Tuesday, 22 May 2018

The Battle of Dún Nechtain, A Rearguard Action in Defence of Dunnichen

The battle somewhere in Pictland, during which the Picts supposedly threw off the yoke of the over-reaching of the Northumbrians, is a puzzle on several levels.  At the simplest level, there is the name.  By the English it was called Nechtan’s Mere, by the Scots the Battle of Dún Nechtain, and by the Britons - who spoke a tongue which would have been intelligible with Pictish - the site of the battle was named Lyn Garan, the Crane’s (or Heron'sLake.  In modern times the place of this encounter has been questioned, a challenge to the assumption made in the early 19th century and broadly believed ever since that the fight occurred at Dunnichen in Angus.  The recent speculation that the battle actually happened north of the Grampians runs parallel the recent seismic identification of the powerful Pictish province of Fortriu in the same area, when previously it was believed to have encompassed Strathearn and surrounding areas.

My previous post on the subject constituted a brief summary of the event (together with a supposedly ghostly re-enactment) and there was also a related piece about the associations of King Nechtan with Angus and beyond (In Search of King Nechtan in Angus and Elsewhere).

The Bare Bones

We know that the Pictish and Northumbrian armies clashed on a Saturday afternoon, 20 May 685.  The respective armies were led by Bridei (or Brude) son of Beli and Ecgfrith son of Oswiu.  The forty-year-old English ruler was slain with the greater part of his war-band and the result was that the Pictish territories gained their freedom from foreign rule. Northumbria had been shown unremitting territorial aggression for decades, eliminating the British kingdoms of Elmet, Rheged and Gododdin, hemming in the Strathclyde Britons, plus battling their English rivals of Mercia.  

Some Original Sources

James Fraser helpfully brings together the early English, Welsh and Irish references to the battle in his book and they mostly also appear, in translation, in Early Sources of Scottish History

The Anonymous Life of Cuthbert has that saint foretelling the king’s death to his own sister, Aelfleda, a year before the event.  At the actual time of the battle Cuthbert was inspecting the Roman remains at Carlisle when he had a vision of the disaster.  Though it is proclaimed as a defeat, no details are given. Stephan’s Life of St Wilfrith, written around 720, gives a prelude to the battle, relating how, in the previous year, the Picts who had been in subjection to the English rose in revolt and a Northumbrian force was sent to quell them.  Ecgfirth and his commander Beornheth slew such a number of them that two rivers were clogged up with their corpses.

The Venerable Bede preludes his account of the battle by telling how the Northumbrian noble Berct went to Ireland and ravaged church lands there.  This was taken as not only an unwise attack on innocent people, but a fateful reason for the following year’s defeat.  Ecgfrith, says Bede, was warned by friends not to attack the Picts.  It is Bede who states that the battle occurred in a mountainous place, yet he also states that a major consequence of the defeat was the Picts regaining their freedom, as did some of the Irish living in Britain and a section of the Britons.  The English bishop at Abercorn was forced to abandon his base.  All of which arguably points to a series of political changes which primarily affected south and west Scotland and may point to the battle being in the area of Pictland adjacent to these other nations.  

Dunnichen Stone, currently in the Meffan Museum, Forfar

The Cousins, the Four Nations

The fact that Bridei and Ecgfrith were distantly related is a side-point in the discussion of the battle, albeit it shows the wider regional and inter-national concerns of families ruling in the north of England and in Scotland.  The Northumbrian prince Eanfrith had been exiled in Pictland in the early part of the century and became attached to a Pictish princess. Their son Talorcan became king of the Picts. Both British Strathclyde and English Northumbria both wanted to exercise controlling interest in the lands to the north of them, and at time in the English case, direct rule over the southern part of Pictland, and therefore we could be justified as seeing southern Pictland as the prize decisively claimed on the battlefield in 685, and another circumstantial piece of support that the encounter took place in the disputed area.

  In chapter 57 of the Welsh Historia Brittonum it is stated that Ecgfrith fought against his fratuelem (cousin) Bridei, ‘and there he fell with all the strength of his army, and the Picts and their king were victorious, and the English thugs never grew [strong enough] from that battle to extract tribute from the Picts. It was called the battle of Lyn Garan.’

Alex Woolf translates the text as:  ‘It is this Ecgfrith who fought a battle against his parallel cousin, who was king of the Picts, by name Bredei.’

A.O. Anderson states that:
Brude’s mother’s father must have been one of the sons of Æthelfrith.  But since we may assume that Brude claimed part of the kingdom through his mother, her father must have been a descendant of Eanfrith, who married a Pictish princess (617 x 633), and whose son Talorcan held the Pictish throne from 653 to 657.  The dates seem to decide that Brude must have been Eanfrith’s grandson, not Talorcan’s.’

Alfred Smyth, acting on the undisputed fact that the victor of the battle was son of the British king of Dumbarton, Bili, states that Bridei’s victory cemented Strathclyde’s overlordship of the southern part of Pictland.  A. O. Anderson tellingly suggested that Bridei inherited Pictland south of the Tay from his father and the lands to the north from his mother’s family.  Perhaps this should be amended to a situation where he claimed Pictland south of the Grampians from his father (or grandfather’s) territorial claims, and the lands to the north from his mother’s kin.

Even supposing that the northerly position of Fortriu is now accepted, this does not exclusively place Bridei in that area; his southern associations were indisputable as a son of the ruling house of Strathclyde. The wider campaign featured a sustained and, on the surface, surprising campaign by the Northumbrians against Ireland.  Smyth again points out that this was at least partly motivated by the undoubted presence of a displaced and extremely active British war band there, whom he suggests had originated in either Rheged or Gododdin, British territories which the Northumbrians were actively encompassing into their realm.  Leslie Alcock suggests that the English may have taken hostages while in Ireland to prevent Irish allies actively assisting Strathclyde and/or the Picts in military action in the north of Britain, though the theory that Northumbria would have launched a strike in foreign territory solely to subdue the possible intervention of Irish powers in northern Scotland seems rather weak.  Whatever the motivation for the expedition, it has to be admitted that Ecgfrith’s long-reach to Ireland supports a military capability to send a force into northern Pictland, albeit a naval raid is logistically easier than a long-range land campaign.

   The monks of Meath extended their enmity  (if not an actual formalised curse against the violence of the northern English monarch).  A poem ascribed to Riagual of Bangor preserves the hatred against the Northumbrian:

Iniu Feras Bruide Cath
Today Bruide gives battle

over his grandfather’s land [or, for his grandfather's heritage]

unless it is the command of God’s son

that it be restored.

Today Oswiu’s son was slain

in battle against iron [blue]swords 

even though he did penance,

it was penance too late.

Today Oswiu’s son was slain,

Who used to have dark drinks: [black draughts]

Christ has heard our prayer

That Bruide would save Brega [?]

Picts and Northumbrians after the Battle

It has frequently been claimed that the Picts regained their independence after the battle, which supposes they had lost it (at least partially) before 685.  Warfare between Picts and the northern English continued intermittently for some time, into the 8th century, though perhaps the scale was not so great as the encounter at Nechtansmere.  In the year 698 the dux Berctred (perhaps a royal leader) of the Northumbrians was slain by the Picts at a place unknown.  One sources calls him the consul of King Ecgfrith and interestingly states that he too fell victim of Irish curses, in retaliation for raids on churches in that land.  It states that he went into Pictish territory to avenge Ecgfrith and there too met his end.

   In the year 711 another high-ranking noble, Bertfrid (the ‘prefect’ of King Osred), also described as ‘second prince from the king’, was victorious against the Picts.  The similarity of his name to the official who died in 698 (and also the Northumbrian who ravaged Ireland in the 680s) may mean they were close relatives.  By the time Bede wrote his Historia Ecclesiastica in 731 there was a treaty of peace between Angles and Picts.  This had its roots in the actions of the Pictish king Nechtan mac Derile who, several years earlier, as Bede recounts, asked Ceolfrid the Abbot of Jarrow to send him writings concerning the correct date of Easter and also architects so he could build a church of stone in the Roman manner.  It is important to bear in mind F. T. Wainwright’s warning not to overestimate the importance of the battle.  The event was not a permanent turning point in the power struggles of the four northern nations, nor a proto Bannockburn.  The Picts may have regained independence, but further defeats were inflicted upon them by the English.  The Northumbrians held sway up to the Forth and the Britons may have temporarily gained the upper hand, but in the following century they suffered further military and territorial defeats by the English.  The Scots of Dalriada, in the wings meanwhile, had to wait a century for the beginning of their ascendancy. 

The Pros and Cons of the Place Claimants

   The following points regarding the pros and cons of Strathmore v Badenoch as the battle site are intended more for illustration of the issues rather than a fully weighed balancing of the respective merits of each place.

    The landscape of both Dunnichen in Angus and Dunnachton in Badenoch, Inverness-shire, have naturally changed a great deal in the centuries since 685 AD,  Arguably the change has been greater in the former, with unremitting human settlement, farming and drainage vastly altering the land.  Nechtan's Mere itself has been drained, and it is likely that it once formed a chain of lochs in this part of Strathmore.  Without going into detail there are disputes about the exact location of the battlefield, even if we accept that the battle was fought in this locality.  Fraser and Alcock have differing views, which we will not go into here.  Another interesting point is the location of possible local power bases which Bridei may have used.  The fort on Dunnichen seems to have been rather small, as far as we can judge, but the complex of duns and forts on Turin Hill, not far north at Rescobie (one of which was known as Kemp's Castle), looks more promising as the putative regional power base for the whole region. (Turin will be the subject of a future post.)

For Dunachton:  The mountainous terrain matches the brief description in one Northumbrian source.

Against Dunachton:  Considerable distance from the main territory of the Northumbrians. No supplementary evidence that there was either a battle in the area of that this was a conspicuous focus of Pictish power.  The symbol stone at Dunachton is an earlier example (formerly known as Class I) and does not have any representations of battle, fighting or armed men; nor do there seem to be any such stones (similar to the Aberlemno stone) within the vicinity of Dunachton.   There are no major  known Dark Age Pictish strongholds in the area.

For Dunnichen:  The Pictish stone at Aberlemno undoubtedly portrays a major battle and is the only surviving representation of battle on any Pictish stone, only 5km from Dunnichen.    The proximity of the probably hill fort on Dunnichen Hill, plus another several miles away on Turin Hill.

Against Dunnichen:  Geography does not seem to match description of mountainous terrain in the English description given by Bede.
It has to be stated that nowhere is it stated that the Battle of Dunnichen/Nechtansmere/ Dún Nechtain actually took place in the kingdom or district of Fortriu, so the consequence of Fortriu’s re-alignment is almost irrelevant to the placement of the battle. James Fraser wrote his Battle of Dunnichen before the publication of Alex Woolf’s article.  In From Caledonia to Pictland he acknowledges the merits of Dunachton as a possible alternative location for the battle, but still advises that Dunnichen should not be ruled out.  There is the powerful neighbouring presence of the Aberlemno stone and also, as he points out, this is the zone from which the Northumbrians were rulers and were now removed.

In terms of the viability of a large war band striking out from home territory (south of the Forth in this case) into hostile lands, it would have necessitated a short, decisive campaign and Badenoch may have been beyond its practical reach.  The Annals of Ulster seem to state that Ecgfrith burned a place called Tulla Aman, in Strathearn, as part of a campaign before the battle.  Following such slash and burn tactics with a strike into the deep, unknown north, with the enemy fully forewarned of his scorched earth actions, would surely have been unthinkable for an experienced campaigner, as it would have given the Picts time and opportunity to gather immense military reserves from a vast hinterland.

The Aberlemno battle stone.

The Battle Stone

   It would be churlish to deny that the Aberlemno stone shows a battle in progress.  Nine men are featured.  The top scene is construed (by Cruickshank) as a Pictish horseman pursuing a Northumbrian knight off the battlefield.  The middle scene shows - possibly - three Pictish foot soldiers fighting an enemy cavalry soldier. Two opposing horsemen face each other at the bottom of the stone, then there is the large, isolated figure at the bottom right, discussed below.

The Vagaries of Tradition, Angus and Badenoch

It would be impossible for anything to survive in tradition or folk memory which directly relates to the Battle of Dún Nechtain, though of course the Irish, English and Welsh written memorials of the event could arguably constitute early examples of this.  If we accept that the attribution of a battle at a place near the ‘fort/stronghold of Nechtan’ is legitimate and early, this can be explored further.  There was both a saint and several  Pictish kings who had the name Nechtan.  The battle could not have been named after the king Nechtan son of Derile who ruled in the early 8th century and was instrumental in intellectual and spiritual links with the kingdom of Northumbria. 

According to Affleck Gray, there were traditions of both a king named Nechtan and of warfare at Dunachton in Badenoch.  The present Dunachton House stands on the site of an earlier property and in close proximity to St Drostan’s Chapel, actually cited as Capella de Nachtan in the late 14th century.  This would seem to point to an association with the saint rather than the king, though at this remove in time it must remain unproven.  What remains in terms of folklore at Dunachton is a mixed bag of elements from various times, apparently.  To the west of the present Dunachton House is Tom a Mhòid, the Court of Justice Knoll, where local lairds dispensed justice from.  Close to this is another hill named Creag Righ Tharoild, supposedly named after a Viking chieftain.  The local tradition states that Nechtan defeated the Picts in this place.  It also states that the king was forced to abdicate by another royal Pict, who was then challenged by a second pretender in a bloody battle.  Following this, Nechtan resumed his rule in peace.  These seem to be references to the Pictish civil wars faced by Nechtan son of Derile in the early 8th century.  However, there was no Scandinavian element in these wars, as it was too early a date for Viking incursions. Based on this it could be surmised that the local traditions seem to be influenced by modern discussions of the reign of this latter Nechtan, perhaps superimposed on actual local associations with St Nechtan.

   At Dunnichen there is no recorded local tradition of warfare between Picts and Northumbrians, though in Angus  there are other supposed traditions of Picts fighting Scots (near Forfar and near Dundee) and at Barry (Picts fighting Vikings).  None of these ‘traditions’ mention Nechtan, and they are overwhelmingly literary and antiquarian in character, some of them invented by the locally born national historian Hector Boece.  Place-name and hagiographical material suggests that there was an association in Angus and the very northern part of Fife with a person of some importance named Nechtan at a very early date.  Dunnichen of course means ‘Fort of Nechtan’ and may tentatively be linked to a ruler of that name who held power in this vicinity.  A king named Nechtan is supposed to have been brought back to life at his fortress in Carbuddo in Angus by the 5th century Irish saint St Buitte son of Bronaig (founder of Mansterboice in County Louth.  The tale in present form is from the 12th century.)  This accords with the supposed propensity of saints to gain ownership of non-religious power bases, but there are problems identifying the exact location of this royal base in the area.

Postscript:  the King as Carrion

As stated above, one of the primary aims of armed conflict in the Dark Ages was to eliminate the leader of the opposing war-band.  That accomplished, would there have been any special treatment of the physical remains of the slain leader.  It is tempting to think that there would not have been, albeit of course that both Bridei and Ecgfrith were nominally Christians, and moreover actually distant relatives.  One later record (Symeon of Durham)states that the body of the slain Northumbrian was carried away to be buried in distant Iona.  The king's father Oswy and his uncle Oswald were exiled on the hold island and his own successor Aldfrith was also a monk among the Irish there, so the connection was strong and personal.  James Fraser however ingeniously hypothesises that the 'other' Island of St Columba was the actual place of burial, Inchcolm in the Firth of Forth.

   However that is, the undoubted fact is that Ecgfrith was slaughtered on the field.  There is a likelihood also, if we accept Cruickshank and others' support of the Aberlemno battle stone as a visual representation of the battle, that the figure on the bottom right represents the extremity or aftermath of that king.  The figure is proportionately larger than the others on the stone, signifying undoubted importance.  He is a helmeted warrior, with a shield either falling from his grasp or lying beside him.  This leads to an important point: is the stricken figure standing (and falling), or is he already prone on the ground?  It is really impossible to say, though I would guess that the man is caught in the act of falling down.  If this is the case he is being plainly attacked by a large bird which seems to be going for his face or throat.  Is it an eagle or other raptor symbolic of the other king, whose forces killed him, or a totem of Bridei's tribe?  On the other hand, if the body lies lifeless on the field of slaughter it may well be a not at all symbolic carrion bird which is helping itself to his flesh.

   There is another possibility, a shadowy adjunct to the theory of an attack on a live human. Is the bird in fact plucking out his eye?  Some birds were regarded as more than sinister or symbolic to various early Celtic and other peoples, and whatever species the bird here represents, it may be regarded as the shadow of a recently departed Pictish deity getting revenge on its tribal enemy.

   Nikolai Tolstoy pointed out the Welsh verse which hints at a lost legend featuring the north British  king Gwallawg:

Cursed be the white goose
Which tore the eye from the head
Of Gwallawg ab Llenawg, the chieftain.

Sources Consulted and Further Reading

Alcock, Kings and Warriors, Craftsmen and Priests in Northern Britain, AD 550-850, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2003.

Anderson, A. O., Early Sources of Scottish History, 1922, rep. Paul Watkins, Stamford, 1990.

Anderson, A. O., Scottish Annals from English Chroniclers, AD 500 to 1286, 1908, rep. Paul Watkins, Stamford, 1991.

Clancy, Thomas Owen, ed., The Triumph Tree, Scotland’s Earliest Poetry, AD 550-1350, Canongate Books, Edinburgh, 1998.

Coutts, Ancient Monuments in Tayside, Dundee Museum and Art Gallery, 1970.

Cruickshank, Graeme D. R., ‘The Battle of Dunnichen and the Aberlemno Battle-Scene,’ in Alba, Celtic Scotland and the Medieval Era, ed. E.j. Cowan and Andrew McDonald, Tuckwell Press, East Linton, 2000, 69-87.

Fraser, James E., From Caledonia to Pictland, Scotland to 795, Edinburgh University Press, 2009.

Fraser, James E., The Battle of Dunnichen, 685, Stroud, Tempus, 2002.

Gray, Affleck, Legends of the Cairngorms, Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh, 1987.

          Marsden, John, The Tomb of the Kings: An Iona Book of the Dead, Llanerch, Felinfach,

Morris, John, ed., Nennius, British History and the Welsh Annals, Phillimore, London and Chichester, 1980.

Small, Alan and Thoms, Lisbeth M., The Picts in Tayside, Dundee Museum and Art Gallery, n.d.

Smyth, Alfred P., Warlords and Holy Men, Scotland AD 80-1000, 1984, rep. Edinburgh University Press, 1989.

          Tolstoy, Nikolai, The Quest for Merlin, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1985.

Wainwright, F. T., ‘The Picts and the Problem’, in The Problem of the Picts, ed. F.T. Wainwright, 1955, rep. The Melven Press, Perth, 1980, 1-53.

Woolf, Alex, ‘Dún Nechtain, Fortriu and the Geography of the Picts’, Scottish Historical Review, vol. LXXXV, no. 220, October 2006, 182-201.


  1. I honestly love this website and blog and really admire the effort you've taken to dig into the history and folklore of the Angus area. Brilliant work.