8.2 Historical background and sources

In recent years there has been an upsurge of research and new thinking on the early medieval historical sources and their interpretation. The older narrative, based on the work of Bannerman (1974), Anderson (1973), and Nicolaisen (1976), established a broad outline of events up to the point when contemporary sources (principally the putative annals of the ‘Iona Chronicle’) cease out around 740. Three principle kindreds (Cenél nGabráin, Cenél Loairn, and Cenél nóengusso) were identified and associated with Kintyre, Lorne and Islay respectively, and Cenél nGabráin seen as the dominant grouping, providing many of the kings of Dál Riata. The historical sources are notoriously difficult to interpret – they were repeatedly copied and altered to suit contemporary ideas. Nevertheless, these sources, which include the civil survey Míniugud Senchasa Fher nAlban, the genelogical tracts Cethri primchenéla Dáil Riata, the ‘Iona Chronicle’, as well as Adomnán’s Vita Columbae and poetry associated with Iona, provide much more extensive information for Argyll than any other area of early medieval Scotland. Recent work on these sources (some unpublished) by scholars such as Dauvit Broun, David Dumville, James Fraser, Nick Evans, Gilbert Márkus, Thomas Clancy, Thomas O’Loughlin, Simon Taylor, Alex Wolff and Benjamin Hudson have greatly increased our understanding of the period, though it is still not possible to give a conventional comprehensive narrative account of events.

It is not easy to summarise this work, but recent syntheses by Fraser (2009) for the earlier period and Woolf (2007) for the later, outline some of the new thinking, though there is still much debate. More recent work includes Broun (2006; 2015) on the genealogical tracts, Evans (2010) on the annals, and Dumville (2002) on the civil survey. Fraser and others see an Iona influence in the annalistic references, which distort the picture in favour of Cenél nGabráin, and St Blanes, Bute is seen as an equal to Iona in importance. Other kindreds such Cenél Comgaill (based in Cowal) have been written out of pedigrees, and others such Cenél nEchdach, Cenél nGartnai, Cenél Salaich and Cenél Cathboth are identified. This more complex and fluid picture of dynastic conflict, alliance and merger is more akin to the picture known in contemporary Ireland, than the rather static three kindred model given by Bannerman. Iona-related studies, starting with Sharpe’s Life of Columba (1995), include new understanding of the significance of Adomnán as a major European intellectual and theologian (O’Loughlin 2007; Jenkins 2010, Wooding 2010, Márkus 1997), and Iona as a literary centre (Clancy and Márkus 1995). For the later period advances include works by Clancy (2011) Hudson (2006) and Wadden (2016). For placename studies, Taylor (2007) highlights some of the problems with Nicolaisen’s interpretations and investigates ecclesiastical placenames (Taylor 1996). Church dedications have been studied by Rachel Butter (2007) and there is now an online resource to saints names in Scotland [http://www.saintsplaces.gla.ac.uk]. Norse placenames have been investigated by Jennings (2004) and MacNiven (2015) amongst others. This work suggests that topographical rather than habitative placenames represent the earliest strata of Norse settlement. Names such as Brodick, Sannox, Carradale and other -dalr names may then be sites of Norse mainland settlement, for which no archaeological evidence has been found. More detailed survey by Anne Bankier (2005) on the placenames of Ardnamurchan indicates coastal, topographic as well as potential habitative names, but it is clear that there is a lack of supporting archaeological data for the area. In 2011 a pagan Viking boat burial was excavated at Swordle Bay, a so far unique discovery in the west mainland region (Harris et al. 2017; Batey 2016).

Figure : Swordle Bay boat burial pre-excavation photograph. ©Harris et al. 2017.

The issue of the end of Dál Riata, and the process of Gaelic takeover of Pictland is particularly obscure and debated. Some authors consider that a reference to the Picts ‘smiting’ Dál Riata in 741, indicate that the region came under Pictish control in the 8th century, though by the ninth century there were Gaelic kings of Pictland. The process by which Dál Riata came to be known by the 9/10th century as Argyll (from the Gaelic Airer Goídel – the shore or margin of the Gaels), and the relationship of the Gaels with the Gall-Gaedhil is also obscure (but see Kruse and Jennings 2009), though it has been suggested that it was named in contra-distinction to Innse Gall, the Norse-dominated Hebrides.