It is hard to regard a drive up to the Anglo-Scottish border as a very exotic undertaking. You climb into your car, parked in the drive of your suburban Surrey semi, and try to hit the M25 before the hideous scrum of the rush hour descends upon it. Your route thereafter is one motorway after another, identical but for the signs flashing by overhead when you approach a junction; five hours after departing you’re likely to have reached Newcastle, an hour or two after that and the A1(M) will probably have brought you to Edinburgh. The island we live on feels small, samey, prosaic and unheroic.
It is hard to imagine that this precious stone might have once supported a profusion of states of varying size, power, language and ethnicity, some destined for greatness and longevity while others waxed and waned almost with the life of an individual, to vanish from history; that great kings and warlords ruling scarcely more than the area now covered by a small provincial town had their deeds celebrated for posterity by bards and monks; that generations of figures strode a no man’s land between history and legend that we will almost certainly never have the ability to fully explore and map.
And yet if we look at a map of the north some 1,500 years ago, like the one I have attached here, this is what we see. An array of exotic place names denoting kingdoms or clans that have long ceased to exist or morphed into something quite different, their precise location and often even their existence in some doubt. By the end of the eleventh century there were just the two kingdoms of England and Scotland ruling over this entire area, and yet the linguistic and toponomical clues to the former profusion of kingdoms and tongues abound still, ghosts, like the songs of the medieval bards, of the legendary realms we race across in our cars when doing that tedious drive north.
When the last Roman soldiers left Britain at the start of the fifth century they left, broadly speaking, two groups of people behind. South of the border region defined by Hadrian’s Wall there were the Romanised Britons, those who had long since grown used to being Cives Romani and to enjoying the protection of the legions without ever having to draw a sword in their own defence. Their elites had probably always reflected an older, pre-Roman aristocracy and it is likely that within a generation of the end of Roman Briton members of this elite had begun to emerge as rulers of new petty kingdoms. North of the wall were the ‘barbarians’, those Britons who had never been so Romanised, although those living closest to the border had inevitably been affected in countless ways by having the legions so close by. A third group was soon added to the mix by the emergence of the Anglo-Saxons. As with so much of the history of the British Isles in the Early Medieval period we have no way of establishing any of the details of the process by which the Anglo-Saxons came to dominate part of Britain; tradition gives us the story of the proud British tyrant Vortigern, who, in order to protect his demilitarised people from the raiding of northern barbarians and sea pirates, invited Teutonic warriors under the leadership of the brothers Hengist and Horsa to live among them as mercenaries. Ultimately, seeing how vulnerable their paymasters were, the brothers decided that conquest was to be preferred to employment and soon made large areas of the island their own. While Vortigern, Hengist and Horsa are all most likely figures of legend (Vortigern in particular being more likely a title than a name), the gist of the story would seem to be a plausible one. The newcomers came as hirelings and at some point began to take over the lands of their hirers.
This fragmentation and increasing ethnic and political diversity is evident in the map of the Old North. Here what we broadly see is a group of smaller kingdoms that emerge in the early Post-Roman period and then gradually get squeezed between the big boys of Dal Riata, Pictland and Strathclyde in the north and west and the growing power of English Northumbria in the south and east.
The north of Britain was to become dominated largely by the Pictish confederation (although not too much should be made of the term) in the east around Moray and Perthshire, and their Gaelic neighbours, the Scots of Dal Riata, in the lands around Argyll to the west and throughout the Western Isles, though here again to regard Dal Riata as a monolithic political entity is probably a mistake. It was traditionally thought that the Scots came across from Antrim in Northern Ireland and over the course of an endless series of wars between the fifth and ninth centuries annihilated the Picts to create the nucleus of Medieval Scotland. Like most of the ‘Tribe A annihilated Tribe B and took all their lands’ versions of Early Medieval History once so beloved of the nationalist historians, it seems likely that this is bunkum. Tim Clarkson, in his excellent series of books about Early Historic Scotland, has sought for the evidence for large scale immigration, or even the immigration of an elite, from Ireland to Western Scotland and has found none. The more likely story of the Scots is that they were an indigenous Gaelic-speaking group; separated by the Grampians from their Pictish neighbours to the east, cultural and economic intercourse with Ireland and the islands was always going to be easier, and we should not be surprised that Dal Riata emerged with such a distinct culture to that of Pictavia. And the coming together of the two during the course of the ninth century under the heirs of the Pictish king Cinead Mac Alpin (anglicised as Kenneth MacAlpine) represented the gradual penetration of Gaelic Scottish culture among the Picts along with a dynastic union, rather than a war of conquest.
South of Gaelic Dal Riata, in the area covering modern southern Scotland and Cumbria, was the British territory of Alt Clut, the Rock of Clyde, named after its base on the formidable Rock of Dumbarton (see photograph at top of post). This kingdom, known later as Strathclyde, survived for some six centuries, despite the ninth century fall of their stronghold to a Viking siege in about 870, and was only absorbed into the kingdom of Alba (Scotland) towards the end of the eleventh century.
And then we have the Northumbrians. English Northumbria was the combination of two older kingdoms: the northern former British kingdom of Bryneich which seems to have become the English kingdom of Bernicia well before the end of the sixth century, and the kingdom of Deira which corresponds roughly with modern Yorkshire. The story of the late sixth and early seventh century is one of their forced union under a succession of mainly Bernician kings. Like all the kingdoms named so far, they waged endless wars against their neighbours both English and Briton, but their relations with the northerners could also be amicable. When in 616 the exiled Deiran king Edwin slew Aethelfrith, the man who had usurped his throne and subjugated his kingdom under Bernician rule, Aethelfrith’s sons fled for asylum to the north, his eldest son Eanfrith to Pictavia and his other sons Oswald and Oswiu to Dal Riata. When Oswald came south to take his place as ruler of Northumbria in 634 he undoubtedly came with a contingent of Scots at his back; of more consequence still, he had been baptised a Christian at Iona and brought to Northumbria Iona-trained Gaelic clerics to propagate Christianity in his new kingdom. It was a man of Iona, bishop Aidan, who was allowed to found the abbey on the beautiful tidal island of Lindisfarne, which I had the good fortune to visit myself two weeks ago.
So what of the strange names that we see on the map spreading between the lands that separate these kingdoms? Of Rheged, of Elmet, of Gododdin? They were British kingdoms, and as they ceased to exist at an early date their history was celebrated not so much by their conquerors as by their successors in medieval Wales; the Welsh of course shared a Celtic British ethnicity with the three kingdoms mentioned above, and with Strathclyde, the inhabitants of these states coming under the general heading of Gwŷr y Gogledd, the Men of the North. The medieval Welsh had a great deal of trouble trying to retain their independence from their English neighbours, so it is hardly surprising that the bards sing songs that are largely based on the struggles of the heroic northern Britons against the encroaching English, though we can be sure that like all the other kingdoms jostling for supremacy in the region they were as happy to wage war on Briton as on Anglo-Saxon, any idea of ethnic unity being most likely completely alien to them.
Of the three British kingdoms we can only locate one with any degree of certainty. Gododdin covered the area immediately south of the Forth in modern Lothian. In Roman times they were known as the Votadini, a people living to the south and east of the fearsome Maeatae and based, like so many of the northern peoples, around a formidable stronghold, in this case the Fort of Eidyn, Dun Eidyn, which has of course become anglicised as Edinburgh. Rheged has been argued, on apparently very tenuous evidence, as being the area around modern Carlisle, but alternative locations have been given as far north as Dumfriesshire and as far south as Rochdale in Greater Manchester. As for Elmet, we can’t be 100% sure that it was even a kingdom; the Historia Brittonum, a ninth century Celtic riposte to the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, refers to it as a kingdom, but Bede, generally regarded as the most trustworthy of the early Anglo-Saxon historians, refers to it as only the site of a wood, the silva Elmete. In any case, it would seem that all three kingdoms succumbed to the men of Northumbria during the course of the seventh century, as they extended their power to become the foremost of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
To the Welsh bards the legend was more important than the reality. The most renowned of them, an almost contemporary bard by the name of Taliesin, was famed for his verses celebrating the life of King Urien of Rheged. Urien seems to have been a historical figure and we even have some genealogies for him, though their value is debatable. Urien appears in Arthurian legend as King Urien of Gore, and his son Owain mab Urien became, in the same legend, Sir Gawain, a knight of the Round Table. Taliesin describes how Urien, along with three allied British kings, defeated King Ida of the Bernicians and besieged him on the island of Lindisfarne; whether this campaign ever actually took place is open to question, but it has to be said that the sand flats of the Lindisfarne causeway at low tide make for a splendid setting for a Heroic Age showdown. Whatever the outcome of the siege, we learn that the heroic Urien was assassinated on the orders of one King Morcant, jealous of his power and prestige, the assassin being a man known as Llofan Llaw Difro, ‘Llofan of the Exiled Hand’. A heroic death as a martyr is the only one worthy of a legendary war leader of this stature.
Similarly heroic odes tell of the tragedy of Gododdin. Y Gododdin, attributed to the bard Aneirin, is an elegiac poem of disputed age concerning the Battle of Catraeth in about 600 CE. The battle, the precise location of which is inevitably open to doubt but is most often regarded as Catterick, was fought between the warriors of Gododdin, along with allies from all across the Hen Ogledd or British North and the Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria, and was a disastrous defeat for the former, and perhaps a fatal one, since the kingdom itself was conquered by the English quite soon afterwards. The poem is a lament for the brave British host and describes the prowess in battle of a number of individuals; certain stanzas remind me irresistibly of W B Yeats’ paean to the contributions of individuals to the cause of Irish Nationalism in another defeat of the Celtic fringe by the English over a millenium later:
In might a man, a youth in years,
Of boisterous valour,
Swift long-maned steeds
Under the thigh of a handsome youth …
Quicker to a field of blood
Than to a wedding
Quicker to the ravens’ feast
Than to a burial…
A terrible beauty is born.
Those who are moved to lament the defeat of Gododdin may be heartened to know that 85 years later a very large Northumbrian army, along with their king Ecgfrith, were slaughtered by the Picts at the Battle of Dun Nechtain some considerable distance to the north of the Forth; and that as a result of the battle, lamented by Bede as a fatal blow to Northumbrian power in the north, the former inhabitants of Gododdin rose in revolt, sacked the English abbey at Abercorn and drove the English clergy out. It was a short lived resurgence but perhaps, for those who loved to celebrate the heroism of the British, a sweet one for all that.
The designs on the beautiful Pictish standing stone at Aberlemno may relate to the Battle of Dun Nechtain, though carved perhaps a century later
The striking thing, for me, is that these deeds, these battles and betrayals and meetings between great kings and ruthless warlords, took place within a stones throw of the motorways, of the ugly service stations where the early birds driving north from Surrey stop to grab a McMuffin and stretch their legs. It is well to remember that there was a heroic age when legend and history danced lightly around each other, when men could regard themselves with pride as Gwŷr y Gogledd, when the lands stretching to either side of the still imposing lines of the Roman Wall bore names that now whisper to us of Romantic legend. That journey north would have been a very different thing in those times.