Battle of Dun Nechtain
Battle of Dun Nechtain or Battle of Nechtansmere (Scottish Gaelic:
Blàr Dhùn Neachdain, Old Irish: Dún Nechtain, Old Welsh: Gueith
Linn Garan, Old English: Nechtansmere) was fought between the Picts,
led by King Bridei Mac Bili, and the Northumbrians, led by King
Ecgfrith, on 20 May 685.
Northumbrian hegemony over Northern Britain, won by Ecgfrith's
predecessors, had begun to disintegrate. Several of Northumbria's
subject nations had rebelled in recent years, leading to a number of
large-scale battles against the Picts, Mercians, and Irish, with
varied success. After sieges of neighbouring territories carried out
by the Picts, Ecgfrith led his forces against them, despite advice to
the contrary, in an effort to reassert his suzerainty over the Pictish
A feigned retreat by the
Picts drew the Northumbrians into an ambush
at Dun Nechtain near the lake of Linn Garan. The battle site has long
been thought to have been near the present-day village of
Angus. Recent research, however, has suggested a more northerly
location near Dunachton, on the shores of
Loch Insh in
The battle ended with a decisive Pictish victory which severely
weakened Northumbria's power in northern Britain. Ecgfrith was killed
in battle, along with the greater part of his army. The Pictish
victory marked their independence from Northumbria, who never regained
their dominance in the north.
2 Account of the battle
7 External links
During the seventh century, the Northumbrians gradually extended their
territory to the north. The
Annals of Tigernach record a siege of
"Etain" in 638, which has been interpreted as Northumbria's
conquest of Din Eidyn (Edinburgh) during the reign of Oswald, marking
the annexation of
Gododdin territories to the south of the River
To the north of the Forth, the Pictish nations consisted at this time
of the kingdom of
Fortriu to the north of the Mounth, and a "Southern
Pictish Zone" between there and the Forth. Evidence from the eighth
century Anglo-Saxon historian
Bede points to the
Picts also being
subjugated by the Northumbrians during Oswald's reign, and suggests
that this subjugation continued into the reign of his successor,
Ecgfrith succeeded Oswiu as king of
Northumbria in 670. Soon after,
Picts rose in rebellion against
Northumbrian subjugation at the
Battle of Two Rivers, recorded in the 8th century by Stephen of Ripon,
hagiographer of Wilfrid. Ecgfrith was aided by a sub-king,
Beornhæth, who may have been a leader of the Southern Picts, and
the rebellion ended in disaster for the Northern
Picts of Fortriu.
Their king, Drest mac Donuel, was deposed and was replaced by Bridei
By 679, the
Northumbrian hegemony was beginning to fall apart. The
Irish annals record a Mercian victory over Ecgfrith at which
Ecgfrith's brother, Ælfwine of Deira, was killed. Sieges were
recorded at Dunnottar, in the northern-most region of the "Southern
Pictish Zone" near
Stonehaven in 680 and at Dundurn in Strathearn in
682. The antagonists in these sieges are not recorded, but the
most reasonable interpretation is thought to be that Bridei's forces
were the assailants.
Bridei is also recorded as having "destroyed" the
Orkney Islands in
681, at a time when the
Northumbrian church was undergoing major
religious reform. It had followed the traditions of the Columban
church of Iona until the
Synod of Whitby
Synod of Whitby in 664 at which it pledged
loyalty to the Roman Church. The
Northumbrian diocese was divided and
a number of new episcopal sees created. One of these was founded at
Abercorn on the south coast of the Firth of Forth, and Trumwine was
consecrated as Bishop of the Picts. Bridei, who was enthusiastically
involved with the church of Iona, is unlikely to have viewed an
encroachment of the Northumbrian-sponsored Roman church
The attacks on the Southern Pictish Zone at Dunnottar and Dundurn
represented a major threat to Ecgfrith's suzerainty. Ecgfrith was
contending with other challenges to his overlordship. In June 684,
countering a Gaelic-Briton alliance, he sent his armies, led by
Berhtred, son of Beornhæth, to Brega in Ireland. Ecgfrith's force
decimated the local population and destroyed many churches, actions
which are treated with scorn by Bede.
Account of the battle
"[T]he very next year [685AD], that same king [Egfrid], rashly leading
his army to ravage the province of the Picts, much against the advice
of his friends, and particularly of Cuthbert, of blessed memory, who
had been lately ordained his bishop, the enemy made show as if they
fled, and the king was drawn into the straits of inaccessible
mountains, and slain with the greatest part of his forces, on the 20th
of May, in the fortieth year of his age, and the fifteenth of his
— Bede's account of battle from his Ecclesiastical History of
While none of the historical sources explicitly state Ecgfrith's
reason for attacking
Fortriu in 685, the consensus is that it was to
reassert Northumbria's hegemony over the Picts. The most thorough
description of the battle is given by
Bede in his 8th century work
Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum
Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of
the English People), but this is still brief. Additional detail is
given in the
Irish annals of Ulster and Tigernach, and by the early
Nennius in his Historia Brittonum (written around a
Ecgfrith's attack on
Fortriu was made against the counsel of his
advisors, including Cuthbert, who had recently been made Bishop of
Lindisfarne. The Picts, led by Bridei, feigned retreat and drew
Northumbrian force into an ambush on Saturday 20 May 685 at
a lake in mountains near Duin Nechtain. The
Northumbrian army was
defeated and Ecgfrith slain.
"Egfrid is he who made war against his cousin Brudei, king of the
Picts, and he fell therein with all the strength of his army and the
Picts with their king gained the victory; and the Saxons never again
Picts so as to exact tribute from them. Since the time of
this war it is called Gueith Lin Garan."
— Nennius' account of battle from Historia Brittonum.
The site of the battle is uncertain. Until relatively recently the
battle was most commonly known by its
Northumbrian name, the Battle of
Nechtansmere, from the
Old English for 'Nechtan's lake', following
12th-century English historian Symeon of Durham. The location of
the battle near a lake is reinforced by Nennius' record of the
conflict as Gueith Linn Garan,
Old Welsh for 'Battle of Crane Lake'.
It is likely that Linn Garan was the original Pictish name for the
The most complete narrative of the battle itself is given by Bede, who
nevertheless fails to inform us of the location other than his mention
that it took place 'in straits of inaccessible mountains'.
The Irish Annals have provided perhaps the most useful resource for
identifying the battle site, giving the location as Dún Nechtain,
'Nechtan's Fort', a name that has survived into modern usage in two
"The battle of Dún Nechtain was fought on Saturday, May 20th, and
Egfrid son of Oswy, king of the Saxons, who had completed the 15th
year of his reign, was slain therein with a great body of his
— Account of battle from the Annals of Ulster.
"Cath Duín Nechtain uicesimo die mensis Maii, sabbati die factum est,
in quo Ecfrith mac Osu, rex Saxonum, quinto decimo anno reighní suí
consummato, magna cum caterua militum suorum interfectus est la
Bruidhi mac Bili regis Fortrenn."
— Account of battle from the Annals of Tigernach.
Dunnichen in Angus was first identified as a possible location for the
battle by antiquarian George Chalmers in the early 19th century.
Chalmers notes that the name 'Dunnichen' can be found in early
Arbroath Abbey as 'Dun Nechtan'. He further suggests a
Dunnichen Moss' (grid reference NO516489), to the east of the
village, which he informs us had recently been drained but can be seen
in old maps as a small lake. Earlier local tradition, related by
Headrick in the Second Statistical Account, claimed that the site was
the location of the Battle of Camlann, where
King Arthur fought
More recent suggestions for the battle site include the valley to the
Dunnichen Hill, centering on Rescobie Loch (grid reference
NO512518) and Restenneth Loch (grid reference NO483518), which is now
much reduced following drainage in the 18th century.
Dunnichen Moss. The body of water to the left is a modern pond
The battle scene inscribed on the Aberlemno kirk yard stone is often
cited as evidence for the battle site. This interpretation was made
based on the stone's proximity to Dunnichen, only 3 miles (5 km)
to the north, but while the short distance seems compelling, the stone
is unlikely to be any earlier than mid-8th century, and the
ornamentation of the stone, including the animal forms used and the
style of weaponry depicted, suggests it may be as late as the mid-9th
century. Prior to being linked with the Battle of Nechtansmere,
the Aberlemno stone had been cited as evidence for the Battle of Barry
(now known to be historically inauthentic), and there are a number
of other possible interpretations for the carving.
Loch Insh, possible site of Linn Garan.
Dunachton is to the right of
In a paper published in 2006, historian
Alex Woolf gives a number of
reasons for doubting
Dunnichen as the battle site, most notably the
absence of "inaccessible mountains" in mid-Angus. He makes a case for
an alternative site at
Badenoch (grid reference
NH820047), on the north-western shore of Loch Insh, which shares
Dunnichen's toponomical origin of Dún Nechtain. James Fraser of
Edinburgh University suggests that, while it is too early to discount
Dunnichen as a potential battle site, locating it there requires an
amount of "special pleading" that
Dunachton does not need.
Ecgfrith's defeat at Dun Nechtain devastated Northumbria's power and
influence in the North of Britain.
Bede recounts that the Picts
recovered their lands that had been held by the Northumbrians and Dál
Riatan Scots. He goes on to tell how the Northumbrians who did not
flee the Pictish territory were killed or enslaved.
Northumbrian / Roman diocese of the
Picts was abandoned, with
Trumwine and his monks fleeing to Whitby, stalling Roman Catholic
expansion in Scotland.
While further battles between the Northumbrians and
recorded, for example in 697 when Beornhæth's son Berhtred was
killed, the Battle of
Dunnichen marks the point in which Pictish
Northumbria was permanently secured.
Annals of Tigernach T640.1
^ Jackson (1959)
^ Woolf (2006), Fraser (2009) p. 184
^ Bede, Ecclesiastical History, III: VI (Oswald "brought under his
dominion all the nations and provinces of Britain, which are divided
into four languages, viz. the Britons, the Picts, the Scots, and the
^ Bede, Ecclesiastical History, III: XXIV Oswiu "subdued the greater
part of the
Picts to the dominion of the English" in 658.
^ Colgrave (1927) pp. 41–43
^ Fraser (2009) p. 201
^ Cummins (2009) p. 106; Fraser (2009) pp. 201–202
Annals of Ulster
Annals of Ulster U680.4
Annals of Ulster
Annals of Ulster U681.5; Fraser (2009) p. 214 Annals of Ulster
^ Fraser (2009) p. 207
Annals of Ulster
Annals of Ulster 682.4;
Annals of Tigernach 682.5
^ Fraser (2009) p. 237
^ Veitch (1997)
^ Fraser (2009) p. 215
Annals of Ulster
Annals of Ulster U685.2;
Annals of Tigernach T685.2; Bede,
Ecclesiastical History IV: XXIV; Annals of Clonmacnoise p. 109
^ a b c d Bede, Ecclesiastical History IV: XXVI
^ See for example Fraser, p215; Colgrave, p. 41
^ a b Bede, Ecclesiastical History IV:XXVI;
Annals of Ulster
Annals of Ulster U686.1;
Annals of Tigernach T686.4; Nennius, Historia Brittonum 57
^ Nennius, Historia Brittonum, 57.
^ a b Woolf (2006)
^ This was originally suggested by Jackson (1963, p40). Although
alternative suggestions have been made, the orthodox view is that
Jackson was correct in his assessment of Pictish as a Brythonic
language (Forsyth, 1997)
Annals of Ulster
Annals of Ulster U686.1;
Annals of Tigernach T686.4; Woolf (2006)
Annals of Ulster
Annals of Ulster U686.1
Annals of Tigernach T686.4
^ Woolf (2006); Chalmers (1887)
^ And spelling variations. See for example: Innes and Chalmers (1843)
^ Chalmers (1887). The example Chalmers gives is Ainslie's map of
Forfarshire (1794), which does not show a lake in that position, nor
do earlier maps, for example Pont (c. 1583–1596); Roy (1747–1755)
^ Headrick also mentions Lothius as a protagonist.
Headrick, James (1845). "Parish of Dunnichen". New Statistical Account
of Scotland. Retrieved 27 July 2010
^ Woolf (2006); Fraser (2006) pp 68–70
^ Cummins (1999) pp. 98–103
^ Laing (2000)
^ Mitchel (1792); Crombie (1842); Jervise (1856) Jervise, writing in
1856, recounts Chalmers' identification of
Dunnichen as the battle
site while mentioning, in the same article, the Aberlemno stone solely
in relation to the Battle of Barry.
^ For example, W.A. Cummins suggests the possibility that the stone is
a memorial to 9th century Pictish king Óengus mac Fergusa. Cummins
(1999) pp. 98–103
^ Fraser (2009) pp. 215–216
Annals of Ulster
Annals of Ulster 698.2
^ Bede, Ecclesiastical History IV: XXVI; Colgrave p. 43; Cummins
(2009) p. 107; Fraser (2009) p. 216
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Dunnichen Moss as it is now
The monument at Dunnichen
Dunachton is to the left of the picture