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

Monday, 15 December 2014


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…

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