During the late ninth and early tenth centuries, the Picts and Scots united to become a single, Gaelic-speaking people whose principal rulers were the descendants of Cináed mac Ailpín. The union or merger led to the formation of a ‘Picto-Scottish’ kingdom called Alba which took its name from an older Gaelic term formerly applied to the whole island of Britain. Sometime before c.900, this term seems to have narrowed to define a particular region in the far north of Britain, hence its adoption as a name for the new realm of the mac Ailpín kings. It is possible that Alba had long been in use among the Gaelic-speaking Scots as a synonym for ‘Pictland’, or that the name also encompassed Dál Riata – their own homeland in Argyll.
Before their union, the Picts and Scots had been separated by a geographical feature known as the ‘Ridge of Alba’ or ‘Ridge of Britain’. In medieval texts these names appear respectively as Druim Alban (Gaelic) and dorsum Britanniae (Latin). Our earliest references to the ridge occur in Vita Columbae, the ‘Life of Columba’, written on Iona by Abbot Adomnán at the end of the seventh century. Adomnán mentions the ridge five times, telling us that it divided the Picts and Scots ‘inter quos utrosque dorsi montes brittannici disterminant’ (‘between which peoples the mountains of the Ridge of Britain are the boundary’). He clearly had a specific feature in mind – a recognisable natural frontier in a mountainous area – but neither he nor any later writer gave enough detail to enable us to identify the feature on a modern map.
Some historians think we should translate druim and dorsum not as ‘ridge’ but as ‘spine’, and also that we should apply this term in a more general way. Rather than imagining a specific upland feature, they suggest that the ‘Spine of Alba’ might simply be the entire range of hills and mountains between Pictland and Dál Riata. Against this argument we may note that the range in question is not a continuous line or barrier, being punctuated by various glens and passes. Nor does it run north-south, a direction we might expect of a border between the Pictish east and the Gaelic west. For these reasons, it is hard to see why Adomnán and his contemporaries would regard such an unconnected line of hills as a druim or dorsum.
Another possibility is that the Ridge or Spine was a name given to just one section of this upland range, an idea examined in recent years by Philip Dunshea of the University of Cambridge. In an article published in Scottish Historical Review in 2013, Dr Dunshea highlighted the watershed between Glen Lochy and the village of Tyndrum as a likely location for Druim Alban or dorsum Britanniae. The rivers running west off this watershed flow into the Firth of Lorn, while those running east join the mighty Tay. Moreover, the watershed itself marks the boundary between the old counties of Argyllshire and Perthshire. Dr Dunshea further noted that the name ‘Tyndrum’ comes from the Gaelic tigh an droma, ‘house of the ridge, and that a lost placename in the vicinity is Carndroma, ‘cairn of the ridge’. He suggested that the remains of this cairn might lie beneath a grass-covered mound near the A85 highway, close to the county boundary.
A third possibility is that the names Druim Alban and dorsum Britanniae referred, quite literally, to a feature that did indeed resemble a backbone. I first encountered this idea fifteen years ago in an article in the Pictish Arts Society Journal. The authors – David Dorren and Nina Henry – had noticed something unusual as they stood on top of Beinn Bheag, a hill slightly north-west of Tyndrum:
‘From its summit, looking south across Glen Lochy to the Ben Lui range, one sees a remarkable sight. Running straight up the hillside above Lochan na Bi and continuing in a straight line over the top of Meall Odhar is a ridge, resembling a massive field dyke superimposed on the hillside. It has a low cover of vegetation, except for a central strip on the top of the ridge, where the bare rock is exposed, forming a rocky line of approximately constant width. The rock is quartz-veined schist, which gives it a whitish appearance, so that it stands out prominently against the hillside.’ [Dorren & Henry 2000, 42-3]
The feature to which they referred can be seen in the following images:
Dorren and Henry also noticed that the ridge reappeared on the north side of Glen Lochy, where the white quartz is hidden under grass. This section is followed by the old county boundary (now the boundary between the Argyll and Stirling council areas). The section on the south side of the glen climbs the hillside above Lochan na Bi before curving over the top where it is known as Drochaid an Droma, ‘The Bridge of the Ridge’. Here, the rocks have a segmented appearance, just like the vertebrae of a backbone. Glen Lochy lay on one of the main routes between Dál Riata and Pictland and was perhaps crossed here by an ancient frontier which later became a county boundary. In their article, Dorren and Henry suggested that this frontier may have been marked by the quartz ridge running across the glen, and that the ridge might be the Druim Alban and dorsum Britanniae of the medieval texts.
I’ll end this blogpost with three images of the Drochaid an Droma. David Dorren – who took these photographs – tells me that when sunlight strikes the ridge, illuminating the rocks, the white quartz gleams in a stunning display.
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Notes & references
I am very grateful to Dr David Dorren for granting permission to reproduce his photographs.
J.D. Dorren and N. Henry, ‘Identification of Druim Alban’ Pictish Arts Society Journal (no.15, 2000), 42-8.
Philip M. Dunshea, ‘Druim Alban, Dorsum Britanniae – the Spine of Britain’ Scottish Historical Review 92 (2013), 275-289.
Philip M. Dunshea, In search of Carn Droma: exploring the boundaries between Picts and Gaels. [published at the blog of the ASNC Department, University of Cambridge)
Dr Dunshea’s investigation of the possible site of Carn Droma can also be seen in a site report at the West of Scotland Archaeology Service.
Adomnán’s ‘Life of Columba’ mentions Dorsum Britanniae in Book I (chapter 34), Book II (chapters 31, 42 & 46) and Book III (chapter 14).
See also the Annals of Ulster, under the year 717:
Expulsio familie Ie trans Dorsum Brittanie a Nectano rege.
‘Expulsion of the community of Iona beyond the Ridge of Britain by king Nechtan.’
[Nechtan, king of the Picts, expelled the Columban monks from his kingdom during a programme of ecclesiastical reforms.]
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Additional notes [22 February 2015]
Since uploading this blogpost, I have received more information from David Dorren about the article in the Pictish Arts Society Journal (cited above). David is happy to send a copy of the article to anyone who is interested. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. A copy was also deposited at the National Library of Scotland and is on file there.
The quartz ridge can be seen on satellite images, and David has kindly provided the following links (via Bing Maps) –
1. Overall view (best viewed full-screen, from which you can zoom in or out and move around)
2. Close up of the area of the Drochaid an Droma
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