Dál Riata

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One of the peoples of early medieval Scotland, the Dál Riata (or Dalriada) were Gaelic speakers whose territorial base was in Argyll on the West Highland coast. They have provided some of the earliest indigenous historical sources for Scotland, and they participated in the development of the multicultural Insular art style. Their kings are credited with the creation of the greater kingdom of "Scot-land" during the mid-ninth century a.d.

The Dál Riata originated in northern Ireland. Their origin legends claim that Fergus Mór came to Argyll c. a.d. 500. In a.d. 575, at the Convention of Druim Cett, the king of the Scottish Dál Riata surrendered his rights to military service on land from the Irish Dál Riata but retained the rights to their tribute and ship service. Despite this historical evidence, there is debate about exactly how many Dál Riata came to Argyll and under what circumstances. They did speak a Goidelic, or Q-Celtic, language, the ancestor of modern Scots Gaelic, whereas their neighbors the Picts and Britons spoke Brittonic, or P-Celtic, languages related more closely to modern Welsh, which might argue for significant population movement. There is no archaeological evidence, however, to support the theory of a large-scale migration. The archaeological record in Argyll shows considerable continuity with the earlier Iron Age. Nonetheless, it should be kept in mind that there is evidence from early in prehistory for close contact between Argyll and northern Ireland, which are, after all, separated by a mere 19 kilometers (12 miles) of water. In the early twenty-first century most scholars support the idea of a move by the ruling dynasty of the Dál Riata, perhaps under pressure from the powerful Uí Neíll, or Ulaid, from their Irish homeland to an area with which they had close connections, perhaps including marriage alliances—very much as some late medieval MacDonalds became the MacDonnels of Antrim.

The Scottish Dál Riata had three, later four, major cenéla, or kindreds: Cenél nGabráin, Cenél Loairn, Cenél nOengusa, and Cenél Comgaill, the last of which split from Cenél nGabráin by the eighth century a.d. The names of these groups, some description of their territories, and a census of their military forces are found in the Senchus fernAlban (History of the men of Scotland), a tenth-century document substantially based on a seventh-century original. The Senchus is part king list and royal genealogy, part naval muster: the basic unit of military service was the ship, with two seven-benched ships due from every twenty houses. In the rugged landscape of Argyll, travel by water was easier than by land until well into the twentieth century, and so it is natural that the Dál Riata, with lands in both Ireland and Scotland, should see their navy as more important than their army. The military history of Dál Riata, by land and sea, is found in the entries of various Irish annals, such as the Annals of Tigernach; however, it is widely believed that many of these detailed Scottish entries initially came from an annal compiled at the monastery of Iona in Argyll.

Iona, the birthplace of the Columban tradition of Christianity, no doubt was responsible for first putting so much of Dalriadic history onto parchment. The monastery was founded by Columba (a.d. 521–597) of the northern Uí Neíll, who left Ireland (perhaps expediently) in a.d. 563 and associated himself with the politically dominant Cenél nGabráin, consecrating Aedán mac Gabráin (r. a.d. 574–608) king of the Dál Riata at Iona. After Columba, Iona's most famous abbot was Adomnán (abbot a.d. 679–704), who wrote the Life of St. Columba about a century after the saint's death.

Iona was a center not only of learning but also of art, with a wide network of international connections that fostered the development of what is known as Insular, or Hiberno-Saxon, art. Although it is commonly called "Celtic," this interlace-rich style is actually a fusion of artistic elements from Celtic, Germanic, and Mediterranean sources. The relative importance of the different elements and the date and location where this hybrid style first appeared are hotly debated, but numerous scholars believe that the Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells, important early Insular manuscripts, may have been produced at Iona during the seventh and eighth centuries a.d. The importance of the Dál Riata in the development of Insular art is supported further by the large number of seventh-century brooch molds and other craft-working materials excavated at the site of Dunadd, the capital of Dalriadic Argyll. In the early medieval period the royalty and nobility of different kingdoms interacted not only in the battles recorded in the annals but also through marriage and other forms of alliance. For instance, Oswald (king of Anglian Northumbria, r. a.d. 634–642) was in exile in Dál Riata earlier in the seventh century and became a Christian while there, and it is from precisely such cross-cultural contacts that the Insular style may have been born.

Politically and militarily the Dál Riata were one of the major powers of North Britain, although there was a period in the mid–seventh century when they may have been under Northumbrian overlordship. Their relations with the Picts, their neighbors to the east, are highly debatable, particularly during the late eighth century and early ninth century: some scholars believe that the Picts were the overlords of the Dál Riata, whereas others think that a Dalriadic dynasty ruled the Picts. This is the period when the Dál Riata were coming under attack from the sea: the first recorded Viking raid in Scotland hit Iona in a.d. 794. As the Norse gained control of the island fringe of Argyll and the Pictish north, the Dál Riata and Picts amalgamated into a single kingdom, whose first recognized king was Cinead mac Ailpín (more familiarly known as Kenneth mac Alpin, r. a.d. 843–858) of the Dál Riata. Although it is unclear whether this was the result of conquest or assimilation, by the mid-tenth century texts spoke of the destruction of the Picts, and the name of the kingdom itself, Alba, was Gaelic.

See alsoDark Age/Early Medieval Scotland (vol. 2, part7).


Bannerman, John. Studies in the History of Dalriada. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1974.

Campbell, Ewan. Saints and Sea-kings: The First Kingdom of the Scots. Edinburgh: Canongate Books–Historic Scotland, 1999.

Foster, Sally M. Picts, Gaels, and Scots: Early Historic Scotland. London: B. T. Batsford–Historic Scotland, 1996.

Lane, Alan, and Ewan Campbell. Dunadd: An Early Dalriadic Capital. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2000.

Elizabeth A. Ragan

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Dál Riata

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