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, 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?

No comments:

Post a Comment