The Battle of Dunnichen

“Arguably the most important turning point in Scottish history.”
James E Fraser, historian

Saturday 20 May 685. The Pictish army of Bridei son of Beli, king of Fortriu, faced that of his cousin Ecgfrith son of Oswiu, king of the Northumbrian Angles. It was to be the crucible of an early Scotland.

Some 14 years earlier, Ecgfrith had led a similar foray north of the Tweed, against Bridei’s predecessor Drust. Stephen of Ripon, an English chronicler of the time, tells us: “The bestial Pictish peoples had a fierce contempt for subjection to the Saxon and threatened to throw off from themselves the yoke of servitude. They gathered together innumerable nations from every nook and corner of the north, like a swarm of ants in the summer, sweeping from their hills.”

The subsequent Battle of Two Rivers, perhaps taking place in the much-bloodied frontier of the Forth valley, takes its name from a further description in Stephen’s account.

“He (Ecgfrith) slew an enormous number of the people, filling two rivers with corpses, so that, marvellous to relate, the slayers, passing over the rivers dry foot, pursued and slew the crowd of fugitives; the tribes were reduced to slavery and remained subject under the yoke of captivity.”

Stephen also lauds the actions of Beornhaeth, the ‘brave subregulus‘ or ‘subject king’. His kingdom isn’t named but James E Fraser believes he may have been defending lands he held in Fife. The ‘yoke of servitude’ the Picts seem to have been under would probably have involved the forced payment of tribute, perhaps through Beornhaeth, to Northumbria. Cattle on the hoof was the main source of portable wealth but precious metalwork and packed grain carts may also have been expected.

The Aberlemno Churchyard Stone, near Forfar, believed by some to depict the battle.

When Ecgfrith made war on Bridei, a man he was related to through his mother’s line, it was against the advice of his counsellors. Historian Alex Woolf has convincingly argued that Bridei’s kingdom, Fortriu, was centred on the shores of the Moray Firth – several days’ ride from Northumbria.

Tradition holds that they met near the modern village of Dunnichen in Angus. Bridei and his men may have referred to the site not as Dún Nechtain, which is a Gaelic place-name meaning ‘fortress of Nechtan’, but as Linn Garan, a Brittonic place-name preserved in a ninth-century source and thought to mean ‘crane lake’. Similarly the defeated Angelfolc, ‘Angle folk’, also appear to have remembered the clash as having taken place at a body of water which they seem to have called Nechtanesmere, the ‘mere’ or lake of Nechtan.

Bede, the Northumbrian monk and historian, was later to write of the battle: “The enemy feigned flight and lured the king into some narrow passes in the midst of inaccessible mountains; there he was killed with the greater part of the forces he had taken with him.”

It has been observed that the gently rolling hills around Dunnichen are somewhat at odds with Bede’s description of inaccessorum montium, ‘inaccessible mountains’. The area does boast a Pictish cross-slab with scenes of a desperate battle carved in relief. A revised dating of the Aberlemno Churchyard Stone, however, suggests it was raised in the mid-ninth century. It could, therefore, depict any number of battles.

Alex Woolf has proposed an alternative site of Dunachton, seven kilometres north-east of Kingussie. This site has mountains and an adjoining ‘crane lake’ in the form of Loch Insh. It should be noted, however, that Bede was no eyewitness. Uncertainty also surrounds how tall a hill must be before it deserves to be called a mons in Latin. The debate rumbles on.

It is no exaggeration to say that Bridei laid the foundations for the modern country of Scotland. Drive into Angus today and a sign will welcome you to “Scotland’s birthplace”, the Declaration of Arbroath also figuring in this assertion.

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.”

The nascent Pictish kingdom of Fortriu emerged as the dominant region in northern Britain for generations to come. As for Northumbria, Bede lamented that: “From this time the hopes and strength of the English kingdom began to ebb and fall away…”

Bridei seems to have lived out the remaining years of his reign peacefully until his death in 692, whereupon his body was reputedly taken to the holy island of Iona and there buried.

Burghead, a Pictish fortress

Burghead is the largest fortified site yet uncovered from early medieval Scotland. It stood on a promontory in the Moray Firth, enclosing an area of two hectares. Based on the 30 or so stone plaques found incised with the form of a bull, it may have been the Tarvedunum of Ptolemy’s map, ‘the bull fort’.

Although now largely obliterated by the harbour and town built in 1809, a plan of the fort survives and 19th century excavations provide further insight. Natural terracing at the head of the promontory was exploited to create an upper citadel and lower annexe. The combined site was ringed by a wall of stone and earth laced with timbers held together with iron spikes. The western wall of the citadel was up to 8.5m thick and at least half that in height. The site was further defended by three massive ramparts that stretched across the neck of the promontory. The outer wall and ramparts may also have been bolstered by wooden superstructures – perhaps fighting platforms situated behind parapets.

One of the bull plaques found on site.

The upper enclosure would probably have comprised a couple of halls and, after the coming of Christianity, a church or small chapel. In addition to a number of dwellings the lower enclosure may have featured the likes of a smithy, tannery, grain store and stables. At the foot of the lower enclosure is an extraordinary rock-cut chamber containing a well.

Although the landward defences are undated, artefactual evidence and carbon dating from timbers in the seaward walls suggest Burghead was built and occupied between the fourth and 10th centuries AD.

The Burghead well.

Fortriu (reconstructed Pictish form: Werter) was the chief kingdom of the Picts, most likely centred on Moray. Burghead would no doubt have been the jewel in its crown. Boasting one of the most sheltered harbours on the Moray Firth, it would have been key to the first king explicitly called rex Fortrenn, ‘king of Fortriu’, in the chronicles. Bridei son of Beli launched a naval assault on Orkney in 681, devastating what may have been a recalcitrant sub-kingdom. The importance the Picts placed on ships is also shown in the 150 Pictish vessels wrecked in 729 at Ros Cuissine – likely Troup Head on the Banffshire coast.

Sadly, it was also probably ships that brought doom to Burghead. Carbon dating indicates the fort’s defences were refurbished in the ninth century, no doubt in response to a new threat: the Vikings. However the fortress succumbed to fire, and accumulations of wind-blown sand reveal it was subsequently abandoned. Burghead’s name includes the Norse ‘burg‘, denoting a fortified place. Perhaps those who sacked it renamed it.

The silver mount for an Anglo-Saxon blast horn was found on site.

Photo credit: Pictish bull via photopin (license)

Selbach of Dál Riata

Dál Riata was the Gaelic-speaking kingdom that straddled Argyll and Antrim, taking in the southern Hebrides. It had a number of kings who were heads of cenéla, or ‘kin groups’. These leaders in turn recognised the supremacy of an over-king. This man was traditionally drawn from southern regions such as Kintyre. One of the most notable men to break this tradition was Selbach mac Ferchar.

Selbach hailed from Lorn in the north. It lay at the opposite end of the Great Glen from Fortriu, chief kingdom of the Picts. Lorn’s royal centre was probably Dunollie (Dún Ollaigh), near present-day Oban. Here was also an important trading site, where merchants from Gaul rubbed shoulders with Gaels and Picts.

Lorn was home to Cenél Loairn, ‘the kindred of Loairn’, which was divided into three smaller cenéla: Cenél Salaich, Cenél Cathboth and Cenél nEchdach. At the opening of the eighth century Cenél Cathboth probably held Dunollie for in 701/702 the kindred was slaughtered and Dunollie destroyed. The culprit was Selbach, a Cenél nEchdach dynast. His father Ferchar Fota, ‘Ferchar the Tall’, had enjoyed power in Lorn and possibly over Dál Riata as a whole. Upon Ferchar’s death in 696/697 his son, Ainbcellach, had succeeded him. His reign lasted but a year before he was driven into Irish captivity, probably by Cenél Cathboth. So through one act of aggression Selbach had reclaimed his birthright and avenged his brother.

Dál Riata seems to have been engaged in intermittent warfare with the Britons during this time. They were likely the Britons of the Clyde whose kingdom, Alt Clut, was centred on Dumbarton Rock. In 705 a Dalriadan war-band was massacred in Glen Leven, possibly around Inverarnan at the northern tip of Loch Lomond. Selbach probably led the fightback that toppled the Britons at the unidentified Lorg Ecclet in 711. Victory may also have subdued Alt Clut’s Dalriadan allies – Cenél Comgaill, of Cowal.

Capitalising on this, Selbach led what must have been a major invasion of Kintyre the following year. Here he crushed the powerful Cenél nGabráin, laying siege to the probable royal seat of Dunaverty (Aberte) at the penisula’s southern tip, and burning the strategic site of Tarbert (Tairpert Boiter). Here he must surely have won supremacy over the ruling class the Corcu Réti: the Cenél nGabrain and Cenél Comgaill kindreds of Kintyre and Cowal. If he hadn’t been king of Dál Riata before, he was now.

Dál Riata.

Two years later he rebuilt Dunollie. Perhaps he needed a royal site that matched his stature and high walls to keep his family safe.

In 717 the annals record another Dalriadan victory over Britons at the obscure ‘stone that is called Minuirc’. James E Fraser speculates Selbach may now have subjugated Beli son of Elphin, king of Alt Clut. Such a feat had not been equalled since the days when Aedán mac Gabrán had been at the peak of his powers more than 100 years before. Subjugation would have entailed Beli making regular payments of tribute in cattle to Selbach.

Two years later Selbach’s brother, Ainbcellach, was back in Lorn with the kingship on his mind. The siblings clashed at Finglen (Findglen) on Lorn’s rugged southern frontier. Ainbcellach was slain and his men defeated. Selbach’s luck ran out the following month, October, when he faced Donnchad Becc of Cenél nGabráin – a man the chronicles call rex Cind Tire (king of Kintyre). Donnchad bested his enemy in a sea battle where, presumably, boats were lashed together to enable men to fight.

In 721 Donnchad died and was succeeded by a man named Eochaid. Selbach retired to a monastery in 723 but probably maintained an interest in politics. Eochaid usurped Selbach’s son Donngal as king of Dál Riata in 726, prompting the grizzled veteran to abandon the cloister the following year. In renouncing his vows and returning to war, Selbach would have been labelled a ‘son of perdition’ by monastic writers of the time. An afterlife of punishment and torment would await.

There was a battle at Ros Foichnae, possibly another sea battle, whose result may have been indecisive. James E Fraser argues, however, that Cenél nEchdach eventually gained the upper hand. Selbach had not become a son of perdition for nothing.

He died in 730.

Picture credit: “Argyll and Bute UK relief location map” by Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.


“Swa ic modsefan minne sceolde oft earmcearig eðle bidæled, freomægum feor feterum sælan.”
“So I, often wretched and sorrowful, bereft of my homeland, far from noble kinsmen, have had to bind in fetters, my inmost thoughts.”

Old English poem, The Wanderer.

When the Pictish king Elphin lost two battles against the formidable Onuist in 728 the Annals of Clonmacnoise tell us ‘the nobles and people of the Picts turned their back’ on him. Elphin had become what the Anglo-Saxons would call a winelas guma, a ‘friendless man’, doomed to walk the wræclastas, ‘paths of exile’. A clue to where he found sanctuary might be found in the 758 obituary of an Elpin of Glasnevin, a monastery in County Dublin. If this was the same man as the discredited Elphin then he had chosen the safest, but by no means risk-free, path — that of monastic retirement.

The other main path open to a wræcca was to try to make a powerful ally. Around 604 the Bernician king Aethilfrith subjugated neighbouring Deira, a kingdom broadly co-extensive with the modern counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire. Deira’s evicted ruler Edwini sought refuge at the court of Rædwald, king of the East Angles. Aethilfrith asked Rædwald to kill the exile, promising him great riches if he did but war if he didn’t. According to the tradition Bede received, Rædwald was set to comply until his queen dissuaded him, arguing that to do so would be dishonourable. So instead, there was war; Rædwald slew Aethilfrith and returned Edwini to power.

The reconstructed helmet found at Sutton Hoo which many historians believe may have belonged to Rædwald.

The East Anglian queen’s distaste for the assassination plot has echoes of a story from the time of St Columba. According to Adomnán, Columba had arranged for an exiled Pictish nobleman, Tarain, to live under the protection of a man named Feradach of Islay. Feradach soon had Tarain killed and Columba’s subsequent outrage likely reflects the breaking of a fundamental social convention.

Linguistic differences were no barrier to serving your exile under another lord. When Edwini returned to Deira he took his revenge by banishing the sons of Aethilfrith. One of them, Eanfrith, fled to Pictland where he later married and fathered at least one son, Talorcan, who became a king of Picts in the 650s.

Furthermore, whether exiles or mere opportunists, at least two Picts joined the Britons of the Gododdin in their failed assault against the Anglo-Saxons at Catraeth. 

Photo credit: Sutton Hoo Helm, British Museum via photopin (license).

Onuist: a turbulent timeline

728 Mearns man Onuist son of Vurguist defeats Elphin, king of the southern Picts, at the hill of Moncrieffe (Monid Chroib) near Perth. Elphin regroups at Castellum Credi, possibly Scone, but is defeated once more and put to flight.

729 Onuist defeats Drest, king of the northern Picts, at Monid Carno, probably beside Loch Lochy, and slays him at the unidentified Druimm Derg Blathuug. Drest’s predecessor, Naiton, reclaims his status as chief king of the Picts — rex Pictorum. Naiton’s half-brother and likely enemy, Talorcan, emerges as king of the southern Picts — king of Atholl.

We don’t know Onuist’s relationship to Naiton; whether he was a loyal retainer coming to his former king’s aid or just someone who saw a chance for glory.

Naiton seems to have had a hostile relationship with his half-brothers. He had ‘bound’ Talorcan in 713 — the year in which Naiton’s brother Ciniod had been slain.

Naiton had abdicated as rex Pictorum in 724 to join the Church. Pictland then seems to have been partitioned between Elphin and Drest, probably along the traditional boundary of the Mounth. In 726, however, Drest captured Naiton and held him prisoner. The former king may have decided against monastic retirement. Alternatively, Drest may have needed him as a pawn against some other external challenge.

A second half-brother of Naiton’s, Finnguine, died fighting alongside Drest in the 729 battle. James E Fraser speculates that Elphin may have also been a half-brother, which perhaps legitimised Talorcan’s succession.

731 Onuist’s son, Bridei, defeats Talorc, king of Kintyre, and puts him to flight. Donngal, exiled former king of Dál Riata, burns Tairpert Boiter, a stronghold in the middle of the Kintyre peninsula. Perhaps Bridei was attempting to wrest control of Atholl from Talorcan who was being sheltered by the Kintyre king.

732 Naiton dies. Onuist succeeds him as rex Pictorum. Bridei likely appointed king of the northern Picts — king of Fortriu.

733 In Ireland the two great kindreds of the northern Uí Néill are at war. Cenél Conaill, the branch from which the abbots of Iona had traditionally been drawn, lose their supremacy to Cenél nÉogain. Donngal captures Bridei at Tory Island (Torach). Muiredach becomes king of Lorn.

Dál Riata led a fleet of ships to the River Bann to support Cenél Conaill. Bridei may have provided backing  to the same branch. One chronicle indicates Cenél Conaill’s ruler got his fleet a Fortreanoibh, ‘from Fortriu’.

Donngal had been forced from the Dalriadan kingship in 726 but remained king of Cenél Loairn, in Lorn. He might have aligned himself  with Cenél nÉogain. Bridei, having been injured on the Bann, may have been ferried to Tory Island’s Ionan monastery for treatment. Donngal may have seen profaning the monastery as a price worth paying to capture a royal hostage of such stature.

The capture could additionally or solely be down to the fact that in this year a man named Muiredach usurped Donngal in Lorn. Had Onuist backed Muiredach? It was probably in the wake of Bridei’s capture that Onuist made his brother, another Talorcan, king of Fortriu.

734 Talorc of Kintyre is overcome by his brother, probably Cú Bretan, given to the Picts and drowned by them. In doing so, Cú Bretan probably attained the kingship of Kintyre. Talorcan of Atholl is seized and bound near Dunollie (Dún Ollaig) outside Oban. In an encounter at the unidentified Dún Leithfinn Donngal is injured and flees to Ireland while the stronghold is destroyed.

736 Donngal returns. Onuist lays waste to Argyll and captures Donngal and his brother Feradach — perhaps in seizing the key stronghold of Dunadd — which he then burns to the ground. Bridei dies a short time after his captor’s passing. Talorcan son of Vurguist defeats Muiredach and the host of Dál Riata.

739 Onuist drowns Talorcan, former king of Atholl.

740 Onuist is allied with Aethelbald, king of Mercia. When Eadberht, king of Northumbria, is engaged fighting the Picts, Aethelbald crosses the Trent and despoils a Northumbrian district. Cú Bretan, likely king of Kintyre, dies.

741 Onuist returns to Argyll in force, possibly in opposition to the man chosen to succeed Cú Bretan. The Annals of Ulster record a war against Indrechtach son of Fiannamail fought between the Picts and Dál Riata, as well as the ‘smiting’ of Dál Riata by Onuist.

Perhaps recalling the events of 736 and 741, the legendary Gaelic poet Gruibne was later to write: ‘Good the day when Óengus took Alba, hilly Alba with its strong princes; He brought battle to seats with boards, with feet and hands, and with broad shields.’

744 War between Picts and Britons.

750 Onuist abdicates. A power struggle between Talorcan son of Vurguist and Bridei son of Mailcon culminates in the latter’s death. Talorcan’s forces are later routed by the Clyde Britons at Mugdock (Mocetauc) in Strathblane and Talorcan slain. Onuist returns to power and installs his brother, another Bridei, as king of Fortriu.

756 Onuist and Eadberht march their respective armies into Alt Clut where the king, Dyfnwal, agrees to the Treaty of Clyde Rock. See also: Who killed Eadberht’s men?

761 Onuist dies.

Onuist son of Vurguist sustained a level of interest from English and Irish chroniclers unlike that of any other king of Picts.

In the oldest surviving version of the St Andrews origin legend, he is credited with founding the church behind the Fife town. It has been proposed that the beautifully-carved St Andrew’s ‘sarcophagus’ housed his remains. James E Fraser argues, however, that in Britain such translations of royal remains seem to have been reserved for kings seen as ‘royal martyrs’. As such, his son Bridei has more potential — his death in 736 probably directly linked to the impious crime of his capture.

St Andrew’s sarcophagus.

Photo credits: Pictish Stone via photopin (license) / dvdbramhall’s flickr.

Who killed Eadberht’s men?

On the 1st of August 756, Onuist, king of the Picts, and Eadberht, king of Northumbria, led their respective armies to Clyde Rock in an unprecedented alliance. They secured a treaty with the Clyde Britons, under their king Dyfnwal, which perhaps involved the payment of tribute as a grudged but necessary alternative to violence. Onuist and Eadberht may also have taken key hostages from Dyfnwal to protect themselves against violent reprisals.

It may not have worked. Just nine days later, according to the Northumbrian Chronicle of 802, “nearly the whole army” that Eadberht led from that kingdom of Alt Clut “perished”. That these unfortunate Englishmen were slain is almost certain. What isn’t known is who killed them.

Eadberht survived into the following decade, as did Onuist and Dyfnwal. One king who did not was Æthelbald, king of Mercia, and I believe he is the prime suspect.

The Chronicle of 802 talks of Eadberht leading his army “from Ovania to Niwanbirig, that is, to novam civitatem”. Scholars have argued convincingly that Ovania is the Latinised form of a placename behind the modern-day Govan, in Glasgow. The site now occupied by Govan Old was evidently an important ecclesiastical site from early times.

It also had strategic importance given its proximity to a tidal ford on the Clyde and to the northern end of the major Roman trunk road leading to Carlisle. Was it here, on holy ground and in the shadow of sacred stones, that the conditiones of the treaty were agreed upon?

Clyde Rock.

The identification of Niwanbirig, the novam civitatem or ‘new settlement’, is more problematic. The placename may have been common even though none of the English Newburghs or Newboroughs are attested before the Norman conquest.

Newborough-on-Tyne and Newbrough near Hexham have each been posited, with Britons cast as the belligerents. However, such a stunning victory for the Clyde men or their sympathisers right in the heart of Bernicia is unlikely to have gone unnoticed.

In Scotland, the placename’s best-known representative is Newburgh in Fife, two miles from the Pictish royal and eccesiastical centre at Abernethy. This becomes a plausible site if we have Onuist turning on his ally after inviting him into Pictland to toast the treaty. But again, with chroniclers’ interest in Onuist at this time being considerable, it seems odd this would have gone unnoticed.

Alex Woolf argues that if Eadberht ventured south a day or two after thrashing out the treaty but did not reach Niwanbirig until the 10th of the month we should expect the two places to be around 200 miles apart. This is based on Æthelstan’s march north in 934. His army was at Winchester on the 28th of May and had reached Nottingham by the 7th of June, covering 150 miles in around seven days.

A march 200 miles south would take Eadberht into Staffordshire and there is a Newborough near Lichfield. This was Mercian territory, under the control of Eadberht’s old enemy Æthelbald.

Sixteen years earlier Æthelbald had been the English king working in concert with Onuist. In 740 when Eadberht crossed the Tweed to deal with a Pictish threat, Æthelbald crossed the Trent to despoil a swathe of Northumbria. In doing so he had violated a 60-year peace treaty that had existed between the two Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The beleaguered Eadberht likely eased himself from between the rock of Mercia and the hard place of Pictland through the paying of cattle tribute.

However, 12 years later everything changed. Æthelbald lost territory, thanks to a successful West Saxon uprising against him, while Eadberht gained some. He had seized Kyle in modern-day Ayrshire — ousting its native British landowners and consolidating a Northumbria that stretched from the Humber to the River Irvine.

Now Eadberht was very much in the ascendancy, looking to settle old scores. Though the Chronicle of 802 refers to the army that perished being his, he need not having been acting alone. The idea that Onuist joined him on his foray finds support in the oldest surviving version of the origin legend of St Andrews. In this account, compiled in its present form between 1093 and 1107, Hungus son of Urguist led an expedition to the southern part of the island ad campum Merc where he was surrounded by his enemies. Onuist was saved from the jaws of defeat after having a vision of St Andrew. In gratitude he founded the church settlement on which the Fife town now stands.

Though origin legends should be treated with caution, a St Andrews scribe in c. 1100 is unlikely to have picked campum Merc at random. A joint campaign perhaps casts the Treaty of Clyde Rock in a different light. Did Onuist and Eadberht invite the Britons to join them on their march south?

The year after the expedition, according to the Chronicle of 802, “Æthelbald, king of the Mercians, was treacherously killed at night by his bodyguard in shocking fashion”.

He had already been bested in battle by Cuthred, king of the West Saxons. Despite the heavy losses incurred by Eadberht’s army, had Æthelbald lost at Niwanbirig too? Or had he won only for his victory to be deemed far too pyrrhic?

Photo credit: Flickr: Bob the courier’s photostream

The iron journey

Like a pattern-welded blade — rods of steel woven and hammered flat — metalworking was a process of several strands, inextricably linked. It began with the ore hunter, a slave working for a smith or smelter, who would search bogs and marshes for lumps of iron ore. With a long metal spike he would probe the mud and tussocky grass where such nodules were found. When the tell-tale clunk occurred he would retrieve the lump and put it in a basket. Such lumps would weigh one or two kilos and, with some smiths requiring 30-40 kilos a day, it was long, cold and tiring work.

The charcoal burner had a job even more tiring. Simple logs and tinder could not produce the intensity of heat blacksmiths and other craftsmen needed. For that you required charcoal. A burner would build a mound comprising four tons or so of branches and slender cuts of wood. This he would cover with bracken and ferns, and the carefully sieved topsoil from a previous burning. Screens of twisted branches would be set up to moderate the wind flow and hot coals dropped into the mound’s heart.

Now the charcoal burner would maintain a vigil lasting four or five days and nights. A nap was not an option since cracks in the earthen kiln would go unchecked and flames would sprout from such breaches. Many burners sat perched on a one-legged stool, so that if they nodded off, they toppled over. Even with a son or an assistant to take turns on watch, it meant an entirely unnatural sleep pattern.

Eventually the smoke issuing from a well-tended kiln would turn from white to brown, and then to the all-important blue. Charcoal chars from the top down so when blue smoke issued from the lowermost reaches of the mound the burner’s watch was almost over.

One ton of charcoal was produced from four tons of wood.

The smith would prepare lumps of iron ore for the furnace by first drying them in a roasting hearth, then hammering them into smaller pieces. The furnace would comprise a bowl shape carved into the ground. It was filled with ore and charcoal, then at least partially enclosed within a clay dome. The charcoal was ignited and two sets of bellows, worked alternately, fed the fire through nozzles in the clay wall.

The smith would soon begin the process of ‘blooming’ — extracting a ‘bloom’ of iron from the ore by smelting and discarding the slag, or impurities. As the temperature in the furnace climbed above 800° C the reduction of the oxide occurred, the metal itself remaining as a spongy mass while the molten slag drained to the bottom. On cooling, the reduced iron bloom would have been removed with tongs and continually heated and beaten until the remaining slag was forced out. Once the smith deemed the bloom sufficiently pure it was ready to be forged into implements or weapons.

Photo credits: Foyer d’une forge via photopin (license) / Anvil and Hammer via photopin (license).


Early medieval kings liked beer. Lots of beer. Ine’s Law Code, from around 690, shows just how much beer. Detailed within this legal tract is a food render — a shopping list, if you like — of what the West Saxon king expected when he and his men paid you a visit. King Ine would take 42 ambers of ale as tribute from 10 hides of land, about 1,200 acres. What is an amber? Well, by the 13th century an amber was reckoned at four bushels, each of eight gallons. If the volume of the amber was the same in the 600s then that was 1,344 gallons of beer altogether — 10,752 pints! Bear in mind that a king’s retinue would probably not even have exceeded 100 men.

The Bullion Stone from Invergowrie, Perthshire, showing a mounted figure quaffing from a drinking horn.

Here is Ine’s food render in full.

10 vats of honey

300 loaves

12 ambers of Welsh ale

30 ambers of clear ale

2 full-grown cows or 10 wethers (castrated sheep)

10 geese

20 hens

10 cheeses

a full amber of butter

5 salmon

20 pounds of fodder

100 eels

Such renders would vary from region to region depending upon the local produce. No detailed records of food renders from early Scotland survive but they’d likely have looked something like Ine’s.

Photo credit: dun_deagh via photopin cc.

Dinogad’s coat

The Gododdin is a series of elegies to the Britons who died in a failed assault against the Angles at Catraeth (modern-day Catterick). The Gododdin were the P-Celtic-speaking people who occupied the Lothians and had as their main fortress Din Eidyn (Edinburgh).

When it was written down, possibly as early as the mid-600s, a mother’s lullaby somehow made it into the text. Dinogad’s coat, as it is known, was likely composed by a woman and might just be the earliest poem by a woman to have been preserved in Britain. Like The Gododdin it appears as something of an elegy itself and was clearly based on a wealthy household.

Specked, specked, Dinogad’s coat,
I fashioned it of pelts of stoat.
Twit, twit, a twittering,
I sang, and so eight slaves would sing.
When your daddy went off to hunt,
Spear on his shoulder, club in his hand,
He’d call to the hounds so swift of foot:
‘Giff, Gaff — seek ‘im, seek ‘im; fetch, fetch.’
He’d strike fish from a coracle
As a lion strikes a small animal.
When to the mountain your daddy would go,
He’d bring back a stag, a boar, a roe,
A speckled mountain grouse,
A fish from Derwennydd Falls.
Of those your daddy reached with his lance,
Whether a boar or a fox or a lynx,
None could escape unless it had wings.

Translation: Professor Joseph Clancy

The Joffrey of Northumbria

He was the child king who alienated his own nobles, had bitter enemies in the north and is remembered for his wantonness. He was Osred — the Joffrey Baratheon of Northumbria.

Like George R.R. Martin’s famous miscreant, controversy hangs over Osred’s parentage. Aldfrith, the previous king of Northumbria, was his father, but that Cuthburh, his queen, was the mother is far less certain. She parted from Aldfrith at some point to found a nunnery at Wimborne.

Was Osred the illegitimate son his father had been? The boy would have been able to trace his line back to Ida, the great founder of Anglo-Saxon Bernicia. But whereas his line was blurred, he would have had rivals who boasted a line straight and true.

Joffrey Baratheon, a ‘draught from the same cup’ as Osred.

Among these was likely Eadwulf, who claimed the throne on Aldfrith’s death in 704. However, his reign lasted a matter of weeks. Though just eight years old, Osred had the support of the later-sainted Wilfrid and the praefectus Berhtfrith, a ‘leader second in rank to the king’. This is the first attested example of a child’s succession in northern Britain.

Osred and his supporters were besieged at Bebbanburg, modern-day Bamburgh Castle, presumably by Eadwulf, either as an opener to the power struggle or as its conclusion. There would be no siege engines or catapults like there would be in such an assault in Westeros. The besiegers would either try to storm the fortress, perhaps using ladders and grappling irons, they would torch the gate or they would camp outside in the hope the occupants would run out of food and water before they did. How ever Eadwulf did it, the burh-dwellers held out. Eadwulf was driven into exile and died 12 years later.

War against the Picts was the next major event in the child king’s reign. In 711 Berhtfrith led an English army into Manau, the much-bloodied frontier between Northumbria and Pictland. There was a battle between the rivers Avon and Carron, around modern-day Falkirk; the Picts were slaughtered. The chronicles name a single Pictish casualty, Finnguine son of Deileroith. He must have been important to warrant notice. Was he the king of Atholl? Had he provoked Northumbrian ire by harbouring the exiled Eadwulf?

Bamburgh Castle.

Osred would have been unlikely to dismiss such a slight against him. He was coming of age now and may have grown fractious through people questioning his legitimacy to reign. Æthelwulf’s ninth-century poem De Abbatibus paints the king as an uncontrollable youth who even slew many of his own nobles and forced others into monastic exile.

He may have been about as interested in maintaining his father’s legacy of relative peace as he was in sustaining the minting of silver coins which Aldfrith championed. The practice ground to a halt under Osred’s reign.

Granted, at Beverley, where John of Beverley was bishop of York throughout the reign, Osred was remembered for his benefactions. However, Bede lamented the rise of ‘false monasteries’ following the death of Aldfrith. He believed that many requests to the king for land to dedicate to the Church were borne not out of piety, but a desire to avoid tax or military service.

“There they live,” Bede said of these ‘false brethren’, “at one moment in bed with their wives begetting children, the next moment rising to perform the monastic offices; while their wives with equal impudence acquire sites for nunneries and set themselves up as laywomen to rule nuns.”

Perhaps the worst allegation levelled at Osred comes from St Boniface.

“A spirit of licentiousness drove him on to lust and in particular to the frenzied rape of consecrated virgins in nunneries.”

Osred was slain in 716, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle saying, enigmatically, “to the south of the border”. This could relate to the boundary with the Picts. It could equally relate to the boundary with the Saxon kingdom of Mercia. William of Malmesbury described his successor — and possibly murderer — Coenred, as a ‘draught from the same cup’. He lasted a matter of two years before Osred’s brother Osric brought some semblance of order back to the Northumbrian court.

Photo credits: chrisjtse via photopin cc and Veebl via photopin cc.