In 685 Ecgfrith, King of Northumbria, led an expedition against the Picts. North of the Tay, at Dunnichen near Forfar, he was slain and his army was destroyed by the forces of Brude mac Beli King of the Picts. The battle was fought near a loch, Symeon of Durham's ‘Nechtanesmere’, which scholars of the 19th century believed to have existed in the mosslands of Dunnichen. The site of the battle is not known, the loch itself has now disappeared, and the accounts of local historians and others, neither properly checked nor fully assimilated by national historians, are not all easily accessible. Floods which followed the winter of 1946–47 temporarily restored at least part of the old loch or mere, and in the summer of 1947 the flood-marks in the fields could still be seen. It seemed worth while to try to indicate on a map the extent of the vanished loch and this, with the aid of photography and a field-survey, has been possible. It seemed worth while also to sift the meagre scraps of evidence provided by chroniclers and, often unintentionally, by local writers of the last century, for these scattered scraps deserve to be brought together and re-examined.
1 Adamnan’s Life of St. Columba, p. 186, ed. William Reeves, Irish Archaeological and Celtic Society, Dublin, 1857.
2 Symeon of Durham has preserved the information that Ecgfrith was buried in Iona (Symeonis Monachi Opera Omnia, ed. Thomas Arnold, vol. 1, p. 32, Rolls Series, 1882).
3 An Irish Life of Adamnan preserves a curious story which suggests that Adamnan was on terms of friendship with Brude mac Beli as well as with Aldfrith : the body of Brude was carried to Iona, and Adamnan, being grieved and sorrowful at his death, set about restoring him to life—’ with conspicuous success until he was persuaded to desist by a certain religious man who argued that other priests, lacking the power to raise the dead, would feel their deficiency to be a disgrace. The text and a translation of this story from Brussels MS. 5101-4 is provided by W. F. Skene, Chronicles of the Picts and Scots (1867), pp. 408-9. See also Betha Adamndin, pp. 16-17, edited by R. I. Best (Anecdota from Irish Manuscripts, vol. II, 1908) and translated by M. Joynt (Celtic Review, vol. v, 1908-9, pp. 102-3). See also A. O. Anderson (Early Sources of Scottish History, 1922) who gives references (vol. I, p. Ixxiii) and a translation (ibid, p. 201). Brude died in 693 and must then have been a very old man (ibid, p. 193).
4 Vita Sancii Cuthbertì Auctore Anonymo, ed. Bertram Colgrave in Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert, Cambridge, 1940.
5 i.e. in the afternoon, probably about three o’clock.
6 An interesting case of second-sight, witnessed according to the monk of Lindisfarne by several persons who were still alive when he was writing. Cuthbert had gone to visit Ecgfrith’s queen at Carlisle where she was waiting for news of the Northumbrian expedition. On the Saturday at the ninth hour a tour of the local Roman remains, under the leadership of Waga the reeve, was interrupted by Cuthbert who, displaying signs of distress and raising his eyes to heaven, exclaimed : ‘ Oh, Oh, Oh, I believe the war is ended, and the verdict has been given against our warriors ‘. He evaded urgent requests for an explanation but ‘ after a few days they heard that it had been reported far and wide that there had been a deplorable and lamentable battle on the very day and at the very hour in which it was revealed to him ‘ (ibid, p. 122).
7 Vita Sancti Cuthberti Auctore Beda, ed. Bertram Colgrave, op. cit. p. 248. Bede’s prose life of St. Cuthbert, here quoted, was written in or a little before 721. Bede had earlier written a metrical life of St. Cuthbert (see Bedas metrische Vita sancti Cuthberti, ed. Werner Jaager, Leipzig, 1935) in which (Jaager, pp. 105-6) Cuthbert’s vision is described but with fewer details of time and place.
8 Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, Lib. IV, Cap. 24, Bedae Opera Histórica, ed. C. Plummer (Oxford 1896), vol. 1, pp. 266-7.
9 On Easter Day, 26 March, 685.
10 Vita Wilfridi Episcopi auctore Eddio Stephano, cap. XIX, ed. James Raine in The Historians of the Church of York, vol. i (Rolls Series, 1879), and The Life of Bishop Wilfrid by Eddius Stephanus, ed. Bertram Colgrave (Cambridge 1927), p. 40.
11 Vita Wilfridi Episcopi auctore Eadmero, cap. XLIII, ed. James Raine, op. cit.
12 Eadmer himself apparently does not feel altogether easy in his mind about this story for he writes (cap. LVII) : Illud tamen quod dixi de damnatione regis Ecfridi fateor nusquam legi ; sed tot talesque viri id ita se habuisse confirmant, ut eis nolle credere magnae impudentiae esse crediderim.
13 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ed. Benjamin Thorpe, Rolls Series, 1861.
14 Historia Britonum in Monumenta Historica Britannica (London, 1848), p. 74. The passage may be translated thus : ‘ This Ecgfrith is he who made war against his cousin (fratruelem), Brude King of the Picts. There he perished with all the best of his army, and the Picts with their king were the victors. The Northumbrians have never managed to exact tribute from the Picts since the time of that battle [which] is called Gueith Linn Garan’.
15 Historia Dunelmensis Ecclesiae, cap. IX (Symeonis Monachi Opera Omnia, loc. cit.).
16 Annals of Ulster, vol. I, pp. 134-6 (ed. W. M. Hennessy, Dublin, 1887).
17 ed. Whitley Stokes, Revue Celtique, vol. XVII (1896), p. 209.
18 Bibliothèque Royale, MS. 5301-5320. This compilation was edited by John O’Donovan as Annals of Ireland, Three Fragments (Irish Archaeological and Celtic Society, Dublin, 1860).
19 MS. fol. 12b. O’Donovan (op. cit. p. 88) silently extends the abbreviation itt to ittir (instead of to ittorchair as above) and makes other changes from the text of the MS. If ittir were accepted, the translation would run : ‘ The Battle of Dunnichen between the son of Oswiu [and] Brude, Bile’s son, [who] was the victor ‘. But the extension and the translation given above are preferable.
20 See, for example, F. T. Wainwright, ‘ Ingimund’s Invasion ‘ (English Historical Review, Vol. LXIII).
21 Translations by John O’Donovan (op. cit. p. III) and W. F. Skene (Chronicles of the Picts and Scots, p. 402, and Celtic Scotland, vol. 1, pp. 266-7) are unsatisfactory. A. O. Anderson gives a translation (Early Sources of Scottish History, vol. 1, pp. 194-5) but for some time he has been engaged upon the preparation of a revised translation and a discussion of the complex problems raised by these verses. Dr Anderson’s generous and patient explanations of these and related problems have saved me from many errors into which I should otherwise have fallen.
22 Other references are given by A. O. Anderson in Scottish Annals from English Chroniclers (1908), pp. 42-3, and Early Sources of Scottish History (1922), vol. 1, pp. 192-5.
23 The twentieth day of May was a Saturday in 685.
24 Cf. William of Malmesbury’s statement that ‘pauci fuga lapsi rem domi nuntiarunt ‘ (Willelmi Malmesbiriensis Monachi De Gestis Regum Anglorum Libri Quinqué, ed. William Stubbs, vol. 1, p. 57).
25 Vita Wilfridi Episcopi auctore Eddio Stephano, cit. sup., cap. XIX.
26 Note the following selected spellings of the place-name Dunnichen (dates in some cases are approximate): 1178 Duneicht[in] ; 1178 1210 1214 1218 1220 Dunectin ; 1182 1190 1200 1212 1215 1248 1304 1315 1322 1351 Dun[n\echtyn ; 1215 Dunechtin ; 1457 Dunnychtin; 1483 i486 1509 Dunnychtyn ; 1592 Dunnichtin ; 1329 1461 1503 1517 1536 Dun[n]echyn ; 1517 Dunnechin ; 1528 Dunnychyn, Dunnychen. These forms are from the Liber S. Thome de Aber- brothoc, ed. Cosmo Innes and Patrick Chalmers (Bannatyne Club, 1848-56).
27 George Chalmers, Caledonia (1807-24), vol. 1, pp. 210, 254-5.
28 The Topography of the Basin of the Tay (Edinburgh, 1831), p. 118.
29 Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 11 (1854-7), p. 189; Memorials of Angus and Mearns (Edinburgh, 1861), p. 21.
30 Sculptured Stones of Scotland, vol. 1 (1856), p. 29.
31 Adamnan’s Life of St. Columba (1857), cit. sup., pp. 186-7.
32 The Pictorial History of Scotland (1859), vol. I, p. 26.
33 Annals of Ireland, Three Fragments (1860), cit. sup., p. 89.
34 Scotland under her Early Kings (Edinburgh, 1862), vol. I, p. 12.
35 The History of Scotland (1867-70), vol. 1, p. 312.
36 Chronicles of the Picts and Scots (Edinburgh, 1867), pp. cxix, 402 ; Celtic Scotland (Edin burgh, 1876-80, 2nd ed. 1886-90), vol. 1, p. 266.
37 Historic Scenes in Forfarshire (Edinburgh, 1875), p. 118.
38 The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1903), Part III, p. 207 ; Proceed ings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. XVI (1881-82), pp. 103-4.
39 Angus or Forfarshire (Dundee, 1880-85), vol. 1, p. 25, vol. in, p. 189.
40 Memorials of Angus and Mearns (1885), vol. 1, p. 24. This work is merely the second edition of Andrew Jervise’s work (1861) of the same title. Gammack reprints Jervise’s account but a misprint introduces an error in the date of the battle.
41 Annals of Ulster, cit. sup., vol. 1, p. 135.
42 Bedae Opera Historica, cit. sup., vol. 11, p. 261.
43 A History of the Scottish People (1896), vol. 1, p. 51.
44 History of Scotland (1899-1902), vol. 1, p. 24 ; 1911 ed. vol. 1, p. 19.
45 Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. XXXIV (1899-1900), p. 108.
46 The Political History of England, vol. 1, p. 192.
47 England before the Norman Conquest (1910), p. 308.
48 The Early Chronicles relating to Scotland (Glasgow, 1912), p. 90.
49 The Mearns of Old (1914), p. 88.
50 The Pictish Nation, Its People and Its Church (1918), pp. 322 ff.
51 Anglo-Saxon England (1943), p. 88.
52 To support his identification Chalmers (Ioc. cit.) refers to a charter (William the Lion to Arbroath Abbey) in which occurs an early form of the name Dunnichen. This important piece of evidence appears again and again in the accounts of later writers.
53 Frequently repeated is Chalmers’s statement (vol. 1, p. 210) that the lake ‘ was long known by the analogous name of Nechtan’s mere ‘. Some later writers emphasize that the site bore this name. It is not impossible that this was so, but it is improbable. Nechtanesmere was the English name for the vanished loch and I have found no evidence to suggest that it was ever attached to the site locally.
54 Chalmers (vol. I, pp. 9, 255) claims that his identification is new. Without an exhaustive study of earlier writers it is unwise to be dogmatic but at least I have found no evidence of any earlier suggestion, no evidence that his claim is exaggerated.
55 e.g. Thomas Arnold, Symeonis Monachi Opera Omnia, loc. cit.
56 To my colleagues, and to students, of University College, Dundee, I am indebted for valuable assistance, advice and supervision : to Professor W. T. Marshall and his staff of the Department of Engineering for the loan of instruments and for instruction, willingly given, on the problems of surveying ; to R. C. Powrie, H. K. R. Allan and S. W. McLeod (graduate students of the Department of Engineering) and to A. R. Baird, D. R. Plummer and D. B. Taylor (of the Department of History) for carrying through the survey with skill and enthusiasm.
A fairly full photographic record was made possible by Dr G. L. Rogers, of the Department of Physics, who gave generously of time, advice and physical effort. It was not considered necessary to reproduce any of our photographs—there are some seventy in all—but they proved to be of great value in the attempt to reconstruct the earlier appearance of the area.
Mr James Millar, owner of East Mains of Dunnichen, kindly facilitated the work at every step. His knowledge, generously placed at our disposal, opened up new possibilities, saved much time and labour, and perhaps saved some of us from injury on the horns of his bull.
57 James Headrick, General View of the Agriculture of the County of Angus, or Forfarshire (Edinburgh, 1813), pp. XI, 40, 63.
58 New Statistical Account of Scotland, vol. XI (1843), p. 146. Headrick’s account of Dunnichen was written in December 1833.
59 The Topography of the Basin of the Toy, p. 118.
60 The Statistical Account of Scotland, vol. 1 (1791), p. 420.
61 See below, p. 90 n.
62 Map of the County of Forfar or Shire of Angus from an Actual Survey made by John Ainslie, published 1794.
63 Headrick (1813), op. cit., p. 63.
64 New Statistical Account, loc. cit.
65 Account of the Peat Mosses and Marl on the Estate of Dunnichen, in the County of Forfar, Appendix E, pp. 73-8, of James Headrick’s General View of the Agriculture of the County of Angus, cit. sup.).
66 p. 89. The Letters of George Dempster to Sir Adam Fergusson (ed. James Fergusson, 1934) provides the fullest account of George Dempster and his interests. This scholarly work does not claim to be a biography, but its author has transformed a mass of unpublished material into a vivid picture of Dempster, a picture which emphasizes his historical importance no less than his personal charm. See p. 202 n. for the suggestion that Dempster wrote the 1791 account of Dunnichen.
67 James Roger, General View of the Agriculture of the County of Angus or Forfar (Edinburgh, 1794). pp. 24-5.
68 James Roger (1794), loc. cit. ; Andrew Steele (1802), loc. cit. ; James Headrick (1813), op. cit. pp. 85 ff., 388 ff.
69 Cf. Letters of George Dempster, cit. sup., pp. 174, 179, 193, 196, 202 ; Andrew Steele (1802), loc. cit. ; James Roger (1794), loc. cit.
70 Letters of George Dempster, p. 218.
71 ibid ; Andrew Steele, op. cit., p. 73.
72 See above, p. 89.
73 Steele, op. cit. p. 75 ; see also above, p. 89.
74 The Statistical Account of Scotland, vol. 1 (1791), p. 420 : ‘In all probability it will furnish the neighbourhood with fuel for about 30 years longer, and may then be made a rich meadow’.
75 ‘Many of these have been so far drained as to draw the water from the surface ; though it regurgitates upon some of them during wet weather. Were the main outlet made a few feet deeper and broader, and were concealed drains thrown round the margin of such valleys, where the springs break out, these unseemly swamps would be converted into very fertile land ‘ (James Headrick, 1813, op. cit. pp. 394-5). ‘There are various tracts of hollow marshy ground, which were formerly lakes, but have been either wholly, or partially drained ‘ (ibid, p. 86).
76 cit. sup., vol. 1, p. 429.
77 op. cit. vol. 1, p. 255 note.
78 op. cit. p. 118.
79 New Statistical Account of Scotland, vol. XI, pp. 146-7.
80 That Headrick was aware of Chalmers’s work is proved by his earlier (1813) expressed disagreement with Chalmers’s derivation of the name Dunnichen (General View of the Agriculture of the County of Angus, p. 163).
81 Historie Scenes in Forfarshire, p. 119.
82 Statistical Account of Scotland, vol. 1 (1791), p. 419.
83 op. cit. p. 255.
84 op. cit. (1813), p. 163.
85 New Statistical Account, vol. XI (1843), p. 146.
86 ibid, p. 144.
87 Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 11 (1854-7), p. 189; Memorials of Angus and Mearns (1861), p. 21.
88 This phrase follows interfectus est (see above, p. 85). In the Annals of Tigernach its place is taken by la Bruidhi mac Bili regis Fortrenn (‘ by Brude son of Bile the king of Fortriu’).
89 See A. O. Anderson, Early Sources of Scottish History, vol. 1, p. 193.
90 See Annals of Ulster, sub annis 685, 697, 700.
91 Historia Etclesiastica, cit. sup., Lib. IV, Cap. 24.
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