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Battle of Nechtansmere, 20 May 685

Battle of Nechtansmere, 20 May 685

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Battle of Nechtansmere, 20 May 685

Battle between the Picts under King Bruide, and the invading Northumbrians, led by King Ecgfrith. The Picts defeated the Northumbrians, and stopped the tide of conquest in the north, helping preserve what was to become Scotland.

The Battle of Dun Nectain

The Battle of Dun Nechtain (also known as The Battle of Dunnichen, The Battle of Nechtanemere, Lin Garan, and The Battle of Nechtan) was a pivotal engagement between the Northumbrians under their king Ecgfrith and the Picts under the leadership of their king Brude Mac Bile (also known as King Bridei III). The battle took place at 3:00 pm (15.00) on Saturday, 20 May, 685 CE. The precise dating of the engagement might suggest that there is thorough documentation of the battle but, actually, aside from the account by the historian Bede (672-735 CE) and possibly the depiction carved on the Aberlemno Stone stone #2, few details are known. The Battle of Dun Nectain stopped the Northumbrian invasions (at least for a time), freed the Scots and Britons from Northumbrian domination, and secured the boundaries of the lands of the Picts. Historians John and Julia Keay note that the battle "may thus have created the circumstances which led to the foundation of Scotland" (271). This claim is further supported by other historians, such as Stuart McHardy, who also notes the lasting importance of this battle in Scottish history.

Northumbria & the Picts

The rise of the Anglican Kingdom of Northumbria, and the fall of the kingdom of Gododdin (which lay between the lands of the Picts and the southern regions of the Angles) increased Angle holdings in Britain and resulted in their regular incursions into Pictish land. The southern Picts were conquered by the Angles and subjugated, as the Scots and Britons had been before them. According to the historians Keay, "By a combination of dynastic, political, and military means, Northumbria came to dominate a large part of southern Pictland. Around 672, following the death of the powerful Northumbrian King Oswin, the Picts attempted to 'throw off the yoke of slavery' but suffered a horrendous defeat at the hands of Oswald's successor Ecgfrith" (271). Ecgfrith then instituted policies to keep the conquered peoples in their place and demanded tribute be paid regularly to the Northumbrian kingdom of Bernicia.


Northumbria had the resources and manpower to take large portions of land from tribes such as the Scots, who had arrived from Ireland and settled in Dalriada and Argyll, and the Britons of Strathclyde, both of whom, as noted, were then subjects of the Angles. One of Ecgfrith's policies was installing kings in certain territories whom he felt would serve his purpose. One of these Pictish kings was Bridei Mac Billi (better known as Brude Mac Bile), who is considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of the Pictish kings for halting the advance of the Angles of Northumbria and freeing his lands of their influence. In doing so, he would also remove the Northumbrian yoke from the Britons and the Scots to the south, as well as other tribes, and more or less set the early boundaries of what would later become England, Scotland, and Wales.

The Battle

King Ecgfrith, who was Brude's cousin, may have helped him to power on the condition that Brude would regularly send tribute and would work for Ecgfrith's interests. This claim has been contested, however, and it is also thought that Brude came to power after the Northumbrians defeated the king of the Northern Picts, Drest Mac Donuel, at the Battle of Two Rivers in 670 CE. However Brude came to power, it is clear that he was expected to send tribute south to Northumbria. Brude, however, had no intention of doing so and, although it seems he initially did send tribute in the form of cattle and grain, this practice ended soon after he had consolidated his power. Ecgfrith was hardly pleased with this development but became more upset by Pictish raids into his kingdom south of Hadrian's now crumbling and undefended wall. Ecgfrith decided it was time to remove Brude and teach the Picts an important lesson.


At the same time, Brude was further consolidating his power by subduing rebellious Pictish sub-chiefs. In 681 CE he took the stronghold of Dunottar, and by 682 CE he had a navy of adequate size and strength to sail to Orkney and subdue the tribes there. Following this victory, he took the Scots' capital of Dunadd to the west so that, by 683 CE, he had secured his northern, eastern, and western boundaries (Orkney, Dunnotar, and Dunadd) and only had to concern himself with an attack directly from the south.

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This attack came in May of 685 CE when Ecgfrith could no longer tolerate Brude's threats to his rule and refused the counsel of his advisors to try further diplomatic measures. He mobilized a force of cavalry (possibly numbering around 300) to put down what he saw as a Pictish rebellion in his lands. The Picts under Brude lured the Angle force deeper and deeper into their territory by feigning retreat. The Keays observe that "it would appear Brude had a plan which involved avoiding the type of ground that had led to the previous defeat [in 672] and necessitated enticing the Northumbrian army into his choice of territory. He used the local topography to trap his enemy, with Dunnichen Hill and Nectan's Mire playing a crucial role" (271). Once the Angles were securely in his grasp, Brude then struck at a place known to the Scots as Dunnichen, in English chronicles as Nechtansmere, and in Welsh chronicles as Linn Garan the Annals of Ulster refer to it as Dun Nechtain, and this is the name most commonly referenced by historians. The Angle forces found themselves between the Pictish army on the high ground of Dunnichen Hill, who are said to have numbered in the thousands, and the marshes of the lake Nectan. Ecgfrith, realizing his dangerous position, opted for a full-scale charge of his cavalry uphill to break the Picts' line in the center. Brude, however, fell back, feigning retreat, and then turned and held the line. He repulsed the charge, sending the Angles reeling in retreat back down the hill and toward the marshes then he counter-charged. The historian Bede, who gives the most detailed account of the battle, writes:

King Ecgfrith, ignoring the advice of his friends. rashly led an army to ravage the province of the Picts. The enemy pretended to retreat, and lured the king into narrow mountain passes, where he was killed with the greater part of his forces on the twentieth of May in his fortieth year and the fifteenth of his reign. As I have said, his friends warned him against this campaign but in the previous year he had refused to listen to the reverend father Egbert, who begged him not to attack the Irish who had done him no harm and this was his punishment, that he now refused to listen to those who tried to save him from destruction. Henceforward the hopes and strength of the English realm began to waver and decline, for the Picts recovered their own lands that had been occupied by the English, while the Scots living in Britain and a proportion of the Britons themselves regained their freedom. Many of the English at this time were killed, enslaved, or forced to flee from Pictish territory (Chapter 26).


The Battle of Dun Nechtain broke Northumbria's power and secured the borders of the lands of the Picts, which later would become Scotland. It also drove the Christian missionaries of the Angles (Roman Catholicism) out of Pictish lands, allowing the original Columban brand of Christianity (the Celtic Church) to take hold in the highlands instead of the Roman brand, which had been accepted by the Angles. Brude continued to rule until his death in 693 CE, by which time his kingdom was secure and at peace.


This peace would not last long, however, as his later successor, Nechtan Mac Derile (706-724 CE), would open negotiations with the Angles on religious matters and begin a ten-year religious conflict in the kingdom between those who favored the Celtic Church and those who believed in the teachings of the Roman Catholic brand of Christianity. In spite of these conflicts, however, Brude Mac Derile had forged a unified nation which would be brought back together under the reign of King Oengus son of Uurguist in 734 CE. Oengus, and those who came after him, would repeatedly have to deal with Angle attempts to invade and conquer the land of the Picts, and this paradigm would continue through the reign of Kenneth Mac Alpin (843-858 CE) and on past the last king of the Picts, Giric, who died in 899 CE. The wars between the Angles (later the English) and the Picts (who merged with the Scots) are legendary in history and continued for centuries, but the Battle of Dun Nechtain in 685 CE established the later boundaries the two peoples would fight over and set the stage for the establishment of Scotland.

Nechtansmere Battlefield. Angus

This haunting has been witnessed by a woman walking alone at night over the area of the battle.

She saw several soldiers in old dress, carrying lit torches, checking the corpses which lay strewn about their feet. The Battle of Nechtansmere that was fought in 685 AD. 21st May 685 – the Battle of Dunnichen (also known as Battle of Nechtansmere) was fought between the Picts and Northumbrians in Angus, in what is now Scotland. The Northumbrians were a Germanic people whose kingdom was in what is now Northern England and part of Southern Scotland and the Picts were Celtic.

The Pict commander was Bridei III and the Northumbrian commander was Ecgfrith. The Battle was a victory for the Picts and afterwards Northumbria’s existence was virtually wiped out in the area that later became Southern Scotland and occupied just what is now Northern England. Northumbria (or Northumberland) is now the most northerly county in England after King Alfred (known to the English as “The Father of England”) unified all the Germanic kingdoms together to form what is now England.

The Battle of Dunnichen (Welsh: Linn garan) or Battle of Nechtansmere was fought between the Picts and Northumbrians on May 21st 685, near Forfar, Angus. It ended in a decisive Pictish victory and severely weakened Northumbria’s power in northern Britain.

The Northumbrians had been gradually extending their territory to the north, their constituent kingdom of Bernicia having captured Edinburgh from the Gododdin around 638. For the next thirty years they established political dominance over the Kingdoms of Strathclyde (which was in the area that is now South West Scotland and North West England) and Dál Riata, as well as Pictish Fortriu.

King Ecgfrith of Northumbria invaded lands held by the Picts in 685, apparently to stop them from raiding to the south. They met in battle on May 21 near Dunnichen the Picts pretended to retreat, drawing the Northumbrians into the swamp of Dunnichen. The Pictish King Bridei III killed Ecgfrith and destroyed his army and enslaved many of the survivors. After the battle, Northumbria’s influence never again extended past the Firth of Forth.

Little is known about the actual battle it was briefly described by the Venerable Bede in the 8th century.

On this day in Scotland

The Battle of Nechtansmere, latterly known as the Battle of Dunnichen, was fought in the shadow of Dunnichen Hill, to the east of the borough of Forfar, on the 20th of May, in the year 685.

The Battle of Dunnichen was fought on one of the earliest known dates in Scottish history, the 20th of May, and the kick-off was at 3pm as per usual for a Saturday afternoon. The ‘Annals of Tigernach’ has it that “The Battle of Dún Nechtain was fought in which Ecgfrith son of Oswig, the Saxon King, who had completed the fifteenth year of his reign, was killed together with a great body of his soldiers by Bridei son of Beli, King of Fortriu.” The battle is also depicted on one of four symbol stones standing in the village of Aberlemno, in the only known battle scene in Pictish art.

Fortriu was a kindom of the Picts and, roughly speaking, probably encompassed what is now the Tayside region. It was one of the most prominent Pictish kingdoms in the later centuries, having emerged as a dominant force under King Bridei. He and his tribe most probably knew the battle site, in their own language, as ‘Linn Garan’ (the Crane Lake), whereas Ecgfrith and his fellow Angles from Bernicia appear to have christened it ‘Nechtansmere’ (the Lake of Nechtan), which is why, until roughly the mid-1980s, despite the commentary in the ‘Annals of Tigernach’, it was known as the Battle of Nechtansmere. Who said history was written by the victorious?

History at that time was written by monks such as the venerable Bede, so the Latin or Saxon conventions prevailed. Most of the information available about the battle comes from sources written by Bede and another monk from Wales as well as the ‘Annals of Ulster’ and the ‘Annals of Tigernach’, all of which were written in Latin. The Welsh monk, Nennius, in his account of the battle from Historia Brittonum, wrote that “since the time of the war [the battle site] is called ‘Gueith Lin Garan’”, and Symeon of Durham, writing much later, in the 12th Century, called it ‘Nechtanesmere’.

However, there has been a lot of serious examination of the battle in more modern times, particularly by the scholar, Graeme Cruickshank, who has reinforced the now conventional usage of the Battle of Dunnichen (or Dunnichen Hill). In terms of recent interpretation, there is a great book by James E. Fraser, which I’m sure you can find on Amazon, called 'The Battle of Dunnichen, 685'.

Notwithstanding that, there is an alternative opinion, which places the battle at another site in the Cairngorms, miles to the north. Alex Woolf’s theory is based on simple geography and Bede’s comment about ‘inaccessible mountains’ concealing the Pictish army. Dunnichen Hill can’t be described as ‘inaccessible’, rising only to some 230 metres. However, there is a known Pictish site called Dunachton, in Badenoch, on the shores of Loch Insh, that lies at the foot of three passes, which cut between mountains that rise to over 1,000 metres. Perhaps Dunachton also derives its name from the ancient Dún Nechtan of the Irish annals. Take your pick.

By the year 685, the Anglian kingdom of Bernicia had grown in influence to stretch from coast to coast. Roughly speaking, at its peak, Ecgfrith’s Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria probably encompassed much of the territory covered by Yorkshire, Northumberland, Cumbria, Durham, Lothian and Borders Regions, parts of Dumfries and Galloway (Strathclyde) and, possibly Dalriada (as then was, in the west). Certainly, his influence stretched right up to the Firth of Forth and he was, by some distance, the most powerful ruler in the British Isles at the time.

Ecgfrith became King of Northumbria on the death of his father Oswiu, and soon after, in 672, defeated a Pictish revolt in a battle on the plain of Manau. The Pictish tribes were put under tribute to Northumbria and the new sub-kingdom of Lothian was created to protect the border. The Picts, according to Eddius Stephanus (Stephen of Rippon), had been “reduced to slavery and remained subject to the yoke of captivity.”

However, the natives became restless and, in 685, with his authority somewhat on the wane, Ecgfrith decided that the Pictish king, Bridei mac Billi, described by Nennius as his [Ecgfrith’s] ‘cousin’, was getting too big for his boots. It’s likely that he saw Bridei’s success in expanding his authority in the north as a threat that needed stamping out. Ecgfrith headed north with his army, where King Bridei was patiently awaiting ‘the Waterloo of late seventh century Scotland’.

The Battle of Dunnichen was indeed a classic encounter, straight out of a John Wayne movie. The Anglo-Saxons of Ecgfrith’s Army first attacked the Picts on the low-lying ground below Dunnichen Hill. When encouraged by the seeming success of the initial onslaught, Ecgfrith threw more men into the attack and the Picts gave ground. Then, scenting an early victory, the Angles gave chase as Bridei’s men turned to flee.

However, it was a feint the Commanches would have been proud of, and as the Picts fled beyond their concealed colleagues, a hitherto secreted division of Picts hurled themselves in enfilade upon the unsuspecting Angles. The Northumbrians had been well and truly tricked and were caught in a trap. Those that managed to run the gauntlet were killed by the previously retreating Picts, who had returned to the fray. Amongst the dead lay Ecgfrith, who “fell therein with all the strength of his army.”

The Pictish victory freed them from the Northumbrian yoke and, as Bede wrote, the hopes and strength of the Anglo-Saxon King “began to waver and retrograde.” Although the territory of Lothian and Din Eidyn (Edinburgh) remained in Northumbrian hands for another couple of centuries, “the Saxons never again reduced the Picts so as to exact tribute from them.” A significant breathing space was created, which you might argue is the reason the nation of Scotland was ever able to come into existence.

"The Woeful Battle of Nechtansmere AD685" - A DBA v3.0 Refight

Today I had a go at a scenario from Miniature Wargames 19 entitled "The Woeful Battle of Nechtansmere". This was the first in the series of "Dark Age" Britain scenarios penned by Early Medieval historian and wargamer Guy Halsall, who wrote many great articles in the 1980s and 1990s on various aspects of medieval warfare (plus a great series on the Vendée, if I recall aright). Nechtansmere (or Dun Nechtain) was fought between Northumbrian Anglo-Saxons and Picts trying to assert their independence: the basic story of the battle is here.

Guy Halsall postulates the following forces for each side:

The English:
300 Royal Bodyguard (Excellent armoured "mounted infantry" - despite Halsall's loathing of the term he uses it in the scenario, presumably it was in the WRG rules of the time)
2000 Warriors (Veteran leather armoured spearmen)
400 Peasants (unarmoured)
200 Archers
200 Javelinmen

The Picts:
80 Heavy Cavalry
500 Light Cavalry
2800 Infantry (unarmoured spearmen)
600 Archers
320 Javelinmen

I was using DBA. Consulting the relevant army lists, I created a DBA order of battle as follows:

Middle Anglo-Saxons (III/24):
1 x General (4Wb)
5 x Select Fyrd (Sp)
1 x Great Hyrd (7Hd)
1 x Archers (Ps)
1 x Javelinmen (Ps)

Picts (II/68a):
1 x General (Cv)
2 x Light Horse (LH)
8 x Spearmen (3Pk)
3 x Archers (Ps)
1 x Javelinmen (Ps)

The Anglo-Saxons would thus collapse after losing 3 elements, the Picts after losing 5. I used two special rules. The Anglo-Saxons had to advance straight ahead in their first turn. The Pictish cavalry was -1, despite having the general, to reflect its weakness in numbers and equipment.

The Anglo-Saxons are advancing from the bottom-right, pursuing some Picts who are feigning flight. Two large groups of Picts await in ambush!

The view from behind the main force of Pictish spearmen

View of the advancing Anglo-Saxons from behind Dun Nechtain

And a view from behind the main body of Anglo-Saxon warriors, looking through their king and his bodyguard towards the lake.
The Battle:

The Anglo-Saxons push forward into the jaws of the attack

Same position, slightly different view

First blood to the Anglo-Saxons: the King himself leads his bodyguards into close combat personally and destroys the Pictish warriors who had feigned retreat by the banks of the lake meanwhile, one jaw of the Pictish trap closes: the Anglo-Saxons form some sort of shieldwall to face the Pictish spears the remainder of the Picts and the Anglo-Saxons seem equally frozen!

On the far side, a battle line of sorts is formed, although the light troops are equally engaged on the near side, the Anglo-Saxon bodyguards and archers are harrassing the Pictish warriors many of whom are still hanging back whilst more Anglo-Saxons form another shieldwall

The Anglo-Saxons have managed to form two battle lines: can they carry out a withdrawal and escape from the trap relatively intact?
The Anglo-Saxons on the far side start to push the Picts back!

On the far side, the Anglo-Saxons start to gain the upper hand: some of the Pictish skirmishers run to the rear on the near side, the Picts finally manage to put a concerted attack in, allowing their numbers to tell and push the Anglo-Saxons back, slightly

And suddenly, it was all over! The Anglo-Saxon King and his bodyguards fell under the spears of Pictish infantry and their supporting light horsemen. Technically this would automatically win the battle anyway, but I played out the remainder of the turn and the Anglo-Saxons lost another couple of bases as the Pictish pressure told.

Some Pictish troops didn't actually make it into the battle

That Anglo-Saxon corridor has thoroughly collapsed and very few of their warriors would escape: only the warriors on the hill who never made it into the battle would be able to escape easily.
Game Notes:
A short but enjoyable game using the DBA v3.0 rules . As ever, the DBA PIP system does throw up some interesting situations. Because the Picts initially threw so low on their PIP scores, the ambush went off a bit half-cocked. For a moment, just after the Anglo-Saxons had polished off a unit of warriors and formed two shieldwalls, I thought that the Anglo-Saxons might well escape, or even win. But when the Pictish spearmen got fully into action, the Anglo-Saxons collapsed quickly.
As ever, DBA throws up some interesting points. DBA, by making Pictish spearmen "Fast Pikemen", makes them the most effective troops on the battlefield. In basic frontal combat, they would start at a base '6', whilst a supported Spearmen unit would be '5'. Given average luck and a decent number of combats, then the Pictish infantry will come out on top. Add the advantages of the tactical situation and the numerical superiority, it is going to take good play for the Anglo-Saxon player to get out of this one. I think if I do this scenario again, I may make the Pictish foot-soldiers Spearmen.
The rules do give a good, interesting game and are normally easy to follow. I think it took about 45 minutes. I used my Baccus 6mm Ancient British army for the Picts and the Baccus 6mm Anglo-Saxons for the English army. I think the buildings are from Timecast.
And thanks to Guy Halsall for writing such an interesting scenario. He has quite an interesting history blog too.

A couple of questions:
I did wonder about flank support by light troops. As far as I understand, light infantry (which is "fast") cannot give flank support, but light horse can? Is that correct? And the other thing I wondered about is if flank supporting troops should advance if the troops they are supporting advance after the target recoils?

Battle of Nechtansmere, 20 May 685 - History

The Battle of Nechtansmere 685 AD

The Battle of Nechtansmere took place in Dunnichen, a small village located near the town of Forfar, Angus on May 20th, 685 AD. The participants were the Angles and the Picts in what was a simple battle over territory. The consequences, however, would be much more dramatic, and effect the history of England and Scotland to a great degree over the next millennia and a half.

After the Romans left England, many groups who wished to occupy the territory filled the void left behind. The Irish, Scots and Picts who battled the Romans, along with the native Celtic tribes of England vied for the territory. But it was an outside group that actually took control of England and became the power in the land. This was a tribe called the Angles, which arrived around 450 AD with the Jutes and Saxons from Northern Germany.

The Angles took control of the region of England called Northumbria and quickly started dominating the other tribes in the area. By the start of the 7th Century, they had conquered Lothian and were continuing to pressure northward in their demand for territory. But the other countries in the area were also vying for territory: these included the Welsh speaking Britons of Strathclyde, the Scots of Dalriada, and the Picts of Southern Caledonia. The Angles discovered that they had their greatest success against the Picts, and slowly advanced in Southern Caledonia and small portions of Dalriada over time. This continued for many years, until a new King of the Picts began to show his power.

King Bridei came to power circa 681 AD, and promptly took control of the Pict fortress at Dunnotar. He quickly followed this up with a victory over the Orcadians in 682 and over the Scots at Dunnadd in 683. With most of his borders now secure, he focused on the main threat to his kingdom. In the South, the Northumbrians under their King Ecgfrith, continued to hold a large portion of the Southern Caledonian Kingdom. Bridei started small at first with harassing, guerilla-type raids against the Angles. At the same time he was building his forces and waiting for the eventual Angle response, an invasion.

The Angles were undefeated in battle since arriving in England, and this may have caused overconfidence, which was to become their undoing. The Angle host under the command of King Ecgfrith attacked into Caledonia in early 685, apparently in an attempt to conquer Caledonia once and for all. But Bridei was ready and retreated to the ground of his choice to fight. When the Angles were between the hill fort of Dun Nechtan and an area of swamp known as Nechtans Mire he attacked.

Little is actually known about the battle itself, but the choice of ground makes it apparent that the Angles were hemmed in and slaughtered during an apparent surprise attack. The victory was total for the Picts, as King Ecgfrith and almost all of his army were killed. Bridei then 'cleansed' Caledonia of the remaining Angles who had occupied the land for around 30 years.

After this battle, the Scots and the Picts largely fought over the territory among themselves, with the occasional incursion by the Vikings. This eventually lead to the union of the two countries of Dalriada and Caledonia into the country of Alba. Within another two centuries they had also incorporated Strathclyde and defeated the remaining Angles again, taking Lothian and creating Scotland.

This battle was extremely important for two reasons. First, this victory by the Picts shifted the balance of power among the Germanic tribes occupying Britain from the Angles to the Saxons, thus setting up the later wars between Scotland and England. Secondly, the power of the Angles in Britain was forever broken, leaving them unable to conquer what is now Scotland. If they had done so, Scotland, in all probability, would have never existed, and all of the Island would have eventually been under the control of one master, the Angles.

Battle of Dun Nechtain

The Battle of Dun Nechtain or Battle of Nechtansmere (Scottish Gaelic: Blàr Dhùn Neachdain, Old Irish: Dún Nechtain, Old Welsh: Gueith Linn Garan, Modern Welsh: Gwaith Llyn Garan, Old English: Nechtansmere) was fought between the Picts, led by King Bridei Mac Bili, and the Northumbrians, led by King Ecgfrith, on 20 May 685.

The Northumbrian hegemony over northern Britain, won by Ecgfrith's predecessors, had begun to disintegrate. Several of Northumbria's subject nations had rebelled in recent years, leading to a number of large-scale battles against the Picts, Mercians and Irish, with varied success. After sieges of neighbouring territories carried out by the Picts, Ecgfrith led his forces against them, despite advice to the contrary, in an effort to reassert his suzerainty over the Pictish nations.

A feigned retreat by the Picts drew the Northumbrians into an ambush at Dun Nechtain near the lake of Linn Garan. The battle site has long been thought to have been near the present-day village of Dunnichen in Angus. Recent research, however, has suggested a more northerly location near Dunachton, on the shores of Loch Insh in Badenoch and Strathspey.

The battle ended with a decisive Pictish victory which severely weakened Northumbria's power in northern Britain. Ecgfrith was killed in battle, along with the greater part of his army. The Pictish victory marked their independence from Northumbria, who never regained their dominance in the north.


During the seventh century AD, the Northumbrians gradually extended their territory to the north. The Annals of Tigernach record a siege of "Etain" in 638, [2] which has been interpreted as Northumbria's conquest of Eidyn (Edinburgh) during the reign of Oswald, marking the annexation of Gododdin territories to the south of the River Forth. [3]

To the north of the Forth, the Pictish nations consisted at this time of the Kingdom of Fortriu to the north of the Mounth, and a "Southern Pictish Zone" between there and the Forth. [4] Evidence from the eighth century Anglo-Saxon historian Bede points to the Picts also being subjugated by the Northumbrians during Oswald's reign, [5] and suggests that this subjugation continued into the reign of his successor, Oswiu. [6]

Ecgfrith succeeded Oswiu as king of Northumbria in 670. Soon after, the Picts rose in rebellion against Northumbrian subjugation at the Battle of Two Rivers, recorded in the 8th century by Stephen of Ripon, hagiographer of Wilfrid. [7] Ecgfrith was aided by a sub-king, Beornhæth, who may have been a leader of the Southern Picts, [8] and the rebellion ended in disaster for the Northern Picts of Fortriu. Their king, Drest mac Donuel, was deposed and was replaced by Bridei mac Bili. [9]

By 679, the Northumbrian hegemony was beginning to fall apart. The Irish annals record a Mercian victory over Ecgfrith at which Ecgfrith's brother, Ælfwine of Deira, was killed. [10] Sieges were recorded at Dunnottar, in the northernmost region of the "Southern Pictish Zone" near Stonehaven in 680, and at Dundurn in Strathearn in 682. [11] The antagonists in these sieges are not recorded, but the most reasonable interpretation is thought to be that Bridei's forces were the assailants. [12]

Bridei is also recorded as having "destroyed" the Orkney Islands in 681, [13] at a time when the Northumbrian church was undergoing major religious reform. It had followed the traditions of the Columban church of Iona until the Synod of Whitby in 664 at which it pledged loyalty to the Roman Church. The Northumbrian diocese was divided and a number of new episcopal sees created. One of these was founded at Abercorn on the south coast of the Firth of Forth, and Trumwine was consecrated as Bishop of the Picts. Bridei, who was enthusiastically involved with the church of Iona, [14] is unlikely to have viewed an encroachment of the Northumbrian-sponsored Roman church favourably. [15]

The attacks on the Southern Pictish Zone at Dunnottar and Dundurn represented a major threat to Ecgfrith's suzerainty. [16] Ecgfrith was contending with other challenges to his overlordship. In June 684, countering a Gaelic-Briton alliance, he sent his armies, led by Berhtred, son of Beornhæth, to Brega in Ireland. Ecgfrith's force decimated the local population and destroyed many churches, actions which are treated with scorn by Bede. [17]

Account of the battle

"[T]he very next year [685AD], that same king [Egfrid], rashly leading his army to ravage the province of the Picts, much against the advice of his friends, and particularly of Cuthbert, of blessed memory, who had been lately ordained his bishop, the enemy made show as if they fled, and the king was drawn into the straits of inaccessible mountains, and slain with the greatest part of his forces, on the 20th of May, in the fortieth year of his age, and the fifteenth of his reign."
– Bede's account of battle from his Ecclesiastical History of England. [18]

While none of the historical sources explicitly state Ecgfrith's reason for attacking Fortriu in 685, the consensus is that it was to reassert Northumbria's hegemony over the Picts. [19] The most thorough description of the battle is given by Bede in his 8th-century work Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People), but this is still brief. Additional detail is given in the Irish annals of Ulster and Tigernach, and by the early Welsh historian Nennius in his Historia Brittonum (written around a century later). [20]

Ecgfrith's attack on Fortriu was made against the counsel of his advisors, including Cuthbert, who had recently been made Bishop of Lindisfarne. The Picts, led by Bridei, feigned retreat and drew Ecgfrith's Northumbrian force into an ambush on Saturday, 20 May 685 at a lake in mountains near Duin Nechtain. The Northumbrian army was defeated and Ecgfrith slain. [20]


"Egfrid is he who made war against his cousin Brudei, king of the Picts, and he fell therein with all the strength of his army and the Picts with their king gained the victory and the Saxons never again reduced the Picts so as to exact tribute from them. Since the time of this war it is called Gueith Lin Garan."
– Nennius' account of battle from Historia Brittonum. [21]

The site of the battle is uncertain. Until relatively recently the battle was most commonly known by its Northumbrian name, the Battle of Nechtansmere, from the Old English for 'Nechtan's lake', following 12th-century English historian Symeon of Durham. [22] The location of the battle near a lake is reinforced by Nennius' record of the conflict as Gueith Linn Garan, Old Welsh for 'Battle of Crane Lake'. It is likely that Linn Garan was the original Pictish name for the lake. [23]

The most complete narrative of the battle itself is given by Bede, who nevertheless fails to inform us of the location other than his mention that it took place 'in straits of inaccessible mountains'. [18]

The Irish Annals have provided perhaps the most useful resource for identifying the battle site, giving the location as Dún Nechtain, 'Nechtan's Fort', a name that has survived into modern usage in two separate instances. [24]


"The battle of Dún Nechtain was fought on Saturday, May 20th, and Egfrid son of Oswy, king of the Saxons, who had completed the 15th year of his reign, was slain therein with a great body of his soldiers. .
– Account of battle from the Annals of Ulster. [25]
"The battle of Dún Nechtain was carried out on the twentieth day of the month of May, a Sunday, in which Ecfrith son of Osu, king of the Saxons, in the 15th year of his rule completed, with magna caterua of his soldiers was killed by Bruide son of Bile king of Fortriu."
– Account of battle from the Annals of Tigernach. [26]

Dunnichen in Angus was first identified as a possible location for the battle by antiquarian George Chalmers in the early 19th century. [27] Chalmers notes that the name 'Dunnichen' can be found in early charters of Arbroath Abbey as 'Dun Nechtan'. [28] He further suggests a site, 'Dunnichen Moss' (grid reference NO516489 ), to the east of the village, which he informs us had recently been drained but can be seen in old maps as a small lake. [29] Earlier local tradition, related by Headrick in the Second Statistical Account, claimed that the site was the location of the Battle of Camlann, where King Arthur fought Mordred. [30]

More recent suggestions for the battle site include the valley to the north of Dunnichen Hill, centering on Rescobie Loch (grid reference NO512518 ) and Restenneth Loch (grid reference NO483518 ), which is now much reduced following drainage in the 18th century. [31]

The battle scene inscribed on the Aberlemno kirk yard stone is often cited as evidence for the battle site. This interpretation was made based on the stone's proximity to Dunnichen, only 3 miles (5 km) to the north, but while the short distance seems compelling, the stone is unlikely to be any earlier than mid-8th century, [32] and the ornamentation of the stone, including the animal forms used and the style of weaponry depicted, suggests it may be as late as the mid-9th century. [33] Prior to being linked with the Battle of Nechtansmere, the Aberlemno stone had been cited as evidence for the Battle of Barry (now known to be historically inauthentic), [34] and there are a number of other possible interpretations for the carving. [35]


In a paper published in 2006, historian Alex Woolf gives a number of reasons for doubting Dunnichen as the battle site, most notably the absence of "inaccessible mountains" in mid-Angus. He makes a case for an alternative site at Dunachton in Badenoch (grid reference NH820047 ), on the north-western shore of Loch Insh, which shares Dunnichen's toponymical origin of Dún Nechtain. [22] James Fraser of Edinburgh University suggests that, while it is too early to discount Dunnichen as a potential battle site, locating it there requires an amount of "special pleading" that Dunachton does not need. [36]


Ecgfrith's defeat at Dun Nechtain devastated Northumbria's power and influence in the North of Britain. Bede recounts that the Picts recovered their lands that had been held by the Northumbrians and Dál Riatan Scots. He goes on to tell how the Northumbrians who did not flee the Pictish territory were killed or enslaved. [18]

The Northumbrian/Roman diocese of the Picts was abandoned, with Trumwine and his monks fleeing to Whitby, stalling Roman Catholic expansion in Scotland. [18]

While further battles between the Northumbrians and Picts are recorded, for example in 697 when Beornhæth's son Berhtred was killed, [37] the Battle of Dunnichen marks the point in which Pictish independence from Northumbria was permanently secured. [38]


The Battle of Dun Nechtain or Battle of Nechtansmere (Scottish Gaelic: Blàr Dhùn Neachdain, Old Irish: Dún Nechtain, Old Welsh: Gueith Linn Garan, Old English: Nechtansmere) was fought between the Picts, led by King Bridei Mac Bili, and the Northumbrians, led by King Ecgfrith, on 20 May 685.

The Northumbrian hegemony over Northern Britain, won by Ecgfrith's predecessors, had begun to disintegrate. Several of Northumbria's subject nations had rebelled in recent years, leading to a number of large-scale battles against the Picts, Mercians, and Irish, with varied success. After sieges of neighbouring territories carried out by the Picts, Ecgfrith led his forces against them, despite advice to the contrary, in an effort to reassert his suzerainty over the Pictish nations.

A feigned retreat by the Picts drew the Northumbrians into an ambush at Dun Nechtain near the lake of Linn Garan. The battle site has long been thought to have been near the present-day village of Dunnichen in Angus. Recent research, however, has suggested a more northerly location near Dunachton, on the shores of Loch Insh in Badenoch and Strathspey.

Upcoming Online Talk: The Battle of Nechtansmere, 685AD

Linlithgow Museum is happy to announce its second virtual talk:

The Battle of Nechtansmere, 685AD, or: why Abercorn doesn’t have a cathedral!

An online talk delivered by Eve Boyle from Historic Environment Scotland (HES).
Thu, 28 Jan 2021, 19:30 GMT

On Saturday 21st May 685, the Northumbrian King Ecgfrith was killed in a disastrous battle against the Pictish King Bridei. The battle is one of those pivotal moments that are studded across our historical narrative indeed, an argument can be made that, had it gone the other way, the history of these islands could have been very different. In recent years Nechtansmere has become a talking point amongst scholars, as new evidence has cast doubt on the traditional view of its context and, indeed, its location.

In this lecture, Eve Boyle, archaeologist with Historic Environment Scotland, will explain the background to the battle, its consequences, and explore the arguments over its location. The lecture will also take in Abercorn, where a bishop had recently established there by the Northumbrians, only to flee south in the aftermath of the battle.

Tickets for the talk are £3, and all profits from the event will go to help keeping Linlithgow Museum running in these difficult times.

Pieces from the Picts: The Missing Archaeology of the Battle of Dunnichen

On 20 May 685, the Picts made one of the most decisive victories in the history of the British Isles at Blàr Dhùn Neachdain, also known as the Battle of Dunnichen or the Battle of Nechtansmere.

What Happened?

In the seventh-century, Northumbria was the largest kingdom in the island of Britain, its borders stretching as far north as the Firth of Forth, west to Galloway and as far south as present-day Sheffield in England. It also held control over a number of sub-kingdoms, including the Pictish ones.

However, by 685 Northumbrian dominance over Northern Britain, won by King Ecgfrith’s predecessors, had begun to disintegrate. Several of Northumbria’s subject nations had rebelled in recent years, leading to a number of large-scale conflicts against the Picts, Mercians and Irish, with varied success. After sieges of neighbouring territories carried out by the Picts, Ecgfrith led his forces against them, despite advice to the contrary (even by the famous Cuthbert, bishop of Lindisfarne), in an effort to reassert his power over the Pictish nations.

The battle ended with a Pictish victory – led by King Bridei Mac Bili – which severely weakened Northumbria’s power in northern Britain. Ecgfrith was killed in battle, along with the greater part of his army. The Pictish victory marked their independence from Northumbria, who never regained their dominance in the north.

20 May 685, the independence of the Pictish Nation is preserved at the Battle of #Nechtansmere.

— Bonnie Dundee (@BonnieDundee89) 20 May 2016

The Aberlemno Stones

Aberlemno in Angus is famous for its Pictish stones, six of which have been found in or around the village. On the reverse of the carved stone known as Aberlemno 2, is a battle scene long thought to depict the Battle of Dunnichen.

In the scene, the warriors on the left-side of the stone fight without helmets, showing their long hair – these are thought to be the Pictish forces. The opposing army occupies the right side of the scene wearing helmets with prominent nose-pieces – consistent with Northumbrian armour. It appears that the army on the left is winning, with a Pict on horseback chasing a Northumbrian cavalryman straight off the edge of the stone. On the bottom row, a dead Northumbrian (possibly King Ecgfrith) is being pecked by a raven the symbol of death in battle.

There has possibly been a church at Aberlemno since 710 (originally called Egglespethir associated with Restenneth Priory), which led some to believe that the stones were created around then to commemorate the battle. Early nineteenth-century historian George Chalmers argued that the location of the battle (recorded in the Annals of Ulster as Dún Nechtain) was the same as present-day Dunnichen, just four miles south of Aberlemno.

However, Aberlemno 2 has since been re-dated and found to have been carved in the mid-ninth century, over 150 years after the battle. As a result, alternative interpretations have been made as to the identity of the warring figures on the stone, including that the scene depicts a battle between Picts and Vikings, or that it is a memorial to 8th-century Pictish king Óengus I, or even that it represents a spiritual struggle.

The Location of the Battle

So, just where did this devastating event take place? There are several written accounts of the battle, including a description by the scholar Bede in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, as well as the Annals of Ulster which probably draw on an earlier chronicle from Iona.

Locating the site in Dunnichen may match up with the Annals of Ulster, but it conflicts with Bede’s account, which noted that the battle took place ‘in tight places amid inaccessible mountains’.

Many scholars have posited where this site could be, but early medieval historian Alex Woolf thought he found the answer in early 2006. Due to further place-name evidence, an alternative Dún Nechtain was identified at Dunachton, an estate in the Highlands, which fitted the topographical constraints of Bede’s account.

The theories as to the battle’s location are based primarily on evidence of place-names, surviving almost unchanged for over a thousand years, which originate in texts not written by the Picts (who had no written language apart from Ogham) or by anyone in close proximity to the event. Even Bede was writing from a monastery in England almost fifty years after the date of the battle.

Apart from the fascinating scene on the reverse of Aberlemno 2, no archaeological evidence associated with the battle has yet been found. Badenoch however, is littered with Pictish stones, and perhaps one day a stone will be discovered from this area which depicts the greatest Pictish victory in history.



More recent suggestions for the battle site include the valley to the north of Dunnichen Hill, centering around Rescobie Loch (grid reference ) and Restenneth Loch (grid reference ), which is now much reduced following drainage in the 18th century. [30]

Watch the video: The Battle of Nechtansmere (August 2022).