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Issue 99 - Picts at War

Scotland Magazine Issue 99
June 2018


Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

Picts at War

James Irvine Roberson explains how one battle helped the Picts consolidate their power over Scotland

 The Romans, in the words of Tacitus, created a desert and called it peace. But as far as England was concerned, their peace produced a prosperity that was likely unequalled for a more than a millennium. The Romans established order and when they left, in AD410, their law and their legions would be replaced by squabbling warlords trying to carve out territories of their own.

The Romans sniffed at Scotland but were wise enough to know that the difficulty of subduing the northern tribes in their bleak and infertile heartlands would not be worth the trouble. They built Hadrian’s and Antoninus’s walls to protect their commonwealth to the south and left the barbarians largely to themselves. North of the Forth, the Picts were in control. To the south, various tribes had spheres of influence that ebbed and flowed.

After the Roman society collapsed, Viking and Germanic peoples invaded, pillaged and eventually settled. Within a couple of hundred years the country had been carved into small warring kingdoms that would coalesce into England under the dynasty of Alfred the Great by the mid 900s. In northern Scotland the most powerful Pictish kingdom was Fortriu. To the south, with its capital at Bamburgh Castle, was the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. It had taken over eastern Scotland between the rivers Forth and Tweed after besieging and capturing the Pictish fortress at Edinburgh in AD638.

Christianity had been established. St Columba had converted the Picts and St Cuthbert was prior of the monastery on Lindisfarne, an island located a few miles north of Bamburgh. Oswald, who succeeded as King of Northumbria in AD634, had been raised on Iona and under him his realm became a beacon of Christian civilization. But it would not last.

West of Northumbria, in Scotland, was the kingdom of Strathclyde, which was ruled from Dumbarton rock. Its leaders were Britons who had held against the Anglian invasions. South of them was Galloway and to the north, in modern Argyllshire, lay Dalriada, which was occupied by the Scotti.

War was the normal state of affairs. This mixture of peoples and kingdoms was in a state of flux, but it looked as though Northumbria would eventually control Scotland because it held castles north of the Forth and had established ascendancy over the Picts, who paid tribute.

Oswald of Northumbria was killed in battle, as were his four predecessors. His son Oswiu managed to rule for 16 years and die in his bed. Then, in AD670, came Ecgfrith. He defeated an uprising by the southern Picts in AD671, which led to the downfall of their king.

In AD673, Bridei III took the throne of Fortrui, the dominant Pictish kingdom. He was a cousin to Ecgfrith, son of the King of Strathclyde, and grandson of Nechtan, king of the Picts. He chafed under Northumbrian supremacy. Since the Synod of Whitby in AD664, Northumbria had adopted the Roman form of Christianity and sent Trumwine as Bishop of the Picts to bring the Columban church into line. Bridei rebelled and beseiged the Northumbrian fortresses of Dundurn, near Loch Earn, and Dunnotar, on the Aberdeenshire coast.

In AD685, ignoring the advice of his churchmen and other counsellors, Egfryth led his army against Bridei to bring him to heel. The Pictish king lured the Northumbrians north into the mountains and the two armies met at Dun Nechtain or Nechtansmere.

The site of the battle was long thought to have been near Forfar, in Angus, but now the shores of Loch Insh, near Kingussie, are agreed to be a more plausible location. This would certainly tie in better with the records of the battle and is sited where the heartland of Fortriu is believed to have been.

Accounts of the conflict are brief and from the Northumbrian point of view: ‘The enemy made show as if they fled, and the king was drawn in to the straits of inaccessible mountains, and slain with the greatest part of his forces, on the 20 May, in the 40th year of his age, and the 15th of his reign.’ The report goes on to say: ‘many of the Anglian nation were either slain by the sword or taken captive, or escaped by flight from the land of the Picts’ Anything else about the battle is guesswork.

The Northumbrians may have had a force of 600, almost all mounted. The Picts perhaps 1,500. One scholar wrote: ‘Much of the fighting probably took the form of skirmishing and exchanges of missiles, while the battle is also likely to have been punctuated by the launching of small bodies of horsemen in localised ‘charges’, shouting and throwing their spears to try and unnerve the enemy and to earn honour by demonstrating their bravery in this way.’

The more serious close combat, exchanging blows with swords and spear-thrusts, may have become more frequent as the day wore on and the need for decisive action became ever more urgent. At some point in the day, the main Pictish counter-attack began and drove the Northumbrians from the field.

The battle of Dun Nechtain established the independence of the Picts, who soon took over Dalriada, and the bishop and his followers were expelled. Even more significantly, the conflict marked the beginning of the long decline of Northumbrian power. In the end, the Vikings eventually conquered their kingdom and their territory north of Hadrian’s Wall was absorbed into nascent Scotland. The action has been described as one of the most important battles in creating the shape of modern Britain.