Fortriu & Grandtully’s Nechtansmere

A few years ago, Alex Woolf promoted a theory that the Pictish region known as Fortriu/Fortrenn was up near Moray & that the Battle of Dun Necthan was fought up there as well.  It was all very well done & ultimately wrong, as an almost too easy piece of Chispology has just helped me to hone in Fortriu, which re-opened the search for the Battle of Dun Necthan / Nechtansmere – which I have also solved.

First things first, Fortriu means river of the Fort, clearly the River Forth which starts out in the western belt of Scotland, meanders by Stirling & empties into the North Sea via the Firth of Forth, at whose mouth lies the island of Fidra. ‘Riu’ means ‘river’ in Old Occitan, a language spoken in southern France, including the region of Aquitaine.  Quite unsurprisingly there is a record of the Picts COMING from Aquitaine, & at a fell stroke we can now see at least one of the lingual roots of Pictish.  While Big Geoff describes a certain Goffar the Pict as  a king of Aquitaine c.1000 BC, Walter Bower’s Scotichronicon tells us;

After a long time had passed in which the Scots had lived in peaceful & quiet prosperity, a certain unknown people, later called the Picts, appeared from the lands of Aquitania & landed on the Irish shores

Among the Pictish King List’s names for the seven Pictish regions in their deepest antiquity, the name ‘Fidach,’ immediately resonates with Aquitane & Languedoc. We can also link the ‘renn’ variant to a river, for ‘renne’ means flow, or run, in Old Norwegian & I have covered the Scandinavian influence on the Picts elsewhere. We’ll come back to Fortriu at the end of this post, but lets have a pop at finding Nechtansmere for now.


The Battle of Dun Necthan / Nechtansmere between Egrid of the Angles & the Pictish King, Brude son of Beli  was one of the most important of the British Dark Ages. It bloodied the nose of the Angles & halted their drive north, in essence preserving the Picto-Scottish union which would develop over the next few centuries & crystallize as the nation of Scotland. The locating of its site has been controversial, but my Chispology these days is going thro’ the roof, & I believe that Nechtansmere was fought by the village of Grandtully, a small Tayside village in Perthshire, about 3 miles from Pitlochry.

In essence there are seven bullet points which we can use to hone in on the battle site. Looking at them in 2019 means most of the evidence needs to be altered in order to compensation for 14 centuries of factual & philological distortion. These clues are garnered from several brief accounts we have of the battle as contained in antique & written sources.


In the year 685, Egfrid, king of the Northumbrians rashly led his army to ravage the province of the Picts… the enemy made a feigned retreat, and the king was drawn into a narrow pass among remote mountains, and slain, with the greater part of the forces he had led thither.

The battle of Dún Nechtain was fought on Saturday, May 20th, and Egfrid son of Oswy, king of the Saxons, who had completed the 15th year of his reign, was slain therein with a great body of his soldiers
Annals of Ulster

Egfrid is he who made war against his cousin Brudei, king of the Picts, and he fell therein with all the strength of his army and the Picts with their king gained the victory; and the Saxons never again reduced the Picts so as to exact tribute from them. Since the time of this war it is called Gueith Lin Garan.
Historia Brittonum

In the very year that he had Cuthbert ordained bishop & in fulfillment of his father’s prophecy, King Ecgfrith was killed with most of the forces he was leading to lay waste the land of the Picts at a place called Nechtansmere (that is Nechtan’s water) on 20 May in the fifteenth year of his reign, & his body was buried on Iona, the island of Columba.
Symeon of Durham

The battle of Dún Nechtain was carried out on the twentieth day of the month of May, a Sunday, in which Ecfrith son of Osu, king of the Saxons, in the 15th year of his rule completed, with magna caterua of his soldiers was killed by Bruide son of Bile king of Fortriu.
Annals of Tigernach

Today Bridei gives battle
Over the land (inheritance) of his grandfather
Unless it is the wish of the son of God
That restitution be made.
Today the son of Oswig was slain
In battle against iron swords;
Even though he did penance,
It was penance too late.
Today the son of Oswig was slain,
Who was wont to have our dark drinks;
Christ heard our prayer
That Bredei would avenge Brega
(A poem found in a single MS in the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland,
attributed to Riaguil of Bangor)



Clue 1: Bredei would avenge Brega.

The mention of Brega suggests that the Nechtansmere campaign was linked to the attacks on the Celtic church in Ireland the previous year.

AU 684: A great storm. An earthquake in the Island. The Saxons wasted Magh-Bregh (in Ireland), and several churches, in the month of June.

ACL 684: This year Everth sent an army against the Scots, under the command of his alderman, Bright (Brecht), who lamentably plundered and burned the churches of God.

Everth is a philochisp of Egrid, whose motive was some form of Dark Age jihad, a bout of holy warfare over the date of Easter. In 664, the great Northumbrian King Oswiu had overseen a synod at Whitby, where the date for Easter was high on the agenda. The Roman Catholic Church had come up with a different date from the Celtic church, who obstinately refused to alter their traditional dates. Twenty years later, King Ecgfrith attacked the Celtic Church in Ireland. The mention of MAGH-BREGH by the AU is highly significant, for it was a centre of Easter worship in Ulster, as confirmed by the Tripartite Life of Saint Patrick;

When the solemnity of Easter approached, Patrick considered that there was no place more suitable to celebrate the high solemnity of the year than in Magh-Bregh, the place where the head of the idolatry and druidism of Erinn was… as the people of Tara were thus, they saw the consecrated Easter fire at a distance which Patrick had lighted. It illuminated all Magh-Bregh.

The Picts also worshipped in the Celtic way, & in the very next year it seems Ecgfrith was personally leading this ‘body of persuasion,’ but where? By the 7th century, only two Christian centres were named in Pictavia. The earlier site is at Abernethy, Fife, established about 500 AD, when in the Pictish King List we read; ‘Nectonius the Great, Wirp’s son, the king of all the provinces of the Picts, offered to Saint Brigid, to the day of judgement, Abernethy, with its territories.’


The slightly later site is at Dunkeld, by the River Tay.  Hector Boece describes the 6th century Columba meeting Saint Kentigern at a monastery at Dunkeld, where they spent 6 months together in spiritual cohabitation. Elsewhere, the poem Amra Coluimb Chille ‘Elegy of Colum Cille’, compiled soon after Columba’s death in 597, states that Columba was ‘the teacher who would teach to the peoples of the Tay’ and ‘subdued with a blessing’ the ‘arrogant ones who surrounded the great king of the Tay.’ The Life of Saint Cuthbert also places Columba at Dunkeld, but with an embedded factochisp. The vita tells that about the year 640; ‘Saint Columba, first bishop in Dunkeld, took Cuthbert when a boy, & kept & educated him for some time.’ Personally I think that Boece is correct – he generally is – & the Saint Cuthbert reference is down to the young boy being educated at the monastery established by Columba, & not the saint himself.


Clue 2: The enemy made a feigned retreat, and the king was drawn into a narrow pass among remote/impassable mountains

Assuming that the point of contact was the defence of a Christian settlement, the feigned retreat into mountain passes tells us that the campaign was conducted around Dunkeld, a region heavily mountain’d as opposed to the much lower lying hills of Fife. Dunkeld lies on the verge of a great mountain barrier, at the southern end of a narrow valley of the Tay, with an opening towards verdant plains. The many hills of great height & diversified form in the locality resonate with the mention of remote/impassable mountains.


dn 1

Clue 3: Dún Nechtain / A place called Nechtansmere (that is Nechtan’s water)

Focussing our investigation on the mountain passes, straths and slens to the north of Dunkeld, we find a transchisper of Dun Necthan at Balnaguard. The Bal element of this name derives from the Gaelic ‘bhaile,’ which means ‘place, homestead, town, city.’ This leaves us with Naguard, which soon transchispers into Nechtan

Ne-guar-t (an)

dn 4
Just to the west of Balnaguard there is a clear contender for the dun of Dun Nechtan. I found it via the brilliant Oxford digital hillfort map of Britain, as the screen shot shows. The full text of the description reads;

Haughbrae of Grandtully:  A large and complex fortification is revealed by parchmarks on a promontory formed where a stream gully cuts down through the escarpment known as Haughbrae of Grandtully, which falls away steeply on the NE down to the W bank of the River Tay some 25m below. The defences almost certainly represent several phases of construction, comprising an inner series of ditches cutting off the tip of the promontory, which was already partly isolated by a natural hollow that bites into the escarpment on the NE flank, and an outer pair of ditches with two concentric internal palisade trenches. The two innermost ditches, which are both about 4m in breadth, are set roughly parallel behind the natural hollow, cutting off a triangular area measuring about 50m in length from NW to SE by a maximum of 35m transversely (0.09ha); although the parchmark of the outer peters out, the inner terminates abruptly a short distance from the SW margin of the promontory and almost certainly indicates the position of an entrance leading out towards the SE. Further complexities in the arrangement of the ditches at the entrance are probably masked by the natural hollow, which can be seen in the parchmarks extending in an arc across the entrance and into the stream gully on the SW; it may well hide another ditch, and outside its line there is another dark mark lying parallel to it on the edge of the stream gully, though if this is yet another ditch it does not seem to extend any further across the neck of the promontory. The outer defences lie some 30m beyond the natural hollow and cut off a much larger area measuring in the order of 100m in length from NW to SE by a maximum of 75m transversely (0.41ha). The two ditches lie roughly parallel 5m apart, though neither can be traced all the way to the edge of the escarpment on the NE. There is a clearly defined entrance towards this side, and while a short segment of the inner can be seen between the entrance and the lip of the escarpment, the outer apparently terminates on the SW side of the entrance, turning inwards slightly on this side of the causeway. Immediately within the line of the inner ditch, there are traces of two concentric palisade trenches set about 4m apart, both of which are also broken at the entrance causeway and turn inwards slightly to either side of the gap. While these outer elements are all concentric, it is unclear whether they all relate to a single scheme of defence, or whether the palisades indicate an earlier timber phase.


dn 9

Clue 4: Gueith Lin Garan

The ‘Garan’ element is found embedded in the village of Grandtully. The ‘Tully’ element is founded on the Irish ‘Tullach,’ meaning a ‘little hill’ that was a landmark, or a meeting place perhaps, where fairs were held. The ‘Lin’ element is found embedded in the name ‘Ballinluig,’ just to the south of Grandtully, which translates into Gaelic as ‘town of the hollow lake.’ This suggests that there was once a lake in the vicinity. The Tay at this point does flow through a low & level flood plain both sides of the Haughbrae of Grandtully, so its no stretch of the imagination to see it as a living lake 14 centuries ago.


dn 8

Clue 5: The Haugh of Grandtully Stone

In the floodplain at Gradntully there stands a mysterious stone, a memorial, perhaps to some unknown event. 1.4m tall by 1.0m wide by up to 0.5m thick, with thick veins of sparkly white quartz running through it, the stone was one of a pair, with Fred Coles being told in 1908 by “two aged residents in the immediate vicinity” that there used to be a second stone close by this stone. Aerial reconnaissance has recorded the cropmarks of two ring-ditches to the west of the stone, & also one to the north, which seem to be burial barrows, measuring between 10-15m in diameter with central pits. They could be Bronze Age, but they could also be markers of the battle of Nechtansmere…

dn 5

The barrows
The barrows


Clue 6: Today Bridei gives battle over the land (inheritance) of his grandfather

The home glen of the Clan Macnaughton is basically Balnaguard & Strathtay, the village neighbouring Grandtully. Their name derives from Nechtan, & indeed the Balnaguard members of the clan claim descent from Nechtan the Great. We must also remember that  ‘Elegy of Colum Cille’, places Columba as subduing the ‘arrogant ones who surrounded the great king of the Tay.’

dn 2



It is now time to analyze the Annals of Tigernach definition of Bruide as a  ‘king of Fortriu.’ The title essentially means the king of a united realm of Pictavia whose core was the River Forth, rather like Prussia would unite the disparate German principalities under one flag. In the 1st century, Tacitus described a number of tribes in Pictavia, but by Columba’s time, they were now down to two power blocks, North & South. Bede tells us;

There came from Ireland to Britain a priest and abbot named Columba, a true monk in life no less than in habit, to preach the word of God in the lands of the Northern Picts, these are by steep and rugged mountain separated from their southern regions. The Southern Picts, who have their own seats within those same mountains, a long time before, they say, had abandoned the errors of idolatry and accepted the true faith through the preaching of the Word by bishop Nynia…

These two power blocks were given names. Cassius Dio (3rd century) calls them the Maiatai & Kaledonioi, while Ammianus Marcellinnius (4th century) calls them the Verturians & Dincaledonus. The idea we get is that he Maiatai/Verturians were to be found near the Antonine wall, ie near the Central Belt & the Forth River / Fort-Riu. The major Pictish capital of Forteviot would herald from this time

In Britain there are two very large (free) nations, the Caledonians and the Maetae, and the names of the others have become included in these. The Maetae live by the wall which divides the country into two halves and the Caledonians beyond them; and they both inhabit wild and waterless mountains and lonely and swampy plains, without walls, cities, or cultivated land Cassius Dio

At that time the Picts, divided into two tribes, called Dicalydones and Verturiones, as well as the Attacotti, a warlike race of men, and the Scots, were ranging widely and causing great devastation  Ammianus Marcellinus

That the Meatae & the Verturiones originated from the same place – ie the  Forth river system, is supported by the summit of Dumyat hill in the Ochils, overlooking Stirling, where the remains of a n iron-age fort can be found. There is also a Myot Hill near Falkirk.

After the 4th century, is seems that the southern Picts would become the dominant Pictish force, for accounts continuously class the Picts as a whole as ‘Fortrenese’ as in the following accounts;

1: The AU entry for 866, gives us; ‘Amlaib & Ausisle went into Fortriu with the Gaill of Ireland & Britain & plundered the whole Pictish people & took hostages.’ If Fortenn was only a small part of Pictavia, then how could their entire nation be plundered & taken hostage?

2: The Irish recension of the Historia Brittonum describes, ‘Chuithnechan, the son of Lochit, son of Ingri, went over from the sons of Mileadh to the Britons of Fortenn to fight against the Saxons; & he defended the country for them, & he himself remained with them… so that the chiefs of the Cruithneach (the picts) have been the men of Erin from that time ever since.’  Here, the ‘Britons of Fortrenn’ were named the ‘Cruithneach’ after their leader, Cruithnechan. The name Cruithin was used by the Irish to denote the Picts.

3: The Tripartite Life of saint Patrick gives us this, in relation to Fergus of Dalriada; ‘From thee the kings of this territory shall ever descend, & in Fortrenn. And this was fulfilled by Aedan, son of Gabran, who took Alban by force.’ Once again giving Scotland two halves – the Scots of Dalriada & the Pictavia of Fortrenn.

4: Analyzing two accounts of the same event shows how the ‘men of Scotland/Foirtriu’were in action as far south as Newcastle

The foreigners of Loch dá Chaech, i.e. Ragnall, king of the dark foreigners, and the two jarls, Oitir and Gragabai, forsook Ireland and proceeded afterwards against the men of Scotland. The men of Scotland, moreover, moved against them and they met on the bank of the Tyne in northern Saxonland… The Scotsmen routed the three battalions which they saw, and made a very great slaughter of the heathens, including Oitir and Gragabai
Annals of Ulster

Almost at the same time the men of Foirtriu and the Norwegians fought a battle. The men of Alba fought this battle steadfastly… and many of the Norwegians were killed after their defeat, and their king was killed there, namely Oittir son of Iarngna
The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland

5: Where Ailred highlights, ‘when William conqueror of England penetrated Lothian, Calatria and Scotland as far as Abernethy,’ we can clearly see how the obscure Calatros was sited below Perth/Abernethy. This leads to the Annals of Ulster’s account for 736, when was fought, ‘the battle of Cnoc Coirpre in Calathros at Etar Linddu between Dál Riata and Fortriu.’

6: The Annals of Ulster also record, ‘768: A battle in Fortriu between Aed and Ciniod.’ The “Laws of Áed Eochaid’s son” are mentioned by the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba, & very much place, “Áed Eochaid’s son, in Forteviot.”


In the ninth century, the Christian centre of Dunkeld seems to be in spiritual command of the whole of Fortriu. The Annals of Ulster tells us that for the year 865, ‘Conmal, steward of Tamlacht, and Tuathal son of Artgus, chief bishop of Foirtriu and abbot of Dún Caillen, fell asleep.’ By the early tenth century, an area known as The Plains of Fortrenn / Wertermorum’ was being mentioned. This was, in essence, the breadbasket of the Picts in the fertile lowlands in Aberdeenshire & Moray.  In his account of Aethalstan’s invasion of Scotland, Symeon of Durham tells us, ‘he then subdued his enemies, laid waste to Scotland as far as Dunfoeder & Wertermorum with a land force, & ravaged with a naval force as far as Caithness & in a great measure depopulated it.’ The mention of Dunfoeder is interesting – this is Dunottar, on the east coast near Aberdeen, & its conquest by our very own  ‘Bruide… king of Fortriu,’ alongside other Pictish conquests north, south & west, seems to indicate the moment when the realm of Fortriu conquered the whole of Pictavia. The Annals of Ulster tells us;

AU681: The siege of Dún Foither
AU682: The Orkneys were destroyed by Bruide
AU683: The siege of Dún At and the siege of Dún Duirn

Woolf’s theory of a Moray Fortrui is based upon stanza 166 of the Prophecy of Berchan

One of the kings goes on a useless expedition
across the Mounth to the plain of Fortrenn;
though he may have gone, he does not return,
Dub of the three dark secrets will fall.

Elsewhere The Scottish King lists (Marjorie Anderson divided X-group 1980) states that King Dub was slain at Forres on the Moray Firth, which lies north of the Mounth mountain range & firmly in the Wertermorum breadbasket we have described. Just as Carlisle on the Scottish border belongs to the same country as faraway Hastings by the ENGLISH Channel, ‘The Plains of Fortrenn’ should be understood as the plains belonging to Fortrenn, & not the naive ‘Fortrenn is only plains.’ 


OTHER CLUES (so far)

1: There is a loch near Aberfeldy called Loch Holi, which could be named after Bridei’s sister or daughter, Der-Eli. Her son was Dagart, who is reported as dying violently (the Latin word iugulation is used) by the Annals of Tigernach in the same year as Nechtansmere.


2: Not far from Dunkeld is Dalguise, whose name appears embedded in the Segais’  of the Annals of Tigernach in conjunction with a pre-Nechtansmere ‘Nechtain.’

637: The battle of Segais in which fell Lochene son of Nechtán Longhead and Cumascach son of Aongus. At Dalguise, on the east banks of the Tay, a cairn once stood about thirty feet in diameter, supporting a battle was fougth there.

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