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The Irish Scots of Dalriada - or were they?
By Peter Lawrie, ©2003 - revised 2020

I wrote this article in 2003, having read the 2001 article "Were the Scots Irish?" by Ewan Campbell of the University of Glasgow department of Archaeology. [1] It goes against the conventional dogma that Gaelic speaking peoples colonised the West Highland coastline of Argyll in the 6th century AD.

Campbell attributed the claimed migrations of the Irish into Argyll to a set of elite origin myths, finding no support in archaeological evidence. He went on to ask how the Iron Age populations of Argyll established and changed their personal and group identity.

He said that historical sources for the origin of Dál Riata in Argyll are cryptically brief and allusive. Gaelic place name studies offer only some assistance. Ptolemy named the people of Kintyre as the Epidii.  The earliest ‘Irish’ Annals were written at Iona between 563 and 740 AD and deal with the leaders of the cenéla who made up the Dál Riata of Antrim and in Kintyre and Argyll during the 5th century. Bede named the leader of the Dál Riata in Antrim as Reuda. There is fragmentary Irish evidence suggesting a leader named Cairpre Riata leading a migration to Argyll ten generations or so earlier than 500 AD. Ten generations implies between two and three hundred years, but it could equally mean the succession of ten leaders of the derbfine which might be significantly less than patrilineal succession, perhaps placing the origins of Dál Riata in the mid fourth century. Ammianus Marcellinus wrote of raids in 360 “… et Scoti per diversi vagantes multa populabantur” – “and the Scots wandering about various parts ravaged many peoples”. Roberston, citing Bede, claimed that this statement indicated that the ‘Scoti’ were not native but Irish. MacLauchlan, by contrast, claimed that these Scots were natives of the West of Alba. Fergus mac Erc, leader of the Dál Riata is recorded in the oldest surviving version of the Annals of Tigernach as having died in 501. A 10th century version of the Senchus fer nAlban mentions two other kindreds claimed to be the sons of Erc but probably earlier. These were the Cenél Loairn in Lorn and Cenél nOengusa in Islay. Together with the Cenél Comgaill in Cowal and Cenél nGábrain in Kintyre, founded by the grandsons of Fergus, these groups formed the kingdom of Dál Riata, which would war with the Picts, Britons and Angles between the 6th and 9th centuries.

According to Adomnán, The Cenél nGábrain appear to have been leaders both of the Scottish and Antrim Dál Riata during the sixth and seventh centuries. Aedan Mac Gábhrain conquered adjacent Pictish territory and Gartnait Mac Aedan became a king of the Picts. The convention of Druim Cett in 575 suggested that Scottish Dál Riata dominated the Antrim settlement rather than the other way around. Evidence appears to suggest that Dál Riata were the least significant of the peoples of Antrim and did not share in the alternating kingship. Until recently, the accepted view has been that the Scoti from Antrim carved out a kingdom for themselves in Pictland, but it appears just as likely that there had been settlement in Antrim by a group from the western coastline of Scotland. Irish sources mention the Dal nAraide as being Cruithne, or Picts. The Irish Sea presented no barrier to a sea-faring people and regular two-way migration must have taken place during the Iron Age and earlier. Domhnal Brecc appears to have lost control of the Antrim territory in 637. Modern scholastic opinion is that the Picts spoke a form of P-Celtic, akin to Welsh, while the Góidil of Ireland and Dalriada spoke Gaelic, a Q-Celtic language. Robertson, among others, in the 19th century argued on the basis of place-names that the Pictish peoples were, in fact, Q-Celtic Góidils and that the Scoti of Dál Riata formed an insignificant contribution in terms of numbers and language to the kingdom of Alba.  Modern scholarship does not accept much of Robertson’s arguments as they were based on 18th and 19th century written transcripts of surviving oral tradition. Having been preserved by Gaelic seannachies for many centuries, any original non-Gaelic contribution can hardly be detected. Adomnán recorded that aged Artbranan was the chief commander of a warband in the region of Cé (Mar and Buchan). He received the word of God from Columba through an interpreter.  The need for an interpreter was referred to in another of Columba’s missionary journeys to Pictland.  While the obvious conclusion is that the Q-Celtic Dalriads and the P-Celtic Picts were mutually unintelligible, this does not infer that the Dalriads were of Irish origin, merely that at this time they were speaking the same language as in Antrim. No written sources of the Pictish language have survived and a few words from Ogham “do not amount to much”. Among those few words, maqq or meqq suggest the Gaelic ‘son of’ rather than the Welsh ap.

Analysis of the seven surviving versions of the Pictish king lists is inconclusive, but recent scholarship is suggesting that the Picts may have spoken an earlier form of Q-Celtic Goidelic, more akin to Irish than a Brythonic language. Archaeologists are often unable to distinguish between Iron Age sites and early medieval occupations. However, there is archaeological evidence of distinctions between ‘Pictland’ and Dalriada. Brochs were erected from as early as 6th century BC up to around 100AD. Their distribution is overwhelmingly in Orkney and Shetland; in the North Highlands (Ptolemaic tribal areas of the Cornovii, Caerini, Smertae, Decantae and Carnonacae); Skye and the Hebrides from Mull northwards; a very few among the Venicones and Votadini of the East, north and south of the Forth; and finally a small number among the Novantae of the South West. Almost none are found in the Ptolemaic tribal area of the Epidii that became Dalriada.  Many sculptured stones date from the 7th to 9th centuries. Invariably these are found in the east and north of Pictland. Jackson records none in the area west of Drumalban or south of Mull.   The boar symbol carved at Dunadd is sometimes held to be Pictish, but need not be so or might commemorate a period of Pictish occupation. All pit- place names are found east of Drumalban.  This evidence appears to indicate a clear difference from at least 100BC up until the 9th century between the area of Dalriada and Pictland to the east and north. Adomnán identifies Drumalban as the boundary between the two races.

If Dál Riata was a colonisation by Gaels from Antrim it may be expected that they would replicate the settlements they had left in Ireland. Available evidence does not support this. A type of settlement known as a ring-fort or rath, with earth banks surrounding houses and byres is not found in Dál Riata, despite the availability of suitable sites, but is extremely common in Ireland. Drystone structures called duns are rare in Ireland but common in the west coastal area from Skye to Ayrshire, including Dál Riata. Duns in Dál Riata have been dated to the early Iron Age (~500BC), although there is very little dating evidence, it has been suggested that some may have been continually occupatied up until the early medieval period. Scottish crannogs can also be dated to the early Iron Age, but no Irish example has been dated earlier than the 6th century AD.  Apart from a few examples in Kintyre, hill forts, a common form in the East and South, are not found in Dál Riata.

From the Iron Age and throughout the first millennium AD there is little archaeological evidence of change in material culture in Dál Riata. While the elite imported fashionable glass and pottery from Europe, basic pottery in Western Scotland continued unchanged from the Iron Age and remained distinct from corresponding Irish artefacts.  Spearheads and knives are similar in both Ireland and Dál Riata but are also found in Pictland, indicating a widespread trade. Personal ornamentation, such as brooches shows quite distinct differences. Ogham pillars are found in hundreds across Ireland, but only two examples occur in Argyll.

There is almost no archaeological evidence to support the traditional view of migration from Ireland and some evidence to support the view that there was considerable influence in the opposite direction, from Scotland to Ireland.  Some early genealogies were evidently re-written in the 10th century to bolster contemporary claimants to the Scottish throne. These practices continued in the 15th and 16th centuries when the mythically ancient origins of the Scots kingdom were extended back in time by Boece and Major to include the pharaohs of Egypt and Kings of Troy. Late medieval Highland clans similarly used myths of descent from ancient Irish kings to bolster their seniority.

The ease of movement by sea between the western seaboard and Ireland may have contributed to a community of interest among distinct peoples. It is arguable whether a shared language was the result or a contributory factor to such a community. The Epidii, as a result of geographical isolation and links with Antrim, may have missed out on the northward spread and development of Brythonic P-Celtic on the eastern side of Drumalban, which may have partly overlaid an earlier Goidelic Q-Celtic language in, at least, part of Pictland. The probability is that both Q-Celtic and P-Celtic languages survived alongside each other over much of Scotland. Later the Kings of Dál Riata found it convenient to use a myth of common origin to bind their territories in Antrim with the Argyll lands.  If a Brythonic P-Celtic language had been an elite introduction into much of the North, then it is possible that the Q-Celtic Goidelic tongue may have survived more among the commonality, facilitating the later re-introduction of Gaelic across Alba in the 9th and 10th centuries. In the same way, the uncouth tongue of the Saxon would re-emerge in England after the centuries in which Norman French had been the language of the elite. Robertson may have been correct in his conclusions about the antiquity of Gaelic in Alba, despite his flawed argument.

So, if there were Q-Celtic peoples in both Antrim and Dál Riata before 500AD, where did they originate? The Q-Celts may have arrived in Ireland as early as 500BC, language and DNA studies suggest they came by sea from Western Spain. A people capable of safely navigating from Spain to Ireland would have no difficulty travelling the short distance from Antrim to southern Argyll on the Scottish mainland. Travel across the short sea passage would have been considerably easier than over the mountains of Druim Albainn to the east. The probability is that was a community of peoples on either side of the channel between Antrim and Argyll well before 500AD. The peoples labelled as Epidii in modern Argyll by the Romans in the 1st century AD were probably Q-Celts. So how to account for the stories written by Bede (who never left his Northumbrian monastery)? Perhaps there was a movement of a Góidil group led by Fergus Mac Erc in 500 AD from Antrim to Dál Riata, but I suspect this 'invasion' may have been no more than a replacement at the top level of the tribal Society which later legend has mutated into a population replacement.

Therefore Ewen Campbell's paper pointing out that archaeology suggests movements of cultural forms in the late Iron Age from Argyll back to Ireland rather than the other way around would be perfectly consistent with this.

The legacy
Moving from the Dark Ages to more modern times and speaking purely personally - (This and subsequent paragraphs are my opinions and do not refer in any way to Ewan Campbell's paper),. Why does the academic establishment cling to the dogma which is repeated in every book on ancient Scottish History that, following the departure of the Romans, the barbarian Scotti from Ireland, colonised Dál Riata - modern Argyll - and brought their language with them? Has there been an agenda to denigrate the status of the Gaelic people in Scotland and why would this be?. Does it matter?

There is a long history of such denigration of the Gael. Before the Reformation the language, known as Scottis, of the people of Scotland was Gaelic. The great majority of the Medieval population spoke it, while the language of the east Lowlands, the legacy of the extinct Anglian kingdom of Northumbria, was known as Inglis. Post reformation, Scottis became the name for the Anglian-derived language which had spread from the Lothians, while the Gaelic language became known, derisively, as Erse. As late as the mid 18th century it was estimated that more than a quarter of the population of Scotland spoke Gaelic.

Laurel Bush says "Erse is actually a Norse form of the word Irish and was not originally derogatory. But later, it was used to characterise the Gaelic of Alba, previously called Scottis, as foreign to Britain and Scotland." . [2]

Ireland, unlike Scotland, did not reform its religion in the 16th century and this religious division increased Lowland antipathy to Gaelic speakers. While Lowland Scotland became fervently Presbyterian, the Highland, Gaelic-speaking region proved reluctant to change until much later. Bible-wielding Lowland Scots presbyterians were encouraged in the 17th century to colonise Ulster, in order to dispossess the natives and break the military link with West Highland gall óglaigh (Gallowglass) mercenaries. Their Union-flag waving, "Loyalist", descendants in Ulster celebrate annually their victory over the natives at the Boyne in 1690, while their DUP elected representatives collapsed the devolved Stormont executive rather than agree to a small degree of support for the Gaelic language in Northern Ireland.

It appears to me that post-Reformation Presbyterian historiography had an agenda to promote its own brand of religion and historical justification was required for this. Scottish historians up to the 20th century all followed this same line. In order to promote the reformed religion it was necessary to marginalise and denigrate the contribution of the Gael to Scotland.

John Pinkerton (1758-1826) was a noted proponent of this view, asserting that the Celts were incapable of assimilating the highest forms of civilisation. Pinkerton very much wished to purge his country's history of all Celtic elements. In this aim, through two works, the "Dissertation on the Origins and Progress of the Scythians or Goths" (1787) and the "Enquiry into the History of Scotland preceding the reign of Malcolm III" (1789), he developed the theory that the Picts were in fact of the race of ancient Goths, that the Scots language was a pure descendant of the Picto-Gothic language; and, moreover, that the Gaels, or Highlanders, were a degenerate impostor race. Pinkerton's correspondence with fellow academics is characterised by verbal abuse. Hugh Trevor-Roper, one modern historian inclined to sympathise with at least the spirit of his views, called him "eccentric." Other historians have hinted at mild insanity. Despite this, Pinkerton is still an important figure in the history of British antiquarianism. [3]

The Gaelic-speaking peoples of the Highlands also became largely associated with armed support for the Stuart monarchy from the mid 17th century up until the last Jacobite Rising of 1745, (although not all the clans supported them). The brutality of the ethnic cleansing which followed Culloden probably owed as much to Lowland Scots antipathy to the Gaelic Highlander as it did to Hanoverian insecurity on the throne of the Great Britain. It has to be noted that some of the worst post-Culloden atrocities were perpetrated by Scots, not by the English, although the commander, 'Butcher' Cumberland deservedly has been labelled as most responsible. For instance, Captain John Ferguson of the sloop HMS Furnace was from Aberdeenshire and was reported to have a deep hatred of Highlanders and a justified reputation for cruelty.

Our written History has become largely shaped by this anti-Gaelic antipathy. Hence when Ewan Campbell dares to question the received wisdom, the chorus of opposition is not surprising. Whether the Gaels came into Argyll in 500BC or 500AD may seem dry and uninteresting to many, but the historical debate has a lot to do which much more recent history and its legacy remains with us today. For example, in the recent outcry in Dundee (Gaelic: Dłn Dč ) against the proposal to introduce a small number of bilingual English/Gaelic signage to some public buildings. It is strange that many of the critics of such pro-Gaelic moves, themselves bear names of Gaelic origin! Among the criticisms it was stated that, in the most recent census, three times as many people in Dundee spoke Polish, and speakers of South Asian languages also outnumbered the 470 local Gaelic speakers. This attitude completely misses the point that Polish, Urdu, and other languages all have metropolitan states where the language is used and protected. Scots Gaelic depends for its survival, solely, on the majority of people in Scotland whose ancestors once spoke it in their daily lives.