A subject I have returned to several times during the lifetime of this blog is the unresolved question of how Irish was the region now know as Angus during the Pictish period, prior to the 9th century.
There are a few tantalising clues, but the facts about the Irish in the area compete hard against the unproven legends and neither side seems to win out completely against the other. Why do we know about the Irish presence in our region? Angus the county, of course, bears a conspicuously Irish name, being named (probably) either after the king Angus mac Fergus or the people known as the Cenél nÓengusa. The mists of time have obscured all certainty about either of these theories. There are tales too that the great Irish warlord Nath-I fought in the province of Circinn (the Pictish name for Angus and the Mearns), though what he was doing here is unknown. Elsewhere I have written about the tale of the Irish hero driven out from his own land and who created a dynasty in the land of the Picts. His name was Conall Corc.
The above stories took place in the twilight just before the advent of written history. Closer to true history perhaps are the events which took place in the late 6th century. I looked at these details again during research for my forthcoming book on the fierce warlord Áedán mac Gabráin, king of Dál Riata. (Available from Pen & Sword.)
One of this king's known battles happened in Circenn, though we are wholly lacking any details about it. Further confusion involves the mention of a battle he fought against a presumably Pictish people or confederation known as the Miathi, which occurs in the Life of St Columba. This tribe was known to have been active in the area around Stirling, known as Manau, several hundred years earlier.
Confusion abounds. Did they migrate north to Angus? Have all these battles been confused, or were they military skirmishes which happened as a prolonged campaign by the Scots of the west against the southern Picts? We can't know for sure. What did Áedán himself want in this region? From what we know of his other campaigns, he was not a ruler who primarily sought to expand his territory. However, he may have given his blessing to campaigns which were waged by his sons. One of his sons was named Gartnait and it has been convincingly argued that he was a king of the Picts. Áedán may have married a royal Pictish woman which gave Gartnait a claim to territory in the east. The historian W.J. Watson, in his classic work History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland (1926), speculated that Áedán was the son of a woman whose father was the legendary hero named Brachan, who gave his name to Brechin in Angus. To bolster this claim, he derived the name of Gowrie, the area immediately to the west of Angus, from Áedán's father.
The relationship between Áedán and the Picts may be even more intriguing if we consider him alongside the most renowned Pictish leader of the era, Bridei mac Maelchon. Bridei was based in northern Pictland and possibly ruled from a power centre near modern Inverness. It was here that the Irish cleric St Columba encountered him on more than one occasion. Although it was claimed by some sources that Columba converted the warlord to Christianity, the Irish sources do not admit this. Columba's contact was diplomatic, relating to the safety of Irish people in the far north, both fellow clerics and secular people who had been enslaved by the Picts. The record of his contact tells of ferocious ideological disagreement with the pagan powers at the epicentre of the Pictish establishment.
The first time we hear about the nascent Irish kingdom of Áedán in a military sense, it is the flight of its warband under their king Gabráin, Áedán's father. Like him or not, Bridei was the primary power holder in the north of Britain. But did he hold sway in southern Pictland. There is a current emphasis among historians to assert the importance of northern Pictland, beyond the Grampians, over the southern territories. And yet, the truth may be more complex. These southern provinces, comprising Angus, much of Perthshire, Fife, and other regions, comprised much of the most fertile farming land in Scotland. Its resources were undoubtedly greater than the areas to the north. Greater resources signal greater power.
If Bridei did not control the south, he would have had aspirations to do so. A misplaced entry in the Irish Annals of Tigerach possibly gives us a clue about events in the land of the southern Picts. Under the year 752 there is a bald entry which says: 'The battle of Asreth in the land of Circenn, between Picts on both sides; and in it fell Bridei, Maelchon's son.' It has been convincingly argued that the entry has been misplaced by two 84-year Easter cycles and that it relates to a early battle in the early 580s. There was no Pictish king of the same name otherwise known in the mid 8th century.
Bridei's opponent may have been an obscure Pictish leader known as Galam Cennaleth. The latter probably did not enjoy the victory, if it was his. Very soon the son of Áedán held sway over Circenn and the south. But was Áedán an ally or foe of the previously all-powerful Bridei. There is no knowing for sure. But it may be that the wily king of Dál Riata watched from afar in armed neutrality as the Picts fought themselves and then stepped in to conquer, as seems to have been his habit against enemies in Ireland.