Yet to be wrong about Pictland

The problem with having academic interests as catholic as mine is that one ineluctably falls behind the curve of scholarship in those areas in which one’s not actively concentrating. On this occasion, this means that although when my paper on Pictland finally emerged, I knew Alex Woolf had written an article about Fortriu that might completely wreck it, I hadn’t actually found time to read that article.1 I did however obtain a PDF of it to peruse later, and, well, this is how much later it’s turned out to be.

The battle scene on the Pictish Aberlemno stone, often supposed to depict the Battle of Dunnichen

The battle scene on the Pictish Aberlemno stone, often supposed to depict the Battle of Dunnichen

The debate in which this article takes part is a bit specialised so I think a lot of detail would be unhelpful. The sum of it is that Alex looks at the untimely death in battle of King Ecgfrith of Northumbria at the Battle of Nechtanesmere in 685 against the army of his fratruelis King Bruide map Bile of Fortriu, canonically placed at Dunnichen in Angus, and points out that this hardly matches Bede’s description of the place at all. He comes up with a better candidate, in the far North at Dunachton, Invernessshire, but then runs up against the problem that Ecgfrith’s battle was supposed to be in Fortriu. Fortriu, whose name comes from a people whom Ammianus Marcellinus records as Verturiones, and makes one of the two main Pictish peoples along with the Dicalydones or Caledonians, is the only Pictish kingdom other than Orkney (and maybe Atholl) for which we have a name, and it’s conventionally placed in the lowlands. So Alex looks at all the evidence and arguments for that, finds them mostly wanting and where not wanting, at least only one of two or more place-name possibilities. Then he weighs up the arguments for a case that Fortriu was in fact in the North of Scotland, and finds them better, in the sense of more closely contemporary and less contradictory. It does all rather hang by a few whiskers, but this is the nature of scholarship on early medieval Scotland, there is so little evidence that the tiniest fragment has to be made suggestive and relevant. This is one of the reasons I loved the field at the time I worked on it—so much room for the imagination—and also why I was so glad to leave it, since with my stuff in Catalonia I can actually demonstrate things.

Map of the ancient divisions of Scotland, for which as Alex shows there is no real evidence

Map of the ancient divisions of Scotland, for which as Alex shows there is no real evidence

All the same, I had one or two ideas about early Scottish history that I thought were worth something, and so when new work comes out in that field by people I rate, of whom Alex is most definitely one, because my ideas on the field were so few, I get the Fear that I may finally have been proved wrong. Happily, I think this time my case actually works better for Alex’s intervention. I was arguing that in the time of King Áedán mac Gabráin of Dál Riata (Gaelic Scotland before 843), which was probably 574-608, the south of Pictland was firstly partly Gaelic-speaking (which should be obvious because Atholl, which appears happily in the Irish Annals, is a Gaelic name meaning `new Ireland’) and secondly temporarily carved up between Áedán and Bruide map Mailchon, the King of the Picts whom Columba went to try to convert, who had his base at the top of Loch Ness, to provide inheritances for Áedán’s surplus sons, who appear to appear in the Pictish kinglist. I think that actually this is the only way to make any sense of the fact that Áedán appears to have operated over such a huge geographical range, and it also helps explain a few of the names in the kinglist, but other than the internal strength of the argument there’s little enough evidence.2

The inner rampart of Craig Phradraig, supposed by some to be Bruide map Maelchon's stronghold

The inner rampart of Craig Phradraig, supposed by some to be Bruide map Maelchon's stronghold

Now, I didn’t really need Fortriu to be anywhere; the political entity only appears later than my focus, and it was easy enough to argue that it was built out of the fragments that Áedán’s sons left behind by means of resistance to Northumbria orchestrated by increasingly powerful rulers, and to hypothesise a transfer of power from the North to the South for reasons we can’t explain but possibly connected with that nation-building process. But with Alex’s case we don’t have to explain why Bruide was in the North and Fortriu, apparently so important, wasn’t. The South can remain a jumble of bits that Northumbria and the Pictish North were able to hoover up for brief periods and fight over. This works fine for me. So far, I am not yet proven wrong, and in this field, with its special evidential problems, that will do me fine.

1. Alex Woolf, “Dún Nechtain, Fortriu and the Geography of the Picts” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 85 (Edinburgh 2006), pp. 182-201.

2. All the evidence for this argument is set out in the paper, Jonathan Jarrett, “The Political Range of Áedán mac Gabráin, King of Dál Riata” in Pictish Arts Society Journal Vol. 17 (Brechin 2008), pp. 3-24, definitive version online here, with bibliography here, both last modified 7 September 2007 as of 23 June 2009.

7 responses to “Yet to be wrong about Pictland

  1. Phil Ramsay

    Really enjoyed reading this post. Would point out however that Dunnichen is actually in Angus (near Forfar) – not Fife.

  2. Phil Ramsay

    One further point (sorry) – I believe Craig Phadraig and Urquhart Castle to be two different places. The former (a vitified hill fort)is on the western outskirts of Inverness, the latter is on the west shore of Loch Ness some 15 or so miles to the south. Both sites are claimed as strongholds of Bruide.

  3. Phil Ramsay

    Nope, that’s it :-)

  4. Pingback: Getting to grips with James Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  5. Pingback: Seminar CVIII: framing early medieval Scotland « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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