From ‘wandering thieves’ to lords of war

Men went to Catraeth in force, in full cry,

Swift steeds and dark-blue war-gear and shields,

Spear-shafts held high and spear-points sharp-edged,

And glittering mail-coats and swords (Gododdin, verse 33)

Not only is the early historic period throughout the British Isles characterised by warlike, heroic kings who ruled over defined and ever-larger territories, but we can also detect certain changes in the nature and circumstances of combat. This changing face of military aggression encapsulates many of the political, social and religious developments of the period.

Warfare was a major and regular component of early historic life. Heroic literature, such as the Gododdin, paints a picture of an aggressive society in which petty kings and their personal warrior retinues were ‘nurtured on wine and mead’ and fought to obtain personal glory and material wealth. Contemporary poetry acted to reinforce heroic concepts of behaviour. Many of their campaigns, which followed a ritualistic formula, may simply have been to plunder or exact tribute, rather than being in pursuance or defence of territorial ambitions. Acquisition of slaves may have been an additional motive. Slave-trading was common in the Roman period, if not before: Patrick (later a saint) is the best-known victim, kidnapped from western Britain and taken to Ireland. Northern British kings also enslaved some of those they conquered. There was a Dál Riata slave-girl at the Pictish court of Bridei son of Mailcon when Columba visited it. Regardless of the purpose, fighting generally took place between leaders of different territories, such as kindreds of Dál Riata, or between the different peoples of north Britain. Gildas, admittedly a biased observer, described both the Picts and Dál Riata in the 6th century as ‘wandering thieves who had no taste for war’ and ‘in perfect accord in their greed for bloodshed’. But from the annals we can begin to piece together a different picture in which kings sought to both extend and formalise the extent of their territories. Aedán mac Gabráin is a classic example of a warlord. Overlord of Dál Riata from 574, by land and sea he successfully campaigned against Pictland for many years (as far north as Orkney) and against the Angles, until in 603 he was defeated at Degsastan, somewhere in Northumbria. Clearly sea-routes, waterways and Roman roads were commonly employed to transport large forces over considerable distances. At the height of their powers the Pictish authorities must have been able to call on significant nautical abilities to retain their authority, but these proved to be no match for the superior nautical technology of the Vikings (Lamb 1993).

The inheritance of kingdoms was usually hotly contested by rival kin groups, which, due to intermarriage, might also include eligible foreigners. Power centres had a defensive capacity and were targeted for siege, capture and burning, and the terse accounts of these events – for example, ‘683 Siege of Dundurn’ – may be scribal shorthand for shifts in the distribution of authority and peoples associated with these power centres. Certainly, it is hard to imagine that monks would have recorded anything less significant, unless it was simply to catalogue the iniquities of their secular contemporaries for their own, sanctimonious, purposes. However, most combat is likely to have taken place away from the power centres, where the space was available for set-piece battles, whether at sea or on land, both of which are documented.

Battles at sea

The Romans described both the feared Picts and Dál Riata as sea-raiders, and the latter clearly continued to use the seaways for communication, trade and attack. Vegetius, a 4th-century Roman writer, describes camouflaged scout-boats – with sails, ropes and 20 rowers – which have sometimes been attributed to the Picts, although the evidence is slender. The earliest specific reference to a sea-battle in the British Isles refers to a battle between the Cenél Loairn and Cenél nGabráin in 719. Yet as early as the 580s Aedán mac Gabráin was already campaigning in Orkney and the Isle of Man. Both the Picts and Dál Riata could clearly muster large fleets: 150 Pictish ships were wrecked in 729 and Burghead is a strong contender for a naval base. Seafaring was therefore both a normal and an essential component of life, as testified by Adomnán’s reference to at least 55 separate journeys in his account of Columba’s life. We are also frequently reminded of the perils of the sea: ‘Failbe … the successor of Maelrubai of Applecross, was drowned in the deep sea with his sailors, twenty-two in number’. The Dál Riata would also have been familiar with merchant ships from southern Britain, Gaul, and perhaps the Mediterranean, which were bringing imported goods to their shores. The use of and familiarity with boats can be easily under-estimated because no ships survive. Yet the few documentary sources, in tandem with wider evidence for the long-distance contacts that people clearly had at this time, suggests that travel over considerable distances, and presumably in well-constructed ships, was fairly commonplace.

On the basis of Adomnán’s descriptions, some of the Dál Riata ships could be large (carrying more than 20 people) and, while all used oars, the largest could also be fitted with a mast and sail. As to the construction of the boats, the monks of Iona acquired pine and oak for a longa navis, (‘long ship’). We do not know if any boats were made exclusively of timber, but this seems likely to have been the case. Skin-covered currachs, a form of construction that by then already had a pedigree in Ireland of about 4,000 years, were undoubtedly common.

Far less is known about Pictish boats (Crumlin-Pederson 2010). For travel in inland waters, the occasional early historic log-boat has been recognised. In contemporary Ireland there is evidence for the heightening of such dug-outs by the addition of timber strakes. Otherwise, boats may have been skin-covered, although the double-ended, mastless rowing-boat carved on the St Orland’s cross-slab appears to be clinker-built – with overlapping planks – and the boat carved on the cave wall at Jonathan’s Cave, East Wemyss, also looks to be wooden. Competent sketches of boats, including masted examples, are also found on various stones from Jarlshof, Shetland, possibly also Burness, Orkney (Johnstone 1988; O’Meadhra 1993; Ritchie 1997).

Battles on land

When it comes to the nature of fighting on land, we know almost as little. There are no detailed accounts to match that provided by Tacitus of Agricola’s victory over the Britons at Mons Graupius in 83. Here the allied forces of the British tribes included chariots and foot-soldiers (who fought with huge swords for slashing and carried small shields). The Gododdin gives little away about early historic battle tactics or weapon-handling and few weapons themselves survive (unlike in neighbouring Bernicia, where pagan warriors were buried with them). Fraser (2002) has vividly reconstructed within the limits of available evidence the finer details of the Battle of Dunnichen, in a historical, political and physical sense. Few weapons survive, although there is a notable collection from Dunadd and manufacturing evidence for knobbed spearbutts is now assigned to the mid-1st millennium (Heald 2001). The sculpted stones provide greater detail, with their depictions of spears, axes, decorated shields (both square and round) and swords. Crossbows, as shown on a number of sculptures, were probably only used in hunting. The St Ninian’s Isle chapes and sword pommel and the evidence from Norrie’s Law for silver-mounted ceremonial weapons demonstrate just how richly embellished such objects might be. The association of kings with such high-status objects is reinforced by the imagery of kings on the St Andrews Sarcophagus, the imposing mounted warrior on Constantine’s Cross with his possible sceptre, and on the Forteviot arch, where Joanna Close-Brooks suggests that the main figure may be holding a sword across his knees. The last reference to the use of chariots was in the early 3rd century, but carefully bred horses are likely to have been an essential component of warfare: for transport to and from battle, for the military posturing that undoubtedly preceded action, and for battle itself. The majority of soldiers probably fought on foot, with battle on horseback limited to kings and nobles, as illustrated in the cartoon-like battle scene on the back of the Aberlemno 2 cross-slab, in which one warring side apparently chases another, they meet, and one leader on horseback kills the other: glory for the Picts, whoever their enemy (Henderson and Henderson 2004).

The aim of much of this aggression was first to acquire a given area and then to assert authority, perhaps extending it to neighbouring territories. In pursuit of this ambition, highly mobile armies and fleets covered considerable distances. The loyalty and/or submission of the pacified local leaders was paramount, by their deaths if need be. If not on the battlefield, this might take the form of drowning, a ritual practice first attested in Gaul. The Pictish kings are recorded drowning enemy leaders in 734 and 739. Decapitation may also have been practised, as depicted on Sueno’s Stone (Moray).

To ensure that these redefined political relationships were maintained and upheld by the regular submission of tribute, high-status hostages were often taken by the victors and presumably detained at power centres. It was also traditional for kings to marry the sisters and daughters of other kings and to transfer the upbringing of their children to foster parents in different lineages, the intention being that concerns about the safety of their children would deter aggression, although this ploy did not always succeed.

One of the key points to note is how such shifts in authority revolved around the personal ambitions of key individuals – the kings and territorial lords – and how unstable and short-lived any political liaisons might actually be. No matter how a king died – whether violently or in his bed – there was always enormous competition among rivals to be his successor.

Organisation for war

We have yet to consider the contribution that military might made to the extension and consolidation of Argyll, Pictland, and their political union. Clearly the ultimate success of any one individual or group was not simply the incremental product of ad hoc military ventures. On the contrary, in both Argyll and Pictland we find evidence that kings were placing an increasing emphasis on organising themselves for war. There was a shift from plundering, pillaging and extortion to pitched battles, which required far greater military organisation and resources. For example, enormous efforts went into the breeding and stabling of horses; the groom seen accompanying the female figure on the Hilton of Cadboll cross-slab must have been an important member of the royal household. Indeed, as sculptures testify, society was increasingly hierarchical, and specialised posts were undoubtedly a natural consequence of this. Further resources must also have been required to free warriors for either permanent or temporary duty. The kings were presumably able to do this because of the existence of sophisticated mechanisms for the exploitation of the agricultural produce of the land.

It is an open question what mechanisms existed for the mustering of army and navy, but an 8th-century king, Onuist son of Uurguist, clearly worked with more than a war band. In Pictland it seems likely that there were royal officials drawn from local kindreds who had the responsibility for enforcing military levies, dispensing justice and collecting renders and due in lands under royal lordship (areas where the king’s kindred and clients lived, and churches). Elsewhere the leaders of local kindred (toíseach) fulfilled the same functions for their own purposes, although answering to the predominant leader. These are the equivalent of what in later Gaelic times are referred to as the mormaer (‘great steward’ or sea steward’, with authority equivalent to the extent of a later earldom) and thane, managing a unit of land about the size of a parish (Broun 2008; 2013). Their roles may have been similar to that of the exactatores, men who died in battle with Nechtan in 729, perhaps in the course of attempting to collect dues. The date of the creation of this system (as opposed to its terminology, which is late) is therefore very important because we can see that it would have been a means by which kings could muster forces as well as extend their authority to new territories.

In Argyll, the Míniugud Senchasa Fher nAlban includes a civil survey and military assessment, together forming an account of how much tribute an overking could expect – namely the number of households and number of men and ships each household should provide for military expeditions (a census). While Dumville (2002) does ‘not believe a single word which has been written in interpretation of it’, including the view that it provides evidence for administrative sophistication in this part of early historic Scotland, others consider it remains important evidence for ‘incipient state-formation’ (Campbell 2010). By analogy from elsewhere, we can only assume that local lords, if not individual households, would have had some sort of obligation to provide kings with equipped soldiers and sailors in times of need, while others may have been required to submit agricultural produce.

By the late 8th century there had also been a change in the perception of how kings viewed themselves, including their military role. This transformation relates largely to the influence of the Church, which was behind a school of thought that wanted to change the character and succession practices of kingship. It wished to create a more peaceful society in which a king was inviolate, ruled peacefully, and where there was an orderly and legitimate form of succession upon his death, rather than bloodshed and feud. This school of thought, championed by Adomnán among others, was pervasive and influential throughout Europe; in Pictland and Argyll it can be seen in the David iconography in the sculpture (see 24, 70, 87). The content of the sculpture also changed: instead of hunting scenes, the secular authorities tended to be depicted in a militaristic stance, as on Constantine’s Cross or Sueno’s Stone. The new imagery suggests new uses for sculpture and a strengthening and formalisation of royal authority. Few images of warriors (as opposed to hunters) are found on earlier sculpture, yet the images on Constantine’s Cross can be interpreted as evidence for an increasingly professional, perhaps full-time, retinue of soldiers. As elsewhere in contemporary Europe, sons were perhaps being placed in the care of their patrons.

Military aggression can therefore be seen as a continual undercurrent throughout the period. It could be – indeed frequently was – used to decide which particular person inherited or acquired authority over any given area; kings had to be strong. This was presumably how Bridei son of Beli consolidated the Pictish kingship and we must also assume that this was how Cinaed mac Ailpín rose to power. Similarly, we know that when Cinaed met with local resistance to his takeover, he tackled the problem by military means. So military might was also used to obtain and assert power. Such instances of internecine strife and apparent political instability are recurrent themes throughout this period.

But kings now needed more than material wealth, personal charisma and military might to stay in effective control of such large areas. They needed the support of the Church. Christianity had led to changes in the character of kingship that go some way to explaining how more permanent structures of government came into place. With the advent of Christianity, kingship was redefined. In theory the Church now interceded on behalf of a king and his people, and clerics began to play a role in inauguration. They also tried to influence how future kings were chosen – in order to ensure a stable society – and were prostate in their ideology. The Church acknowledged that it could not stop kings fighting, but it could encourage a king to be ‘strong like David in crushing his enemies yet lowly in the sight of God’ (Eddius Stephanus, Life of Bishop Wilfrid). The biblical image of David, the powerful yet holy warrior king, was exploited throughout contemporary Europe; Carolingian court poets flattered Emperor Charlemagne by allusions to David. We find tangible acknowledgement of this attitude in Christian invocations inscribed on weapons, such as on one of the St Ninian’s Isle sword chapes (91), and in the content of sculpture, where battle imagery transmitted messages of salvation and redemption.

Warrior saints

Although the Church largely decried violence, some saints, Columba in particular, developed a cult status associated with their power as victory givers (Clancy 1997). In other words, they fulfilled the role of earlier pagan warlike deities. Columba came from the warrior aristocracy and patently had an abiding personal interest in battles; he may even have left Ireland in penitence for his involvement in the warfare that, among other things, had left him with a ‘livid scar’ on his side. Despite this, he did not eschew violence when it could be used in the cause of justice, and indeed encouraged it: a penitent was given a sword with which to settle an unjust score before returning to fulfil his life as a monk. Within 50 years of his death, calling on the patronage of Columba was thought to secure military victory, and relics associated with him later became employed as talismans in battle. His prayer book, the Cathach or ‘Battler’, was enshrined and used in Ireland by the O’Donnells to secure victory in battle, while his crozier and a house-shaped reliquary were put to similar effect in Scotland (the latter is thought by some to be the artefact known as the Monymusk reliquary, but there are grounds to doubt this: Caldwell 2001). In later times the Gaelic-Norse inhabitants of western Scotland were to see him as their protector, attributing to him some of the qualities of the Viking war god, Odin.

It is difficult to assess the contribution of military aggression to the development and consolidation of Pictland, or to its takeover by Dál Riata kings. Clearly conflict was a major component of early historic society, but this alone cannot account for the political, social, economic and ideological developments of the times. Yet from out of this Alba was born.