This entry will look at one of the earliest expansion of Irish settlers abroad from the island, namely the little-known Kingdom of Dal Riata, which at its height in the early seventh century, consisted of a substantial portion of North-Eastern Ireland and Western Scotland. Dal Riata is one of the very rare times when people that may have been originally native to the island of Ireland were able to exert control over lands in Britain (though they may not have thought of themselves as “Irish” after a while).
A frustrating dearth of historical sources mean that the exact origins of the Kingdom are not concretely known. It was formed circa 500 BC. Great political change in the north of Ireland around that time, with the Kingdoms of Ulaid losing land to the Ui’Neills, may have seen people depart Ireland to land in Scotland, and start their own Kingdom, while maintaining what lands they had left in Ireland.
It has also been theorised, due to the lack of information, that it may have been the other way round, Scottish settlers taking land in Ireland, combining it with existing holdings in Scotland. There were certainly existing links between the two areas in terms of language and culture but the lack of sources mean the answer to this riddle is beyond us.
The early records of the Kingdom – any initial migration and any early confrontation with native peoples – are lost to us. Perhaps it was a simple long-term process of settlers grabbing land where they could find it, growing into a Kingdom, or maybe it was a more concerted military effort by the Scotti, the name that the inhabitants came to be known as by some (which, as you may guess, is the origin of the word “Scotland”). Parts of it may not have been military at all, but through marriage alliances, diplomacy and the like.
If Dal Riata was created through bloodshed (and it is unlikely that some was not required), the process would have taken the form of raids from the coast at first (the Irish being well known for it), then more permanent settlements once a bridgehead was secured. The native peoples of Western Scotland were probably very limited in number or unable to match the invaders militarily (or both). That being said, considering the way that Dun Riata hugged the western coast of Scotland, it is likely that its own forces were not sufficient to strike out eastwards in any great movement early on, its leaders unwilling to risk the safety the coast provided (as an escape point). Its chief fortress in Scotland was at Dunadd, near Kilmartin.
Only the middle part of Dal Riata’s lifespan is known to us in any sort of detail. Around the 570’s AD, the Kingdom was stable but had a challenge in the form of Baetan mac Cairill, the powerful King of Ulaid, in Ulster. Dal Riata’s leader Aedan mac Gabrain, a man supposedly consecrated as King by St Columba, was forced to pay tribute to Baetan, who threatened Dal Riata land in both Scotland and the Isle of Man. Considering the difficulties of engaging Dal Riata in a war from across the sea, this is an indication of how powerful Baetan really was.
In order to combat this threat, Aedan made an alliance with Aed mac Ainmuirech of the northern Ui Neill. Such an agreement was advantageous to both, as they no longer had the worry of the other and could allocate most of their resources to the threat of Baetan and his lands. Further, the fleet of the Dal Riata was put at the Ui Neill’s disposal, along with soldiers from the Irish Dal Riata lands.
With an ally occupying Baetan’s attention in Ireland, Aedan was free to begin a string of conquests and military expeditions. The Isle of Man had been lost to Baetan in 576, but Aedan retook it in 583. By now Baetan’s was dead, his successors more concerned with events in Ireland. Aedan now began to expand Dal Riata lands elsewhere.
Raids against the island of Orkney took place circa 580. A successful campaign against the Maeatae tribe along the Rover Forth followed, recorded as the Battle of Leithreid, though Aedan’s sons Artur and Eochaid were killed. Differing sources indicate Aedan may have continued his wars with unsuccessful attacks against the Picts, rulers of the rest of Scotland, and possibly raids as far as Wales. Dal Riata had reached its highest point under Aedan, controlling a substantial proportion of Scotland, numerous islands, and a large portion of northern Ireland. And Aedan wasn’t finished.
The noted British historian Bede provides much of the rest of the story. The Bernician (Northumbria) King Æthelfrith was, at roughly the same time, achieving great success to the south against the Britons, destroying their forces in the Battle of Catreath in 600 AD. His borders had pushed significantly inland from the coast, and Aedan was suitably alarmed.
Knowing that his gains would be under threat if the Bernician King turned north, Aedan decided to try first, marching to meet Æthelfrith with a large army, which included elements from Ireland itself. They met at the Battle of Degsastan in 603, though there is evidence that other battles were fought before this. The location of Degsastan has not survived, though some suspect it may have been close to the modern-day border of Scotland and England.
Despite being outnumbered the Bernician’s carried the day, a testament to the martial prowess of Æthelfrith. The victory was apparently decisive; Bede gleefully reports that Irish lands would not make war on the English again for well over a century (Bede’s use of “Irish” is interesting, as it indicates how Dal Riata was viewed). Aedan fled the field, with most of his army destroyed. However, Æthelfrith suffered as well, with the death of his brother Theobald and most of his forces. It is perhaps because of this that Æthelfrith did not press his advantage in the north, instead turning to focus on other parts of Britain. It is quite possible that he came to an agreement with Dal Riata regarding this, as his sons would later take refuge there following his death in 616.
For his part, Aedan vanishes from sources of the time, mentioned only once more, for his death in 606. His son Gartnait did continue to expand Dal Riata holdings, with the conquering of the island of Skye sometime afterward. However, this was the last notable expansion of Dal Riata.
The remainder of Dal Riata history is one of slow decline, as lands were lost and the Kingdom came under the overlordship of others. The alliance with the Ui Neills was broken off and reversed with disastrous consequences. Dal Riata was soon tributary to Northumbria, then the resurgent Picts who crushed them under Oengus I in the early eight century after which Dal Riata vanishes from sources for a substantial period of time with only passing references after. The rise of Viking attacks and settlements were a great danger to it and Dal Riata appears to have been merged into Pictland to form the Kingdom of Alba, later Scotland, in the 10th century. Its later history is particularly disputed, with it being unclear whether the Kingdom’s merger with the Picts was a final defeat or a defining success (i.e, who was more dominant, Dal Riata or the Picts?).
Warfare of the day was becoming more advanced then the small-scale stuff that had characterised earlier centuries. Better armour, helmets and shield were becoming more commonplace, actual set-piece battles as well, though the art of raid and counter-raid were still common. The rise of the “shield-wall” tactic, where armies of infantry met the enemy with packed ranks of men arranged with interlocking shields, would have been evident, the dominant method of battle for centuries to come. Navies were also becoming more important to Irish warfare, especially in the case of Dal Riata, a Kingdom divided by a sea.
More than that, the history of Dal Riata is evidence of the growing conflict between England and Ireland, a rivalry that would soon come to define the military history of both.
But before any of that really became central, Ireland had a different threat to deal with, which will be covered in the next two parts of this series: The Vikings.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.