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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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 at Moncrieffe Hill

Moncrieffe Hill Pictish fort
A new project to promote the history and archaeology of the Carse of Gowrie is set to run for the next four years, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other sources. One of the key sites involved in the project is Moncrieffe Hill which has a large Iron Age fort on the summit. The fort has never been excavated before, but the new project will see the first ever ‘dig’. This is likely to shed light on how the hill was used by the ancient inhabitants of Perthshire, not only in the Iron Age but in the Pictish period that followed.

The name Moncrieffe is an Anglicised form of Monadh Craoibh (Gaelic: ‘Hill of Trees’). A glance at the Latin text of the Annals of Ulster turns up an interesting item from the year 728:

Bellum Mónidchroibh inter Pictores inuicem, ubi Oenghus uictor fuit & multi ex parte Eilpini regis perempti sunt. Bellum lacrimabile inter eosdem gestum est iuxta Castellum Credi, ubi Elpinus efugit.

‘The battle of Monadh Craoibh between the Picts themselves, in which Óengus was victor, and many were slain on the side of king Alpín. A woeful battle was fought between the same parties near Castle Credi, where Alpín was put to flight.’

Castle Credi is unidentifed, but Monadh Craoibh is undoubtedly Moncrieffe Hill. The context of the battle was a power-struggle between rival claimants for kingship in southern Pictland. Four ambitious men – Óengus, Alpín, Nechtan and Drust – fought a bitter war that lasted through the 720s. By the summer of 729, a victor finally emerged in the shape of Óengus, who defeated Nechtan, his last remaining rival, on 12 August. In the previous year, Óengus had trounced Alpín’s forces at Moncrieffe Hill and Castle Credi.

Moncrieffe Hill Pictish fort
Óengus (pronounced ‘Oyn-yus’) went on to become one of the greatest of all Pictish kings. In the 730s he conquered Dál Riata, the land of the Scots, which thereafter seems to have lain under permanent Pictish overkingship. One result of the long period of Pictish supremacy was the gradual merging together of the Scots and Picts as a single, Gaelic-speaking people inhabiting a new kingdom called Alba. If we credit Óengus as one of the main architects of this process, his victory at Moncrieffe Hill should perhaps be seen as an important milestone in the birth of the Scottish nation.

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I deal with the Pictish dynastic war of the 720s in my book The Picts: a History (at pp.150-3).

The image below shows the Israelite king David, as depicted on the eighth-century St Andrews Sarcophagus. It is possible that the stone-carver tried to capture the likeness of Óengus, king of the Picts, who may be the person commemorated by this famous monument.

St Andrews Sarcophagus

The new heritage project for the Carse of Gowrie is described in an article in The Courier. The project also has its own website.

Check out these photos of Moncrieffe Hill in a blogpost by Keith Savage.

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How British is Scotland?

Pictish warriors

Warriors on a Pictish stone at Aberlemno (8th century AD)


A recent post by Ross Crawford at the website of the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Scottish & Celtic Studies summarised a two-part lecture on the theme How British is Scotland? Archaeological Origins of Scotland. The speakers were Professor Stephen Driscoll and Dr Ewan Campbell – familiar names to students of early Scottish history and archaeology.

Modern perceptions of ‘Britishness’ and ‘Scottishness’ are obviously topical in the run-up to September’s referendum, but their roots lie deep in the past, reaching back to the so-called Dark Ages of the first millennium AD. As with all abstract notions of nationality, the origins of both terms are too complex for a simple explanation. Current thinking envisages a fluid pattern of ‘ethnicities’ and cultural affiliations in early medieval Scotland. Older theories are being questioned, among them a popular belief that the Scots originated in Ireland – a subject I’ve blogged about before. As far as the Picts are concerned, it is now becoming increasingly difficult to write the name ‘Pictland’ on a map without wondering if such a concept ever existed in the Pictish mindset.

Below is a link to Ross Crawford’s post at the CSCS website.

How British is Scotland? Archaeological Origins of Scotland

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Columba and the Seal Thief

Female grey seal
Saint Columba, founder and first abbot of the monastery on Iona, died in AD 597. A hundred years or so after his death, a hagiographical Vita or ‘Life’ was written by Adomnán, the ninth abbot of Iona. Among many tales related by Adomnán is the story of Erc moccu Druidi, an inhabitant of the island of Coll, who came to Columba’s attention for all the wrong reasons.

The tale begins when Columba informs two of his monks that ‘a thief called Erc’ has turned up on Mull, on the shore directly opposite Iona. With only a narrow strait separating the two islands, Erc is rather too close for comfort. More than that, he is plainly up to no good, as Columba explains:

“He arrived from Coll last night, alone and in secret, and has made himself a hiding place under his upturned boat, which he has camouflaged with grass. Here he tries to conceal himself all day so that by night he can sail across to the little island that is the breeding-place of the seals we reckon as our own. His plan is to kill them, to fill his boat with what does not belong to him and take it away to his home. He is a greedy thief.”

Map of Mull & Iona
Columba ordered the two monks to bring Erc to him. Taking a boat across the strait, they sailed over to the Ross of Mull and located the thief, whom they escorted back to Iona. Erc was brought before Columba, who gave him a stern rebuke:
“To what end,” said the saint, “do you persistently offend against the Lord’s commandment and steal what belongs to others? If you are in need, and come to us, you will receive the necessities you request.”

As a gesture of goodwill, Columba offered some freshly slaughtered sheep as compensation for the seals Erc would otherwise have stolen. What happened next is not reported by Adomnán, but Columba presumably told Erc to return to his own island of Coll.

Grey seals

Seal pup sleeping.


An epilogue to the story tells of a vision experienced by Columba in which he perceived that Erc was close to death. The saint immediately ordered his cousin, a senior monk, to take a gift of meat and grain to the dying man. Adomnán does not say where Erc spent his final days but we can probably assume the location was Coll. The gift from Iona arrived almost too late, on the day of Erc’s passing, so it was consumed at his funeral feast instead.

Among a number of interesting points in the story I’ve highlighted five:

1. The monastery of Iona claimed the right to cull seals on one (or more) of the small rocky islands off the Ross of Mull. This may have been one of a bundle of informal rights exercised by the monks along the shoreline on the east side of the strait, or it may have been a formal concession granted by a landowner. In another story, Adomnán makes it clear that the monks did not have free rein to take whatever they wanted from the opposite shore: Columba compensated a man called Findchán who was upset to find monks cutting branches on his land at Delcros, probably an estate or farm on the Ross of Mull. The wood was being shipped back to Iona as building material for a new guesthouse, but it was being taken without Findchán’s permission.

Grey seals

Grey seal female and newborn pup.


2. The island of the seals is described as a breeding-ground, a place where females come ashore to give birth (Adomnán uses the Latin phrase generantur et generant). It must have been an extensive area, attracting large numbers of seals, to tempt a poacher like Erc to make a sea-journey of sixteen or seventeen miles. This might help to identify the location of the island, especially if it is still used by grey seals in the breeding season.

3. Archaeological evidence from excavations on Iona shows that seal-meat was on the monastic menu. The animals also yielded other useful products such as skin and oil. Sealskin is a naturally waterproof material, while the soft fur of the pups provides a warm lining for clothes. The sporrans worn with Scottish kilts are traditionally made from sealskin, although synthetic versions are less controversial (seal products have been subject to a European ban since 2010). In Adomnán’s time, Irish seal-hunters used a special harpoon called a murga (‘sea spear’) or rongai (‘seal spear’). Adult grey seals are large predators and can seriously injure any human whom they perceive as a threat. Erc moccu Druidi would have been well aware of this danger, but he did not sail to the Ross of Mull to challenge full-grown male seals (which can grow to 10 feet in length). His target, as Columba observed, was the breeding-ground where mothers and newborns would have been particularly vulnerable. British and Irish grey seals breed in the autumn, so Erc’s visit to Mull probably took place in October or November.

Grey seals
4. Erc does not seem to have been a person of high status. He owned a boat small enough to be turned upside down and used as a rudimentary shelter – it was most likely a small currach or coracle, a light but sturdy craft with a hull of animal skin. He was probably not a landowner or farmer, hence his need to hunt seals. Back home on Coll he had family or friends who valued him: when he died, they arranged a funeral and held a feast in his honour. They may have been members of moccu Druidi, ‘the people of Druidi’, the kin-group or clan to which he belonged. This group was presumably based on Coll and evidently spoke Gaelic rather than Pictish or British. Erc was seemingly a Christian, but not – as Columba points out – a rigid devotee of the Eighth Commandment (‘Thou shalt not steal’).

5. Erc lived on Coll and would have been answerable to a local lord there. He was not answerable to Columba on secular (i.e. non-religious) matters and could have refused the saint’s request to come to Iona. His acquiescence suggests that Columba’s authority as a spiritual leader was recognised by Christians on Coll. We might infer from this that any clergy working on the island in the late sixth century were members of the Iona brethren.

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Notes

The story of Erc moccu Druidi appears in Book 1, Chapter 41 of Adomnán’s Vita Columbae. For this blogpost I have used the Andersons’ edition (1961; revised 1991) for the Latin text. The passages in English come from Richard Sharpe’s translation, published by Penguin Classics in 1995.

For Adomnán and his contemporary audience, the main point of the story was Columba’s miraculous power of farsight in knowing when Erc was about to die. Vita Columbae, like many hagiographical texts, is basically a collection of miracle stories testifying to the special status of the saint (and, by association, to the importance of his monastery and the authority of his successors).

My information on early Irish seal-hunting and on the archaeological evidence (animal bones) from Iona can be found on pp.302-3 of the Penguin Classics translation, where Richard Sharpe cites useful references.

Adomnán says Erc lived on insula Colosi, ‘the island of Colosus’. This is not, as was once thought, the isle of Colonsay. Scholars now accept that Colonsay has a name of Norse origin (probably ‘Kolbein’s Island’) coined long after Adomnán’s time. Its original Celtic name may have been Hinba, an idea I’ve discussed in an earlier blogpost.

Erc and the seals get a brief mention on page 97 of my book on Saint Columba.

The photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling. They were taken in November 2013 at Donna Nook in Lincolnshire, a traditional breeding ground for grey seals. Hundreds of bulls (adult males) and cows (adult females) come ashore onto the beach each autumn. The Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust has a webpage for the Donna Nook Nature Reserve.

Grey seals

Seal pup near the fence alongside the visitor path at Donna Nook Nature Reserve.

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Degsastan discovered?

Degsastan
Hot on the heels of his suggestion that the battle of Brunanburh (AD 937) was fought in County Durham comes another thought-provoking theory from Professor Andrew Breeze. This time, the battle in question was fought not in the tenth century but in the seventh, in the year 603. On one side stood an army of Scots from Dál Riata, led by King Áedán mac Gabráin. Facing them were the English of Bernicia under the command of their king Aethelfrith. The ambitions of these two mighty warlords clashed at a place called Degsa’s Stone, a name rendered in Latin as Lapis Degsa and in Old English as Degsastan.

The Venerable Bede, writing more than a hundred years after the battle, described Degsa’s Stone as a ‘very famous place’. Unfortunately, he didn’t give its precise location, although he did hint that it lay within the extensive territories controlled by Aethelfrith. As an Englishman and a Bernician, Bede resorted to triumphal rhetoric when describing the battle’s political repercussions:

‘From that time, no king of the Scots in Britain has dared to make war against the English nation to this day.’

As with many ‘lost’ battlefields, people have tended to begin a search for Degsastan by looking for similar-sounding names on a modern map. Long ago, this quest turned up the place-name Dawston, borne today by a stream and hillside in Liddesdale, the valley of the Liddel Water on the border between England and Scotland. Dawston has attracted many supporters, partly because it not only has the enticing D-st-n combination but is in an area where Áedán and Aethelfrith might have met in battle.

I’m not a supporter of Dawston. It’s too far south for me, and too far off the beaten track. In fact, I’m wary of using ‘sounds-like etymology’ as a starting-point when searching for lost battlefields. All too often, this technique brings forth a large red herring, which then slithers away in all kinds of strange directions with a posse of enthusiastic hunters in frantic pursuit. Much time is wasted, I believe, on the ‘sounds-like’ game. I don’t think it is necessarily the best way to begin the quest. Would it not make more sense to start from a different point, by using political considerations, landscape reconstructions and logistical factors to establish a likely geographical context, which could then be searched for possible place-name matches?

Andrew Breeze, an expert on place-names, thinks Dawston doesn’t even pass the test on linguistic grounds. He suggests instead a site further north, on the upper reaches of the River Tweed, near the village of Drumelzier between Biggar and Peebles. Here he notes the place name Dawyck, whch he says means ‘David’s settlement’ (where the first element is a North Brittonic personal name equivalent to Welsh Dewi). He proposes that a nearby monolith might once have been known as ‘Dewi’s Stone’, a name subsequently part-translated by speakers of Old English as Degsastan.

It’s an intriguing theory. While not being entirely swayed by the ‘Dewi’ argument, I am inclined to believe that this is the kind of area where we should be looking for the battlefield of 603. Upper Tweeddale lay on a key route linking the Clyde valley – and places further north and west – to the Bernician heartlands on the east coast. This seems to me a plausible setting for the earliest recorded clash between English and Scottish armies.

Andrew Breeze’s theory appears in a recent article in the Peebleshire News:
Ancient mystery battlefield discovered in Tweeddale

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I am grateful to Andrew Breeze for sending me the link.

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The lost island of Saint Columba

Colonsay Cross

Sculptured cross from Riskbuie Chapel, Colonsay. Illustration from Allen & Anderson The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (1903).


According to the vita or ‘Life’ of Saint Columba written by Adomnán at the end of the seventh century, the monastery on Iona had a number of satellites on various islands and coastlands around Argyll. One of these was on an island called Hinba and seems to have been the chief daughter-house of Iona. Adomnán tells us that it was founded by Columba himself and comprised not only a monastery but also a separate hermitage. Frustratingly, the precise location of Hinba is not made clear, so we are left to wonder which of the numerous Hebridean islands it was.

People have been suggesting possible identifications for Hinba for a long time, ever since modern historians first began to study Adomnán’s Vita Columbae. The obvious starting-point is to rule out those islands which are clearly identifiable in Adomnán’s narrative, such as Skye, Islay, Tiree, Eigg, Mull and of course Iona itself. None of these was Hinba, so the search is immediately narrowed. It also seems clear that Hinba lay at no great distance from Iona, for Columba was able to visit the satellite monastery quite easily and frequently. His uncle Ernán, who served as prior on Hinba, was able to undertake the sea-voyage to Iona when very elderly and in poor health.

Columba

The hermitage on Hinba was situated near what Adomnán calls Muirbulc Mar, ‘Great Sea-Bay’. As with some other places in Vita Columbae he gives the name entirely in Gaelic – his own native language – rather than rendering it into a Latinised form. Muirbulc Mar must have been a prominent feature, so any island without a large bay can effectively be ruled out in our search for Hinba. For example, the small island of Eileach an Naoimh, ‘Rocky isle of the Saints’, in the Garvelloch archipelago has been suggested as a possible candidate for Hinba but it doesn’t have a prominent sea-bay. Also, Hinba is a Gaelic name, so it is very unlikely that it would be given an additional or alternative Gaelic one. Indeed, it is far more likely that it today bears a name of Norse origin, as do many of the Hebridean islands.

The eminent place-name scholar William Watson proposed that Hinba derives from inbe, a Gaelic word meaning ‘incision’. In this context, the ‘incision’ would presumably be the great sea-bay of Muirbulc Mar. If Watson’s derivation is correct, the bay must have appeared to slice through the island, as if the sea had bitten a big chunk out of the coastline.

Only two candidates seem to tick all the boxes: Jura, which has a large sea-bay called Loch Tarbert; and the single island which is formed by Colonsay and Oronsay when the sea-bay between them is at low tide. Jura and Colonsay/Oronsay have Viking names, and we don’t know what they were called in Adomnán’s time. Jura has an early church dedicated to Columba; Oronsay has a medieval priory with a Columba dedication and an old tradition of having been founded by the saint. In favour of Colonsay and Oronsay is the observation that they are closer to Iona.

The upshot is that the puzzle of Hinba remains unsolved. This mysterious island, so important in the early history of the Columban familia or network of monasteries, seems to float beyond our reach. My own view is that it is now the single island formed by Colonsay and Oronsay at low tide, and that Oronsay Priory stands on the site of Columba’s monastery.

Oronsay Priory

Oronsay Priory

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Notes

References to Hinba in Adomnán’s Vita Columbae occur at: Book 1, chapters 21 & 45; Book 2, chapter 24; Book 3, chapters 5, 17, 18 & 23. The Latin edition I use is the one edited by Alan and Marjorie Anderson in 1961 (revised in 1991). For an English version I use the Andersons’ translation and the one by Richard Sharpe for Penguin Classics (1995).

I discuss Hinba on pp.109-11 of my book on Saint Columba.

A useful summary of the various Hinba theories can be found on pp.91-102 of Alan Macquarrie’s The Saints of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1997).

Hinba is the island where Saint Columba narrowly escaped being murdered. The story is told in my blogpost Columba and the Pirates.

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