Iona in the kingdom of the Picts: a note
By Thomas Owen Clancy
The Innes Review, vol. 55 no. 1 (2004)
Introduction: In his poem on the martyrdom of the cleric Blathmac mac Flainn in a raid by Vikings on the island of Iona in 825, the Rhineland poet Walahfrid Strabo describes that island as insula Pictorum, or perhaps more accurately, as being off the shore of the Picts: insula Pictorum quaedam monstratur in oris. This description has not, to my knowledge, been much noticed. That Walahfrid drew on fairly detailed local sources seems clear from the poem taken as a complete text. Why then was he so mistaken as to think of Iona as a Pictish island? It is highly unlikely that he was drawing on Bede’s account of Bridei son of Mailcon’s gifting of the island to Columba, as the text nowhere else betrays the influence of Bede’s descriptions of the island, or indeed, much knowledge about Columba at all. Given that he was writing c.840, and drawing on recently received information from a source acquainted with Iona, we should confront the possibility that he was describing contemporary political reality.
In fact, this description is far from unlikely for the first four decades of the ninth century. Although we know of the existence of rulers of Dál Riata during this time, the probability that the kings of the Picts, Constantin son of Uurgust and his brother Unust, had exerted dominion over Dál Riata is a strong one. A previous paradigm based primarily on the later Scottish king-lists, in which these two men were seen as Gaels who intruded themselves into the Pictish kingship, has been impressively overturned by Dauvit Broun, who has argued that they should rather be seen as kings of the Picts whose reigns were inserted in the Dál Riata king-lists by later generations.
This, coupled with several re-examinations of the expansion of Pictish power during the eighth century, has dramatically altered our sense of Pictland in the period around 800. Certainly, Constantin’s son Domnall may well have ruled in Dál Riata, perhaps as an under-king; Dauvit Broun’s attractive solution to the intractable problems of the king-list evidence for the period suggests he may have reigned there from 811 until his death in 835. Given the dynastic control this suggests, it may be that from the point of view of those living in Dál Riata, like the monks of Iona, their overlord may well have been the king of the Picts during these years, and their island, albeit temporarily, capable of description as insula Pictorum. If we accept Walahfrid’s poem as reflecting a real situation, rather than his vague sense of British geo-politics, it may be our best evidence for the westward extension of Pictish hegemony that some have suspected.
Iona is not the only western region to appear as Pictish in early ninth-century texts. In the Historia Brittonum, the original version of which dates from much the same time (829/830), Loch Lomond is described as being in regione Pictorum. While it is uncertain in whose territory it had previously lain (until c.700, probably that of the Britons of Dumbarton, sometime thereafter, perhaps Dál Riata), it had certainly not been in Pictish possession. It may even be that Dál Riata had never recovered sufficient independence from Pictish overlordship since a century earlier, and the crushing of Dál Riata by Unust son of Uurgust.