The Makers of Scotland

Tim Clarkson, The Makers of Scotland: Picts, Romans, Gaels and Vikings. Edinburgh: John Donald, 2012. 224 pg.

In his third book, Tim Clarkson takes on the first thousand years of recorded Scottish history. It’s a huge task, but Tim was more than up to the challenge. I really enjoyed it. I tend to focus so much on my narrow time period that it’s really good to properly put it all in context. For example, I was struck while reading this the parallels between the Anglo-Saxon adventus and the Scandinavian contact and migration to Britain. Both begin as raiders seeking only loot from soft targets (villas vs monasteries), then both are either offered payments or mercenary positions to protect Britain from their fellows, and lastly by military and other permanent migration to the isles.  All food for thought and I do wonder by these parallels aren’t talked about more. By usually constraining most of my reading to the pre-Viking period I can often miss such important contextual associations.

Do the math, to cover a thousand years in 225 pages, you can only expect so much depth. I think Tim covers as much chronological detail as possible in a book this length. He managed to untangle the Scottish and Pictish families and succession clearly and briefly. I wish I could talk him into writing a Men of the North style book on Dál Riata! By choosing not to delve into academic controversies, Tim swept aside discredited theories, replacing them with well received  new paradigms, and sometimes making a choice where the there isn’t consensus. Countless updates and choices brings out the clear and consistent voice of the historian I have gotten to know so well over so many years. Tim doesn’t write much about historical theory but his historical paradigms are deftly woven through The Makers of Scotland, just as with his other books. In some ways his voice has more clarity here because of the expanse of time covered – and that is a good thing!  I highly recommend The Makers of Scotland as an ideal, comfortable read whether you want a contextual refresher  or are coming to Scottish history for the first time.

Tim Clarkson is a generous and accessible author. He can be found at his blog Senchus (highly recommended) and on twitter at @EarlyScotland.

The 300 (or 303)

When you think of ‘the 300′ you probably think of the recent movie on the famous Spartan-Persian battle of antiquity. Considered by historians all around as a pivotal battle in antiquity, the number 300 either spawned a legend that spread all the way to the British Isles or was such a common symbolic number that the Greek numbers are pure legend as well. If you look at the old Welsh legends and literature nearly every famed retinue, accounting of war dead, or size of an army is listed as 300 (or 303). When you look at it in a source like the Welsh Triads it is obvious that it’s a legendary motif (or meme?). If I recall correctly, the famed collection of elegies, Y Gododdin, refers to either an army of 300 or 300 dead (or both).

This all came to mind this afternoon as I continue to read Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland (2009) where he writes on the battle of Miathi that

“Here it is said that 303 men were slain in Aidan’s service, which must represent a substantial proportion of his fighting strength. The point of the hagiographical story about this battle was probably to emphasize c. 640 the (former) efficacy of Columba’s patronage and protection of the family of Domnall Brecc, Aidan’s grandson. None the less, that a precise number of casualties was remembered suggests that the battle was famous and widely known to be very bloody. Columba’s hagiographer probably chose it from a list of Aedan’s several battles because a narrow victory illustrated his point best.” (p. 137)

Setting aside the importance of the battle of Miathi and Adomnan’s choice of it for the moment, we can have no confidence in the 303 tally. Whether Adomnan got the account of this battle from the Cummine Find’s collection of Columba’s miracles or directly from oral legends of Aedan, the earliest is could have been written was 30 years later and perhaps nearly a hundred years. What the 303 deaths tell me is that the hagiographical writer, Adomnan or Cummine, got it from oral history. Yes, it must have had the reputation as an important and/or bloody battle. However, probably what made the battle important is that two of Aidan’s sons fell in the victory, and it was a costly victory. Reports of an army of 300 or 300 (303) casualties are worthless. The number 303 does come up elsewhere so this exact number does not give any more confidence than 300. The importance of these numbers goes back to ancient symbolic use of the number 3. I don’t study the meaning given to numbers enough to be able to explain why multiples of 3 are found so often in folklore and mythology but they are.

Getting back to the battle of the Maithi in Fraser’s quote above: When Adomnan was writing in c. 700, the Scots had long lost control of Manu/Miathi territory to the Picts and Bernicians, so it was a reminder of territory now lost. Domnall Brecc, whose behavior is credited with loosing  St Columba’s protection, fell near Miathi territory and his death may have been the final Dalriadan effort to control the area. Adomnan may also be saying that St Columba provided Aedan with a victory over the Maithi but Domnall Brecc lost Columba’s protection and his life in territory possibly controlled by the Miathi. I suspect it was the region of Manu/Miathi territory that made this battle Adomnan’s choice rather than because it was a narrow victory. In the Life of Columba, Adomnan narrates Columba’s prediction that Domnall Brecc’s father  Eochiad will succeed King Aedan, and that Eochiad’s  two elders brothers will die before Aedan in the battle against the Maithi. In a later chapter he shows Columba prophecizing that Aedan is about to loose the battle against the Maithi unless they all pray for him, which they do and a costly victory is won.

So Adomnan’s scheme is:

  • Columba’s prayerful intervention gives Aedan victory over the Maithi perhaps consolidating some of his furthest won territory (that gives them a border with both the Picts and Bernicians),
  • Columba prophecizes that two of Aedan’s sons will die before him and they do in this battle
  • prophecizes that Eochaid will succeed, making Domnall’s eventual succession possible.
  • says that Columba’s protection of Aedan (and Eochaid’s) line will last as long as they do not cross Columba’s family in Ireland

We know from Cummine’s information inserted into the Life of Columba that Aedan’s grandson Domnall did make an alliance and fight againt Columba’s kin in Ireland and that since that time Dalriada had been dominated by outsiders. We know from the annals that Domnall died in battle at Strathcarron, which is very near Miathi territory.  Indeed, Fraser places Strathcarron within an enlarged Maithi region. It is possibly within the area that his grandfather Aedan had won control over after his battle against the Miathi. Adomnan ties up Domnall Brecc’s betrayal to the familia of St Columba (monastic and blood family) and its consequences in a nice little package that would have been obvious to anyone who read it at the time. The insertion of Cummine Find’s text into a later copy of the Life of Columba (preserving an otherwise lost text for us) is proof that Adomnan’s contemporaries understood exactly what he was saying and added these notes proof from Cummine’s text.

The Horsemen

Tribes of Northern Roman Britain (Wikipedia Commons)

Tribes of Northern Roman Britain (Wikipedia Commons)

If you look at the map above, there is a tribe named the Epidii in the western isles of Scotland. This tribe as been a bit enigmatic because the name has never appeared on any maps or referred to in any writings after Ptolomy’s survey during the Flavian era. The name Epidii has as its root epos, meaning horse. As it stands it appears to be in the Brythonic language. I’ve always thought that it was strange that the men of Kintyre and the western isles would be known as horsemen, considering that this is unlikely to be good horse country. Although there are Pictish symbol stones with what look like sea horses: horse’s head and foreleg with a fishes tail. There are also many other types of symbol stones in Scotland with horses.  Fraser has recently written that there is continuity in the name for Kintyre.

In Gaelic, the word “reti and later riata, normally denotes a riding horse” (Fraser, p. 148). This is significant because Reti is the root word of Dalriada. (Dal Reti -> Dal Riata -> Dalriada) So Dalriada/Dal Riata reflects the name of the Roman era Epidii.  As Fraser showed in an earlier paper, the progenitor of the 6th-7th century royal family of Dalraida was known as Domangart Reti. (Aedan mac Gabran mac Domangart Reti) I have written before about the use of a regional name attached to a rulers name, such as Constantine Corneu, Maelgwn Gwynedd, Urien Rheged etc. This might suggest that Domangart’s family took control of Kintyre, or at least organized it, during his time. Domangart is the ancestor of Cenel Gabran of Kintyre and Cenel Comgall of Cowal. This does not necessarily mean that the Irish first came to the area in Domangart’s time. Frazer and others have noted that there is no archaeological disruption in the area throughout the era. Before I get away from the name is also worth noting that two ancient genealogical tracts, Cethri primchenela and Miniugud senchasa fher nAlban, that unite all of the kindreds (cenels) of Dalraida do so with an ultimate ancestor named Eochaid, “the Gaelic cognate (in later form) of Epidii” (Fraser, p. 148)

Fraser hypothesizes that the people of Kintyre and surounding islands converted from Brythonic speakers to Gaelic between the Flavian period and when they reappear in the written record as Dalraida.  Again he notes that this linguistic changed occurred when there was no accompanying archaeological change, no change in material culture. At the same time, there was a group of people in northern Ireland known by the name Cruithni, which means “Britons” in Gaelic. At some undated point, these ‘britons’ began speaking Gaelic. So we have Gaelic-speaking Britons in Ireland and people who supposedly came from Ireland converting territory in Britain to Gaelic. It is also worth noting that the Gaelic name for the Picts is Cruithni. So Irish authors used the same word to describe rulers in Ulster as in Pictland.

“The Cruithni may have been British incomers from various parts of the west of outer Brigantia, Argyll, and the Hebrides. Later Gaelic ethnographers distinguished Dal Riata from the Cruithni in racial terms. If we set such pseudo-history aside, we are confronted by two neighboring Early Historic peoples, one based largely in Britain with a small presence in Antrim, and the other based in Ireland but known as ‘Britons’. Together they form a link between Argyll and north-east Ireland that scholars require to explain Gaelic in Argyll. Contrary to the conventional model and early medieval origin mythology, however, the link probably arose from inclusions into Ireland from Britain, and not the other way around. There is nothing at all unlikly about the proposition that the inhabitants of Argyll ‘went Gaelic’ along with the Cruithni in Ireland, even if precisely how, and moreover when, such a process could have taken place remains unclear.” (Fraser, p. 148-149)

Clearly the Early Historic period has much to teach us about linguistic change. It calls to mind how many Irishmen settled in southwestern Britain, in Wales and Dumnonia, only to leave no linguistic trace. Legend claims that the kingdom of Dyfed in Wales has Irish origins related in the tale, the ‘expulsion of the Deisi’, yet they eventually spoke Brythonic/Welsh. There are a few archaeological traces of Irish in Wales, notably ogham writing.

The northern examples of linguistic change in Kintyre and Antrim may be informative for the dominance of English in Bernicia and elsewhere that lacks a lot of early archaeological evidence of Germanic settlement. The archaeological evidence of Germanic settlement is a little more pronounced, but then we would expect Germanic settlement to be more of an abrupt change than from one Celtic culture to another Celtic culture.


James Fraser (2009) From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795. Edenburgh UP