The Battle of Nechtansmere, latterly known as the Battle of Dunnichen, was fought in the shadow of Dunnichen Hill, to the east of the borough of Forfar, on the 20th of May, in the year 685.
The Battle of Dunnichen was fought on one of the earliest known dates in Scottish history, the 20th of May, and the kick-off was at 3pm as per usual for a Saturday afternoon. The ‘Annals of Tigernach’ has it that “The Battle of Dún Nechtain was fought in which Ecgfrith son of Oswig, the Saxon King, who had completed the fifteenth year of his reign, was killed together with a great body of his soldiers by Bridei son of Beli, King of Fortriu.” The battle is also depicted on one of four symbol stones standing in the village of Aberlemno, in the only known battle scene in Pictish art.
Fortriu was a kindom of the Picts and, roughly speaking, probably encompassed what is now the Tayside region. It was one of the most prominent Pictish kingdoms in the later centuries, having emerged as a dominant force under King Bridei. He and his tribe most probably knew the battle site, in their own language, as ‘Linn Garan’ (the Crane Lake), whereas Ecgfrith and his fellow Angles from Bernicia appear to have christened it ‘Nechtansmere’ (the Lake of Nechtan), which is why, until roughly the mid-1980s, despite the commentary in the ‘Annals of Tigernach’, it was known as the Battle of Nechtansmere. Who said history was written by the victorious?
History at that time was written by monks such as the venerable Bede, so the Latin or Saxon conventions prevailed. Most of the information available about the battle comes from sources written by Bede and another monk from Wales as well as the ‘Annals of Ulster’ and the ‘Annals of Tigernach’, all of which were written in Latin. The Welsh monk, Nennius, in his account of the battle from Historia Brittonum, wrote that “since the time of the war [the battle site] is called ‘Gueith Lin Garan’”, and Symeon of Durham, writing much later, in the 12th Century, called it ‘Nechtanesmere’.
However, there has been a lot of serious examination of the battle in more modern times, particularly by the scholar, Graeme Cruickshank, who has reinforced the now conventional usage of the Battle of Dunnichen (or Dunnichen Hill). In terms of recent interpretation, there is a great book by James E. Fraser, which I’m sure you can find on Amazon, called 'The Battle of Dunnichen, 685'.
Notwithstanding that, there is an alternative opinion, which places the battle at another site in the Cairngorms, miles to the north. Alex Woolf’s theory is based on simple geography and Bede’s comment about ‘inaccessible mountains’ concealing the Pictish army. Dunnichen Hill can’t be described as ‘inaccessible’, rising only to some 230 metres. However, there is a known Pictish site called Dunachton, in Badenoch, on the shores of Loch Insh, that lies at the foot of three passes, which cut between mountains that rise to over 1,000 metres. Perhaps Dunachton also derives its name from the ancient Dún Nechtan of the Irish annals. Take your pick.
By the year 685, the Anglian kingdom of Bernicia had grown in influence to stretch from coast to coast. Roughly speaking, at its peak, Ecgfrith’s Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria probably encompassed much of the territory covered by Yorkshire, Northumberland, Cumbria, Durham, Lothian and Borders Regions, parts of Dumfries and Galloway (Strathclyde) and, possibly Dalriada (as then was, in the west). Certainly, his influence stretched right up to the Firth of Forth and he was, by some distance, the most powerful ruler in the British Isles at the time.
Ecgfrith became King of Northumbria on the death of his father Oswiu, and soon after, in 672, defeated a Pictish revolt in a battle on the plain of Manau. The Pictish tribes were put under tribute to Northumbria and the new sub-kingdom of Lothian was created to protect the border. The Picts, according to Eddius Stephanus (Stephen of Rippon), had been “reduced to slavery and remained subject to the yoke of captivity.”
However, the natives became restless and, in 685, with his authority somewhat on the wane, Ecgfrith decided that the Pictish king, Bridei mac Billi, described by Nennius as his [Ecgfrith’s] ‘cousin’, was getting too big for his boots. It’s likely that he saw Bridei’s success in expanding his authority in the north as a threat that needed stamping out. Ecgfrith headed north with his army, where King Bridei was patiently awaiting ‘the Waterloo of late seventh century Scotland’.
The Battle of Dunnichen was indeed a classic encounter, straight out of a John Wayne movie. The Anglo-Saxons of Ecgfrith’s Army first attacked the Picts on the low-lying ground below Dunnichen Hill. When encouraged by the seeming success of the initial onslaught, Ecgfrith threw more men into the attack and the Picts gave ground. Then, scenting an early victory, the Angles gave chase as Bridei’s men turned to flee.
However, it was a feint the Commanches would have been proud of, and as the Picts fled beyond their concealed colleagues, a hitherto secreted division of Picts hurled themselves in enfilade upon the unsuspecting Angles. The Northumbrians had been well and truly tricked and were caught in a trap. Those that managed to run the gauntlet were killed by the previously retreating Picts, who had returned to the fray. Amongst the dead lay Ecgfrith, who “fell therein with all the strength of his army.”
The Pictish victory freed them from the Northumbrian yoke and, as Bede wrote, the hopes and strength of the Anglo-Saxon King “began to waver and retrograde.” Although the territory of Lothian and Din Eidyn (Edinburgh) remained in Northumbrian hands for another couple of centuries, “the Saxons never again reduced the Picts so as to exact tribute from them.” A significant breathing space was created, which you might argue is the reason the nation of Scotland was ever able to come into existence.