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Dál Riata Dalriada, kings oflocked

(act. c. 500–c. 850)
  • Marjorie O. Anderson

Dál Riata Dalriada, kings of (act. c. 500–c. 850), rulers in Scotland, were the lords of a realm whose name was also given to an ancient small kingdom, situated in the north-east corner of Antrim, northern Ireland, and named from the dál ('division', primarily in the sense of people rather than territory) of Réte—a mythical ancestor.

Origins to 609

Traditionally a colony of the Dál Riata settled in Britain, probably before 500, and during several generations the two territories, though separated by 13 miles of sea, formed a single kingdom with its centre of power in Britain. The link was dissolved, perhaps in the time of Domnall Brecc (d. 642/3), but c.700 the Dál Riata in Britain were still, to Adomnán, 'the Irish [Latin Scoti] of Britain', and long afterwards their kings were counted among the overkings of Irish provinces. The eastern limit of their British realm, separating the Scots from the Picts, was 'the mountains of the spine of Britain' (Life of Columba, 2.46), that is, Drumalban. The northern and southern limits cannot be defined so clearly, but the popular equation of Dál Riata with Argyll is probably not far wrong. The historical kings of the Dál Riata were derived by genealogists from two brothers, Fergus and Loarn (or Lorne), the sons of Erc. Most were descended from Fergus's grandsons, Comgall and Gabrán, and ruled territories which included Cowal and Kintyre. The descendants of Lorne (cenél Loairn) further north had a territory larger than modern Lorne; for some forty years, before and after 700, their kings successfully disputed the overkingship.

A regnal list, versions of which are still extant, began with Fergus [Fergus II] [called Fergus Mór] (d. 501), reputedly a contemporary of St Patrick. Such a list seems to have been used retrospectively by an annalist to enter the deaths of kings at the appropriate places, counting the reign lengths back as far as Comgall and Gabrán. Their father, Domangart, and Fergus himself, were added later in different annal compilations.

Comgall mac Domangart mac[Congallus] (d. c. 538) died 'in the thirty-fifth year of his reign' (Anderson, Early Sources, 1.10). His family gave their name to Cowal, the district to the south of Loch Fyne. He was succeeded by his brother Gabrán [Goranus] (d. c. 558), who reigned for about twenty years. Later stories seem to connect Gabrán with the southern Pictish country and the River Forth, but all that can be learned from the annals is that he died in the same year (c.558) in which the Pictish king Brude mac Maelchon caused a flight, or withdrawal, of Scots. This event, unexplained, was clearly a Scottish disaster. It is unclear whether Gabrán's death was connected with it, but the words used of his death do not suggest that he died in battle or by violence.

Gabrán was succeeded by his nephew Conall mac Comgall mac[Congallus] (d. 574). In 563 Conall was visited in Britain by St Columba (d. 597), who had recently arrived from Ireland to begin his life of 'pilgrimage'. There were two traditions about the foundation of Columba's monastery in Iona. Pictish tradition was the probable source of Bede's statement that the island was given to Columba by Picts. But an entry attached to the notice of King Conall's death in the Irish annals says that Conall was the donor. There may have been truth in both traditions. In 568 Conall joined with the king of Meath in an expedition in 'Iardoman', probably the Inner Hebrides. He died in 574 and was succeeded by his cousin Aedán (or Áedan) mac Gabrán. The choice of Conall's successor seems to have lain between Aedán and his brother Eoganán, and it was the latter who at first had the powerful support of Columba. But, prompted by angelic visions, according to Iona tradition, the saint changed his mind and gave Aedán his blessing.

Aedán was remembered partly for the concord he reached with the northern Uí Néill relating to the status of the Irish part of Aedán's kingdom. In a famous meeting at Druim Cete (or Druim Cett) in Derry, it was agreed (or so it appears) that military service from the Dál Riata in Ireland should be paid to Áed, son of Ainmire, and his successors, their taxes and tribute to Aedán and his successors. This implicitly ruled out any rights claimed by kings of the Ulaid over the Irish Dál Riata. The annals date the meeting in the year after Aedán's accession, that is in 575, but there are difficulties in the dating, and it has been plausibly argued that the true date may have been c.590.

There was a tradition that Aedán had fought against the Picts during thirteen years, seemingly before he became king. It is doubtful whether any of his later battles, noticed in the annals, involved hostility between him and the Picts. His last battle, which Bede dated in 603, was fought at ‘Degsastan’, perhaps near the present English–Scottish border. It was a brave attempt to halt the northward spread of the Angles of Northumbria, but Aedán's army was heavily defeated and, says Bede, from that time until the present day (c.731) no king of Scots in Britain had dared to engage in battle against the Angles.

Aedán died a few years later. Figures in lists and annals (none very dependable at this period) suggest that he may have died in 609, but had ceased to reign in 608. The date 609 is slightly confirmed by separate sources (the martyrology of Tallaght and the eleventh-century prophecy of Berchan) which would fix the day of his death as 17 April, a Thursday. Berchan says that he died in Kintyre, Fordun that he was buried at Kilkerran (Campbeltown).

Eochaid Buide and his sons, 609–c.660

Aedán had a number of sons, of whom at least four died in battle in their father's lifetime. His successor, Eochaid Buide [Eugenius] (d. c. 629), was one of the younger ones (his epithet means ‘yellow’) [see also Eugenius I–VIII (c. 350–763)]. It was not usual for a king to be followed immediately by his son, and perhaps that was why it was told of Eochaid that when he was a child Columba prophesied that he would be king after Aedán.

The entry of Eochaid's death (c.629) in the annals of Ulster reads: 'Death of Eochaid Buide, king of the Picts, son of Aedán. So I have found in the Book of Cuanu' (Anderson, Early Sources, 1.151). It is not clear how much of the entry came from Cuanu's book (a version of the annals, of uncertain date, known only from the Ulster annalist's quotations from it, of which this is the last). Eochaid's kingship 'of the Picts' has not been satisfactorily explained.

Eochaid Buide's death was followed by the brief reign of Connad Cerr (d. c. 629), whose epithet means ‘crooked’ or ‘left-handed’. On the evidence of the Irish synchronisms, Connad Cerr is usually thought to have been Eochaid Buide's son. A genealogical section in the Míniugud senchasa fher nAlban ('Explanation of the genealogy of the men of Scotland') names Connad Cerr in a list of Eochaid's sons. This text, however, is not to be depended on; in the same sentence Domnall Dond, Eochaid's grandson who died c.696, is included among Eochaid's sons. In the Latin lists Connad Cerr is a 'son of Conal', and it would appear that in the synchronisms the phrase 'his son' (a mac) has been displaced. A difficulty in accepting the reading of the Latin lists was pointed out by Bannerman: the only possible known Conal is Comgall's son, the king who died in 574, and a son of his would seem too old to be made king about 629.

Connad Cerr died in the same year in which he became king, in a battle at Fid Eóin in Ireland, an internal quarrel of the Dál nAraidi, southern neighbours of the Irish Dál Riata. His successor was Domnall Brecc, Eochaid Buide's son. Domnall had an unlucky reign. In 637 he chose to side with Congal Cáech, overking of the Ulaid, against Domnall, Áed's son, head of the Cenél Conaill branch of the northern Uí Néill. (Legend said that Congal was a nephew of Domnall Brecc.) Domnall's connection with the battle of Moira (in Down), in which Congal lost his life, is known, not from the annals, but from Cumméne, the seventh abbot of Iona, author of a work on Columba. A passage from the book, copied into an early manuscript of Adomnán's life of the saint, quotes a prophecy of the evil consequences to any of King Aedán's descendants who shall fail in loyalty to the Cenél Conaill, Columba's kindred. Cumméne (who died in 669) adds that the prophecy had been fulfilled 'in our time' in the battle of Moira, when Domnall Brecc without provocation wasted the province of Domnall, son of Áed. Domnall Brecc is not said to have been present in the battle.

No more is heard of Domnall Brecc in Ireland. It may be that the Irish Dál Riata no longer acknowledged his kingship. A severance of the two Dál Riatas would account for the warning attributed to Columba, that Aedán's descendants might 'lose the sceptre of this kingdom from their hands' (Anderson, Early Sources, 1.160). There was a second sense in which Domnall might be said to have lost the sceptre. He was still apparently king in 642 or 643, at his death in battle against Owen, king of the Strathclyde Britons; but it seems that he no longer reigned alone. Reign lengths suggest that from 637 until his death the kingship was shared between him and Ferchar [Fearchair I, Ferchardus I] (d. c. 651), a son of Connad Cerr. The evidence, however, is ambiguous. In the lists Ferchar stands before Domnall Brecc. And the only mention of Ferchar in the annals is a notice of his death, peculiar to the annals of Ulster, in 693. The year is improbably late, though not quite impossible; it has been conjectured that the entry belonged to a group of badly misdated entries (including one of the death of Domnall Brecc), and that Ferchar really died c.651.

The period of Northumbrian domination, c.660–685

If the Latin lists are right in making Connad Cerr a son of Conal, and if Conal was the Conall Comgall's son who reigned from c.558 to 574, then Ferchar was, as far as can be ascertained, the last member of the house of Comgall to be a king of Dál Riata. After him the kingship seems to have been divided again, this time between Conall Crandomna [Congallus] (d. 660), who was a brother of Domnall Brecc, and, until Conall's death, a 'Dúnchad son of Dubán'. This Dúnchad has not been identified satisfactorily, but there is a distinct possibility that he was the grandfather of a later king, Fiannamail. Conall Crandomna and Dúnchad are said to have reigned together for ten years (651?–660). After Conall's death Domangart (d. 673), a son of Domnall Brecc, became sole king. It was perhaps towards the end of the joint reign that Scots in Britain, as well as Picts, became tributary to Oswiu, king of Northumbria (d. 670). When Cumméne, writing in his own person, says that since the day of the battle of Moira the descendants of Aedán have been held down by (extranei'strangers' or 'outsiders'), he is probably referring to, and lamenting, their subjection to Northumbria, which was to continue long after Cumméne's death.

Domangart died in 673 by violence of some kind ( (jugulatio)). He was one of the very few kings to whom contemporary annalists attached the label 'king of Dál Riata'. He was followed by two sons of his uncle Conall Crandomna, who reigned in succession: Maelduin (or Mael Dúin), who died peacefully in 688 or 689, and Domnall Dond, who met a violent death, perhaps in 696. In 685, towards the end of Maelduin's life, Scots as well as Picts were freed from Northumbrian dominion by the Pictish victory at Dunnichen and the death of King Ecgfrith.

Ferchar Fota and his rivals, 685–700

It may be that the violent deaths of Domangart (673) and Domnall Dond (696?) reflect antagonism between the two branches of Eochaid Buide's descendants through his sons Domnall Brecc and Conall Crandomna, but nothing is known of the circumstances. The king-lists at this period are corrupt and defective. One piece of list evidence that cannot be ignored is the twenty-one-year reign of Ferchar Fota [Fearchair, Ferchardus] (d. 697), immediately before that of Eochaid, son of Domangart. The annals twice mention Ferchar Fota (his epithet means ‘the Tall’): in 678 when he lost many of the tribe of Lorne in a battle against Britons, and in 697 when he died. Sons and grandsons of his became overkings of the Dál Riata, but the annal evidence affords no room for Ferchar himself as overking. It can only be guessed that he exercised kingship somewhere outside his own kingdom of Lorne, the northernmost of the kingdoms of the Dál Riata. Genealogists derived its kings from a brother of Fergus, son of Erc, two centuries earlier.

Domnall Dond's successor was a younger cousin, Eochaid [Eugenius V] (d. 697), the son of Domangart, son of Domnall Brecc. The lists give Eochaid a strange epithet, Rianamhail and the like. In one text (list E) it was understood to mean ‘crooked nosed’ and translated into Latin as (habens curvum nasum). He was killed in 697, the year in which Ferchar Fota died. He left at least one son, another Eochaid, who does not appear in the annals until 726, and may have been very young when his father was killed.

Ainfcellach (d. 719), a son of Ferchar Fota, followed Eochaid in the overkingship, but in the next year was driven out and carried, a prisoner, to Ireland. His successor, presumably his captor, was Fiannamail (d. 700), Dúnchad's grandson, described as 'king of Dál Riata' at his death. It is supposed that his grandfather was the Dúnchad, Dubán's son, who had held part of the overkingship in the 650s. Fiannamail's ability to remove his predecessor to Ireland prompts the question whether he belonged to a royal family of Irish Dál Riata. But the available evidence is unsatisfactory. That the guarantors of Adomnán's law (697) include both Fiannamail 'grandson of Dúnchad', with no title, and 'Eochu grandson of Domnall' (that is, Eochaid, son of Domangart), with the title , ‘king’, tells very little about Fiannamail's status. A 'king of Kintyre' called Dúnchad Becc is noticed by the annals in 721; his name suggests that he may have been of the same family as Fiannamail. The absence of Fiannamail from the genealogical section of the Míniugud senchasa fher nAlban is not relevant; this text brings its lists in general no further down than Aedán's grandsons. But though Fiannamail is not in the king-lists of the Dál Riata, there is a strong possibility that he was present in the original list. If, owing to a scribal dislocation, his name, mistaken for an epithet, was attached to the name of Eochaid, son of Domangart, that would account both for Fiannamail's apparent absence and for Eochaid's unexplained epithet Rianamhail.

The rule of Selbach, 700–730

Fiannamail himself was killed in 700, and Selbach [Selvach] (d. 730), a son of Ferchar Fota, began a twenty-three-year reign as overking. His brother Ainfcellach, Fiannamail's victim, is not heard of again until 719. After four violent ends to reigns in as many years, Selbach's reign seems like a period of stability; nevertheless, the annals record several armed conflicts, against members of the old royal family or against kinsmen of his own. In 701 he destroyed the Lorne fortress of Dunolly, and in 714 he rebuilt it. In 712 he besieged a place in the south of Kintyre, perhaps Dunaverty. In the autumn of 719 he fought against his brother Ainfcellach, last heard of in 698, who was killed in the battle. Soon after, in a battle at sea, Selbach was beaten by Dúnchad Becc and the Cenél nGabráin. There were also battles against the Britons in 704, 711, and 717, in which Selbach is not actually named.

In 723 Selbach adopted the clerical habit, and the overkingship of the Dál Riata, together with the kingship of Lorne, evidently passed to his son Dúngal (d. c. 736). In 726, when Dúngal was thrown de regno, the overkingship returned to the old ruling family in the person of Eochaid, son of Eochaid (son of Domangart, son of Domnall Brecc). In the next year Selbach came out of retirement to fight a battle with adversaries who are described as the familia of Eochaid, grandson of Domnall. No doubt Eochaid, son of Eochaid, was involved, but it is not recorded that he was actually present in the battle. Selbach died in 730.

Wars to west and east, 730–778

In 733 Eochaid, son of Eochaid, died. It is not known whether he was still alive when Flaithbertach, a great-grandson of Domnall, son of Áed, and the last of the Cenél Conaill to be counted as a high-king of Ireland, brought a fleet of the Dál Riata to Ireland to assist him against his rivals. The campaign was a failure; in the following year Flaithbertach was forced to abdicate.

In 733 also Dúngal of Lorne was active off the north Irish coast, and he profaned the monastery in Tory Island by forcibly removing Brude, son of the Pictish king Oengus mac Forgusso (Onuist son of Uurguist), who had taken sanctuary there. The origin of the enmity that certainly existed from this time between Dúngal and Oengus is obscure. In this same year Dúngal's cousin Muredach (d. 771), son of Ainfcellach, 'assumed the kingship of the tribe of Lorne'. In the next year Dúngal was overtaken by Oengus's avenging anger. Dúngal's fortress was destroyed, and he was wounded and fled to Ireland.

After the death of Eochaid the overkingship was perhaps divided between Muredach of Lorne and an Alpin whom the Irish synchronisms, not very dependably, call a 'son of Eochaid'. If that is true, he was most likely a half-brother of the king who had just died. It has been suggested that Alpin was the man of that name (not very common among the Scots) who had made himself overking of the Picts from 726 to 728 and had then been forced into flight by Oengus.

In 736 Oengus made a determined incursion into territory of the Dál Riata, accompanied by his brother Talorgan. He took Dunadd, and his brother routed an opposing army led by Muredach. Dúngal and his brother Feradach were captured, and Dúngal is not heard of again. It is pleasant to conjecture that Feradach became the father of the Pictish king Ciniod, son of Uuredech, who reigned from 763 to 768.

Little is known about relations of the Dál Riata with the Picts following Oengus's conquest. Iona ceases to be a source of contemporary annal information about 740. The conquest should probably be seen as a chiefly personal one, a matter of tribute and hostages. There is nothing in writing to suggest that Oengus himself assumed the status of a king of the Dál Riata, though some evidence may yet be extracted from rock carvings on Dunadd. There is no record of Muredach, son of Ainfcellach, after 736 until his death in 771, noticed in the seventeenth-century annals of the four masters. Alpin is not mentioned in annals at all, either before or after 736. The first king after Muredach in the original list of the Dál Riata was Aed [Áed] Find (d. 778), said when he died to have reigned for thirty years, so his reign was counted from 748. Before Aed the Latin lists insert a Ewen [Eogan] (d. 763), Muredach's son; perhaps a genuine king of Lorne, he was styled Eugenius VIII by Fordun, who gives 763 as the year of his death. In 750 there is a (probably late) entry in the annals of Ulster which has been variously translated: 'Ebbing of the sovereignty of [Oengus]' (Anderson, Early Sources, 1.240) or 'End of the reign of [Oengus]' (Ann. Ulster, 204–5). It is uncertain how far it relates to the Dál Riata. Welsh sources record a heavy defeat of Picts by Britons in the same year.

Aed was almost certainly a son of the King Eochaid who died in 733. Some texts of the pedigree are corrupt, but the one in the Poppleton manuscript can be accepted as true: 'Aed Find son of Eochaid son of Echu son of Domangart son of Domnall Brecc' (Anderson, Kings and Kingship, 189). He may have been very young when his father died. In 768 there was a battle in Fortriu 'between Aed and Cinaed', that is, Aed Find and Ciniod, son of Uuredech (Feradach), king of Picts. Presumably Aed had invaded Fortriu. He was remembered, however, for more than military success. He had an epithet (in the older version of the Irish synchronisms) Airectech, from airecht, ‘a public assembly’. Nearly a century after his death a body of law, adopted by an assembly of Scots for a united Pictish–Scottish kingdom, was named after him: 'laws of Aed son of Eochaid'.

The union of the Dál Raita with the Picts

Aed was succeeded in 778 by his brother Fergus who died in 781. Each brother is ‘king of Dál Riata’ in the annals. Defects in the sources over the next sixty years make it difficult to establish the sequence of kings with certainty. The following list, especially the dates, should be treated with caution (for further details see Picts, kings of the).

r. 781–c.805, Domnall. He is not mentioned in the annals. The later synchronisms call him 'Constantine's son', which is probably an editorial fiction.

r. 805–7, Conall, son of Tadg. King of Picts until 789, when he was routed by Constantine, son of Fergus, a Pictish rival, he was king of Dál Riata from 805. He was killed in 807 by Conall, son of Aedán, in Kintyre.

r. 807–11, Conall, son of Aedán. He killed Conall, son of Tadg, in 807. His death does not occur in the annals.

r. 811–20, Constantine (or Causantin) [see under Picts, kings of the], son of Fergus (who was son of Eochaid and brother of Aed Find). King of Picts from 789 when he routed Conall, son of Tadg, and king of Dál Riata also from 811, he died in 820, a 'king of Fortriu'.

r. 820–832 or 834, Oengus [see under Picts, kings of the], also a son of Fergus and also styled 'king of Fortriu'. He died in 834, but may have abdicated in 832.

r. 832?–836, Aed, son of Boanta. He was killed in 839, supporting Eoganán, son of Oengus, in battle against 'pagans' (perhaps Danes).

r. 836–9, Eoganán, son of Oengus, king of Picts [see under Picts, kings of the]. He died in 839 with many men of Fortriu, in the conflict with the 'pagans'.

In addition Donncorci (Brown Oats). He died in 791 as 'king of Dál Riata', but is otherwise unexplained.

Constantine was said to have built the church of Dunkeld, and Oengus to have built the church of Kilrymont (St Andrews). Constantine and Eoganán, and perhaps Oengus also, are commemorated in a Northumbrian Liber vitae.

Constantine, his brother Oengus, and his nephew Eoganán are the first certainly to have held both kingships simultaneously. They may have owed their Pictish kingships to dynastic intermarriages. After Eoganán's death in 839 the two kingships apparently separated again. His successor as king of the Dál Riata was his possible cousin Alpin (d. 840), son of Eochaid, son of Aed Find. Alpin is not mentioned in the annals, except later as father of Kenneth (or Cinaed) I, but he has a place in the genealogy of kings of the Scots and the Irish synchronisms.

Alpin has been confused with the eighth-century king of the same name. For medieval users of the Latin lists the confusion was easy. The original Latin list virtually ended at Fergus (d. 781). Its three latest kings (Muredach, Aed Find, and Fergus) became displaced so that they stood before Selbach instead of after; and all the kings after Fergus were dropped. So the list came to end at Alpin son of Eochaid, with a reign of three years (733–6), understood by a later editor or copyist to be Kenneth's father, after whose death 'the kingdom of Scots was transferred to the kingdom of Picts' (Anderson, Early Sources, 1.270).

Kenneth's father seems in fact to have reigned for only one year (839–40). He was said to have been killed in warfare against the Picts, and this may well have been true. The late thirteenth-century chronicle of Huntingdon dates his death exactly on 13 Kal. Aug. (20 July), possibly copied from an early source; but the year, 834, was almost certainly arrived at by counting back reign lengths in a faulty regnal list.

Kenneth I, the son of Alpin, is said by the Scottish chronicle to have become king of the Dál Riata two years before he 'came to Pictavia'. It was perhaps in these two years (840–42) that he arranged to borrow reinforcements from the Airgialla, as noted by the annals of the four masters. Their date, 835, may have been arrived at by the same method as the chronicle of Huntingdon's date for the death of Alpin. Kenneth was king for sixteen years in the east (842–58) and died in Forteviot, in modern Perthshire. For the first six years he was perhaps occupied in eliminating a remnant Pictish kingdom. In 848 or 849 he brought relics of St Columba to Dunkeld.

The name Dál Riata, for land or people, continued in occasional use, but the title king of Dál Riata is not used in the annals of Ulster after the 790s. Kenneth and his brother and sons are each described at their deaths as (rex Pictorum).

Sources

  • A. Boyle, trans., Irish synchronisms (‘Fland's synchronisms’), in ‘The Edinburgh synchronisms of Irish kings’, Celtica, 9 (1971), 169–79
  • K. H. Jackson, ed. and trans., Duan Albanach, SHR, 36 (1957), 125–37
  • Adomnán's ‘Life of Columba’, trans. R. Sharpe (1995)
  • M. Ní Dhonnchadha, ‘The guarantor list of Caín Adomnáin’, Peritia, 1 (1982), 178–215
  • F. Palgrave, ed., Documents and records illustrating the history of Scotland (1837) [incl. Chronicle of Huntingdon]
  • D. N. Dumville, ‘Ireland and North Britain in the earlier middle ages: contexts for Míniugud senchasa fher nAlban’, Rannsachadh na Gàidhlig 2000, ed. C. Ó. Baoill and N. R. McGuire (2002), 185–211
Scottish Historical Review
S. Mac Airt & G. Mac Niocaill, eds., (1983)
Bede, ed. and trans. B. Colgrave & R. A. B. Mynors, OMT (1969); repr. (1991)