Trusty’s Hill and Rheged

Latest news from the Galloway Picts Project….

Radiocarbon dates from material unearthed at Trusty’s Hill have been analysed. They confirm that the fort on the summit was occupied in the sixth century AD.

Putting this into context, it means we now know people of high status were living on the summit in a period when kings were using hilltop fortresses as primary centres of power. Galloway had not yet been conquered by Anglo-Saxons moving westward from Bernicia, so we can cautiously identify the sixth-century occupants of Trusty’s Hill as native Britons. I say ‘cautiously’ because a rock at the site has Pictish symbols carved on it, so the question of cultural affiliations is rather more complicated.

Many historians think Galloway was part of a kingdom called Rheged which seems to have been a major political power in the late sixth century. The little we know about Rheged comes from a handful of texts preserved in the literature of medieval Wales. These suggest that the kingdom rose to prominence under Urien, a famous warlord whose deeds were celebrated by his court-bard Taliesin.

Although we cannot be certain of Urien’s chronology, our scant knowledge of sixth-century events makes it likely that he was dead by c.590. A reference in the poems to his survival into old age allows us to tentatively place his birth c.520-530. His father Cynfarch, whom we know only from a genealogy preserved in Wales, was perhaps born c.490-500. The same genealogy names Cynfarch’s father as Merchiaun (born c.460-470?) who may represent a ‘historical horizon’ for the royal dynasty of Rheged. Merchiaun’s forebears belong to the earlier fifth century, a very obscure period of British history, and their historical existence is doubtful.

Urien’s great-granddaughter Rhieinmelth, whose birth can be placed c.610, was given in marriage to the Bernician prince Oswiu in the early 630s. She is the last of Urien’s kin to be named in the Welsh sources and is regarded by some historians as the last princess of an independent Rheged. Her marriage to Oswiu was undoubtedly a political union and is often seen as symbolising her family’s submission to Bernicia. She therefore stands at the end of Rheged’s documented history, just as her ancestor Merchiaun may stand at the beginning. Whether the kingdom began before Merchiaun’s birth c.470 or lasted beyond Rhieinmelth’s marriage c.630 is unknown, for the Welsh sources give no further information that we can treat as reliable.

Interestingly, the radiocarbon dates from Trusty’s Hill suggest that the occupation phase may have run from as early as 475 to as late as 630. For those historians who see Galloway as the heartland of Rheged, this chronology is a tantalisingly close match to the span of Urien’s dynasty as indicated by medieval Welsh texts. In other words, the documentary record for Rheged’s royal family is consistent with the date-range for elite settlement at Trusty’s Hill. This point was noted by Ronan Toolis, co-director of the Galloway Picts Project, when he announced the radiocarbon results at the project website. See the link below.

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Galloway Picts Project: radiocarbon analysis

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The Galloway Picts Project: update

Latest news from this fascinating archaeological project at Trusty’s Hill near Gatehouse-of-Fleet.

The ‘Data Structure Report’ from last year’s excavation is now available as a PDF file on the project website. It’s an interim publication in which the results are presented in a way that allows specialists to understand the archaeological context of each ‘find’ unearthed during fieldwork.

For the non-specialist, the report gives an excellent overview of what was discovered. Trusty’s Hill has long been known for the Pictish symbols incised on a rock near the summit, but nobody really knew who carved them, or when, or why. Some people even doubted that the carvings were ancient, and wondered if later graffiti offered a better explanation. Likewise, not much was known about the hillfort itself, although there were several theories about Pictish raiders using it or attacking it.

Thanks to the 2012 excavation we now know that the hilltop was a fortified settlement of major importance in the 6th-7th centuries AD. The people who lived there were wealthy and powerful. They imported the kinds of luxury goods associated with sites of very high status, such as Dunadd in Argyll. On the summit of Dunadd is a group of features associated with royal inauguration rituals – not only the famous footprint but also a rock-cut basin and a carved Pictish boar. At Trusty’s Hill the 2012 excavation found a similar rock-cut basin near the Pictish symbols, so it seems likely that important ceremonies were performed there too.

Anyone with an interest in early medieval Galloway will find this report useful and thought-provoking. It brings a little more clarity to our understanding of what was happening on the northern side of the Solway Firth in the time of shadowy figures such as Saint Ninian and Urien Rheged (both of whom are traditionally linked to the region). Evidence of high-status activity at other Galloway sites such as Whithorn and Mote of Mark has been the bedrock of scholarship for many years, but the information now emerging from Trusty’s Hill is a game-changer. It really does seem as if something ‘Pictish’ was going on there after all.

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Ronan Toolis & Christopher Bowles, The Galloway Picts Project: Excavation and Survey of Trusty’s Hill, Gatehouse of Fleet. Data Structure Report (March 2013).

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I am grateful to Ronan Toolis for letting me know about the report when it went online yesterday.

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The Galloway Picts Project

In July last year, during one of my occasional ’roundups’ of interesting news, I mentioned the Galloway Picts Project. This is what I wrote back then:

‘Another excavation is hoping to unravel the mystery of Trusty’s Hill, a site overlooking the Solway Firth, where Pictish symbols are carved on a rock at the summit. Why are these carvings found here, so far away from the Pictish heartlands? Who occupied the fort on top of the hill? This was territory ruled by Britons, not Picts – or so conventional wisdom tells us. Yet the name Trusty seems to relate in some way to Tristan, and both may derive from the Pictish name Drostan, so are we looking at a genuine connection with the Picts?’

Here’s a link to the project website. It’s definitely worth a look, to see what the archaeologists found at Trusty’s Hill. In November last year, the project’s directors – Chris Bowles (Scottish Borders Council) and Ronan Toolis (GUARD Archaeology Ltd) – gave a presentation at a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Check out the video link below.

The Galloway Picts Project and the discovery of a royal stronghold of a lost early medieval kingdom*

* Towards the end of the video, Ronan Toolis suggests that Trusty’s Hill may have been an important centre of power for the kings of Rheged in the 6th/7th centuries.

The lecture was given at the Anniversary Meeting (Annual General Meeting) of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland on Friday 30 November 2012.

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Gododdin: where’s the beef?

Edinburgh Castle

The Grassmarket and Edinburgh Castle

The Old Welsh heroic poem Y Gododdin (‘The Gododdin’) is a series of elegies on an army of Britons who died at the battle of Catraeth. It is sometimes referred to as ‘Scotland’s oldest poem’ because it was probably composed at Edinburgh. The battle it commemorates took place in the late 6th or early 7th centuries at a time when Edinburgh and adjacent parts of Lothian formed the heartland of the kingdom of Gododdin. In the poem, the Gododdin warriors are given a sumptuous feast by their king in his royal hall at Din Eidyn (Edinburgh) before setting out on their fateful journey to Catraeth. We know enough about the rituals of feasting in early medieval times to guess that the main item on the menu was beef from the king’s own cattle-herd. Beef, of course, had high-status connotations in this period. Ownership of cattle was a key indicator of wealth and status, hence the many references to cattle-reiving in the heroic poetry of Britain and Ireland.

A recurrent theme in Y Gododdin is the link between the generous feast provided by the king and the burden of debt this placed on his warriors. The beef they consumed at Din Eidyn came with a hefty price-tag at Catraeth: they paid for it with their lives. But they fought courageously, fighting hard until all were overwhelmed. The poem gives vivid portraits of individual heroes in the thick of battle, highlighting their skill and bravery. Among them was a warrior called Edar who, with his sharp sword and white-washed shield, went to war ‘after the feast’.

Cynydyniog, calchdrai, pan grynied grynai,
nid adwanai, rywanai, rywaned.
Oedd mynych gwedi cwyn i esgar ei gyflwyn,
oedd gwenwyn yd traethed.
A chyn ei olo o dan dydwed daear
dyrllyddai Edar ei fedd yfed

‘Unyielding, with shattered shield, when pressed he thrust forward,
the man that he had struck did not strike back.
Frequent after the feast was his gift to the enemy,
he was cruelly treated.
Before he was buried beneath the cover of earth
Edar deserved his drink of mead.’

Before riding off to war, Edar and his companions would have chewed their way through an impressive amount of beef during the banquet in the royal hall, high up on the crags where Edinburgh Castle stands today. But where did the meat come from? Where was the royal cattle-herd kept, and where were the animals slaughtered?

Archaeological excavations at the castle between 1988 and 1991 found traces of human settlement from the time of the Gododdin kings but didn’t turn up any indication of cattle being butchered there. The evidence, or rather the absence of evidence, suggested instead that the beef for the feasting-hall must have been brought up to the fortress from below, as ready-to-cook carcasses. Presumably the king maintained a cattle-pen and slaughterhouse somewhere close by, on the lower land near the base of Castle Rock, and sent his servants down to fetch the meat. Pinpointing the exact location wasn’t going to be easy. Centuries of building and development in the heart of old Edinburgh made it unlikely that anything of significance would be found.

Remarkably, it now looks as if the site in question may have been discovered. According to an article in the latest volume of PSAS, a recent excavation in the Grassmarket (an old part of the city below the Castle) found evidence of a settlement with a long history. It was clearly of lower status than the royal citadel but seems to have been occupied continuously throughout the early medieval period (c.300-1100) and beyond into the time of the first burgh. The site was used for various purposes, ranging from crafts such as metalworking and leatherworking to food processing (of fish, shellfish and cattle). The remains of certain species of dung-beetle imply a lot of manure such as would be found in a holding-area for cattle or horses. Specific evidence for cattle came from a foot bone and a jawbone, the latter with cut-marks indicating a butcher’s blade.

Although the data cannot confirm that this is indeed where cattle were slaughtered for the feasts of Din Eidyn the hints do seem fairly strong. If butchery wasn’t being undertaken on the summit of the Rock it must have been happening somewhere. To quote from the excavation report, maybe it was being done ‘at a nearby site, such as the Grassmarket, established to service the high status site above.’ Perhaps the place where Edar and his fellow-warriors got their beef has at last been found?

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Notes & references

* The full details of the PSAS article are:
James McMeekin et al, ‘Early Historic settlement beneath the Grassmarket in Edinburgh’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 140 (2010), 105-128. The excavations took place between September 2007 and November 2008.

* The extract and translation from Y Gododdin is from A.O.H. Jarman (ed.) Aneirin: Y Gododdin (Llandysul, 1988), p.64-65 except for the penultimate line which uses John Koch’s translation from his book The Gododdin of Aneirin (Cardiff, 1997), p.17.

* On the lack of evidence for the slaughter of cattle at the royal fortress of Gododdin see Finbar McCormick ‘The faunal remains from Mills Mount’, pp.201-12 in S.T. Driscoll & P.A. Yeoman, Excavations within Edinburgh Castle in 1988-91 (Edinburgh, 1997).

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Crail Pictish cross-slab

Crail Pictish Stone

(click to enlarge)

Crail is a picturesque village on the coast of Fife. It lies 9 miles south of St Andrews in an area called the East Neuk which forms part of the northern shore of the Firth of Forth. Near the centre of the village stands the parish church with its fine 13th century tower. Formerly known as St Mary’s, the church once had a much older dedication to St Maelrubha, an Irish missionary who reputedly preached among the Picts in the late 7th and early 8th centuries. Among many items of historical interest inside the church is a Pictish cross-slab of c.800, now standing against a wall near the main entrance.

Crail Pictish Stone

from Scotland in Early Christian Times (1881)

The slab was retrieved in 1815, having been used as a paving-stone in the floor for about fifty years. Its carvings are therefore quite worn and any detail is difficult to see. There are no Pictish symbols and the style of the cross is late, hence the slab’s usual designation as a ‘Class III’ stone carved at the end of the Pictish period when the symbols were probably obsolete. Because of the slab’s position against a wall the reverse is no longer visible but, given the date, it is most likely blank. Current thinking among archaeologists and art-historians identifies the following sculptural features on the front face:

* a large cross of a common ‘Celtic’ type surmounted by an arc containing key-pattern decoration. The arms of the cross and the upper and lower parts of the cross-head are decorated with interlace. A key-pattern adorns the shaft below the head.
* the legs and arms of a human figure who is holding or supporting the base of the cross.
* left panel: various unidentifiable beasts.
* right panel: a seated figure with another standing behind; a horseman; two beasts, one of which could be a cow with a bell around its neck.

Crail Pictish Stone

The seated figure

The seated figure seems to be holding a child in its lap and might represent the Virgin Mary, with Joseph standing behind the chair. Other interpretations are elusive because the badly-worn carvings are too indistinct. The horseman is clearly a secular figure and presumably represents a member of the local nobility, perhaps the individual commemorated by the stone.

Crail Pictish Stone

Horseman on the Crail cross-slab

In the absence of a modern archaeological excavation we cannot trace the early history of the church but the Maelrubha dedication and the cross-slab hint at an ecclesiastical presence in Pictish times. The churchyard contains an ancient well which may have been a focus for pagan rituals before the arrival of Christianity. Was a monastery founded here by Irish missionaries, disciples of Maelrubha, on land granted by a local Pictish family? It is interesting to consider the possible relationship between such a settlement and the ecclesiastical centre at St Andrews which lies only nine miles to the north. A monastery certainly existed at St Andrews before 747, when the death of its abbot was noted by the monks of Iona. At that time it was known as Cenrigmonaid, ‘the end of the royal grazing’, but had not yet achieved the importance it held in later times. If a religious community was indeed established at Crail in the 8th century was it independent of Cenrigmonaid or was it merely a satellite?

Crail Kirk

Crail Parish Church

The place name Crail, earlier Caraile, is often seen as being of Gaelic origin, comprising carr+ail where both elements mean ‘rock’. This kind of duplication using two synonyms from the same language doesn’t look right to me. I prefer Watson’s suggestion that the name is more likely to be a contraction of Cathair Aile, where Gaelic cathair represents a North Brittonic (Pictish) term related to Welsh caer, ‘fort’. A castle formerly stood near the harbour and might have occupied the site of an old Pictish coastal stronghold, perhaps the residence of the patrons of the church. This leaves us with the second element aile which Watson left unexplained. If it is indeed Gaelic ail, ‘rock’, this would make Caraile a Pictish-Gaelic hybrid meaning ‘Fort of the Rock’. Such a name is certainly consistent with the craggy landscape around the harbour and would not be the only hybrid place name in the East Neuk. A few miles along the coast, at Pittenweem, we find Pictish pett, ‘portion’, with Gaelic na h-uamha, ‘of the cave’. Another possibility is that Caraile is not a hybrid name at all and that aile has simply replaced a synonymous Pictish term related to Brittonic al (Welsh alt), as in Alt Clut, the Old Welsh name for Dumbarton (‘Rock of the Clyde’). I’ve not seen this explanation given for Crail but it’s the one I feel inclined to run with at the moment, although I also wonder if Aile could be the name of a person (e.g. ‘Aile’s Fort’) or of a nearby topographical feature (e.g. ‘the Fort beside the Aile’).

Map of Fife

Notes & references
* The photographs used in this post are all copyright © B Keeling
* My information on the place names comes from William Watson’s The History of the Celtic Place-names of Scotland (1926) and George Mackay’s Scottish Place Names (2002).
* A detailed history of Crail Church can be found in a booklet produced by the congregation entitled The Kirk of Crail. The latest edition was published in 2003. It has an interesting drawing of the Pictish cross-slab by Reverend William Macintyre who served as minister from 1956 to 1989.
* I’m hoping to delve deeper into Crail’s early history and will put any new findings on this blog. A separate post on Pittenweem is in the pipeline.

Crail harbour

Crail harbour

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Oswald and the Rock of Blood

Oswald of Northumbria

Oswald of Northumbria in a 13th-century manuscript

The English king Aethelfrith of Bernicia was slain in battle in 616 or 617. His defeat allowed his rival, Prince Edwin, to replace him as overking of Northumbria. Edwin’s ancestral kingdom was Deira, the southern part of Northumbria, but he quickly seized power in Bernicia and drove Aethelfrith’s family into exile.

Aethelfrith’s children sought sanctuary among the Celtic peoples of the North. One son, Eanfrith, came to the Picts, while other siblings found refuge with the Scots. At that time, the ethnic label ‘Scots’ applied to a number of Gaelic-speaking groups in mainland Argyll and the Inner Hebrides. They were divided into various small kingdoms, each dominated by one or more high-status families known as cenéla. Together these kingdoms comprised a region or overkingdom called Dál Riata, which included most of Argyll together with part of northern Ireland. One of the most powerful cenéla ruled the long peninsula of Kintyre. Its members claimed descent from Gabrán, an earlier king who lived around the middle of the sixth century. At the time of Aethelfrith’s defeat, this family was starting to call itself Cenél nGabráin, ‘Gabrán’s Descendants’. Its king was Eochaid Buide (‘Yellow’ or ‘Blond’ Eochaid), a grandson of Gabrán, and it was to him that the young Bernician princes and princesses came seeking shelter and protection.

Map of North Britain, c.600 AD

Among the English exiles was Oswald, a boy of eleven or twelve when he arrived in Dál Riata. Seventeen years later, he would return to his homeland to reclaim his father’s kingship. In the meantime, he dwelt among the Scots as an honoured guest of King Eochaid. He became a Christian and learned the Gaelic language. In his teens he probably repaid his foster-father’s hospitality by fighting as a Cenél nGabráin warrior. He may have travelled extensively throughout Eochaid’s domains, not only on military ventures but also as a member of the king’s entourage on visits to outlying districts. As a high-status Christian convert he most likely visited the monastery of Iona on more than one occasion. But where else did he reside during these years of exile?

Like many early medieval kings, Eochaid Buide would have maintained several residences in different parts of his kingdom. He and his family, together with their entourage of friends, priests, servants and bodyguards, would have used these places at particular times of the year, such as Easter and Christmas, or during periodic tours of the lands under his authority. Some residences served specific purposes as ceremonial venues where the king’s vassal-lords offered homage and tribute. Others had sacred or religious significance, or were associated with revered ancestors of the royal dynasty. One place that seems to fall into this second category was an imposing sea-girt fortress at the southern tip of Kintyre. On modern maps it is usually marked as the site of Dunaverty Castle.

Few traces of the castle now remain. It was occupied in medieval times as a stronghold of the Macdonalds and was the scene of an infamous massacre in the 17th century. Like many coastal promontory fortresses it was built in a commanding position on top of a great mass of rock. At Dunaverty this bulky foundation has a strange, irregular shape that makes it particularly distinctive, especially when viewed from a distance. Memories of the massacre of 1647 were slow to fade and the site is still known as the Rock of Blood.


Dunaverty: view from the west.

The slaughter of 300 members of Clan Donald was the grim climax in a siege by Cromwellian forces led by General Leslie. It was the last of a number of assaults dating back to the 13th century, when an Anglo-Norman lord, an ancestor of Clan Bissett, seized the castle during the reign of the Scottish king Alexander II (1214-49). Five hundred years before Alexander succeeded to the throne, the Irish annals noted the first recorded attack on Dunaverty:

712 Obsessio Aberte apud Selbacum (‘Siege of Aberte by Selbach’)

Selbach was an ambitious Gaelic king whose core domains lay in Lorn, the district around present-day Oban. He belonged to Cenél Loairn, a powerful family who competed with Cenél nGabráin for the overkingship of Dál Riata in the late seventh and early eighth centuries. In 712 he attacked and burned the Cenél nGabráin fortress at Tarbert in central Kintyre before laying siege to Aberte. Although the annalists tell us little about the geography of these campaigns there is little doubt that Aberte was an ancient stronghold on the rock of Dunaverty. The latter name is an Anglicised form of Gaelic Dun Abhartaigh, ‘Abhartach’s Fort’. In the 8th century this would have been written as Dun Abartaig.

Dunaverty: modern buildings on the slipway below the Rock.

A little further along the shore, but still within sight of watchers on the Rock of Blood, lies a place called Keil Point. The caves in the cliffs behind are signposted as a tourist attraction, as are the nearby ruins of St Columba’s Chapel. On a small outcrop next to the chapel two shallow footprints have been carefully carved in the stone. They are known today as ‘St Columba’s Footprints’ and, like the caves, are regularly visited by tourists. One carving is relatively modern, having been made in the 19th century, but the other is much older. The outcrop was almost certainly used in past times as a sacred place of inauguration. A new king or chieftain would have placed his foot in the ancient footprint to signify his bond with the land. A similar, more famous footprint can be seen on the summit of Dunadd, a hillfort situated somewhat north of Kintyre on the road to Oban. In the early eighth century, when Selbach and his sons stood at the height of their power, Dunadd was one of the main strongholds of their family. It is likely that the footprint on the summit was used in Selbach’s inauguration ceremony when he became king of Cenél Loairn (c.701) and likewise by his son Dungal in 723. The footprint at Keil Point in southern Kintyre surely served the same ceremonial purpose for the kings of Cenél nGabráin. If so, then the nearby fortress of Dun Abartaig was probably their main centre of power.


Dunaverty: view from the summit, looking towards the slipway.


The summit of the Rock, viewed from the northeast.

The photographs accompanying this post were taken ten years ago during a holiday in Kintyre. They give an idea of the impressive setting of ancient Dun Abartaig and the castle that succeeded it. As with many centres of power in early medieval Scotland the habitable area on the summit is fairly small but to me there seems little doubt that this is one of the places where the young Prince Oswald lived among his Cenél nGabráin foster-kin. It might even have been the royal residence he and his siblings regarded as their main ‘home’ during the long years of exile from Bernicia.



* Cenél nGabráin is pronounced ‘Kenel Navrain’

* The identification of Aberte as Dunaverty is usually credited to William Reeves in his edition of Adomnán’s Life of St Columba (Dublin, 1857). It was supported by W.F. Skene later in the same century, by Alan Orr Anderson in 1922, by the place-name scholar William Watson in 1926 and, more recently, by James Fraser in 2009 (to name but four).

* On Oswald’s exile see two articles by Michelle Ziegler in The Heroic Age: The Politics of Exile in Early Northumbria and Oswald and the Irish. Michelle has also posted a useful Oswald bibliography at her Heavenfield blog.

* On Selbach of Cenél Loairn and his rivalry with Cenél nGabráin see James Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795 (Edinburgh, 2009), pp.273-4 and 282-5.


Queen Aethelburh

This post might seem somewhat out of place here at Senchus, having no obvious connection with Scotland. Its subject is an Anglo-Saxon queen who lived in southwest England in the early 8th century. Why, you may ask, is it being posted on a blog about Scottish history? I’ll answer this question in three parts:

1. I’m opening a new category on Senchus for non-Scottish topics. Although it won’t be a big part of the blog it will receive occasional posts, including this one.
2. This post is about Queen Aethelburh, who commanded a warband in a military campaign. She is relevant to previous Senchus posts on Pictish warrior women and Aethelflaed of Mercia.
3. I have a special interest in Aethelburh, having written about her before.

With the intro out of the way, let’s get down to the medieval nitty-gritty. Our starting point is an entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the year 722:

‘Queen Aethelburh destroyed Taunton, which Ine had built, and Ealdberht the exile went into Surrey and Sussex’

This is the only reference to Aethelburh in any reliable source. We don’t know when, or where, she was born, nor the date of her death. She is usually identified as the wife of Ine, king of the West Saxons, who reigned from 688 to 726. Why she destroyed Taunton is something of a mystery. The place lay on the frontier of the West Saxon kingdom and was the site of a fortress constructed by Ine. Whatever happened there in 722, the Chronicle implies that the fortress was attacked by a military force led by Aethelburh. This at once makes her special and unusual, like an 8th century Boudica. Warrior queens were rare in this period, which is why Aethelburh and her later countrywoman Aethelflaed (died 918) stand out in the sources. Aethelflaed’s military campaigns, and the reasons why she undertook them, are fairly well documented, but the same cannot be said of Aethelburh.

Some years ago, I wrote a brief biography of Aethelburh. This was published in 2003 in a book called Amazons to fighter pilots: a biographical dictionary of military women. The book’s alphabetical arrangement meant that my contribution was immediately followed by a note on Aethelflaed by Stephanie Hollis. As an indication of just how little data on Aethelburh survives, Professor Hollis was able to write twice as much about the Lady of the Mercians.

In my 2003 bio of Aethelburh I considered the various theories that have been proposed to explain why she sacked the fortress at Taunton. These can be summarised as follows:

1. The Chronicle appears to connect Aethelburh’s action to Ealdberht’s exile. If Ealdberht was a rebel against Ine, he may have seized Taunton as a base for his own warband. Did Aethelburh then lead the attack because her husband was already fighting other enemies elsewhere?
2. Had Taunton fallen into the hands of external foes, such as the Britons of Wales or Dumnonia?
3. Was Aethelburh herself a rebel? Did she rise up against Ine? There is, in any case, no proof that she was married to him. Could she have been the leader of a rival West Saxon faction, proclaiming herself queen in direct challenge to Ine?

Of these, the third option looks the least likely, mainly because medieval Wessex tradition (as represented by the writings of William of Malmesbury in the 12th century) depicts Aethelburh as Ine’s wife and gives no hint of marital discord. I tend to lean towards Option 1, which links the attack on Taunton to Ealdberht’s exile. In 725, according to the Chronicle, Ine defeated the South Saxons in battle, presumably in Sussex, ‘and there slew Ealdberht, the prince whom he had banished.’ Running this entire sequence of events together, we can construct a plausible narrative in which Ealdberht, after being banished by Ine, claimed Taunton as his stronghold but was forced to abandon it when Aethelburh attacked. Three years later, while Ealdberht was living in exile as a guest of the South Saxons, Ine turned up in Sussex to finish the job.

Southern Britain in the early 8th century

So there it is: a blogpost about a warrior queen who wasn’t a tattooed Pict or chariot-riding Briton. She wasn’t ‘Scottish’ (unless she originated as a Bernician princess) nor did she ever visit Scotland (as far as we know). If she was Wessex born-and-bred she probably never ventured north of the River Avon, unless she accompanied Ine on excursions to Wales or Mercia. But she gets a mention on this blog for the reasons stated above, and also because – like so many shadowy female figures of this period – her story rarely gets told.


Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 722: Her Eþelburg cuen towearp Tantun 7 Ine ær timbrede; 7 Aldbryht wræccea gewat on Suþrige 7 on Suþseaxe

William of Malmesbury, Chronicle of the kings of England, edited by J.A. Giles (London, 1847), p.36

Charles Oman, Castles (London, 1926), p.57

Tim Clarkson, ‘Aethelburh’, pp.4-5 in Reina Pennington (ed.), Amazons to fighter pilots: a biographical dictionary of military women. Volume 1 (Westport, 2003)

The place name Caerlaverock

Caerlaverock Castle

The striking 13th century castle of Caerlaverock, notable for its triangular shape, stands near the shore of the Solway Firth, about 8 miles south of Dumfries. It was built in the 1270s, succeeding a smaller castle erected earlier in the same century. Two older strongholds – a Roman fort and a native British one – stand on the nearby hill of Ward Law.

The origin of the name Caerlaverock is uncertain. Its first element seems to be Brittonic caer, ‘fort’, a very common prefix in the place-names of Wales. In Scotland, caer mostly occurs in those areas where Brittonic speech survived longest, such as the region between the firths of Clyde and Solway. The second element is less easy to decipher, but various plausible explanations have been suggested. As far as the meaning of the whole place-name is concerned, it seems to be a case of ‘take your pick’ from the following list.

caer + Old English lawerce (Middle English laverock), ‘lark’ = ‘Fort of the Lark’

caer + the Brittonic (Old Welsh) personal name Limarch, medieval Welsh Llywarch = ‘Llywarch’s Fort’

Gaelic cathair, ‘fort’ + leamhreaich, ‘elm’ = ‘Fort in the Elm Trees’

These are just three theories that I know of. I would be interested to hear of any others.

The possible connection with larks (or skylarks) has been seen as a link between Caerlaverock and the famous battle of Arfderydd (AD 573) which was allegedly caused by a ‘lark’s nest’. Similarly, the suggested meaning ‘Llywarch’s Fort’ might point to some real or imagined association with Llywarch Hen, ‘Llywarch the Old’, a well-known figure in medieval Welsh poetry who (if he existed outside literature) apparently ruled a kingdom somewhere in northern Britain in the 6th century.

My own preference, as expressed in my recent book on the North Britons, is for the derivation Caer Llywarch. I think this may have been the original name of the native hillfort on Ward Law. This could have been bestowed because local folklore identified the fort as the stronghold of Llywarch Hen, or perhaps of a namesake. If it commemorated the famous Llywarch of Welsh literature, then this might be a useful pointer to the location of his kingdom, or at least to the origin-centre of stories associated with him. In later times, the old name was borrowed by the occupants of the castle on the lower ground below.


Nora K. Chadwick, The British heroic age: the Welsh and the Men of the North (Cardiff, 1976), p.100 [Caerlaverock = ‘Fort of the Lark’]
W. J. Watson, The history of the Celtic place names of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1926), p.368 [Caerlaverock = ‘Llywarch’s Fort’]
George Mackay, Scottish place names (New Lanark, 2002), p.18 [Caerlaverock = ‘Fort in the Elm Trees’]

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.



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


The name Donald has long been popular in Scotland, both as a forename and a surname. Like its Irish equivalent Donal it is a modern, Anglicised version of Gaelic Domnall, a name found in various early medieval sources. In the Irish annals a fairly large number of kings in the Gaelic-speaking regions of the British Isles are called Domnall, most of them ruling kingdoms in Ireland, Argyll or (after c.800) parts of Pictish territory. However, the name may have originated not among the Gaels but among the Britons, in whose language it appears in medieval Welsh sources as Dyfnwal.

The precursor of Dyfnwal is an older form Dumnagual (where gu represents the sound of w) which in turn evolved from an original Brittonic name Dumnoualos, meaning ‘world ruler’. The latter form was probably in use until c.450 when the Brittonic languages entered a period of change. Scotland has several place-names containing Donald, an element which at first glance looks distinctly ‘Scottish’ and Gaelic. Closer inspection reveals that this might not be true in all instances. In areas where Brittonic long survived as the language of everyday communication a Donald place-name might commemorate a Dyfnwal rather than a Domnall.

A northern Brittonic dialect was spoken in parts of southwest Scotland as late as the twelfth century. It is often referred to as ‘Cumbric’ to distinguish it from Welsh, Breton, Cornish and Pictish. Cumbric was the main language of the Strathclyde Britons until the collapse of their kingdom in c.1070, after which they came under increasing pressure to adopt Gaelic. In South Ayrshire, where the Clyde kings probably held sway in the tenth century, the imposing medieval castle of Dundonald (‘Donald’s fort’) has a name which looks like a straightforward compound of Gaelic dun+Domnall. However, its earliest known form Dundeuenel, recorded in a twelfth-century Life of Saint Modwenna, might derive instead from Cumbric din+Dyfnwal. Given the likelihood that the native Britons of this area still spoke their ancient language around the time when Dundeuenel found its way into the Modwenna traditions we can tentatively propose a Cumbric origin for the modern place-name. The castle we see today may therefore owe its name to an earlier stronghold called Din Dyfnwal, ‘Dyfnwal’s fort’, which Gaelic-speakers later re-named Dun Dhomhnaill, subsequently Anglicised as Dundonald. If this is the correct etymology we may wonder who Dyfnwal was. Perhaps he was one of the several Strathclyde kings who bore this name in the ninth and tenth centuries? Or was he the ancestral figure Dyfnwal Hen (‘Old Dyfnwal’), a shadowy forefather of the royal dynasty, who lived around c.500? Beneath the ruins of Dundonald Castle archaeologists found traces of a hillfort destroyed by fire in the early eleventh century. Although the identity of the fort’s occupants is unknown it is possible that they were Britons under Strathclyde rule.

Finally, a rough guide to pronunciation: Gaelic Domnall is pronounced Dov-nal, Welsh Dyfnwal is pronounced Duv-noo-al.


Kenneth Jackson, Language and history in early Britain: a chronological survey of the Brittonic languages, 1st to 12th centuries AD (Edinburgh, 1953), pp.421-2

Stephen Driscoll and Katherine Forsyth, ‘The Late Iron Age and Early Historic Period’ Scottish Archaeological Journal 26 (2006), 4-11 [Dundonald Castle excavations]

Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070 (Edinburgh, 2007), xiii

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This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde