The Battle of Mugdock (AD 750)

Battle of Mugdock

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Battle of Mugdock

North Britain in 750.

Location

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

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

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

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

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

Alt Clut, Dumbarton Rock

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

Allies and enemies

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

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

Battle of Mugdock

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

The road to war

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

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

Mugdock Castle

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

Aftermath

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

St Andrews Sarcophagus

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

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Appendix 1: Dineiddwg

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

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

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

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

Appendix 2: Folklore

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

Appendix 3: Primary sources

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

Annals of Tigernach

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

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

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

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

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

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Notes & references

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde

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The lively maiden of Dumbarton

Clyde Rock & Dumbarton Castle

Clyde Rock, Dumbarton (from ‘Souvenir of Scotland’, 1892)


A number of medieval Welsh manuscripts contain information relating to the Cumbri or North Britons, the native Celtic people of Northern England and Southern Scotland. One of these is ‘Peniarth 47′, written in the 15th century and preserved at the National Library of Wales. It contains a collection of ‘triads’ – brief texts in which three items from the medieval storytelling tradition are grouped under a common theme. Triads were used by the bards of Wales as a kind of subject index to a huge repertoire of poems and stories originally retained in their own memories.

Some triads listed famous events, such as ‘Three Futile Battles of the Island of Britain’. Others listed military forces such as ‘Three Faithful Warbands’ or renowned individuals such as ‘Three Chieftains of Arthur’s Court’. One triad refers to a trio of notable young women:

‘Three Lively Maidens of the Island of Britain’
Angharad Ton Velen, daughter of Rhydderch Hael,
and Afan, daughter of Meic Thick-Hair,
and Perwyr, daughter of Rhun of Great Wealth.

Afan’s father Meic (sometimes spelled ‘Maig’) was reputedly a 6th-century ruler of Powys, a part of Wales bordering the territory of the Anglo-Saxons or English. Not much is known about him, although the district of Meigen in Powys might preserve his name.

Perwyr’s father Rhun is identified in Welsh tradition as a prince of the North Britons and as a son of the famous warrior-king Urien Rheged (active c.580). Contrary to popular belief, the precise location of Rheged is unknown. It is no more than a modern guess that the name refers to a kingdom rather than to a smaller territorial unit such as a river-valley or group of estates.

One of Urien’s contemporaries among the North Britons was Rhydderch, king of Alt Clut, whose epithet Hael means ‘Generous’. Alt Clut (‘Rock of Clyde’) is an old Welsh and North British name for the imposing, twin-peaked volcanic ‘plug’ where Dumbarton Castle stands today. Rhydderch reigned in the late 6th and early 7th centuries and is one of the most recognizable figures in medieval Welsh literature, a key player in the so-called North British Heroic Age. Peering behind his literary fame among later Welsh bards we are probably seeing a powerful king of the early medieval period, a competent warlord who launched plundering raids against his neighbours. His adversaries apparently included Anglo-Saxons, Scots and fellow-Britons. Among his network of high-level contacts were Saint Columba of Iona and, less certainly, Saint Kentigern of Glasgow. In later Welsh folklore Rhydderch emerges as an oppressor of Merlin during the latter’s time as a ‘Wild Man’ in the forest.

According to the triad of the Three Lively Maidens, Rhydderch had a daughter Angharad. Although we know very little about her, we cannot assume she was nothing more than a literary invention. It is entirely possible that she was a real princess of Dumbarton, a genuine historical figure like her father. Her epithet Ton Velen (‘Yellow Skin’ or ‘Yellow Wave’) denotes a defining physical characteristic and must have originated in a poem or story in which she featured. This tale, although now lost, was presumably well-known among the bards of medieval Wales and may have been circulating for a long time before it got ‘catalogued’ in the triad.

Some of the earliest and most famous examples of Welsh poetry and saga originated in what the bards called Yr Hen Ogledd, ‘The Old North’, the land of Urien Rheged and Rhydderch Hael. It is possible that the poem or tale featuring Angharad Ton Velen originated in this region rather than in Wales, either to praise her while she lived or as an elegy following her death. Such a tribute may have been composed by a bard at the royal court of Alt Clut, perhaps in the years around 600.

In the absence of additional information about Angharad we can do no more than sketch a hazy picture of her life.

Her name means ‘much loved’ and is pronounced ‘Ann-Harrad’ (stressed on the second syllable). Traditions of uncertain reliability, preserved at Glasgow Cathedral in the twelfth century, identify Rhydderch Hael’s wife as Languoreth, Queen of Alt Clut. This lady, who may have been a native of the Hamilton area, was presumably Angharad’s mother. The same traditions mention a son of Rhydderch called Constantine, who gave up the secular life to become a priest. He and Angharad are the only offspring credited to Rhydderch and, although neither is historically secure, they are not necessarily fictional. Constantine is the namesake of the mysterious saint commemorated in the dedication of the old parish church at Govan, 12 miles east of Dumbarton, and the two are perhaps one and the same.

Let us assume, for the moment, that Angharad existed. A tentative chronological guess would place her birth in the period 570-590. As a princess of Alt Clut she would have been a Christian like her father (and, no doubt, her mother too). During her early years, until she was old enough to marry, her time would have been divided between the old fortress on the summit of Clyde Rock and other royal residences visited by her father’s entourage. Displays of wealth and status were an important part of early medieval kingship and a royal daughter was expected to play her part. We can imagine Angharad wearing jewellery of gold and silver, and clothes woven from the finest fabrics. In her father’s feasting hall she would have eaten roast meat served in expensive bowls manufactured in France. The wine in her drinking-cup would have been imported from the Mediterranean lands. Servants and slaves would have been ever-present throughout her entire life.

Later Welsh bards regarded Angharad as a ‘lively maiden’ (whatever that means). A particular characteristic of her physical appearance was Ton Velen, for which we may envisage either a striking mane of curly blonde hair (‘Yellow Wave’) or an unusually sallow complexion (‘Yellow Skin’). The late Rachel Bromwich, to whom we owe a huge debt of gratitude for her magisterial study of the Welsh triads, interpreted Ton Velen as ‘Yellow (or tawny) Wave’, noting that ‘the reference may be to the girl’s hair’. This is reminiscent of the Gaelic word buide, which also means ‘yellow’, borne as an epithet by the Dál Riatan king Eochaid Buide (died 629) a son of Áedán mac Gabráin. Eochaid evidently received the epithet very early in life, for we find it being used by Columba when he greeted Áedán’s sons at a time when Eochaid was a small child. A number of sources suggest that Áedán fought at least one major battle against Angharad’s father Rhydderch.

Like Angharad, Eochaid is usually assumed to have had ‘yellow’ (i.e. blond) hair, but alternative interpretations of buide are possible. Eochaid and Angharad seem to have belonged to the same generation, and either or both may have had strikingly fair hair or, if ‘yellow’ is a reference to complexion, unusually sallow skin.

If Angharad survived the many perils of childhood to become a teenager she would probably have had little say in her future when the time came to choose a husband. As the daughter of a powerful king she was not only a lady of high status and considerable wealth but also a useful political commodity. Marriage to a prince of a foreign kingdom seems a likely scenario, the wedding perhaps putting a formal seal on a newly forged political alliance. Such a marriage would have taken the ‘lively maiden’ away from her lofty home on the Rock of Clyde, perhaps to a strange new land whose speech and customs she found totally unfamiliar.

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Notes & References

In modern Britain, the most well-known bearer of the name Angharad was the Welsh actress Angharad Rees (1944-2012), who starred in the popular 1970s TV series Poldark.

More pronunciations of Welsh (and North British) personal names:
Rhydderch – ‘Hrutherkh’
Rhun – ‘Rhinn’
Urien – ‘Irri-yen’

Five years ago, Andrew Breeze suggested that ‘Languoreth’ might be an error for ‘Iunguoret’ (or ‘Unwared’ in Modern Welsh).
[See his article ‘Telleyr, Anguen, Gulath, and the Life of St Kentigern’ Scottish Language 27 (2008), 71-80.]

Rachel Bromwich (ed. & transl.), Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads. 2nd edition* (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1978).
The triad of the Three Lively Maidens appears on page 199 as ‘Triad 79′.
Professor Bromwich briefly discussed Angharad Ton Velen in the extensive ‘Notes to personal names’ (at page 270).
* I haven’t consulted the 3rd edition for this blogpost.

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This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde

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New book

The Men of the North
‘….. a textbook and a very useful one, addressing a real gap in the market.’ Martin Carver (Antiquity, December 2011)

‘….. well-written and extensively researched … a valuable reference work for a complicated period.’ David Devereux (Transactions of the Dumfriesshire & Galloway Natural History & Antiquarian Society, 2011)

‘….. impressive breadth of coverage and clarity of expression.’ Philip Dunshea (The Historian, Summer 2012)

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The Men of the North offers a narrative history of the North Britons from AD 400 to 1100. It looks at the kingdoms they established in the early medieval period and at relations between the Britons and neighbouring peoples such as the Picts, Scots and Anglo-Saxons. Notes for each chapter direct the reader to a bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

The book’s contents include:

* an investigation of theories about the kingdom of Rheged and its location
* a critique of the current consensus on the battle of Catraeth
* a detailed study of the battle of Arfderydd/Arthuret (AD 573)
* a logistical/topographical study of the battle of Strathcarron (AD 643)
* a tour of Early Christian sites in southern Scotland
* a continuous narrative history of the kingdom of Strathclyde from its beginnings in Roman times to its downfall c.1050

Illustrations include maps, photographs and genealogical tables.

Published by Birlinn of Edinburgh, under the John Donald imprint, and available from Amazon UK and Amazon USA. Also available as an e-book for the Kindle.

Until the publication of The Men of the North there had never been a textbook for the North British kingdoms—its appearance should be welcomed by undergraduates, teachers, and the general public alike.’ Philip Dunshea (International Review of Scottish Studies, 2012)

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The woman from Dun Guaire

Aed, son of Cinaed mac Ailpin (‘Kenneth MacAlpin’), succeeded his brother Constantine as overking of the Picts in 876. According to the Annals of Ulster Aed’s reign ended violently, after only two years, when he was slain by his socii (‘companions’ or ‘associates’). His death precipitated a dynastic crisis, a period of uncertainty, for which no clear picture emerges from the sources. One text, the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba (‘CKA’), identifies Aed’s successor as his nephew Eochaid, a grandson of Cinaed mac Ailpin. Interestingly, CKA regards Eochaid not as a Pict, nor as a Scot (like Cinaed’s alleged ancestors in Kintyre), but as a Briton. It names Eochaid’s father as Rhun ab Arthgal, king of Strathclyde, whose own father had been murdered by Vikings in 872 following the capture of Alt Clut, the royal citadel of the Clyde Britons, in 870. Eochaid’s mother, according to CKA, was a daughter of Cinaed, thus making Eochaid eligible for the overkingship of the Picts held by the mac Ailpin dynasty since the 840s. CKA gives Eochaid a reign of eleven years and adds that ‘others’ – presumably other written sources or oral traditions – say that he ruled simultaneously with a certain Giric. The latter is called the alumnus (‘foster father’) and ordinator (‘governor’) of Eochaid. Both men were eventually toppled from power in c.889.

At first glance the above sequence of events looks fairly straightforward. Unfortunately, when we turn to various other sources, the picture becomes quite confusing. The king-lists showing a line of succession from Cinaed via his brother, sons and grandsons make a space for Giric’s reign but not for Eochaid’s. This led the historian Archie Duncan to wonder if CKA might be wrong in describing Eochaid as king of the Picts after Aed’s death. Professor Duncan suggested a correction to CKA’s wording to show Giric as Cinaed’s grandson and Aed’s true successor, with Eochaid simply succeeding his own father Rhun as king of Strathclyde. In this scenario Giric, not Eochaid, becomes king of the Picts. Although this makes the situation clearer it requires tampering with CKA to make its wording conform with other texts, such as the king-lists, which are not necessarily more reliable.

One of the most enigmatic sources for this period is Berchan’s Prophecy, an eleventh-century history of early medieval Scotland presented as a ‘pseudo-prophecy’, i.e. a series of predicted events that had already happened at the time of writing. It does not mention kings by name but drops enough hints to enable most of them to be identified. Thus, it describes Eochaid as an Britt a Cluaide mac mna o Dhun Guaire, ‘the Briton from the Clyde, son of the woman from Dun Guaire’ and seems to lament his tenure of the mac Ailpin kingship with the cry ‘Alas! In the West and in the East a Briton is placed over the Gaels!’ It refers to Giric as mac rath, ‘son of fortune’, whatever that might mean.

Historians continue to debate the puzzle of Eochaid and Giric, with no firm consensus emerging on which of these mysterious men ruled the Picts in the period 878-89. The debate is a very interesting topic by itself but here, in this post, I want to focus instead on one small aspect of it: the identity of Eochaid’s mother, ‘the woman from Dun Guaire’. Who was this lady and where did she come from?

My starting point is an acknowledgement that we do not know her name. CKA tells us her father was Cinaed mac Ailpin who died in 858 but gives no more information about her. Only one of Cinaed’s daughters is known by name: the long-lived, twice-married Mael Muire (died 913) whose husbands were two very powerful Irish kings. Mael Muire’s first marriage was almost certainly a political union arranged by the mac Ailpin family, perhaps by her brother Constantine who ruled as king of the Picts from 862 to 876. Her unnamed sister, the future mother of Eochaid, was probably betrothed to Rhun of Strathclyde for similar political reasons. In a time of war and dynastic rivalry, with the added peril of Viking raids, Cinaed’s family would have sought mutually-beneficial relationships with powerful allies. By marrying Mael Muire and her sister to kings and princes in Ireland or on the Clyde the mac Ailpins were able to seal these important alliances with bonds of kinship.

The earliest possible birth-dates for Cinaed’s daughters lie around 858, the year of their father’s death. Mael Muire must therefore have been in her mid-fifties or older when she died in 913. If her first Irish marriage took place at some point during Constantine’s kingship (862-76) she would have been a bride of at least eighteen (e.g. if she was born in 858 and married in 876) but this is a minimum age based on the deaths of her father and brother. Her first Irish marriage, to Aed Findlaith who died in 879, could just as feasibly have occurred when she was in her twenties. She was Aed’s third wife. We do not know that she was younger than her brother Constantine, who must have been born, at the latest, in c.846 to be eligible for kingship in 862 (i.e. at least 15 or 16 years old when he became king). Nor can we assume that Mael Muire was an older sibling of Eochaid’s mother. The latter’s husband, King Rhun, ruled the Strathclyde Britons during the 870s. Rhun’s father Arthgal was assassinated in captivity, probably in Dublin, by Vikings who carried out the murder at the request of Constantine, son of Cinaed. Although we might imagine Rhun grieving at the news of his father’s violent death we cannot be certain that this was the case. Family strife may have divided father and son, caused (for instance) by Arthgal overlooking Rhun and grooming another son as his designated heir. If so, then Rhun may have been installed as king of Strathclyde in opposition to his father, seizing the throne with Constantine’s help, or with the help of the same Dublin Vikings who besieged Alt Clut in 870. Rhun’s kingship could even have begun as early as 870 or 871, a year or two before his father’s assassination at Viking hands.

The chronology of Eochaid’s reign, as given in CKA, leaves us in no doubt that Rhun’s marriage to Cinaed’s daughter occurred before the siege of Alt Clut. This is because Eochaid’s alleged kingship of the Picts began, according to CKA, after the death of Aed, son of Cinaed, in 878. Even if Eochaid attained the kingship at a young age, in his mid-teens for example, he must have been born in 863 at the very latest. His parents’ marriage should therefore be placed in or before 862, which was also (perhaps significantly) the first year of Constantine’s reign. Eochaid’s mother, even if she was a young bride of fifteen or sixteen at her wedding to Rhun, must have been born before 847. The sources tell us that her father Cinaed became paramount king of the Picts in c.842, after previously ruling as a king in Argyll, the homeland of the Scots. Genealogical information associated with Cinaed locates his original power-base in Kintyre, the ancient home of the Cenel nGabrain dynasty whose kings had dominated Argyll during the seventh century. Cinaed’s ancestry was linked to Cenel nGabrain by later Scottish genealogists who possibly fabricated it. His true ancestry is unknown, nor can we be certain that he ruled from a domain in Kintyre. The most we can say with confidence is that he held some kind of authority in some part of Argyll in the period c.839 to c.842, after which he staked a claim on the Pictish overkingship and migrated east to Perthshire. He evidently consolidated his rule over the Picts in 848 or 849, after defeating a series of rivals. It seems likely that his older children were born in the West, among the Scots, in the 830s or 840s rather than in his later power-base in the Pictish heartlands. His sons Constantine and Aed and daughter Mael Muire might therefore have been Argyll-born. Another daughter, the future wife of Rhun and mother of Eochaid, might also have been born there.

Berchan’s Prophecy calls Eochaid’s mother ‘the woman from Dun Guaire’. Historians usually identify this place as Bamburgh, the ancient citadel of Northumbrian kings which previously bore the Brittonic name Din Guayroi. Prior to c.550 the Britons held control of Din Guayroi before losing it to the English who gave it a name in their own language: Bebbanburgh, later Bamburgh. A Gaelic equivalent of the original Brittonic name seems to be recorded in the title of an old Irish tale Sluagad Fiachnai maic Baitain co Dun nGuaire i Saxanaib (‘The hosting of Fiachna mac Baitan to Dun Guaire in Saxon-land (i.e. England)’). Fiachna was an Irish high-king of the early seventh century but we do not know anything about his attack on ‘Saxon-land': the story behind the Sluagad is lost and only the title survives, leaving the event devoid of historical context. Historians have generally assumed, nonetheless, that the Dun Guaire targeted by Fiachna was Din Guayroi, Bamburgh, at a time when it lay under English control. This is the only instance of a place called Dun Guaire appearing in an English geographical context. We might wonder if this lone reference – the title of a lost Irish tale about an otherwise unrecorded seventh-century event – is secure enough to sustain a superstructure of scholarly speculation. The fragility of this obscure and solitary piece of data has not, however, discouraged the frequent identification of Eochaid’s mother, Cinaed’s daughter, the unnamed ‘woman from Dun Guaire’, as a lady with Northumbrian connections. To some historians she has become, in effect, ‘the woman from Bamburgh’ and has duly acquired a fairly plausible but completely speculative biography in which her betrothal to Rhun of Strathclyde precedes (or follows) an unrecorded marriage to a Northumbrian.

I first became puzzled by ‘the woman from Dun Guaire’ last year, while researching the kings of Strathclyde. The Bamburgh connection somehow didn’t feel right, chiefly because it requires us to imagine a daughter of Cinaed mac Ailpin living among the English of Northumbria long enough to be described as being ‘from Bamburgh’. This seems, in any case, an odd description to be bestowed by a Scottish text (Berchan’s Prophecy) on a woman who was either a Scot or a Pict. Even if she spent time at Bamburgh as the wife of an Englishman it is hard to see why she would be regarded as being ‘from’ there in any real sense. From an eleventh-century Scottish perspective she was surely ‘from’ her homeland rather than ‘from’ a foreign kingdom where her (alleged) English husband dwelt.

At the root of my scepticism lay the distant memory of a childhood holiday in Ireland when I visited a castle in Galway. I remembered its name: Dun Guaire. Although this place seems too far from Scotland to be associated with Cinaed’s unnamed daughter (but not, of course, with her sister Mael Muire) I began to wonder if it might have a Scottish namesake. A web search revealed two locations in Argyll, both called Dun Guaire and both listed on the Canmore database as ancient stone-walled forts. Neither site has been the subject of detailed archaeological study so in neither case can a date of occupation be firmly fixed. One fort is on the island of Mull, the other on Islay. Curiously, both islands lie outside the heartlands of Cenel nGabrain – the royal dynasty to which Cinaed’s family allegedly belonged – being instead controlled respectively by the rival kindreds of Cenel Loairn (based in Lorn and Mull) and Cenel nOengusa (in Islay). However, our uncertainty about Cinaed’s origins means that we cannot rule out any region of Argyll from a search for his family’s ancestral domains (nor, it should be said, can we rule out any Pictish region). At this point I again bring the mysterious Giric into the puzzle, as a brief digression from my main topic.

Giric, like Cinaed, is a man without a verifiable ancestry. In some sources his father’s name appears as Dungal, a name borne by an ambitious eighth-century king of Cenel Loairn. Some historians think Giric himself was a member of the Cenel Loairn kindred, perhaps a man of mixed parentage who – like Cinaed – held a minor kingship among the Scots before pursuing a legitimate claim on the Pictish overkingship. Another theory sees Giric as a usurper, an intruder into the sequence of mac Ailpin kings, whose right to rule as ‘king of the Picts’ was imposed by force of arms. Less dramatic, and perhaps more plausible, is the suggestion that he was related to the mac Ailpin family by blood and merely asserted a lawful claim on the Pictish throne. This conforms to Professor Duncan’s suggested emendation of CKA, mentioned above, in which Giric rather than Eochaid succeeds Aed as king of the Picts in 878. Perhaps Giric’s mother was a mac Ailpin princess, another unnamed daughter of Cinaed, and perhaps his father was a king of Cenel Loairn who bore the auspicious royal name Dungal? Unfortunately this takes us too far into the realm of speculation. In so far as Giric has any documented connection with the mac Ailpin family it centres on his role as foster-father of Eochaid, as described by the (unaltered) wording of CKA.

Returning to the main thread of this post, I should point out that I am not alone in feeling sceptical about the idea of Eochaid’s mother being ‘the woman from Bamburgh’. Quite recently, while hunting for information on the Argyll forts called Dun Guaire, I came across an interesting note by Henry Gough-Cooper on the website of the Scottish Place-Name Society. Writing in the Society’s newsletter, Gough-Cooper expressed doubts about the Dun Guaire=Bamburgh equation and drew attention to the two namesake forts on Mull and Islay as well as to the castle in Galway and another Irish site in Mayo. Pointing to the strong marital links between Cinaed’s family and Ireland (via Mael Muire’s two marriages) Gough-Cooper wondered if Mael Muire’s sister might also have married an Irish king, the latter ruling from either the Galway or Mayo Dun Guaire before (or after) her marriage to Rhun of Strathclyde. To me, this scenario is at least as plausible (if not more so) than the Bamburgh connection so often assumed by historians. On the other hand, it incorporates a similar premise, namely that Eochaid’s mother was regarded in eleventh-century Scotland as being ‘from’ a place where her first (or second) husband resided. My scepticism still points me towards an alternative view in which Berchan’s Dun Guaire is a reference to a mac Ailpin stronghold or residence in Argyll where the family nurtured its children in the 830s and 840s. This may have been one of the two ancient sites still bearing the name (which, as Henry Gough-Cooper points out, has a variant form Dun Guaidhre) or a different Dun Guaire whose name has not survived. Wherever it was, it might have been the birthplace or childhood home of Mael Muire, her sister and their brothers Constantine and Aed. Or it might not. Maybe the author of Berchan’s Prophecy got himself in a muddle about Eochaid and Giric and, in striving to be as enigmatic as possible, mistakenly applied the label ‘son of the woman from Dun Guaire’ to the wrong man. We are unlikely to ever solve the puzzle.

Keeping an open mind is fundamental to any objective study of early medieval Scotland. The sources rarely allow us to make definite statements, or to pin our theories too firmly to the mast. We simply know too little about too many things. This is why so many well-argued theories can be challenged by simply looking at the old sources in different ways, and by trying to understand what the authors of these texts hoped to achieve. Having issued this disclaimer I feel at liberty to end this post with my own conclusions about the mysterious ‘woman from Dun Guaire’. Here, then, are my (cautiously) confident answers to the question ‘Who was she?’

* she was a daughter of Cinaed mac Ailpin, ‘king of the Picts’.
* like Cinaed she was a Pict or a Scot.
* she was born before 847.
* her primary language was Gaelic.
* she married Rhun ab Arthgal, king of the Strathclyde Britons, before 863.
* in 863, or earlier, she bore a son who was given the Gaelic name Eochaid.
* she became a ‘queen mother’ when Eochaid attained the kingship of the Picts (or of the Britons) in c.878, if indeed she was still alive at that time.

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References

Alan Orr Anderson, Early sources of Scottish history, AD 500 to 1286. vol.1 (Edinburgh, 1922), p.363-6

Archibald Duncan, The kingship of the Scots, 842-1292 (Edinburgh, 2002), pp.11-14

Henry Gough-Cooper, ‘Dun Guaire’ SPNS Newsletter, Autumn 2001 click here and scroll down the page

Benjamin T. Hudson, Kings of Celtic Scotland (Westport, 1994), pp.55-7

Alan Macquarrie, ‘The kings of Strathclyde, c.400-1018′, pp.1-19 in A. Grant and K.J. Stringer (eds.) Medieval Scotland: crown, lordship and community (Edinburgh, 1993) [discusses Rhun and Eochaid at p.13]

Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070 (Edinburgh, 2007), pp.117-21

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This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde

Terminology topics 1: Strathclyde

I’m hoping this will be the start of a series of posts on the names of early medieval kingdoms in northern Britain.

Strathclyde is a good place to begin because it’s a name I used to bandy about quite casually. I now use it in a much more limited, more specific way than before.

When people speak of Strathclyde they generally refer to one of two territorial entities:
1. a modern administrative region comprising Glasgow and adjacent districts.
2. an early medieval kingdom of the native Britons.

The first of these had a short life in the last quarter of the twentieth century before giving way to a further reorganisation of UK local government. The second had a rather longer existence – but how much longer? To answer this question we need to go back to Late Roman times, to the 4th and 5th centuries, when the kingdoms of the North Britons first came into being.

One of these kingdoms emerged in the territory of a people known to the Romans as Damnonii (some historians now see this as an error for Dumnonii). Its chief centre of power was Alt Clut, the Rock of Clyde, upon which Dumbarton Castle stands today. The kings of Alt Clut were major players in northern politics, outlasting their neighbours and countrymen to become the last independent realm of the North Britons. They were still ruling at Dumbarton in 870 when a Viking fleet sailed up the Firth of Clyde to besiege and plunder their ancient citadel. After this disaster we hear nothing more about Alt Clut in the sources. It seems safe to infer that the old kingdom was regarded by contemporary observers as defunct.

In 872, however, the Annals of Ulster give the following information:
Arthgal, king of the Britons of Strat Clut, was killed at the instigation of Constantine, son of Cinaed.

This is the earliest mention of Strathclyde in any source. Arthgal had been the king at Dumbarton when it was attacked by the Vikings but, in the eyes of the annalists, he was no longer associated with the great Rock of Clyde. Instead, his primary association was now with the strath or valley of the river. After his death his son Rhun became king and the royal dynasty continued to rule until the 11th century when the kingdom was conquered by the Scots. Between 870 and c.1070 the main centre of royal power on the Clyde lay upstream from Dumbarton in the vicinity of Govan and Partick. During these two hundred years the kingdom is consistently referred to as Strat Clut in the annals and other sources. This, then, is the true period of Strathclyde’s existence as an early medieval kingdom. It is indeed the only context in which the name has any accurate meaning. The realm of the Clyde Britons had a remarkably long existence but it would be erroneous to refer to it as Strathclyde before 870. Its earlier rulers are more accurately described as the kings of Alt Clut.

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This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde

Alt Clut


Here’s one of my favourite early medieval places: Dumbarton aka Alt Clut aka the Rock of Clyde. Chief royal stronghold of the Clyde Britons, besieged by an Anglo-Pictish army in the 8th century and by Vikings in the 9th, before losing its status to Govan during the twilight years of the Clyde kingdom.

For me, this is the most visually-striking of all Scottish “hillforts” despite the urban/industrial sprawl that surrounds it.

The traditional (i.e. ubiquitous) view shown here was taken from West Ferry, a convenient lay-by off the A8 on the southern bank of the Clyde.

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This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde