The First Battle for Scottish Independence: The Battle of Dunnichen, A.D. 685
By Julie Parsons
Master’s Thesis, East Tennessee State University, 2002
Abstract: This study is an examination of the historiography of the ancient-medieval texts that record events related to the Northumbrian and the Pictish royal houses in the seventh century. It was in the seventh century that the Northumbrians came to dominate most of Britain, as well as the northern inhabitants of the Island. The Picts, the Scots and the Celtic Britons fell into subjugation under the control of the expansionist Northumbrian kings and remained there for most of the seventh century. Northumbrian expansion was halted by Bridei, king of the Picts, when he put down the advancing Northumbrian forces of king Ecgfrith at the Battle of Dunnichen, also known as Nechtansmere, in the year A.D. 685. The outcome of the battle not only stopped Northumbrian expansion to the north, but began its reversal. The battle also allowed the Picts to gain back the lands they had lost to their Northumbrian enemy. For the Northumbrians, the battle had political and ecclesiastical implications that may have contributed to the later decline of their kingdom.
Through the writings of ancient-medieval sources like the Venerable Bede and Eddius Stephanus, we get a glimpse of the relationship between the Northumbrians and their northern neighbors the Picts in the seventh century. Although Englishmen wrote the majority of the primary sources, it is still possible to piece together what life must have been like for the Picts under their Northumbrian foes. Information for this study was also gathered from Irish sources, especially the annalists and chroniclers.
After careful examination of the ancient-medieval sources, coupled with the insight of modern historians and archaeologists, conclusions ascertain that the Battle of Dunnichen was important in helping to define the English-Scottish border, as it is known in modern times. It is also concluded that the battle is a significant factor concerning the permanent decline of the kingdom of Northumbria. If king Bridei and his forces had not stopped the Northumbrian domination over the Picts in 685, the Scottish kingdom, as we know it may have never existed. The impact the Battle of Dunnichen had on the Northumbrians is best summed up by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People: From this time the hopes and strength of the English kingdom began to ebb and fall away.