Coastal brochs

Dun Carloway broch

Dun Carloway broch on the Isle of Lewis (from a photograph by James Valentine, c.1870).

A project called Scotland’s Coastal Heritage At Risk (SCHARP) has been running for the past three years. Its aim is to obtain information from archaeological sites threatened by coastal erosion.

The latest post on the project’s blog looks at the ancient stone towers known as ‘brochs’. These imposing structures were probably built around 200 BC and have been found in many parts of Scotland. Some were re-used in the ensuing centuries, with a number of them being occupied into early medieval times as places of power or refuge. Ancillary structures such as houses, courtyards and ramparts were sometimes attached to the original tower, turning it into the nucleus of an extended settlement.

I’ve only skimmed this topic in my own research on early medieval Scotland but I’m particularly fascinated by the popular idea that a broch is a ‘Pictish tower’. This not-quite-accurate label was promoted by historians 200 years ago but had probably existed in local folkore long before then. It belonged to the same bundle of legends that included the idea of the Picts as a secretive race of pigmies who hid themselves away during daylight.

The SCHARP blogpost is an excellent introduction to brochs. The illustrations are especially informative, using photographs to show how these huge towers were made and how they were added to over time. Click on the link below to read more.

SCHARP blogpost on coastal brochs
SCHARP is also on Twitter at @CoastArch

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Kirkmadrine stones return to Galloway

Kirkmadrine map
Last month, a group of early medieval sculptured stones returned to their home at Kirkmadrine in the Rhinns peninsula, a quiet corner of Galloway. They had spent some time at Historic Scotland in Edinburgh where they were cleaned by specialist conservators. This important work gave other experts an opportunity to re-examine the stones with new technologies such as laser scanning.

Three of the stones were carved in the sixth century and have long been recognised as among the earliest Christian monuments in Britain – perhaps even the oldest. All three are tall monoliths, possibly originating as prehistoric standing-stones. It is believed that they were erected by members of a religious community who established a major monastery at Kirkmadrine.

Two of these monuments commemorate named individuals: Florentius, Mavorius and Viventius. Florentius seems to have his own memorial but the other two appear together on one stone. While Florentius is not specifically identified as a cleric, Mavorius and Viventius are described as sacerdotes (‘senior priests’ or ‘bishops’).

Kirkmadrine stones

The sacerdotes and Florentius stones at Kirkmadrine (from John Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland).

Little is known of the early religious settlement at Kirkmadrine. Unlike the great monastery at Whithorn, situated on a neighbouring peninsula, Kirkmadrine has left no trace in the surviving chronicles. Yet its sculpture suggests that it was a place of considerable wealth and status. Its monks were overseen by high-ranking clerics who must have secured protection from a local ruler – probably a king whose realm included the Rhinns peninsula. The name of this kingdom, like the story behind the stones, is part of Galloway’s lost Dark Age history.

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The Herald newspaper: Historic stones return to their origins
Historic Scotland: Kirkmadrine stones come home
Visit Scotland: Kirkmadrine Early Christian stones

My previous blogpost on Kirkmadrine: A major monastery?

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Remembering Aethelflaed

Aethelflaed of Mercia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Northern Picts Project

Tarbat Old Parish Church, Portmahomack

Tarbat Old Parish Church, Portmahomack, Easter Ross (© B Keeling)

The Northern Picts Project is a collaborative venture involving the University of Aberdeen and the Tarbat Discovery Centre in Easter Ross. The main focus of research is the archaeology of Fortriu, a major Pictish kingdom that was once believed to lie in southern Perthshire. In 2006, a groundbreaking article by Alex Woolf suggested that Fortriu lay further north, beyond The Mounth (the eastern part of the Grampian Mountains). Woolf’s revised geography has generally been accepted, with the result that the kingdom’s heartland is now seen as Moray and Easter Ross rather than Strathearn.

As well as investigating the archaeology of Fortriu, the Northern Picts Project also looks at the kingdom’s history. This is the topic of A Historical Introduction to the Northern Picts, written by Nicholas Evans and issued by the project as the first in a series of publications.

One area of particular interest for the project is the Tarbat Peninsula. This contains not only the major Pictish monastery of Portmahomack – reputedly founded by St Colman in the seventh century – but also a number of hillforts and carved stones. The site of the monastery is now occupied by Tarbat Old Parish Church, now home to the Tarbat Discovery Centre – an award-winning museum and heritage venue.

The wider context of the Northern Picts Project is an international study called Pathways to Power: Rise of the Early Medieval Kingdoms of the North which encompasses a broad swathe of North European peoples and cultures. This larger project enables historians and archaeologists to consider how the early kingdoms of Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia and elsewhere interacted with one another as they evolved during the first millennium AD.

Further information can be found via the links below.

Northern Picts Project
Tarbat Discovery Centre [follow on Twitter @TarbatMuseum]
Pathways to Power: Rise of the Early Medieval Kingdoms of the North
A Historical Introduction to the Northern Picts [book by Nicholas Evans]
Portmahomack: Monastery of the Picts [book by Martin Carver]

Alex Woolf, ‘Dun Nechtain, Fortriu and the geography of the Picts’ Scottish Historical Review 85 (2006), 182-201.

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Yeavering report online

Yeavering by Brian Hope-Taylor
The full report of the excavations at Yeavering by Brian Hope-Taylor (1923-2001) is available as a free download.

This monumental tome runs well beyond 450 pages and is one of the most frequently cited texts on post-Roman and early Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. Originally published in 1977, it has remained a standard reference tool for researchers working on the history and archaeology of Northeast England and Southeast Scotland in the fifth to seventh centuries. The downloadable version has been made available by English Heritage via the Archaeology Data Service at the University of York.

Yeavering was a major centre of power for the Northumbrian king Edwin (died 633) who established a royal palace there. It was mentioned in the following century by the Venerable Bede, who called it Gefrin – a native Celtic name meaning ‘Hill of Goats’. The hill in question loomed above Edwin’s palace and was formerly used by local Britons who had a fortified settlement on the top. One unusual feature unearthed at the palace by Hope-Taylor’s team was a timber grandstand which accommodated spectators at formal public events. This has long been regarded as one of the most significant archaeological discoveries from Anglo-Saxon Northumbria.

As well as describing the excavations, the report also includes an extensive historical discussion which – nearly 40 years on – is still a valuable source of information on the early kingdoms of the North.

Link Yeavering: an Anglo-British centre of early Northumbria [free download]

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Picts at Dunnicaer

Pictish symbol stone Dunnicaer

Fish symbol and triangle on a stone from Dunnicaer.

Archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen have recently discovered a Pictish fort on the summit of Dunnicaer, a ‘sea stack’ near Dunnottar Castle. Dunnicaer lies approximately 1 mile south of the town of Stonehaven but is isolated from the mainland at high tide. A number of stone fragments inscribed with Pictish symbols were found there in the nineteenth century, suggesting that it was a significant place in early medieval times. However, with steep slopes and rugged cliffs, it is hardly the most accessible archaeological site in Scotland – which is probably why it had never been excavated before. The Aberdeen team needed the guidance of a professional climber to help them get to the top.

Dunnottar Castle, situated a quarter of a mile further south, stands on a prominent headland jutting into the North Sea. Built in the twelfth century, it served as a stronghold for Clan Keith from the 1300s to the 1700s and was an important strategic site. References in medieval texts show its frequent involvement in warfare and dynastic politics. Older sources relating to the Dark Ages refer to a fortress called Dun Foither (the Gaelic name for Dunnottar). Contemporary annals state that this was besieged twice in the seventh century – in 681 and 694 – probably during wars between rival Pictish kings. It has long been assumed that the fortress in question stood on the headland now occupied by the castle. However, excavations conducted thirty years ago failed to reveal any evidence of Pictish settlement, prompting a suggestion that the original Dun Foither might instead be Dunnicaer.

Dunnottar Castle
[Above and below: two nineteenth-century views of Dunnottar Castle]

Dunnottar Castle

The recent excavation at Dunnicaer has now confirmed that this remote sea-stack was indeed the site of a small Pictish fortress. It was built sometime between c.400-600 and comprised a timber house or hall defended by an outer rampart of stone. Upon this defensive wall the symbol-inscribed stones discovered in the nineteenth century were probably displayed. It is also likely that the occupants devised a more convenient method of access than a scramble up the steep sides. They may, for example, have built a wooden bridge as a link to the mainland.

Archaeological finds – including charcoal from a hearth in the house – are now being anlaysed by experts. These may give clues about how, when and by whom the site was used. Was it perhaps the residence of an important local family, or some kind of military lookout post?

Pictish stone Dunnicaer

An ornate double-disc & Z-rod symbol on a stone from Dunnicaer.

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These are a mixture of news items and database entries:

‘Significant’ Pictish fort found off Aberdeenshire coast (BBC News) [includes a video showing how the archaeologists scaled the steep sides of Dunnicaer]
Pictish fort discovered on remote sea stack (Daily Mail)
Aberdeenshire Council – Sites & Monuments Record for the settlement at Dunnicaer
Aberdeenshire Council – Sites & Monuments Record for the Dunnicaer symbol stones
Dunnicaer promontary fort (The Modern Antiquarian)
RCAHMS Canmore database entries for Dunnicaer and Dunnottar Castle

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Thomson, A (1860) ‘Notice of sculptured stones found at “Dinnacair”, a rock in the sea, near Stonehaven’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 3, pp. 69-75.

Alcock, Leslie & Alcock, Elizabeth (1992) ‘Reconnaissance excavations on Early Historic fortifications and other royal sites in Scotland, 1974-84; 5: A, Excavations & other fieldwork at Forteviot, Perthshire, 1981; B, Excavations at Urquhart Castle, Inverness-shire, 1983; C, Excavations at Dunnottar, Kincardineshire, 1984’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 122, pp. 215–287.

[Both articles can be accessed via the PSAS online archive]


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Note: The two symbol-stone illustrations shown in this blogpost are from John Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland (1856).

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The Battle of Gwen Ystrat

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

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

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

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

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

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

River Winster

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

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

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

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

My blogpost from 2009: Catraeth and Gwen Ystrat.

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