Áedán mac Gabráin

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: British History 1500 and before (including Roman Britain); Historical figures

Satellite image of northern Britain and Ireland showing the approximate area of Dál Riata (shaded).
Satellite image of northern Britain and Ireland showing the approximate area of Dál Riata (shaded).

Áedán mac Gabráin was king of Dál Riata, a kingdom in modern Argyll, Scotland and County Antrim, Ireland, from about 574 onwards. He was a contemporary of Columba, and much that is recorded of his life and career comes from hagiography such as Adomnán of Iona's Life of Saint Columba. The Irish annals record Áedán's campaigns against his neighbours, in Ireland and in northern Britain, including expeditions to the Orkney Islands, the Isle of Man and to the north-east of Scotland. As recorded by Bede, Áedán was decisively defeated by Æthelfrith of Bernicia at the battle of Degsastan. Áedán may have been deposed or have abicated following this defeat and died in about 608.


The sources for Áedán's life include Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum; Irish annals, principally the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of Tigernach; and Adomnán's Life of Saint Columba. Áedán also appears as a character in the early Irish works Gein Branduib maic Echach ocus Aedáin maic Gabráin and Compert Mongáin. The Senchus fer n-Alban, a census and genealogy of Dál Riata, records his immediate descendants.

Adomnán, the Senchus and the Irish annals state that Áedán was a son of Gabrán mac Domangairt (died c. 555–560). A Welsh poem says that Áedán's mother was a daughter of Dumnagual Hen of Alt Clut. Áedán's brother Eoganán is known from Adomnán and his death is recorded around 597. The Senchus fer n-Alban names three other sons of Gabrán, namely Cuildach, Domnall and Domangart. Although nothing is known of Cuildach and Domangart or their descendants, Adomnán mentions a certain Ioan, son of Conall, son of Domnall, "who belonged to the royal lineage of the Cenél nGabráin", but this is read as meaning that Ioan was a kinsman of the Cenél nGabráin, and his grandfather named Domnall is not thought to be the same person as Áedán's brother Domnall.

In the Rawlinson B. 502 manuscript, dated to c. 1130, is the tale Gein Branduib maic Echach ocus Aedáin maic Gabráin (The Birth of Brandub son of Eochu and of Aedán son of Gabrán). This tells how Áedán was a son of Echu mac Muiredaig of the Uí Cheinnselaig of Leinster, and thus the twin brother of Brandub mac Echach (died c. 605–608). Áedán was exchanged at birth for one of the twin daughters of Gabrán, born the very same night, so that each family might have a son. The Prophecy of Berchán also associates Áedán with Leinster. A modern study concludes that "[t]here seems to be no basis of fact behind these traditions".


Áedán was one of the several kings in Dál Riata and the very many in northern Britain and Ireland. Dál Riata itself was divided into three sub-kingdoms: the Cenél nGabráin, who took their name from Áedán's father, who ruled over Kintyre, Cowal and Bute; the Cenél Loairn of northern Argyll; and the Cenél nÓengusa of Islay. Within these there were smaller divisions or tribes which are named by the Senchus fer n-Alban. Details of the Irish part of the kingdom are less clear, but it appears to have been ruled by the Cenél nGabráin.

Looking outward, Dál Riata's neighbours in north Britain were the Picts and the Britons. Later in Áedán's reign the kingdom of Bernicia would become a significant power in north Britain. In Ireland, Dál Riata formed part of Ulster, ruled by Báetán mac Cairill of the Dál Fiatach. The other major grouping in Ulster were the disunited tribes of the cruithne known as the Dál nAraidi. The major cruithne kings in Áedán's reign were Áed Dub mac Suibni and Fiachnae mac Báetáin. Beyond the kingdom of Ulster, and generally hostile to it, were the various kingdoms and tribes of the Uí Néill and their subject kingdoms and tribes. Of the Uí Néill kings, Áed mac Ainmuirech of the Cenél Conaill, Columba's first cousin once removed, was the most important to Áedán's reign.


Footprint used in king-making ceremonies, Dunadd
Footprint used in king-making ceremonies, Dunadd

From the evidence of the annals, Áedán was around forty years old when he became king after the death of his uncle Conall mac Comgaill in 574. His succession as king may have been contested as Adomnán states that Columba had favoured the candidacy of Áedán's brother Eoganán. Adomnán records that Áedán was ordained as king by Columba, the first example of an ordination known in Britain and Ireland.

In 574, following Conall's death, the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of Tigernach record a battle in Kintyre, at the unidentified Delgu or Teloch, but say only that "Dúnchad, son of Conall, son of Comgall, and many others of the allies of the sons of Gabrán, fell." In 575, the Annals of Ulster report "the great convention of Druim Cett", at Mullagh or Daisy Hill near Limavady, with Áed mac Ainmuirech and Columba in attendance. Adomnán reports that Áedán was present at the meeting. The purpose of the meeting is not entirely certain, but one agreement made there concerned the status of Áedán's kingdom. Áedán and Áed agreed that while the fleet of Dál Riata would serve the Uí Néill, no tribute would be paid, and warriors would only be provided from the Dál Riata lands in Ireland.

The reason for this agreement is presumed to have been the threat of Áedán and to Áed by Báetán mac Cairill. Báetán is said to have forced the king of Dál Riata to pay homage to him at Rosnaree on Islandmagee, and this is thought to have followed Áedán's alliance with the Cenél Conaill. Ulster sources say that Báetán levied tribute from Scotland, and Dál Riata is presumed to be meant, and he is known to have campaigned on the Isle of Man. Following Báetán's death in 581, the Ulstermen abandoned the Isle of Man, perhaps driven out by Áedán who is recorded as fighting there in 583. Somewhat earlier, around 580, Áedán had raided Orkney, which had been subject to Bridei son of Maelchon, King of the Picts, at an earlier date.

Áedán's campaigns on the Isle of Man have sometimes been confused with the battle against the Miathi mentioned by Adomnán. The Miathi appear to have been the Maeatae, a tribe in the area of the upper river Forth. This campaign was successful, but Áedán's sons Artúr and Eochaid Find were killed in battle according to Adomnán. This battle may have taken place around 590 and be recorded as the battle of Leithreid or Leithrig.

The Prophecy of Berchán says of Áedán: "Thirteen years (one after another) [he will fight against] the Pictish host (fair the diadem)." The only recorded battle between Áedán and the Picts appears to that fought in Circinn, in 599 or after, where Áedán was defeated. The annals mention the deaths of his sons here, but this is thought to be an error.

A number of Welsh traditions point to warfare between Áedán and Rhydderch Hael of Alt Clut, the British kingdom later known as Strathclyde. Adomnán mentions Rhydderch sending a monk named Luigbe to Iona to speak with Columba "for he wanted to learn whether he would be slaughtered by his enemies or not". A Welsh triad names Áedán's plundering of Alt Clut as one of the "three unrestrained plunderings of Britain", and the poem Peiryan Vaban tells of a battle between Áedán and Rhydderch.

Degsastan and after

Degsastan appears not to have been the first battle between Áedán and the Bernicians. The death of his son Domangart in the land of the Saxons is mentioned by Adomnán, and it is presumed that Bran died in the same otherwise unrecorded battle.

Of the roots of this conflict, Bede tells us only that Áedán was alarmed by Æthelfrith's advance. Wherever the battle of Degsastan was fought, Bede saw it as lying within Northumbria. The battle was a decisive victory for Æthelfrith and Bede says, carefully, that "[f]rom that day until the present, no king of the Irish in Britain has dared to do battle with the English." Although victorious, Æthelfrith suffered losses as Bede tells us his brother Theobald was killed with all his following. Theobald is called Eanfrith in Irish sources, who name his killer as Máel Umai mac Báetáin of the Cenél nEógain. The Irish poem Compert Mongáin says that the king of Ulster, Fiachnae mac Báetáin of the Dál nAraidi, aided Áedán against the Saxons, perhaps at Degsastan. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions that Hering, son of King Hussa of Bernicia, was present, apparently fighting with Áedán.

After the defeat of Degsastan the annals report nothing of Áedán until his death six years after the battle, perhaps on 17 April 608, the date coming from the Martyrology of Tallaght, composed around 800. The Annals of Tigernach give his age as 74. The Prophecy of Berchán, as well as placing his death in Kintyre, says "[h]e will not be king at the time of his death", while the 12th century Acta Sancti Lasriani claims that he was expelled from the kingship, but this is uncertain. John of Fordun, writing in the 14th century, believed that Áedán had been buried at Kilkerran in Kintyre, but this is again uncertain.

Áedán's legacy

Áedán was succeeded by his son Eochaid Buide. Adomnán gives an account of how Columba had foreseen this, and that Eochaid's older brothers would predecease their father. Áedán's other sons are named by the Senchus fer n-Alban as Eochaid Find, Tuathal, Bran, Baithéne, Conaing and Gartnait. Adomnán also names Artúr, who the Senchus calls a son of Conaing, and Domangart, who is not included in the Senchus. It is suggested that Domangart too may have been a grandson rather than a son of Áedán, most likely a son of Conaing. The main line of Cenél nGabráin kings were the descendants of Eochaid Buide through his son Domnall Brecc, but the descendants of Conaing successfully contested for the throne throughout the 7th century and into the 8th.

It has been suggested that Gartnait son of Áedán could be the same person as Gartnait son of Domelch, king of the Picts, whose death is reported in about 601, but this rests on the idea of Pictish matriliny, which has been criticised. Even less certainly, it has been argued that Gartnait's successor in the Pictish king-lists, Nechtan, was his grandson and thus Áedán's great-grandson.

Of Áedán's daughters, only one can be plausibly named. This is Maithgemm, or Gemma, who married a prince named Cairell of the Dál Fiatach. The names of Áedán's wives are not known, but one was said to be British and another may have been a Pictish princess named Domelch, if indeed the Gartnait son of Domelch and Gartnait son of Áedán are one and the same.

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