Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Artúr mac Áedáin of Dál Riata and his time

by Marco Mazzi

When we speak of "Dark Ages", we refer to those centuries (5th - 9th) of which we have scarce and often unreliable historical sources. But the lack of information doesn't necessarily mean they were uncivilized times or that important events didn't take place. On the contrary, recent archeological and historiographic research tells us that those were times "of dynamic development, cultural creativity, and long-distance networking", as Professor Peter S. Wells points out.


Detail from the Sarcophagus, Govan Old Parish Church. Public domain

The land we today call Scotland experienced in the 6th century a most unique period in its history: the events of the following three hundred years would have unfolded from what happened in the 6th century.

At that time, southern Scotland was inhabited by the Celtic Britons, while in northern Scotland lived the mysterious ancient Picts. On the southeastern shores, the Angles, one of the Germanic peoples coming from the European continent, were slowly settling into those which for them were relatively new lands. On the northwestern coastal region lived the so-called Scots (but that is not what they used to call themselves) whose kingdom, Dál Riata, had linguistic and social connections to the Irish Gaels of Ireland, while it is still debated whether or not the Dalradians (or Scots) had Irish origin.

All of these very different peoples lived in a semi-tribal society, where many clans joined to form petty kingdoms led by a high chieftain or king. The relations between neighboring populations (Britons, Dalradians/Scots, Picts, even Angles) ranged from war, to competition, to mixed marriages in order to forge political alliances. Some of these petty kingdoms, in particular Dál Riata, held commercial relations not only in the region, but also with distant countries on the European continent, through seafaring networking. Recent discoveries have shown that Dál Riata was a kingdom based on the trade of luxury goods, including gold and silver, worked by the Dalradian smiths.

In this scenario, during the 6th century Christianity appeared as a major game changer. Celtic Britons in the south of Scotland had previously known the Christian religion, but the definitive withdrawal of the Roman legions from Britain, in the 5th century, had caused the abandonment of Christian beliefs and a revival of the ancestral religion and society of the druids. Now, in the 6th century, Christian missionaries from Ireland brought back Christianity to Scotland, this time for good. A main actor in this missionary work was Saint Columba, whose abbey on the island of Iona, in Dál Riata, became a hub of evangelization for all of northern Britain.

A representation of what the Spike Island monastery may have included. 
 The Wooden Church, Devenish, Co Fermanagh.  An example of a waterside 6th century Irish monastery.  Stone buildings and churches were very rare in 7th century Ireland.

An example of a 6th century Gaelic monastery, as it may have been the Abbey of Iona in its early years.

Artistic drawing by Philip Armstrong

In the last quarter of the 6th century, the most powerful ruler in this region was King Áedán mac Gabráin of Dál Riata.

None of the sources for his life are contemporary: the earliest, Life of Columba (Vita Columbae) was written at the end of the 7th century by an abbot of Iona, Adomnán, who, according to some scholars such as James E. Fraser, draw extensively from an existing body of accounts, all subsequent King Áedán's death by some decades, anyways. All the other sources were written centuries later.

Furthermore, none of these sources are historically reliable. Some of them are hagiographies, some are poems and literary tales, or inconsistent lists of kings compiled hundreds of years later, based mostly on oral accounts. Modern historians had to compare all the different sources and select the more credible information, discarding the implausible details.

Needless to say, the paucity of the historical record makes treating the biographies of Áedán mac Gabráin and his contemporaries extremely difficult.

Nonetheless, historians can identify some facts amongst the many gaps in the records.

Proceeding with selective research, for example, we came to know the existence of a very peculiar character who lived in Scotland in the second half of the 6th century. His name was Artúr mac Áedáin, son of the above-mentioned King Áedán of Dál Riata.

Artúr of Dál Riata is mentioned in three sources: the already mentioned Life of Columba (7th century); the genealogical section of The History of the Men of Scotland (Senchus fer n-Alban), which is believed to have been originally compiled between the 7th and the 10th century; and the Annals of Tigernach (Annála Tiarnaigh), chronicles dating between the 11th and the 12th centuries.

In the Senchus fer n-Alban his name is actually recorded apparently as Áedán's grandson (but as already mentioned, the list shows some inconsistencies). In the Life of Columba, anyways, which dates only a few decades after Áedán's death, Artúr is part of a story which clearly describes him as Áedán's oldest son, and how he predeceased his father.

The bardic poem Y Gododdin, believed to have been transmitted from oral poetry dating from the 7th century (but the oldest manuscript is dated from the 13th century, most probably copied from earlier versions), honoured the memory of a great and famous warrior named Artúr, though there isn't any evidence which links that name to Artúr mac Áedáin, besides the fact that the events celebrated in Y Gododdin are set in the same region where Artúr lived and only a few years after his death: the poem consists of a series of elegies to the men of the Brittonic Kingdom of Gododdin and its allies who, according to the conventional interpretation, died fighting the Angles at a place named Catraeth around the year 600.

Cross checking the references found in all the different sources, we can draw a possible picture of the historical Artúr of Dál Riata. And it turns out that through the mist of the "Dark Ages", we can glimpse a very unique character.

As is often the case when it comes to the sources on the "Dark Ages", we don't have any date related to Artúr of Dál Riata. We can infer the range of his lifetime indirectly, from references contained in some sources. So, presumably he was born around the 550s and died in battle around the 580s or 590s.

His name is Brittonic, even if he was born into a Gaelic clan of Dál Riata. The reason for that is that his mother, Áedán's first wife, is indirectly recorded as a Briton woman. In the hagiography Acta Sancti Laisriani, written in Latin centuries later, it's mentioned as Áedán's daughter, Gemma or Maithgemma (also a Brittonic name), niece of a Briton king: meaning that Áedán's wife was sister to that Briton king. It's not possible to be sure if this hagiography contains some seeds of historical truth, but Maithgemma and Artur are both Brittonic names. Additionally, several Welsh works in the following centuries claim a Brittonic pedigree for Áedán. His own mother is recorded as a Briton high-ranking woman, daughter of Dumnagual Hen ("Dyfnwal the Old"), a 6th century king of the neighbouring Brittonic Kingdom of Alt Clut (later known as Strathclyde, in the area of the modern Glasgow). Though these pedigrees are inconsistent and likely dubious, they are notable in highlighting Áedán's close association with the Britons.

Thus, it appears that Artúr was probably three-quarters Briton, closely related by blood to the Briton rulers of the neighbouring Kingdom of Alt Clut, which stretched in the territory between Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall, in southern Scotland. The Briton king mentioned in the Acta Sancti Laisriani could have been the famous Riderch Hael ("Rhydderch the Generous") of Alt Clut, contemporary of Áedán and Artúr, who reigned between the last quarter of the 6th century and the beginning of the 7th century. Riderch Hael joined an alliance with another important Briton king, Urbgen of Rheged, whose figure later merged into the Welsh legends as Urien Pendragon.

The meaning of the word "king" when referring to that society is somewhat different than what we would usually expect. It indicates a figure who ruled a confederation of clans as their high chieftain. The Brittonic word was guletic, which means "land-holder". The kingdoms ruled by those petty kings were not organised states, but rather territories under their influence, without defined borders. When a so-called-king became powerful enough, he usually tried to submit the neighbouring territories to his influence, and that led to bloody wars which often led to a shift in the powers of the region. One more aspect to take into consideration is that the armies were much smaller than what they would become many centuries later. Usually they consisted of just a few dozen men, so the correct term would be "warbands", rather than "armies". Only in rare circumstances, a confederation of different warbands from allied kingdoms would reach maybe a (very) few hundred men.

Artúr of Dál Riata was in his teenage years when the battle of Arfderydd was fought in southern Scotland (almost 200 miles away to the south from Dál Riata), which supposedly happened in the year 573 according to the 10th century chronicles Annales Cambriae; an alliance of Christian Briton leaders defeated a pagan Briton ruler, Gwenddoleu, and his retinue. It was possibly a defeat of the ancient druids' supporters, which set off the definitive predominance of Christianity in the region, at least in the Brittonic territories. Some sources, though not all of them, report that Artúr's uncle (if we want to consider believable the kinship reference in the Acta Sancti Laisriani) Rhydderch Hael was among the leaders fighting on the winning side. According to Old Welsh sources (hundreds of years subsequent to the event), Gwenddoleu's bard, named Lailoken, escaped from the battle and went insane wandering in the forests of the territories of Alt Clut. These semi-unhistorical sources tell how Lailoken became a madman with prophetic abilities and became known as Myrddin Wyllt ("Myrddin the Wild"), eventually getting in contact with Rhydderch Hael, to whom he predicted the future. The figure of Myrddin Wyllt will develop much later, through several versions, into the character of Merlin the wizard belonging to the Arthurian legends.

One year after the battle of Arfderydd, Artúr's father was ordained as King of Dál Riata by the hands of Saint Columba himself. It's the first known example in all Britain and Ireland of a king anointed by a Christian priest, and that is another sign of the spread of Christianity not only among the Britons, but among the Scots too.

As the oldest son of the Dalradian king, and at the same time as a nephew of the ruler of one of the most important Celtic Brittonic kingdoms, Artúr of Dál Riata was in a position of power from a young age.

Historian Michael D. Wood and others take into consideration some references in semi-historical sources, whose reliability cannot be confirmed: according to those sources, at some point Áedán mac Gabráin, more and more involved in the Christian transformation of his kingdom under the influence of Columba of Iona, provisionally retreated to a religious life and gave his son Artúr the supreme command of the Dalradian forces, making him the de facto leader of Dál Riata.

It would be Artúr, then, who led the Scots in several battles mainly against the Picts. Under this hypothesis, in his position as leader and considering that he was three-quarters Briton, Artúr would have probably had to deal with the Briton rulers active at that time at the southern borders of Dál Riata, especially with his uncle Rhydderch Hael and his allies, including Urien Pendragon. That epithet, Pendragon, with the meaning of "Highest Commander", was traditionally linked to Urien of Rheged probably because around the year 590 he was at the head of a Brittonic coalition in their first recorded war against the Angles of Bernicia, as is recounted in the Historia Brittonum, a semi-historical account dated from the 10th century. In that war Urien died, betrayed by a conspiracy of a Briton leader jealous of his power, and his figure was consigned to legend.

Artúr was not involved in that coalition, mainly because he was a leader of a Gaelic kingdom, adversary of the Brittonic kingdoms, but also because in the same period he was busy with his own battles at the Pictish borders.

According to some pedigrees, Áedán of Dál Riata claimed as his own territory an area between the Brittonic Kingdom of Gododdin (centered maybe around the modern city of Edinburgh) and the region called Manau, in the southern Pictish territories. His claims derived from matrilineal line, since his mother was a daughter of a Briton king of Alt Clut (Strathclyde). That's the reason why his son Artúr was active as military leader in that region.

The Miathi, as they are mentioned in Vita Columbae, were a population living in that area. Probably they are to be identified with the Southern Picts, but their identity might be traced back from the ancient Maeatae, a confederation of tribes that rebelled against the occupying Roman legions in the 3rd century.

It was against the Miathi that Artúr fought his last battle. It's not clear when, but around the 580s or the 590s. According to Vita Columbae, in that terrible battle two of Áedán's sons, Artúr and Eochaid Find, lost their lives, though at the end the Dalradian forces defeated the Miathi.

After the tragic "battle of the Miathi", Áedán mac Gabráin came back to the throne of Dál Riata, even though he was already in his fifties or even in his sixties, and he led the Scots maybe until around the time of his death in 609. Or he may have been deposed or have abdicated following his defeat around the year 603 at the battle of Degsastan, recorded also by Bede in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. The victor of that battle was the Angle king Æthelfrith of Bernicia, the first unifier of the territories which will come to form the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria.

As for Artúr, we don't know if he was buried after the battle of the Miathi or what was his body's fate. But most probably his fame as a great warrior and leader outlived him. We have cited already the Old/Middle Welsh poem Y Gododdin and in particular the stanza in which is mentioned a warrior named Artur in passing, as a paragon of incomparable bravery. There's no evidence about who it could be that mentioned Artur, but considering that the stanza might date back to a few decades after the battle and that the poem is set in the same region as the battle of the Miathi, it could plausibly be a reference to Artúr mac Áedáin of Dál Riata.

It is a common view among historians that the earliest bardic poetry in the Old Welsh language of which we are in possession originated in the Brittonic lands of southern Scotland in the 6th and the 7th centuries and recounts the deeds of heroes belonging to that region's folklore.

If that is so, could it be possible that some of the feats of the commander Artúr became part of the Welsh legends? It is very possible, even if most of it was lost and what survives to our days was just a part of it. Actually, some of Artúr's contemporaries are an important part of those legends: figures such as Urien Pendragon and Myrddin/Merlin are legendary characters whose identities are rooted in real people who lived in the 6th century.

It's not the purpose of this article to prove anything, just to suggest with how much interest our popular imagination plunges into historical events that have been embellished and dramatically changed in the legendary accounts.

Sources include:

- Clarkson, Tim. THE MEN OF THE NORTH. The Britons of Southern Scotland. 2010, Birlinn Ltd.

- Wells, Peter S. BARBARIAN TO ANGELS. The Dark Ages Reconsidered. 2008, W. W. Norton.

- Wood, Michael D. IN SEARCH OF MYTHS AND HEROES. 2007, University of California Press.

- Adomnán of Iona. THE LIFE OF SAINT COLUMBA. As Told by Saint Adomnán (edited with an introduction by Phillip Campbell). 2021, Cruachan Hill Press.

- Bede. AN ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH PEOPLE (edited by B. Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors). 1992, Oxford: Clarendon Press.


An avid reader, Marco Mazzi has cultivated his passion for writing articles on different subjects for years, from history to modern society to sport. Marco has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mass Communication, besides a Musical Arts degree in Viola, which led him to the profession of classical musician. He has always been a history buff, and he has written several historical articles. He currently lives in South Africa, and he is a Lecturer at UKZN University. CHRONICLES OF ALBION is available HERE.