When St. Columba arrived in Scotland as part of his penance for his part in the Battle of Cuil Dremne (563), legend says that King Conall of Dal Riata granted him the island of Iona for use as a monastery. He soon had a local scriptorium, writing center, so that from that time on historical events were recorded in Dal Riata.
Before 563, there would have been only oral memory. We only have one historical source for that period, the Senchus Fer n’Alban. It was written in around 660, a century after Columba arrived, and for the express purpose of generating nationalistic sentiment against Northumbria. The work gives a clear genealogical descent from Conall and Gabrán back to their common paternal grandfather Domangart.
The only other Dal Riatan historical source for the period is Columba’s biography, written in about 697 and based on Iona’s historical records and whatever oral legends were to be had. Considering how much longer a monk could live than a layman, there might have been quite a few stories floating around. Anyway, the Vita Columba gave Conall and Gabrán’s parentage, but never named their common grandfather.
You might say the writer, Adamnan, simply had no interest in family trees, but Adamnan was a relative of Columba and a descendant of kings. It might be argued that Columba somehow did not know, but to be ignorant of host kingdom’s royal family in any way would have been unthinkable. We must at least consider that Gabrán and Conall did not have a common grandfather.
That suggestion demands a second look at the book, and perusing the Vita Columba we see that Columba never seems to go to any hall, castle, or even hill-fort while in Dal Riata. It was not that Adamnan opposed speaking of them, either. If his royal heritage is not enough to prove he had no compunctions about them, he does go into detail about Columba’s visit to Brude’s fortress in Pictland.1
Another omission is also important. Although the “official” history makes it clear that both Loairn and Óengusa of Cenéls Loairn and Óengusa were active around this time, neither one of them is mentioned. Conall and Gabrán are, and so are several members of the official family that are not in the official history, peasants, thieves, and monks; just not cenéls Loairn and Óengusa.
Many of the people Columba talks to in Dal Riata do not even seem to be noble. Actually, paging through the book the word pirate comes to mind. For instance, Erc is blatantly addressed as “the Robber”.2 There is also a chapter about Johan son of Conall son of Comgall in which he is clearly described as a bandit with his own group of men.3
All of the above suggests that the family tree was altered in the Senchus. More than that, it puts into question whether or not there was even a royal Dal Riata dynasty at all when Columba arrived.4
Stronger evidence of that last thought can be found in what little we know of the Convention at Druim Cett (574). Now there is a concensus that the High-King of Ireland, Áed mac Ainmuirech, conceded that Scottish Dal Riata would pay no tribute and provide no warriors. In return, Dal Riata promised that its fleet would be at his command.5
In the past, those believing that Scottish Dal Riata was originally part of Irish Dal Riata believed that this compromise gave Scottish Dal Riata its first taste of freedom from Ireland. Looked at from Áed’s perspective, though, the compromise is all wrong. He would have had no reason to give up tribute and fighting men. On the contrary, considering the weakened state of his dynasty and the fact that his predecessors had needed to fight throughout their reigns, he would have had every reason to believe he needed more military strength.
Instead of Druim Cett signaling the beginning of Scottish independence, we should think of it more as an acceptance of dependence. In return for making their veteran crews available to the high-king, the Irish pirates in Britain were accepted as a nominal kingdom under the high-king and as such they were protectedfrom all the kingdoms they had stolen from.
So if there was no royal family in the Dal Riata of 563 and for years afterwards what was there? We will be wisest to start with what we know; that is not in the Senchus but the Vita Columba. There are, in fact, at least three distinct clans to be found there – the families represented by Domnall, Gabrán, and Conall. There are possibly others. Erc “the Robber” is a likely clan leader. Colgu was an important person in Ireland, so his presence in Dal Riata raises the possibility that a lesser line may have migrated there.
Why pirates, or at least raiders whose leaders came from royal families? As was mentioned above, during the fifth century the western coast of Britain was invaded by the Irish, who used bases in Britain to stage attacks further inland. What we know about them is that the Irish who held the land and managed to build a kingdom were related to Irish royalty, but we have no way of knowing if they were in every case the only group that settled in an area or just the most successful one. It is only because of the Vita Columba that we know there were several clans in Dal Riata.
Dal Riata made for a good pirate base, and in some ways was the best British base. The region has many islands with shifting beaches. Sea depths can change. An area like that would have been navigable for someone who lived there but hazardous for anyone hoping to attack in heavy ships. It would have been more practical to attack in smaller ships, currachs. The problem with that idea was that a currach could only carry a few men and as soon as it came into a narrow area it would have made an easy target for ambush by land or sea; the perfect pirate base.
Because it was so easy to hide or defend, it would have been difficult to unite the area as well; a raiding party could evade any chieftain trying to unite the raiding crews almost indefinitely.
Not that there would have been any general need for unity during the fifth and sixth centuries. Each raiding group was mobile and could function independently. Irish and British targets were available on the sea and land, and there was no real threat to any group at the time and no potential threat in the foreseeable future.
Yet, with all these factors against unification, within about a dozen years of Columba landing Dal Riata was unquestionably united under a single king – Áedán. That timing, coupled with the strength of Columba’s overpowering personality, tells us that the Irish saint was probably the cause, but why?
The most obvious reason is stability. Columba had left an island where dominance was contested by a few kingdoms, but within each region there was general unity. Dal Riata had none of that. As an intelligent man raised in a dynastic household Columba would have been aware of the political and economic advantages, and awareness of the Picts’ and Strathclyde’s power would have given him an imminent reason to force Dal Riata together. The Battle of Teloch or Delgu (574), at which Dúnchad son of Conall and many other Dal Riatan leaders died, would have served as a good warning for the Dal Riata chieftains – no one could conquer Dal Riata, but none of the bands was safe, either.
As a religious man, so many different factions would have caused him problems; how would he administer to them all equally. Each time he visited one group he would have risked offending all the others or worse he would give them an excuse to fight among themselves. One leader of Dal Riata would have eliminated that issue.
Once the wheels were in motion, Columba thought he could influence them; he hoped to make Eoganán son of Gabrán the king,6 though no specific reason is given. The author only brings this up because interfering in political affairs is what had gotten the Irish saint exiled in the first place. Columba eventually allowed the election to take place naturally and duly crowned Áedán, Eoganán’s brother, as king.
The Dal Riata after Druim Cett took on a new persona, an extroverted one. Though we are uncertain about dates, it is known that Áedán raided Orkney, fought at the Island of Man, battled the Miathi of the Upper Forth, warred against the Picts, and plundered the capital of Strathclyde – Alt Clut or modern Dumbarton. We also know that he fought multiple battles against the Northumbrians leading up to his signal defeat against Æthelfrith at Degsastan. The moment Dal Riata was joined into one kingdom it became an island wide power and Áedán was clearly not shy about testing the extents of that power. He was so active, and his exploits so influential, that he is one of the few non-Welsh figures remembered in the Welsh Triads.7
1 Adamnan, Life of Saint Columba, Founder of Hy (Iona), trans. and ed. William Reeves, (Llanerch, rep. 1988), 2.36.
2 Ibid, 1.33. Considering the the obvious transformations and additions to the Dal Riata genealogy, it is tempting to consider this “robber”, an expected description for a monk about a chieftain, to be the father of Fergus in the official Dal Riata history.
3 Ibid, 2.23.
4 Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 132-5.
5 Anderson, Early Sources of Scottish History A.D. 500-1286, (Stamford, 1990), 83 fn. 2; Anderson, Kings and Kingship in Early Scotland, (Edinburgh, 1980), 148-9; Bannerman, Studies in the History of Dalriada, (Edinburgh, 1974), 1-2; Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, (London, rev. 2001), 110.
6 Adamnan, Life of Saint Columba, Founder of Hy (Iona), trans. and ed. William Reeves, (Llanerch, rep. 1988), 3.5.
7 Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads, trans. and ed. Rachel Bromwich, (Cardiff, rev. 1978), triads 29 and 54. He is called “the Wily”.