Scottish History and Culture

The Battle of Nechtansmere 685 AD

Angle Warrior, Click for Larger Image The Battle of Nechtansmere took place in Dunnichen, a small village located near the town of Forfar, Angus on May 20th, 685 AD. The participants were the Angles and the Picts in what was a simple battle over territory. The consequences, however, would be much more dramatic, and effect the history of England and Scotland to a great degree over the next millennia and a half.

After the Romans left England, many groups who wished to occupy the territory filled the void left behind. The Irish, Scots and Picts who battled the Romans, along with the native Celtic tribes of England vied for the territory. But it was an outside group that actually took control of England and became the power in the land. This was a tribe called the Angles, which arrived around 450 AD with the Jutes and Saxons from Northern Germany.

Map of the Battlesite, Click for Larger Image The Angles took control of the region of England called Northumbria and quickly started dominating the other tribes in the area. By the start of the 7th Century, they had conquered Lothian and were continuing to pressure northward in their demand for territory. But the other countries in the area were also vying for territory: these included the Welsh speaking Britons of Strathclyde, the Scots of Dalriada, and the Picts of Southern Caledonia. The Angles discovered that they had their greatest success against the Picts, and slowly advanced in Southern Caledonia and small portions of Dalriada over time. This continued for many years, until a new King of the Picts began to show his power.

King Bridei came to power circa 681 AD, and promptly took control of the Pict fortress at Dunnotar. He quickly followed this up with a victory over the Orcadians in 682 and over the Scots at Dunnadd in 683. With most of his borders now secure, he focused on the main threat to his kingdom. In the South, the Northumbrians under their King Ecgfrith, continued to hold a large portion of the Southern Caledonian Kingdom. Bridei started small at first with harassing, guerilla-type raids against the Angles. At the same time he was building his forces and waiting for the eventual Angle response, an invasion.

The Angles were undefeated in battle since arriving in England, and this may have caused overconfidence, which was to become their undoing. The Angle host under the command of King Ecgfrith attacked into Caledonia in early 685, apparently in an attempt to conquer Caledonia once and for all. But Bridei was ready and retreated to the ground of his choice to fight. When the Angles were between the hill fort of Dun Nechtan and an area of swamp known as Nechtans Mire he attacked.

Little is actually known about the battle itself, but the choice of ground makes it apparent that the Angles were hemmed in and slaughtered during an apparent surprise attack. The victory was total for the Picts, as King Ecgfrith and almost all of his army were killed. Bridei then 'cleansed' Caledonia of the remaining Angles who had occupied the land for around 30 years.

Photo of the Actual Battle Site, Image used with Permission of Town of Letham, Click for Larger Image After this battle, the Scots and the Picts largely fought over the territory among themselves, with the occasional incursion by the Vikings. This eventually lead to the union of the two countries of Dalriada and Caledonia into the country of Alba. Within another two centuries they had also incorporated Strathclyde and defeated the remaining Angles again, taking Lothian and creating Scotland.

This battle was extremely important for two reasons. First, this victory by the Picts shifted the balance of power among the Germanic tribes occupying Britain from the Angles to the Saxons, thus setting up the later wars between Scotland and England. Secondly, the power of the Angles in Britain was forever broken, leaving them unable to conquer what is now Scotland. If they had done so, Scotland, in all probability, would have never existed, and all of the Island would have eventually been under the control of one master, the Angles.

by BW, April 2000

Special thanks to the Town of Letham-Angus for permission to use their photograph of the actual battlesite from their website.


The Battle of Nechtansmere - 685 AD


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