Aberdeenshire


Aberdeenshire Gold

Tap o' Noth Caledonian hillfort stands guard over Pictish power center at Rhynie's Barflat in Aberdeenshire

The bard was asked who of the kings of Prydein
is most generous of all
‘And I declared boldly
That it was Owain’
The Gorhoffedd, 12thC Brittonic heroic poem

It has always been our contention that Aberdeenshire gold mined at Rhynie in early-historic times which found its way into Pictish hoards (Traprain Law, Edinburgh) and later melted to form delicate tracery in the Crown Jewels of the King of Scots was one of the major reasons for Rhynie’s importance. After all, a Pictish sub-King who had gold mines on his doorstep and whose pre-Christian ancestors had built no fewer than 10 (Neolithic) stone circles within a radius of as many miles, descended from a great lineage which was responsible for maintaining important sacred traditions. Rhynie’s local mountain, Tap o’ Noth, with its supremely defensive Caledonian triple-ringed hillfort, can be seen for 30 miles in all directions. It is an Aberdeenshire landmark.

Craw Stane, single AD5thC Pictish carved stone left standing at Barflat, ©1856 Stuart drawing 'Symbol Stones of Scotland'

Below, in what is now a lost hinterland, the ancient township of Rhynie clusters on the banks of the Water of Bogie, its market square set within pre-Christian sacred surroundings, with a pre-Reformation churchyard, several stone circles, Neolithic causeways and carved Pictish stones — burgeoning evidence of its prehistoric importance.

It is gratifying, therefore, (but no surprise) to learn that this summer the Universities of Aberdeen and Chester have found definitive evidence of three fortified enclosures south of the town — a triple power center — in Rhynie’s ‘Royal Mile’ at Barflat, where an unprecedented total of eight Pictish (AD5th-6thCC) carved stones have been unearthed over the years, under the unseeing gaze of Caledonian Tap o’Noth.

It is speculated that the famous — and unique — Roman battle of Mons Graupius (AD83) was fought near here. The foothills of the Grampian mountains’ massif begin within two miles of the outskirts of the town.

A sponsored excavation was finally made possible this year after investigations begun in 2007 by Rhynie Environs Archaeological Project (REAP), in a collaboration between the two universities’ archaeological departments, led by Dr Gordon Noble (UA) and Dr Meggen Gondek (UC). Their interest was piqued by positive resistivity surveys taken in 2005 and 2006, but they were unable to raise sufficient backing to begin. They have discovered three giant enclosures standing close together, one of them a ‘Peel’, surrounded by a massive pallisaded wooden structure of spiked tree-trunks: the ultimate impenetrable fence.

2011 excavation by REAP uncovers large fortified Pictish Power Center at Rhynie. Famous Craw Stane marks south flank of a ceremonial entrance on the East of the pallisade

The dig’s leaders recently gave interviews to national press when it was discovered that, spread over a single summer in 2011, (with only 5% of the site unearthed) the artefacts found on-site ranked among the most important ever to be discovered in Britain.

Dr Gondek said: “Some of the material culture we uncovered is exceptional. It is one of the most significant finds of early medieval imported goods in north Britain.”

Finds include part of a Roman amphora — a large pottery vessel from the eastern Mediterranean used to hold wine or oil; a pair of amber ear-drops — clearly high-status objects — bronze pins, a fragment of 6thC blue glass drinking bowl, Roman pottery and other drinking vessels — all indicating strong links with other cultures well beyond the shores of mainland Britain.

Amber ear-drops, jewellery of status, found inside the Aberdeenshire power centre, courtesy REAP

Because these artefacts could be dated to the AD5-6thCC, this implies that the Pictish chieftains/sub-Kings –whose stronghold this was– were powerful enough to have a flourishing trade route direct to Rome and the Mediterranean.

It has been speculated many times before on prehistoric sites such as this that the Caledonian (Iron Age) fortress on Tap o’ Noth is itself named for an important prehistoric chieftain called Nocht. Etymology of the name is not a misspelling derived from the wind direction! Tap o’Noth overlooks a remarkably dense cluster of ancient sacred sites (Nether Wheedlemont, Upper Ord, Mill of Noth, Clatt, Percylieu to name a few) rivalling the Wiltshire heartland and Salisbury Plain. It has maintained anonymity because of its remote location in western Aberdeenshire, where high mountain routes to the grouse moors and Grampian hills are regularly cut off in winter.

This remote status may be about to change.

Rhynie Man, a six-foot Pictish caricature from the 6thC dug up in a field in 1978. It is presently housed in Council HQ, Aberdeen, but a Rhynie initiative to have it returned is underway

Choosing to focus their investigation in arable farmland around Rhynie’s last remaining (in situ) Pictish carved Craw Stane at Barflat, they made use of decades’ worth of aerial photography by past investigators who had not followed up on provocative evidence of large enclosed fortifications situated in the Barflat fields, alongside a continuous stream of discoveries of a remarkable eight Class I (5-6thCC) carved stones in the same location.

Even when the then farmer at Barflat, Gavin Alston, demanded ‘treasure trove’ payment from Grampian Regional Council (Archaeology) in 1978 in exchange for his freshly ploughed-up Pictish ‘Rhynie Man’ (presently housed in Aberdeenshire Council’s HQ at Woodhill House, Aberdeen), right, there was no follow-up to discover why so many Pictish stones had surfaced in a single 30-acre field. Now his son Kevin Alston crows: “This will put Rhynie on the Map.”

While the excavation revealed a number of structures and foundations associated with buildings at a shallow depth below the ploughing level, the relatively undisturbed context of both jewellery and drinking vessels imply a stronghold, even a ‘palacio’ which was more common in the 6-7-8thC Pictish capital of Forteviot in Strathearn. This is exciting because the Rhynie artefacts were found within the remains of what would have been an elaborate system of defensive enclosures, including two deep ditches and a massive timber palisade — alongside remains of extensive wooden structures and fortified buildings. Early power centres of the Picts are scantily documented. The Pictish Chronicle, whose Latin original is lost, and whose various 12thC copies have been ‘tampered with’ by Scots successors to Pictish wealth and culture, gives much detail of names and historic events, particularly in AD7-8thC. But Scots addenda and manipulation of text and some names has traditionally made historians unwilling to depend on it. The Rhynie revelation provides an exciting opportunity to find out more about how the kingdoms of powerful Pictish warlords were consolidated in the North.

Another of the 8 Pictish symbol stones found at Rhynie-Barflat; a fragment stands in the pre-Reformation kirkyard showiing (royal) dolphin, part of sword, top of mirror-comb symbolizing matrilineal succession, drawing courtesy RCAHMS

From historians like Bede, a contemporary of late7th-early8thC Pictish King Nechtan (ancestral lands in Fyvie, Gight, Derley, eastern Aberdeenshire, but ruling from Strathearn), it is known that the Picts established a direct connection with Rome, with the intention of Christianizing the remote North. A string of Pictish symbol stones stand in what may have been Pictish strongholds in locations such as Tyrie in Buchan, the ‘Kingdom’ of Forgue, Huntly in Strathbogie, Mortlach in Banffshire and Inveravon in Moray where such stone (‘white’) kirks were established by this evangelizing king and his Pictish successors. From contemporary Gaulish and Roman documents it is known that his distinct Christianizing influence throughout the northern kingdom in the following century was far in advance of the backward Scots culture on the West. It is often speculated that this very high-status powerful connection with Rome and with other cultures of the European mainland was the bait which fueled the very real jealousy and ambition of Kenneth MacAlpine and his Scots-Irish line in their takeover of the Pictish kingdom in AD843. It remained only for them to destroy all written evidence (historical, Chronicling, church archives) of the northern nation’s wealth and power for the Scots to obliterate a memory of Pictish law and customs in the minds of the people and their new kingdom of Scots was assured. It is ironic that present-day Scots Law still retains elements of Pictish Law known to have been drawn up alongside a version of Roman Law in the time of Nechtan (Bede).

Predecessor to Rhynie Man: ceremonial stone figure, Barflat#4, currently in the town's Market square

Dr Noble reiterates the old litany that ‘the Picts are a mysterious people’, but other scholars researching contemporary chronicles from other Brittonic tribes who held the Scots in low esteem — including Old Welsh archives (and the Gorhoffedd top) — suggest, as our sister site writes:

Pictish kings and sub-kings ruled a nation which grew from a loose confederation of tribal groups in the third century to become a major political and land-owning force at the time of their takeover by the Scots in the ninth

It is anticipated that further excavations in future years at Rhynie will prove this case conclusively. We welcome all results from the REAP project and also applaud the Rhynie community in its initiative to bring back to their own doorstep those Pictish stones and relics which were previoiusly removed without their permission.

Bravo.

©2011 MCYoungblood/Derilea/Devorguila

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PICTISH KINGLISTS:

Colbertine version of the Pictish Chronicle: King List MS-A from Paris, Bibl. Nat. MS Latin 4126

Pictish kinglists are exceedingly difficult to cross-reference and confirm, particularly as, once the Scots were in power in Forteviot (from c. AD843), annals were consistently adjusted–corrected, scored through and re-written–to reflect homage to the Scots and to glorify Dalriatan Scots lineage, to the detriment of the Pictish line.

Even as late as the Letter by the Barons of Scotland to Pope John XXII (otherwise known as the ‘Declaration of Arbroath‘) in 1320, it was felt necessary to explain to the holy father how ancient was their ancestry and how famous was the nation of Scots–‘having expelled the Britons and entirely rooted out the Picts’.

Recent scholarship by remarkable historians, however– Marjorie O Anderson, David N Dumville and others–have added light to the darkness and within a relative framework of intermarriage between the reigning houses of neighbouring states at the time, a tentative list emerges.

A longer page with more detailed background can be found at Devorguila-page here.

As research and new knowledge produce results, these lists will be updated and revised. They are offered in the spirit of true academic thirst for knowledge and we hope that they will be received in the same light.

KINGS OF PICTS
While it is known that the journeys of Columba brought him to the fortress of Bridei son of Maelchon, king of the Picts, ‘near Inverness’, the extent of his dominion is not known. It may be that he ruled over the ‘Northern Picts’–as several annals from that time refer to the kingdom of the Picts as being divided by the range of the Mounth into northern and southern kingdoms.

On several occasions kings are referred to as ruling on ‘this’ side of the Mounth or on the ‘other’ side of the Mounth. Depending on where the Chronicle is being written at the time (either northern monastery at Fyvie or Kineddar or Deer– or southern monastery associated with Forteviot, Iona or St Andrews: Because no ‘original’ Chronicle of the Picts now survives–only 12thC copies–it is difficult to know which location is implied.

Forteviot cross commemorating Pictish monarch Custatin filius Forcus: his Latin name gives Pictish authenticity

Bridei is known to have died c. AD585.

617-633 Edwin King of Northumbria [Oswald, Eanfrith, Oswiu exiled in Pictland]
634-641 Oswald returned from exile, reigned as King of Northumbria
641-670 Oswiu reigned in Bernicia and from 655 over Northumbria
653-657 Talorgan son of Eanfrith (Northumbria) king of Picts
670-685 Ecgfrith king of Northumbria [672 Picts deposed Drust from kingship]
[672 Pictish army slaughtered by Ecgfrith]
672-693 Bridei son of Bili king of Picts [Adomnan became 9th abbot of Iona in 679]
681 Siege of Dunnottar (Kincardine)
682 Bridei laid waste the Orkneys
683 Siege of Dunadd and Dundurn (Perthshire)
685 Battle of Dunnichen Moss, called ‘Nechtansmere’; Bridei/Pictish army killed Ecgfrith, king of Northumbria
[Adomnan wrote his Law of Innocents and made visits to Pictish king in 697, d.704]
697 Tarachin (sic), Talorcan, king of Picts expelled from his kingdom
706-724 Nechtan son of Derile king of Picts (N and S)
711 Picts slaughtered by Northumbrians on ‘plain of Manaw’ (Clackmannan).
711 Nechtan requests Northumbrian architectural expertise in building a church ‘in the manner of Rome’, dedicated to Saint Peter–probable first church at Restenneth
717 Nechtan requests Columban ‘familia‘ return to Iona, leaving Pictish kingship in control of the Pictish Church
724 – 734 Nechtan retired to monastic life at Derile (Darley, Fyvie, Aberdeenshire); Drust ruled as successor
727 Oengus defeated Drust in three battles
728 Oengus defeated Alpin; Nechtan came out of retirement, defeated Alpin
729 Oengus defeated Nechtan who again retired, d. 734
729-761 Oengus I, son of Fergus, king of Picts
[735 death of historian Bede]
Oengus as overlord in Dál Riata, d.761
739 Oengus had Talorgan son of Drust drowned
750-752 Teudubr (?) son of Bili, king of Strathclyde, overlord of Picts
752 Battle of Asreth in Circenn (Mearns) between Picts; Bridei son of Maelchon died.
782 Dubh Talorc, king of the Picts on ‘this side of the Mounth’ died
789 Battle among Picts where Conall, son of Tadc escaped; Constantine victorious
802-806 Devastation of Iona by Vikings
811-820 Constantine, son of Fergus, king of Picts and of Dál Riata; founded Dunkeld–he is Pictish king commemorated on Dupplin Cross:Custatin filius Forcus
820-834 Oengus II, son of Fergus, king of Picts and of Dál Riata; founded Saint Andrews, buried in sarcophagus there
839 major victory by Vikings over Picts; death of Eoganan (Euan) son of Oengus–opportunity used by macAlpin for his takeover
c.840 Kenneth macAlpin king of Dál Riata
c.847 Kenneth macAlpin king of Scots and Picts – called himself King of Alba

KINGS OF SCOTS
858-862 Domnall (Donald I) king of Alba, brother of Kenneth
interregnum 862-880Constantin, son of Kenneth, king of Alba
ditto Aedth, brother of Constantin, king of Alba
880-889 Giric/Grig, brother of Donald mac Dunstan, king of Picts & Alba d. 889
because of his Pictish lineage, Giric/Grig ruled from Northern Pictland (St Cyrus in Mearns named after him)
He is founder of the Harbour of Aberdeen
900-943 Constantine II, son of Aedth, king of Scots
[937 after treaties negotiated with Northumbria, Constantine defeated at Brunanburh by Athelstan]
939 death of Athelstan
943-952 Constantine II retired to seclusion of St Andrews
943-954 Malcolm I, son of Donald mac Dunstan, king of Scots
954-962 Indulf son of Constantine II, king of Scots
[962-967 Culen macIndulf and Constantin macCulen interregnum with Dubh son of Malcolm and his
brother Kenneth II son of Malcolm 971-995]
967 Culen died at Cullen, Banffshire
966-1005 descendants of Constantine I excluded descendants of Aedth (son of macAlpin) from
kingship
Historical kings of Scots
997-1005 Kenneth III, son of Dubh and his son Girc joint rule
1005-1034 Malcolm II king of Scots
1034-1040 Duncan I, grandson of Malcolm II through eldest daughter Bethoc. It was through his grandfather Malcolm II’s line via Malcolm’s second daughter Doada that Macbeth claimed kingship in 1040
1040-1057 Macbeth, grandson of Malcolm II, king of Scots
1057-58 (6 months) Lulach, son of Gruoch, lady Macbeth, by Gillecomgan, king (died at Lumphanan, Aberdeenshire)
1058-1093 Malcolm III Canmore, son of Duncan I, king of Scots

Further reading:
The Pictish Symbol Stones of Scotland (RCAHMS) ed. Iain Fraser 2008
Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland AD80-1000 by Alfred P. Smyth 1989
The Sculptured Stones of Scotland (2 vols) John Stuart, 1856
The early Christian monuments of Scotland: a classified illustrated descriptive list of the monuments with an analysis of their symbolism and ornamentation. JR Allen and J Anderson, 1903

©1998-2011 Friends of Grampian Stones Editor: Marian Youngblood

The Pictish stronghold of Duffus near Elgin had its own stone Peterkirk in Nechtan's time

The Pictish stronghold of Duffus near Elgin had its own stone Peterkirk in Nechtan's time

If Pictish sagas were unearthed from oblivion into which they descended after AD843 ‘union’ with the Scots, Nechtan highking of Picts, last in the Heroic Age of Pictish warriors, anointed leader of his people, evangelizing monarch, would top the bill.

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.

Class II Monymusk cross-slab Pictish carved stone of 8thCentury

Class II Monymusk cross-slab Pictish carved stone of 8thCentury

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.’

Stone arch from royal Pictish palace at Forteviot

Stone arch from royal Pictish palace at Forteviot

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’.

Later Cistercian monastery at Deer in Buchan built on Pictish foundations

Later Cistercian monastery at Deer in Buchan built on Pictish foundations

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.

St Fergus's 'teaching' cross-slab at Chapel of St.Fergus,Dyce in Pictish Cé, present Aberdeen

St Fergus's 'teaching' cross-slab at Chapel of St.Fergus,Dyce in Pictish Cé, present Aberdeen

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.

promontory stronghold on the North Sea, Dunottar dates back to Pictish era

promontory stronghold on the North Sea, Dunottar dates back to Pictish era

It is a little-known fact that the area surrounding the Buck of the Cabrach was celebrated in early-historical times and up to the late Medieval as a source for gold.

Kings of Picts used the resource centred on what is now called Rhynie in Aberdeenshire and much gold used for the crown jewels, prior to Robert Bruce’s takeover, was Aberdeenshire gold.

Scots regalia held in Edinburgh Castle

Scots regalia held in Edinburgh Castle

Pearls were also sourced in Aberdeenshire from the River Ythan and the pearl in the Crown of Scotland (now in disuse) is from the Ythan (Buchan, outlet into North Sea north of Dee and Don). Kings prior to the Scots takeover AD843 had landholdings in Cé (present Aberdeenshire) and it remained one of the richest areas for royal hunting (Royal Forests of Derley, Deer, Gight, Garioch, Insch, Forgue, Cabrach, Letter (Ladder), Mar, Stocket and Udny & Dudwick); farming and artisan crafts.

The most influential ‘Celtic’ earl before Robert I Bruce’s reshuffle was John Comyn Earl of Buchan, descended through marriage from Marjorie, last of the Pictish princesses of Derlei (Derley, Fyvie); and coincidentally nephew of John Balliol who was himself descended from the Pictish royal line through his mother Devorguila. When Bruce murdered John Comyn in Dunfermline in 1306 in order to secure Comyn lands and thereby claim Scots throne through wealth, Comyns rose as a tribe to fight back.

Ruinous Huntly Castle, Aberdeenshire whose heraldic doorway was personally hacked by monarch James VI

Ruinous Huntly Castle, Aberdeenshire whose heraldic doorway was personally hacked by monarch James VI

In so doing the battles of Huntly (1307) and Barra (1308, sometimes called Inverurie) preceded the devastation of Buchan – the ‘Herschip o’ Buchan’ of John Barbour’s heroic poem ‘The Brus’. Royal forests from the Ythan to the Morayshire coast were laid waste and the wasteland caused by fire has never been replanted to any degree. The Scots pines in these forests were used by the self-proclaimed King as firebrands to pursue the Comyns back to coastal Buchan and annihilation.

Comyns’ storehouse of gold (from Rhynie) was plundered and used to buy Bruce the kingdom of Scots. Bannockburn was merely a ‘follow-up’ battle in what is now colloquially called the ‘Central Belt’ to ensure Scotland’s independence from England. It was the nail in the coffin of the Buchan Pictish line.

Aberdeenshire’s grand houses from that time were no longer in use by the monarch, except in nominal annual visits or ‘progresses’ by the Royal House.

Fyvie and other castle strongholds of importance for previous royal patronage became private houses of the nobility which supported Bruce and his descendants. Rhynie gold and Ythan pearls descended into oblivion.

copyright 2009 Devorguila

 

Pictish high king, sub king and priest

Pictish warlord and monk follow the High King in procession, under the watchful feet of an eagle

When Nechtan, high king of Picts, began his religious overhaul, the young king had the fire and zeal of an evangelist which was to transform his kingdom from the Forth to the Pentland Firth. There had been a small awakening in his brother’s reign: Bridei son of Derelei held a council in 697 when Iona abbot Adamnan first proposed, not only that women should be spared the horror of battle, but that the Celtic church come into line with Rome on the date of Easter. Adamnan died before he could persuade his own Iona community to adopt the change. But Nechtan took the baton and ran.

Throughout Pictland, new monasteries were set up, sometimes, as at Turriff, on the foundations of the old, where Celtic observance was replaced by the ‘new’ Roman calculation and, for monks,  their hair cut in the tonsure of a crown. Others, like Rosemarkie and Tarbet may well have been completely new foundations. Curitan (Boniface) of Rosemarkie was a strong supporter of Adamnan (abbot of Iona and Columba’s biographer) at the 697 council held at court. He continued to support Nechtan’s initiative. Maelrubai (‘Maree’) had founded the huge settlement at Applecross in Wester Ross, dying there in 722 at the age of 80. His influence was widespread, did not conflict with the royal strategy, and stretched east to Keith, where his Sammareve’s Fair was [and is still – Keith Show] held annually.
Deer, because of its extreme antiquity, may have changed systems several times. It is certainly known that in the late ninth century – 150 years after Nechtan’s time, it was in Gaelic-speaking hands, because notes in the margins of the gospel Book of Deer written in early Scots Gaelic describe land grants to the monastery,including Biffie and Pitfour which still exist. * Deer has a presumed sixth-century origin; its founder Drosten, a Pict, was probably schooled at a western seaboard monastic house or in Ireland. Deer will have had a ‘Celtic Christian’ flavour;  converted to Nechtan’s Roman regime from 706 and then after 889, been ‘Celtic’ again during the Scots reworking of the Church along the lines of Celi Dé (Culdee) simplicity.

Some older foundations continued celebrating individual saints of the previous regime, like Auchterless (Donan); others, like Monymusk, where Nechtan may have placed a new foundation at Abersnithock [1211 ‘Eglismenythok’] sprung up alongside monasteries celebrating the (then) greatest saint of the catholic church, and Nechtan’s national patron, Peter. The greatest Peter foundation north of the Mounth was at Fyvie. This makes no sense on ecclesiastical grounds, but may reveal much when Nechtan’s own background is unravelled.

It has traditionally be assumed that Nechtan of Derelei was a ‘southern’ king like many of his predecessors. But unlike them, his lineage has never been clearly identified. Even with insight into the Pictish law of succession through ‘sisters of kings’, historians have had difficulty placing him.

Contemporary Irish succession depended on ‘tanist’ rules, where brother succeeded brother, followed by the sons of each. This worked well in a medieval society where it was important to have adult males on the throne. Irish kings then came from only two ruling families. Pictish succession was similar – with the proviso that where there was doubt, the chosen monarch should come through the female line.  For several hundred years no known king of Picts was followed by his son: always by his brother or his sister’s son. One exception occurs in the short reign of Uuen son of Unuist (837-839, Unuist having himself been king 820-834) at the height of conflict with macAlpin, exacerbated by Norse raids, when the Picts seem not to have had living heirs through the female line from which to choose.

Sadly, lack of written sources, combined with suppressed historical ‘knowing’ within Pictland who the leading families were, leaves only a bare-bones king-list of names in the format ‘Bridei son of Beli’. At a time when ruling families throughout the northern kingdoms intermarried, it gave information on the father of the king to Pictish subjects who already knew who the mother was; but gives us no information whatsoever on the female royal line.

Nechtan and his brother were from the same lineage as Bridei son of Beli who fought and won at Dunnichen (Nechtansmere) in 685 and possibly kinsmen to an earlier Nechtan. Many historians assume that Dunnichen conceals within its name ‘Dun Nechtain’ an implied royal seat near Forfar. But ‘Derelei’ is the stumbling block. Mrs Anderson (1973) even suggested ‘of Derelei’ might mean the female line, because it occurs nowhere else in the Pictish lists.

There may be another route to enlightenment.

Nechtan was an energetic, inspired king. Stone churches sprang up throughout his kingdom in the first half of his reign. He ruled through peace and chose to retire or ‘enter monastic life’ in 724, trusting his heir Drust to continue his vision. This did not happen. Drust fought with his brother Elpin, civil war broke out with kinsman-claimant Onuist, and even after Nechtan came out of retirement to attempt reconciliation Onuist eventually won kingship in 729.  Battles of this civil war are all recorded in contemporary Pictish and Irish chronicles. Iona chronicle seems particularly interested in Pictland at this time. Onuist, called by the Irish Oengus, went on to rule for 30 years, many of them as overlord over the Dalriata Scots, so interest shown by Iona is understandable. However Pictish battles which resulted in Oengus as High King were not being fought in the south. They occur almost exclusively on the Mounth or north of it. So, does this mean the old High King had retired to a monastery in the north?

Two especially important entries in the Annals of Ulster are:

AU 729.2 Bellum Monith carno. . .stagnum Looghdae inter hostem Nectain et excercitum Oengusa –  familia Oengusssa triumphauit;

AU 729.3 Bellum Dromo Dergg Blathuug. . .inter Oengus et Drust regem Pictorum et cecidit Drust

AU describes a battle on the Cairn o Mount pass near the headwaters of ‘Loch Dye’ which become the Water of Dye flowing north into Feugh and Dee.  Nechtan’s warriors (hostem) are detailed and Oengus won.

The pass was as strategic then as now in maintaining communication between  the Mearns and the country of Dee, Don and Deveron beyond. Not only did Oengus triumph, according to the entry, but he also killed the tribute-gatherers of Nechtan. This caused conflict as Nechtan depended on his established hierarchy of princelings and landed lords to bring in tithes which funded his court even in retirement.

**The second battle, on 12th August, describes Drust as ‘king of Picts’ killed by Oengus.  AT 729 Tighernach annals record the same battle as the wreck of ‘thrice fifty ships of the Picardaich’ off cape ‘Ross Cuissini’, Troup Head; inland are Cushnie and Little Cushnie. This is a short distance from Dundarg coastal fort called by AU ‘Blathuug’, ‘rich in grain’. The presence of (Drust’s) fleet offshore in such numbers is an indication of Pictish wealth and might of the times.

Nechtan is not mentioned again until c.732 when he died, again in retirement. It is significant that Oengus did not kill him, although he went on to kill every one of his potential rivals in subsequent decades, as well as several Scots princes. Nechtan, it would seem, was venerated. He had unified the kingdom. He was allowed to live out his life in contemplation.  So where did he die?

Built on a Pictish mound, with 13thC core, made grand in 16thC additions, Fyvie Castle's royal domain is now under NTS guardianship

Built on a Pictish mound, with 13thC core, made grand in 16thC additions, Fyvie Castle

Fyvie Castle, once a royal domain, now in guardianship of NTS

Fyvie Castle, once a royal domain, now in guardianship of NTS

Placenames around Fyvie are highly interesting. Certainly in the high medieval, Fyvie as a royal domain was where charters were given royal seals and signatures. It had all the trappings of a royal seat: rich lands stretching over three parishes, an earlier stronghold (modern ‘Montrose’s camp’) abandoned when the grand fortalice was built on the present ‘Castle Dale’; forests and ‘fine woods’, fishing streams and a well-guarded position over Ythan and  Formartine.

Thanages do not always follow boundaries of earlier earldoms or kingdoms, but there is some evidence of continuity.  In 1212, Marjorie, only daughter of the last ‘Celtic’ earl Fergus of Buchan married William Comyn, the king’s justiciar, bringing Buchan into the royal fold.  The former thanage of Conveth (Inverkeithny) was granted to Alexander Comyn, earl of Buchan by Alexander III; and before 1292 John Balliol granted to earl John Comyn  ‘terra theinagii de Fermartyn et de Dereleye’ – the thanages of Formartine and Dereley.  Darley lies within a mile of Rothiebrisbane where two fragmentary Pictish stones were discovered – now embedded in Fyvie kirk.  Darley is to this day pronounced with emphasis on the second syllable. It is listed along with lands in the ‘barony of Formartyne’ in a royal charter of 1503 granted to George Meldrum: ‘lands of Mekill Gurdess, Blachree, Badichale, forest of Kynnawale, fine woods called colloquially Wodend, Litill Gurdess, le Common Lone (Camaloun), Haldaw, Derley, Petty, le Park de Five’ etc.

Nechtan was ‘of Dereley’ or ‘Derelei’.  When baptised in c.706 he is said to have granted ‘the place of his baptism, with the whole of its parish… for the service of Christ’s pilgrim servants… on the river… Gobriah in Pictland.’  Gourdas has been identified in placename terms as Brittonic, close to Pictish and Old Welsh ‘Gwerid-fas’, meaning the stance of men of the Forth (fas=stance or stronghold). Gordonstown shows the same name but with -town added, so ‘stance of men-of-Forth’s town’, duplication or tautology. It is possible that ‘Gobriah’ of Nechtan’s baptism is the closest Pictish word to Gourdas known. There is nearby Gower wood (O.S. Craig-an Gobhar),  and the occurrence in 1405 of an eglis name – Trareglys (Turaraich) which usually indicates an eighth-century church foundation connected with Nechtan’s reform.  The prominence of the monastery at Monkshill with its church-related names is well known.  Fyvie had more than its fair share of chapels, each with its holy well: Peter and Paul in the kirkton, Paul at Easterton; others at Ardlogie, Woodhead of Fetter Letter and St John’s.   Alone, none makes much impact, but taken together, are we seeing one of the earliest royal residences of Pictish kings?  ©2002 Marian Youngblood

Further reading:

Anderson, M. ‘Kings and Kingship in Early Scotland’ (1973)

Watson, W.J. ‘The Celtic Placenames of Scotland’ Birlinn reprint (1993)
Pictish king, courtier and priest under the claws of an eaglecanticle III: 

When Nechtan, high king of Picts, began his religious overhaul, the young king had the fire and zeal of an evangelist which was to transform his kingdom from the Forth to the Pentland Firth. There had been a small awakening in his brother’s reign: Bridei son of Derelei held a council in 697 when Iona abbot Adamnan first proposed, not only that women should be spared the horror of battle, but that the Celtic church come into line with Rome on the date of Easter. Adamnan died before he could persuade his own Iona community to adopt the change. But Nechtan took the baton and ran.

Throughout Pictland, new monasteries were set up, sometimes, as at Turriff, on the foundations of the old, where Celtic observance was replaced by the ‘new’ Roman calculation and, for monks,  their hair cut in the tonsure of a crown. Others, like Rosemarkie and Tarbet may well have been completely new foundations. Curitan (Boniface) of Rosemarkie was a strong supporter of Adamnan at the 697 council held at court. He continued to support Nechtan’s initiative. Maelrubai (‘Maree’) had founded the huge settlement at Applecross in Wester Ross, dying there in 722 at the age of 80. His influence was widespread, did not conflict with the royal strategy, and stretched east to Keith, where his Sammareve’s Fair was [and is still – Keith Show] held annually.

Deer, because of its extreme antiquity, may have changed systems several times. It is certainly known that in the late ninth century – 150 years after Nechtan’s time, it was in Gaelic-speaking hands, because notes in the margins of the gospel Book of Deer written in early Scots Gaelic describe land grants to the monastery, including Biffie and Pitfour which still exist. * Deer has a presumed sixth-century origin; its founder Drosten, a Pict, was probably schooled at a western seaboard monastic house or in Ireland. Deer will have had a ‘Celtic Christian’ flavour;  converted to Nechtan’s Roman regime from 706 and then after 889, been ‘Celtic’ again during the Scots reworking of the Church along the lines of Celi Dé (Culdee) simplicity.

Some older foundations continued celebrating individual saints of the previous regime, like Auchterless (Donan); others, like Monymusk, where Nechtan may have placed a new foundation at Abersnithock [1211 ‘Eglismenythok’] sprung up alongside monasteries celebrating the (then) greatest saint of the catholic church, and Nechtan’s national patron, Peter. The greatest Peter foundation north of the Mounth was at Fyvie. This makes no sense on ecclesiastical grounds, but may reveal much when Nechtan’s own background is unravelled.

It has traditionally be assumed that Nechtan of Derelei was a ‘southern’ king like many of his predecessors. But unlike them, his lineage has never been clearly identified. Even with insight into the Pictish law of succession through ‘sisters of kings’, historians have had difficulty placing him.

Contemporary Irish succession depended on ‘tanist’ rules, where brother succeeded brother, followed by the sons of each. This worked well in a medieval society where it was important to have adult males on the throne. Irish kings then came from only two ruling families. Pictish succession was similar – with the proviso that where there was doubt, the chosen monarch should come through the female line.  For several hundred years no known king of Picts was followed by his son: always by his brother or his sister’s son. One exception occurs in the short reign of Uuen son of Unuist (837-839, Unuist having himself been king 820-834) at the height of conflict with macAlpin, exacerbated by Norse raids, when the Picts seem not to have had living heirs through the female line from which to choose.

Sadly, lack of written sources, combined with suppressed historical ‘knowing’ within Pictland who the leading families were, leaves only a bare-bones king-list of names in the format ‘Bridei son of Beli’. At a time when ruling families throughout the northern kingdoms intermarried, it gave information on the father of the king to Pictish subjects who already knew who the mother was; but gives us no information whatsoever on the female royal line.

Nechtan and his brother were from the same lineage as Bridei son of Beli who fought and won at Dunnichen (Nechtansmere) in 685 and possibly kinsmen to an earlier Nechtan. Many historians assume that Dunnichen conceals within its name ‘Dun Nechtain’ an implied royal seat near Forfar. But ‘Derelei’ is the stumbling block. Mrs Anderson (1973) even suggested ‘of Derelei’ might mean the female line, because it occurs nowhere else in the Pictish lists.

There may be another route to enlightenment.

Nechtan was an energetic, inspired king. Stone churches sprang up throughout his kingdom in the first half of his reign. He ruled through peace and chose to retire or ‘enter monastic life’ in 724, trusting his heir Drust to continue his vision. This did not happen. Drust fought with his brother Elpin, civil war broke out with kinsman-claimant Onuist, and even after Nechtan came out of retirement to attempt reconciliation Onuist eventually won kingship in 729.  Battles of this civil war are all recorded in contemporary Pictish and Irish chronicles. Iona chronicle seems particularly interested in Pictland at this time. Onuist, called by the Irish Oengus, went on to rule for 30 years, many of them as overlord over the Dalriata Scots, so interest shown by Iona is understandable. However Pictish battles which resulted in Oengus as High King were not being fought in the south. They occur almost exclusively on the Mounth or north of it. So, does this mean the old High King had retired to a monastery in the north?

Two especially important entries in the Annals of Ulster are:

AU 729.2 Bellum Monith carno. . .stagnum Looghdae inter hostem Nectain et excercitum Oengusa –  familia Oengusssa triumphauit;

AU 729.3 Bellum Dromo Dergg Blathuug. . .inter Oengus et Drust regem Pictorum et cecidit Drust

AU describes a battle on the Cairn o’ Mount pass near the headwaters of ‘Loch Dye’ which become the Water of Dye flowing north into Feugh and Dee.  Nechtan’s warriors (hostem) are detailed and Oengus won.

The pass was as strategic then as now in maintaining communication between  the Mearns and the country of Dee, Don and Deveron beyond. Not only did Oengus triumph, according to the entry, but he also killed the tribute-gatherers of Nechtan. This caused conflict as Nechtan depended on his established hierarchy of princelings and landed lords to bring in tithes which funded his court even in retirement.

**The second battle, on 12th August, describes Drust as ‘king of Picts’ killed by Oengus.  AT 729 Tighernach annals record the same battle as the wreck of ‘thrice fifty ships of the Picardaich’ off cape ‘Ross Cuissini’, Troup Head; inland are Cushnie and Little Cushnie. This is a short distance from Dundarg coastal fort called by AU ‘Blathuug’, ‘rich in grain’. The presence of (Drust’s) fleet offshore in such numbers is an indication of Pictish wealth and might of the times.

Nechtan is not mentioned again until c.732 when he died, again in retirement. It is significant that Oengus did not kill him, although he went on to kill every one of his potential rivals in subsequent decades, as well as several Scots princes. Nechtan, it would seem, was venerated. He had unified the kingdom. He was allowed to live out his life in contemplation.  So where did he die?

Placenames around Fyvie are highly interesting. Certainly in the high medieval, Fyvie as a royal domain was where charters were given royal seals and signatures. It had all the trappings of a royal seat: rich lands stretching over three parishes, an earlier stronghold (modern ‘Montrose’s camp’) abandoned when the grand fortalice was built on the present ‘Castle Dale’; forests and ‘fine woods’, fishing streams and a well-guarded position over Ythan and  Formartine. Thanages do not always follow boundaries of earlier earldoms or kingdoms, but there is some evidence of continuity.  In 1212, Marjorie, only daughter of the last ‘Celtic’ earl Fergus of Buchan married William Comyn, the king’s justiciar, bringing Buchan into the royal fold.  The former thanage of Conveth (Inverkeithny) was granted to Alexander Comyn, earl of Buchan by Alexander III; and before 1292 John Balliol granted to earl John Comyn  ‘terra theinagii de Fermartyn et de Dereleye’ – the thanages of Formartine and Dereley.  Darley lies within a mile of Rothiebrisbane where two fragmentary Pictish stones were discovered – now embedded in Fyvie kirk.  Darley is to this day pronounced with emphasis on the second syllable. It is listed along with lands in the ‘barony of Formartyne’ in a royal charter of 1503 granted to George Meldrum: ‘lands of Mekill Gurdess, Blachree, Badichale, forest of Kynnawale, fine woods called colloquially Wodend, Litill Gurdess, le Common Lone (Camaloun), Haldaw, Derley, Petty, le Park de Five’ etc.

Nechtan was ‘of Dereley’ or ‘Derelei’.  When baptised in c.706 he is said to have granted ‘the place of his baptism, with the whole of its parish… for the service of Christ’s pilgrim servants… on the river… Gobriah in Pictland.’  Gourdas has been identified in placename terms as Brittonic, close to Pictish and Old Welsh ‘Gwerid-fas’, meaning the stance of men of the Forth (fas=stance or stronghold). Gordonstown shows the same name but with -town added, so ‘stance of men-of-Forth’s town’, duplication or tautology. It is possible that ‘Gobriah’ of Nechtan’s baptism is the closest Pictish word to Gourdas known. There is nearby Gower wood (O.S. Craig-an Gobhar),  and the occurrence in 1405 of an eglis name – Trareglys (Turaraich) which usually indicates an eighth-century church foundation connected with Nechtan’s reform.  The prominence of the monastery at Monkshill with its church-related names is well known.  Fyvie had more than its fair share of chapels, each with its holy well: Peter and Paul in the kirkton, Paul at Easterton; others at Ardlogie, Woodhead of Fetter Letter and St John’s.   Alone, none makes much impact, but taken together, are we seeing one of the earliest royal residences of Pictish kings?  ©2002-9 Marian Youngblood

Further reading:

Anderson, M. ‘Kings and Kingship in Early Scotland’ (1973)

Watson, W.J. ‘The Celtic Placenames of Scotland’ Birlinn reprint (1993)