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, 15 February 2015


The remains of Lesnes Abbey near Woolwich, London.  Founded in 1178 by Richard de Luci, supposedly in penance for his role in the murder of Thomas Becket.  Dissolved by Cardinal Wolsey in 1536.

Most of the abbey has been demolished but you can still get a good sense for the layout of the buildings.  The contrast of the ancient abbey ruins against the tower blocks of south east London was...not so pretty.  I wanted to imagine a time with no tower blocks so shot most of the pictures sans blocks, though you might see they crept into a couple of the shots.

The 'kitchen' hatch

And exploring for lichens and mosses in the abbey woods...

Monday, 2 February 2015


Read on if you're interested in Pictish Kings, Saint Columba's relics, the ecclesiastical sites of Dunkeld and Saint Andrews and ancient powerful families.

The Pictish Wrguist family are a very interesting bunch when it comes to the ancient Kings of Northern Britain.  Holding the Pictish throne for over 50 years and grandsons of a badass warlord, I'm certain they've got some interesting stories to tell. I've spent a bit more time reading into the Wrguists.  Up to the death of King Wen, they continuously held the throne in the 50 years before the huge battle of 839 AD (the one that seems to have so influenced Cinaed mac Ailpin's fortunes).  Look back another 60 years to 729 AD and we're at the beginning of the reign of King Wen's great-grandad Onuist, the warlord who subjugated the lands of Dal Riada during his 8th century reign.  This is a family who must have had a huge influence throughout Pictavia for over 100 years.

Above is their family tree constructed using info from Woolf and Clarkson and below are a few alternative name spellings (I hope I've got this right):
  • Causantin son of Wrguist /  Constantine son of Fergus (reigned 789-820)
  • Onuist son of Wrguist / Oengus son of Fergus (reigned 820-34)
  • Drust son of Causantin / Drest son of Constantine co reigned with and Talorcan son Wthoil (reigned 834-7)
  • Wen son of Onuist / Eoganan (aka Eogan) son of Oengus (reigned 837-839)
So back to my man handsome Wen.

Still not King Wen. Just a handsome bearded bloke I can
pretend is Wen
King Wen appears to have been the last King of the Wrguist dynasty when he died at the battle of 839AD along with his brother Bran and the King of Dal Riada. After his death, 5 kings (mostly relations of the Wrad family) tussled over the Pictish throne for the next 9 years until Cinaed mac Ailpin secured his claim on it around 847/848 AD.

In the 50 years before the Battle of 839 AD the Wrguist reign came from the bloodline of two brothers - Onuist and Causantin.  Wen was a son of Onuist.  Since 820, his father had ruled over Pictland whilst his cousin, Domnall (son of uncle Causantin) was King of Dal Riada.  Both Kings died at around the same time, his father Onuist in 834 and his cousin Domnall in 835.  No idea if this is linked. After the death of his father, another cousin called Drust co-ruled Pictavia with a chap called Talorcan for 3 years (834-837).  If Pictland was still a two part division then Talorcan may have ruled north of the mounth and Drust south.  Single overkingship was then restored by Wen 2 years before the Battle of 839 AD.

When I see a family tree, or rather a kingly tree, like the one above my imagination immediately starts filling in the gaps.  Who were the sisters?  Who were the wives?  What about the brothers and sons not kingly enough to mention?  If uncle Causantin's son ruled over Dal Riada, might some of King Wen's female cousins or even aunts and sisters have married into the cenela Kings of Dal Riada such as the Cenel nGabrain and Cenel Loairn?  (The cenela were sub Kings or tribe leaders within Dal Riada.)  If we assume Cinaed mac Ailpin was ethnically a gael from Dal Riada, could he have married into this powerful Pictish royal family which then helped in his claim for the throne? (again, pink highlights for my guesswork). Or, if we assume Cinaed had Pictish blood, might this be the family through which he claimed his right to rule?

And what happened to this mighty family after 839 AD?  I can't believe that after all those years in power, spent drawing noble families close to them, gathering money and land, that they just disappeared (even with the legends of the Mac Ailpin Treason and the slaughter of Pictish nobles).  They must have continued to have an influence, one way or the other.  Or if Cinaed was a part of this family, either through blood or marriage, they didn't really disappear at all. 

Who knows.  But we do know some of the things that the brothers Onuist and Causantin got up to during their reigns.  These brothers liked their holy relics and shiny new churches.

King Causantin, Dunkeld Church and the relics that never turned up 

The 9th century ecclesiastical centre at Dunkeld is often linked to Cinaed mac Ailpin's reign and the moving of Columba's relics around 847 AD.  But Dunkeld and its relationship with Columba's relics seemed to start with Wen's uncle, King Causantin, between 789 and 820 AD.

Scandinavian raiders attacked the coast of Causantin's Kingdom throughout his reign.  Saint Columba's relics, housed in the monastery Columba had set up on the western island of Iona around 250 years previous, were at risk.  In 806 AD following a Viking raid on the island which left 68 of the community dead, the Columban monks took refuge in a new monastery at Kells, County Meath in Ireland (source). If we believe the Book of Kells was started at Iona, then it's possible it was moved with the monks during this time.  Cellach, Iona's abbot during Causantin's reign, decided to remove Saint Columba's bones from Iona to the enlarged Kells monastery.  The abbot agreed with King Causantin that Columba's precious bones would be divided between Kells in Ireland and Dunkeld, the Pictish King's new church.  Given Columba was the apostle of Fortriu, the Pictish King probably wasn't too keen to see all the relics taken to Ireland.

But the bones weren't moved to Dunkeld until 849 during Cinaed's reign. What happened during those years?

Having just finished reading the excellent 'The Bone Thief' by V.M.Whitworth I'm of course thinking the relics were hidden from raiders and the location temporarily forgotten.  Or were the relics moved to a half way house, but didn't arrive at Dunkeld until Cinaed got his hands on them?  Or maybe Cinaed took the credit for something that had already been done by Causantin?!

Speaking of Columba's bones, the Monymusk Reliquary, made in 750 AD is thought to have been used to carry some of the bones into battle.  But whether that actually happened is debated.

The Monymush Reliquary.  May, or may not, have carried Columba's bones into battle

Causantin's church and Cinaed's later structure lie beneath the even later medieval cathedral which still stands beside the River Tay.  This site was already important to the Picts before Causantin's church was built. To the west a prominent hill called King's Seat dominates north-south communication along this part of the valley.  In prehistoric times this hill was the fort of the Caledonians, a stronghold of ancient power whose looming presence bestowed great prestige on the Christian settlement nestling below (Clarkson, pg 173).  If I've correctly found a photo from somewhere near the King's Seat below (thanks Google Maps) then the view is certainly spectacular.

Dunkeld Cathedral, where Cinaed's and Causantin's Church once stood. Photo by Marius Galbuogis
The view from Dunkeld Cathedral looking out onto the River Tay and the King's Seat.  Photo by Marius Galbuogis
I *think* this is the view from King's Seat back down towards the River Tay. Photo by Daniel Muller
View up the River Tay from Dunkeld Bridge - Google Street View

King Onuist and the Church of Saint Andrew

King Onuist (aka Oengus aka Wen's Dad) ruled after his brother Causantin's death from 820-834AD.  During his reign Onuist also developed a key ecclesiastical site.  His was the church of Saint Andrew in Kilrymont on the coast of Fife, likely to be somewhere between the cathedral and the area today known as Kirkhill.  Much like Causantin's choice of site in Dunkeld the site that Onuist chose already had royal associations, linked with the great warrior king Onuist I (Oengus), who was his namesake and granddad (King Wen's great grandfather).  It was also likely that a monastery was already present.

Much like Columba's relics at Dunkeld there is another interesting story about the relics of Saint Andrew arriving in Kilrymont.  Clarkson (pg 174) describes a story that seems to have developed in the mid 9th century to enhance the status of the site, suggesting that Onuist's reign was also suitably enhanced through association with Saint Andrew.  In the story a priest called Regulus or Rule travelled to Britain, so say from Constantinople, with Saint Andrew's sacred bones. On reaching Pictland, Regulus met Onuist who granted land at Kilrymont for the foundation of a church which in later centuries developed into the great cathedral of Scotland's patron saint.  All likely to be false.  Ahh Kings and their tales.

Another story about bones.  It's possible that Onuist was the person who commissioned the below 'sarcophagus' in commemoration of his great-grandad and namesake Onuist.  In 1833 several pieces of sculptured stone were unearthed from a grave in the cemetary of St Andrews Cathedral.   These pieces formed the broken remains of an ancient coffin or sarcophagus that would have been displayed in a prominent position within the church.  An old legend identified the founder of the monastery as a king called 'Hungus' whose name in Pictish language would be Onuist or Unuist.  More info here over on Tim Clarkson's blog.

Photo by B Keeling
Photo by B Keeling

Photo by B Keeling

Map of the two ecclesiastical sites (Dunkeld and Saint Andrews) and the royal palace of Forteviot.

Locations from right to left: Dunkeld (top left), Forteviot (bottom left), Saint Andrews (bottom right)
So what does this tell me about Cinaed mac Ailpin?  It highlights a few things (in pink is my guesswork):

  • That the Wrguist's were a very important family in Pictland only 10 years prior to Cinaed's reign
  • Causantin (aka Constantine) set up an ecclesiastical site in Dunkeld and aimed to move Columba's relics.  Cinaed finished the move of the relics, may have built further on Dunkeld and called his son Constantine.  Could be fan-boyism or maybe tribute to a family member?
  • Given the long reign of the Wrguist, might Cinaed have married into the Wrguists or be from their bloodline on the maternal side
  • The power of the Wrguists may have been felt beyond 839AD, would their blood really have died off in that battle, epic though it was?

Sunday, 11 January 2015


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


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."