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Strathclyde, its neighbours: major siites marked

Strathclyde was one of the Dark Age kingdoms of the Britons in the Hen Ogledd, the Brittonic-speaking parts of northern Britain in what became southern Scotland and northern England. The kingdom developed during the post-Roman period. Its capital was Dumbarton. This was a Welsh-speaking kingdom, caught between the expanding influence of the English to the south and east and the Gaels from the north and west and from Ireland.

The kingdom may have had its origins with the Damnonii people referred to in Ptolemy's Geographia.

The Gaels knew the capital as Dun nam Breatann ('Fort of the Britons'), from which we get the name 'Dumbarton', and this fortress, the Rock of Dunbarton, may have been a northern fortress against the Gael. At the north of Loch Lomand is Clach nam Breatann, 'the Rock of the Britons' which may mark the northern extent of the kingdom at an early time. The bounds of the kingdom waxed and waned: Cumberland was probably a part of the kingdom, and may be named after it.

Strathclyde began as part of the Welsh world but ultimately became dominated by its old enemy, the Scots, and was swallowed by their kings in the tenth century. Nevertheless, Strathclyde remained a distinctive area into the 12th century.


The name by which it is known today, 'Strathclyde', appears to be not a native name but a Gaelic name, meaning "Valley of the River Clyde". The Welsh name, which must be close to what the men of Strathclyde called their kingdom, is Ystrad Clud, though Alclud is known too.

The name Alt Clut' is a Strathclyde-Welsh name for Dumbarton or particularly Dumbarton Castle, the mediæval capital of the region.

The name of the people, Cumbre in Old English appears, cognate to the Welsh Cymry.

In the English language, Strathclyde and its people are named variously as Strætlæd Wealas or Stræcledwalas[1] though also Cumbra land appears in a context suggesting that Strathclyde is meant.[2]

The name 'Strathclyde' might have come into use only after the sack of Dumbarton Rock by a Viking army from Dublin in 870, perhaps reflecting a move of the centre of the kingdom to Govan.


The language of Strathclyde is known as 'Cumbric', a dialect or language closely related to Old Welsh. Place name evidence points to some settlement by Norsemen or Norse–Gaels, although to a lesser degree than in neighbouring Galloway. A small number of Old English place-names show some limited settlement by incomers from Northumbria also. Due to the series of language changes in the area, it is not possible to say whether any Gaelic settlement took place before the Scottish Gaelic language was introduced in earnest during the High Middle Ages.


Looking north at Dumbarton Rock
Dumbarton from across the Clyde at low tide
Clach nam Breatann, Glen Falloch, perhaps the northern edge of Strathclyde

Ptolemy's Geographia lists a number of tribes, or groups of tribes, in southern Caledonia at around the time of the Roman invasion of Britain in the 1st century AD. As well as the Damnonii, Ptolemy lists the Otalini (later appearing as the Votadini), whose capital appears to have been Traprain Law; to their west, the Selgovae in the Southern Uplands and, further west in Galloway, the Novantae. The capital of the Damnonii is believed to have been at Carman, near Dumbarton, but around 5 miles inland from the River Clyde.

The northern military frontier of the Roman Empire was eventually established at Hadrian's Wall, but Roman influence spread further north. The famous expedition of Gnaeus Julius Agricola took him to the Moray Firth or even beyond and other expeditions might have followed. Several Roman forts and roads have been uncovered north of the wall; those as far north as the Forth and Clyde may have been in long-term occupation. Twice the formal frontier it was advanced to the line of the Antonine Wall, between the Clyde Estuary with the Firth of Forth, and thus bringing under Roman rule all of what beame Strathclyde. Even when the legions withdrew south, Roman influence and trade were important here. The extent to which even southern Britannia was Romanised is debated, so the degree of Roman influence amongst the far Damnonii cannot be estimated.

The final period of Roman Britain saw an apparent increase in attacks by land and sea, the raiders including the Picts, Scotti and the mysterious Attacotti whose origins are not certain.

No historical source gives any firm information on the boundaries of the Kingdom of Alt Clut, but suggestions have been offered on the basis of place-names and topography. Near the north end of Loch Lomond, which can be reached by boat from the Clyde, lies Clach nam Breatann, the Rock of the Britons, which is thought to have gained its name as a marker at the northern limit of Alt Clut. The Campsie Fells and the marshes between Loch Lomond and Stirling may have represented another boundary. To the south, the kingdom extended some distance up the valley of the Clyde, and along the coast probably extended south towards Ayr.[3]

History and legend

The Old North

The Old North

Little is known of the Dark Age Welsh kingdoms of the north, known in Welsh legends as “Yr Hen Ogledd; The Old North. Archaeologists and historians have offered varying accounts of the period over the last century and a half. The written sources available for the period are largely Irish and Welsh, and very few indeed are contemporary with the period between 400 and 600. Irish sources report events in the kingdom of Dumbarton only when they have an Irish link.

Excepting the 6th century jeremiad by Gildas we have just the poetry attributed to Taliesin and Aneirin, in particular Y Gododdin, thought to have been composed in the Lothians in the 7th century. Otherwise Welsh sources generally date from a much later period. Some are informed by the political attitudes prevalent in Wales in the 9th century and after. Bede, whose concern is the English, rarely mentions Britons, and then usually in brusque terms.

Two kings are known from near contemporary sources in this early period. The first is Coroticus or Ceretic Guletic (Welsh: Ceredig), known as the recipient of a letter from Saint Patrick, and stated by a 7th-century biographer to have been king of the Height of the Clyde, Dumbarton Rock, placing him in the second half of the 5th century. From Patrick's letter it is clear that Ceretic was a Christian, and it is likely that the ruling class of the area were also Christians, at least in name. His descendant Rhydderch Hael is named in Adomnán's Life of Saint Columba. Rhydderch was a contemporary of Áedán mac Gabráin of Dál Riata and Urien of Rheged, to whom he is linked by various traditions and tales, and also of Æthelfrith of Bernicia.

The Christianisation of Caledonia, if Patrick's letter to Coroticus was indeed to a king in Strathclyde, had therefore made considerable progress when the first historical sources appear. Further south, at Whithorn in Wigtownshire, a Christian inscription is known from the second half of the 5th century, perhaps commemorating a new church. How this came about is unknown. Unlike Columba, Kentigern (Welsh: Cyndeyrn Garthwys), the supposed apostle to the Britons of the Clyde, is a shadowy figure and Jocelyn of Furness's 12th century Life is late and of doubtful authenticity though Jackson[4] believed that Jocelyn's version might have been based on an earlier Cumbric-language original. At this time too, Northumbrian English influence was spreading in Galloway.

The Kingdom of Alt Clut

After 600, information on the Britons of Alt Clut becomes slightly more common in the sources. However, historians have disagreed as to how these should be interpreted. Broadly speaking, they have tended to produce theories which place their subject at the centre of the history of north Britain in the Early Historic period. The result is a series of narratives which cannot be reconciled.[5] More recent historiography may have gone some way to addressing this problem.

At the beginning of the 7th century, Áedán mac Gabráin may have been the most powerful king in northern Britain, and Dalriada was at its height. Áedán's byname in later Welsh poetry, Aeddan Fradawg (Áedán the Treacherous) does not speak to a favourable reputation among the Britons of Alt Clut, and it may be that he seized control of Alt Clut. Áedán's dominance came to an end around 604, when his army, including Irish kings and Bernician exiles, was defeated by Æthelfrith at the battle of Degsastan.

Æthelfrith, his successor Edwin and Bernician and Northumbrian kings after them expanded northwards, and according to Bede their influence spread beyond the English heartland in Lothian to control over the Welsh and Pictish kingdoms, until Edwin's defeat at Nehhtansmere.

In 642, the Annals of Ulster report that the Britons of Alt Clut led by Eugein son of Beli defeated the men of Dalriada and slew Domnall Brecc, grandson of Áedán, at Strathcarron, and this victory is also recorded in an addition to Y Gododdin. The site of this battle lies in the area known in later Welsh sources as Bannawg; the name Bannockburn is presumed to be related, which is thought to have meant the very extensive marshes and bogs between Loch Lomond and the River Forth, and the hills and lochs to the north, which separated the lands of the Britons from those of Dalriada and the Picts, and this land was not worth fighting over. However, the lands to the south and east of this waste, were controlled by smaller, nameless British kingdoms. Powerful neighbouring kings, whether in Alt Clut, Dál Riata, Pictland or Bernicia, would have imposed tribute on these petty kings, and wars for the overlordship of this area seem to have been regular events in the 6th to 8th centuries.

There are few definite reports of Alt Clut in the remainder of the 7th century, although it is possible that the Irish annals contain entries which may be related to Alt Clut. In the last quarter of the 7th century, a number of battles in Ireland, largely in areas along the Irish Sea coast, are reported where Britons take part. It is usually assumed that these Britons are mercenaries, or exiles dispossessed by some Anglo-Saxon conquest in northern Britain. However, it may be that these represent campaigns by kings of Alt Clut, whose kingdom was certainly part of the region linked by the Irish Sea. All of Alt Clut's neighbours, Northumbria, Pictland and Dál Riata, are known to have sent armies to Ireland on occasions.[6]

The Annals of Ulster in the early 8th century report two battles between Alt Clut and Dalriada, at "Lorg Ecclet" (unknown) in 711, and at "the rock called Minuirc" in 717. Whether their appearance in the record has any significance or whether it is just happenstance is unclear. Later in the 8th century, it appears that the Pictish king Óengus made at least three campaigns against Alt Clut, none successful. In 744 the Picts acted alone, and in 750 Óengus may have cooperated with Eadberht of Northumbria in a campaign in which Talorgan, brother of Óengus, was killed in a heavy Pictish defeat at the hands of Teudebur of Alt Clut, perhaps at Mugdock, near Milngavie. Eadberht is said to have taken the plain of Kyle in 750, around modern Ayr, presumably from Alt Clut.

Teudebur died around 752, and it was probably his son Dumnagual who faced a joint effort by Óengus and Eadberht in 756. The Picts and Northumbrians laid siege to Dumbarton Rock, and extracted a submission from Dumnagual. It is doubtful whether the agreement, whatever it may have been, was kept as Eadberht's army was all but wiped out, whether by their supposed allies or recent enemies is unclear, on its way back to Northumbria.

After this, little is heard of Alt Clut or its kings until the 9th century. The "burning", the usual term for capture, of Alt Clut is reported in 780, although by whom and what in what circumstances is not known. Thereafter Dunblane was burned by the men of Alt Clut in 849, perhaps in the reign of Artgal.

The Viking Age

In 870, an army led by the Viking chiefs Olaf and Ivarr (known in Irish as Amlaíb Conung and Ímar) laid siege to Alt Clut. The siege lasted some four months and led to the destruction of the citadel and the taking of a very large number of captives. The siege and capture are reported by Welsh and Irish sources, and the Annals of Ulster say that in 871, after overwintering on the Clyde:

Olaf [Amlaíb] and Ivarr [Ímar] returned to Dublin [Áth Cliath] from Alba with two hundred ships, bringing away with them in captivity to Ireland a great prey of Angles and Britons and Picts.

King Artgal mac Dumnagual, called "king of the Britons of Strathclyde", was among the captives, and it is reported that he was killed in Dublin in 872 at the instigation of Constantine I of Scotland. He was followed by his son Run of Alt Clut, who was married to Constantine's sister, Eochaid. The son of this marriage, may have been King of Strathclyde, or of the Kingdom of Scotland.

From this time forward, and perhaps from much earlier, the kingdom of Strathclyde was subject to periodic domination by the kings of the Scots. However, the earlier idea, that the heirs to the Scots throne ruled Strathclyde, or 'Cumbria' as an appanage, has relatively little support, and the degree of Scots control should not be overstated. This period probably saw a degree of Norse, or Norse-Gael settlement in Strathclyde. A number of place-names, in particular a cluster on the coast facing the Cumbraes, and monuments such as the hogback graves at Govan, are some of the remains of these newcomers.

A Welsh tradition in the Brut y Tywysogion claimed that in 890: "[t]he men of Strathclyde, those that refused to unite with the English, had to depart from their country and go into Gwynedd.". Later in thereign of King Edward of Wessex and in that of Athelstan, the kings of Wessex did extend their power far north, culminating at Brunanburh in 937.


In 927 Athelstan King of the English assumed the vacant throne of Northumbria and thus brought all the Kingdoms of the English together for the first time. In that year the Kings of Britain, including Athelstan, Owain of Strathclyde, Constantine of the Scots, Hywel of Wales and Ealdred High Reeve of Bamburgh, met at Eamotum (possibly Eamont Bridge or Dacre) to sign a treaty. However the birth of the new English power was a threat to the King of the Scots and his nephew, King Owain.

In 937, Athelstan King of the English, and the first to bear that title in earnest, faced an alliance of enemies; the Kings of Dublin, Scotland and Strathclyde. The armies met at the Battle of Brunanburh, an unknown location, and the result was a crushing victory for King Athelstan. Owain was slain in the field, as was Constantine's son; Constantine himself fled and abdicated. A poem in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claims it was the greatest slaughter the island has ever seen. It marked the end of Strathclyde's strength.

Following the battle of Brunanburh, Dyfnwal ab Owein became king of Strathclyde, perhaps reigning from c. 937 until 971. It has been supposed that he was installed as king by Malcolm I of Scotland, to whom Edmund of Wessex had "let" the kingdom of Strathclyde according to the Chronicle. Dyfnwal died, on pilgrimage in Rome, in 975. In this period, the kingdom of Strathclyde may have extended far to the south, perhaps beyond the Solway Firth. Local tradition in Cumberland recounts how 'Dunmail' (presumably Dyfnwal III) the so-called "Last King of Cumbria" was killed at the Battle of Dunmail Raise in 945. A large cairn on the boundary between Cumberland and Westmorland – thus the boundary between the Cumbrians and the English – marks where he is supposed to have fallen. His sons are said to have escaped up the nearby mountain and thrown the Cumbrian crown jewels into Grisedale Tarn before being themselves captured, blinded and castrated by the victorious English.

The End of Strathclyde

Though Strathclyde had become a client of the Kings of Scotland, there was some life in the ancient kingdom yet; Cuilén mac Iduilb and his brother Eochaid were slain by Amdarch of Strathclyde in 971, said to be in revenge for the rape or abduction of his daughter. Amdarch's successor, Máel Coluim, is often held to be one and the same as King Malcolm II of Scotland, though other research sugggests he was a son of the Domnall mac Eógain who died in Rome.[7] Malcolm appears to have been followed by Owen the Bald who is thought to have died at the battle of Carham in 1018. Owen’s successor is unknown.

At some time after 1018 and before 1054, the kingdom of Strathclyde appears to have suppressed at last by the Scots, most probably during the reign of Máel Coluim mac Cináeda who died in 1034.


The Keswick area absorbed by the Northumbrians in the seventh century, but when Northumbria was destroyed by the Vikings in the late ninth century local powers arose. In the early tenth century the fells became part of Strathclyde and these lands remained part of Strathclyde until about 1050, when Siward, Earl of Northumbria, conquered Cumberland.[8]

Carlisle was part of Scotland by 1066 and thus was not was not recorded in the 1086 Domesday Book. This changed in 1092, when William the Conqueror's son William Rufus invaded the region and incorporated Cumberland into England. The construction of Carlisle Castle began in 1093 on the site of the Roman fort, south of the River Eden. The castle was rebuilt in stone in 1112, with a keep and the city walls.

By the 1070s, if not earlier in the reign of Malcolm III, it appears that the Scots again controlled Strathclyde. It is certain that Strathclyde did indeed become an appanage, for it was granted by Alexander I to his brother David, later David I, in 1107.

Outside links


  1. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle  Laud Chronicle (874), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle  Parker Chronicle (875), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle  Parker Chronicle (920)
  2. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle  Peterborough / Worcester Chronicle (945) Her Eadmund cyning oferhergode eall Cumbra land, 7 hit let eall to Malculfe, Scotta cyninge: Here King Edmund harried all Cumbra land and granted it to Malcolm King of the Scots
  3. Alcock & Alcock, "Excavations at Alt Clut"; Koch, "The Place of Y Gododdin". Barrell, Mediæval Scotland, p. 44, supposes that the diocese of Glasgow established by David I in 1128 may have corresponded with the late kingdom of Strathclyde.
  4. Jackson, K.H. (1956) Language and History in Early Britain, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press
  5. Smyth, Warlords and Holy Men represents a work where the Britons are given prominence, but others have concentrated on Dalriada. At present, the division appears to be between Scots, Irish and "north British" scholars and Anglo-Saxonists. Leslie Alcock, Kings and Warriors, could be taken as representing a "north British (and Irish)" perspective.
  6. The Northumbrians in 684, the Picts in the 730s and the Dál Riata on many occasions.
  7. Duncan, Kingship of the Scots, pp. 23–24.
  8. Charles-Edards, pp. 12, 575; Clarkson, pp. 12, 63-66, 154-58


  • Alcock, Leslie, Kings and Warriors, Craftsmen and Priests in Northern Britain AD 550–850. Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2003. ISBN 0-903903-24-5
  • Barrell, A.D.M., Mediæval Scotland. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000. ISBN 0-521-58602-X
  • Duncan, A.A.M., The Kingship of the Scots 842–1292: Succession and Independence. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2002. ISBN 0-7486-1626-8
  • Hanson, W.S., "Northern England and southern Scotland: Roman Occupation" in Michael Lynch (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Scottish History. Oxford UP, Oxford, 2001. ISBN 0-19-211696-7
  • Koch, John, "The Place of 'Y Gododdin' in the History of Scotland" in Ronald Black, William Gillies and Roibeard Ó Maolalaigh (eds) Celtic Connections. Proceedings of the 10th International Congress of Celtic Studies, Volume One. Tuckwell, East Linton, 1999. ISBN 1-898410-77-1
  • Smyth, Alfred P (1984). Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland AD 80–1000. Edward Arnold. ISBN 0-7131-6305-4. 
  • Stenton, Frank (1971). Anglo-Saxon England (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-280139-5. 

Further reading

  • Barrow, G W S, Kingship and Unity: Scotland 1000–1306. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, (corrected edn) 1989. ISBN 0-7486-0104-X
  • Charles-Edwards, T. M. (2013). Wales and the Britons 350–1064. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-821731-2. 
  • Clarkson, Tim (2014). Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age. Edinburgh: John Donald. ISBN 978 1 906566 78 4. 
  • Edmonds, Fiona (October 2014). "The Emergence and Transformation of Mediæval Cumbria". The Scottish Historical Review XCIII, 2 (237): 195-216. doi:10.3366/shr.2014.0216. 
  • Foster, Sally M., Picts, Gaels, and Scots: Early Historic Scotland. Batsford, London, 2nd edn, 2004. ISBN 0-7134-8874-3
  • Higham, N.J., The Kingdom of Northumbria AD 350–1100. Sutton, Stroud, 1993. ISBN 0-86299-730-5
  • Jackson, Kenneth H., "The Britons in southern Scotland" in Antiquity, vol. 29 (1955), pp. 77–88. ISSN 0003-598X .
  • Lowe, Chris, Angels, Fools and Tyrants: Britons and Anglo-Saxons in Southern Scotland. Canongate, Edinburgh, 1999. ISBN 0-86241-875-5
  • Woolf, Alex (2001). "Britons and Angles". in Lynch, Michael. The Oxford Companion to Scottish History. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199234820.