Our objective today is to get to the eve of the Viking invasions, through the lives of Bridei, Adomnan and Onuist. We left the world of Northern Britain and indeed all Britain dominated by the Bernician Gorilla, with the accession to the Gorilla’s crown of Ecfrith in 670.
But let’s not be dull and just be tied to chronology; let’s start in the middle, because as Mary Poppins says, that’s a very good place to start. I am going to take you to a place called Dun Nechtain, or Nechtansmere. The year is 685. According to Bede, we are in a narrow place in remote and inaccessible mountains north of the Forth, deep in Pictland. Two armies face each other; on one side are bare headed, long haired Pictish warriors, on the other are the English with helmets and shields. The leader of the Picts is their king, Bridei, son of Beli; this means that he is in fact a Briton of Alt Clut by descent, but no one here questions his leadership. On the other side, the English were led in turn by the Northumbrian king, Ecfrith. How did these two armies get to be here?
When Oswiu died in 670, Pictland still dominated much of northern Britain, from the north west Atlantic coast, the northern Islands, the north east. Its northern kings of Fortriu rule from north of the Mounth; but Pictland appears very divided. The Kings of Fortriu themselves probably maintained very loose control, and relied on local lords to do their bidding, rather than exercising any kind of direct control. But also, Pictland appears to have been divided into a kind of dual monarchy, with kings north and south of the Mounth, and a loose, poorly understood relationship between them.
The Pictish king in Fortriu in 670 was one Drest. To his south, southern Pictland was now dominated by the Bernician gorilla, and in particular, a Northumbrian placeman called Beornhaeth ruled in Fife. Now here’s a lovely thing about the period; with just a minimum of information, you can interpret the following events with 180 degrees of difference. One interpretation has King Drest as a puppet of the Bernicians and Bridei as the original freedom fighter from the start; I am going to take the alternative approach, but if any of you want to argue with that, I will simply stand side and wave you through. I have no doubt your view is equally valid.
But the way I see it is that Drest was an independent king of Fortriu, facing a powerful, acquisitive competitor in the Bernicians and Northumbrians. I visualise him visiting his royal estates and tribute collection centres talk to his local lords of the growing threat from the Beernician client Beornhaeth to the south. I imagine him sighing and remarking lugubriously, ‘it’s funny how just when you think life can’t possibly get any worse it suddenly does’.
Enter Bridei, stage left. Bridei is a good example of the interconnectedness of the different peoples that inhabit northern Britain. As an aside, the traditional history of Scotland emphasises these 4 ethnic groups, neatly divided into kingdoms with impermeable walls – Gaelic Dal Riada, Pictland, British Strathclyde, English Bernicia. In fact as we have already seen, Dal Riada was very divided itself between its kindreds, and Pictland the same. Strathclyde was part of a series of British kingdoms that straddle what is now the border with England; Bernicia was much more than an English kingdom nibbling south eastern Scotland. Bridei was a cousin of the new Bernician king, Ecfrith in 670. He was the son of a man called Beli, who was a Briton and king of Alt Clut. This also meant he was the brother of the Eugein who defeated and killed Domnall Brecc of Dal Riada.
It is possible that the accommodation between the Bernician empire and Alt Clut under Oswiu meant that one of King Beli’s sons was sent to the Bernician court as a hostage – maybe this was Bridei. Maybe while he was there, the young Bridei made contacts and built support. So when in 671, Bridei appears on the king list of Fortriu, in place of Drest, it appears likely that he gained the throne of Fortriu with the help of his powerful Bernician friends, and the likes of Beornhaeth in southern Pictland. And that then the political situation began to offer other possibilities.
Because Bernician dominance began to be threatened. In the Dal Riadan kindred, the son of Domnall Brecc who had been helped to kingship by Oswiu was killed. The regime that followed appears to have been a new kindred, with Pictish links. Over the 10 years following Bridei’s accession, he appears to have played politics in Dal Riada; and just as the Dal Riadan king had previously relied on support from Oswiu, now the Dal Riadan king relied on Bridei’s support from Fortriu. Bridei might have gained the Pictish throne with the help of Ecfrith; but he had no intention of being his puppet for ever. Dal Riada was the first step, and Ecfrith’s control began to slip.
In 679, Ecfrith suffered a major reverse in the south, decisively defeated by the Mercians of Aethelred, and Mercian supremacy began to re-assert itself. This must have encouraged Bridei that Ecfrith’s control was nowhere as strong as his Dad’s had been. He’d loosened the ties between Bernicia and Dal Riada; now was the time to challenge Bernicia in southern Pictland.
But first, it was time to make sure of his control over the peripheries of Pictland; and so in 680 it is recorded that he, ‘annihilated’ the Orcadians. Then in the 680’s there are sieges in southern Pictland of major hillforts, north of the Tay; it looks as though Bridei had therefore come out of the Bernician closet and was openly defying their supremacy and the supremacy of their placeman Beornhaeth north of the Forth Clyde line.
This gives a rather more solid explanation of why in 685, Ecfrith came north with his army, often described as seemingly unexplained aggression. Ecfrith’s control was slipping on the northern reaches of his empire, just as it had already slipped on the southern edges. He needed to do something.
Bede tells us that Ecfrith’s campaign was, quote,
‘to ravage the province of the Picts, much against the advice of his friends, and particularly of Cuthbert, of blessed memory, who had been lately ordained his bishop.
I can imagine that interview, of Cuthbert trying the persuade Ecfrith to walk the path of peace, and Ecfrith’s, exasperated response, maybe along the lines of ‘well that’s Ok for you Cuthie-baby, all you have to do is have a chat with the good lord from time to time, I’ve got a brutal oppressive empire to run here’. And so Ecfrith took his armies north.
The armies met finally at the place called Dun Nechtain or Nechtansmere. It’s by no means sure where it is located, but traditionally it’s been Dunnichen, in Angus, due to the place name analysis and a stone just 3 miles away depicting a battle, as described at the start of the episode. There has been much debate, which has recently reached a new conclusion. What Bede said was:
the enemy made show as if they fled, and the king was drawn into the straits of inaccessible mountains
Now Angus is notably lacking in inaccessible mountains. It’s all rather green and pleasant. So now the proposal is a place called Dunachton on the shores of Loch Insh deep in the Grampians of the Mounth, far further north, and more than adequately supplied with inaccessible mountains. So it’s there that we think Ecfrith fought for his empire and honour far from home, and Bridei fought for the independence of his people and his own Pictish empire. Bede tells us that Ecgrith was
slain with the greatest part of his forces, on the 20th of May, in the fortieth year of his age, and the fifteenth of his reign
Now then, historians don’t like turning points any more. But Nechtansmere has been seen as a turning point, and historians or no historians it’s very difficult to resist, but let’s just don the open toed sandal of academia for a moment, and agree that nechtansmere was in no way the end of Bernician power, nor of Bernician power north of Hadrian’s wall, either. Ecfrith’s successors would re-establish their control of south east Scotland, and indeed even extend it into South Western Scotland and Galloway. But never again would they venture over the Forth Clyde line, and Fife once more became Pictish. The prospect of a Bernician empire stretching to the Orkney and Shetland islands and covering all north Britain was dead and gone.
Bridei died in 692. His reign and those of his successors form a turning point in other ways. Pictland had always been a split kingdom as we’ve said, with rival southern Pictish kings, based possibly in Atholl. Atholl, incidentally, has traditionally been a symbol of the dominance of Gaelic culture, part of the traditional story of Scotland which emphasises the Gaelic ancestry, to the detriment of the British. That’s because Atholl’s name has been translated from Gaelic as ‘another Ireland.’ Recent research has questioned this, and given the meaning based on Brittonic as ‘north pass’. The renaming is symbolic in a way, since it replicates the movement to re-balance the importance of the Picts in Scotland’s history.
Bridei is an important part of that. From his reign onwards, the centrifugal forces in Pictland lessen. So although the procession of kings supply evidence that maintaining a grip on rule was far from a doddle, none the less, Bede would be able to write with confidence of a single gens pictorum, a Pictish people, a single Pictland.
Although historians moan about the traditional ethnic tetrarchy we’ve talked about of Gaels, Picts, Britons and English, actually after Bridei the concept begins to acquire more relevance. The Gaels develop their foundation story of their Irish descent; the Picts their story of a descent from Scythia. It marks an intangible transition from the post antique world of Caledonians and Maiathai, to a medieval one of more coherent kingdoms. Part of that was the part the church played in medieval state forming; a partnership between ecclesiastical and secular leaders that lent secular power to support the church and the power of God to lend a spiritual strength to kings. Which brings us to the fourth bloke in our plan, Adomnan.
Adomnan was born in Ireland into one of the kindred of the Ui Neil around 627; and until 679, that’s all we can say with any certainty, which is impressive I’m sure you will agree. It appears though that he made something of a reputation for himself, though his latter fame was hardly indicated by an early meteoric career. But it appears that he knew the 8th Abbot of Iona, and in 670 he became the 9th Abbot.
Adomnan became famous largely for two works; the life of St Colomba to which we have already referred; and a book about the holy places of the holy lands. He’s also famous because Bede wrote about him, describing him thus:
He was a good and wise man with an excellent knowledge of the scriptures
It is quite possible that Bede and Adomnan met or at least were in the same place at the same time, since Adomnan visited Jarrow when Bede would have been a teenager in 688. Adomnan saw it as an important part of his duties to travel to monasteries all over Ireland and Northern Britain, and he did as much or more than anyone to promote the position of Iona within the various kingdoms. Afterall, in 664, at the synod of Whitby, Iona had seemed to suffer what could have been quite a blow to her influence and prestige with the ruling to adopt the Roman tradition. Iona did not follow, nor did the Irish church; it meant among other things, that Lindisfarne was no longer part of Iona’s paruchia, her sphere of influence. There would have been a very real danger that Iona would become isolated, especially given the power at the time of the Bernician kings.
But in fact what happened was that Adomnan’s ceaseless work with monasteries and secular leaders all over Ireland and Northern Britain helped continue and enhance Iona’s influence. In Pictland, Bridei son of Beli was closely followed by another Bridei; both were concerned with building and consolidating the power of the Pictish kingdom, both understood the importance of the church in achieving that. From 680 onwards, Pictland was characterised by the concept of a single Pictish church, forged and defined by the Iona leadership. It helped that Ecfrith’s successor in Bernicia, Aldrith, had been a monk at Iona, and was therefore friendly with and influenced by Adomnan.
Adomnan’s also famous of course due to his Law of Innocents which we touched on in episode 5, and which was achieved in 697; a feature of Ionan influence, then, was the adoption by ecclesiastical institutions across all northern Britain of responsibility to monitor observance of this law.
Nonetheless, you would think that the persistent refusal to adopt the Roman apostolic tradition would be a problem, especially with the Bernicians who had adopted it. A feature of the Bede’s commentary on Adomnan is the claim that Adomnan spent much of his later years trying to persuade Iona and the Irish church to also move Rome-wards, with a resulting split between him and Iona. In fact there seems to be no evidence of this by the time he died, in 704.
As it happens, though, Iona’s primacy did not last long. 716 was a dramatic year in the religious world north of the Wall. The two events appear connected, though quite possibly they are not. Firstly, the King of the Picts, a chap called Naiton, decided at a congress of churchmen that the Roman rule would now be followed throughout Pictland. As it happens, the adoption of roman practice was not restricted to Pictland; Iona accepted the inevitable as well, apparently without great dispute. 50 years late, obviously, but better late than never I guess. Secondly, even more dramatically, Naiton expelled all the familia of Iona from Pictland and sent Ionan monks home.
Well, I never did. What’s going on here? Afterall just a moment ago Iona had been Pictland’s big bud in nation forming, Naiton’s action look like a conscious rejection of Iona, which was afterall a monastery based in the territory of dal Riada; and so answers have been sought in politics. Because at the time Pictish influence in Atlantic Scotland was slipping with the rise of a new strong man there. Selbach was a warlord of Lorn in the northern regions of Dal Riada; he had defeated the Britons of Alt Clut in 711, and crushed the dominant Cenel nGabrain to bring all dal Riada under his control. Meanwhile the Pictish king had also suffered defeats in the Orkney Islands. Maybe it was defeat in dal raida which made nation look to weaken Iona.
It’s possible; but it’s equally possible that this was just the next stage in nation forming. The two Bridei’s had recognised the importance of a single Pictish church. What they’d got was actually a church dominated by a single monastery not based in their kingdom, with an administration that was inevitably strained by distance. The decision was more likely to reflect the need to bring the organisation of the Pictish church under its own Bishops, much more regionally based, and likely to be much more manageable. Before I move on to our last character, Oengus, I might note that both Selbach and Naiton abdicated by cutting their hair and retiring to monasteries; cutting their hair referring to the now finally adopted Roman practice of tonsuring monks.
Sadly, Naiton doesn’t seem to have concentrated on a smooth transition to a new regime; because his departure led to years of conflict to establish a new king of the Picts. Pictland again split into two kingdoms, north and south in the confusion.
One of the candidates for kingship was a man called Unuist, or Oengus in gaelic. Unuist came from the Mearns, an area of the east coast of Scotland south of Aberdeen. He appears to have had no great claim on the Pictish throne, but he had the kind of military genius with was inevitably reasonably handy in this situation. He was also unlikely to have been a spring chicken; he was probably around 40 when this opportunity to shine presented itself. It’s a game of thrones thing really. Unuist’s first objective was to win control of Southern Pictland. In 728 Unuist and his cohors, his household warriors, overwhelmed the Southern Pictish king, Elphin, and by so doing captured the royal treasury. Elphin had withdrawn to a new stronghold, but Unuist pursued, Elphin was overwhelmed and fled – possibly to a monastery near Dublin.
Great – general rubbing of hands and high fiving, but Southern Pictland was not enough for Unuist. Onwards. In Northern Pictland, another Drest had become King, and hauled the old king, Naiton, out of his monastery to lend lusture to his claims. Unuist declared himself Naiton’s liberator and descended on Drest at Loch Lochy in the Great Glen, delivered a thrashing, but was left with hands clutching at air as Drest slipped away. But Unuist was relentless; Drest was killed by Unuist’s warriors in 729. Pictland was once more re-united under one king.
That king appears to have been Naiton. Now this is rather fascinating. Again, I’m assuming you all have in your mind, ‘right, this is the dark ages, so there’s a lot of guesswork going on.’ So we don’t know the details, but it appears that Naiton was not returned to his monastery after Unuist won his war, and so presumably was returned to the throne until 732 when he finally croaked. But his new liberator Onuist was by his side, and a number of Naiton’s kinsmen met their end, which looks awfully like Onuist preparing the runway for his succession. So, 729-732 for Naiton could have been, well, awkward. King Theoden like.
Now, if you want a good reputation down the ages, there is one golden rule – don’t annoy the folks writing the chronicles. Sadly for Unuist, the chronicles were being written in Dal Riada and Northumbria, both places with whom he was to make trouble. Having said that, being an aggressive, battle loving sort of bloke did make him popular with the poets and bard; so he gets a good write up from one of them who sang;
Good the day when Oengus took Alba, hilly Alba with its strong princes; he brought battle to seats, with boards, with feet and hands, and with broad shields
The ASC was less complimentary, to the point, frankly of being unkind:
A despotic butcher who stained the beginning of his reign with criminal blood and continued to do likewise right up to the end
Rude, I imagine Unuist would have been hurt, had he known.
However, it is quite possible to see why Onuist would have attracted negative press. Onuist was a hegemon on a grand scale, who played the game of politics which some gusto, panache, and a lack of scruple. If you wanted to be a hegemon, or if indeed if you out there listening have plans for such a career move, it is quite clear that squeamishness and delicacy of feeling is not a helpful attribute. Onuist’s playground in Northern Britain and Ireland is unbelievably complicated, so I am going to boil it right down here to the basic jus, or gravy as we call it here. Onuist had a rival in Athol, Southern Pictland. That rival had friends in Dal Riada, ruling Kintyre. During the resulting tussle, Onuist’s son was dragged from a monastery by his rivals; it’s not explicit what happens to him, but we assume fragrant garland and songs of praise were not part of it. Though oddly, he did not actually die until 740, after his brother had established control over Dal Riada. Huh. We don’t know what to think of that.
Onuist then cleared the decks for action. He established an alliance with the Irish king of Cashel, presumably to stifle support for Dal Raida from Ireland. Similarly, he appears to have agreed a peace with the Northumbrians south of the Forth. Then, over the years to 741, Onuist brutally put his rivals in Dal Riada to the sword – or to the water might be a better way of putting it.
In 734, he appears to have colluded with the brother of his rival in Kintyre, with the result that said rival was ritually drowned, and his rival in Athol was, quote, ‘completely bound’. Five years later he too would be ritually drowned. There’s no detail, but ritual drowning of political rivals seems to be a thing; there’s another example in 851 in Ireland. I’m visualising this – and if you are squeamish, and therefore poorly designed for the career of a hegemon, you might want to turn away now. I’m visualising a cold clear loch. I’m visualising the assembled peoples watching as their king describes the crimes of the vanquished. I’m visualising the rival brought forward, bloodied and bowed, his head thrust under the cold waters, and his lifeless body dragged clear to the jeering of the crowd. I’m going to stop visualising now.
In 736, Onuist himself led a devastating campaign into Dal Riada. It was described as ‘Percutio Dal Riatai’, the smiting of Dal Riada. Onuist’s brother Talorcan actually won the battle against the host of Dal riada, quote, ‘in which encounter many nobles fell’. Onuist meanwhile seems to have been leading a second Pictish army against the Gaelic stronghold of Dunadd, capturing it, burning it. As a result, Dunadd, the stronghold and symbol of the power of Dal Riada, seems to have been largely deserted until as late as 800. It’s 30 years until the Irish chronicles mention Dal Riada again.
It appears that Onuist then turned his attention southwards to the Northumbrian kingdoms of Lothian. Once again Onuist worked on a big scale. The dominant force in England was no once again mighty Mercia, and Aethelbald, who dominated Anglo Saxon England for 40 years; Onuist and Aethelbald forged an alliance. The entry in the ASC seems to suggest a sort of partnership of all Britain – a king in the north and a king in the south. Which of course will eventually prove to be a popular model.
Squeezed between Mercia and Pictland, the Northumbrian future must have looked uncertain; but seems to have survived rather successfully, since we later hear of the same Northumbrian king extending his rule into south west Scotland, Ayrshire. In 744 we also hear of the Britons of Alt Clut defeating the Picts. A few things emerge; Onuist remained an aggressive blighter. And that the Britons of Alt Clut, though we know very little about them remained formidable despite pressure from Pictland and Northumbria. Onuist’s setbacks in 744 seemed to come to ahead in 750, when there’s a weird reference to his rule coming to an end; then a series of battles the big one being at Mugdock where Onuist brother dies. The actual passage of events in very obscure, but it seems to be that Onuist abdicated, and in the resulting chaos his family lost out; and which point white charger met shining armour and Onuist returned to rule again, which he did all the way through to 761, a rule of over 30 years. During that period the Britons of Alt Clut appear to have finally been forced to heel; not devastated as the Dal Riadans, but forced to recognise Pictish overlordship.
There’s been a lot of A meets B and C sticks a knife into D and so on over the last couple of episodes. Before dealing with Aed Find, our finishing point for the day, it might be a good idea to reflect briefly on what the careers of Bridei, Naiton and Onuist tell us about Pictland and Northern Britain.
Firstly, it seems very likely that the model of kingship and rule in Pictland followed Northumbrian models rather than Irish and Dal Riadan. Onuist partnered with a single Pictish church; and it seems to be during Onuist’s reign that the predecessor of the glorious town of St Andrews was founded in the East Neuk of Fife, and the first hints of the cult of St Andrew appear. Onuist seems to have alienated land through grants to followers and church. Like any later medieval king, he relied on his lieutenants to perpetuate and execute his rule; men called maers who were like Northumbrian royal reeves in running royal estates, and collecting tribute from their locality. Royal business was probably carried out at open air assembly places; place names which include Comdal, or meeting place, are common in northern and southern Pictland.
As we mentioned earlier, this is a period where the northern British region that will be Scotland completes its moves from late antiquity to early medieval; away from the period dominated by the relationship or memory of Roman Britain, and the tribes and peoples that had interacted with it – Maiathai, Caledonii, Uotadini and so on. By 761, Pictland appears to have defined itself much more clearly and positively, adopting its own foundation myths, creating it’s own church, making choices.
This is also a period that gives the lie to the Gaelocentric myth that will appear in following century. Let us have a hack at this one then, briefly. Models of the Pictish contribution to Scottish history vary, but by and large share a common theme; of inferiority to the later dominant and victorious Gaelic regime and people. Views of the importance of Pictland have varied from the enigmatic, rather weird one we’ve discussed before; to rather suspicious view of the Picts as being characterised only by a resistance to the church and the learning it brought; to a frankly dismissive one which has Pictland as little more than the plaything of the Northumbrians, Britons of Alt Clut and particularly Dal Riada. That the rise of dal Riada was kind of inevitable, and would be the story of Pictish defeat at the hands of their Gaelic rivals.
This is a theme we’ll continue in future episodes of course, and the later dominance of gaelic culture does need to be explained; but over the last 2 episodes we’ve seen the lie of this; we’ve seen Pictland dominate, and we’ve seen Bernicia and Northumbria play an integral part in Scotland’s early history. We’ve seen that while Pictland became an integrated kingdom, Dal Riada remained divided between its kindred and subject to Pictish power.
The Historian James Fraser illustrates the point that Dal Riada’s influence in this period has been overstated by using the very famous Dal Riadan record, handily abbreviated to the Senchus. It is a rather impressive piece of administration, which lists the number of households of the kindred of Dal Riada; and the point Fraser makes is that it is probably based on the common concept of a household unit being sufficient to maintain one warrior and send them fully equipped to war. That’s the same principle as the Anglo Saxon hide; and a similar Pictish land unit which survives later in the Scots word davoch. If the Dal Riadan survey is remotely accurate then it gives us an idea of the relative sizes of the kindreds. It may also give a point of comparison with the Anglo Saxons. Thjis is how it breaks down:
To the Cenél NINusa on Islay it gives 430 households
To the Cenél nGabráin [NAVRAIN] in Kintyre it gives the largest share of 560 and finally to the Cenél Comgaill [KOVYAIL] in Lorn it gives 420.
All adding up to a total of 1410. Well, it’s interesting that Lorn has such a leading part in Dal Riadan history given it appears to be the smallest, but that’s probably it’s geographical location in the middle of the three and closest to Pictland. But the point James Fraser makes is that if you compare that to the English Tribal hidage it gives you some comparison; Dal Riada comes out as slightly larger than the Isle of Wight, and just 20% of the size of the South Saxons; and crucially just 5% of the size of Mercia. Fraser makes the point that with a size like this, Dal Riada is playing in a completely different power league to the likes of Mercia, Northumbria and Pictland, all of which would have had vastly more resources. Northumbria with all its resources, able to successfully resist Mercia was yet unable to overcome Pictland – so what was it exactly that makes us thing Dal Riada would have had the resources to take over or dominate Pictland?
This sort of reflection allows Fraser to re-assess one of the traditionally pivotal moments in Scottish history, when a man called Aed Find, called king of Dal Riada, fought a battle against a Pictish king called Ciniod in 768. Traditionally, the battle is seen as a victory of Aed, which allowed Dal Riada to take the upper hand against Pictland. It now seems clear that by this time Argyll, part of Dal Riada, had essentially become a part of Pictland; that Aed and Ciniod were colleagues in an internal war between Northern and Southern Pictland. When completed, the victorious Aed and Ciniod returned to their respective kingdoms and continued to rule for many years.
The message essentially is that by the last quarter of the 8th century, Pictland dominated Northern Britain along with Northumbria south of the Firth. That Pictland had emerged as an early medieval state with many of the institutions and mechanisms recognisable elsewhere in both Britain and Europe of kingship and church.