In 685 the Battle of Dun Nechtain or Battle of Nechtansmere. The Battle of Dun Nechtain or Battle of Nechtansmere (Scottish Gaelic: Blàr Dhùn Neachdain, Old Irish: Dún Nechtain, Old Welsh: Linn Garan, Old English: Nechtansmere) was fought between the Picts, led by King Bridei Mac Bili [Brude], and the Northumbrians, led by King Ecgfrith on 20 May 685.
The Northumbrian hegemony over Northern Britain, won by Ecgfrith’s predecessors, had begun to disintegrate. Several of Northumbria’s subject nations had rebelled in recent years, leading to a number of large-scale battles against the Picts, Mercians, and Irish, with varied success. Following sieges on neighbouring territories carried out by the Picts, Ecgfrith led his forces against them, despite advice to the contrary, in an effort to reassert his suzerainty over the Pictish nations.
A feigned retreat by the Picts drew the Northumbrians into an ambush at Dun Nechtain near the lake of Linn Garan. The battle site has long been thought to have been near the present-day village of Dunnichen in Angus. Recent research, however, has suggested a more northerly location near Dunachton, on the shores of Loch Insh in Badenoch and Strathspey.
The battle ended with a decisive Pictish victory which severely weakened Northumbria’s power in northern Britain. Ecgfrith was killed in battle, along with the greater part of his army. The Pictish victory marked their independence from Northumbria, who never regained their dominance in the north.
Bede describes Brude as rex potentissimus, ‘a most powerful king’. This means that he was an overking who held lesser kings as clients and from whom he received hostages, tribute-payments and military manpower. His elevated status will have been achieved through aggressive warfare, threats and intimidation, driven by strength of will and ruthless ambition. Overkingship in this period was not hereditary: it did not pass by default to the royal heir but had to be earned through success on the battlefield. Victory in war resulted in easy plunder, the defeat of enemies and the confiscation of their wealth via the receipt of tribute. Some foes were internal ones, and every king had to contend with them – dynastic rivals and competitors – whenever they rose up inside his kingdom. Other enemies hailed from lands beyond the border and included rebellious under-kings as well as challengers from further afield. A ruler who waged successful military campaigns, and who placed enemy territory under tribute, was likely to become the overlord of a wide domain. This was how Brude, Maelchon’s son, increased his power to achieve the status of rex potentissimus.
In warfare and in all other royal ventures, a king of the Early Historic period commanded by personality and reputation. Some consultation with trusted advisers among the secular and religious elites occurred from time to time, but there was no governmental structure in the modern sense. Adomnán speaks of a Pictish senatus or ‘council’ accompanying Brude during Columba’s visit, but these men were senior warriors rather than bureaucrats or administrators. A king in this period ruled alone, using his individual qualities to turn himself into a successful warlord who thus earned respect from friend and foe alike. Brude certainly possessed these qualities and used them to consolidate his hold on the outer fringes of Pictavia, but his enlarged realm was basically a one-man show which could not be bequeathed to an heir. When he died in the early 580s his overlordship of distant provinces and faraway territories died with him.
A measure of Brude’s power is that he held other kings under his sway. An indication of the wide extent of his authority emerges from the Vita Columbae in a story about Cormac, a monk of Iona. Columba told Brude that Cormac and some other Ionan monks wanted to sail away in search of a remote place where they could establish a monastic retreat. Among those present at the royal court was the regulus or ‘under-king’ of Orkney, into whose territorial waters Cormac was likely to venture. This ruler was in a tributary relationship to the Pictish overking, but his continuing loyalty was ensured because members of his family were living at Brude’s court as hostages. Neither Adomnán nor the Irish annals mention Brude warring in Orkney but, at some point during his reign, he subjected the islands to his rule. His authority was therefore not confined to mainland Britain but extended beyond the Pentland Firth to encompass the outer fringe of Pictish territory. There is no doubt that the Orcadians – the inhabitants of Orkney – regarded themselves as Picts. At the Brough of Birsay, a high-status site on the largest island in the group, a carved stone adorned with four Pictish symbols and three spear-bearing warriors once stood in an old graveyard. The stone dates from the seventh or eighth centuries and is therefore later than Brude’s time, but it adds to other archaeological evidence indicating that the Brough of Birsay was an important residence of Orcadian kings. The three warriors on the stone might even represent descendants of the regulus who acknowledged Brude’s authority in the sixth century.
Columba visited Brude at a royal fortress near the mouth of the River Ness. The site is not named in the Vita, but it was clearly some kind of elevated stronghold or hillfort, accessed via a steep path. Many historians identify it as the old fort of Craig Phadraig, which lies close to Inverness on a ridge overlooking the Beauly Firth. Excavations have shown that this was built in the fourth century BC and abandoned in the early centuries AD. Sometime later, in the fifth or sixth century, it was re-occupied as a residence for people of high status. This phase of occupation was the last and was marked by signs of neglect. Despite the discovery of a metalworking mould and other indications of an elite presence, the gradual dereliction and eventual abandonment of the site in the 500s has cast doubt on the theory that this was where Brude met Columba. However, one curious factor in its favour is that the approach to the summit involves a strenuous ascent, which brings to mind Adomnán’s mention of the steep path trodden by the monks. Aside from this anecdotal support the case for Craig Phadraig does not look very convincing, but it is not the only candidate. Two other possible locations for Brude’s fortress have been suggested. One of these is the Castle Hill at Inverness, which stands in a dominant position above an important ford, while another is the hillfort of Torvean. Archaeologists might one day pinpoint the the site of the royal residence more closely but, until such time, its location remains unknown.
The image of Brude holding court beside the River Ness has led to a belief that the core of his domain lay in northern Pictavia. This seems to be supported by Bede’s reference to Columba converting the northern Picts rather than their southern cousins. However, neither Bede nor Adomnán explicitly states that Brude did not also rule south of the Mounth. It was observed that one of the characteristics of Early Historic kingship was an itinerant royal court, which enabled a monarch and his entourage to conduct regular ‘circuits’ of the kingdom, visiting prominent local lords who offered gifts and hospitality. At various prestigious sites scattered around his realm the king presided over rituals and ceremonies where bonds of fealty and clientship were cemented through mutual gift-giving and the renewal of oaths. Brude’s fortress on the River Ness may have been an occasional royal residence of this sort, but there were probably other places of equal status elsewhere in his domains. Some may have lain further south, in Perthshire, but were not necessarily of lesser importance than the northerly stronghold visited by Columba. There is in fact no reason to assume from the testimony of Adomnán that Brude did not hail from southern Pictavia. This was an ideal power-base for ambitious rulers, being an area of prime agricultural land and thus a source of wealth. On the other hand, since the sources associate later Pictish kings with the province of Fortriu, an area now identified with Moray, it may be assumed that this was Brude’s home territory. It is worthwhile to note that the name Brude, borne by a number of kings of Fortriu, may have been especially associated with this area. Maybe Brude himself hailed from Fortriu and was a northern Pict by birth? If so, then his stronghold near the River Ness was probably an ancestral residence, the citadel of his forefathers, as well as being a suitable venue for dealing with sub-kings from Orkney, Caithness and other northerly districts.
How far Brude’s realm extended westward is uncertain. During his reign there was military conflict with Dalriada and pressure by the Scots on Pictish communities in frontier areas. In the far west these areas may have included the Isle of Skye, which was certainly inhabited by Picts at this time. Three stones bearing Pictish symbols have been found on the island, but a significant piece of additional information comes from Adomnán’s story of Columba meeting an old pagan called Artbranan. The latter, described as the leader of the ‘Cohort of Geona’, arrived on Skye in a small boat when the saint was visiting the island. He asked Columba for baptism and, after this was performed, promptly died and was buried on the spot. During the baptism the two men communicated through an interpreter, whose presence indicates that Artbranan spoke a language other than Gaelic. This suggests that he was a Pict from Skye or from some other place not far away. He was the leader of a distinct group, perhaps a warband, and therefore a person of high or aristocratic status. Ultimately, he may have been answerable to Brude or to some other Pictish ruler whose authority included the coastlands around Skye. An alternative possibility is that Artbranan already acknowledged the kings of Cenél nGabráin as his new overlords and felt compelled to show this allegiance by seeking baptism from their spiritual patriarch.
The story of Artbranan contains a few details, but little is really known about the people of Brude’s kingdom. One family of Picts appears briefly in the Vita Columbae as pagans encountered by the saint near Loch Ness. Columba interrupted a journey on foot to make a detour to this family’s residence, which lay within a prosperous agricultural estate at Glen Urquhart. There he baptised an old man called Emchath who lay on the brink of death. Emchath’s son, Virolec, also received baptism, as did other folk of the estate. Emchath and Virolec belonged to a family of high status who ruled a ‘household’ of retainers, tenant-farmers and other dependants. The family’s main residence may have been the Early Historic fort located by archaeologists beneath the ruins of Urquhart Castle at the mouth of the glen.