Category Archives: Research

Checking the proofs

Strathclyde & the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age

The publisher of Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age is Birlinn of Edinburgh, from whom I recently received the ‘first proofs’ – a preliminary version of the book in unbound form. The author’s job is to see if any last-minute tweaks are required.

The low-res photo above is a snapshot of the proofs. Note the three Pictish warriors on the title page. You might recognise them as the robed spearmen carved on a magnificent symbol stone from the Brough of Birsay in Orkney.  This is the logo of ‘John Donald’, Birlinn’s academic imprint, which is also the stable for two of my other books (Columba and The Men Of The North).

The proofs arrive in hardcopy and PDF format. I’ve spent most of today checking the paper version, a task I started last week. I’m now nearly at the the end of Chapter Five, which is basically a biographical study of the Strathclyde king Dyfnwal who reigned from c.940 to c.970. The title of the chapter is King Dunmail, taking its name from the fabled ‘last king of rocky Cumberland’ mentioned in a poem by William Wordsworth.  The Dunmail of legend and the Dyfnwal of history are one and the same.

Tomorrow I hope to get through another few chapters.

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Research materials for Chapter Three


The above photograph shows some of the items I consulted for the third chapter of Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age. This chapter brings the narrative to the end of the ninth century. You’ll notice that all five are secondary sources which are fairly mainstream and easily obtainable. I’ve not included any primary sources in the picture, mainly because I now tend to access these via online editions. I do however possess several primary texts in hardcopy and still find them useful, especially for quick reference when I’m offline.

Here’s a checklist of the items in the photo. Some of them will no doubt be familiar…

Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland: the Dynasty of Ivarr to AD 1014 by Clare Downham
The Kingdom of Northumbria, AD 350-1100 by Nick Higham
From Pictland to Alba, 789 to 1070 by Alex Woolf
Kings of Celtic Scotland by Benjamin Hudson
Warlords and Holy Men, Scotland AD 80 to 1000 by Alfred Smyth

All five provided good grist when I was grinding out the narrative for Chapter Three.

Introducing the book

Battle of Brunanburh

The Battle of Brunanburh, AD 937. Illustration by Alfred Pearse.

Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age is a narrative history of political relations between the North Britons and the English in the early medieval period or Dark Ages.

The book puts a long-overdue spotlight on a people described in early English chronicles as Cumbri or Cumbrenses (‘Cumbrians’), Clutenses (‘Clyde Folk’) and Straecledwealas (‘Strathclyde Welsh’). They inhabited a territory known as ‘Cumbria’, this being a name for the kingdom of Strathclyde at the time of its greatest extent (late ninth to early eleventh centuries). The main language of Strathclyde was Cumbric, an ancient Celtic tongue similar to Old Welsh but different from the Gaelic speech of the Scots and Irish. The kingdom’s native inhabitants were descended from groups of North Britons whom the Romans had first encountered during military campaigns in the first century AD.

‘Cumbria’ is more familiar today as the name of an English county created in 1974 from the old counties of Cumberland and Westmorland together with parts of Lancashire. What may be less widely known is that the county’s origins are closely bound up with the history of Strathclyde. The modern names ‘Cumbria’ and ‘Cumberland’ preserve a distant memory of the Cumbri of early medieval times, a people whose territory included Carlisle and the Solway Plain as well as the long valley of the River Clyde. The kings to whom all these lands owed allegiance ruled from a centre of power located at Govan near Glasgow. How the district around Carlisle fell under the control of the Govan kings is examined in Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age, as is the process by which these same lands eventually passed into English hands.

Early medieval Cumbria

Early medieval Cumbria, the realm of the Strathclyde Britons.


The pre-1974 county of Cumberland.


Cumbria: the post-1974 county.

Large parts of the book deal with relations between the kings of Strathclyde and an ambitious West Saxon dynasty represented by the descendants of Alfred the Great. Contacts between these two sides, although not always hostile, were rarely conducted on friendly terms. Powerful West Saxon monarchs such as Edward the Elder and his son Athelstan recognised the importance of Strathclyde as a potential ally or foe in the long struggle against Viking warlords. West Saxon dealings with the ‘kings of the Cumbrians’ were therefore conducted against the backdrop of a larger political picture involving other powers such as the Scots, the Welsh and the Vikings themselves. Negotiations sometimes led to oaths of friendship and pledges of peace but the threat of conflict was never far away.


Athelstan, king of the English 924-39.

The first wars between the North Britons and the early English were fought in the sixth century but are not examined in detail in this book. The earlier period to which they belong is discussed by me at greater length in The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland, published in 2010. The focus of Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age is on a later era when the Scandinavian presence in Britain caused major political upheavals from which, eventually, the great medieval kingdoms of Scotland and England both emerged.
This blog is a place where I’ll be mentioning things relating not only to topics in the book but also to the Viking period in general. Expect to see a fairly broad range of posts. There will, inevitably be some cross-posting between my other blogs Senchus (early medieval Scotland) and Heart of the Kingdom (early medieval Govan).