It just might be one of the great alliances that can be pieced together and it began with one man’s death. Oswy, king of Northumbria, was a formidable leader whose reach extended far beyond Manau, at the head of the Firth of Forth. Regimes that came to paramountcy further north and west probably did so, in part, through his backing.
Cenél nGabrain, ‘the kindred of Gabrain’, enjoyed stability in Argyll, from where we know Oswy exacted tribute. In Pictland, where his nephew Talorcan had been king in the 650s, Oswy would likely have had a say in who replaced him. James E Fraser also argues that the region of Niuduera was a Northumbrian sub-kingdom centred on Fife.
It is into this world, then, that Oswy’s death on February 15 670 would have sent shock waves. His son and successor, Ecgfrith, first had to deal with an uprising from the Picts. Together with the possibly Niuduarian sub-king, Beornhaeth, the new king defeated them and overthrew their ruler, Drest. Ecgfrith’s cousin Bridei took over.
It is here that our alliance has its genesis.
Bridei is the earliest king explicitly called rex Fortrenn, ‘king of Fortriu’, in the chronicles. Alex Woolf has convincingly argued that this chief kingdom of the Picts was centred on the shores of the Moray Firth. Its people were known in Old English as the Waerteras. Bridei was the son of Beli, a king of Clyde Rock. His mother meanwhile was apparently a half-sister of Eanfled – Oswy’s wife and Ecgfrith’s mother.
Bridei’s nephew, Dumngual, ruled Alt Clut, the kingdom of Britons centred on Clyde Rock and its environs. It seems likely the two would have been predisposed to amity. The Clyde Britons also seem to have enjoyed good relations with Cenél Comgaill, who lived on the Cowal peninsula. A further kin group, Cenél nGartnait, make up the fourth part of this reconstructed alliance.
Before Oswy’s death these parties were in the shadows to varying extents. I’ve always thought the battle of Luith Feirn that took place in 664 in Pictland was probably between Bridei and Drest for the kingship itself. Defeated, Bridei could have sought exile in Northumbria. It would explain the fact it took him and Ecgfrith 15 years to come to blows – at the battle of Dunnichen.
Oswy’s expansionist tendencies had robbed Dumngual of many interests in central Scotland, perhaps explaining the realignment of the Clyde king’s focus to the west. Cenél Comgaill had been kept in check by a rampant Cenél nGabrain, and Cenél nGartnait had yet to gain the attention of the chronicles.
In Argyll, Domangart son of Domnall Brecc enjoyed dominion over the Corcu Réti – the Cenél nGabrain and Cenél Comgaill kindreds of Kintyre and Cowal. In the second year after Oswy’s death, Domangart was slain and two men, perhaps implicated in his death, were captured. They were Elphin, who James E Fraser argues was a kinsman of Bridei, and Conamail son of Cano.
Conamail belonged to a seemingly Pictish / Gaelo-Pictish branch of Cenél nGabrain known as Cenél nGartnait. They seem to have belonged to the Isle of Skye and returned to Scotland in 669/670 following a spell in Ireland. With the date of their return in mind, they too could have been looking to upset a status quo that had become entrenched under Oswy.
If we assume the killing of Domangart was an attempted coup, it failed – his cousin, Máel Dúin, succeeded him. However, over the next 25 years Máel Dúin and his heirs would fight a losing battle for paramountcy in Argyll. By contrast, Cenél nGartnait’s prominince in genealogical tract Cethri prímchenéla suggests they flourished. If they thrived through Pictish/British support they were not the only ones.
Cenél Comgaill dynast Dargart mac Finnguine comes to prominence following his marriage to a certain Der-Ilei. She may have been a sister, or more likely a daughter, of Bridei’s. The fruits of their union were two eighth-century Pictish kings but Dargart would not live to see them reign. His death in 685 suggests he may have fallen at Dunnichen.
Three years after Domangart’s death sustained Pictish interest in Argyll is confirmed by an entry in the Annals of Ulster. It records that ‘many Picts were drowned in the land of Awe’ (i Llaind Abae), probably a scribal error for ‘in Loch Awe’ (i lind Abae).
Two years after that a distinctly more successful incursion into the west was made by a British force. Here Ferchar Fota, probably the king of Cenél nEchdach, likely based in Upper Lorn, was defeated in battle.
Yet it isn’t until the 680s that the north and west truly explode in a series of strongholds besieged, key men slain and regimes possibly overturned.
The catalyst could have been Ecgfrith’s defeat to the Mercian king Aethilred at the Trent in 679. Ecgfrith lost his brother in the battle as well the hold he had enjoyed over Mercia since besting Aethilred’s predecessor in battle in 672. Aethilred’s victory stemmed the northward flow of southern tribute. In response Ecgfrith might have upped the taxes he took from his northern cousin and others. This, together with the air of vulnerability Oswy’s son now had, perhaps prompted our allies to raise their game.
The Annals of Ulster record the siege of Dunnottar (Dún Foither) in 680, Bridei’s destruction of the Orkneys the year after, and the siege of Dundurn (Dún Duirn), near modern-day St Fillans, the year after that. The last two campaigns took place in the same years as known or suspected British aggression in the west. In 681 Britons invaded Mag Line, the Uí Chóelbad heartland in Antrim. Here they attacked the royal centre of Ráith Mór and slew the king. Then in 682 Dunadd (Dún Att), in Argyll, was besieged.
Bridei fought Ecgfrith at Dunnichen in 685, a battle that was to claim the English king’s life.
Dunnichen needn’t be seen as an allied victory. The conjectured involvement of Dargart mac Finnguine aside, it seems purely to have pitted Picts against Angles. The Annals of Inisfallen even curiously refer to it as ‘a great battle between Picts’. This perhaps indicates the no doubt considerable Niuduarian involvement.
What is clear, however, is that Bridei’s allies would have had a vested interest in a Pictish victory.
Bede was later to write: “The Picts recovered their own land which the Angles had formerly held, and the Irish who were in Britain and some part of the Britons recovered their liberty.”
Photo credits: Kilchurn Castle, Loch Awe via photopin (license) / Celtic knotwork on a cross slab at Aberlemno. via photopin (license)