The Battle of Dunnichen….known also as Nechtansmere….is deemed to be one of the most significant of the many battles fought in Dark Age Scotland, settling as it did, political power for several centuries to come, in the area between Hadrian’s Wall and the Firth of Forth.
Its importance is indicated in its rating a mention in all of the key commentaries of the times: Bede, Nennius, the Annals of Ulster, the Annals of Tigernach to name but a few.
As with that earlier battle of great significance, Mons Graupius, fought almost exactly six centuries earlier, its exact location has long been lost….in the mists of time.
We DO have a monument, though. And that is placed where most consider the battle to have been fought, in the village of Dunnichen, a few miles east of Forfar. That the engagement is remembered and commemorated with such splendour is a cause for celebration in itself.
While we might be uncertain of exactly where it was fought we do know a number of other things about the battle. Principally that the Picts won a comprehensive victory over a Northumbrian army which had come north the re-instate their previous domination. And with this victory they re-established their position as an independent people, right through until their unification with the Scots under Kenneth MacAlpine in 843.
Northumbria, as a political entity, had come into being after the unification of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira, which was completed, after a protracted and stormy struggle in 654. Within a few years the Northumbrians appeared to have imposed themselves on the Picts to the north. Bristling under this the Picts rose up in 671 but were heavily defeated at the Battle of the Two Rivers. Yet another ancient battlefield whose precise location is a mystery today. The only source for this encounter, Stephen of Ripon’s Vita Sancti Wilifrithi, records that, following the battle, the Picts were “reduced to slavery and subject to the yoke of captivity for the next 14 years”.
In 685 Bridei III was King of the Picts, having come to the throne in the aftermath of the disaster of the Battle of the Two Rivers in 671. The Northumbrians were ruled by Ecgfirth, cousin to Bridei, who had led the Northumbrians at the Two Rivers Battle.
One way or another Bridei was deemed to have cast of the yoke of captivity of his people and Ecgfrith duly led another army north to re-impose his suzerainty. Despite, it is alleged, much advice to the contrary.
The placing of the battle site at the eponymous village of Dunnichen is primarily etimilogical. And a similar case has been made for Dunachtan, 60 miles further north at Loch Insh in Badenoch. And while this more northerly location may stretch credulity a little….stranger things have happened….we may never know.
After their dismal showing at the Battle of the Two Rivers, Bridei’s Picts seem to have given this encounter more thought and utilised a stratagem of a feigned retreat, drawing the Northumbrian army on then ambushing them at a narrow point between the hills. The absence of any significant hills in the Dunnichen area is an issue but need not be a showstopper.
In any event Ecgfrith’s army was completely destroyed and the unfortunate king with it. The Picts were re-established in their sovereignty and, also, from this point is commonly determined the beginning of the decline of the Northumbrian kingdom.
There exist in the village of Aberlemno, only six miles from Dunnichen, a number of carved Pictish stones dating back to the period in question. On the rear of Aberlemno Stone 2 is a clear battle scene, believed by many to be representative of the very battle. Perhaps the conclusive piece of evidence concerning the location of the battle field.