In a reign of less than 30 years (706-729) he brought deliverance to his land from Dark Age beliefs, dissolved petty rivalries and united his nation through church, wealth and powerful alliances. He was one of few Pictish royals to die in his bed (732).
Just south of the border with Pictland, Anglian church historian Bede wrote a contemporary account during Nechtan’s reign. He died within three years of the great king. Contemporaneous Annals written at Iona are particularly detailed at this time too; so accurate sources are not lacking. Bede was a meticulous researcher, especially in ecclesiastical matters, and Nechtan was considered both spiritually and socially enlightened by the Anglian church.
In the last quarter of the previous century, prior to Nechtan’s modernizing ways, two of the most powerful northern nations fought a battle which was to be a cultural watershed: Nechtansmere (AD685) was fought on Pictish soil at Dunnichen Moss near Forfar in southern Pictish heartland; a Pictish victory and death in battle of Anglian king Ecgfrith put an end to Northumbrian interference in Pictish affairs. The only small outpost of Anglian religious education at Abercorn-on-Forth closed and its monks retreated to Northumbria. The two nations returned to relatively amicable relations until the end of the century.
Six years later Nechtan was to take the throne.
He came from impeccable matrilineal succession of the Royal house. He was connected to Bridei son of Beli (c.672-93) who had fought ‘for the inheritance of his (maternal) grandfather’ at Dunnichen when Nechtan was an impressionable child at court. So the cataclysmic turnaround of affairs which resulted, of great Northumbria having to hand back part of conquered Pictland to the Picts, must have made a deep impression on him.
When he came to the throne in 706, following his brother Bridei son of Derile (697-706), Nechtan son of Derile was well-versed in power, knew ecclesiastical ropes and how to wield them and understood the importance of allying himself with Rome. By contrast, the rustic, colonial Celtic church of Columba centred on Iona was fumbling along traditional lines, unaware of major changes happening with its powerful neighbor. In addition to works of its celebrated founder, Iona was famous for one other historical gem, without which we would all be lost in the Dark Ages. Iona kept a series of remarkable Chronicles.
For the most part these were written contemporary accounts of major incidents and alliances of the great nations which made up ancient Britain: from Cornwall in the south, through ancient Wales, Man, Anglesey, Dunbritton (Dumbarton), Strathclyde, Anglia (Northumberland) and Prydein (Pictland). Many copies were made and originals are now lost. It is accepted within historial circles that each ‘nation’ had its own chronicle and an original Pictish Chronicle existed as a separate series of documents held at Pictish church centres like Deer, St Andrews and in the Pictish capital, Forteviot. None survives.
While not available to us until recopied in the 12th century, the ancient origin legend of the kingdom of the Picts is preserved in an Irish quatrain:
‘Morsheimer do Cruithne clainn raindset Albain i secht raind; Cait, Cé, Cirig, cétach clann Fib Fidach, Fotla, Fortrenn Ocus is o ainm gach fir dib fil for a fearand.’
‘Seven of Cruithne’s children divided Alba into seven divisions; the portion of Cat, of Cé, of Cirig a warlike clan, the kingdoms of Fife, Fidach, Fotla and Fortriu; and the name of each of them remains upon his land.’
These were sub-kingdoms of Nechtan’s great realm. In the north, Cat (Caithness), Cé (Mar and Buchan) and Fidach (Moray and inland Banff); south of the Mounth: Cirig became Magh Circenn, the plain of the Mearns; Fib (Fife), Fotla (Atholl) and centre of the court, Fortriu (Forteviot). By contemporary standards, it was a massive kingdom to administer and rule.
Nechtan’s childhood included education at court by monks from the highest monasteries of the day. He was fluent in all northern British dialects and learned Gaelic on visits to Iona, which he maintained through contact with a Columban familia of monks who attended his brother Bridei’s court. An enclave persisted from the time Anglian Abercorn mission returned south of what became the permanent border. In spite of Abercorn’s closure, good relations were maintained with the Anglian church through contact with Northumbrian Jarrow. This was a clever device allowing the Pictish court to be fully informed on church doctrine via both outlets: Iona created a ‘celtic’ connection with the Irish church; Northumberland provided a direct line to Rome.
Within five years of his accession, Nechtan decided to ask his powerful Northumbrian neighbours – descendants of those who fought and lost in 685 – for advice on how to go about building stone churches throughout his kingdom, along the lines of those already spreading in Anglia, ‘in the manner of Rome’.
He was aware of the strategic nature of his request. As a powerful ally, not only would his wish be fulfilled, but by spiritually kneeling before Rome, he was joining a European alliance of other wealthy and powerful nations.
Bede’s superior, Abbot Ceolfrith of the Jarrow monastery, responded volubly, subsequently sending architects to Nechtan to assist in his nationwide reform. They helped build the first Peterkirks, revolutionary buildings in stone named, like the citadel in Rome, after the first apostle of the Roman Christian mission. They served to create another schism with Iona, whose missions were rustic, country constructions of earth and rubble.
These stone structures were to become the first network of Peterkirks throughout Pictland, many of which survive at least in name: from St Peter’s at Restenneth in Forfarshire through the Mearns (Meigle, Tealing); over the Mounth (dividing mountain range between present Kincardine and Aberdeenshire) into Mar and Buchan, foundations to Peter were placed at Glenbuchat, Peterculter, Aberdeen (Spittal), Fyvie, Peterugie (Peterhead), Deer, Rathven-in-Enzie (now Buckie), Bellie, Essil-Dipple, Duffus, Drumdelgie and Inveravon.
Because they were made of stone, in contrast with earlier turf cells, they were in the later vernacular called ‘fite kirks’ (white, as in gleaming stone) and two of these survive – albeit altered – at Tyrie in Buchan and Rayne in the Garioch.
Along with his request for physical assistance, Nechtan asked for guidance in the correct calculation and maintenance of Easter tables. This question had been a matter of stigma among northern kings since the religious controversy at the 664 Synod (gathering) in Whitby (present Yorkshire) nearly 50 years before. Columban Iona maintained calculations by an antiquated calendar, a lumbering process which sometimes had east and west celebrating on wildly differing dates; Anglian Northumbria was more modern, calculating according to tables approved by popes in Rome.
Essentially papal calendars were never going to celebrate alongside the Jews: Easter had to be after spring equinox, but separate from Passover. Easter for the Picts was obviously a festival which was going to catch on, accustomed as they were to sacred seasonal celebrations. A wave of new religion spread like wildfire through a nation only recently converted in pockets by wandering monks.
The North did not have to wait long for Iona. It ‘converted’ officially in 716. By then Nechtan was already in full progress: Roman tables were in use, stone churches were being built nationwide in the name of Peter; Pictish monks now wore the ‘Roman’ tonsure; all the Pictish king had left to do was to thank his southern neighbours politely for assistance and, equally politely, ask the Columban monks at court to leave.
In his first decade as king he consolidated a strong alliance, formed the matrix of a new religion for all his peoples, and, because with religion came learning, initiated a process to educate at least the Pictish upper classes, thus making his kingdom a superior Christian power. If he had retained the Columban familia at court, its monastic simplicity would have continued to relate religious matters to ‘conversations with God’. By introducing a building programme, Latin instruction via the church and the correct way to celebrate the highest festival of that religious body, he elevated his nation into the light, but a light which he as supreme ruler controlled.
It was a brilliant concept by a northern king to spread religion by secular means.
Significantly, 175 years later, when Scots ruling dynasty was struggling with an essentially Pictish concept it had inherited in its takeover – that of power of ‘lord over church’, king Giric (c.889) made history by ‘liberating’ the Church which was ‘under servitude up to that time, after the fashion of the Picts’.Nechtan’s new wave relied heavily on his nobility for its introduction: in his large but scattered nation wherever there was a lordly stronghold, there would be a private chapel; if no foundation already existed dedicated to British holy men of the previous century’s wave of wanderers, a stone church would appear in Peter’s name – the new fashion.
Copying out Easter tables and sacred Latin texts became the norm in schools for the educated. A Latin Pictish chronicle appeared. Previously the sole domain of Irish and Welsh monasteries, it contained a Pictish king-list celebrating and chronicling Nechtan's royal line which Anglian, Welsh and Irish chroniclers were quick to copy. But, with the new wave came something which Picts across the land understood. The message was carved in stone.
Class II cross-slabs date from Nechtan’s reform: either mounted warriors conversing with angels, or the cross carefully fused with pre-Christian symbols which were familiar, the message was clear: landed Pictish aristocrats are following in the ways of Christian heroes – and you can too!
In Nechtan’s second decade as king, centres for carving the sophisticated new imagery sprang up everywhere: in Angus there is a cluster of class II stones (Meigle, Aberlemno, Brechin); the new religion took hold at centres around the Moray Firth: at Rosemarkie – a former Peterkirk – and at Kineddar-Spynie near the great Elgin stronghold of Duffus which also had its own Peterkirk. There at least 26 fragmentary slabs have been found. An equal number were found at Tarbat-on-Beauly within monastic walls.
Conservative Cé, the Aberdeenshire provinces of Mar and Buchan, seem to have held out the longest: with only the merest scattering of cross slabs within a huge proliferation of (class I pre-Christian) symbol stones.
Exceptionally, it was at Deer in Buchan within that conservative culture that monks produced the exquisite calf-vellum sacred pocket gospel called the Book of Deer, now in an English museum.
A number of Pictish holy men play a rôle in Nechtan’s great plan. After all, Latin was not exactly a language the countryman was going to pick up spontaneously. Bede says Nechtan promised to introduce Latin usage for his people ‘insofar as their remoteness from the Roman language would allow.’ So it was essential his bishops – already fluent in Latin – were completely familiar with Pictish patterns of speech.Gone were the days before 585 when Irish Columba had needed an interpreter to speak to king Bridei son of Maelcon at the Pictish court in Inverness. Nechtan used Picts to speak to Picts.
One of them, Bishop Fergus, attended Rome in 721 to sign decrees, presumably on his king’s behalf. This saint features both south and north of the Mounth: as patron of Glamis at the centre of cross slab carving in Forfarshire; but, as we know him, patron of Moy in Moray, St Fergus in Buchan and, most significantly, Dyce which has one of the few magnificent cross slabs in Aberdeenshire. CÈ was conservative, not pagan. The simple cross was already understood.
Nechtan’s Golden Age had begun and it looked as if it might continue forever.