Lessons from History – The Battle of Nechtansmere 685 AD

You may never have heard of this battle, let alone think that there are relevant lessons to be drawn from it. But please bear with me. There is controversy as to the site of this battle. Traditional claimants for its location are in Angus but more recently Dunnachton near Kincraig has been put forward as a potential location. I hope to address this later but first I would like to talk about the reasons that gave rise to it. It was fought between an invading Northumbrian army led by a king called Ecfrith and the Picts who inhabited the lands north of the Forth. Christianity had come to Northumbria as a result of missionaries sent from Iona along with the traditions of the Columban Church when they came in contact with those monks who adhered to rites and traditions of the Roman Church this led to conflict when they celebrated Easter on different dates. In 664 AD the synod of Whitby was held to decide which tradition the Northumbria should adhere to. The king of Northumbria was the arbiter and he decided to adopt the traditions of Rome (his wife was from the south of England where the Roman Church held sway) Twenty years later his successor decided to make his northern neighbours adopt Roman ways by force. There is a lot said about church unity these days but we should never mistake uniformity for unity. Far too often outward signs of conformity are imposed on churches for the sake of uniformity and anybody who questions it. Ecfrith thought that invasion was a good idea but it was not a ‘God’ idea as events transpired. Mobilising his army in the spring he hoped to catch the Picts before they could finish sowing their crops. The Pictish king, Brudei, would not have been able have a standing army because most people lived by subsistence farming, he would have wait for his enemy to invade before calling out all his men. Northumbria claimed authority over at least the southern Pictish tribes but subsequent rebellions in the preceding years make it difficult to judge where the effective border lay. As with later military campaigns in Scotland show there are physical obstacles to overcome such as rivers to cross. Bede suggests that Ecfrith was lured into the mountains, fought an initial engagement, managed to outflank the Picts causing them to retreat. however in the headlong pursuit of the fleeing Picts King Ecfrith was ambushed, and cut off and killed along with his warrior elite. Sometimes we can be like Ecfrith we can be so convinced that we are in the right we fail to consider that God will listen to those who disagree with us and uphold their cause. “There is a way that seems right to a man but the end thereof ends in destruction.” Matthew 7:13.
Assuming that the first line that the Picts could defend would have been on the banks of the Tay near Perth, even then only those tribes nearest would be able to mobilise in time and thus be outnumbered. However, an opposed crossing would have made Ecfrith think twice. Looking for an unopposed crossing point upstream would seem a wise thing to do. But as time progressed the more time the Picts had to get reinforcements. It is quite possible that the two forces shadowed each other. There would have been a limit to which the Northumbrians could have forced the pace to draw ahead and secure an undefended ford without wearing out his men and animals. Any stragglers would become easy victims for the native Picts. The longer this happened the greater the chance that the remoter northern Pictish tribes could meet with their southern neighbours. This fits in with Bede’s comments about being lured into the mountains. This would have led the invading army away from the more fertile lands along the east coast and the resultant hardships that would have entailed. There were, of course, no proper roads in the Highlands until General Wade came along, but he usually incorporated existing tracks. If the battle did take place in Badenoch it is quite possible that the route of the later Wade Road might give a clue. Bede describes the battle as being between two hills, it is generally assumed that these hills were on the left and right flanks of the opposing armies but as the Northumbrians were supposed enticed into the mountains of the Highlands maybe these hills are smaller geographical features in the strath rather than the mountains that surround it. Bede was writing in the next century but is possible that some survivors of battle were still alive in his youth, if not later when he was writing his history. Whose version of events would he trust the most? How about a fellow monk that accompanied Ecfrith’s army? If so then during the actual battle he may well have been on a hill overlooking the scene of the initial engagement of the battle. Two routes from the south meet up at Ruthven (Glen Tilt and Druimuachdar), so could the hill that Ruthven Castle and later Barracks were built the hill that Bede’s source was observing from? The later Wade road crossed the Spey in the flood plain below the Barracks, and north of the Spey it is now Manse Road.img016 This postcard from my collection shows the manse, manse road itself runs at the bottom of the high ground. The hill ends in a bluff over the river which would have effectively limited the Northumbrian attack to the ford at its base. The manse in question now being the Columba House Hotel is on a small hill. The view from the south is now blocked by the new A9 which now crosses the Spey close to where the Wade road once forded the Spey. The position the Picts held does must have been a logical one to defend such as a river crossing because Ecfrith did not suspect a trap. One of the features of the Spey is that there are banks of shingle at many points, to earlier generations of Highlanders these would have been seen as ammunition dumps, full of “chuckies” to rain down on attackers as they waded across the shallows. Any of the Northumbrian elite wearing armour/chain mail would risk drowning if they stumbled at this point and fell. One might argue that there is no mention about fording of any river in the accounts of the battle, true, but many rivers would have to have been crossed and they are not mentioned either. If you look at later accounts of campaigning in the Highlands, such as General Mackay’s Memoirs, where we can trace the route taken the fording on most of the rivers is hardly mentioned if at all. Today because we normally cross rivers by means of bridges we would see the fording of a river as something memorable and unusual. The account states that the right flank of the Pictish army was observed to melt away after apparently being outflanked. There is another place where the Spey can be forded near Kingussie just upstream of the Ruthven bridge, in fact, there is a colour postcard of pony-trekkers fording the Spey. img015 If the right flank of the Pictish army extended no further than the mouth of the river Gynack then the Northumbrians would have been able to ford the Spey unopposed. The path of the Gynack was channelled when Kingussie was developed as a planned town c1800. All that would have been needed for the right flank of the Picts to fold was the realisation that the Northumbrians were in force on the other side of the Gynack looking for a place to cross. But it is quite possible that this was expected and this was a planned withdrawal. Though its execution might have been flawed. The Wade Road going towards Dunnachton takes the higher ground above the Insh marshes on drier ground. But to a retreating army it would have been tempting to take the more direct route along the floor of the strath only to find oneself crossing boggy ground that deteriorate quickly as each person passed over it. To Ecfrith and his pursuing army following the Wade Road route would seem to be the long way round and going along the floor of the strath would seem to be quicker at first and they would look to cut off those retreating along the higher ground. Only to realise too late that their progress would be slowed at points to almost a standstill. As they approached Lynchat the ground would have become firmer and they would have thought the worst was over. What happened next would have depended upon states of the respective armies. Had the Northumbrian flanking force linked back up with the main army? What Ecfrith did not know was that the Northern Pictish tribes had been concentrating at Dunnachton, though some elements may have gone south to slow up the Northumbrian advance. Giving Ecfrith the confidence that he was facing the entire Pictish army. A confidence misplaced. He marched his men into an ambush. But where? You need something like a hollow in the ground where a large body of men could emerge in surprise to cut off and destroy the invaders. There are a couple of potential sites, there is one on the eastern side of Lynchat marked on the first OS map as the site of a sluice and another one slightly further east towards Balavil House. If Ecfrith and his vanguard had not waited until most of his men emerged from the marshy ground then the Northumbrians were probably strung out and therefore easy meat for the ambushing forces. Especially if he was focused on the retreating men who may have suddenly turned to make a stand. Ecfrith may have thought they were preparing to make a final stand but in reality it was because the trap had been sprung and he and his men were doomed. The former hollow was protected by a band of trees stretching down from the hillside above (probably left uncultivated because of its steepness), which was recorded in the Roy map of the area which was produced after the ‘Forty-Five. This could have provided additional cover for an ambush.
One might raise a number of objections such as the site of the proposed action it is far from Dunachton to be the battle site but not all battles were fought at the place they are popularly named after. The village of Waterloo did not see any of the actual fighting during the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The battle was so-called because the victorious Duke of Wellington had spent the night before there. Just because the Picts were defending Dunachton does not necessarily means that the fighting took place at Dunachton itself. From Ruthven you can look down the strath and see Loch Insh in the distance and hence Bede’s source called the battle of Nechtansmere.
What happened to the rest of the Northumbrian army history is silent on it, it could have been that King Brudei was magnanimous and allowed them to return home knowing that many Northumbrians still observed the traditions of the Columban church, or at least had a great respect for it. After all somebody had lived to tell the tale. But Bede had no reason to put the Picts or the Columbans in a good light. Sometimes we have to see the good in different strands of the Christian Church, too often we see only the faults of other denominations and try and impose our own ways on others. We have be careful that we do not do an “Egfrith” and find that God blesses those we consider our enemies.

About davidgrose

I am a Bible believing Christian, brought up in the Brethren Movement, and now find myself associating with charismatics even though I do not always agree with them. I am in full-time employment. I have interests in history and photography amongst others.
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