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Settlement on the Western Seaboard c. AD300-800: Dalriada and North Uist

Ewan J. Innes, MA(Hons Scot. Hist.) FSA Scot

© 1993

Synopsis:  This essay describes the settlement patterns on the western seaboard of Scotland from AD300-800.

Please see my copyright policy if you wish to cite any part of this essay.

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The lack of knowledge in many areas of the history of the western seaboard of Scotland is astounding, yet little effort is made to try and answer some of the fundamental questions that arise in this area. Some periods are slightly better known than others as detailed comparisons with other places have shown similarities in material culture and artifactual style.

One of the key periods in Scottish history however is little known, documented, or studied. This is a period which marks the beginnings of modern Scotland and the introduction of a new people into the geographical area of Scotland. A new people who were ultimately to give their name to that geographical area and who were to found the modern nation of Scotland. It is this period from c. AD 300-800 that I will be looking at.

Who were these people, why did they settle here and, more importantly, how can we identify and evaluate their settlements? It is these questions and others which I will be trying to answer in this dissertation. I will be using information from a site of acute archaeological importance in the Western Isles and trying to link it with the little archaeological information known from the 'heartland' of Dalriada to try to see what conclusions we can make -if any- about the Scots as a nation their culture and settlement patterns.

The date of AD 300 is not as arbitrary a starting point as it sounds. It was chosen because in 297 complaints were made of attacks on the fortified Roman frontier by two peoples the "Picti" and the "Scotti". Two peoples who were to be heavily involved both with each other and ultimately in forming the kingdom of Scotland.

The links between the two peoples were significant. Gildas wrote c. 450 of "foul hordes of Scots and Picts" when detailing the Roman evacuation of Britain the century before. The Scotti seem to have become allies of the Picts at an early stage and the seaborne attacks mounted on the Roman province to the south caused havoc and led to changes in Roman strategy. By 367 the Scots and the Picts were part of the Barbarian conspiracy which led to the overrunning of Hadrian's wall.

It is more than likely that this involvement of the Scotti in affairs outside their territory led to the settling of some Scots in Scotland after all, they could see Kintyre from Antrim and would no doubt have some idea what the geography across the water was.

Across Europe in this period there was a great wave of migrations of tribes and peoples, it seems only logical therefore, to expect evidence of this in relation to the Scots. It is possible that the evidence from North Uist to be outlined here may indeed represent an outpost of such a wave early in the 4th century.

The Scots of Dalriada were originally from Ireland, from an area along the Antrim coast and part of the province of Ulster (now counties Antrim and Down). The originator of the political territory of the Dál Riata in Scotland was Fergus Mór mac Eirc who arrived in Kintyre c. 500.

When Fergus Mór removed from Ireland to Scotland, there was no sundering of ties or relinquishing of authority between the two sections; and this continued to be the case under Fergus Mór's successors. Evidence for the continued rule of Dál Riata in Ireland by the Scottish branch is found at the Convention of Druim Cett. This was convened c. 575 to discuss the future relations and status of the Irish Dál Riata between Aed, son of Ainmire (d. 598) the leader of the Northern Uí Néill -the most powerful people in the north of Ireland at the time- and Aedán mac Gabráin king of Dál Riata in Scotland (d. c. 608).

The accounts of the convention, show that the status of the Scottish dynasty was more or less confirmed in its existing form. The right to levy taxes and tribute went to Aedán, while the right to raise the armed forces of Dál Riata in Ireland went to Aed, as overlord of Ireland. Essentially this meant that while Aedán and his successors could maintain their authority over the Dál Riata in Ireland, they had control of the government of the territory.

Involvement of the Scottish dynasty in Ireland was bound up with conflict between themselves, and the other two groups who shared Ulster with them. The Dál Fiatach (often known as the Ulaid)1 on the Down coast, and the Dál nAraide or Cruithne in the interior.2 The province of Ulster was ruled in turn by the Dál Fiatach and the Dál nAraide, and conflict between the two groups appears to have been common. The Dál nAraide and the Dál Riata became close and possibly went into an alliance with each other at least from the end of the sixth century.

Involvement of the Scottish Dál Riata in Northern Ireland came to a shattering end at the battle of Magh Rath. Domhnall Brecc brought the kings of Scottish Dál Riata into conflict with the kin of the abbots of Iona by backing his ally and possibly nephew, Congal king of the Dál nAraide and Ulster against the Uí Néill highking, Domhnall son of Aed mac Ainmerech.

The annals do not mention the Irish Dál Riata acting independently at all until after Magh Rath in 637. From this time, Scotland and Ireland began to go their separate ways, and it is possible that the Scottish dynasty forsook their claims to territory in Ireland.

The period after Domhnall Brecc's death in 642 at the hands of Owen king of Strathclyde, marked the beginnings of a decline of Dalriada and also Iona. Iona suffered a setback of huge proportions at the Synod of Whitby over the date of Easter and the tonsure. It was the political setback over control of the fledgling English church that was to cause the most harm to Iona. About 661 the seventh Abbot of Iona, wrote that Dalriada was being held down by "strangers", strangers who belonged to one or other of the four groups struggling for political hegemony at the time.

Kingship in Dalriada followed the Irish system with a rí ruirech, 'king of overkings', with two further grades below this, the ruirí or 'great king' and the basic level of the king of a tribe or petty kingdom, the rí. When the Scots arrived, they were divided into three kindred groups each with its own rí and territory. The Cenél Óengusa ('kindred of Óengus') occupied Islay. The Cenél Loairn ('kindred of Loarn') held Colonsay as well as present day Lorn and looked on the northern march with the Picts. And the Cenél nGabráin ('kindred of Gabran'), held Kintyre, Cowal, Bute and Arran and also the overlordship of the Scots.

The organisation of these groups for fiscal and military purposes detailed in the Senchus fer nAlban gives us a very important view of how their society was organised. The Cenél nGabráin enjoyed the overlordship of Dalriada for the sixth and much of the seventh century. and there is little doubt their status was enhanced by the ordination of Aedán mac Gabráin as overking of Dalriada by Columba in 573.

By the end of the seventh century the military failures that had befallen the Cenél nGabráin allowed a fourth kindred to emerge: the Cenél Comgaill, while they themselves were replaced as kings of Dalriada by the Cenél Loairn. This sudden rise to power of the Cenél Loairn was eclipsed less than a hundred years later by the rise of Pictish power in the east and the 'smiting of Dalriada' in 741. Yet, a century after this a king of the Cenél Loairn would become king of the Picts and unite the two nations into one, Alba.

Having laid out a brief outline of the history of Dalriada, what information can be gathered for settlement within that region and to what extent can it be juxtaposed in other areas? Let us first look at three sites from Mid-Argyll, which had, seemingly, by the late seventh century become part of the territory of the Cenél Loairn. We will then turn to look at a site of premier importance in Scottish settlement history, to see what we can gain in terms of useful comparison. We will then turn to look at a few settlement sites outside the Mid-Argyll area but important for giving a true picture of the settlement patterns of the Dalriadic Scots.

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