Tuesday, 2 February 2016

In Search of King Nechtan in Angus and Elsewhere

It seems like a fool’s errand to try to gauge the characters and personalities of our possible predecessors from the dawn of history, in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’, but here goes.  Despite all attempts to the contrary and arguments that the Picts were just another barbarian collective from northern Europe, their culture and history remains stubbornly opaque.  Certainly a professional historian would never attempt to weave the few threads of early medieval Pictland into a coherent narrative.  There is a recent, strange tendency among the modern school of Scottish historians to exercise caution to the point of neurotic refusal to work with the materials that they have at their disposal it is better to come to no conclusions at all about the age of the Picts because there are too few clues remaining.  Far be it for me to say that this amounts to professional neglect, but the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of caution from the adventurous theorizing of Victorian historians like W.F. Skene.

   Anyway, some threads are so bright that they have to be picked up.  This is the case with King Nechtan, whose name is perhaps found in Dunnichen (‘the fort of Nechtan’) and the English name for the battle where the Northumbrians were defeated by the Picts nearby, Nechtansmere.  Before we consider which Nechtan Dunnichen is named after, there is the matter of confirming this as the place of the battle in 685 AD.  To the Northumbrians the site of their national disaster was called Nechtan’s Mere, signifying the swamp or shallow lake in the shadow of Dun Nechtan.  But the Welsh, who spoke a very similar language to the Picts, called the body of water Llyn Garan, the Pool of Herons.  Was this the original name of the place or did it somehow have two names? (The Irish, meanwhile called it the battle of Dun Nechtan.) It would seem to cast a fragment of doubt over the identification of Dunnichen as the battle site.  In fact Dunnichen was not positively identified as the place of the conflict until the connection was made by George Chalmers in his Caledonia in 1807.  Chalmers pointed out that the ‘eminence’ on the south side of Dunnichen Hill, still visible in his day and known as Cashili or Castle Hill, must be the ‘fortress of Nechtan’.  Chalmers also speculated that the neighbouring hill of Dumbarrow, ‘the hill of the barrow’, signifying notable burials there (Caledonia, I, 155.)

 [Note also the King's Well on the east side of Dumbarrow Hill.]
The view towards Dunnichen Hill.

   So, if it seems likely that there was a stronghold in the seventh century on Dunnichen Hill which was named after someone called Nechtan, who was this person?  Obviously it points towards the name of a chieftain or king and there are several kings named Nechtan in the surviving records of the Picts.  The second known King Nechtan was son of Dereli  and was king in the late 7th century and again for short periods in the early decades on the next century, when he was involved in a four way struggle for the Pictish throne.  Defeated in this civil war, Nechtan retired to a monastery.  Clearly, this ruler seems too late to have given his name to the stronghold at Dunnichen.  The most likely ruler to have given his name to the fort in Angus was the ruler known as Nechtan Morbet, son of Erp (or Irb/Wirp), who seems to have been in power in the late 6th century.  According to the Pictish Chronicle he ruled for twenty-four years and he was given a number of other epithets in the kings’ lists:  Celchamoth and Magnus (Latin ‘the great’).  A powerful ruler, in legend at least, he is credited with founding the major Christian centre at Abernethy in Perthshire, on the south coast of the Tay. According  to the Pictish Chronicle:

In the third year of his reign, Dairlugdach, abbess of Kildare, came from Ireland to Britain, in exile for Christ.  In the second year of her arrival, Nechtan offered up Abernethy to God and to St Bridget, in the presence of Dairlugdach, who sang Alleluia over this offering... Now the cause of the offering was this.  Nectonius...when his brother Drust expelled him to Ireland, begged St Bridget to beseech God for him. And she prayed for him, and said, 'If you reach your country, the Lord will have pity on you.  You will possess the kingdom of the Picts in peace.'

   Some historians believe that Nechtan died around the year 481.

   What can’t be denied is that Abernethy was a very early Christian settlement and the whole lands around the Tay, in Fife, Perthshire and Angus are jewelled with dedications and traditions of early medieval Christian activity by Irish and continental missionaries and saints.  And before we look at the traces of Nechtan the king in Angus, there is a remarkable trace of Nechtan in the Fife place-name  of the historic barony of Naughton, some thirteen miles east of Abernethy, near Balmerino, not far again from the Tay coast.  In 12th century records, this place is known as Hyhatnachten Machehirb (àth Nechtain meic Eirp/Irb) ‘ford of Nechtan son of Irb’, showing there was a precise local memory of this long dead ruler here, some six hundred years after his death. This impressive survival has prompted some Fife patriots to claim that the Battle of Nechtansmere was fought in this vicinity.

Naughton Castle, north Fife.

   In Angus, a King Nechtan figures in the version of the Life of St Boniface which found its way into the 16th century Aberdeen Breviary.  According to this legend, Boniface was a saint from Palestine who went on a divine mission to Pictland, accompanied with an evangelical task force of other saints, clerics and holy maidens, including one Triduana, who we will hear about again very shortly.  This Christian army were guided by a divine sign and reached Restenneth, in the land that would later be Angus, where they most humbly started singing the litany.  Meanwhile, King Nechtan had also seen the holy sign and came to the same place with an army.  He was so amazed by these strangers that he immediately submitted to baptism, as did his officers and commanders.  Restenneth was given to St Boniface, in the name of the Holy Trinity.  The notice of St Triduana also in the Breviary states that this saint came to Pictland in the entourage of St Rule or Regulus and settled at Rescobie where she lived with her two associates Potencia and Emeria.  Enter Nechtan, called the ‘petty tyrant’ of that region, who was immediately smitten with Triduana. To escape his attentions the saint fled to Dunfallandy in Atholl, but his messengers reached her there.  Triduana asked what it was about her that attracted the king the most and when she learnt it was her eyes she plucked them out and sent them to the king impaled upon a thorn.  Then she retired to Restalrig near Edinburgh.  Nechtan here has a stock role of secular villain which many rulers (up to and including King Arthur) found themselves tarred with in saints’ lives.  A further twist on the Boniface legend identifies him with St Curetan and states that he came with his followers to the mouth of the small stream named the Gobriat, which may be the stream which flows into the Tay at Invergowrie on the border of Angus and Perthshire.

   In all the above legends there may be some, perhaps considerable, confusion between the earlier ruler named Nechtan and the later one.  It has been thought that Abernethy was in fact founder around the eighth century by Nechtan son of Derile and not his predecessor. (A further, competing story about Abernethy states that it was actually founded under the auspices of the Pictish king Garnard son of Dompnach, during whose reign St Bridget came to the site from Ireland with nine saintly maidens.)

   But the tale we can probably put most faith in (if we can trust any of them) is the 12th century tale of St Buite son of Brónaig, the Irish saint who was the founder of Mainister, Monasterboice in County Louth.  Like many of his countrymen, Buite was reckoned to have been an international traveller, spending some time with St Teilo in Wales and also journeying to Italy and Germania. While returning to Ireland from Europe, he crossed the land of the Picts (according to his vita) and came to the house where the Pictish king was lying in state, having recently died.  Invited to pray for him, the Irishman shut his followers outside - a strange detail - and snatched the monarch from the jaws of death. Restored to life, Nechtan gave the cleric the house in which the miracle happened, ‘and all that pertained to it’.  This place was consecrated as a church and Buite left one of his followers to look after it when the time came for him to go home.  W.F. Skene and others since his time have believed that the place in Kirkbuddo, or Carbuddo, in Angus, a short distance from Dunnichen. The theme of the holy man being gifted the royal site and turning it into a Church is also a constant theme in early lives, and if it is objected that the name Carbuddo cannot mean ‘the fortress of Buite’ (as W. J. Watson pointed out in The History of the Celtic Place-names of Scotland (1926), while admitting the place may be named after a diminutive version of the saint’s name), surely it is compelling that Rescobie, Restenneth, Dunnichen, Kirkbuddo all lie within a few miles of each other.  (Also worth noting in Angus is Abernethan Well near Kirriemuir, named after either of the royal Nechtans or the similarly named St Nechtan.)


   Where exactly was the site of Carbuddo?  The ruined church-yard does not occupy a particularly prominent site, but it is significant that a supposed Roman marching camp known as Hare Faulds is close by.  As well as occupying royal sites, early saints were known to have occupied similar fortifications in some instances.  The first element in this name actually means grey, though former antiquaries derived the meaning of the place as ‘the ditches of the strangers’.  Another informal name for the place is similarly wide of the mark:  Norway Dikes.  Whether this was a ‘genuine folk-name’ believed by locals or an invention by an antiquarian favouring tales of Viking battles is debatable.

   The later Nechtan, son of Dereleli, features in the work of the Venerable Bede, asking the Northumbrian king to send him masons so he can build a church in the Roman style, and it is thought by some that a portion of this building exists within the priory of Restenneth near Forfar.  It could be that this Nechtan is remembered in a tradition from outside our region. To the north, as reported in the late Affleck Gray’s Legends of the Cairngorms (1987).  Dunachton, in Badenoch,Inverness-shire (on the western shore of Loch Insh), was named possibly after a Pictish King Nechtan.  Nearby is a hill reputedly named after a Viking King Harold, and there were stories noted that the Picts and Vikings clashed in the vicinity.  Other traditions state that the elderly ruler Nechtan fought a pretender to his authority here, and this would tie-in with the recorded internecine wars between Picts in the early 8th century.

    Does this get us any closer to unravelling the stories behind Nechtan Morbet in Angus?  Truthfully, no.  St Buite is said by some to have died on the very day that St Columba was born, in the year 521.  Interestedly, Columba’s biographer St Adamnan attempted to bring his friend, the Pictish king Brude son of Bile – the victor of the Battle of Nechtansmere – back to life in the late 7th century.  But his fellow monks objected to the putative miracle.  The underlying message seems clear:  the Irish church had no further need of outlandish miracles to convert the Picts, as the task of Christianisation had long been accomplished.

   Buite’s name is said to be commemorated in the burn named the Kerbet  which runs from the Sidlaws through Angus and past Kinnettles Church.  He is the patron on Kinnettles kirk.  The united churches of Dunnichen-Kirkden-Letham have been ‘twinned’ with that of Buite’s foundation of Monasterboice.

Window from Lowson Memorial Church, Forfar, depicting St Buite praying beside the body of King Nechtan.

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