The Men Of The North is 4

The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland
I’m pleased to see my book The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland back on the online bookshelves after a month or two of being listed as ‘out of stock’. It was recently reprinted by the publisher – Birlinn of Edinburgh – which means normal service has now resumed at Amazon and elsewhere.

The reprint has coincided with the fourth anniversary of the book’s publication, almost to the day. Much has happened since August 2010, not least the inevitable appearance of new research relating to the North Britons. I’ve been able to pick up on some of the latest developments for my new book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age but this only deals with the period after AD 750. I have no new output in the pipeline for the earlier period (c.400-700), with which The Men Of The North is primarily concerned. My only current publication on the era of Urien Rheged and his contemporaries is a book review of Beyond The Gododdin which appeared in the journal Northern History a couple of months ago. Writing the review necessitated a detailed reading of the book itself, which turned out to be a very valuable exercise. For instance, it enabled me to catch up on the latest research (primarily linguistic and technical) on the poetry attributed to the sixth-century bards Taliesin and Aneirin. It would be useful to add some of this material to The Men Of The North, if only in the chapter endnotes and bibliography, but this will only happen if a second edition appears at some point in the future. I would especially like to cite those parts of Beyond The Gododdin that support my scepticism – expressed in Chapter Four of my book – on the way in which Taliesin and Aneirin are frequently accepted as reliable guides to sixth-century political geography. In the absence of a new edition of The Men Of The North, and with no similar publications on my ‘to do’ list, I may have to use this blog as the place to update my bibliographic references on Rheged, Gododdin and other North British kingdoms.

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The Men Of The North: The Britons Of Southern Scotland

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Llyfr Aneirin online

Gododdin of Aneirin

John Koch’s edition and translation of The Gododdin, published in 1997.

Lisa Spangenberg, who runs the excellent blog Scéla on things medieval and Celtic, recently posted an interesting piece of news: Llyfr Aneirin, the Book of Aneirin, is now available online. This thirteenth-century Welsh manuscript contains Y Gododdin, ‘The Gododdin’, a collection of verses seemingly commemorating the near-massacre of an army of Britons from Edinburgh at a place called Catraeth sometime around AD 600. Two versions of the collection are included in Llyfr Aneirin, each transcribed in a different hand.

It’s the manuscript itself that has been digitised, not an edition or translation, so what we’re seeing is one of the great artifacts of medieval Celtic literature in its original form. Whether any part of the contents – the heroic and enigmatic Gododdin verses – was actually composed in North Britain six centuries earlier is a different matter (and a highly controversial one).

I followed the link given by Lisa and selected a random page from Llyfr Aneirin. It contained one of several verses beginning with the words gwyr a aeth gatraeth (‘Men went to Catraeth’), neatly crafted in an elegant script from 800 years ago.

Lisa has helpfully added other relevant links to her blogpost, including the digitised version of Llyfr Taliesin, the Book of Taliesin. Elsewhere on her site you’ll find links to various useful resources, so I recommend a look around if your interests lean towards Celtic medievalia.

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Notes & links

Check out Lisa’s blogpost The Book of Aneirin digitized and online and her Celtic web resources page.

The National Library of Wales ran its own announcement last week: Warriors went to Catraeth.

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Question: How far does the poetry attributed to Aneirin and Taliesin reflect genuine North British history?
The jury is out, so we’re faced with a choice of answers. These range from wide-eyed enthusiasm (‘it’s all true’) through sensible scepticism (‘some of it might be true’) to sombre pessimism (‘this is poetry, not history’). Help is now at hand for those of us who aren’t specialists in Celtic literature, via the papers in Beyond the Gododdin: Dark Age Scotland in Medieval Wales. This very useful book, edited by Alex Woolf and published by the University of St Andrews in 2013, brings us up to date with current research. Anyone who wants to use the Taliesin poetry or The Gododdin as historical sources should read it. The papers represent a variety of opinions, all of them wise and measured, some more optimistic than others. But the main message is simple: let’s be more cautious when using these Old Welsh poems as ‘history’. Accepting them as authentic chronicles from the sixth or seventh centuries, or as reliable gazetteers of ancient North British place names, is no longer an option.

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The Aberlady Cross

Aberlady Cross

Aberlady Cross reconstruction (Photo © Ian Malcolm)

Ian Malcolm of Aberlady Conservation and History Society recently sent me a leaflet about the stunning reconstruction of Aberlady’s Anglo-Saxon cross. Only one fragment of the original monument has survived, having been discovered in a garden wall beside the parish church in 1863. The fragment is carved on all four sides in typical Northumbrian style, with scroll-work, intertwined beasts and an angel among the notable features. Indeed, it is so similar to three fragments of a cross from nearby Abercorn that both crosses are likely to be the work of the same craftsman. One particular point of interest at Aberlady is a quartet of seabirds whose intertwined legs form a geometric knotwork pattern: a strikingly similar image is found in the early 8th-century Lindisfarne Gospels which are contemporary with the Aberlady and Abercorn crosses.

Even with only one surviving fragment it has been possible to recreate how the original Aberlady Cross would have looked. By reference to the Abercorn designs and to those on the magnificent Ruthwell and Bewcastle crosses a reconstruction drawing was made. This was turned into a full-size replica by master stonemason Barry Grove, whose reconstruction of the Pictish cross-slab at Hilton of Cadboll can be seen via one of the links at the end of this post. The replica of the Aberlady Cross can be seen in the Memorial Garden next to the church.

Aberlady map

I intend to visit Aberlady as soon as possible, to see the replica and to explore the area’s early medieval history. It is likely that the parish church stands on the site of a major Anglo-Saxon monastery, perhaps a daughter-house of Abercorn which was the base of Northumbria’s short-lived ‘bishopric of the Picts’. Having a keen interest in the North Britons I’m curious to know how Aberlady relates to the old native kingdom of Gododdin which once held sway along the southern shore of the Firth of Forth. Ian tells me that the Society has produced a leaflet for ‘St Aidan’s Way’, the Aberlady to Lindisfarne stretch of the pilgrimage route from Iona. Other projects are in the pipeline, so watch this space … or visit the Society’s website … or drop by Aberlady and see how things are going.

Relevant links:

Aberlady Heritage website

Dave Berry’s blogpost about the unveiling of the replica cross at Aberlady on 6 December 2011

Barry Grove’s reconstruction of Hilton of Cadboll (on the cover of Iain Forbes’ book on the Pictish stones)

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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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Catraeth and Gwen Ystrat

Edinburgh Castle, site of the Gododdin stronghold Din Eidyn.

Edinburgh Castle, site of the Gododdin stronghold Din Eidyn.

In the introductory chapters to his radical reconstruction of the Old Welsh poem Y Gododdin John T. Koch suggested that the sixth-century battle of Catraeth, described in the poem as a defeat for the warriors of Gododdin (Lothian), was a victory for their fellow-Britons of Rheged. Koch believed that a poem known as Gweith Gwen Ystrat (The Battle of Gwen Valley) attributed to Rheged’s court-bard Taliesin was composed to celebrate the event from the victors’ perspective. He suggested that Catraeth and Gwen Ystrat were different names for the same place. In adopting this radical stance he challenged the conventional view of the Gododdin defeat which has long seen it as a triumph by the English kingdom of Bernicia over one of her British neighbours.

I was sceptical about Koch’s theory as soon as I saw it, not least because I don’t see any need to conflate the two battles. In Y Gododdin, Catraeth is clearly stated to be the location of the Gododdin defeat: there is no mention of the Gwen Valley. In Taliesin’s poem, Catraeth is mentioned as a territory associated with Rheged but is not described as the site of a battle. My unease about these and other aspects of Koch’s vision (or revision) of sixth-century history prompted me to discuss his book in the first issue of The Heroic Age back in 1999.

Recently, I looked again at a 1998 paper by Graham Isaac in which the Catraeth-Gwen Ystrat conflation was subjected to detailed linguistic scrutiny. When I first read Isaac’s analysis some years ago I welcomed his rejection of Koch’s theory – having no expertise myself in the complex field of Old Welsh literature I was glad to see a scholar from this area putting the theory under the microscope. Since returning to this topic in the past few weeks I was reminded of something I had forgotten, something quite significant for anyone with an interest in Rheged, namely Isaac’s belief that Gweith Gwen Ystrat should not be regarded as a poem composed in sixth-century North Britain.

In his paper Isaac questions the long-held view that the poem contains archaic linguistic features indicative of an early date of composition. Instead, he proposes that it was composed not by the northern bard Taliesin but by a Welshman of the period 1050 to 1150. If Isaac is right, the implications could be very severe, not just for Koch’s conflation of the two battles but also for conventional perceptions about other poems attributed to Taliesin. As Isaac observes near the end of his analysis: “It may be regarded as regrettable in some quarters that Gweith Gwen Ystrat in particular probably tells us nothing about sixth-century North British history” (p.69). If the poem is a product of eleventh- or twelfth-century Wales, then how confident can we be that any of Taliesin’s poetry about Rheged was composed in the sixth-century North? If one or more of these poems were composed centuries later by a Welsh “antiquarian” poet, how much of their political and geographical information about sixth-century Rheged can be trusted?


 John T. Koch, The Gododdin of Aneirin: text and context in Dark Age North Britain (Cardiff, 1997)

G.R. Isaac, “Gweith Gwen Ystrat and the northern heroic age of the sixth century” Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 36 (1998), 61-70

 My review of Koch’s book for the online journal The Heroic Age can be found here.

Additional note: The place Gwen Ystrat has never been satisfactorily located, nor (in my opinion) has Catraeth. I am unconvinced by the conventional identification of Catraeth as Catterick in Yorkshire, which I believe is too far south to be considered part of the Gododdin borderlands. Similar techniques of “sounds like” etymology have been employed to identify Gwen Ystrat with places in northern England such as Wensleydale, Winster, etc, but these are nothing more than wild shots in the dark.

Some of my early doubts about the Catterick hypothesis can be found in an article published sixteen years ago:
Tim Clarkson, “Richmond and Catraeth” Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 26 (1993), 15-20

The Siege of Edinburgh?

A well-known entry in the Irish Annals gives the following information for AD 638: obsesio etin. This means “the siege of Etin” and is usually seen as a reference to an otherwise undocumented attack on Edinburgh. In the early medieval period Edinburgh was the chief citadel of the Britons of Gododdin who called it Din Eidin. In Irish this name would normally appear as Eitin which corresponds closely to the annalists’ Etin. The timescale seems to fit with our knowledge of what was happening in southern Scotland at that time: the English of Northumbria, led by King Oswald, were steadily encroaching on British territory. A Northumbrian siege of Edinburgh would therefore seem consistent with a major inroad by Oswald’s army into the heartland of Gododdin. In 1959 Kenneth Jackson took this idea further by suggesting that the annal for 638 represents not only an English siege of Din Eidin but also the final phase in the conquest of Gododdin. Many writers have followed this line of thought in subsequent studies of seventh century history.

Like other isolated snippets of data relating to this period the “siege of Edinburgh in 638” has evolved from a plausible explanation of an obscure annal into a rather large factoid (i.e. a fact-shaped object). This is why so many books and articles dealing with Oswald or Gododdin say that the kingdom fell under English control in 638 without warning the reader that this “fact” is no more than a guess. In a paper of 1989 David Dumville drew attention to what he called the “enthusiasm and historical mileage” generated by this annal but he is one of the few writers to counsel a cautious approach to its testimony. He was right to do so. The words obsesio etin may indeed preserve a genuine record of the collapse of Gododdin but equally they might refer to a wholly unrelated event at a place called Etin somewhere else in the British Isles. Writers of Scottish or Northumbrian history books should therefore sound a note of caution when their narrative reaches the late 630s, if only to remind their readers that the picture is not as clear-cut as we might wish it to be.

Kenneth Jackson, ‘Edinburgh and the Anglian occupation of Lothian’, pp.35-42 in Peter Clemoes (ed.) The Anglo-Saxons: some aspects of their history and culture presented to Bruce Dickins (London: 1959).

David Dumville, ‘The origins of Northumbria: some aspects of the British background’, pp.213-22 in Steven Bassett (ed.) The origins of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (Leicester: 1989).