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Caithness Field Club Bulletin
DE SITU ALBANIE
This anonymous description of Scotland is one of the few early Scottish document to have survived the pillaging hands of Edward I when he rifled the Scottish archives in 1291. The author, thought to be Geraldus Cambrensis, obtained some of his information directly from Andrew, who was Bishop of Caithness from 1150 to 1185. This provides an approximate date for its composition.
In translating place names and other words whose meanings have been inferred, I have included the original spellings in brackets. Where additional words have been inserted to clarify the meaning they have been typed in capitals.
The Topography Of Alba, Which Has In Itself The Shape Of A Man; How It Was Originally Divided Into Seven Territories, Which Were Given Names In Ancient Times And By Whom It Was Inhabited.
It think it worthwhile to consider a historical account of Alba, which was divided into many parts which were given names by the original inhabitants.
We read in the histories and chronicles of the old British writers, in the tales (gestis) and from the ancient chronicles of Scottish and Pictish writers, that the region which is now loosely called Scotia, was long ago called Alba, from Albanectus the younger son of Brutus the first king of the Britons of greater Britain. And after a great interval of time, Pictavia, from the Picts, who ruled in it for a period of 1070 years. According to certain persons 1360 YEARS. Now it is loosely called Scotia. In the year in which William the redHAIRED king, brother of Malcolm, a man of respectable life and prowess, takes up sovereignty, the Scots have in fact ruled for a period of 315 years.
The territory itself has the appearance and shape of a man. For example its chief part, the head, is in Argyll (Arregarchel) in the western part of Scotland beside the Irish Sea. His feet are beside the Norwegian (Northwagie) Sea. The mountains and deserts of Argyll resemble the head and neck of the man. The body is the mountain which is called the Mounth (Mound) which stretches all the way from the western sea to the eastern sea. His arms are the mountains which separate Scotia from Argyll (Arregarchel). The right side, part of Moray (Muref), Ross (Ros), Marr and Buchan (Buchen). For its legs, are its two principal and very clear rivers, which come down from the aforesaid mountain, the Mounth, which are called the Tay (Tae) and the Spey (Spe) one of which flowed on this side of the mountain, the second on the farther SIDE, into the Norwegian Sea. Between the legs of this man are Angus, (Enegus) and the Mearns, (Meerne) on this side of the mountain, and on the other side of the mountain a different LAND between the Spey and the mountain.
This land was divided long ago by seven brothers into seven parts of which the main part is Angus with the Mearns, so named after Enegus the firstborn of the brothers. The second part is Atholl (Adtheodle) and Gowrie (Gourin). The third part is Strathearn (Sradeern) with Menteith (Meneted). The fourth part of the share is Fife,(Fif) with Fotherne. The fifth part is Marr with Buchan. The sixth is Moray and Ross. The seventh part is Caithness (Cathanesia) on this side of the mountain, and CAITHNESS on the other side of the mountain, because the Mound mountain divides Caithness through the middle. At that time each of these shares was rightly called a region for each of them had a sub-region in it. From that, these seven aforementioned brothers were being held as good as seven kings having under himself seven princes. These seven brothers divided the Kingdom of Alba into seven kingdoms and each in tine ruled by himself in his kingdom.
As a true reporter, namely Andrew, Bishop of Caithness, a man worthy of respect, of the Scottish nation and a monk of Dunfermline (Dumfermelis) repeated to me, the first kingdom was from that noble water for which the Scottish name in the Forth (Froch); the British the Werid; the Roman in fact Scottewattre, that is the Water of the Scots; which separates the kingdom of the Scots and the Angles and runs near the town of Stirling (Strivelin), up to another famous river whose name is the Tay. The second kingdom went from Hilef round the coast all the way to the mountain district north of Stirling, which is called Athran. The third kingdom from the Hilef as far as the Dee (De). The fourth kingdom from the Dee to the great and wonderful river which is called the Spey, the largest and best in all Scotia. The fifth kingdom, from the Spey to the mountains of Druim Alban (Brin Alban). The sixth kingdom was Moray and Ross. The seventh kingdom was Argyll (Arregaithil).
It is said Argyll means the boundary of the Scots and Irish because the Irish and Scots are together generally called Gaels (Gattheli) after a certain noble leader of each who shall be called Gaethelglas. The Irish were always accustomed to land there to do injury to the Britons. Perhaps the Irish Picts (Scotti Picti) originally used to live there after their return from Ireland, or because the Irish occupied that part over the Picts, or which is certain, because that part of the Scottish region is neighbour to the Irish region.
Fergus the son of Eric was himself the chief who received the kingship of Alba from the offspring of Chonare, that is from the mountain of Druim Alban as far as the Irish Sea and to Inchegall. Thereafter kings of the seed of Fergus ruled in Druim Alban, from Brunhere himself, up to Alpin the son of Eochal. Kenneth the son of this Alpin, the first of the Scots, ruled happily in Pictland for sixteen years.
The modern equivalents of some of the placenames which have not been translated, can be surmised; Fife with Fotherne is probably Fife and Kinross; Hilef is possibly the river Isla which runs into the Tay; Athran north of Stirling is obscure, but the root can possibly be seen in the second part of Aberuthven.
The meaning attributed to Argyll is confirmed by the original spelling, Arregaithil, which in Gaelic is Erra-Ghaidheal, meaning the bounds of the Gaels or Scots from Ireland.