My next book, Three Legs of the Cauldron, will be out by Christmas. It is a 6th century Celtic saga of Northeastern Ireland and Western Scotland, the kingdom of Dal Riata. Here is a little history lesson about that little-known place and time. This is a tad long, so consider it, “Everything you wanted to know about Dal Riata, but were afraid to ask. And then some.” Feel free to read it over a couple of days. Or weeks.
You say Dal Riada, or Dalriata, or Dalriada, I say Dal Riata.
As with most Gaelic words, there is no authoritative spelling of the kingdom’s name. Here, I will use Dal Riata, like I did in in my book.
Dal Riata was a kingdom that encompassed part of the current County Antrim in Northern Ireland and stretched across the northern part of the Irish Sea to Scotland’s Kintyre Peninsula (Argyll) and islands in the Inner Hebrides. Although initially it only had the major islands of Islay and Jura, at its zenith in the late 6th and early 7th centuries it expanded to all the Inner Hebrides, including Mull and Arran as well as Skye and even the Isle of Man, although it could not always hold those last two. It was a coastal kingdom, never conquering and holding any inland regions of Scotland and slowly declined until united with Pictish lands to become the kingdom of Alba, then Scotland. Its Irish lands were lost in the mid-seventh century, after the Battle of Mag Rath in 637, although the Dal Riatans seem to have continued to fight in Irish wars alongside their allies, the Ui Neills, until the mid-eighth century.
Dal Riata consisted mainly of islands and coastal regions. The land was rocky, hilly to mountainous, and windy- not great farmland.
The origins of the kingdom of Dal Riata are lost to us. It happened before recorded history, so all our records were written, at best, a couple hundred years later. It’s as though no one had written what happened in the early 1800’s or before in American history and we had to rely on the stories handed down through the generations. While some of it might be told accurately, no doubt some would be forgotten, added on to for the sake of a good story or remembered differently by different sources. Can you imagine how the American Revolution might be portrayed if all that survived were accounts handed down over the years by Tories and not written until now?
When did the Irish (or Scotti, as the Romans called them) first settle in Scotland? That’s a matter of continued debate.
1. Some think it started in the 3rd century. In 365 AD, the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellus wrote of Picti and Scotti as raiders of Britannia. But were the Scotti raiding from Ireland or from Scotland?
2. Some think it was later when Dal Riata was settled, perhaps not long before the Duan Albanach (Song of the Scots) says that King Erc’s sons came to Scotland and moved the kingship there. However, it was written in the 11th c, so it’s not accepted as historical proof. Some versions of Senchus Fer nAlban (History of the men of Scotland) also include this.
3. The Venerable Bede wrote that in the late 2nd Century, Cairbre Riada, Son of Conary, King of Ireland, and Grandson of Con of the Hundred Battles, settled on the west coast of Alba. Dal is Gaelic for place or region, making Dal Riada “Riada’s place” or “region of Riada.” That might seem likely, but Bede was an Anglo-Saxon who wrote in the early 8th century who also said Ireland was settled by the Spanish. Some versions of Senchus have a similar tale.
3. We do know some events and people from about 576 A.D. and have a high degree of certainty that Dal Riata was already an established kingdom at that point.
4. A revisionist theory is that the kingdom was not settled by the Irish at all, but a Pictish people that came under the influence linguistically and culturally of the Irish by trade. This is a theory pushed by Scotophiles who might be a little Hibernophobic. Or, lovers of things Scottish who might be anti-Irish.
Now you see the problems in trying to know with a high degree of certainty exactly what happened so many years ago. For the most part, history is made up of opinions and even wishful thinking. But you can take the opinions, try to sort out the fluff and wishful thinking, and come up with your best theory. For me, I think Bede makes sense, since it explains the name of Dal Riata itself. I also think the Duan Albanach explains how the king of Dal Riata came to be in Scotland instead of Ireland. Until some new, long-forgotten text shows up to prove me wrong, it works for me.
Gaelic Celtic culture, basically the same as Ireland, with cenels, or extended families, being the same as clans. The customs, laws, political structure, mores and values were Irish. Brehon Law would have been the standard.
Hand-sown oats and barley were the grain. The rocky land was difficult to plow, so the yield per acre was low. The stones removed for cultivation did prove a source of building material for house walls and walls to keep in livestock. Beef, mutton, goat, pork and fish, including shellfish, mackerel, herring and salmon, were primary protein sources. Hunting added boar and venison to their diet and gathering brought in wild berries and nuts. Stone querns survive, so we know they ground their grains for breads, soups and such. Cooking cauldrons and shards of cooking pottery have also survived.
Clothing and appearance
Although few examples of clothing have survived, we know that wool was the favorite material, which has warmth and a natural water resistance. A leine or tunic was worn by both sexes, with women’s longer than the men’s. A cape-like woolen cloak, called a bratt, would be pinned with a brooch. Men would wear trews, or trousers, in colder weather. Men wore beards or long mustaches. Ornate jewelry was worn by both sexes, with armlets, bracelets, torcs and brooches most popular. Grooming was important and there is evidence of stone and wood bath tubs, warmed by heated stones, as early as 1200 BC. Men were 5’6″ to 5’9″ and women 5′ to 5’4″.
Many people traveled on foo. Those who could afford to, went on horseback, using trails rather than roads. Few carts or other wheeled vehicles were used due to terrain and lack of roads. Being a coastal kingdom, boats were very important. Currachs, boats made of greased or pitch-covered hides over wicker frames, were used for peace-time commerce as well as for transporting warriors. They had a single, square sail and benches for rowers. Originally, they seem to have been seven-benchers, but later twenty-two was a standard crew, with ten benches with two oarsmen per bench.
Houses might stand alone or be in small groups, but there were no cities, towns or villages as such.
Round houses were made with a low wall of stone, timber or mud-and-wattle with a steeply pitched thatched roof. They would normally have one door and no windows. The door often faced the rising sun. They varied in size with the smallest being about 12 ft. around to the largest at about 70 ft. Most were larger and housed an extended family up to 30 people. Internal dividers would give some privacy. Smoke from the central hearth fire filtered through the thatch, but they would have been smoky inside. Sometimes sections were set aside for livestock, especially in the winter, so maybe the odor of the fire helped against other odors.
Crannogs were artificial islands built on lakes by using timber pilings, piled lumber and/or stone and dirt rubble as fill. Planks formed the flooring and a timber round house gave protection. A wood causeway connected it to the shore.
According to Senchus, Cenel nOengusa had 430 houses, Cenel Loairn had 420 and Cenel nGabrain had 560. Total population was probably between 7,000 and 8,000.
If the first settlement was in the 3rd c., Dal Riata was initially pagan, with the same gods the Irish had, and later became Christian. Colm Cille (St. Columba, the church dove) founded a monastery on Iona, off the coast of the isle of Mull, in the late 6th c. He was a noble of the powerful Ui Neill’s and is said to have fled there in penance for lives lost in a battle he caused. He is the first person of Christian authority to crown a king in Scotland, that being Aeden in 576 AD on Iona. Colm Cille is credited with bringing Christianity to Scotland, although St. Ninian brought it to southern Scotland. It is on the Isle of Iona that a couple of centuries later the monks created the Book of Kells. It was taken to Kells, Ireland, to save it from destruction by the Vikings.
The kingdom was divided into Cenels, which are similar to Scottish clans, that held lands and had their own Dals, or tribal councils. There were three Cenels named in the Senchus, nOengusa, Cenel Loairn, and Cenel nGabrain. Cenel Comghal apparently was one line of nGabrain that later became independent of it. Check the map for the divisions. Over all of them was the king, who depended on their support both politically and militarily.
Warriors, for both the army and navy, were required to be furnished by each household. According to the Senchus, Cenel nOengusa would furnish 600, Cenel Loairn would furnish 600 and Cenel nGabrain would field 800. These, of course, are estimates, but equal an available military force of 2000 men for the entire kingdom. Seldom would all be called. They were armed mainly with spears, swords and shields and operated either as foot soldiers or armed sailors. Later in the kingdom, mail shirts and finally metal helms were used. A number of naval battles were fought by the Dal Riatans, evidencing their skill as fighting sailors.
Kingship was not primogeniture, but normally went to a male within the royal derbfhine, or close family, but a king might just as well be succeeded by an uncle, brother, cousin, or nephew as by a son, elected by the Dal, or cenel council. For many years the kingship of Scottish Dalriata alternated irregularly between the Cenel nGabrain and the Cenel Comghal until the royal line of the Cenel Comghal died out in the 7th Century. At that time, the Cenel Loairn began to compete for the kingship, using the Celtic custom that a derbfhine could submit a candidate for the chieftainship whenever the chief died without a tanist (heir) having been appointed.
Dunadd or Dun Ad
Dun is Gaelic for fort. Dun Ad was the fort of the king of Dal Riata. It is located near Kilmartin on the Kintyre Peninsula, on a rocky hill in the plain near the Add river. At one time, it may even have been an island in the river. We do not know when it was first settled but became the seat of the kings. It has two main, natural levels, with the upper fort or citadel not large, about 40 by 60 ft., only enough for the royal family and a small entourage. There are various clear areas lower where more troops and craftsmen (there is evidence of smelting and metalwork) were housed. It is reached by a steep trail through a natural cleft in the rock that was barred by a gate. At one time timber walls added to the natural defense, but are long gone. A Pictish boar, a cup and a footprint were carved into a rock in the citadel (no longer there) that has fueled many debates over their use. It is not large and has very little water inside the fort, so it was of questionable defensive value. It was conquered at least one time, by the Picts in 736 AD who held it at least until the next century.
The Picts never called themselves Picts. Pictus, a Latin word for a painting, was how the Romans termed them because they had pictures painted on their bodies or tattoos, most likely the latter. They would never have called themselves such. They were most likely related to the Britons in the south and spoke a Brythonic Celtic tongue. They were competent warriors and became strong nations in Scotland. Different tribes or petty kingdoms gained supremacy at different times, often uniting all or almost all of Pictland as one. They battled the Dal Riatans and the Angles many times, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. They even occupied the kingdom as foreign rulers. With no written language, we know them from what others wrote about them and from their art.
Alt Cult (Strathclyde) was the main Briton kingdom that the Dal Riatans had to deal with. Sometimes they were allies, sometimes foes. The kingdom formed with the fall of the Roman Empire’s rule in Britain and proved strong, native British kingdoms could thrive again, at least for a time. They suffered a major defeat by the Vikings in 870 AD, but the kingdom survived until the Battle of Brunanburh in 973 AD. Wessex’s King Athelstan’s victory over a Norse, Alban, Pictish army ended Strathclyde’s power and it later became a part of Alba, Scotland.
Bernicia and Deira were the main Anglian kingdoms during the mid-Dal Riatan period and united to become Northumbria before the Viking invasions. Often termed Saxons in early writings, these Germanic invaders conquered more and more of Britain over the years, finally holding all of the region now called England. They were fearsome fighters who defeated Dal Riatans in battle at times, but never conquered the kingdom.
Highwater mark for Dal Riata
King Aeden is considered the most powerful king of Dal Riata. He is the first king whose reign is accepted by most reputable historians as accurately recorded. Aeden raided Orkney, successfully battled the Picts, regained the Isle of Man, defeated the Maeatae in a bloody battle on the River Forth and formed an alliance with the Ui Neills that secured the safety of his Irish lands. However, when he grew alarmed at the growing strength of the Anglian Bernician king Æthelfrith, he led his forces to Degsastan (somewhere on the Scottish-English border). There, in 603 AD, he suffered a disastrous defeat when his superior numbers were decimated by the Bernicians. He escaped with his life, but never was a major force in Britain again.
End of Dal Riata
Cináed mac Ailpín (Kenneth MacAlpin) united the Picts and Dal Riata as one kingdom circa 878 AD. Which kingship he had first is a matter of debate, with some claiming the Picts and some the Scots. Whatever the case, the new kingdom was Alba (from the Latin word for Scotland, probably coming from the word “white.” Perhaps from their pale skin?). It was not a conquest by either people, but more of uniting against a new, seemingly unstoppable foe, the Vikings. Much of the coastal lands and islands of Dal Riata were seized by them and the focus of the new kingdom moved inland to Dunkeld.. But that’s another story.
Why not Pictland Instead of Alba? Or the Roman Caladonia? Some claim Alba was the Gaelic term for what the Picts called their kingdom, but there is no proof for that. In fact, at one point it referred to all of Britain. It was not until about 1286 and the Wars of Scottish Independence from England that it is referred to as the Kingdom of the Scots or Scotland. It gave them a national identity rather than that of a family or tribe (clan). It defined the nation as a Gaelic entity, not English. This is further demonstrated by Edward Bruce’s (Robert the Bruce’s brother) unsuccessful attempt to unite Ireland with Scotland. By then, the Picts were almost forgotten. While their art survived, there were no writings in their forgotten tongue. It was the Irish-related Scots Gaelic that was spoken. So Scotland it was to be. And, besides, they would never have referred to themselves as “Picts.”
Primary sources for information on Dal Riata
Scottish kings are listed in the Annals of the Irish Kings
Adomnan’s Life of Columba was written in the 8th C by a monk on Iona.
Senchus Fer nAlban (History of the men of Scotland) which was a mythic history, census, and a genealogy of the early kings of Dal Riata, with the earliest existing copy from about the 10th c, probably written in the 7th c.
Duan Albanach (Song of the Scots) was written in the 11th century to show the line of Malcolm Canmore (of Shakespearean fame).