I'm writing a novel about Cinaed mac Ailpin, the 9th century King of Pictavia (which was to become Scotland). This is a space for recording nuggets of research. Please feel welcome to get involved in the comments. I'm over on twitter too @GUGAW

Sunday, 11 January 2015

SKETCHING A MAP OF 9TH CENTURY SCOTLAND

My portal to 858AD
I've spent today trying to translate a bunch of maps from Tim Clarkson's book 'The Picts: A History' into one large map I can keep near me as I plot my trail across 9th century Scotland.  I've drawn it freehand so it's a little...sketchy...some areas thicker, some thinner, but it looks vaguely like the Scottish coastline if you can forgive the land masses I may have accidentally lopped off.

Next step is to plot out the key forts, ecclesiastical sites and battlegrounds. I've already begun to pencil these in.  Then comes mountain ranges, lochs and natural 'fortifications'.  After that, and this will be mostly down to imagination, I want to try and plot the movements of key families and cenela (Gaelic for 'tribes' or 'peoples') across the landscape throughout the 9th century and up to my 'present day' of 858 AD.  You see that little cluster of white squares, just in front of the succulents, over to the right hand side?  So that is the most basic game of  'Warhammer' you will ever see.  Small hand ripped and hand drawn squares with family names, recorded Kings, characters I've imagined into being, viking boats, battles and allegiances. But I've never played Warhammer.  I'm no military strategist.  Yet I will foolishly attempt to recreate (if only in my imagination) what could have happened to my characters.  I'm especially interested in the Battle of 839AD (see more here) as this seems to be a key turning point in the fortunes of Cinaed mac Ailpin.  Will update on my progress for critique from those who know more.






Saturday, 10 January 2015

WITCHES AND WICKED BODIES

I scooted out to the British Museum to take a browse through the Witches and Wicked Bodies gallery before it finishes this weekend.  A portrayal of witches and witchcraft examined through art from the late 1400's through to the 1900's.  

Wild hair, bare breasts. Seduced men, demonic beasts. Fierce winds and malevolent intentions.

I took some photos of the images I found most striking, those which touched me.  When I zoomed into the images to interrogate the details all sorts of faces emerged in the etchings and drawings.  These are relatively small images, say A4-A3 size, so seeing these details would mean getting your face close to images and being absorbed in the intensity of the scenes.  Five images and detailed close ups below with descriptions from the British Museum.

Witches Sabbath

Witches Sabbath, Hans Baldung,  1510.  Colour woodcut from two blocks, the tone block in orange-brown
"The artist and printmaker Hans Baldung was Durer's most successful pupil.  This print is one of the most dramatic witch images ever produced.  It shows an obsession with the malevolence of female sexuality, a subject with Baldung specialised.  It is likely that he found a ready market for such subjects in the affluent city of Strasbourg where he lived and worked.  The violent Witches' Hammer, written by Dominican inquisitors Kramer and Sprenger was first published in this city in 1487; by 1520 it had been reprinted fourteen times."




Design for a poster for Macbeth

Design for a poster for Macbeth, Edmund Dulac, 1911.  Watercolour and gum on paper
"Macbeth, his arms folded, challenges the three witches as they cast their spells from a steaming cauldron hidden below a rocky ledge on the 'blasted heath'.  Duluc designed this poster for a production of Shakespeare's play by Granville Barker in London in 1911.  Born and brought up in France, Dulac came to London in 1905 where he worked as an illustrator, designer and caricaturist.  Dulac's dark, sombre tones and use of Celtic lettering are in keeping with the period and mood of the tragic drama."




Landscape with Macbeth and Banquo

Landscape with Macbeth and Banquo, William Woollett after Francesco Zuccarelli, 1770, Etching
"Macbeth and Banquo are surrounded by windswept trees, in Scottish dress and armour, one leaning on his sword, the other gesturing outward with both arms, addressing the three witches.  The frightened horses on the right and a blast of lightning over a castle in the background emphasise this dramatic episode at the beginning of Shakespeare's play.  The landscape paintings of the Italian artist, Zuccarelli, were much sought after by the British collectors"
Note the chap running away in the background and what looks like a face within the tree. 




The Witch

The Witch, Richard Earlom after David Teniers the Younger, 1786, Mezzotint
"The witch with her upraised sword and stolen loot in basket and apron is Mad Meg (Dulle Griet) a Bruegelian hag so avaricious that she would even rob from hell.  Hades is indicated here by the triple-headed Cerebus at the mouth of a gloomy cave and the cowering demons include a horse-skull monster being ridden by an owl-headed devil.  The painting, now in a private collection and sometimes attributed to a follower of Teniers, David Ryckaert III, was formerly in the collection of Sir Joseph Reynolds.  He lent it to an exhibition under the title 'The witch coming out of hell'.  Reynolds made inferences to Teniers as a significant artist in his Discourses to the Royal Academy.  The majority of prints after Teniers' multiple scenes of witchcraft were made in the eighteenth century, witness to the continuing popularity of ghoulish spectacle long after the suppression of witch hunts and trials." 




The Sorceress

The Sorceress, Jan van de Velde II, 1626, Etching and engraving
"The hair of the witch standing within a magic circle wearing classical dress is swept forward by an evil wind, while she pours a stream of powder out of a horn with one hand and waves a wand with the other.  The parabolas of smoke arising from a burning house on the right reveal the influence of contemporary German artist Adam Elsheimer who loved to paint eerily-lit midnight pictures.  The main curves of smoke, however, stem from the twin pipes stuck in the bottom of an upside-down demon, and this makes a humorous reference to topical diatribes against the evils of smoking in the Netherlands.  James I of England (who as James VI of Scotland had been so strongly against witchcraft) also wrote a Counterblaste to Tobacco, 1604 whre he detailed the 'betwitching' and lust-enducing qualities of the vile and 'filthie custome'.  Every foul demon in this fire-lit print is smoking a pipe or drinking lustfully and the burlesque conflation of the heretical spectacle with social customs of the time adds a particularly Netherlandish flavour.  In spite of the fascination of artists with occult subjects, fewer witch trials took place in the Low Countries than the rest of Europe." 



Tuesday, 30 December 2014

LOOK AFTER THE PACK AND THE PACK WILL LOOK AFTER YOU

There is a gorgeous program on iPlayer at the moment - Snow Wolf Family and Me - shot and narrated by Gordon Buchanan.  I enjoyed his observation on the wolf families co-operative rather than competitive behaviour:
"Look after the pack and the pack will look after you"


These beautiful animals seem to be a key feature in the fianna folklore and have also been carved into stones, notably the Ardross Wolf and the Rosemarkie and Westness sculpted stones (although are the carvings lions or wolves?).

Ardross Wolf via here

Sunday, 28 December 2014

WAS THE 1ST KING OF SCOTLAND A PICT OR A GAEL?

I've been trying to work out if the infamous Kenneth MacAlpin, the 1st King of Scotland who united the Pictish people and the Gaels, was himself a Pict...or a Gael.

I care about this because my protagonist is alive in Scotland in 858AD.  Cinaed mac Ailpin, aka Kenneth MacAlpin the 'First King of Scotland', is coming towards the end of his reign.  Cinaed is hailed as uniting the Gaelic speaking Scots of Dal Riata in the west of Scotland and the Picts in the East.  But 'first King of Scotland' seems to have been a title given to him by latter history rather than representative of what was happening then.  Contemporary sources do however call him King of the Picts.

Cinaed Mac Ailpin of the mighty moustache and fancy braids (that's him with the big sword and hip axe)

So, was King Cinaed a Gael who conquered the Picts, a Pict who succeeded to the throne, or a bit of both?  It's important to me that I try to unpick this so I can attempt to represent the tensions happening across the different peoples and hopefully get a sense of who is allied with who.  Those tensions are pretty central to my story!

It's very tricky though. Trying to unpick the order of Kings in 9th century Scotland is like one of those logic puzzles where you piece one bit of information to a hoard of clues, cross out something that can no longer fit and then a clue turns up that throws it all up in the air.  I'm still not sure I've figured it out yet...but here's my first effort.

I'm not a historian, just someone who likes historical research, so I apologise in advance for the inevitable errors and look forward to any help in making corrections!  If you can help clarify anything below, even if it's to give a thumbs up that it matches your understanding, I'd be hugely grateful.

Right, let's start with what I can glean from Alex Woolf's book 'From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070'.



839AD is a good place to start.  Because in the year 839 there is an epic battle in which the power of Scottish rule began to shift and Cinaed mac Ailpin (aka Kenneth MacAlpin) rose up in the vaccuum.

First, a map, just so we know roughly where we are talking about.  See Dal Riata on the left and Pictavia on the right.


The Epic Battle of 839AD 

I haven't yet come across a name for this battle so let's call 'The Epic Battle of 839' for sake of reference. Woolf describes it as:
...one of the most decisive and important battles in British history (pg 66)
The Vikings (heathens) battled the men of Fortriu (the Picts) killing the Pictish King and his brother. The Dal Riatan King was also killed, and many more were slaughtered in the battle. The Annals of Ulster record the battle as follows:

839.9 The heathens won a battle over the men of Fortriu and Wen son of Onuist and Bran son of Onuist and Aed son of Boanta and others almost innumerable fell there.
The words ‘others almost innumerable fell there’ makes me feel sad. I can’t help but think this battle must have haunted the memories of the Pictish and Dal Riatan people, lamented in songs which never made it through the passage of time.  That a vast number of people died in the battle suggests that this was not a Viking raid but a culmination of a campaign in which Wen gathered together his forces (pg 66).

So who were these dead Kings?

Let’s first look at Wen, who died with his brother Bran in battle.

King Wen, son of Onuist, King of the Picts

Here’s King Wen.

Not actually King Wen of the Picts but let's pretend he is.
Clearly, this isn’t what Wen actually looked like, just some random bearded bloke I’ve found on the internet. But with so many names, it helps me get my head around it if I imagine them with faces! It also amuses me to imagine these ancient kings as handsome hipsters (hey, it worked for Peter Jackson…). I hope I’m not offending and you can still take me seriously…and these dudes have already died come the time of my setting.  This is my backstory.

What do we know about Wen, King of Fortriu, King of the Picts, who died in the Epic Battle of 839?
  • He reigned for 2–3 years, around 836/837–839 (pg 66)
  • Aka Eoganan son of Oengus* (gaelicised version of his name)(pg 61)
  • Wen is descendent of the Dynasty of Wrguist, a powerful family that had dominated Pictavia for at least 50 years (789–839). Wrguist was his grandfather. His uncle, King Constantin ruled for 30 (!) years and may have founded Dunkeld — the chief church of Columba (Columba is the apostle of Fortriu).
  • Wen’s father, Onuist, went on to rule for another 14 years after Constantin[pg65–66]. On Onuist’s death in 834 his nephew Drest son of Constantin (Wen’s cousin) co-ruled Pictavia with a chap called Talorcan son of Wthoil. Then Wen took the throne around 836 or 837 and reigned for 2 years before dying in the Epic Battle.
  • *(or maybe Wen reigned for 13 years….I’m struggling to unpick this one. Woolf on pg 66 describes Wen as being Eognanan of the Scottish lists…which puts Eognanan’s reign from 826–839. Where have I got confused?)
However long King Wen’s reign, it’s clear that he was a member of a very powerful family, a family who ruled the Picts and the Dal Riatans. A king who could call the Dal Riatan King Aed to his side to support him in battle (which suggests that Pictish King Wen was over-king of the Dal Riatan’s). So what happened when he and his brother Bran died? Who took the throne next? Before we unpick that, let’s look a bit more at Aed, King of Dal Riata at the time of the epic battle.

King Aed, son of Boanta, King of Dal Riata

Let's pretend this Aed mac Boanta, King of Dal Riata
What do we know about Aed son of Boanta, King of Dal Riata?
  • He reigned from 835–839 (pg 63)
  • He was probably a vassal to King Wen, the Pictish King (hence joining the Epic Battle of 839)
  • Before King Aed, Dal Riata was ruled by Constantin’s son Domnall — a Pictish prince (Domnall’s father was Constantin of the Wrguist dynasty above). The occupation of Dal Riata seemed to begin in 811 [pg 98], with Domnall reigning as King of Dal Riata for 24 years (811–835) under the control of his father and then uncle, Onuist. Which makes Prince Domnall the cousin of Pictish King Wen…(I’m using Woolf’s Dal Riatan King List on pg 64 for this).
So, was King Aed of the Dal Riatan’s Pictish or a Gael? I’m not sure, there could be 2 scenarios here. 
  1.  Given that King Wen of the Pictish Wrguist dynasty was the over-King, and the previous King of Dal Riata was a Pictish prince in occupied Dal Riata, King Aed could be Pictish royalty of the Wrguist dynasty.  But, if Aed was a Pict...would that mean Wen is the first King of united Scotland rather than the MacAlpin family?  ok, scenario 2...
  2. King Aed is a Scot and rules over Dal Riata as vassal to King Wen.  

I'm going to go with scenario 2 until I come across something else that makes me think differently.

What happened when the Pictish and Dal Riatan Kings died in 839?

Right, so the situation is that the Picts have just suffered a *horrific* loss to the Vikings. The Pictish and Dal Riatan Kings are dead. So to is the Pictish King’s brother and a lot of important Lords. That seems like a pretty big power vacuum? The Wrguist empire might be beginning to crumble…so what happened next?

King Wen is dead. Who is the next King of the Picts?

This is Wrad.  With his 3 sons he will attempt to rule Pictavia for
the next 9ish years.  They all die trying.

On King Wen’s death, a chap called Wrad rises up and takes the Pictish throne. He’ll rule Pictavia for the next 3 years, and his 3 sons — Bred, Kyneth and Drest/Drust, will attempt to rule for the 6 years after his death.

The Pictish king list below is taken from a combination of the Poppleton manuscript and Lebor Bretnach manuscript. It suggests Cinaed (that’s the King I’m trying to work out whether he’s a Gael or a Pict) became King of Pictavia soon after Wrad, with a very short rule between Wrad and Cinaed from a chap called Bred (pg93).
  1. King Wen of the Wrguist dynasty dies in 839
  2. Wrad son of Bargoit (aka Ferat son of Barot) reigns for 3 years (839–841ish)
  3. Bred (not sure whose son) reigns for 1 year (842?)
  4. Cinaed son Ailpin reigns for 16 years (842–858)
Another set of lists (pg 97) suggests that Cinaed’s rule in Pictavia was disputed and didn’t actually start in 842, listing other Kings after Bred. It also gives Bred a patronym - ‘son of Ferat’ - aka son of Wrad. If taken at face value the list looks a bit more like the below, with Wrad and his son's wrestling to keep the throne between 839-ish and 847-ish (pg97–98).

  1. King Wen of the Wrguist dynasty dies in 839
  2. Wrad son of Bargoit (aka Ferat son of Barot) reigns for 3 years (839–841ish) 
  3. Bred son of Wrad 
  4. Kyneth son of Wrad 
  5. Brude son of Fochal
  6. Drust/Drest son of Wrad 
  7. Cinaed son Ailpin reigns from 847ish - 858

King Wrad may have had a royal hall at Miegle (Perthshire) which was almost certainly an important church settlement. Cinaed’s eventual victory over the Wrad Family may have been one in which Dal Riata and Fortriu were allied against the people of the Tay Basin (pg 101).

Who is King of Dal Riata after King Aed dies in battle?

King Cinaed
The Chronicles of the Kings of Alba (CKA) records that Cinaed mac Ailpin…
‘two years before he came to Pictavia, assumed the kingship of Dal Riata’ (pg95)
If Cinaed ruled Pictavia from 842, and Dal Riata from about 2 years previous, this could take us back to 839. So my King, King Cinaed, may have succeeded directly following the death of King Aed. As with the the Dal Riatan Kings before him, Cinaed may have ruled Dal Riata under Pictish control. (pg96).

Neither Cinaed, nor his father’s name Alpin are diagnostically Gaelic or Pictish (pg97). So at this point I’m still not clear whether King Cinaed was a Gael, risen up to reclaim the Dal Riatan throne from the Picts, or ruling Dal Riata under Pictish control, which I presume would be vassal to King Wrad above.

Can looking at later Kings of Pictavia help unpick whether Cinaed was originally a Pict or a Gael?


Maybe it would help to look at what happened after Cinaed died and his brother, Domnall mac Ailpin, took the throne? The entry in the CKA says:
Duuenaldus (Domnall)…held the kingdom iiii years. In his time the rights and laws of the kingdom, of Aed son of Eochaid, were made by the Gaels with their King at Forteviot.
The bit that Alex Woolf (author of the book I’m gleaning all this from) finds interesting is that if Cinaed had led a Scottish conquest of the Picts one would assume that King of the Gaels would be Domnall himself…but the text seems to imply that King of the Gaels is someone other than Domnall? Woolf doesn’t think this is remarkable, even if Cinaed had been King of Dal Riata as well as king of the Picts that doesn’t mean Domnall succeeded to both kingships. It could have gone to another brother of Cinaed, or cousin, or descendent of a previous Dal Riatan King (I’m wondering whether one of King Aed’s kin, that Dal Riatan king who died in the Epic Battle of 839?). Maybe Domnall just didn’t have the social networks to pull of reigning both Pictavia and Dal Riata. Dal Riata is also likely to have been under Scandinavian occupation at this point. The above event mentioned in the CKA may have been an oath to maintain good relations between Dal Riata and Pictavia during Domnall’s reign (pg 105–106).

So, it doesn’t tell us whether Cinaed (and his brother Domnall) were Picts or Gaels, just that Domnall wasn’t King of Dal Riata. I recall Domall being a ‘son of a wanton foreigner’ (I can’t remember where) so maybe the brothers had different mothers and this made a difference? Something to explore further.

There is some pondering around whether the next King after Domnall — Constantin (Cinaed’s son) - was named after the Constantin of the Wrguist dynasty (that would be Pictish King Wen’s uncle) and was therefore claiming descent through the female line (pg 106). I take that to mean Cinaed marrying into the House of Wrguist, maybe a sister of King Wen. Doesn’t seem….unreasonable? (I'm going to highlight my guessing and hypotheses, just to be clear that this is just GUESSWORKA good power play to associate with a powerful Pictish family who had ruled for the previous 50 years? Maybe Cinaed married the widow of King Aed who died in the Battle of 839, Aed who had been King of Dal Riata immediately prior to Cinaed taking the throne…? Or….maybe Cinaed just liked the name Constantin.

Was King Cinaed a Gael or a Pict?


So back to my original question, was King Cinaed who reigned over Pictavia from 842ish to 858 AD a Gael who conquered the Picts, a Pict who succeeded to the throne, or a bit of both?

At the moment….I’m still not sure. But here’s what I’ve concluded:

  • Cinaed ruled Dal Riata from 839 when he took the throne after King Aed mac Boanta died in the Battle of 839.
  • Dal Riata was under the Pictish rule of the powerful House of Wrguist from at least 811. I’m looking forward to thinking about how the House of Wrguist and descendents/kin of Wen plays a role in my story!
  • Four members of the family of Wrad attempted to rule Pictavia between 839 and 847ish.
  • Domnall mac Ailpin, brother of Cinaed, probably didn’t rule Dal Riata, just Pictavia, when Cinaed died.
Here's some pretty much out of thin air guesses I'm making (remember, pink highlight means I've got nothing to back it up!) which I'll correct or confirm where possible as I continue reading:
  • Cinaed might have identified as a Scot/Gael prior to becoming King of the Picts
  • Cinaed's father was a Scot.  A woman - either his mother or Grandmother, was Pictish
  • Might Cinaed have got some of his fighting power by  marrying a Pictish woman, maybe even from the powerful House of Wrguist? What about Aed mac Boanta's widow (the King of Dal Riata who died in the 839 battle)
And, here’s some hypotheses/questions I’m going to explore further:
  • If Cinaed was a Pict, was he associated with either the House of Wrguist or the Family Wrad or someone else (Wrad is that chap who took the Pictish throne after King Wen died in battle)?
  • Is Family Wrad linked to House of Wrguist or are they another family who saw an opportunity to rule Pictavia?
  • If Cinaed was a Gael, what family or Cenel was he associated with? And how did he increase his power to conquer the Picts?
  • Did Cinaed and Domnall have different mothers (i.e. son of a wanton foreigner) and did this have some influence on Domnall not being King of Dal Riata?
  • Who was Aed mac Boanta (the King of Dal Riata who died in 839)? Could he have been linked to the house of Wrguist — maybe a cousin to Wen?
If you have anything to help me shortcut these questions, please let me know. I’m on Twitter @GUGAW or you can comment below.

Monday, 15 December 2014

I THINK I'VE FALLEN IN LOVE WITH THE FIANNA WARRIORS....


I can’t remember how I first learned about the young warrior hunter bands from Irish and Scottish ancient history, but this excellent blog post on ‘The Fianna’ by Seamas O Sionnaigh of An Sionnach Fionn has got me very excited. I knew I wanted warriors in my novel but hadn’t yet decided how that would work - the fianna are perfect. It’s even made me change my mind about the focus of the story. If you’re interested in this stuff I’d highly recommend having a read of the above post. There is a bounty of information in the post, here are some of the nuggets that I particularly enjoyed reading about (and some info I’ve found from other places). I must confess that I’ve been lazy with my fact checking so please correct me if you see anything out of line.  And, seeing as I've been lazy, it's probably safer to assume that this is folklore and fantasy (unless of course you know different), so imagine a whole load of pink 'this might not be true' swathes across this page.

1. The fianna bands were made up of a bunch of noble young bucks waiting to come into inherited land

In late Celtic and early Christian Ireland, Scotland young noble men between the ages of around 17–20 would experience a time of ‘limbo’ where they were waiting to acquire property from their family or as a dowry from a new wife’s family. In this hormone filled time between youth and adulthood, these (primarily) young nobles could be become a ‘man of the middle huts’ and camp out in low status dwellings on their Father’s land. Or, they could join a fiann as an outlet for their teenage energies and learn some valuable leadership and military skills and even some wealth.

This band of young men tended to live on the edges of society in the wilderness of border regions of the ‘tuath’ (kingdoms/territories) surviving by camping, hunting, fishing and foraging.
The term fiann seems to have emerged in the late pre-historic era and is probably linked to the population group known as the Féine who dominated the midlands of Ireland and from whom several important historic peoples, such as theConnachta and Uí Néill, later emerged. Féine itself means something like the “Wilderness or Wild People” (ansionnachfionn.com)

Many lived this life temporarily with men from their own or neighbouring tuatha, possibly even their own family.

2. Whilst it was a man’s world, women could be a part of it

My main character is a female warrior, and I really want her to have a credible and believable role within the story. Whilst I’m more than happy to elaborate and throw in a lot of imagination, I also want to try and reflect the reality of being a woman in early medieval society (9th century Scotland). So I was excited to read about female warrior-hunters, even if they are likely to be very rare. Two roles were mentioned:
  • Banféinní — female warrior-hunters. It’s not clear on the circumstances under which they joined, but it is possible that they were not merely the wives or mistresses of the male warriors. Women did seem to participate in fighting through the celtic world, although the church did bring in The Law of the Innocents in 697AD prohibiting women to fight (or be victim to the spoils of war, children and priests were later added…there is another name for this law which I’m trying to hunt down). I’m writing about 9th century Scotland so I want to bear this law in mind. Although I’d like to think that it would be hard to police, particularly within the fianna, which gives me a bit of leeway. I do suspect that it may have influenced the opinions of other men within the fianna though, maybe she would have had to try harder to proove herself?
  • Eachlaigh — female messenger servants. The eachlaigh acted as low level couriers who served the aristocracy. In later literature that term appears to take on the meaning of ‘prostitute’ or ‘whore’. Or a ‘gangster’s moll’ as Seamus nicely described in the comments. Agree with the post that you can’t help but imagine what with this troupe travelling and spending time together that they would have had sexual relationships.

3. They had knowledge of stone lined cooking sites spread throughout the wilderness

Fianna bands can be tracked archeologically by the presence of fulacht fiadhor fulacht fian, pre-prepared stone-lined cooking sites scattered throughout the woodland ready for hunting bands to use. I like to think they they may have had crude maps of these sites, or at least a good knowledge of the sites in their local area.

According to wikipedia (yes, I know, I’m being lazy) the majority of these stone sites were constructed during the mid to late Bronze Age (c1500-c500 BC) but some were still in use up to medieval times. There are over 4500 recorded examples in Ireland.


These sites are usually found close to water sources (springs and rivers) or waterlogged ground. Fuel would have come from nearby woodlands. The construction generally consists of a mound of stones, a hearth used to heat the stones and a trough (often lined with wood or stone) which was filled with water and hot stones placed inside to heat the water and potentially cook the meat this way. This made me giggle a little as it reminded me of fancy sous vide ways of cooking that you see on Master Chef. My other half, a keen foodie, pondered whether they could have wrapped the meat in stomach before boiling it to get a similar sort of sous vide effect…interesting…



A number of the sites are approximately a metre wide by 2 metres long and maybe half a metre of more in depth, but size can vary greatly. The sites may also have been used for bathing, beer brewing, cloth dyeing and leather working. Small temporary huts may also have been built nearby.

4. But when times got gnarly, they’d go batten down with the locals…whether welcomed or otherwise

When hunting and foraging became difficult, particularly during winter months, the Fiann would stay with local communities, and not necessarily through invitation. Winter may see them being invited into the residences of the tuath King that had employed their services, or indeed another lesser boarding that took their fancy.

5. They acted as mercenaries of the tuath

Money making may have primarily come from mercenary services to their communities, a ready band of skilled fighters ready to draughted in. This could include defend the land and/or acting out a vendetta or personal conflict for a well paying family. Whether they were seen to be ‘Son’s of Light’ or ‘Son’s of Darkness’ (I can’t find the reference for this, bother)

Update: actually I’ve just found it on another read of the article, although it’s ‘son’s of death’ and ‘son’s of life’) suggested that their reputation differed across groups. It’s also unlikely that they were friends of the Christian church. Some of the less savoury Fiann chose to offer services which were effectively protection rackets.

Such bands were usually deemed to be “díbheargaigh” or “bandits, marauders”, a subtle social and legal distinction reflected in the literary and judicial texts. One was viewed variously as a military, social and even economic necessity with a quasi-legal status while the other was regarded in the same way as we would regard criminal gangs today (ansionnachfionn.com)

However, one tuath’s fiann good guys could be another’s bad guys. So effectively a type of paramilitary service or a wandering band of ‘knights errant’.

6. Membership of a fiann wasn’t necessarily temporary…

For some, membership of the fiann would last beyond their 20's and possibly for their entire life. Some may have failed to acquire property or their family may have come across hard times. Others may have been exhiled due to struggles ‘back home’, whilst some may have just preferred the nomadic lifestyle. Such men may have gone on to become leaders of a Fiann with younger men joining for a few years at a time before returning to their families.

But even landless members of the fiann could gain social status within the community. The first of two routes was being the aire éachta or “lord of slaughter” which was equal to the lowest rank of aristocracy. In this role he would act as a leader of a smaller band of warriors to carry out duties often involving acts of vengeance and the killings of wrong doers.

The second was becoming a champion of the kingdom, a eminent warrior of the territory who would resolve disputes, often in single combat, on behalf of the lord.

7. Each fiann had a ‘king warrior-hunter’

rífhéinní was effectively a leader or chief of the fiann who answered to the High King. They are likely to have had lieutenant types acting under him. Whilst the fiann wasn’t open only to nobles, it was likely to be primarily made up of nobles and led by them (which such men unwillingly to be led by someone of a lower social status). The fiann may have acted on a ‘fief’ system where larger spoils or tributes were given to members with privileges and where connections to clients that would enlist the fiann’s services were particularly valued.

8. They were a bit of a ‘wolfpack’

image via guardian.com


Language associated with Fianna is often wolf related, a few specific words below and some broader references that will no doubt be useful when it comes to writing
  • Faoladh — ‘wolfing’. Raiding and pillaging
  • Faol and Con — ‘hound (wolf)’
  • ‘Wolf like young warriors’ sometimes taking on physical forms of wolves or hounds
  • Ulf-hedinn — wolfskin. Warriors fighting naked (?!) or wearing wolf skins
  • Dlaoi fulla — “hair of vagrancy” placed upon someone, a possible reference to a wolfskin. Could also refer to animal like primal fighting rage
Some stories even ‘recall’ these warriors shapeshifting into wolves.

9. Warriors had to pass a fierce initiation to join the fianna

This was one of my favourite learnings about the fianna - their initiation. It’s hard to pull apart legend and mythology from reality as some parts of the initiation clearly are fantastical. This is taken from Lugodoc’s blog, I remember seeing a slightly different/more wordy version so I’ll post it when I come across it again.
  • Be versed in the Twelve books of poetry (is this the cycles?)
  • Be able to compose Gaelic poetry
  • Be half buried and fend off spears, without injury, thrown by nine warriors with only a shield and a hazel stick for defence
  • Evade Fenian pursuit through a forest leaping over branches higher than his forehead and under branches lower than his knee without mussing their hair braids or stopping to remove thorns from their feet — oh and no breaking of twigs either
  • Take no dowry with a wife
My particular favourite is not disturbing their braided hair….! I also like to think they might have cheated their way through some of the tests, maybe just learning the favourite poems of the Fiann chief.

On Thunderpaw’s blog they suggest that the spear and mud initiation could be a ‘rebirthing’ rite, which I thought was a nice angle.

10. They were a fans of plaiting their hair

Let’s just spend a bit more time with this hair braiding stuff. I love that they braided their hair and of course it makes sense, I’ve got long fine hair and I need to braid just to keep it from turning into a ratty mess, let alone if I’m running around in the forest getting blood smeared over me. But how would they have braided their hair? The style of hair braids could have given them a part of their identity, and maybe even a ritualistic process to get them ready for battle. Have you ever had your hair braided by someone else? It’s quite an intimate process isn’t it, and would be a powerful way to connect people before battle. Or even the meditative process of simply braiding your own hair is good for getting you ‘in state’. Maybe even decorative elements within the braids?

11. The fiann’s battle hounds were huge

I’m not entirely sure of the breed but sounds like some type of Irish wolfhound — wonderful majestic beasts. According to irishwolfhounds.org, only Kings and nobility were allowed to own these hounds, which were used as war dogs and to guard property and cattle. Each had ‘two hounds and two keen beagles’.

Some more things I’ve read about these beasts (yet to be thoroughly checked):
  • The Roman Temple of Nodens at Lydney Park was a healing shrine where dogs were used to lick the sores of visitors as a cure….erm. ok.
  • This is a nice description quoted from another source on irishwolfhounds.org: “There is nothing more beautiful to see, whether their eyes, or their whole body, or their coat and colour.” “The neck should be long, round, and flexible. Wide chests are better than narrow ones. The legs should be long, straight, and well-knit, the ribs strong, the back wide and firm without being fat, the belly well drawn up, the thighs hollow, the tail narrow, hairy, long and flexible with thicker hairs adorning the tip. The feet should be round and firm. These hounds may be of any colour.
 

12. They were superstitious about the numbers 3 and 9

The number of warriors thought to compose a fiann is 9. When larger bands of warriors are mentioned it tends to be in multiples of 3, e.g. 27 warriors. So 9 feinnithe (fiann warriors) in a fiann, 27 in three fianna.

13. They may have worn war masks and facepaints

Ritualised pillaging may have happened with the fiann wearing special masks, referred to as stigmata diabolica or diabolo instinctu (assume this is the church labelling it the mark of the devil?)These may also have been tattoos or body painting, particularly on the face.

This is all speculation from here on so reign me in if I go to far. Could they have worn wolf skins given their reputation? And what could the tattoos or facepaint have looked like? Woad is the obvious medium that keeps coming up, I’m going to try and find out other potential facepaint/tattooing mediums.

14. The church weren’t a big fan of the fianna

Unsurprisingly given their tendancies towards vagabond lifestyles and even pagan beliefs (although I’m not sure this would have existed so strongly by the 9th century?) the church weren’t hugely keen on these warrior people. However as the Christianity expanded it’s hold across the British Isles the church retained their own fighting men.

15. They are mythological heroes


A huge amount of this ‘knowledge’ comes from the Irish tales, particularly the Fenian cycle a body of prose and verse centering on the exploits of the mythical hero Fionn mac Cumhaill and his warriors the Fianna.

Illustration by Stephen Reid

16. They lived by maxims

Imagine rules of conduct, oaths or a manifesto of sorts made to their chief.  I’ve borrowed this list from here, supposedly taken from the Tales of the Ossian Cycles (which I’m starting to read) and in bold, the cheeky translation from Lugodec’s blog
  • If armed service be thy design, in a great man’s household be quiet, be surly in the narrow pass // Be quiet in a posh house
  • Without a fault of his, beat not thy hound; until thou ascertain her guilt, bring not a charge against thy wife // Don’t beat your dog or your wife unless you have to
  • In battle meddle not with a buffoon for he is but a fool // Don’t waste time in battle with fools
  • Censure not any if he be of grave repute; stand not up to take part in a brawl; have naught to do with a mad man or a wicked one // Avoid pub fights, madmen and the wicked
  • Two-thirds of thy gentleness be shown to women and to those that creep on the floor (little children) and to poets, and be not violent to the common people // Be kind to women, children, pets and proles
  • Utter not swaggering speech, nor say thou wilt not yield what is right; it is a shameful thing to speak too stiffly unless that it be feasible to carry out thy words //Don’t shoot your mouth off
  • So long as thou shalt live, thy lord forsake not; neither for gold nor for other reward in the world abandon one whom thou art pledged to protect // Stick by your chief
  • To a chief do not abuse his people, for that is no work for a man of gentle blood //Don’t slag-off another chief’s people
  • Be no tale-bearer, nor utterer of falsehoods; be not talkative nor rashly censorious. Stir not up strife against thee, however good a man thou be // Don’t shit stir
  • Be no frequenter of the drinking-house, nor given to carping at the old; meddle not with a man of mean estate // Don’t be a bar-fly, carp at the old or mess with peasants
  • Dispense thy meat freely; have no meanness for thy familiar // Hand out meat freely
  • Force not thyself upon a chief, nor give him cause to speak ill of thee // Don’t pester your chief
  • Stick to thy gear; hold fast to thine arms till the stern fight with its weapon-glitter be ended // Hang onto your arms until the fight is done
  • Be more apt to give than to deny, and follow after gentleness // Be gentle and generous

17. In sum, they had three mottos

Purity of our hearts
Strength of our limbs
Action to match our speech

Seem like a fine set of mottos to me…