The carved standing stones in the village of Aberlemno, Scotland, are beautiful pieces of artwork left behind by the Picts. In particular, the stone known as Aberlemno II tells a significant story. On one side, the stone displays a brilliant cross, but on the reverse, is carved several scenes from a battle of vital importance to the creation of what would become Scotland—the Battle of Nechtansmere.
The prime written source of information on the Battle of Nechtansmere, also known as the Battle of Dun Nechtain, comes from the Northumbrian monk named Bede (c. 673-735), who would have been about 12 years old when the battle occurred. Bede wrote about the battle in his lauded work, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
According to Bede, King Ecgfrith of Northumbria made the fateful decision to march his army north in 685 to do battle with the Picts. The Picts were an ancient people of northern Britain who were, at the time, competing for supremacy in the north against the Britons and the Scots. The main leader of the Picts in 685 was a man named Bridei map Bili (alternatively Brude mac Bile, or Brude/Bridei III), the king of Fortriu. He mobilized a force of Picts and quickly maneuvered himself to intercept the Northumbrians. King Bridei possibly also gained the help of an interesting kingdom of Britons centered in the Dumbarton Rock region—known by impressive names, such as the Kingdom of the Rock, Strathclyde, or Alt Clut.
According to Bede, the army of Bridei map Bili found the Northumbrians and lured them deeper into Pictish territory, toward a narrow mountain pass. Finally, the Picts ambushed the Northumbrian army in the Battle of Nechtansmere, somewhere near the modern town of Forfar, within Angus, Scotland. In the ensuing massacre, King Ecgfrith was killed, along with the majority of his army.
The Battle of Nechtansmere was a turning point in the history of the British Isles. The battle halted the expansion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to the north, and also served as a clear sign that the Kingdom of Northumbria was in decline. Sometime during the 8th century, the Picts erected the Aberlemno II stone, commemorating the victory of Bridei map Bili over King Ecgfrith and the Northumbrians.
(Pictish stone in the churchyard at Aberlemno Parish Church (the stone is sometimes known as Aberlemno II). The battle scene depicted is generally accepted to be that of the Battle of Nechtansmere. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (and relevant letters), translated by Leo Sherley-Pride, R. E. Latham and D. H. Farmer. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.
- Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations by Norman Davies. New York: Viking (Penguin Group), 2011.