Dál Riata

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

Satellite image of northern Britain and Ireland showing the approximate area of Dál Riata (shaded). The mountainous spine which separates the east and west coasts of Scotland can be seen.
Satellite image of northern Britain and Ireland showing the approximate area of Dál Riata (shaded). The mountainous spine which separates the east and west coasts of Scotland can be seen.

Dál Riata (also Dalriada or Dalriata) was a Goidelic kingdom on the western seaboard of Scotland and the northern coasts of Ireland, situated in what is now Argyll and Bute, Lochaber, and County Antrim. The traditional view that Dál Riata was an Irish colony in Scotland has lately been questioned, largely on archaeological grounds, but it is not clear that a consensus view has yet been reached. The inhabitants of Dál Riata are often referred to as Scots, from the Latin scotti, a word which meant Gael, and later came to mean Gaelic-speakers whether Scottish, Irish or otherwise. They are referred to here as Gaels, an unambiguous term, or as Dál Riatans.

The kingdom reached its height under Áedán mac Gabráin, but its expansion was checked at the Battle of Degsastan by Æthelfrith of Northumbria. Serious defeats in Ireland and Scotland in the time of Domnall Brecc (d. 642) ended Dál Riata's Golden Age, and the kingdom became a client of Northumbria, then subject to the Picts. There is disagreement over the fate of the kingdom from the late 8th century onwards where some have seen no revival of Dal Riata after the long period of foreign domination from after 637 to around 750 or 760, while others have seen a revivial of Dal Riata under Áed Find and the usurping of the kingship of Fortriu by the Dál Riata a couple of generations earlier than the time of the traditional individual credited with this, Kenneth I of Scotland (Cináed mac Ailpín). The kingdom finally disappeared in the Viking Age.

People, Land and Sea

The modern human landscape of Dál Riata differs a great deal from that of the first millennium. Most people today live in settlements far larger than anything known in early times, while some areas, such as Kilmartin and many of the islands, such as Islay and Tiree may well have had as many inhabitants as they do today. Many of the small settlements have now disappeared, so that the countryside is far emptier than was formerly the case, and many areas which were formerly farmed are now abandoned. Even the physical landscape is not entirely as it was: sea-levels have changed, and the combination of erosion and silting will have considerably altered the shape of the coast in some places, while the natural accumulation of peat and man-made changes from peat-cutting has altered inland landscapes.

As was normal at the time, subsistence farming was the occupation of most people. Oats and barley were the main cereal crops. Pastoralism was especially important, and transhumance was the practice in many places. Some areas, most notably Islay, were especially fertile, and good grazing would have been available all year round, just as it was in Ireland. Tiree was famed in later times for its oats and barley, while smaller, uninhabited islands were used to keep sheep. The area, until lately, was notable for its inshore fisheries, and for plentiful shellfish, therefore seafood is likely to have been an important part of the diet.

The Senchus fer n-Alban lists three main kin groups in Dál Riata in Scotland, with a fourth being added later:

  • The Cenél nGabráin, in Kintyre, supposedly the descendants of Gabrán mac Domangairt.
  • The Cenél n-Óengusa, in Islay and Jura, supposedly the descendants of Óengus Mór mac Eirc.
  • The Cenél Loairn, in Lorne, perhaps also Mull and Ardnamurchan, supposedly the descendants of Loarn mac Eirc.
  • The Cenél Comgaill, in Cowal and Bute, a later addition, supposedly the descendants of Comgall mac Domangairt.

The Senchus does not list any kindreds in Ireland. Among the Cenél Loairn it lists the Airgíalla, although whether this should be understood as being Irish settlers or simply another tribe to whom the label was applied is unclear. The meaning of Airgíalla 'hostage givers' adds to the uncertainty, although it must be observed that only one grouping in Ireland was apparenly given this name and it is therefore very rare, perhaps supporting the Ui Macc Uais hypothesis. It is also interesting to speculate whether this is the real basis of the later Clan Donald claims of linkage to the Irish Airgíalla. There is no reason to suppose that this is a complete or accurate list.

Dunadd Hill, Scotland upon which the Dal Riata hill fort stood
Dunadd Hill, Scotland upon which the Dal Riata hill fort stood

Among the royal centres in Dál Riata, Dunadd appears to have been the most important. It has been partly excavated, and in addition to fortifications, weapons, quernstones and many moulds for the manufacture of jewellery were found. Other high-status material included glassware and wine amphorae from Gaul, and in larger quantities than found elsewhere in Britain and Ireland. Lesser centres included Dun Ollaigh, seat of the Cenél Loairn kings, and Dunaverty, at the southern end of Kintyre, in the lands of the Cenél nGabráin. The main royal centre in Ireland appears to have been at Dunseverick (Dún Sebuirge).

The difficulty of overland travel and the many islands made Dál Riata an archipelago, with travel by sea by far the easiest means of moving any distance. As well as long distance trade, local trade must also have been significant. Currachs were probably the most common seagoing craft, and on inland waters dugouts and coracles were used. Large timber ships, called long ships, perhaps similar to the Viking ships of the same name, are attested to in a variety of sources.

Religion and Art

The 8th century St Martin's Cross on Iona
The 8th century St Martin's Cross on Iona

There is no direct evidence of pre-Christian Dál Riata. The records come to us through the chroniclers of Iona and Irish monasteries. Adomnán's Life of St Columba implies a Christian Dál Riata. Whether this is true cannot be known. The figure of Columba looms large in any history of Christianity in Dál Riata. Adomnán's Life, however useful as a record, was not intended to serve as history, but as hagiography. We are fortunate that the writing of saints' lives in Adomnán's day had not reached the stylised formulas of the High Middle Ages, so that the Life contains a great deal of historically valuable information. It is also a vital linguistic source showing the distribution of Gaelic and P-Celtic placenames in northern Scotland by the end of the 7th century and interestingly notes Columba's need for a translator when conversing with an individual on Skye, evidence of a non-Gaelic language which is also backed up by a sprinkling of P-Celtic placenames on the remote mainland opposite the island (W.F.H. Nicolaisen 'Scottish Placenames').

Columba's founding Iona within the bounds of Dál Riata ensured that the kingdom would be of great importance in the spread of Christianity in northern Britain, not only to Pictland, but also to Northumbria, via Lindisfarne, to Mercia, and beyond. Although the monastery of Iona belonged to the Cenél Conaill of the Northern Uí Néill, and not to Dál Riata, it had close ties to the Cenél nGabráin, ties which may make the annals less than entirely impartial.

If Iona was the greatest religious centre in Dál Riata, it was far from unique. Lismore, in the territory of the Cenél Loairn, was sufficiently important for the death of its abbots to be recorded with some frequency. Applecross, probably in Pictish territory for most of the period, and Kingarth on Bute are also known to have been monastic sites, and many smaller sites, such as on Eigg and Tiree, are known from the annals. In Ireland, Armoy was the main ecclesiastical centre in early times, associated with Saint Patrick and with Saint Olcán, said to have been first bishop at Armoy. An important early centre, Armoy later declined, overshadowed by the monasteries at Movilla ( Newtownards) and Bangor.

Madonna and child, folio 7 v of the Book of Kells.
Madonna and child, folio 7 v of the Book of Kells.

As well as their primary spiritual importance, the political significance of religious centres cannot be dismissed. The prestige of being associated with the saintly founder was of no small importance. Monasteries represented a source of wealth as well as prestige. Additionally, the learning and literacy found in monasteries served as useful tools for ambitious kings.

The Book of Kells may have been produced at Iona, although not by Columba as legend has it. Whether it was, or not, this type of illuminated manuscript would have been produced in Dál Riatan monasteries. For other arts, a number of sculptures remain to give an impression of Dál Riatan work. The St. Martin's Cross on Iona is the best-preserved cross of its type, probably inspired by Northumbrian free-standing crosses, such as the Ruthwell Cross, although a similar cross exists in Ireland ( Ahenny, County Tipperary). The Kildalton Cross on Islay is similar. A sculpted slab at Ardchattan appears to show strong Pictish influences, while the Dupplin Cross, it has been argued, shows that influences also moved in the opposite direction. Fine Hiberno-Saxon metalwork is believed to have been created at Dunadd.

In addition to the monastic sites, a considerable number of churches are attested, not only from archaeological evidence, but also from the evidence of place-names. The element "kil", from Gaelic cill, can be shown in many cases to be associated with early churches, such as at Kilmartin by Dunadd.



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

The Dál Riata appear to have been present in Ireland (Antrim) by the 2nd century AD according to Ptolemy. At the same time Argyll was apparently dominated by the Epiddi tribe. At some point between Ptolemy's geography and the 6th century AD, Dalriada become well-established in Argyll.

In Ireland, Dál Riata had formed an apparent loose confederacy with the Cruthin of eastern Ulster and the Dál Fiatach ( Uluti) of the same area, with the Uluti dominating. The extent of the Uluti included much of the territory of the north of Ireland, down as far as the Boyne River. Irish Dál Riata was a well defined petty kingdom that consisted of the coastal part of County Antrim from modern Bushmills to Glenarm. Its boundaries consisted of the Irish Sea, the River Bush from Bushmills to a little south-east of Armoy and the Antrim plateau watershed from there to Glenarm. These boundaries could not have been more extensive than this as other tribes, divisions of the Dál nAraidi, can be consistently shown in contemporary sources dating from the late 7th to early 13th century to have occupied the areas immediately west of the River Bush (The Elne or DalnAraide between the Bush, the Bann and the Clogh) and immediately south of Glenarm (the Latharna and Seimhne). Indeed, all the non-Dalriadic remainder of County Antrim (the bulk of the county) belonged to the various subdivisions of the Dál nAraidi, who were considered the largest surviving Cruithin grouping and were totally unrelated to the Dal Riata (who belonged to the Erainn population strata). The name Cruithin is connected with the Welsh word for Britain and probably originally meant 'Briton' but later, as Romanisation progressed, came to mean Pict. However, although the Picts of Scotland were considered Cruithin, the Irish Cruithin were never called Picts. The latter term referred to a specific confederation of tribes in a specific area (Scotland north of the Forth-Clyde line) at a specific time (the 3rd to 9th centuries AD). There is no evidence for any different language or cultural traits among the Cruithin in Ireland, so, while the name suggests a group with distant British links, nothing tangeable of this survived into the Early Christian period.

There is no evidence that Irish Dál Riata was ever more extensive than outlined above in Early Christian documentation although it is possible that its land may have retreated eastwards along with the other main Ulaid tribes in the early centuries AD if the Ulster Cycle tales accurately reflect the Ulaid's former territory. The tribe nearest to Dál Riata's position in Ptolemy's geography was the Robogdii, a name which the linguist T.F. O'Rahilly suggested was an early form of the second element of the name Dál Riata. The Darini lay to the south, possibly in north County Down, and O'Rahilly again notes that this is probably linked to Daire, a mythological figure associated with the Erainn population strata in Ireland. The Erainn tribes that had survived to Ptolemy's time were located in the north-east and south-west corners of Ireland but were probably once much more widespread. The north-east group of the Erainn consisted of the Dál Riata in north-east Antrim and the true Ulaid or Dál Fiathach in east County Down. The Ulaid are thought by many scholars to appear as the Uolunti in Ptolemy's geography. In term of population strata, the Erainn are probably the oldest as their name is connected with that of the island and basically means "Ireland people", presumably at one stage contrasting with incomers. An early form of the Gaelic name of Ireland is recorded in the 6th century BC, showing the antiquity of the name and almost certainly of Celtic (probably Goidelic) on the island. As Ireland was effectively in the Bronze Age in the 6th century BC, it is thought likely that the Erainn may represent the pre-Iron Age but apparently Celtic inhabitants of Ireland. O'Rahilly's historical model of linking the Erainn with the Fir Bolg seems unlikely and his scheme wherebye Gaelic's arrival in Ireland is connected to the spread of the Connachta has been debunked on the grounds of the very early Gaelic oghams in the Erainn areas of SW Ireland, far from the Connachta and Uí Néill sphere. Contrary to O'Rahilly's scheme, it was probably the Erainn tribes that first spoke Gaelic (by the end of the Bronze Age) and subsequent arrivals with suggested British or continental connections probably brought P-Celtic forms. However, their numbers may have been small, meaning that, unlike most of the Celtic world, they soon accepted the older Q-Celtic form.

The most important thing to note from this summary is that this implies that Irish Dál Riata was apparenly Gaelic speaking from the end of the Bronze Age. Also, if O'Rahilly is correct in his interpretation of the Robogdi of Ptolemy as a distortion of Redodi, an early form of Dál Riata, then we have clear evidence that the Dál Riata were located in Ireland roughly where they were later placed, in the north-east of Antrim. The fact that in Ptolemy's geography Argyll was occupied by the Epidii tribe would suggest that the Dál Riata only crossed to Argyll after the 2nd century AD, apparently supporting the colonial model. It is not clear if Irish Dál Riata's small size was a relatively recent thing when native Irish records began or not. An unprecidented population explosion in Ireland during the later Roman period in Britain is cleary indicated in pollen cores. This could have led to external presssure as a push factor together with the pull factor of new lands in Scotland.

Even if Irish Dál Riata had not shrunk and it had always been a small territory, this should not invite disbelief that it could have conquered an area much larger than the 'mother' territory. There are many parallels of this 'rags to riches' type rise, including the Dál gCais of Munster who went from a minor marginal sept to producing high kings of Ireland (Brian Boru etc) in a few generations. After a colony had been established in Kintyre, this had been diminished by warfare with the Picts in western Scotland. A second wave by Fergus and his brothers in 503 successfully established the first kingdom of the Scots. Through Fergus' line is descended all the kings of Scotland, and from there is descended the present British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.

The Duan Albanach tells that the three sons of Erc— Fergus Mór, Loarn and Óengus— conquered Alba (Britain) around 500 AD. Bede offers a different, and probably older, account wherein Dál Riata was settled by a certain Reuda, which is more internally consistent, given that Old Irish Dál means portion or share, and is usually followed by the name of an eponymous founder. Bede's tale may come from the same root as the Irish tales of Cairpre Riata and his brothers, the sons of Conaire Mór. The story of kingdom moves from foundation myth to something nearer to history with the reports of the death of Comgall mac Domangairt around 540 and of his brother Gabrán around 560.

The version of history in the Duan Albanach was long accepted, although it is preceded by the purely legendary tale of Albanus and Brutus conquering Britain. The implantation of the Old Irish language in Scotland was seen as a product of a large-scale migration from Ulster. However, archaeological evidence shows that Argyll and its surrounds were different from Ireland, before and after the supposed migration, but that they also formed part of the Irish Sea province with Ireland, being easily distinguished from the rest of Scotland.

For this reason, it is now generally, but not universally, supposed that the Gaelic language had long been present in the area of Dál Riata, perhaps since the Insular Celtic languages had divided into Goidelic and Brythonic branches. However Dál Riata came to form, the period in which it arose was one of great instability in Ulster, following the loss of territory by the kingdom of Ulaid, including the ancient centre of Emain Macha, to the Airgíalla and the Uí Néill. Whether the two parts of Dál Riata had long been united, or whether a conquest in the 4th century or early 5th century, either of Antrim from Argyll, or vice versa, in line with myth, is not known.

Druim Cett to Mag Rath

Map of Dál Riata at its height, c. 580–600. Pictish regions are marked in yellow.
Map of Dál Riata at its height, c. 580–600. Pictish regions are marked in yellow.

The history of Dál Riata, while unknown before the middle of the 6th century, and very unclear after the middle of the 8th century, is relatively well recorded in the intervening two centuries, although many questions must remain unanswered. As has been said, the origins of the link between Dál Riata in Scotland and Ireland are obscure. What is not in doubt is that Irish Dál Riata was a lesser kingdom of Ulaid. The Kingship of Ulster was dominated by the Dál Fiatach and contested by the Cruithne kings of the Dál nAraidi.

In 575, Saint Columba fostered an agreement between Áedán mac Gabráin and Áed mac Ainmuirech of the Cenél Conaill at Druim Cett. This alliance was likely precipitated by the conquests of the Dál Fiatach king Báetán mac Cairill, one of the very few High Kings of Ireland not of the Connachta or the Uí Néill, who had sought to subjugate all of Dál Riata, and the Isle of Man as well. Báetán died in 581, but the Ulaid kings did not abandon their attempts to control Dál Riata.

The kingdom of Dál Riata reached its greatest extent in the reign of Áedán mac Gabráin. It is said that Áedán was ordained as king by Columba. If true, this was one of the first ordinations known. As noted, Columba brokered the alliance between Dál Riata and the Northern Uí Néill, and this alliance was successful, first in defeating Báetan mac Cairill, then in allowing Áedán to campaign widely against his neighbours, as far afield as Orkney and lands of the Maeatae, on the River Forth. Áedán appears to have been very successful in extending his power, until he faced the Bernician king Æthelfrith at Degsastan c. 603. Æthelfrith's brother was among the dead, but Áedán was defeated, and the Bernician kings continued their advances in southern Scotland. Áedán died c. 608 aged about 70. Dál Riata did expand to include Skye, possibly conquered by Áedán's son Gartnait.

It appears, although the original tales are lost, that Fiachnae mac Báetáin (d. 626), Dál nAraidi King of Ulster, was overlord of both parts of Dál Riata. Fiachnae campaigned against the Northumbrians, and besieged Bamburgh, and the Dál Riatans will have fought in this campaign.

Dál Riata remained allied with the Northern Uí Néill until the reign of Domnall Brecc, who reversed this policy and allied with Congal Cáech (also known as Congal Cláen) of the Dál nAraidi. Domnall joined Congal in a campaign against Domnall mac Áedo of the Cenél Conaill, the son of Áed mac Ainmuirech. The outcome of this change of allies were defeats for Domnall Brecc and his allies on land at Mag Rath ( Moira, County Down) and at sea at Sailtír, off Kintyre, in 637. This, it was said, was divine retribution for Domnall Brecc turning his back on the alliance with the kinsmen of Columba. Domnall Brecc's policy appears to have died with him, in 642, at his final, and fatal, defeat by Eugein map Beli of Alt Clut at Strathcarron, for as late as the 730s, armies and fleets from Dál Riata fought alongside the Uí Néill.

Mag Rath to the Pictish Conquest

The history of Dál Riata in Ireland after Mag Rath is not entirely clear. It appears that the Uí Chóelbad kings of Dál nAraidi came to control the Glens of Antrim in the years after the battle. The Dál Riatan lands along the River Bush appear to have fallen into the hands of the Cenél nEógain, and the Airgíalla may have benefitted by taking over lands to the south of the Antrim Mountains. It has been proposed that some of the more obscure kings of Dál Riata mentioned in the Annals of Ulster, such as Fiannamail ua Dúnchado and Donncoirche may have been kings of Irish Dál Riata.

The fate of Scottish Dál Riata is no more certain. It does appear that the kingdom was tributary to Northumbrian kings until the Pictish king Bruide mac Bili defeated Ecgfrith of Northumbria at Dunnichen in 685. It is not certain that this subjection ended in 685, although this is usually assumed to be the case. However, it appears that Eadberht Eating made some effort to stop the Picts under Óengus mac Fergusa crushing Dál Riata in 740. Whether this means that the tributary relationship had not ended in 685, or if Eadberht sought only to prevent the growth of Pictish power, is unclear.

Since it has been thought that Dál Riata swallowed Pictland to create the Kingdom of Alba, the later history of Dál Riata has tended to be seen as a prelude to future triumphs. The annals make it clear that the Cenél Gabraín lost any earlier monopoly of royal power in the late 7th century and in the 8th, when Cenél Loairn kings such as Ferchar Fota, his son Selbach, and grandsons Dúngal and Muiredach are found contesting for the high-kingship of Dál Riata. The long period of instability in Dál Riata was only ended by the conquest of the kingdom by Óengus mac Fergusa, king of the Picts, in the 730s. After a third campaign by Óengus in 741, Dál Riata then disappears from the Irish records for a generation.

The Last Century

Áed Find may appear in 768, fighting against the Pictish king of Fortriu. At his death in 778 Áed Find is called "king of Dál Riata", as is his brother Fergus mac Echdach in 781. The Annals of Ulster say that a certain Donncoirche, "king of Dál Riata" died in 792, and there the record ends. Any number of theories have been advanced to fill the missing generations, none of which are founded on any very solid evidence. A number of kings are named in the Duan Albanach, and in royal genealogies, but these are rather less reliable than we might wish. The obvious conclusion is that whoever ruled the petty kingdoms of Dál Riata after its defeat and conquest in the 730s, only Áed Find and his brother Fergus drew the least attention of the chroniclers in Iona and Ireland. This argues very strongly for Alex Woolf's conclusion that Óengus mac Fergusa "effectively destroyed the kingdom."

It is unlikely that Dál Riata was ruled directly by Pictish kings, but it is argued that Domnall, son of Caustantín mac Fergusa, was king of Dál Riata from 811 to 835. He was apparently followed by the last known king of Dál Riata, Áed mac Boanta, who was killed in the great Pictish defeat of 839 at the hands of the Vikings.

From Dál Riata to the Innse Gall

If the Vikings had a great impact on Pictland and in Ireland, in Dál Riata, as in Northumbria, they appear to have entirely replaced the existing kingdom with a new entity. In the case of Dál Riata this was to be as the kingdom of the Sudreys, traditionally founded by Ketil Flatnose (Caitill Find in Gaelic) in the middle of the 9th century.

The story may be more complex. A cryptic entry (for 836) in the Annals of the Four Masters records that " Gofraid mac Fergusa, chief of Airgíalla, went to Alba, to strengthen the Dál Riata, at the request of Cináed mac Ailpín." The Annals also (for 851) record the death of "Gofraidh mac Fergusa, chief of the Innsi Gall." The Innsi Gall, or "foreigner's islands", was the name given to Hebrides, due to Viking settlement there. Why a Gaelic Irish king should be chief of the "foreigner's isles" at about the time that Ketil is supposed to have founded the kingdom of the Sudreys is unknown, and perhaps unknowable.

Alex Woolf has suggested that there occurred a formal division of Dál Riata between the Norse-Gaelic Uí Ímair and the natives, like those divisions that took place elsewhere in the British Isles, with the Norse controlling most of the islands, and the Gaels controlling the Scottish coast and the more southerly islands. In turn Woolf suggests that this gave rise to the terms Airer Gaedel and Innse Gall, respectively "the coast of the Gaels" and the "Islands of the foreigners".


Dalriada School, a grammar school in Ballymoney, Northern Ireland is named after the Kingdom, as is an area of the village of Cushendall. The name 'Dalriada' is commonly found in the names of businesses throughout the north Antrim area.

"Dalriada" is also the name of a band from Australia who plays original pop/rock/ Celtic rock music using traditional Celtic instruments. Dalriada has been featured at most of Australia's major music festivals and have released three albums to date.

Echo of Dalriada is the name of a Hungarian symphonic metal band.

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