A British but Goidelic kingdom centered on Argyll in the north-west of modern-day Scotland that flourished between the late fifth and mid ninth centuries.
The name of the kingdom was derived from the name of one of the four traditional septs of Ireland; the Muscraige, Corco Duibne, Corco Baiscind and Dal Riata. The Dal Riata being the 'kindred of Riata', the descendents of Cairpre Riata son of Conaire Mor, who settled in Antrim in the north of Ireland.
Also known as Dalriada, Dal Riata , Dalriata with or without an accent over the 'a' in 'Dal'. As far as I can see there is no consistency whatsoever other than the fact that Dal Riata/Dalriata variants tends to be used as the name of the Irish kingdom and Dal Riada/Dalriada for the British/Scottish version. Frequently misspelled or mistyped as 'Dal Raida' etc, and not just be this author.
The birth of Dal Riada
The traditional tale of the foundation of Dal Riada is that Fergus mac Erc came from Ireland at the very end of the fourth century and established his capital at Dunadd and thereby ruled a kingdom that spanned both Argyll in Scotland and Antrim in Ireland. 1
Whereas this traditional tale is universally recognised as myth, it has tended to be replaced by another tradition, that the transmigration took place at some earlier, starting from around the year 300 AD. This migration and invasion model has become the consensus view, although the tendency is to downplay any element of aggresion2 - "current opinion favours a gradual settlement of Scotti from northern Ireland". 3
It is however, a simple fact of geography that, at their closest points, the coast of northern Ireland is only separated by twelve miles of sea from Scotland, whereas Argyll and the north-west is separated from the rest of Scotland by a chain of mountains, that even today provides a formidable barrier to communication. It is likely therefore that, culturally, the west of 'Scotland' was always 'Irish', in that they shared a common Goidelic language from whatever point in time that it divided from the Brythonic.
But whatever the method, the tale of Fergus mac Erc simply identifies the point in time at which a specific political unit called Dal Riada achieved sovereignity of both Argyll and Antrim.
The Expansion of Dal Riada
The succession of the rulers of Dal Riada (see the Kings of Dal Riada) can be derived from the Senchus fer nAlban, and the Senchus records the division of the kingdom into the three kindred groups of the Cenel Oengusa, Cenel Loairn and the Cenel Gabhrain. It is from the Cenel Gabhrain that all the early kings of Dal Riada, who therefore seemed to have been acquired the status of overlord of the other kindreds.
Probably the greatest of these early kings was Aedan mac Gabhrain who ruled from 574 to 608 and brought both the Orkneys and the Isle of Man under his influence and who was one of the most powerful British rulers of the early Dark Ages.
He was also the first king of Dal Riada to be ordained as king in a specifically Christian ceremony by Columba. Columba had come from Ireland to preach the word of God to the pagan Gaels of Dal Riada in 563 and established a monastery at Iona from which missionaries went out to convert the Picts as well as exerting their influence throughout the north of Britain.4
It was in Dal Raida that the sons of Aethelfrith of Northumbria came seeking sanctuary after their father was killed by Raedwald and Edwin in 617. And it was from Dal Riada that Oswald and his brother Oswiu rode out in 635 to successfully reclaim their kingdom at the battle of Heavenfield. In many ways this marked the high point of Dal Raidan influence as Oswald brought south with him the Ionian version of Christianity and until the Synod of Whitby in 644, Northumbria recognised the sovereignty of Iona rather than Rome in matters spiritual.
The kingdom suffered a period of decline under the rule of Aedan's grandson Domnall Brecc, who by his defeat at the battle of Mag Rath lost control of the Irish portion of Dal Riada and through his succession of other defeats that ended with his death at the battle of Strathcarron in 642 that allowed the kingdom to be "dominated by strangers".5
By the end of the seventh century the dominance of the Cenel Gabhrain was challenged by the Cenel Loairn with rival candidates contesting the kingship; rulers alternated over the next forty years with the ebb and flow of power and sometimes simultaneously further weakening the kingdom.
Under Pictish domination
Naturally as these kings of Dal Riada sought to expand their influence eastwards, so they naturally clashed with their neighbours the Picts, who responded in kind by seeking to dominate their western neighbour. It was the Picts that seemed to gain the upper hand when the first Oengus son of Fergus raided the Dal Raidan capital of Dunnadd in 739, and further won a famous victory in 741 known as the 'smiting of Dal Riada'.
Not until the year 768 under the rule Aed Find mac Eochaid did Dal Riada completely reassert its independence, and this period of autonomy lasted only another generation before Dal Riada came once more under the domination and control of a succession of Pictish kings from Constantine son of Fergus through the reigns of the second Oengus son of Fergus, and finally Eoganan son of Oengus until the year 839.
By which time of course, the Dal Raidan Gaels and the Caledonian Picts had spent so much time fighting each other, intermarrying and generally reaching some sort of accommodation that they ended up more alike than different.
The Death of Dal Riada
It is probable that Dal Riada's fate would have been to disappear into an enlarged Pictavia where it not for one thing; the arrival of the Vikings. In 839 a Viking army defeated and killed Eoganan son of Oengus and almost wiped out the Pictish nobility.
In this period of a chaos, an adventurer named Kenneth mac Alpin emerged from the shadows, established himself as ruler in the Hebrides, moved to the mainland and became recognised as king in Dal Riada and expanded eastwards, defeating and killing any Pictish opposition and became himself Rex Pictorum, king of the Picts, the ruler, like Oengus and Constantine before him of a united kingdom of Gaels and Picts.
With the rise of Kenneth mac Alpin the name Dal Riada died and disappeared from history as indeed did any notion of a separate Pictish kingdom. But the death of Dal Riada, as well as that of the Picts was only really a matter of linguistic convenience.
The Irish annalists on whose records much of the history of these times is constructed, dispensed with the Latin language and began chronicling events in their native Gaelic; and when they referred to the activities of the descendents of Kenneth mac Alpin they spoke note of Dal Riada and Picts, but simply of the kings of Alba.
1 Acually the tradition speaks of Fergus mac Erc conquering the whole of Alba, which of course, is even more absurd.
2 It would hardly be politic to suggest that the Scottish Gaels had ethnically cleansed the Picts out of the western highlands given that theya re now both suppoded to figure amongst the ancestors of the modern Scots.
3 Invaders of Scotland see SOURCES.
4 Brythonic Strathclyde was undoubtedly Christian well before the arrival of Columba but what evidence we have attests that the Kings of Strathclyde looked to Iona for spiritual guidance.
5 The most likely candidate being Northumbria whose power dominate dthe north until the defeat at Nechtansmere
- Ann Williams, Alfred P. Smyth and D. P. Kirby A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain (Seaby, 1991)
- WA Cummins The Age of the Picts (Sutton, 1995)
- A Ritchie and DJ Breeze Invaders of Scotland (HMSO, 1991)