They left no written chronicles or massive castles, but their fingerprints can yet be seen on the land and the shape of our country today. In a new book, Alistair Moffat uncovers the stories of Scotland’s forgotten ancient dynasties and puts them back on
“Scotland’s fundamental shape and scale have
endured. The ancient
names of places have a rich story to tell. The land has its own
continuity and clarity”
AS LORRIES grind through the gears on their way up to the top of Soutra on the A68, they unknowingly pass a place where Scotland’s history turned. The farm of Addinston in Lauderdale takes its name from Aedan’s Stane and in 603AD a bloody battle was fought there. The army of Aedan macGabrain, king of Argyll, was caught by the Bernicians, recent conquerors of the Tweed Valley. And almost certainly around the tumbled-down ramparts of a prehistoric hillfort near the modern farm, the Argyll men were defeated.
Having raided cattle from the fertile grasslands of the Tweed, Aedan had led his army north up Dere Street, the old Roman road which remained the best route to the Lothians and the Forth for many centuries after the legions left. The Argyll men were overtaken by the pursuing Bernicians and their great warriorking, Aethelfrith. Events moved quickly after the battle at the place also known as Degsastan. In 637, Edinburgh fell to the Bernicians and by the middle of the 7th century they controlled the Lothians and the Borders and were pushing into Galloway and Fife. Their ambition was only checked in 685 when Pictish cavalry killed King Ecgfrith and cut his army to pieces at Dunnichen, near Forfar.
The distant rumble of these forgotten battles, the obscure, ignored kings who fought and died in them and the names of their ancient kingdoms might seem Ruritanian, little more than a collection of historical curiosities. But they are not.
When Aethelfrith won at Degsastan and his warriors overran the Lothians, Scotland was destined to speak English and not the Gaelic of the Argyll men.
More than that, the Dark Ages saw many of the recognisable themes of our history established: Christianity; an energetic, expansionist, dominant dynasty of kings; the development of distinctive regions. But the workings of many of these processes are often obscure.
So how do we read this unwritten history today? Through keen observation. The archive of the feet and the eyes is our most important resource. The shadows of ancient kingdoms lie apparent even now, their frontiers marked by ditch and stone, an ancient stronghold marked by a trees still standing or clearly witnessed.
We read their story through place names, and from references made in the oldest recorded histories – often passed down from an original long since lost, such as On the Ocean by the Greek explorer and scientist Pytheas, who ventured north to what would become Scotland as early as 320 BC.
Before the 12th century and the arrival of literate monks and the kings who patronised their abbeys and churches, our history can be hard to see. Scotland – more precisely, north Britain – in the Dark Ages seems to emerge instead from a tangle of confusion; a story told in contradictory fragments and a few, rare flickers of light. From late in the last millennium BC to AD1000 and even beyond, it is a tale of shadows and half-lit edges.
Only the land, its rivers and lochs and the seas around it remain, and although the appearance of Scotland has changed over the course of a thousand winters and a thousand summers since, its fundamental shape and scale have endured. The sands and the tides, the hills and high valleys, the great rivers, the long lost wildwood, the impenetrable marshlands and the ancient names of places have a rich story to tell. The land has its own certainty, continuity and clarity.
A lot of what we might recognise as a political history of Scotland in the first millennium AD has been supplied by outsiders: Greek travellers, Roman military historians and map makers, Irish annalists, Welsh bards and chroniclers now thought of as English have left us most of what passes for a narrative.
Much has been lost, and often it is the random discovery of an object, the recognition of a piece of dusty sculpture as great art or the realisation that some of the men of the north of Britain were very influential in their time that reminds us that a lack of a coherent history written by those who lived it is only an accident. Because records did not survive, we should not drift into the unthinking assumption that the society of Dark Ages Scotland was incapable of compiling them and was therefore somehow primitive and less sophisticated than others.
So much of Scotland’s history is open to doubt and interpretation. For example, theories on the Callanish Stones on Lewis, in the Western Isles, constantly evolve with some suggesting an association with astronomical events and others with pre- historic religious activity. One local tradition says that giants who lived on the island refused to be converted to Christianity by Saint Kieran and were turned into stone as a punishment.
It is also clear that the principal driver of our history is often failure. The losers have, of course, been eclipsed by the winners in the history of Scotland. The rise of Dalriada, the Gaelic-speaking kings of the west, and their eventual takeover of the whole country have been well documented. And the story of the Pictish kingdoms, one of the great mysteries of our history, has been investigated and exhausted by talented historians.
Instead a dim light is shed on the forgotten dynasties that died away and failed. Their lost kingdoms are the proper subject of The Faded Map.
Where were Calchvynydd, Desnes Mor and Desnes Ioan, Manau and the land of the Kindred Hounds? Who were the Sons of Prophecy, the Well-Born, Macsen, Amdarch, the kings of Ebrauc and the treacherous Morcant Bwlc? What happened at Arderydd, Degsastan and Alt Clut? Where was the Grimsdyke, the land of the Hali-