Scotland's Story: The Strathclyde Britons

The Britons of Strathclyde or the Strathclyde Welsh

by Robert M Gunn© 1996-2012
All Rights Reserved, by all international copyright law exclusively to the author and ©Skye-Net, RM Gunn

An important kingdom in Scotland’s infant history is that of the Britons: specifically the Britons of Strathclyde. One of the four main groups left after the Romans, (others are Picts, Angles, Scots) were the Britons or the Britons of Strathclyde. They would dominate the west of lower Scotland, Cumbria and some of Northern England. Their lands stretched through Strathclyde south through Cumbria to Wales. These are most likely the Celtic people that helped settle Wales, or at the very least were strongly associated with the Welsh both in culture and language.

Map showing the areas of the Picts, Scots, Britons and Angles in the 7th-10 centuries although these borders shifted often.

This kingdom included not only Strathclyde, but also Cumbria in northwest England. It is from these Britons, and their related cousins in England and Wales, where Britain gets its name. They spoke an ancient from of Celtic language that has been classified as Brythonic or Brittonic. It is identified by linguists as a member of the P-Celtic form of languages spoken by other Britons, Welsh and Cornish. Their center was at Dumbarton, or ‘Alcluyd’ as it was then called, and meant “fortress of the Britons”.

An important kingdom in the history of Scotland is that of the Britons: specifically the Britons of Strathclyde. After Roman rule was withdrawn from Britain at the beginning of the 5th century, several kingdoms gradually emerged. That which was later called Strathclyde was based on the British tribal division of the Damnonii around Dumbarton, or Alcluith, “the Rock of the Clyde.” At its greatest extent, Strathclyde stretched as far south and southeast as to include Galloway and Cumbria. Linguists classify the language of the ancient Britons as a Brythonic (or Brittonic) a P-Celtic branch of the Celtic languages.

The Dumbarton Rock, right.

From the 7th century onwards it was probably confined to the basin of the Clyde, together with the adjacent coast districts, Ayrshire, & c., on the west of Scotland. Its capital was Dumbarton (fortress of the Britons), then known as Aiclyde. On the south this kingdom bordered on the territories of the Niduari Picts of Galloway, including the modern counties of Wigtown and Kirkcudbright, a region which from the middle of the 7th century seems to have been in the possession of the Northumbrians. Strathclyde is also sometimes called Cumbria, or Cumberland, and the survival of the latter name on the English side of the border preserves the memory of a period when the territories of the northern Welsh were of much greater extent, which we shall look at in the coming paragrapahs. Though it is perhaps not certain that the race possessed political unity at that time. Of the origin of the kingdom of the North Britons we have little information, but there seems little reason to doubt that they were the dominant people in southern Scotland before the Roman invasion.

A mid-5th century ruler, Ceretic was accused by St Patrick of capturing young Irish men and women and selling them as slaves to the Picts. It is not recorded that Ceretic ceased his trading, and no doubt the profitability of the slave trade helped establish the strong kingdom of Alcluith. Patrick wrote a second time to admonish the king.

In one account of Patrick’s life, Ceretic apparently had a premonition that his time had come and, in full view of his court, he was transformed into a fox and ran away. Patrick identifies himself as a Briton in his works, his autobiographical Confession and his Letter to Ceretic. He was captured as a young man from his father’s estate, possibly in Cumbria, and escaped from captivity in Ireland after about six years. He later returned to Ireland as a missionary, and his success is legendary.

As the Scots were being taught Christianity by Columba at Iona, the Britons were being educated in the gospels by a missionary named Mungo (dearest beloved). His real name was Kentigern and Glasgow became his center. Today you will still hear people refer to Glasgow as the city of St. Mungo and the cathedral is the Cathedral of St. Mungo. The Britons were quicker to accept Christian teachings than either the Picts or the Angles.

King Rhydderch Hen (the Old) summoned Kentigern from the monastery the saint built at Llanelwy, as the king sought to spread Christianity throughout the land. Reigning c580-612, Rhydderch’s Christian practice was probably exceptional in his time, for he was also called Rhydderch Hael, “the Generous”.

It is recorded that Rhydderch and Kentigern died in the year 612. The present splendid Glasgow Cathedral, which is mainly medieval, is built over Kentigern’s tomb.

Following Rhydderch’s reign, the Angles of Northumbria and the Scots of Dalriada dominated the north of Britain, but Owen, reigning from 633-c45, restored the supremacy of Strathclyde, especially with a decisive victory over the Scots at the battle of Strathcarron in 642. The Northumbrian kingdom grew into a great power in the following decades, but at the battle of Nechtansmere in 685 (more on this very important battle later).

The Cumbrian countryside

The Britons occupied the Southwestern part of Scotland and the Northwest of England, known as Cumbria. Like modern Northumberland, it is important to understand that ancient Cumbria’s borders are not the same as Cumbria today. Cumbria is the latinized word for Cymry or Cymru, as in modern Welsh. This may very well have been the home of the legendary Arthur, whose fame included a series of 12 battles against the pagan Anglo-Saxons, though, for the present, this remains legend. This was the time of the Dark Ages in Britain.


The Govan Saccophagus, courtesy Glasgow Uni Archeaology Dept.

The Govan Sarcophagus is an enigmatic monument currently situated inside Govan Old Parish Church in Glasgow. The sarcphagus was found, buried under several feet of soil, in 1855. Since then it has been the source of intense debate and speculation regarding the significance of the ornate sculptures that adorn its surface. Govan was the most important religious site in the Britonnic Kingdom of Strathclyde. Archaeological digs have revealed that a curved side of the graveyard follows the line of a Dark Age boundary ditch that would have marked out an ancient monastic enclosure.

Inside the church is the Govan Sarcophagus, believed to belong to St Constantine, but probably belonging to a king called Constantine who ruled Strathclyde in the 9th Century. Originally 3 sarcophagi were discovered but the others have now vanished. The artefact is now studied at the University of Glasgow.

According to some verifiable accounts and some of the legends, we understand that during Teudebur’s reign as king of Strathclyde, 722-52, the ascendance was with the Picts under their powerful king, Angus, who dominated northern Britain during the period 730-750. However Teudebur overcame the Picts at the battle of Mygedawg in 750. Angus survived the battle, but his brother Talorgen was killed. Angus lent his help to Eadbert of Northumbria to attack Dumbarton in 756. Dumbarton fell, but, on the homeward journey, the combined army was engaged by the Britons and devastated. Still, the kingdom of Strathclyde may have been subordinate to Northumbria for much of the next century.

The Castle as it once appeared at Loch Doon

Artgal was probably ruler from sometime in the 850s until 872. From late in the 8th century the power of Northumbria had been on the decline, but the rise in power of the Scots under Kenneth MacAlpin, and the start of Viking raids along the western coast, did not work in Artgal’s favor.

Such notices as we have of the history of Strathclyde in the 7th-9th centuries are preserved only in the chronicles of the surrounding nations and even these supply us with little more than an incomplete record of wars with the neighboring Scots, Picts and Northumbrians. It is probable that the Britons were allied with the Scots when Aidan, the king of the latter, invaded Northumbria in A.D. 597. In 642, however, we find the two Celtic peoples at war with one another, for in that year the Britons under their king Owen defeated and slew the Scottish king Domnail Breac. In the same year they came into conflic,t with the Northumbrian king Oswold. In 649 there appears to have been a battle between the Britons and the Picts, but about, this time the former must have become subject to the Northumbrian kingdom. They recovered their independence, however, after the defeat of Ecgfrith by the Picts in 685 at Dunnichen (Nechtnasmere - an important battle we shall examine next time in detail.

In 711 and again in 717 we hear of further wars between the Britons and the Scots of Dalriada, the former being defeated in both years.

Dumbarton - recent view

Towards the middle of the 8th century Strathclyde was again threatened by an alliance between the Northumbrians and Picts, and in 750 the Northumbrian king Eadberht wrested from them a considerable part of their territories in the west including parts of Ayrshire. In 756 the North Britons are said to havn been forced into submission and from this time onwards we hear very little of their history, though occasional references to the deaths of their kings show that the kingdom still continued to exist.

In 870 Dumbarton was attacked and destroyed after four months siege by the Scandinavian king Ivarr, and for some time after this the country was exposed to ravages by the Norsemen. The Vikings besieged Dumbarton Rock for four months in 870-1, cutting off the water supply. Thus in 871 Dumbarton was destroyed, and many inhabitants were abducted into slavery. Artgal was murdered in the following year through the treachery of Constantine, king of the Scots. King Eochaid ruled the last years of Strathclyde’s independence. He allied himself with Giric of Scotland, both of whom reigned from c.878-889. Donald, the son of Constantine, killed Giric at Dundurn and deposed king Eochaid. He became Donald II of Scotland and imposed rule over Strathclyde until his death in the year 900. Within the first year of the Scottish king’s rule, many of the surviving British nobles fled to northern Wales, to the court of Anarawd of Gwynedd.

Scottish rule continued until 908, when the kingship of Strathclyde was reestablished. The British again had some form of control, but Strathclyde existed as a sub-kingdom that was usually ruled by the heir to the Scottish throne. Strathclyde effectively merged with Scotland after Owen the Bald, fighting alongside the Scots, was killed at the Battle of Carham in 1018. This important victory over Northumbria regained Lothian for Scotland.

It is believed that the native dynasty came to an end early in the 10th century and that the subsequent kings belonged to a branch of the Scottish royal family. At the end of the reign of Edward the Elder (925) the Britons of Strathclyde submitted to that king together with all the other princes of the north.

In the reign of his successor AEthelstan, however, they joined with the Scots and Norwegians in attempts to overthrow the English supremacy, attempts which were ended by their defeat at the battle of Brunanburh in 937. In 945-46? Strathclyde was ravaged by King Edmund and given over to the Scottish king Malcolm I. The fall of the kingdom was only temporary, for we hear of a defeat of the Scottish king Cuilean by the Britons in 971.

In the 11th century Strathclyde appears to have been finally incorporated in the Scottish kingdom, and the last time we hear of one of its kings is at the battle of Carham in 1018 when the British king Owen fought in alliance with Malcolm II.

A Briton or early Welsh archer.
Cumbria was lost to and regained from England several times, until finally lost in 1092, when the Norman king William Rufus fortified Carlisle. Expanding from the Lennox district south through Dumfriesshire, west to the Firth of Clyde, Strathclyde was once a powerful realm in its own right.

Until Scotland increased in the 11th century and Gaelic became the dominant language, Strathclyde likely remained Cumbric-speaking. At that time Cumbric agreed closely with Welsh, which now survives as the Brittonic/Brythonic language (that is both written and spoken) in Britain. At the close of the 11th century, the southern border of Scotland was constituted nearly to that of present day. Consequently, this region’s history remains inherent in the history of Scotland.

The Britons in Summary:

* After the collapse of the Kingdom of Dumbarton in the 870s the Britons started to fill the vacuum that the Vikings had left in their wake. The Britonnic king, Artgal, had been murdered by Constantine, the son of Kenneth MacAlpine, but the Britons replaced him with Rhun and started to rebuild a new kingdom known as Strathclyde. It stretched along the Clyde valley and from Govan in Glasgow down to Penrith in Cumbria. Its royal centre was at Cadzow, near Hamilton, with Partick, in Glasgow, serving as a royal hunting forest.

* In 878 the Britons may have gained revenge on the house of MacAlpine when Eochaid, son of Rhun, and his foster father, Giric, forced the house of MacAlpine from the Kingship of Pictland, however, in 889 they returned and expelled Giric and Eochaid.

* For the Britons this may have been a disaster. The following year, Welsh sources note, the men of Strathclyde who didn’t accept the new order, went into exile and settled in Gwynedd (or Wales). Following this exodus, Strathclyde seems to have become a sub-kingdom of the new Pictish and Gaelic Kingdom of Alba, with its royal line related to the Kings of Alba.

* The last king of Strathclyde, Owein the Bald, died fighting for Malcolm II, King of Alba, at the Battle of Carham.

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