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History of the English in Scotland, Part I: The Angles

Updated: Oct 8, 2023

Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland, seat of the kings of Bernicia, whose people colonized Southern Scotland

While Scotland's Celtic heritage is well-known, her Germanic roots are also essential to her history and culture. For that reason, here I'm going to focus specifically on the contribution of the English as the earliest Germanic people to settle within modern-day Scotland. Their migration came in two waves: the first was Anglo-Saxon (specifically 'Angles'), beginning probably in the 7th century, and the second was Anglo-Norman, beginning in the 12th century. Their main contribution took the form of the 'Scots language', which was adopted throughout the Lowlands at the expense of Gaelic from the 12th century onwards. They mixed with local Gaels to form a unique culture, neither English nor Gaelic, but still considering themselves Scottish like the Gaels, despite their roots in England.

To begin with, I will retell the history of the arrival of the Angles within the area that is now part of Scotland, and recount the Anglo-Norman immigration in the next article. Our story begins at the dawn of the 7th century, when two great kings were jostling for dominance within the lands that would become Scotland. On one side was the Scottish king, Aidan of Dál Riada in what is now Argyll and neighboring islands, and on the other Æthelfrith of Bernicia in what is now Northumberland.

Dál Riada is colored here, Bernicia was in the lands on the furthest right of the map

Æthelfrith's ancestors had arrived in Northumberland at some point before this, whether as mercenaries manning Hadrian's Wall, or as freebooters looking to exploit the collapse of Roman Britain in 410 AD. Unlike with the Jutes and Saxons in South-East England, there is no story of how or when the Bernicians arrived; only that their first recorded king seems to have been called 'Ida' who began his reign in 547 1 and either built Bamburgh Castle or captured it from a local Brittonic king (depending on whether you're reading the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or the Welsh Historia Brittonum).

While tradition holds that Dál Riada was founded by the Irish 'Sons of Erc' in the late 5th century, Ewan Campbell has raised the suggestion that Gaelic culture was not necessarily introduced by an incoming Irish dynasty, but developed over time through close trade connections with Ireland rather than the rest of Scotland (as the sea may have been easier to travel across than the Highlands)2. Whatever the case, the cultures of Aidan and Æthelfrith were distinct from those of the folk living in most of Scotland at the time, who spoke Brittonic languages more closely-related to Welsh; the Picts in the north and Britons in the south. It is perhaps surprising then that they should consider themselves the most powerful monarchs in lands they didn't even rule, but they were certainly both ambitious men.

They met in battle at an unknown place called Degsastan ('day-stone') in 603 and Æthelfrith was the victor3, despite being outnumbered. Degsastan may be Addinston in the Scottish Borders4, but it's still hard to know the territorial significance of this outcome, or even if there was any; it may simply have been a competition between two blowhards to see who could best the other in battle. We don't really know at this point if the Bernicians gained any territory within modern-day Scotland or not (though the Bernician historian, Bede, certainly implies this could well have been the case5). Æthelfrith was killed in an ambush by Rædwald of East Anglia in 617 (the king thought to be buried in the famous ship burial at Sutton Hoo) and Æthelfrith's sons had to flee their homeland. Perhaps ironically, they fled to Dál Riada, where they converted to Christianity.

This reconstruction of the helmet found at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, could have belonged to Rædwald of East Anglia, the king who finally defeated Æthelfrith (image by Lark Ascending)

It is worth stressing at this point that the form of Christianity they converted to was that of the Scots, a tradition which began with the earliest Romano-British Christians and was spread to Ireland by St Patrick and then to Scotland by St Columba. However, in 597 Pope Gregory I had sent a mission to convert the Jutes of Kent, which was a more updated version of Catholicism (in which new calculations for dating Easter had been introduced). This was the form of Christianity adopted by Æthelfrith's successor, Edwin of Deira (the king of Bernicia's southern neighbor in what is now Yorkshire). This was to become an important distinction in later years.

Edwin was killed in battle with Cadwallon of Gwynedd (North Wales) and Penda of Mercia (the English Midlands) in 6336, so Æthelfrith's sons returned to Bernicia. Eanfrith was the eldest and so became king, but upon doing so he renounced his baptism and returned to the faith of his pagan ancestors. He too was killed by Cadwallon the following year, though that happened when he met to negotiate with Cadwallon rather than in battle7. Eanfrith was succeeded by his younger brother, Oswald, who had remained Christian.

Cadwallon then decided to invade Northumbria, so Oswald met him at Heavenfield near Hexham, Northumberland. Bede relays a tradition that claims the night before the battle, Oswald had a vision of St Columba predicting his victory, so Oswald raised a cross and prayed before the battle. He was not only victorious, but Cadwallon was killed in the battle. Bede then claimed Oswald became overlord of all the peoples of Britain (but isn't specific about which ones)8.

It is during Oswald's reign that we may have the first clear indication of the Northumbrians (the Bernicians and Deirans united into one kingdom) pushing into the lands that would become Scotland. The Annals of Ulster record a siege of Edinburgh Castle in 638, though frustratingly it says nothing about who was involved or what the outcome was. Nevertheless, the Brittonic kingdom of Gododdin (which Edinburgh was part of) is never mentioned after this point, so it can be reasonably inferred that it was conquered by Northumbria. Oswald himself was killed in battle with Penda in 642 and was succeeded in Bernicia by his younger brother, Oswiu, and in Deira by Oswine (a relative of Edwin of Deira).

Oswiu was clearly not content with ruling only over Bernicia, so he invaded Deira in 651. Oswine decided not to meet Oswiu in battle though, and instead sought refuge with a friend: Earl Humwald. The early betrayed the king, however, and Oswine was murdered probably at Diddersley Hill in North Yorkshire. In these times as Christianity was beginning to take root in England, such fates could be interpreted as martyrdom, and Oswine was actually venerated as a saint by the Anglo-Saxons.9

Perhaps feeling threatened by the reunified Northumbria, Penda the marauding Mercian invaded in 655, but this time he wouldn't be returning to his own kingdom. The historical sources are confused on what exactly happened: both claim Oswiu tried to bribe Penda and Bede claims he refused it, but the Historia Brittonum says he distributed the booty among his allies. For some reason or another, Penda and his allies (a mix of Britons and Angles) were defeated and killed in battle by Oswiu at a place called Winwæd near Leeds.10

Depiction of Penda's death at the Battle of Winwæd in Worcester Cathedral

Bede claims that Oswiu then not only became overlord of the Mercians, but also the Picts11 (though no battle between the Northumbrians and the Picts is recorded during Oswiu's reign). This means that Northumbria must have reached to the River Forth at least by the 660s, which Bede marked as the border with the Picts. It was also during Oswiu's reign that the Synod of Whitby was held. In 664 he agreed to adopt the papally-approved calculations for Easter, despite having been baptized among the Scots. Part of the reason for this was that his son, Ealhfrith, had been convinced by Wilfrid, Archbishop of York, to adopt mainstream Catholicism12.

The main episodes involving the Picts and Northumbrians happened in the reign of Oswiu's son, Ecgfrith ('ecg' is pronounced as 'edge' and that's what it means), who succeeded his father after he died of illness in 670. The following year, the Picts rebelled against Ecgfrith (perhaps they did not consider their agreements with Oswiu to last beyond his death), but he defeated them at the Battle of Two Rivers (possibly at Moncreiffe Island near Perth)13, where it was said the rivers were so full of corpses that the English victors could walk across them. Nevertheless, the Picts had their revenge and rebelled again in 684 under the leadership of a new king: Bridei III.

Bede tells us that the Picts somehow forced Ecgfrith to hurry to fight them, though his advisors warned him not to go. Bede says he was lured into the mountains, where he was defeated and killed at a place called 'Nechtansmere' (which has been identified at Dunachton, Moray)14. The Picts were clearly trying to gain the upper hand in battle with the Angles, as it's likely they performed poorly on the open battlefield; just like their ancestors when they faced the Romans at Mons Graupius in the 80s AD. They sought to use the terrain to their advantage and forced Ecgfrith's small, probably exhausted men into the narrow passes between the mountains, whom they likely ambushed and sent many of to a watery grave in the mere, or loch.

This Pictish stone from Aberlemno is often thought to depict the Battle of Nechtansmere. While its location in Angus might mean it doesn't, it does show well the contrast between the Picts on the left and what are possibly Northumbrians on the right. Note the Picts' lack of armor and the docked tails of the enemy horses.

Ecgfrith was succeeded by this brother, Aldfrith, and a further conflict is recorded between the Picts and Northumbrians in 699 when a Northumbrian ealdorman (nobleman), Berhtred, was killed in battle with them15. Thereafter, we read little of conflicts between the Northumbrians and the local inhabitants of Scotland, so the Northumbrians probably consolidated their territory in what is now the south-east. There, Anglo-Saxon culture replaced that of the local Britons.

The next time we hear of battles involving the Northumbrians in Scotland is during the reign of Eadberht, when he conquered Kyle (in what is now Ayrshire) in 750 and marched on Dumbarton Castle alongside the Pictish king Angus (or 'Onuist') in 756; the first record of these two peoples fighting as allies. It seems likely that the Picts had become stronger since their victory at Nechtansmere (Angus also subjugated the Scots), so Eadberht focused on the presumably weaker Strathclyde Britons and may have convinced Angus to join him. The Britons “agreed to terms” and the Picts and Northumbrians left Dumbarton, only for Eadberht's army to have been destroyed between Govan and a place called 'Niwanbirig', but the Historia Regum Anglorum frustratingly gives no further details.

View over the Firth of Clyde from Dumbarton Castle, where the Britons were besieged by the Picts and Northumbrians

Perhaps the most likely scenario is that 'Niwanbirig' is Newborough near Lichfield and that Angus also marched alongside Eadberht into Mercia after leaving Dumbarton, but they were defeated. A legend that a king named 'Angus McFergus' (the Pictish king did have a father called 'Fergus') founded a church at St Andrews as thanks to God for escaping after a defeat in Mercia could lend weight to this interpretation16. Northumbria was now at her largest extent, as she now reached into Ayrshire and Dumfries and Galloway, since a monastery was built at Whithorn in the Anglo-Saxon style17. Things were to turn for the worst at the end of the 8th century though, as Vikings carried out their infamous Sack of Lindisfarne in 793, before mainly focusing on Scotland (specifically the Isles) and Ireland.

Northumbria wasn't to be left alone though, as the Viking 'Great Heathen Army' invaded in 866, where they captured York and took over Deira. Northumbria then plunged into a dark age, and it seems the Strathclyde Britons were able to take advantage of her weakness. Place-name evidence shows that new Brittonic-speakers were spreading across Dumfriesshire and Cumberland in the 10th century, but also that Norse-Gaels from Ireland (and probably also the Isle of Man) were colonizing the coastline18. The collapse of Northumbria had left a power vacuum around the Solway Firth that was filled by her most recent victim of aggression (Strathclyde) and new settlers with Viking ancestry, reversing the Northumbrian push westward.

Lothian and the Borders probably remained part of Bernicia, which was ruled in the late 9th/early 10th century by Eadwulf, a man the Irish annals call “King of the North English”, but who was considered a subordinate by West Saxon kings such as Alfred the Great19. Eadwulf was succeeded by his son, Ealdred, who fled his kingdom to Scotland. By this time, Scotland was in the process of forming to meet the challenge faced by the Norsemen as they pushed in from the north and west. The Picts and the Scots were becoming one folk.

Ealdred and Constantine I of Scotland fought a Norse-Gaelic ruler of York, Ragnall O'Ivar, at Corbridge in 918 (a battle nobody seems to have won, though the following events would suggest Ealdred returned to his kingdom). Ealdred's formal submissions to Edward the Elder of Wessex in 924 and his successor, Æthelstan, in 927 are seen as part of the foundation of the Kingdom of England20. At the time, this would have also included South-East Scotland, but this was to change over the following century.

In 973 Edgar the Peaceful of England granted Lothian to Kenneth II of Scotland21. By this point, Bernicia had ceased to be considered a kingdom and her rulers were now known as 'High-Reeves of Bamburgh' (high-reeves were of lesser status than ealdormen, the highest-ranking noblemen second only to kings)22. The Angles in Lothian were now ruled by the Scots, while those of the Borders became part of England.

However, Malcolm II of Scotland invaded England in 1006 and besieged Durham. The ruler of Bamburgh, Waltheof, was too old to fight him and stayed in his castle, so his son, Uhtred, had to fend off the Scots. Following his victory, it is said that local women were paid a cow for every severed Scotsman's head they washed so that they could be mounted on Durham's walls. Æthelred the Unready offered the ealdormanship of Bamburgh to Uhtred while Waltheof was still alive; a great humiliation for his father.23.

The current border between Scotland and England was probably fixed where it is today following the Battle of Carham in 1018 (or possibly 1016), where Malcolm and his ally, Owen the Bald of Strathclyde, defeated Uhtred (or his brother, Eadwulf Cudel; the details about the chronology of this battle are confused)24. The 'West Bernicians' were now under Scottish rule, but the distribution of Gaelic place-names in the south-east shows that Gaelic settlement wasn't as heavy as in Strathclyde25, which may have been because the Anglo-Saxon and Gaelic cultures were more different from each other than Gaelic and Brittonic (which were both Celtic). This would likely have meant that Gaelic cultural takeover was slower in former Northumbria.

This story began with the arrival of the Bernicians in what is now Scotland, pushing from the south-east against the indigenous Britons. Bernicia united with her southern neighbor, Deira, and together the Northumbrians expanded across what is now Southern Scotland and preyed on the remaining Britons holed up in Dumbarton Castle north of the Clyde; since the Picts proved too tough to conquer. The arrival of the Vikings broke their grip on their western territories and Northumbria fragmented, leaving the way open for Scots, Britons and Norse-Gaels to swoop in from the north and west. The Angles in Lothian and the Borders remained the most ethnically distinct from the new Scottish rulers, though they may have become Gaels over time had the following events not reversed this cultural trend, the story of which will be told next time.

Conor Cummings

1Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: 547 AD


3Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: 603 AD

4Moffat, 2010: The Faded Map, p.170

5Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People: 2:34

6Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: 633 AD

7Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People: 3:1

8Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People: 3:6

9Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: 651 AD


11Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People: 3:24

12Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People: 3:25



15Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: 699 AD



18Clarkson, 2014: Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons, pp.64-65









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