Battle of Dunnichen: Picts Defeat Northumbrian Invasion

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Battle of Dunnichen: Picts Defeat Northumbrian Invasion

"Battle of Dunnichen," artist unknown
Image courtesy of
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History – May 20, AD 685

[Today's post is an update to one originally published in 2010]

There are many battles that inhabit the realm known to history as the "Dark Ages." In England that time period is usually marked as the years between the collapse of Roman administration in Britain in the early fifth century AD and the first raids of the Vikings near 800. A variety of sources exist about the battle of Dunnichen, but none are completely definitive. Speculation about the actual location is still occurring among British historians. But that won't stop me from giving you another history lesson…

Background to the Battle

After the Anglo-Saxon incursions into Britain during the fourth and fifth centuries, the invaders created several distinct kingdoms throughout the island. The northernmost of these nations was Anglian Northumbria. In the succeeding years, the Anglian kingdom pushed northwards, past the old Roman physical boundary of Hadrian's Wall. Through alliances, marriages and conquest, a number of the native Pictish, Scottish, Briton and Irish kingdoms north of Northumbria were brought under its control.

In the year 670 Ecgfrith (pronounced EDGE-frith) was crowned king of Northumbria, succeeding his father Oswiu. Ecgfrith was about 25 years of age at his coronation. He had some experience as a ruler, having previously been a sub-king of the Northumbrian subordinate kingdom of Deira from 664 until his father's demise.

After becoming king, Ecgfrith spent the next fifteen years trying to reassert his hegemony over the Pictish lands to the north. In 684, he sent a retaliatory raid to Ireland to punish a minor Irish king for giving aid to one of Ecgfrith's enemies. While this adventure succeeded in acquiring large numbers of slaves, as well as plunder from a number of Irish churches and monasteries, it failed to accomplish it mission to punish the Irish ruler. The Northumbrian monarch's councilors had advised against the adventure.

Apparently, for some time after the death of Oswiu, some of the Picts had been lax about sending their tribute to Northumbria. In early 685, King Ecgfrith decided to make an example of the kingdom of Fortriu, which was located in northern Scotland near present-day Moray. The ruler of Fortriu was Bridei mac Bili, described in some chronicles as a cousin of Ecgfirth, one specifically saying they were sisters' sons. King Bridei had failed to send Ecgfrith his annual tribute of cattle, corn and gold. In addition, Bridei had been expanding Fortriu at the expense of other Pictish kingdoms. Perhaps Ecgfrith had decided that cousin Bridei was getting too big for his britches, and needed to be taken down a peg.

Map of British Isles, AD 500-700; Image courtesy of
Map of British Isles, AD 500-700
Image courtesy of

Consequently, King Ecgfrith mustered a force of men to strike fast and strike hard at Bridei. Modern scholars have speculated that Ecgfrith gathered a small force of no more than 300 or so men, all mounted warriors. Ecgfrith probably wanted to make this foray in Fortriu a lightning raid, similar to the methods he used to put Bridei on his throne in 670. The Northumbrian force was likely composed of the young warriors of Ecgfrith's household, with a few veterans sprinkled in to provide leadership. One chronicle even states that, for at least part of the journey into Pictland, the "Bishop to the Picts" Trumwine accompanied the Northumbrian force. It is possible he was an eyewitness to the upcoming battle.

The Northumbrian force probably followed an old Roman road which hugged the coast of the North Sea in Pictland. Then, a series of abandoned Roman marching camps were certainly utilized by Ecgfrith to work his way towards Fortriu. Apparently, the Anglo-Sacon monarch and his men knew exactly where they were going, for they made a beeline straight for Bridei's stronghold, a location unknown to the modern historian.

Typical terrain in Corrie Fee National Nature Reserve, Angus, Scotland; Image courtesy of
Typical terrain in Corrie Fee National Nature Reserve, Angus, Scotland
Image courtesy of

However, at that time Scotland was a land of bogs, marshy areas, and small lakes (called lochs) that flowed between rocky hills. If you include the near-constant foggy weather for which Scotland is famous, these conditions made travel confusing and treacherous. In addition, many Iron Age hill-forts – called duns – were scattered across the landscape, providing local people a modicum of protection from raids by their neighbors or a foreign enemy. Some historians speculate that Ecgfrith got himself and his warriors lost in the Pictish terrain; this is rather unlikely, as the Northumbrian king was a seasoned campaigner, probably had personally been this way at some past time, and he almost certainly would have sent out scouts to obviate ambushes by the Picts.

King Bridei lured Ecgfrith and his force northwards, avoiding contact with the invaders and staying just a step ahead of them. The Picts continued to lead the Northumbrians north into hilly, boggy land that would be perfect for an ambush. Relentlessly, Ecgfrith followed the Pictish monarch farther into the highlands, determined to bring the rebellious Picts to battle.

Battle of Dunnichen

[While there is no single, comprehensive, recognized account of the battle, clues can be gleaned from various sources. Modern historians have made several educated reconstructions; I will relate one of them.]

At about mid-afternoon on May 20 (one chronicle specifies the "ninth hour" of the day which is 3:00 pm), King Ecgfrith and his Northumbrian horsemen continued their approach to Bridei's stronghold (whose location, unfortunately, has been lost to history). Wending their way between the Loch of Forfar and Restenneth Loch, they rode southeast. A short distance to the east loomed Dunnichen Hill, a fairly tall (764 feet) local prominence that featured a Pictish hill-fort. Skirting the western edge of the hill, they followed a local track that took them between the southern slopes of Dunnichen Hill and Dunnichen Moss, a smallish local pond that had probably been overgrown and was now mainly a marshy bog.

Anglo-Saxon warrior c. AD 617-1014; Image courtesy of
Anglo-Saxon warrior c. AD 617-1014
Image courtesy of

The Northumbrians were likely wearing iron helmets, some form of chainmail, large round wooden shields, and armed with lances and probably swords as secondary weapons. Though later Anglo-Saxon armies were essentially footmen who used horses only to get to the battlefield, there is evidence to suggest that these earlier Anglian warriors were trained to fight on horseback.

As the mounted Northumbrians traversed the area between the hill and the bog, the Picts emerged from the hill-fort. They lined up on the lower southern slope of the hill, displaying their far greater numbers for Ecgfrith to see.

Pictish warrior, c AD 75-846; Image courtesy of
Pictish warrior, c AD 75-846
Image courtesy of

Most of the Picts wore little armor, perhaps an iron helmet here or there, carrying small shields with spiked bosses. Their main weapons were long thrusting spears, with short swords probably secondary weapons. There were probably a few bowmen present, as well as huntsmen who used a primitive crossbow. In addition, Pictish fanatics, similar to Viking berserkers, who fought bravely wearing no armor, were also quite likely present. These men were usually heavily tattooed and entered battle nearly naked. Finally, it is likely that King Bridei had a small mounted personal bodyguard, slightly better equipped than the rank-and-file Pictish warriors.

Confronted with his enemy in far greater strength – and not at a time and place of his choosing – King Ecgfrith made what must have been a split-second decision. His battle experience told him that he should make one, quick charge at the heart of the Pictish host. If everything went as he hoped, Ecgfrith might break through and engage Cousin Bridei and quickly defeat him in hand-to-hand combat. [Alternatively, he may have been trying to reduce the Pictish force with hit-and-run tactics similar to those used by William the Conqueror at Hasting nearly 400 years later – charge, make initial contact with the enemy, feign retreat hoping to draw out some portion of the enemy army, then turn and cut down any pursuit.]

Unfortunately, King Ecgfrith failed to realize one thing: King Bridei had spent the past fifteen years consolidating other Pictish, Briton, or Irish kingdoms in the north under his rule. He was welding together a fledgling kingdom of his own, and had managed to instill some discipline in his troops.

The charge of the Northumbrians was met decisively, but the Picts apparently made a feinted retreat of their own up Dunnichen Hill, and the Northunbrians began to pursue. As the "routing" Picts disappeared behind the hilltop, a second larger force of Pictish infantry, using the reverse slope of the hill for cover, advanced over the slope and attacked the pursuing Anglo-Saxon horsemen. Once the Northumbrians were fully engaged with the fresh enemy tribesmen, the "routing" Picts reappeared, attacking the flanks and rear of the enemy horsemen. The Picts swarmed the mounted men, pushing them back into the margins of the boggy ground of Dunnichen Moss. The Northumbrians were overwhelmed and cut to pieces fairly quickly.

As the battle rushed to a climax, Bridei led his personal bodyguard cavalry in a decisive charge that probably brought down the last surviving invaders, including Ecgfrith himself. It would be somehow ironic to imagine that Kings Ecgfrith and Bridei might have met face-to-face, with Ecgfrith getting the worst of the encounter, losing his life. The vast majority of the Northumbrian force was slaughtered, though several chronicles state that a few survivors were captured and enslaved. From this point forward, Northumbria never again exercised control of the Pictish lands.


After the battle, King Ecgfrith's body was taken on a grand tour of the Scottish highlands. Eventually his remains arrived at the monastery of Iona – on the far western shore of Scotland – and buried. This was probably Bridei's way of showing that Pictland was free of the Northumbrian rule. Also, though both the Anglians and Picts were Christian by this time, the Northumbrians were more influenced by the Church of Rome, while the Picts recognized the Irish church as its authority. In addition, this may have been the Picts' revenge on Ecgfrith for his invasion and sack of Irish territory in the previous year.

Footnote #1: One of the most fascinating finds that may give some insight into the battle of Dunnichen is a stone monument called the Aberlemno Stone. It currently stands in the yard of a church near the village of Dunnichen. The figures depicted have been interpreted to represent the Anglian horsemen and Pictish troops that fought at Dunnichen. The stone is still under scrutiny by historians.

A cropped image of the Aberlemno Stone in the Aberlemno Church Yard
A cropped image of the Aberlemno Stone in the Aberlemno Church Yard

Footnote #2: This battle was originally known to history as the battle of Nechtansmere. A Welsh chronicle referred to it as the battle of Heron (or Crane) Lake, which may have been the original Pictish name for Nechtansmere.

Footnote #3: In 1985 a memorial cairn was dedicated near the site of the battlefield, commemorating the 1300th anniversary of the battle.

Footnote #4: In the winter of 1950, a Miss Smith accidentally ran her car into a ditch and found herself walking on the battlefield late at night. Over a 12-minute period, Miss Smith observed men in Pictish-like outfits with fire brands searching through battlefield corpses.

Modern Dunnichen Hill, near Dunnichen, Angus, Scotland; Likeliest site of the battle of Dunnichen (Nechtansmere)
Modern Dunnichen Hill, near Dunnichen, Angus, Scotland
Likeliest site of the battle of Dunnichen (Nechtansmere)

Footnote #5: Today, the hill is used as a campsite for an unofficial New Age Travellers' (read "hippies") festival that began in the 1990's. At that time, a local company sought permission to quarry the site for stone, but the application was turned down. The unofficial festival apparently is still going strong. In 1996, violence erupted when police attempted to confiscate the largest sound system of the festival-goers, following numerous complaints by nearby residents, who could hear the music from two miles away. A member of the British parliament spoke about the "festival" and some of the anti-social behavior by festival-goers, including the killing of livestock (to include sheep and pheasant chicks) by their dogs.

Footnote #6: Recent research has suggested the estate of Dunachton, about 55 miles northwest of Dunnichen, as an alternative location for the battle. However, the debate is far from settled.

Footnote #7: Much of the information for this post was gleaned from the book, "Battles of the Dark Ages: British Battlefields AD 410 to 1065" by Peter Marren, published in 2006.

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