Dal Ríada

I thought I had a bit of a grasp of Dal Ríada. Pass Notes style maybe, not extensive. It was a sort of colonial job by 5th century Irish from the North, extending their territory into what is now Argyll and the southern Hebrides, in western Scotland. The Isle of Iona, the monastic centre founded by Colmcille/Columba, was the seat of religious authority, with the royal seat and capital at the fort of Dunadd. There was a lot of territorial tug o’ war with the Picts in the East, in which one would prevail for a while, then the other. Finally the two kingdoms fused into the kingdom of Alba when Kenneth MacAlpin (a Gael by most accounts) came to the Pictish throne. The “Burth of Scotland”, as Neil Oliver would say. Of the two kingdoms, only the language of the Gaels survived (as Scots Gaelic) and we know very little about the Pictish language, which is thought to have been a Brythonic tongue, related to Welsh and Cornish. Its echoes are mostly in placenames now.

Iona Abbey

We approached Dunadd from the south, taking time to see “cup and ring” rock markings around Kilmichael Glen (see image below). A lot of the land around this part of Scotland is surprisingly lush, with beech woods growing right on the coast, and the sense of a temperate climate, quite distinct from some parts of the highlands. We were lucky to encounter a group from an archaeology field-school who were surveying a cup-marked stone called the Lion Stone at Kilmichael. They gave us great advice about where to go and what to see. There are some amazing arrays of ancient rock art up mad trails in the forestry nearby, and it’s notable that the heartland of Dal Ríada was in an area that had been culturally important many centuries earlier. The Kilmartin valley, in which the royal citadel of Dunadd is situated, has a linear series of cairns, stone circles and stone alignments from the Neolithic and Bronze ages.


Dunadd itself, between Kilmichael Glassary and Kilmartin village, is a classic stronghold-on-a rocky-eminence, reminiscent of Cashel or Dunamase in Ireland. It may once have been an island in a shallow bay. There are traces of Iron Age occupation before the establishment of Dalríada, and carving of a boar in distinctly Pictish style, but most of the remains relate to the period of the Gaelic kingdom, Dal Ríada (or Dalriata, etc.). At the height of the fort there is a carved impression of a footprint which (it is believed…) was used in the inauguration of kings. It’s a powerful place, with great vistas off down the valley and to the coast. When you get to that rock with the footprint, you just have to put your foot into it.

The Footprint Stone, Dunadd
Footprint and View, Dunadd

Many, many miles later, in Aberdeenshire, we learned something about this stone that I will never forget, but I’m going to keep that up my sleeve for now.

Cultural identity… it’s such a conundrum. The genetic researcher Brian Sykes visited much of Britain with his team of DNA samplers more than a decade ago, as part of the “Blood of the Isles” project. Apart from the DNA results, his team also recorded cultural attitudes among the people whose DNA they were testing, and these are interesting. In Western Scotland, many subjects expressed an interest in finding that they had Irish roots. In the North and East, that was not regarded as a desirable outcome, with Viking ancestry being seen as a definite bonus, and Pictish connections a good second best.

Neolithic Rock Art, Achnabreck, Kilmichael Glen

When I started to read about Dal Ríada from the point of view of Scottish historians, I came up against the fact that my understanding of it was coloured by Irish narratives, which may perhaps give too much weight to the Irish dimension. Scots tend to see Dalriata (their favoured spelling) as much more a distinct community holding lands in both Scotland and Ulster, and speaking a Gaelic tongue from the mists of time, rather than an Irish colonial venture. There’s something in this I suspect – it’s too easy to transfer modern nationality values onto these long-distant belongings and movements.

Next Post: Dal Ríada II

Freedom of Movement

I have been in danger of losing the thread. Summer came along, and as always I had other matters on my mind – a long list of jobs I needed to get on with in the garden, around the house (both inside and out), managing the bee hives, and of course… Escape.

Escape this summer mainly took the form of a long-promised return to Scotland, and we planned 2 weeks on the road in our camper van. On the 16th of July, we made a break for the Border. Brexit was (inevitably) on my mind – I’d watched the British political system melting down in slow motion over two and a half years, and at this stage the only thing I could be sure of was that anything could happen. Broad consensus seemed the least likely basis for any final outcome, and indeed, how final would that outcome actually be? Anyway, it’s possible that the nature of the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland may change soon, and it will hardly be for the better.

Our plan – to drive from Clare north over the Border using the motorway system, and then catch a ferry from Larne to Cairnryan in the SW of Scotland. My fellow travellers were my life partner A and our dog Lyra, the only one of us in the full flush of youth. I wanted to find out about freedom of movement, how much we have, and how that may change.

As it turned out, we had a remarkable degree of freedom of movement. As usual, the Irish Border was so frictionless that it was really difficult to spot exactly where we crossed over, the only clue being the change in speed limits from Km/hr to m.p.h. Even the ‘Welcome to Northern Ireland’ sign had been unofficially removed. Driving through the countryside of the North is in some ways a primer for Scotland – the imprint of the Ulster Scots is there on the landscape, though the prevailing feeling is still of travelling in Ireland.

When it came to embarkation for the ferry, security was cursory and friendly. Most curious of all, during the whole trip from the Republic to the North, around Scotland and back, we were not once asked for ID. Not a passport, not a drivers licence, not a dog passport.

We don’t like to plan too much, but there were a few threads to our trip. We wanted to check out the parts of Scotland that were historically Dal Ríada (or Dalríata), the seat of the Irish settlement in the early Christian period. More about that later.

Anther possibility suggested itself too. We knew we were likely to be near the Isle of Jura, one of the near Hebrides and the place where George Orwell retreated to write his dystopian masterpiece “1984”. Might a visit be possible?

And then, because our trip would also take us down the eastern seaboard, we were in search of the enigmatic remains of the Picts. Each of these bets paid off handsomely, if not exactly in the way we had imagined.

The next post is about DAL RIADA