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The Irish Scots of Dalriada - or were they?

By Peter Lawrie, ©2003



Historical sources for the origin of Dál Riata in Argyll are cryptically brief and allusive. Gaelic place name studies offer only some assistance. Ptolemy named the people of Kintyre as the Epidii.  The earliest ‘Irish’ Annals were written at Iona between 563 and 740 AD and deal with the leaders of the cenéla who made up the Dál Riata of Antrim and in Kintyre and Argyll during the 5th century. Bede named the leader of the Dál Riata in Antrim as Reuda. There is fragmentary Irish evidence suggesting a leader named Cairpre Riata leading a migration to Argyll ten generations or so earlier than 500 AD. Ten generations implies between two and three hundred years, but it could equally mean the succession of ten leaders of the derbfine which might be significantly less than patrilineal succession, perhaps placing the origins of Dál Riata in the mid fourth century. Ammianus Marcellinus wrote of raids in 360 “… et Scoti per diversi vagantes multa populabantur” – “and the Scots wandering about various parts ravaged many peoples”. Roberston, citing Bede, claimed that this statement indicated that the ‘Scoti’ were not native but Irish. MacLauchlan, by contrast, claimed that these Scots were natives of the West of Alba.Fergus mac Erc, leader of the Dál Riata is recorded in the oldest surviving version of the Annals of Tigernach as having died in 501. A 10th century version of the Senchus fer nAlban mentions two other kindreds claimed to be the sons of Erc but probably earlier. These were the Cenél Loairn in Lorn and Cenél nOengusa in Islay. Together with the Cenél Comgaill in Cowal and Cenél nGábrain in Kintyre, founded by the grandsons of Fergus, these groups formed the kingdom of Dál Riata, which would war with the Picts, Britons and Angles between the 6th and 9th centuries.

According to Adomnán, The Cenél nGábrain appear to have been leaders both of the Scottish and Antrim Dál Riata during the sixth and seventh centuries. Aedan Mac Gábhrain conquered adjacent Pictish territory and Gartnait Mac Aedan became a king of the Picts. The convention of Druim Cett in 575 suggested that Scottish Dál Riata dominated the Antrim settlement rather than the other way around. Evidence appears to suggest that Dál Riata were the least significant of the peoples of Antrim and did not share in the alternating kingship. Until recently, the accepted view has been that the Scoti from Antrim carved out a kingdom for themselves in Pictland, but it appears just as likely that there had been settlement in Antrim by a group from the western coastline of Scotland. Irish sources mention the Dal nAraide as being Cruithne, or Picts. The Irish Sea presented no barrier to a sea-faring people and regular two-way migration must have taken place during the Iron Age and earlier. Domhnal Brecc appears to have lost control of the Antrim territory in 637. Modern scholastic opinion is that the Picts spoke a form of P-Celtic, akin to Welsh, while the Góidil of Ireland and Dalriada spoke Gaelic, a Q-Celtic language. Robertson, among others, in the 19th century argued on the basis of place-names that the Pictish peoples were, in fact, Q-Celtic Góidils and that the Scoti of Dál Riata formed an insignificant contribution in terms of numbers and language to the kingdom of Alba.  Modern scholarship does not accept much of Robertson’s arguments as they were based on 18th and 19th century written transcripts of surviving oral tradition. Having been preserved by Gaelic seannachies for many centuries, any original non-Gaelic contribution can hardly be detected. Adomnán recorded that aged Artbranan was the chief commander of a warband in the region of Cé (Mar and Buchan). He received the word of God from Columba through an interpreter.  The need for an interpreter was referred to in another of Columba’s missionary journeys to Pictland.  While the obvious conclusion is that the Q-Celtic Dalriads and the P-Celtic Picts were mutually unintelligible, this does not infer that the Dalriads were of Irish origin, merely that at this time they were speaking the same language as in Antrim. No written sources of the Pictish language have survived and a few words from Ogham “do not amount to much”. Among those few words, maqq or meqq suggest the Gaelic ‘son of’ rather than the Welsh ap.

Analysis of the seven surviving versions of the Pictish king lists is inconclusive, but recent scholarship is suggesting that the Picts may have spoken an earlier form of Q-Celtic Goidelic, more akin to Irish than a Brythonic language. Archaeologists are often unable to distinguish between Iron Age sites and early medieval occupations. However, there is archaeological evidence of distinctions between ‘Pictland’ and Dalriada. Brochs were erected from as early as 6th century BC up to around 100AD. Their distribution is overwhelmingly in Orkney and Shetland; in the North Highlands (Ptolemaic tribal areas of the Cornovii, Caerini, Smertae, Decantae and Carnonacae); Skye and the Hebrides from Mull northwards; a very few among the Venicones and Votadini of the East, north and south of the Forth; and finally a small number among the Novantae of the South West. Almost none are found in the Ptolemaic tribal area of the Epidii that became Dalriada.  Many sculptured stones date from the 7th to 9th centuries. Invariably these are found in the east and north of Pictland. Jackson records none in the area west of Drumalban or south of Mull.   The boar symbol carved at Dunadd is sometimes held to be Pictish, but need not be so or might commemorate a period of Pictish occupation. All pit- place names are found east of Drumalban.  This evidence appears to indicate a clear difference from at least 100BC up until the 9th century between the area of Dalriada and Pictland to the east and north. Adomnán identifies Drumalban as the boundary between the two races.

If Dál Riata was a colonisation by Gaels from Antrim it may be expected that they would replicate the settlements they had left in Ireland. Available evidence does not support this. A type of settlement known as a ring-fort or rath, with earth banks surrounding houses and byres is not found in Dál Riata, despite the availability of suitable sites, but is extremely common in Ireland. Drystone structures called duns are rare in Ireland but common in the west coastal area from Skye to Ayrshire, including Dál Riata. Duns in Dál Riata have been dated to the early Iron Age (~500BC), although there is very little dating evidence, it has been suggested that some may have been continually occupatied up until the early medieval period. Scottish crannogs can also be dated to the early Iron Age, but no Irish example has been dated earlier than the 6th century AD.  Apart from a few examples in Kintyre, hill forts, a common form in the East and South, are not found in Dál Riata.

From the Iron Age and throughout the first millennium AD there is little archaeological evidence of change in material culture in Dál Riata. While the elite imported fashionable glass and pottery from Europe, basic pottery in Western Scotland continued unchanged from the Iron Age and remained distinct from corresponding Irish artefacts.  Spearheads and knives are similar in both Ireland and Dál Riata but are also found in Pictland, indicating a widespread trade. Personal ornamentation, such as brooches shows quite distinct differences. Ogham pillars are found in hundreds across Ireland, but only two examples occur in Argyll.

There is almost no archaeological evidence to support the traditional view of migration from Ireland and some evidence to support the view that there was considerable influence in the opposite direction, from Scotland to Ireland.  Some early genealogies were evidently re-written in the 10th century to bolster contemporary claimants to the Scottish throne. These practices continued in the 15th and 16th centuries when the mythically ancient origins of the Scots kingdom were extended back in time by Boece and Major to include the pharaohs of Egypt and Kings of Troy. Late medieval Highland clans similarly used myths of descent from ancient Irish kings to bolster their seniority.

The ease of movement by sea between the western seaboard and Ireland may have contributed to a community of interest among distinct peoples. It is arguable whether a shared language was the result or a contributory factor to such a community. The Epidii, as a result of geographical isolation and links with Antrim, may have missed out on the northward spread and development of Brythonic P-Celtic on the eastern side of Drumalban, which may have partly overlaid an earlier Goidelic Q-Celtic language in, at least, part of Pictland. The probability is that both Q-Celtic and P-Celtic languages survived alongside each other over much of Scotland. Later the Kings of Dál Riata found it convenient to use a myth of common origin to bind their territories in Antrim with the Argyll lands.  If a Brythonic P-Celtic language had been an elite introduction into much of the North, then it is possible that the Q-Celtic Goidelic tongue may have survived more among the commonality, facilitating the later re-introduction of Gaelic across Alba in the 9th and 10th centuries. In the same way, the uncouth tongue of the Saxon would re-emerge in England after the centuries in which Norman French had been the language of the elite. Robertson may have been correct in his conclusions about the antiquity of Gaelic in Alba, despite his flawed argument.