Monday, 18 April 2011

The Nechtansmere Campaign, England vs Scotland 685

The Battle of Nechtansmere took place some centuries before either England or Scotland were united kingdoms. It was, nevertheless, a defining moment in the warfare between the two peoples for it set a clear limit to the extent of English settlement in what is now southern Scotland.

By the 680s, the English kingdom of Northumbria stretched from the Humber to the Forth and from the North Sea to the Pennines. It also included stretches of countryside west of the Pennines north of Chester. The kings of Northumbria were the most powerful in Britain, but they now sought to extend their control north into lands held by the Picts, Britons and Scots. At this time the Picts inhabited the lands north of the Forth and Clyde and the island of Skye. The British kingdom of Clyde occupied the lands bounded by the Solway Firth, the Clyde and the Cheviots. The Kingdom of the Scots occupied the islands and peninsulas of Argyll, Mull and the surrounding area.

In 655 King Oswy of Northumbria launched a major invasion into the territory of his northern neighbours. He defeated the Scots and Britons, and demanded regular tribute of gold and silver. The Picts were crushed and divided. The southern Picts were put under a puppet ruler and their lands opened up to extensive English settlement. The northern Picts remained free, but also had to pay tribute and they were restricted to the Highlands. When Oswy died in 670 the northern Picts took the opportunity to marry the heiress to their kingdom to Bridei mac Beli, from the royal family of the Clyde Britons, and so forge an alliance. The new King of Northumbria, Egferth, was too busy establishing his power to interfere.

In 681 Bridei, by now King of the Picts, took over the Orkneys. Feeling confident, he refused to pay tribute to Northumbria. Egferth could not ignore such a blatant challenge to his power. He gathered an army and marched north in the spring of 685. His enemies were waiting for him near the modern town of Forfar.

Although records of the campaign are scanty, it is relatively easy to reconstruct the routes that brought the rival armies to the place of battle. Bridei and the northern Picts were clearly determined to free the southern Picts from the puppet rulers who did English bidding, and to conquer the English villages and farms established after Oswy’s conquests. As an opening move, Bridei marched south from his powerbase around Aberdeen. He ordered provocative raiding of Strathmore, where the native Picts outnumbered the immigrant English.

Egferth marched out of the English fortress of Edinburgh and along the southern shores of the Firth of Forth. This area had been part of English Northumbria for over a generation and Egferth was marching through friendly territory. Turning north, Egferth crossed the Forth near Stirling and marched into Strathallan. This area had seen the densest English settlements after the conquests of Oswy and the English probably outnumbered the Pictish population.

Egferth was following the old Roman road which had been built many years before to supply Roman forces on their patrols into hostile Pictish territory. Even after some generations of neglect, the road would have made for easier marching than dirt tracks. The Roman road would have taken him through Perth and then up the valley of the Isla to Inchtuthil. Here lay the Roman fortress of Pinnata Castra which, although ruined, would have provided a secure forward base for the English army.

It is unclear if the English king realised at this point that he was facing a full scale invasion rather than a larger than usual raid. Certainly, Egferth behaved as if he did not realise the true strength of his enemies. Nor did he have any real idea of where the Picts were. The Picts, on the other hand, knew exactly where the English were and how many had marched north. They set a careful ambush for the English along the route they knew Egferth would choose on his march from the ruined Roman fortress towards the west coast.

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