The modern visitor to Argyll, ancient Dál Riata, and to the area around Kilmartin, is often drawn by a feeling of remoteness. Those of us who are used to city life value the tranquility of this rural setting - wild hills, farmland, peat bogs. People like to enjoy a temporary sense of detachment from the hurly-burly of their hectic lives.
But we should beware of projecting our sense of tranquility into Dál Riata's past. Remember that sea is the connecting tissue between peoples, a highway from one place to another. Being situated on the north-western rim of Europe did not make Dál Riata remote. It brought it countless connections with many other countries.
In the first place it was connected to Ireland where folk spoke the same language, Gaelic. The people of Argyll also shared a common political and legal culture with the Irish, as well as a common religion. They were to all intents and purposes a single people.
The Gaels were also connected by water to other parts of Britain - the Britons in the south, the Picts further north and east, and ultimately the Angles. Contacts with these people include trading journeys, slave-raiding, war-parties and the gradual expansion of monasticism - as far north as Orkney in the sixth century. People from other parts of Britain also came to live here: we know that as early as the sixth century the monastery of Iona included both English and British monks, and in the early seventh century a future English king of Northumbria spent years of exile in Dál Riata - where he became a Christian, and eventually a saint: Oswald. Anglo-Saxon art-work was also found at Dál Riata: a piece of bronze sheet, stamped with the image of an animal.
But Dál Riata's sea-going contacts were vastly more extended even than this. When Dunadd was excavated, the finds included 'E-ware' pottery which was imported from what is now western France, probably in the sixth or seventh century. It was probably not imported for its own sake, but was used to carry the real objects of import - spices, dyes and perhaps wine. Dál Riata's contacts with Gaul are confirmed by Adomnán. He tells us that Columba met Gaulish sailors at the 'capital of the country' - which may well be a reference to Dunadd. Adomnán himself met a Gaulish bishop in the late seventh century, who had been shipwrecked in Britain on the way back from the eastern Mediterranean - thus connecting Dál Riata with an even wider world.
This wider world is also represented by a glass tessera inlaid with gold leaf found at Dunadd in a seventh century context, an object probably of Byzantine origin. It may have arrived here directly from the Mediterranean, but it may also have been brought here by traders from nearer home. We know for example that quantities of this Byzantine material were being re-worked in Scandinavia on an industrial scale. If the Dunadd tessera was brought from Scandinavia, it suggests that long before the Norse began their Viking attacks on Dál Riata there were already trading links.
Other exotic goods found at Dunadd include a fragment of orpiment. This mineral was commonly used in the illumination of manuscripts, and its name, from Latin auri pigmentum, 'golden pigment', indicates the kind of rich colouring for which it was used.
Another pigment - one implying the most exotic trading links of all - links us to underground mines far to the east. Lapiz Lazuli was used in the book of Kells to create rich blue pigment. The Book of Kells was probably produced on Iona, and the lapis lazuli was mined in Afghanistan!
But Dál Riata's connections with distant places were not only mediated by trade. Scholarship is also an international activity, and Iona's library contained a rich array of books from all over Christendom. To give a few examples: Athanasius of Egypt, Jerome of Bethlehem, Augustine of North Africa, Sulpicius Severus and John Cassian of Gaul, Isidore of Spain and Gregory the Great, bishop of Rome, the great centre of international Christian culture.
Far from being marginal, Dál Riata was a lively participant in an international culture of trade, politics and intellectual life. Some of these contacts must have been somewhat inhibited after the onset of the Viking raids, as sea-trading became more hazardous. But connections continued - and some perhaps increased. There is evidence that the Vikings of the Irish Sea area did a roaring trade selling Irish and Scottish slaves to Islamic dealers in the Mediterranean!
- Lane and Campbell (2000)
- Clancy and Márkus (1995)
- Crawford (1987)
Mayo - Vestvågøy - Mid-Argyll
This project has been supported by the EU as part of the Culture 2000 programme.