Y Gododdin

The departure of the Romans from Britain in AD410 left a power vacuum in which the Romanized Britons had to tend to their own defences. The era known to historians as the ‘Dark Ages‘ had begun.

The term is a substantial misnomer, however, related more to the comparative difficulty of historians in identifying reliable evidence for and literary accounts of the events of the period, rather than a reflection of its historical richness or importance.

The period is also described as the ‘Heroic Age‘, an era of warrior aristocracy in which the Gododdin, the Brythonic peoples known to Tacitus and the Romans as the Votadini, held central place.

It was a ruthless, war-filled time as the Angles to the south, Picts to the north and the Irish Scotti from Dal Riata to the west each pursued their ambitions to rule over the fertile plains of the Forth valley. The map below shows the land of the Gododdin – and their neighbouring British tribes. Y Gogledd is an Welsh term meaning ‘The Old North’ and referring to the Brythonic kingdoms of what is now northern England and southern Scotland. Aberlady, identified here as Aberlefdi, is given prominence.

In the year 598 or 600, and after a year of feasting and the drinking of mead in the Gododdin stronghold of Din Eidyn – the castle rock of Edinburgh – 300 hand-picked warrior aristocrats were ordered into battle, into a last-ditch attack against their pagan enemies. Down into the very heartland of the heathen Angles the mounted warriors rode. At Catreath (Catterick, Yorkshire) the 300 braves charged the lines of the massed Angle hordes. A great gory battle took place as blood-spattered swords, spears and axes heaved and cleaved through helmets, light armour and into human flesh and bone. Heroic were they who charged that day.

But the Dododdin were heavily defeated. One account tells of only one survivor, while another tells of three. The deaths of these fallen warriors is eulogized in the famous “Y Gododdin” – Scotland’s oldest poem. The stanzas were composed by Aneirin, bard to Urien of Rheged. The verses make direct reference to the Arthur of legend, comparing the valour of Gwawrddur to the legendary figure.

“He brought black crows to a fort’s
Wall, though he was not Arthur.”

Although the legends of Arthur are traditionally placed in the South West of Britain, there is growing evidence and support for the view that he operated with the native Dododdin (or the Votadini as the Romans knew our predecessors) from within this area – between the walls – following the withdrawal of the Roman forces. One modern historian places Camelot at Roxburgh Castle.

By the year 638 Traprain had been taken and the Gododdin stronghold at Edinburgh was under siege by the forces of King Oswald. In 685, however, the onward Northumbrian advance was brought to a standstill at the battle of Dunnichen, or Nechtansmere, when the Angles, then under Ecgfrith, were defeated by the Picts.

However, Aberlady and the Lothians remained frontier territory under Anglo-Saxon dominance until the late 10th Century, when they finally came into what became known as Scotland. What happened to the Gododdin – whether the blood of those brave people still runs through us – is unclear.

To this day, Aberlady has surrendered more stray Anglo-Saxon finds than anywhere else in Scotland. It was clearly a place of some significance. One particular item of jewelry provides evidence of cultural links with both Pictland and the Saxon kingdom of Mercia, south of Northumbria.