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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Columba and the Pirates

Pirates
Two hundred years before the first Viking longships appeared off the west coast of Scotland, the Hebridean seaways were stalked by home-grown pirates. One band of cut-throats plied their trade in the late sixth century, when Saint Columba was abbot of the monastery he had founded on Iona. They were led by the sons of Conall mac Domnaill, an obscure figure of whom we know almost nothing beyond the name. According to Adomnán, author of Vita Columbae (‘Life of Columba’), Conall’s sons were members of the royal house of Gabrán, by which he presumably meant the Cenél nGabráin dynasty of Kintyre, but their position within this powerful kindred is unknown. They may have belonged to a rogue branch, perhaps to a family regarded as rivals of the chief lineage headed by Columba’s royal patron Áedán mac Gabráin. The actual number of Conall’s sons is unknown, as are the names of all but one of them: Ioan mac Conaill mac Domnaill, a ruthless sea-robber far removed from the image of the ‘jolly buccaneer’ embodied by Jack Sparrow.

Adomnán introduces us to the sons of Conall in the tale of a visit by Columba to the mainland, to the peninsula of Ardnamurchan above the north end of the Isle of Mull. There dwelt a farmer called Colmán whom Columba had befriended. Columba sometimes stayed with Colmán as a house-guest, presumably when he needed a base for religious work on the mainland. The saint was not there, however, on one fateful day when the sons of Conall came to Ardnamurchan in search of easy pickings.

Columba
The pirates came ashore and attacked Colmán’s house, breaking in to snatch whatever they could find. Filling their boat with the farmer’s belongings, they headed back out to sea. Colmán and his family survived the assault, no doubt by running to safety as soon as the raiders appeared, but their ordeal was far from over. In a grim replay of the first attack, the sons of Conall paid a return visit and did the same thing all over again. Colmán was not a wealthy man and had no means of defending his home and kin. The pirates were no doubt aware of this, hence their return for a third raid. This time, however, Columba was on Ardnamurchan with some monks from Iona. Although not at Colmán’s house when the attack came, the saint was not far away and reappeared just as the raiders were about to sail off with their loot. He confronted them on the seashore, urging them to yield up their plunder and abandon their violent ways. His pleading brought a scornful response from the pirate-chief Ioan, who promptly sailed away without any hint of remorse.

Stung by Ioan’s mockery and indifference, Columba waded out into the water and lifted his hands in prayer. There he stayed until the pirate ship disappeared over the horizon. He rejoined his monks, who had watched the entire incident, and together they went up to a higher point above the shore. Columba told his companions that Ioan’s wickedness would not go unpunished, for God was about to deal out a suitable retribution. Sure enough, even as the monks gazed out to sea, a terrible storm arose in the distance. Sweeping southward, it caught the pirates as they sailed between the islands of Mull and Coll, capsizing their vessel and drowning all who were aboard.

The sudden storm did not, however, end the menace of the sons of Conall. It appears that not all of Ioan’s brothers were on the boat that capsized, for Columba encountered the gang again during a visit to the island of Hinba. On this occasion he found himself in serious danger and only narrowly avoided being slain. The encounter came after he received disturbing news that these same pirates were attacking churches on Hinba, where one of his own satellite monasteries was located. Arriving on the island, he gathered a small party of monks and again confronted the sons of Conall. Castigating them for defiling the sanctity of churches he announced that he had decided to excommunicate them. This threat clearly enraged the pirates, who were at least nominally Christian. One of them – a henchman of Conall’s sons who went by the nickname Lám Dess (‘Right Hand’) – strode towards Columba and lunged viciously with his spear. A quick-thinking monk called Findlugán bravely put himself in the way and took the thrust, but was miraculously unharmed (according to Adomnán, this was because Findlugán happened to be wearing Columba’s hooded cloak). Amid the confusion, Lám Dess was sure he had hit his intended target and believed that a mortal wound had been given to the saint.

What happened afterwards is not reported by Adomnán but the excommunication was presumably put in place. Whether it changed the behaviour of the sons of Conall seems unlikely, given that they plainly had no qualms about attacking religious settlements. It was, nevertheless, the most drastic punishment Columba could deal out and, in an age of superstition, it may have worried some of the gang. It was evidently of little concern to Lám Dess, who was still living a life of violence one year later when he was killed in a fight on another island. After a brief notice of his death, we hear nothing more of the sons of Conall in Vita Columbae.

Saint Columba

A depiction of St Columba by J.R. Skelton (1907)

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The story of the pirates appears on pages 118 to 121 of my book Columba.

The relevant references in Vita Columbae are in chapters 22 (Ioan) and 24 (Lám Dess) of Book Two.

Although Adomnán mentions the island of Hinba a number of times its precise location is unknown. Several theories have been proposed, based on clues given in Vita Columbae. One theory identifies Hinba as the two-part island formed by Colonsay and Oronsay, and this is the one I favour at the moment. See my blogpost on The lost island of Saint Columba.

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Columba 1450

Iona Abbey

Iona Abbey (engraving by J Greig, 1817)


Three days ago, on Saturday 20 July, the President of Ireland – Michael D Higgins – visited Iona Abbey to attend an ecumenical service marking the 1450th anniversary of St Columba’s arrival on the western shores of Britain in 563. Scottish Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop gave a speech in which she drew attention to the numerous historical links between Ireland and Scotland: “St Columba’s journey to Iona is just one of the many events which have created our strong bond with Ireland and it’s important that we recognise and celebrate the continuing significance of this remarkable man and the community he founded.”

With a small band of companions, Columba left his Irish homeland to establish a monastery on the tiny Hebridean isle. He died there in 597, after a long and distinguished ecclesiastical career which brought him into contact with some of the key figures of the sixth century – renowned abbots and powerful kings on both sides of the Irish Sea.

To celebrate the 1450th anniversary, I’m planning a short series of blogposts on Columba, highlighting episodes from his career as presented in the vita or ‘Life’ written by Adomnán, ninth abbot of Iona. The series will be fairly random, in topic as well as frequency, and will simply reflect those parts of the vita that particularly caught my eye while writing my own book about Columba (see below).

Columba

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Newsnet Scotland, 20 July 2013 – President of Ireland visits Iona

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Restoration of St Oran’s Cross

Iona, St Orans Cross

St Oran’s Cross: front and back of the upper arm (photographs by J.B. Mackenzie in J.R. Allen & J. Anderson The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, 1903)


News of an interesting project relating to St Columba and the monastery on Iona. This year – the 1450th anniversary of the monastery’s foundation – the museum at Iona Abbey will be unveiling the newly restored St Oran’s Cross.

Standing more than 11 feet tall, this magnificent free-standing cross is one of the finest early medieval monuments in Scotland. It was carved in the 8th century, probably at the request of a king, and would have been a prominent feature in the monastic precinct. In more recent times it has lain in a horizontal position in the Iona Abbey museum, broken into five pieces. Experts from Historic Scotland have put the pieces together and will re-erect the cross as part of a new exhibition of Iona’s carved stones. Visitors will then be able to fully appreciate how impressive this monument must have looked during the monastery’s heyday.

For further information, see this article at The Scotsman website and the entry for St Oran’s Cross on the Canmore database.

For a good illustration of the carvings, take a look at Ian G Scott’s brilliant drawing.

I am grateful to Michelle Ziegler for pointing me to a news item at medievalists.net.

I’ve written about the history of Iona in my recent book on Saint Columba.

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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 on Saint Columba

Columba
This is my fourth book, a biographical study of Saint Columba, the founder of Iona. Like my previous books it draws on primary and secondary sources to present a narrative history of its subject. In this case the main primary source (Adomnán’s Life of St Columba) is so central to the narrative that its author features almost as prominently as Columba himself. In fact, I’ve used Adomnán as my chief guide. My narrative sticks fairly closely to the Life throughout the first part of the book, which deals with Columba’s career in Ireland and Scotland. The second part looks at Columba’s legacy: the cult that grew around him and the federation of churches that regarded him as their patron.

One aspect of Columba’s story that particularly interests me is his interaction with secular powers, especially with ambitious rulers such as his kinsman Áed mac Ainmerech in Ireland, Áedán mac Gabráin of Dal Riata and the Pictish king Bridei. His relationships with these three, and with other powerful lords, are examined in this book, as are his dealings with folk of lesser social status.

Contents
Introduction: Finding Columba
Chapter 1 – The Sources
Chapter 2 – From Ireland to Iona
Chapter 3 – King Áedán
Chapter 4 – Abbot
Chapter 5 – Iona and her Neighbours
Chapter 6 – The Picts
Chapter 7 – Saint
Chapter 8 – Paruchia and Familia
Chapter 9 – Legacy

Like my second book The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland, this one has detailed references which are gathered into a Notes section at the rear, with an accompanying bibliography. Illustrations include maps and black-and-white photographs.

Columba is published in Edinburgh by John Donald. It is available from Amazon UK and Amazon US.

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