his warriors, as Tacitus reported it:

‘When I consider the motives we have for fighting, and the critical position we are in, I have a strong feeling that the united front you are showing today will mean the dawn of liberty for the whole of Britain. You have mustered to a man, and all of you are free.

‘We, the choicest flower of Britain’s manhood, were hidden away in her most secret places. Out of sight of subject shores, we kept even our eyes free from the defilement of tyranny. We, the most distant dwellers upon the earth, the last of the free, have been shielded until today by our very remoteness and by the obscurity in which it has shrouded our name. Now, the furthest bounds of Britain lie open to our enemies. And what men know nothing about they always assume to be a valuable prize.

‘But there are no more nations beyond us: nothing is there except waves and rocks. And – more deadly than these – the Romans, for they have an arrogance which no submission or good behaviour can escape. Pillagers of the world, they have exhausted the land by indiscriminate plunder, and now they ransack the sea. To robbery, butchery and rapine they give the false name ‘government’. They create a desolation and call it Peace.

‘Our courage, too, and our warlike spirit are against us: masters do not like such qualities in their subjects. Even our remoteness and isolation, while they give us protection, are bound to make the Romans wonder what mischief we are up to. Therefore, since you cannot hope for mercy, take courage – before it is too late – to fight for what you hold most dear, whether it be life or honour. And let us then show, at the very first clash of arms, what manner of men Caledonia has kept in reserve!

‘All that can spur men on to victory is on our side. The enemy have no wives to fire their courage, no parents ready to taunt them if they run away. Look at them – a scanty band, scared and bewildered, staring blankly at the unfamiliar sky, sea and forests around them. And beyond this army that you see, there is nothing to be frightened of – only forts without garrisons, colonies of old men, and sick towns distracted between rebel subjects and tyrant masters.

‘Which will you choose – to follow your leader into battle, or to submit to taxation, forced labour in the mines, and all the other tribulations of slavery? Whether you are to endure these for ever, or take quick vengeance, this day must decide.

‘On, then, into action! And, as you go, think of those who have gone before you and of those who shall come after.’

* * * * * * *

Whether or not these stirring words really were spoken by a Caledonian chieftain called Calgacus, or merely invented by Tacitus to give his readers a romanticised image of the ‘heroic barbarian’, is a question I don’t intend to go into in this blogpost. My distillation of the speech is presented here simply for what it says about the idea of ‘Scottish’ independence as perceived by people who lived nearly 2000 years ago. It has no particular relevance to modern political issues. Nonetheless, for me at least, it is one small piece in the jigsaw that forms a wider historical background to the current debate.

* * * *

Epilogue

Tacitus tells us that Agricola gave a similarly rousing speech to his own troops, telling them that the Caledonians were not so much massing for a pitched battle as milling around in desperation ‘because they are cornered’. With both armies fired up by their respective commanders, the ensuing battle was fiercely contested. It went on for many hours, raging back and forth on the open ground in the shadow of Mons Graupius. By nightfall, the last of the savage fighting was over, and victory went to the Romans. According to Tacitus, the Caledonians lost 10,000 men, a third of their army.

But the Romans were unable to consolidate their victory. Agricola recognised that the Highlands were too vast, too inhospitable, to be effectively controlled by forts and roads. And besides, autumn was fast approaching and the grim Caledonian winter would follow. So he turned around and led his army southward, back to the safety of areas already under Roman rule. Soon after, the emperor recalled him to Rome, and he was never seen in Britain again.

Despite its awesome military power, and despite a few more attempts, the Roman army never conquered Caledonia. Unlike their neighbours in the southern parts of Britain, the people of the Highlands steadfastly kept their independence, from Agricola’s time right through to the fall of the Western Empire in the fifth century. Largely untouched by Roman influences, they retained their ancient culture and continued to look after their own affairs. They were truly, as Calgacus had told them, the Last of the Free.

* * * * * * *

My condensed version of Calgacus’ speech is from the Penguin Classics translation (by H. Mattingley) of the writings of Tacitus, published in 1948 and revised (by S. Handford) in 1970.

I discuss Agricola’s northern campaigns under the sub-heading ‘Agricola and the Highlands’ in Chapter Two of my book The Picts (published by Birlinn in 2010 and re-issued in 2013). There I note that the location of Mons Graupius – the site of one of the most famous battles in Scottish history – remains elusive.

picts

* * * * * * *

‘Against iron swords’: Dun Nechtáin, AD 685

Aberlemno Pictish stone

A mounted warrior, possibly a Northumbrian, on an 8th-century Pictish stone in the kirkyard at Aberlemno in Angus. (Copyright © B Keeling)


Today is the anniversary of the battle of Dun Nechtáin in which the Picts, led by their king Bridei, defeated the English of Northumbria. It was fought on 20th May 685, one of the most famous dates in early Scottish history. The Pictish victory was decisive: the Northumbrian king Ecgfrith was cut down and nearly all his warriors were slain. His people back home regarded the defeat as a catastrophe, a disastrous reversal of fortune for the royal dynasty.

Years later, the Venerable Bede wrote about the battle in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. He had been a young boy of twelve, a novice monk in the Northumbrian monastery of Jarrow, when news of Egcfrith’s fall came south from the land of the Picts. Looking back in the twilight of his life, Bede recalled the battle with sadness and regret. ‘From that time,’ he wrote, ‘the hopes and strength of the English kingdom began to ebb and fall away.’

Bede does not name the battlefield, saying only that it took place in Pictish territory ‘in a tight place of inaccessible mountains’. Geographical detail, although useful to modern historians, was less important to him than his key point or ‘message’. To Bede, the Pictish victory was God’s revenge on Ecgfrith for an event of the previous year: a savage Northumbrian raid on Brega in Ireland in which defenceless monasteries were plundered. Another English monk, writing at Ripon in Yorkshire, was similarly vague on the geography of Ecgfrith’s defeat. He was more concerned with describing the battle as ‘a woeful disaster’ inflicted by an enemy who sprang from ‘the bestial Pictish peoples’.

Much of our information comes from other sources, from writers in the Celtic lands where people in the seventh century were no strangers to English aggression. From the Irish annalists, for instance, we learn the Gaelic name of the battlefield:

The battle of Dun Nechtáin was fought on the 20th day of the month of May, a Saturday, in which Ecgfrith son of Oswiu, king of the Saxons, having completed the fifteenth year of his reign, was killed with the greater part of his warriors by Bridei son of Bili, the king of Fortriu.’

An Irish monk, probably based at the great monastery of Bangor on the shore of Belfast Lough, composed a poem on the battle. He described Ecgfrith’s demise with grim satisfaction and, like Bede, saw the Pictish victory as God’s punishment for the brutal Northumbrian raid on Brega in 684:

Today Bridei gives battle
over the land of his grandfather,
unless it is the wish of the Son of God
that restitution be made.
Today the son of Oswiu is slain
in battle against iron swords.
Even though he did penance,
it was penance too late.
Today the son of Oswiu is slain,
he who took the black draughts.
Christ has heard our prayer
that Bridei would avenge Brega
.’

Among the Britons there was a similar absence of affection for Ecgfrith, whose forebears had waged many wars against the native kingdoms of Wales and the North. A Welsh chronicler, writing in the early 800s, compiled a list of Northumbrian kings for his book Historia Brittonum (‘History of the Britons’). When he reached Ecgfrith he paused to add this note: ‘He is the one who made war against his kinsman who was the Pictish king called Bridei, and he fell there with all the strength of his army, and the Picts with their king emerged as victors, and the Saxon thugs never again ventured forth to take tribute from the Picts.’

Such sentiments appear to conform to the ‘Celt versus Saxon’ view of seventh-century warfare. However, before we run too far with the idea of an inter-ethnic dimension to these military campaigns, we might take note of an old Northumbrian tradition on the fate of Ecgfrith’s body. According to a chronicle written at Durham in the 1100s, the dead English king was not left on the battlefield to be devoured by wolves and ravens. Instead, his Pictish foes carried him away with honour, to be buried in the most hallowed place in the Celtic Christian lands. In the words of the Durham chronicler, Ecgfrith was defeated and slain…

at Nechtanesmere, which is the Lake of Nechtan, on the 20th of May in the fifteenth year of his reign. His body was buried on Iona, the island of Columba.’

* * * *

Notes

* In this blogpost I have avoided any discussion of the location of Dun Nechtáin. I still think it was Dunnichen Hill near Forfar in Angus. Others think it was somewhere near Dunachton in Badenoch. The arguments and counter-arguments are set out by Alex Woolf in an important article: ‘Dun Nechtáin, Fortriu and the geography of the Picts’ Scottish Historical Review 85 (2006), 182-201.

* Bridei represents the likely Pictish form of a name written in Gaelic sources as Brude.

* The usual pronunciation of Ecgfrith is ‘Edge-frith’.

* In the quoted extracts above, the English translations are based on those in the appendices of James Fraser’s book The Battle of Dunnichen, 685 (Stroud, 2002).

* The ‘black draughts’ in the Irish poem are thought by some historians to represent dark, gaping wounds received by Ecgfrith at Dun Nechtáin.

* * * * * * *

The legend of the Saltire

Scottish Saltire flag
Scotland’s national flag, the Saltire, is reputedly the oldest in Europe. According to legend, its origins can be traced back to the ninth century AD, to a battle fought by a combined army of Scots and Picts against the English of Northumbria. On the night before the battle, the Pictish king ‘Hungus’ vowed to make Andrew the patron saint of Scotland if the English were defeated. In response, the Apostle himself appeared in a vision, promising Hungus and his Dál Riatan allies a great victory. The next morning, as the opposing forces prepared to fight, a strange cloud-formation in the shape of a huge diagonal cross appeared in the blue sky. Flushed with hope, the Picts and Scots attacked their enemies ferociously, despite being heavily outnumbered. The English and their king ‘Athelstan’ were soundly beaten, and the Cross of Saint Andrew became the emblem of Scotland.

Hungus, king of the Picts

The Pictish king Hungus: stained glass window at Athelstaneford parish church, East Lothian.

It’s a good story, even if it isn’t based on real events. It may have been created in the thirteenth century, around the time when Saint Andrew’s Cross started being used as a national emblem. Before 1286, the diagonal cross traditionally associated with the Apostle’s crucifixion had been used in Scotland but only in religious contexts, as an emblem of St Andrews Cathedral. The fabled Pictish king ‘Hungus’ turns up as a key figure in the cathedral’s own origin-legends, so his appearance in the Saltire story is certainly appropriate.

Scottish Saltire memorial

Battle-scene on the Saltire memorial at Athelstaneford.

The battle in which the Saltire appeared in the sky supposedly took place in the year 832, near the present-day village of Athelstaneford in East Lothian. The village proudly proclaims its status as the birthplace of Scotland’s flag. In the graveyard of the parish church stands an impressive memorial commemorating the great victory. The main panel shows King Hungus and his army facing the defeated English, who have thrown down their weapons in token of surrender. Above is a smaller panel containing an inscription with these words:

‘Tradition says that near this place in times remote, Pictish and Scottish warriors about to defeat an army of Northumbrians saw against a blue sky a great white cross like Saint Andrew’s, and in its image made a banner which became the flag of Scotland’

Scottish Flag Heritage Centre

Doocot (built 1583) now the Scottish Flag Heritage Centre.

Behind the church is a doocot (the Scots word for ‘dovecote’) constructed in the sixteenth century as a nesting-place for pigeons. Inside this tiny building is the Flag Heritage Centre where visitors can learn about the Saltire legend via an audiovisual presentation. A leaflet describing the battle, the memorial, the church and the doocot is also available. It gives additional information, telling us that the battle was said to have taken place at an ancient ford on the Peffer Burn. The village of Athelstaneford takes its name from this crossing-point.

Scottish Flag Heritage Centre

Scottish Flag Heritage Centre: lightshow image of a warrior during the audiovisual presentation.

A few snippets of real history are embedded in the legend. We know, for instance, that the figure of King Hungus is based on one or more genuine Pictish kings who bore the name ‘Angus’ (Óengus in Gaelic; Onuist or Unust in Pictish). The most famous of these was the great warlord Óengus, son of Fergus, who conquered Dál Riata in the eighth century. A slightly later namesake – probably a member of the same family – ruled the Picts from 820 to 834 and is usually identified as the king in both the Saltire legend and the foundation-tale of St Andrews Cathedral. The Scots who fought alongside Hungus at Athelstaneford were commanded by Eochaid, grandfather of Cináed mac Ailpín. Little is known of Eochaid but he appears in the genealogical traditions attached to Cináed and may have been a historical figure. The defeated Northumbrian ruler ‘Athelstan’ is presumably based on the famous English king of this name, a West Saxon by birth, who lived a century after the Saltire battle. In 832, the traditional date of the legendary encounter, the Northumbrians were actually ruled by a king called Eanred.

Scottish Flag Heritage Centre

Sign outside the parish church.

The true origin of the name Athelstaneford is unknown. It might commemorate the real King Athelstan – who campaigned in Scotland in the 930s – or perhaps a local namesake who happened to own land around the Peffer Burn. Whatever the truth of the matter, this quiet East Lothian village is forever linked to the most recognizable symbol of Scottish nationhood. If you like old folklore, Pictish legends and half-forgotten history, it’s well worth a visit.

* * * *

Update – December 2020: A restoration project for the Saltire Memorial and the Heritage Centre has been launched – see the project’s website and also the website of the Scottish Flag Trust.

Information about the Cross of Saint Andrew can be found at the National Archives of Scotland.

Athelstaneford village has its own website.

Photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling.

In an earlier blogpost I wrote about the two Pictish kings named Óengus and their connection with St Andrews.

* * * * * * *

Dunnichen left out of battlefield list

Aberlemno Pictish stone

Reverse of the Pictish cross-slab in the kirkyard at Aberlemno, Angus (Photograph © B Keeling)


To the disappointment of many folk in Angus, a new inventory of Scottish battlefields has omitted the great battle of Dun Nechtáin (AD 685) in which the Picts defeated an invading army from English Northumbria. The site of the battle has traditionally been identified with the area around Dunnichen Hill, 3 miles east of Forfar, by historians as well as by local people. This was questioned by Alex Woolf in a significant paper published in 2006. Woolf suggested that the Dun Nechtáin of 685 may have lain much further north, in Badenoch, in the vicinity of Dunachton. In the light of such uncertainty, the compilers of the battlefield inventory felt unable to include Dunnichen in their list.

Although I remain supportive of the Dunnichen theory, I believe the compilers reached the right decision. A particular place proposed as the site of a famous battle cannot be given an ‘official’ stamp of recognition while the location of the event is in doubt. No amount of circumstantial evidence can change that. Not even the scenes of warfare on a Pictish stone at nearby Aberlemno can clinch the identification in Dunnichen’s favour, for we cannot be certain that the sculptor was thinking of Northumbrians (rather than Britons, Scots or even other Picts) when he carved the ‘enemy’ warriors.

For a local perspective, take a look at this report published a couple of weeks ago in Dundee-based newspaper The Courier.

* * * * * * *

I first mentioned the battlefield inventory in a round-up of online news last July.

Here’s the full reference to Alex Woolf’s article: ‘Dun Nechtáin, Fortriu and the geography of the Picts’ Scottish Historical Review 85 (2006), 182-201

Those of you who have access to James Fraser’s excellent (and essential) book From Caledonia to Pictland will find reasons for continuing to support Dunnichen at pp.215-6. As Fraser points out, the main plank of Woolf’s argument (i.e., that nowhere in Angus fits Bede’s placing of the battle among ‘inaccessible mountains’) depends on a very narrow interpretation of Latin mons as an impressive Highland peak like those in Badenoch rather than as a smaller hill like those in the gentler landscape of Angus.

* * * * * * *

Bede’s ‘Wilfaresdun’

I suppose this qualifies as one of my occasional ‘non-Scottish’ blogposts as it doesn’t deal with places or events in Scotland. There is, however, a slight Scottish connection, because the main event referred to here marked a significant milestone in the career of Oswiu, king of Bernicia, whose realm included parts of what are now Lothian and the Borders.

We begin with the words of an Englishman, the Venerable Bede, writing c.730 at the Northumbrian monastery of Jarrow. In Book 3, Chapter 14 of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede tells us that two northern English kings prepared to do battle with one another in the summer of 651. One was Oswine, ruler of Deira, a kingdom roughly coterminous with the pre-1974 county of Yorkshire. The other was Oswiu of Bernicia, whose territory lay north of the River Tees and whose chief citadel lay on the imposing rock of Bamburgh. According to Bede….

“Each raised an army against the other, but Oswine – realising that he could not fight against an enemy with far greater resources – considered it wiser to give up the idea of war and wait for better times. So he disbanded the army which he had assembled at Wilfaresdun (Uilfaresdun), that is Wilfar’s Hill (Mons Uilfari), about ten miles north-west of the village of Catterick (vico Cataractone).”

But better times were not on the menu for Oswine. After disbanding his army, he sought refuge in the home of a local lord, supposedly a loyal henchman, who held land at Gilling. There he was betrayed to Oswiu and cruelly murdered, his death occurring on 20 August.

Bede says good things about Oswine, whom he regarded as a man of piety and generosity. Oswiu on the other hand emerges from the story with little credit, but went on to become one of the greatest of all Northumbrian kings, ruling Deira and Bernicia as a single realm. The story is useful in giving us an insight into the tensions that simmered between the respective Deiran and Bernician royal dynasties in the mid-seventh century, before they were brought together as a unified Northumbria in the era of Oswiu and his sons.

Two of the places mentioned in the story are easy to find on a modern map. Catterick, here referred to by Bede under its Latin name Cataracto or Cataracta, was a former Roman town on the main north-south highway running along the eastern side of Britain. It lay close to a major junction, now known as ‘Scotch Corner’, where another road branched off to Carlisle via the high moorlands of Stainmore. Gilling, which Bede called Ingetlingum, lies south of this branch-road and was the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery. The present village is known today as Gilling West.

But where was Wilfaresdun, Wilfar’s Hill?

Historians have occasionally puzzled over this question. Some have suggested possible answers, while others have concluded that the place cannot now be identified. Suggestions have tended to focus on a belief that the place-name may have survived, with modern equivalents being sought as far afield as Wilbarston in Northamptonshire. Wilbarston is too distant to be a viable candidate but it comes under the spotlight because no similar name survives within the broad range of Bede’s “about ten miles north-west of Catterick”. In these situations the desperate search for ‘sounds like’ place-names on a modern map sometimes takes precedence over rational thought or even, as in this case, over the testimony of a contemporary chronicler. Hence we find the small North Yorkshire village of Garriston being proposed as a possibly close match to Wilfaresdun because the two names share a superficial similarity. But Garriston poses a couple of serious problems: first, it lies south-west of Catterick, an orientation that must rule it out of any serious search; and, second, it was unlikely to have ever been known as Wilfaresdun. It has the rather different name Gerdestone when it is first mentioned in the historical record (in Domesday Book in the late eleventh century). In any case, we have no good reason to doubt the geographical context given by Bede, whose information probably came from Ceolfrith, the renowned abbot of Jarrow. Ceolfrith had formerly been a monk at Gilling, where the murdered King Oswine was venerated as a saint. The Gilling monastery had been founded by Oswiu himself in atonement for the treacherous assassination of his rival.

The monks of Gilling kept alive a memory of Oswine and undoubtedly preserved authentic stories about his life. Ceolfrith would have been familiar with these tales during his time there as a novice monk. It was surely from Ceolfrith that Bede obtained his information about the location of Wilfaresdun and we can therefore take it at face value. Wilfar’s Hill, then, lay approximately ten miles north-west of Catterick. These were Roman miles, shorter than today’s measure, so the true distance in modern terms is roughly nine miles. Bede and his contemporaries had no satellite imaging or aerial photography, so their measurements of distance were based on how far a traveller had to walk or ride along roads and tracks. If we follow the Roman highway from Catterick, steering a north-west course, we soon find ourselves on the branch-road to Carlisle. There are few significant or prominent hills in the early stages of this route, for we are still in the rolling agricultural countryside of Richmondshire. In fact, there is only one noticeable landmark worthy of note. Standing on the north side of the Roman road, some eight miles out from Catterick, it rises alone from the surrounding fields and is visible from a considerable distance. Its name on modern maps is Diddersley Hill.

Diddersley Hill

The southern flank of Diddersley Hill, viewed from the Roman road.

The suggestion that this hill might be Bede’s Wilfaresdun was made by Andrew Breeze in an article published seven years ago. Having visited the location this summer I am inclined to think Professor Breeze may be right, and that Mons Wilfari has been rediscovered. I also share his belief that Diddersley Hill may have been a traditional mustering-point for the armies of Deira, not just in the summer of 651 but at other times too. It certainly fits the requirements: a conspicuous landscape feature, visible to military forces approaching along the Roman road from east or west, an ideal venue for a king to gather an army comprising the warbands of subordinate lords. It is not difficult to imagine Oswine summoning his henchmen to this place in preparation for a decisive battle with Oswiu. Perhaps it was here, on the slopes of this hill, that the Deiran king surveyed his forces and deemed them insufficient for the task.

Diddersley Hill

Diddersley Hill, viewed from the north.

Diddersley Hill

Diddersley Hill, from the north, in its landscape context.

* * * * * * *

Andrew Breeze, ‘Where were Bede’s Uilfaresdun and Paegnalaech?’ Northern History 42 (2005), 189-91.

The three photographs of Diddersley Hill are copyright © B Keeling 2012.

* * * * * * *

More Brunanburh links

Athelstan

King Athelstan depicted on a Victorian cigarette card.


The Battle of Brunanburh was a great victory for the English king Athelstan over an alliance of Vikings, Scots and Strathclyde Britons. It took place in 937 but its location has long been a mystery.

This blogpost adds four more links to the two I noted in an earlier post relating to the battle.

In a new paper uploaded to his webspace at Academia, Mick Deakin examines the case for locating the battle near Kirkburn in Yorkshire. Using old chronicles alongside place-name data, Mick reminds us that we should not be too quick to place the battlefield west of the Pennines (as many of us do – including myself). Several pieces of information in this paper were completely new to me, and it has certainly got me thinking about my own westward-leaning view of the campaign.

Those of you who follow the comment thread below my previous ‘Brunanburh links’ blogpost will have seen Damian Bullen’s recent comments supporting the case for Burnley. Damian sets this out in more detail at his blog where, among other things, he looks at possible clues offered by local place-names. Lancashire antiquarians of the 18th and 19th centuries were happy to believe that Athelstan’s great victory was indeed won on the moors above Burnley, just as their Yorkshire counterparts thought that its true location lay in the White Rose county. Whatever our own individual views on the location of Brunanburh, the important point is that neither Burnley nor Kirkburn can be ruled out as long as the site of the battle remains a mystery.

It’s good to see these and other theories being brought into the limelight, not least to keep the debate alive, and to remind everyone that the mystery still persists. At the moment, there’s a real risk of the debate being pushed aside by a growing academic consensus that the battle took place at Bromborough on the Wirral. In the paper cited above, Mick Deakin quotes from the recently published Brunanburh Casebook, a collection of articles dealing with various aspects of the topic. The book’s editor Michael Livingston writes: ‘…put simply, the case for Bromborough is currently so firm that many scholars are engaged not with the question of whether Brunanburh occurred on the Wirral, but where on the peninsula it took place…’. While it is true that Bromborough has a strong case on place-name grounds, its identification as the battlefield of 937 remains unproven, and this uncertainty needs to be acknowledged. Alternative theories should therefore be kept in the foreground, to be studied alongside Bromborough, and with equal scholarly vigour.

My third link is to an item by Kevin Halloran, an expert on 10th-century history and the author of two fascinating studies of the Brunanburh campaign (both published in Scottish Historical Review). In a paper recently uploaded at his Academia webspace, Kevin looks in detail at Athelstan’s invasion of Scotland in 934, a military venture that turned out to be a prelude to Brunanburh. Much of the background to the latter campaign was put in place three years earlier, so Kevin’s paper will be useful to anyone with an interest in the wider political context. Some of you will already be aware that Kevin has made a strong case for identifying Burnswark, a prominent hill in southwest Scotland, as the location of Brunanburh.

Finally, a valuable resource is Jon Ingledew’s Battle of Brunanburh website which summarises the respective arguments for Burnley, Bromborough and Broomridge (in Northumberland). Jon has also gathered the various chronicle references, which makes it easier to see the different names given to the battle by medieval writers.

And so the debate continues……

N.B. You’ll need to be signed up to Academia to download the papers by Kevin and Mick.

* * * * * * *

Discussing Degsastan (again)

In an earlier post I set out my views on the location of the battle of Degsastan, an event described by Bede and dated by him to the year 603. The post attracted a large number of comments, which turned into a useful discussion of the various places that have been proposed as the site of the battlefield. In the end, with more than 70 comments attached to the post, I closed the thread because it had reached what I consider to be its allotted space at this blog.

However, due to continuing interest in the topic and several requests for the discussion to resume, I’m adding this post as an area for new comments. Please feel free to add your views and theories below.

For information, the old discussion can be found via this link.

Some questions we may want to consider:
* Where was Degsastan?
* Is Dawston in Liddesdale a plausible candidate?
* Did the Britons take part in the battle and, if so, on which side did they fight?
* What was the real political outcome of Aethelfrith’s victory?

* * * * * * *

Lady Macbeth

Dame Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, 1889 (from a painting by J.S. Sargent)


Mael Coluim mac Cinaeda (‘Malcolm, son of Kenneth’) succeeded his cousin Cinaed, son of Dub, as king of Alba in 1005. The succession was apparently contested by the rulers of Moray in the person of Findlaech, son of Ruaidri, who lodged a rival claim for the kingship. Findlaech, the mormaer (‘great steward’) of Moray, was described in the Irish annals as ‘king of Alba’ when they reported his death in 1020. His nephew Mael Coluim, son of Mael Brigte, died nine years later and was likewise accorded the same royal title by the annalists. Both men must have claimed the throne of Alba when its legitimate incumbent was Mael Coluim mac Cinaeda, who reigned from 1005 to 1034. On two occasions, then, the authority of Cinaed’s son was challenged by the lords of Moray.
The kingdom of Alba

The kingdom of Alba


The Moravians themselves appear to have been riven by internal strife. Rivalry between Findlaech and his brother Mael Brigte led to the former’s death at the hands of the latter’s sons. The most likely context was a military struggle for the mormaership. After Findlaech’s slaying in 1020 his murderous nephews – Mael Coluim and Gilla Comgain – ruled Moray for a further twelve years. Mael Coluim was the above-mentioned claimant on the kingship of Alba, the man whose death in 1029 was reported in the Irish annals. After staking his royal claim, as a rival of his namesake Mael Coluim mac Cinaeda, he seems to have appointed his brother Gilla Comgain as mormaer of Moray. But Gilla Comgain was in turn challenged by Findlaech’s son Macbethad, an ambitious individual who was soon to emerge as a key player on the wider political stage. In later centuries Macbethad found greater fame on a different kind of stage, being borrowed by William Shakespeare as the inspiration for his devious character Macbeth. In the meantime, the historical Macbeth made his first appearance around the year 1030, as a challenger to Gilla Comgain’s authority in Moray. This may have prompted Gilla Comgain to strengthen his own position with a political marriage, for his bride was a lady of high royal blood. Her name was Gruoch, daughter of Boite, and she was a close kinswoman of King Mael Coluim mac Cinaeda, perhaps his niece or the daughter of one of his cousins.

Gilla Comgain continued to rule as mormaer of Moray until his death in 1031 or 1032. His grisly demise was noted in the Irish annals:

Gilla Comgain, son of Mael Brigte, mormaer of Moray, was burned together with fifty people.

This was probably the final act in a bitter kin-strife that had started in the previous generation. Although the annalists do not say who was responsible for the burning it was surely the work of Macbethad, who thus became the new mormaer of Moray. In a politically astute move he quickly married Gruoch, Gilla Comgain’s widow, thereby linking himself to the royal dynasty of Alba. The marriage also made him stepfather and protector of Gruoch’s son Lulach, Gilla Comgain’s heir, who was probably a small child at the time. Whether Gruoch entered this union willingly or grudgingly is unknown, for the sources give no further information. If, as seems likely, Macbethad was the instigator of her first husband’s death, she might have been his reluctant bride. Alternatively, she might have regarded Macbethad as a useful match for her own ambitions. Did she perhaps play some part in Gilla Comgain’s downfall? Such speculation, although interesting, could tempt us to cross the line between fact and fiction, for Gruoch is the historical figure behind the ruthless Lady Macbeth of Shakespeare’s play.

Mormaers of Moray in the 11th Century


Macbethad’s career was as dramatic as any playwright’s narrative. Within months of his seizure of power in Moray he joined Mael Coluim mac Cinaeda, the king of Alba, in a pledge of fealty to King Cnut of England. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which placed this event under the year 1031, Macbethad is described as a king. The label need not be taken at face value, for it is unlikely that he had launched a bid for the throne of Alba at so early a date. Indeed, he may have continued to rule Moray not as a potential rival to Mael Coluim but as a loyal subordinate or vassal guarding an important territory on the king’s northern frontier.

Gruoch’s kinship with the royal dynasty would have proved useful to Macbethad. It brought him closer to the centres of power and would have enabled him to forge useful alliances at the king’s court. His wife’s connections with the ruling elite undoubtedly helped him gather support for the coup d’etat which would one day elevate him to the throne. But he nurtured his ambitions slowly and carefully, biding his time until the right moment. Thus, after Mael Coluim’s death in 1034 brought his grandson Donnchad (‘Duncan’) to power, Macbethad gave his allegiance to the new king and played the role of loyal henchman. He eventually made his move in the summer of 1040, not long after Donnchad suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the English. The Irish chronicler Marianus Scotus, writing forty years later, gave a near-contemporary account of Donnchad’s fall:

Donnchad, king of Scots, was killed in the autumn, on 14 August, by his dux Macbethad son of Findlaech, who succeeded to the kingdom for seventeen years.

In this context, the Latin term dux (‘duke’) might be an attempt by Marianus to translate Gaelic mormaer. In a more general sense it indicates that Donnchad was slain during the revolt of a subordinate lord. It was this deed of treachery that prompted later Scottish writers, and eventually Shakespeare himself, to cast Macbethad in the role of villain. In an 11th-century context, however, the toppling of a king by an ambitious rival was a normal method of regime-change.

Her husband’s victory made Gruoch the most powerful woman in Alba. She was now the Queen of Scots, a position she may have coveted from afar during her years of marriage to two successive lords of Moray. As queen, she would have played an important part in the smooth running of royal business. She would have had her own entourage of courtiers and retainers, as well as her own network of clients and friends. At times she would have accompanied the king on his periodic tours of the realm, and we have documentary evidence of this in a charter to which she bore witness alongside her husband. The document in question recorded a gift of land to the monastery of Loch Leven in Fife. Its scribe began by naming the royal benefactors: Machbet filius Finlach …. et Gruoch filia Bodhe, Rex et Regina Scottorum (‘Macbethad, son of Findlaech …. and Gruoch, daughter of Boite, King and Queen of Scots’).

In late 1049 or early 1050, Macbethad embarked on a pilgrimage to Rome. This was not an unusual task for a king from the British Isles to undertake. Others had made the same journey before him, seeking forgiveness for past sins by visiting the Eternal City. Most royal pilgrims were in their later years, or had already offloaded the reins of power to designated heirs. Macbethad was certainly a man of middle age when he began his pilgrimage. From a rough chronology of his career we can deduce that he was around fifty years old. It is likely that Gruoch did not accompany him, and that she stayed at home to maintain a royal presence at court. How much authority might then have been delegated to her in Macbethad’s absence is hard to say but he must have trusted her to support his kingship while he was away. This is actually a key point, because potential royal claimants were surely lurking in the wings. The probability that Macbethad left his wife behind suggests that he had no doubts about her political loyalty. It might also suggest that he perceived little or no threat from Lulach, Gruoch’s son by Gilla Comgain, whose own claim on the throne she might otherwise have promoted.

Macbethad thus returned from Rome to find his kingship still intact. He resumed his reign and faced no serious challenge to his position for a number of years. His subjects clearly respected him, as did folk living beyond the borders of Alba. Ambitious warriors from other lands were attracted to his court, perhaps because he gave rich rewards for military service. One group of Norman adventurers, having been made unwelcome in England, travelled north to place their swords at his disposal. These men died in battle in 1054, fighting to defend Macbethad from an English invasion which succeeded in casting him from the throne. The architect of his defeat was Earl Siward of Northumbria, a powerful henchman of the English king Edward the Confessor. What happened to Macbethad in the aftermath is not recorded but he may have sought refuge among his kinsmen in Moray, unless he found a safer haven elsewhere. Wherever he went, we can be fairly sure that Gruoch and her son accompanied him. Siward, meanwhile, appointed a man called Mael Coluim as the new king of Alba. Despite his Gaelic name, this Mael Coluim was a prince of the Strathclyde Britons. His eligibility for kingship of the Scots must nevertheless have derived from ancestry, and his name seems to hint at mixed Gaelic-British parentage. His father was the king of Strathclyde; perhaps his mother was a royal princess of Alba?

Mael Coluim’s reign did not last long. His position would have weakened considerably after Siward’s death in 1055. With the menace of the Northumbrian earl removed, Macbethad was able to expel Mael Coluim and take back the throne. He ruled for a few more years until his own death at the battle of Lumphanan in 1058. His nemesis was Mael Coluim mac Donnchadha, a figure otherwise known as ‘Malcolm Canmore’ (Gaelic ceann mor, ‘big head’). Mael Coluim’s victory thus avenged the slaying of his father, King Donnchad, whom Macbethad had destroyed eighteen years earlier.

We do not know what happened to Gruoch in the wake of her husband’s death. Her son Lulach seems to have held the kingship of Alba for a few months until he, too, was defeated and slain by Mael Coluim. Widowed and alone, Gruoch may have found herself at the mercy of the new king. Her fate would then have depended on her usefulness as a dowager queen, a royal lady of wealth and influence – if indeed she could be persuaded to pledge allegiance to Mael Coluim. The fact that she was his kinswoman, a female elder of the royal dynasty, would not have guaranteed her survival. Against whatever political value she still retained was the threat she undoubtedly posed to the stability of the realm. She might, for instance, become a figurehead for disgruntled supporters of Macbethad, especially in Moray where Mael Coluim’s authority was unlikely to have been strong. So what were her options, if indeed she was not murdered, or chased out of the kingdom, or imprisoned in some dark dungeon? If she somehow managed to survive the upheavals of 1058 she may have been allowed to enter monastic retirement, becoming the abbess of a religious house to which she had been a benefactor in former times. Alternatively, she may have simply retired to one of her estates, in semi-exile from the royal court, quietly living out her remaining years as a relic of past troubles.

Probable ancestry of Gruoch, daughter of Boite.


* * * * * * *

References

Archibald Duncan, The Kingship of the Scots, 842-1292 (Edinburgh, 2002), p.32.

Benjamin Hudson, Kings of Celtic Scotland (Westport, 1994), pp.136-8.

William Kapelle, The Norman Conquest of the North (London,1979), pp.41-2.

Archibald Lawrie (ed.), Early Scottish Charters prior to 1153 (Glasgow, 1905), pp.5-6.

Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070 (Edinburgh, 2007), pp.247 & 255-65.

* * * * * * *

The Attacotti: Britons, Gaels or Picts?


Over at the Badonicus blog, Mak Wilson looks at the mysterious Attacotti who raided Roman Britain in the 4th century. Although mentioned here and there in Late Roman sources, the Attacotti remain an elusive group whose place of origin cannot now be identified. Were they Picts from Caithness, or Britons from Wales, or Gaels from Ireland? To one Roman observer they were ‘a warlike race’. Another writer, the great St Jerome, described them as savage cannibals. Mak assembles the scattered fragments of contemporary information and considers the main theories that have attempted to solve the puzzle.

Update: January 2015
Sadly, the Badonicus blog is no more, although Mak is still continuing his research into post-Roman Britain and the history behind the legends of ‘King Arthur’. See the recent post at his new blog for an update on his e-book.

For more information on the Attacotti, I recommend the essay by Carla Nayland.

* * * * * * *

Did Merlin really exist?

Merlin

Gustave Dore’s iconic depiction of Merlin with Vivien

Although I’m sceptical about the idea of a ‘real’ King Arthur I don’t have similar doubts about Merlin. This isn’t just because I’m a devotee of the wizard’s latest TV incarnation courtesy of the BBC. No indeed. My belief in a historical Merlin goes back more than three decades, to my first encounter with a famous entry in the Welsh Annals under the year 573:

bellum armterid inter filios elifer et guendoleu filium keidiau; in quo bello guendoleu cecidit; merlinus insanus effectus est.
‘The battle of Arfderydd between the sons of Eliffer and Gwenddoleu son of Ceidio; in which battle Gwenddoleu fell; Merlin went mad.’

In 1876 the renowned Celtic scholar W.F. Skene identified Arfderydd as Arthuret, a parish on the Anglo-Scottish Border a few miles north of Carlisle. Skene also proposed that the nearby place-name Carwinley, recorded in the 13th century as Karwindelhou, derives from an earlier Caer Gwenddoleu, ‘Gwenddoleu’s Fort’. Most historians now accept this derivation. The fort itself is either the Roman one at Netherby or a native stronghold beneath the Norman ‘motte and bailey’ castle of Liddel Strength.

Much academic attention has been directed at the Welsh Annals to assess their original date of composition. They seem to have been compiled c.900, probably at the great monastery of St David’s, by a monk who gathered information from a number of earlier sources. It is likely that the entry for Arfderydd was originally a brief notice of the battle (bellum armterid) and that the details of the participants were added later. The information about Merlin may have been inserted c.1150 after the publication of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain and possibly reflects traditions enshrined in older Welsh poems attributed to the ‘wizard’ himself. In these poems, we see Merlin fleeing in terror from the carnage of Arfderydd to seek a refuge in the forest of Celidon, a wild region of what is now southern Scotland. There in the deep woods he lived alone as a fugitive, hiding from King Rhydderch of Dumbarton who sought to capture him. In medieval Scottish legend it was believed that Merlin’s grave lies beside the River Tweed at Drumelzier, a village between Biggar and Peebles.

Wales makes its own claim for Merlin in the Arthurian stories of Geoffrey of Monmouth and in folklore about the town of Carmarthen whose Welsh name Caerfyrddin is said to mean ‘Myrddin’s Fort’ (Myrddin is an old Welsh form of Merlin). Glastonbury in Somerset is another place associated with Merlin in his familiar guise as King Arthur’s chief counsellor. For me, however, the ‘real’ Merlin is the one from the lands around the Anglo-Scottish Border. He was the bard of King Gwenddoleu at a royal caer near Carwinley in northern Cumbria. He fought at the battle of Arfderydd in 573 where he witnessed the slaying of his lord. Afterwards, he fled into the wild woods of southern Scotland to live out his remaining years as a hunted man.

Why do I believe this to be history rather than legend? The answer is fairly straightforward: it’s a hunch, an instinct, a quirky personal preference. I could try to justify my stance by adding that I’ve been interested in the circumstances surrounding the battle of Arfderydd for more than 25 years, looked at scholarly papers on the earliest Welsh traditions and reached a conclusion based on the views of experts. But this wouldn’t be entirely true. Most experts are rightly cautious about who Merlin was and whether he was ‘real’. Their careful consideration of the literature doesn’t account for my unbridled enthusiasm in placing him among the historical figures of 6th-century North Britain. Like I said, it’s really nothing more than a hunch.

* * * * * * *

Notes & References

* For a photographic tour of the Merlin legend around Drumelzier, see my 2015 blogpost On the trail of Scotland’s Merlin.

* On the oldest traditions of Merlin see: A.O.H. Jarman, ‘Early stages in the development of the Merlin legend’, pp.335-48 in R. Bromwich & R.B. Jones (eds) Astudiaethau ar yr Hengerdd/Studies in Old Welsh Poetry (Cardiff, 1978).

* An excellent and accessible discussion of the northern Merlin is given by Nikolai Tolstoy in his book The Quest for Merlin (Sevenoaks, 1985).

* Skene’s identification of Arfderydd as Arthuret was announced in a paper presented to a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in Edinburgh: ‘Notice of the site of the battle of Ardderyd or Arderyth’ PSAS 6 (1876), 91-8.

* While visiting Carwinley in search of Caer Gwenddoleu, Skene heard of a local legend about a great battle between ‘Picts’ and ‘Romans’. Was this a genuine tradition of the bellum armterid of 573, preserved in Cumbrian folklore? I explored this question in a short article published sixteen years ago: ‘Local folklore and the battle of Arthuret’ Transactions of the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian & Archaeological Society 95 (1995), 282-4.

The battle itself occupies one half of Chapter 5 of my book The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh, 2010).

* For additional information on these topics, take a look at Diane McIlmoyle’s blogposts on Merlin and the battle of Arthuret.

* * * * * * *