“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.