Finding the McCains

Scottish medieval warrior

Medieval sculpture of a warrior from Argyll (illustrated in R.C. Graham’s The Carved Stones of Islay, 1885).


The new science of genetic genealogy is now widely used in ancestry research. Although I know very little about the scientific side, I am aware that people sometimes buy my book The Picts after discovering a genetic link to the ancient Pictish areas of Scotland. They want to learn the history behind their family’s ‘Pictish DNA’.

In the past couple of years, I’ve had a number of interesting email conversations with genealogists who use DNA data in their research. One of these is Barry McCain, a writer and historian based in Mississippi. In addition to tracing his own family’s roots, Barry is involved in a genetic study relating to a district of mid-Argyll. Tradition has long held that the medieval origins of Clan McCain lie in the west of Scotland among the old Gaelic warrior-kindreds and the DNA data appears to support this.

Barry runs several genealogy/history websites and has recently produced a book called Finding the McCains in which he traces his ancestors’ migrations from Scotland to Ireland and thence to North America. More than just the story of one kindred, the book shows how to use genetic testing and primary sources to gain an understanding of historical Scottish families.

Here’s an extract from a description of the book:
“The search for the McCains became a mystery story with clues, false turns, many adventures, and then ultimate success through Y chromosome DNA testing. In 2008 the McCains were reunited with their family that remained in Ireland, after 289 years of separation. The author drew from his many experiences of his forty years of travel to Ireland and the UK to present a biography of this well-known Canadian and American family. His book is part memoir, part history, and explores the relationship between Diaspora and homeland. Finding the McCains is also an excellent genetic genealogy how-to guide for people of Irish and Scottish ancestry.”

The link below takes you to a page for the book at the Clan McCain blog:
Barry R. McCain – Finding the McCains: a Scots Irish Odyssey

Three more websites associated with Barry’s genealogical research:
Clan McCain
Mid-Argyll Kinship Group
The Scots-Irish

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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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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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Glenmorangie Research Project

Early Medieval Scotland
I have long held the view that an interest in Scottish history and a fondness for single malt whisky go well together. Those of you who are nodding in agreement will be pleased to know that the famous Glenmorangie Company is playing an important role in increasing our knowledge of Scotland’s ancient past. Since 2008, the company has been partnering the National Museums of Scotland in a major research project on the archaeology of the early medieval period (c.300-900 AD). The inspiration for the venture came from the Hilton of Cadboll sculptured stone, a magnificent Pictish cross-slab that formerly stood on the coast of the Tarbat Peninsula in Easter Ross, a few miles south-east of the Glenmorangie Distillery at Tain. The stone is now in the National Museums at Edinburgh but a stunning replica has been erected near the original setting. A pattern of spirals on one of the carved panels is used in the whisky company’s branding.

Hilton Of Cadboll Pictish Stone

The Pictish stone from Hilton of Cadboll (illustration in John Stuart’s The Sculptured Stones of Scotland).

Partnership with Glenmorangie has provided the project with sufficient funding to pursue several avenues of study. At the heart of the research is the material culture of the Picts and their neighbours: sculpture, metalwork, jewellery and other objects. Conservation and analysis of original artefacts is obviously a cornerstone of the project, but the work has also included the creation of modern replicas by craftspeople using traditional techniques. These reconstructions were displayed in an exhibition called Creative Spirit: Revealing Early Medieval Scotland which ran from October 2013 to February 2014. Among the items were drinking horns, hand-bells and a very striking ‘Pictish throne’.

Norries Law Pictish Silver

Silver plaque from the Pictish hoard found at Norrie’s Law, Fife (illustration in Allen & Anderson, The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland).

Last year, the project received a further three years of sponsorship from the Glenmorangie Company. This new phase will enable specialists to conserve and study Scotland’s earliest silver objects, including those from two major Pictish hoards (respectively from Norrie’s Law in Fife and Gaulcross in Aberdeenshire). The Aberdeenshire hoard, unearthed on farmland in 2013, is one of the most important archaeological discoveries of recent times. It may tell us a great deal about the role of silver as a currency of gift and exchange in Pictish society. I wrote about this hoard in a blogpost two months ago and have been keeping an eye on new developments ever since, mainly by checking Alice Blackwell’s posts at the NMS blog. Alice is the Glenmorangie Research Fellow and is leading the project through its latest phase.

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Notes & links

The image at the top of this blogpost shows the front cover of Early Medieval Scotland: Individuals, Communities and Ideas, a monograph arising from the work of the Glenmorangie Research Project. An insight into the book’s contents can be seen at the NMS blog.

The Glenmorangie Research Project has a page at the NMS website.

“Glenmorangie toasts new research project after silver hoard discovery” (article in the Ross-shire Journal).

Blogpost by Alice Blackwell describing the project’s study of Scotland’s earliest silver.

Follow Alice Blackwell on Twitter: @earlymedieval.

Webpage on the replica objects produced for the Creative Spirit exhibition.

My blogpost on the Pictish hoard from Aberdeenshire.

Those of you who have seen the movie Highlander will know that the correct pronunciation of Glenmorangie stresses the second syllable (the name rhymes with orangey, as in the fruit flavour).

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Druim Alban: the Spine of Alba

Druim Alban

The Scottish Highlands (black square shows the area described in this blogpost).


During the late ninth and early tenth centuries, the Picts and Scots united to become a single, Gaelic-speaking people whose principal rulers were the descendants of Cináed mac Ailpín. The union or merger led to the formation of a ‘Picto-Scottish’ kingdom called Alba which took its name from an older Gaelic term formerly applied to the whole island of Britain. Sometime before c.900, this term seems to have narrowed to define a particular region in the far north of Britain, hence its adoption as a name for the new realm of the mac Ailpín kings. It is possible that Alba had long been in use among the Gaelic-speaking Scots as a synonym for ‘Pictland’, or that the name also encompassed Dál Riata – their own homeland in Argyll.

H_map

Before their union, the Picts and Scots had been separated by a geographical feature known as the ‘Ridge of Alba’ or ‘Ridge of Britain’. In medieval texts these names appear respectively as Druim Alban (Gaelic) and dorsum Britanniae (Latin). Our earliest references to the ridge occur in Vita Columbae, the ‘Life of Columba’, written on Iona by Abbot Adomnán at the end of the seventh century. Adomnán mentions the ridge five times, telling us that it divided the Picts and Scots ‘inter quos utrosque dorsi montes brittannici disterminant’ (‘between which peoples the mountains of the Ridge of Britain are the boundary’). He clearly had a specific feature in mind – a recognisable natural frontier in a mountainous area – but neither he nor any later writer gave enough detail to enable us to identify the feature on a modern map.

Some historians think we should translate druim and dorsum not as ‘ridge’ but as ‘spine’, and also that we should apply this term in a more general way. Rather than imagining a specific upland feature, they suggest that the ‘Spine of Alba’ might simply be the entire range of hills and mountains between Pictland and Dál Riata. Against this argument we may note that the range in question is not a continuous line or barrier, being punctuated by various glens and passes. Nor does it run north-south, a direction we might expect of a border between the Pictish east and the Gaelic west. For these reasons, it is hard to see why Adomnán and his contemporaries would regard such an unconnected line of hills as a druim or dorsum.

Another possibility is that the Ridge or Spine was a name given to just one section of this upland range, an idea examined in recent years by Philip Dunshea of the University of Cambridge. In an article published in Scottish Historical Review in 2013, Dr Dunshea highlighted the watershed between Glen Lochy and the village of Tyndrum as a likely location for Druim Alban or dorsum Britanniae. The rivers running west off this watershed flow into the Firth of Lorn, while those running east join the mighty Tay. Moreover, the watershed itself marks the boundary between the old counties of Argyllshire and Perthshire. Dr Dunshea further noted that the name ‘Tyndrum’ comes from the Gaelic tigh an droma, ‘house of the ridge, and that a lost placename in the vicinity is Carndroma, ‘cairn of the ridge’. He suggested that the remains of this cairn might lie beneath a grass-covered mound near the A85 highway, close to the county boundary.

Druim Alban

Tyndrum and Glen Lochy. The grey line is the Argyllshire-Perthshire boundary.

A third possibility is that the names Druim Alban and dorsum Britanniae referred, quite literally, to a feature that did indeed resemble a backbone. I first encountered this idea fifteen years ago in an article in the Pictish Arts Society Journal. The authors – David Dorren and Nina Henry – had noticed something unusual as they stood on top of Beinn Bheag, a hill slightly north-west of Tyndrum:

‘From its summit, looking south across Glen Lochy to the Ben Lui range, one sees a remarkable sight. Running straight up the hillside above Lochan na Bi and continuing in a straight line over the top of Meall Odhar is a ridge, resembling a massive field dyke superimposed on the hillside. It has a low cover of vegetation, except for a central strip on the top of the ridge, where the bare rock is exposed, forming a rocky line of approximately constant width. The rock is quartz-veined schist, which gives it a whitish appearance, so that it stands out prominently against the hillside.’ [Dorren & Henry 2000, 42-3]

The feature to which they referred can be seen in the following images:

Druim Alban

The ridge from Beinn Bheag looking south across Glen Lochy and the Lochan na Bi.
(© David Dorren 1999)

Druim Alban

View south from Beinn Bheag showing the north section of the ridge (foreground) and the more prominent section across Glen Lochy and Lochan na Bi.
(© David Dorren 1999)

Dorren and Henry also noticed that the ridge reappeared on the north side of Glen Lochy, where the white quartz is hidden under grass. This section is followed by the old county boundary (now the boundary between the Argyll and Stirling council areas). The section on the south side of the glen climbs the hillside above Lochan na Bi before curving over the top where it is known as Drochaid an Droma, ‘The Bridge of the Ridge’. Here, the rocks have a segmented appearance, just like the vertebrae of a backbone. Glen Lochy lay on one of the main routes between Dál Riata and Pictland and was perhaps crossed here by an ancient frontier which later became a county boundary. In their article, Dorren and Henry suggested that this frontier may have been marked by the quartz ridge running across the glen, and that the ridge might be the Druim Alban and dorsum Britanniae of the medieval texts.

I’ll end this blogpost with three images of the Drochaid an Droma. David Dorren – who took these photographs – tells me that when sunlight strikes the ridge, illuminating the rocks, the white quartz gleams in a stunning display.

Drochaid an Droma

The top of the ridge south of the Lochan na Bi – the Drochaid an Droma.
(© David Dorren 1999)

Drochaid an Droma

The Drochaid an Droma.
(© David Dorren 1999)

Drochaid an Droma

The Drochaid an Droma from the west. Glen Lochy to the left.
(© David Dorren 1999)

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Notes & references

I am very grateful to Dr David Dorren for granting permission to reproduce his photographs.

J.D. Dorren and N. Henry, ‘Identification of Druim Alban’ Pictish Arts Society Journal (no.15, 2000), 42-8.

Philip M. Dunshea, ‘Druim Alban, Dorsum Britanniae – the Spine of Britain’ Scottish Historical Review 92 (2013), 275-289.

Philip M. Dunshea, In search of Carn Droma: exploring the boundaries between Picts and Gaels. [published at the blog of the ASNC Department, University of Cambridge)

Dr Dunshea’s investigation of the possible site of Carn Droma can also be seen in a site report at the West of Scotland Archaeology Service.

Adomnán’s ‘Life of Columba’ mentions Dorsum Britanniae in Book I (chapter 34), Book II (chapters 31, 42 & 46) and Book III (chapter 14).

See also the Annals of Ulster, under the year 717:
Expulsio familie Ie trans Dorsum Brittanie a Nectano rege.
‘Expulsion of the community of Iona beyond the Ridge of Britain by king Nechtan.’
[Nechtan, king of the Picts, expelled the Columban monks from his kingdom during a programme of ecclesiastical reforms.]

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Additional notes [22 February 2015]

Since uploading this blogpost, I have received more information from David Dorren about the article in the Pictish Arts Society Journal (cited above). David is happy to send a copy of the article to anyone who is interested. He can be contacted at jddorren@gmail.com. A copy was also deposited at the National Library of Scotland and is on file there.

The quartz ridge can be seen on satellite images, and David has kindly provided the following links (via Bing Maps) –
1. Overall view (best viewed full-screen, from which you can zoom in or out and move around)
2. Close up of the area of the Drochaid an Droma

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Additional notes [4 March 2015]

I’ve had further discussion with David Dorren on a number of points relating to Druim Alban. David has drawn my attention to a couple of points that I feel are worth adding to this blogpost. Both relate to place-names previously mentioned above.

1. Carndroma/Carndrome/Carn Druim
In their article in the Pictish Arts Society Journal, David and Nina suggested that Carndroma or Carn Druim is probably the Drochaid an Droma rather than a specific cairn. In this instance, Gaelic carn would refer to a cairn-like natural feature, a description that certainly fits the rugged appearance of the Drochaid.

2. Tyndrum
Also in the same article is the suggestion that Tyndrum, the ‘house of the ridge’, perhaps takes its name from the linear feature of which the Drochaid an Droma is the most spectacular part. This might be the case even if the feature in question is not the Druim Alban of ancient lore. Tyndrum is about 1½ miles from the Drochaid and does not itself sit on a ridge, but was presumably named from such a feature in the local landscape.

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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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Picts, Gaels and Scots

Picts Gaels & Scots
Sally Foster’s book Picts, Gaels and Scots will already be familiar to many of you. It’s an essential resource for anyone who has a keen interest in early medieval Scotland. I have a copy of the first edition (1996) but merely borrowed rather than bought the second (2004). I’ve now got the third edition, published last year by Birlinn of Edinburgh.

Sally Foster is a renowned archaeologist who formerly worked as an ancient monuments inspector for Historic Scotland. She now works in academia and is currently at the University of Stirling as a lecturer on heritage and conservation, having previously lectured in the archaeology departments at Glasgow and Aberdeen.

Picts, Gaels and Scots is an archaeological and historical survey of Scotland in the Early Historic period (fifth to tenth centuries AD). The emphasis is on material culture – artefacts and sites – but a range of other topics are also covered: economy, religion, warfare, kingship and literacy. By drawing on the latest research, Dr Foster brings us up to date with the current state of knowledge on the Picts and their neighbours. Accompanying her text are drawings, photographs and maps, with a plate section of colour illustrations. The bibliography at the end of the book is a good indicator of how much new research has been undertaken since the 2004 edition. The ensuing years have witnessed some major re-thinking by historians on a number of important issues – such as the location of the Pictish kingdom of Fortriu – as well as new interpretations of archaeological data. What therefore emerges from this latest edition is a clearer picture of what was happening in the northern parts of Britain in the first millennium AD.

The author’s foreword is an informative and enlightening essay in its own right, a detailed summary of the advances in scholarship that have been made in the past 10 years. It can be read online at the Birlinn blog via the link below.

Sally Foster: Foreword to the 2014 edition of Picts, Gaels and Scots.

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