6.2 Historical Background

There is a comparatively rich corpus of early medieval events recorded in contemporary textual sources which can be located within our region. These have been used to guide archaeological interventions in the past, and if used with care, can enrich our interpretation of archaeological finds. However, they are limited largely to major battles and the movements of kings and bishops, and so give only a partial view of life in early medieval Perth and Kinross.

The place-names Dun Chaillden (Dunkeld) and Schiehallion are a remarkable witness to the first group of people named in Roman sources for what is now Scotland, the Caledonii (Fraser 2009, 20), even though these are much later Gaelic place-names. Other place-names capture the fame of St Columba and his successors at the monastery of Iona (Taylor 1999; 2000). They are evidence for early engagement between Dál Riata and the realm of Atholl where the relics of St Columba would later be translated. St Columba was said to have been familiar with the people and the ‘great king’ of the Tay by the late 6th century (Fraser 2009, 99–103). Perthshire is often assumed to have been a Pictish realm, but it seems links with Dál Riata were just as important, and it may be only after the late 7th century that Atholl came under control of the kings of Fortriu (Woolf 2017). In 739 we hear of a separate king of Atholl, but only when he was drowned by Onuist map Uurguist (Óengus mac Fergus), king of the Picts (Fraser 2009, 298). By 965, the men of Atholl were one among many who fought for control of Alba. A battle was fought at Dorsum Crup, likely Duncrub near Dunning, against the king, at which fell ‘Dubdon satraps’, presumably the mormaer of Atholl, and Dunchad abbot of Dunkeld (Woolf 2007, 201–2). Less than a century later, in 1034, Donnchad mac Crínáin, son of another abbot of Dunkeld, would become the first in a line of kings extending down to Alexander III (McGuigan 2021, 68–93).

Reconstructing the political geography of the region is complicated by the late date of the surviving sources, often dating no earlier than the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Certainly the kingdom of Atholl seems to have represented a major political entity for much of the early medieval period, perhaps the core territory of Pictland south of the Mounth (Fraser 2009, 101–3). The lowland zone was latterly dominated by the earls of Strathearn. The region has the greatest evidence for 8th- and 9th-century Pictish relief-carved cross-slabs as well as major ecclesiastical foundations like Forteviot, Dunblane and Muthill. It was long thought that the kingdom of Fortriu was based here, but it is now suggested that this was based around the Moray Firth, with the realm of Mag Circin or Gergind eventually incorporating the Mearns, Strathmore and Strathearn (Noble and Evans 2019, 19). The lack of clarity comes from the major political disjuncture of the early medieval period: the arrival of the Vikings, the fall of the Pictish kingdoms and the rise of the Gaelic-speaking Kingdom of Alba, all of which have impacted the survival of textual evidence. In the 8th century, northern Britain was dominated by the kingdom of Pictavia/Pictland, which had a northern core focused in north-east Scotland and a southern one in Atholl and Strathearn, and the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. Both realms were severely impacted by the Viking campaigns of the 9th century.  A catastrophic, unlocated battle in 839 seems to have taken out the leading families of both the Picts and Dál Riata (Woolf 2007, 66). The Viking threat led to constructive reorganisation in Scottish kingship, and Forteviot was central to this (Campbell and Driscoll 2020, 30). While the nature of Gaelic expansion into the area remains unclear, the result was the emergence of the Kingdom of Alba in around AD 900. It has been suggested that the southern province of Circin was divided into three, each with their own royal centre (manorium): Angus with Forfar, Gowrie with Scone and Strathearn with Forteviot (Campbell and Driscoll 2020, 30). By the end of the first millennium, the kings of Picts and later of Alba seem to have been based on the Tay, with a ‘central transit zone’ consisting of the major centres of Dunkeld, Forteviot, Scone and St Andrews (Woolf 2007, 198).

A number of battles and events, consequential enough to have been noted in the contemporary Irish annals, took place in the region. The hillfort of Dundurn in Strathearn was besieged in 682, and remained occupied as late as 889, when the Pictish King Giric was said to have died there (Fraser 2009, 214–5; Woolf 2007, 125). In 728, Onuist map Uurguist defeated the Pictish King Alpín at Moncrieffe, beginning his rise to power over both Pictavia and Dál Riata (Fraser 2009, 288). King Causantín mac Fergusa (789–820) is commemorated by the Dupplin Cross, or Constantine’s Cross, which overlooked the valley of the Earn near Forteviot. Cináed mac Alpín certainly died at the palace of Forteviot in 858 (Campbell and Driscoll 2020). Both Causantín and Cináed have been linked to the foundation of a monastery dedicated to St Columba at Dunkeld in the first half of the 9th century (Broun 1997). The arrival of relics of St Columba in 849 have been interpreted as a response to repeated Viking attacks on Iona, but inland monasteries were not much safer. Dunkeld was subject to Viking raids from at least the reign of Cináed mac Alpín , when ‘Danes’ were said to have raided Pictland as far as Dunkeld and Clunie. In addition, the Strathearn monastery of Dunblane was ‘burned’ by the Britons around this time (Broun 1997, 120–2; Woolf 2007, 94–5, 101–2). King Causantín, son of Cináed mac Alpín, was killed by Healfdane, a leader of the Great Heathen Army, in Atholl in 875 (Woolf 2007, 112). Further raids on Dunkeld took place in 878, which caused the community of Columba to seek refuge in Ireland, and again in 903 (Broun 1997, 121–2).

Domnall mac Alpín, Cináed’s brother and successor, also occupied Forteviot, but died in 862 at Cennbelathoir, which is identified as Rathinveramon, at or near the site of the Roman fort of Bertha across the Tay from Scone (Woolf 2007, 103–4). The royal inauguration site of Scone itself was first mentioned in 906, when an important summit between King Constantine mac Aed of the newly-minted Kingdom of Alba and Bishop Cellach was held atop the ‘Castellum Credi’ or Hill of Faith, presumably the hillock later known as the Moot Hill (Woolf 2007, 134–8).

During the course of the 10th and 11th centuries, the centre of power for the Kingdom of Alba began to move further east, with the early monasteries of Abernethy and St Andrews becoming increasingly important. However, Scone would continue to be the traditional inauguration place of the kings of Scots for centuries. The 12th-century Foundation Legend of St Andrews retained mentions of royal foundations at Forteviot and Meigle, showing the power of tradition even as times changed.