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Óengus son of Fergus (Hypothetical Pictish form: Onuist map Urguist; Old Irish: Óengus mac Fergusso, Anglicisation: Angus mac Fergus), was king of the Picts from 732 until his death in 761. His reign can be reconstructed in some detail from a variety of sources.

Óengus became the chief king in Pictland following a period of civil war in the late 720s. During his reign, the neighbouring kingdom of Dál Riata was subjugated and the kingdom of Strathclyde was attacked with less success. The most powerful ruler in Scotlandmarker for over two decades, he was involved in wars in Irelandmarker and Englandmarker. Kings from Óengus's family dominated Pictland until 839 when a disastrous defeat at the hands of Vikings began a new period of instability, which ended with the coming to power of Cináed mac Ailpín.

Sources and background

Surviving Pictish sources for the period are few, limited to king lists, the original of which was prepared in the early 720s, and a number of accounts relating to the foundation of St Andrewsmarker, then called Cennrígmonaid. Beyond Pictland, the principal sources are the Irish annals, of which the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of Tigernach are the most reliable. These include materials from an annal kept at the monastery of Ionamarker in Scotland. Óengus and the Picts appear occasionally in Welshmarker sources, such as the Annales Cambriae, and more frequently in Northumbrianmarker sources, of which the Continuation of Bede's chronicle and the Historia Regum Anglorum attributed to Symeon of Durham are the most important.

Selected political groups in Northern Britain around 740 AD.

The Picts were one of four political groups in north Britainmarker in the early 8th century. Pictland ran from the River Forth northwards, including Orkneymarker, Shetlandmarker and the Western Islesmarker. Prior to the Viking Age, the main power in Pictland appears to have been the kingdom of Fortriu. Known high-status sites in Fortriu include Burgheadmarker and Craig Phádraig by Invernessmarker. Pictland appears to have had only one bishop with his seat at Rosemarkiemarker.

From the Forth south to the River Humbermarker lay the kingdom of Northumbriamarker. Once the dominant force in Britain, it remained a powerful kingdom, but the end of the old dynasty of kings with the death of Osric in 729 led to conflict between rival families for the throne. The growing power of the Mercianmarker kingdom to the south added to the problems faced by Northumbrian kings. For most of Óengus's reign Northumbria was ruled by the capable King Eadberht Eating.

To the south-west of Pictland were the Gaels of Dál Riata where the kingship was disputed between the Cenél Loairn of northern Argyllmarker and the Cenél nGabráin of Kintyremarker. In 723 Selbach mac Ferchair abdicated as head of the Cenél Loairn and king of Dál Riata in favour of his son Dúngal, who was driven out as king of Dál Riata by Eochaid mac Echdach of the Cenél nGabráin in 726. Dúngal and Eochaid were still in conflict as late as 731, when Dúngal burnt Tarbertmarker.

The history of the fourth group, the Britons of Alt Clut, later the kingdom of Strathclyde, leaves little trace in the record. King Teudebur map Beli had ruled from Dumbarton Rockmarker since 722, and continued to do so until his death in 752 when his son Dumnagual succeeded him.

Rise to power

Irish genealogies make Óengus a member of the Eóganachta, a kindred with its base in Munster. The branch of the kindred from which he came was located in an area known as Circinn, usually associated with modern Angusmarker and the Mearnsmarker. His early life is unknown; Óengus was middle-aged by the time he entered into history. His close kin included at least two sons, Bridei (died 736) and Talorgan (died 782), and two brothers, Talorgan (died 750) and Bridei (died 763).

King Nechtan son of Der-Ile abdicated to enter a monastery in 724 and was imprisoned by his successor Drest in 726. In 728 and 729, four kings competed for power in Pictland: Drest; Nechtan; Alpín, of whom little is known; and lastly Óengus, who was a partisan of Nechtan, and perhaps his acknowledged heir.

Four battles large enough to be recorded in Ireland were fought in 728 and 729. Alpín was defeated twice by Óengus, after which Nechtan was restored to power. In 729 a battle between supporters of Óengus and Nechtan's enemies was fought at Monith Carno (traditionally Cairn o' Mount, near Fettercairnmarker) where the supporters of Óengus were victorious. Nechtan was restored to the kingship, probably until his death in 732. On 12 August 729 Óengus defeated and killed Drest in battle at Druimm Derg Blathuug, a place which has not been identified.

Percutio Dal Riatai

In the 730s, Óengus fought against Dál Riata whose traditional overlords and protectors in Ireland, the Cenél Conaill, were much weakened at this time. A fleet from Dál Riata fought for Flaithbertach mac Loingsig, chief of the Cenél Conaill, in his war with Áed Allán of the Cenél nEógan, and suffered heavy losses in 733. Dál Riata was ruled by Eochaid mac Echdach of the Cenél nGabráin who died in 733, and the king lists are unclear as to who, if anyone, succeeded him as overking. The Cenél Loairn of north Argyllmarker were ruled by Dúngal mac Selbaig whom Eochaid had deposed as overking of Dál Riata in the 720s.

Fighting between the Picts, led by Óengus's son Bridei, and the Dál Riata, led by Talorgan mac Congussa, is recorded in 731. In 733, Dúngal mac Selbaig "profaned [the sanctuary] of Tory Islandmarker when he dragged Bridei out of it." Dúngal, previously deposed as overking of Dál Riata, was overthrown as king of the Cenél Loairn and replaced by his first cousin Muiredach mac Ainbcellaig.

In 734 Talorgan mac Congussa was handed over to the Picts by his brother, and drowned by them. Talorgan son of Drostan was captured near Dún Ollaighmarker. He appears to have been the King of Atholl, and was drowned on Óengus's order in 739. Dúngal too was a target in this year. He was wounded, the unidentified fortress of Dún Leithfinn was destroyed, and he "fled into Ireland, to be out of the power of Óengus."

The annals report a second campaign by Óengus against the Dál Riata in 736. Dúngal, who had returned from Ireland, and his brother Feradach, were captured and bound in chains. The fortresses of Creic and Dunaddmarker were taken. Muiredach of the Cenél Loairn was no more successful, defeated with heavy loss by Óengus's brother Talorgan, perhaps by Loch Awemarker. A final campaign in 741 saw the Dál Riata again defeated. This was recorded in the Annals of Ulster as Percutio Dál Riatai la h-Óengus m. Forggusso, the "smiting of Dál Riata by Óengus son of Fergus". With this Dál Riata disappears from the record for a generation.

It may be that Óengus was involved in wars in Ireland, perhaps fighting with Áed Allán, or against him as an ally of Cathal mac Finguine. The evidence for such involvement is limited. There is the presence of Óengus's son Bridei at Tory Islandmarker, on the north-west coast of Donegalmarker in 733, close to the lands of Áed Allán's enemy Flaithbertach mac Loingsig. Less certainly, the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland report the presence of a Pictish fleet from Fortriu fighting for Flaithbertach in 733 rather than against him.

Alt Clut, Northumbria, and Mercia

In 740, a war between the Picts and the Northumbrians is reported, during which Æthelbald, King of Merciamarker, took advantage of the absence of Eadberht of Northumbria to ravage his lands, and perhaps burn Yorkmarker. The reason for the war is unclear, but it has been suggested that it was related to the killing of Earnwine son of Eadwulf on Eadberht's orders. Earnwine's father had been an exile in the north after his defeat in the civil war of 705–706, and it may be that Óengus, or Æthelbald, or both, had tried to place him on the Northumbrian throne.

Battles between the Picts and the Britons of Alt Clut, or Strathclyde, are recorded in 744 and again in 750, when Kyle was taken from Alt Clut by Eadberht of Northumbria. The 750 battle between the Britons and the Picts is reported at a place named Mocetauc (perhaps Mugdock, near Milngaviemarker) in which Talorgan the brother of Óengus was killed. Following the defeat in 750, the Annals of Ulster record "the ebbing of the sovereignty of Óengus". This is thought to refer to the coming to power of Áed Find, son of Eochaid mac Echdach, in all or part of Dál Riata, and his rejection of Óengus's overlordship.

Unlike the straightforward narrative of the attacks on Dál Riata, a number of interpretations have been offered of the relations between Óengus, Eadberht and Æthelbald in the period from 740 to 750. One suggestion is that Óengus and Æthelbald were allied against Eadberht, or even that they exercised a joint rulership of Britain, or bretwaldaship, Óengus collecting tribute north of the River Humbermarker and Æthelbald south of the Humber. This rests largely on a confused passage in Symeon of Durham's Historia Regum Anglorum, and it has more recently been suggested that the interpretation offered by Frank Stenton—that it is based on a textual error and that Óengus and Æthelbald were not associated in any sort of joint overlordship—is the correct one.

In 756, Óengus is found campaigning alongside Eadberht of Northumbria. The campaign is reported as follows:
In the year of the Lord's incarnation 756, king Eadberht in the eighteenth year of his reign, and Unust, king of Picts led armies to the town of Dumbartonmarker.
And hence the Britons accepted terms there, on the first day of the month of August.
But on the tenth day of the same month perished almost the whole army which he led from Ouania to Niwanbirig.

That Ouania is Govanmarker is now reasonably certain, but the location of Newanbirig is less so. Although there are very many Newburghs, it is Newburgh-on-Tyne near Hexhammarker that has been the preferred location. An alternative interpretation of the events of 756 has been advanced: it identifies Newanbirig with Newboroughmarker by Lichfieldmarker in the kingdom of Mercia. A defeat here for Eadberht and Óengus by Æthelbald's Mercians would correspond with the claim in the Saint Andrews foundation legends that a king named Óengus son of Fergus founded the church there as a thanksgiving to Saint Andrew for saving him after a defeat in Mercia.

The cult of Saint Andrew

The story of the foundation of St Andrewsmarker, originally Cennrígmonaid, is not contemporary and may contain many inventions. The Irish annals report the death of "Tuathalán, abbot of Cinrigh Móna", in 747, making it certain that St Andrews had been founded before that date, probably by Óengus or by Nechtan son of Der-Ilei. It is generally presumed that the St Andrews Sarcophagus was executed at the command of Óengus. Later generations may have conflated this king Óengus with the 9th century king of the same name. The choice of David as a model is, as Alex Woolf notes, an appropriate one: David too was an usurper.

The cult of Saint Andrew may have come to Pictland from Northumbria, as had the cult of Saint Peter which had been favoured by Nechtan, and in particular from the monastery at Hexhammarker which was dedicated to Saint Andrew. This apparent connection with the Northumbrian church may have left a written record. Óengus, like his successors and possible kinsmen Caustantín and Eógan, is recorded prominently in the Liber Vitae Ecclesiae Dunelmensis, a list of some 3000 benefactors for whom prayers were said in religious institutions connected with Durhammarker.

Death and legacy

Óengus died in 761, "aged probably more than seventy, ... the dominating figure in the politics of Northern Britain". His death is reported in the usual brief style by the annalists, except for the continuator of Bede in Northumbria, possibly relying upon a Dál Riata source, who wrote:
Óengus, king of the Picts, died.
From the beginning of his reign right to the end he perpetrated bloody crimes, like a tyrannical slaughterer.
The Pictish Chronicle king lists have it that he was succeeded by his brother Bridei. His son Talorgan was later king, and is the first son of a Pictish king known to have become king.

The following 9th century Irish praise poem from the Book of Leinster is associated with Óengus:

Good the day when Óengus took Alba,

hilly Alba with its strong chiefs;

he brought battle to palisaded towns,

with feet, with hands, with broad shields.

An assessment of Óengus is problematic, not least because annalistic sources provide very little information on Scotland in the succeeding generations. His apparent Irish links add to the long list of arguments which challenge the idea that the "Gaelicisation" of eastern Scotland began in the time of Cináed mac Ailpín; indeed there are good reasons for believing that process began before Óengus's reign. Many of the Pictish kings until the death of Eógan mac Óengusa in 839 belong to the family of Óengus, in particular the 9th century sons of Fergus, Caustantín and Óengus.

The amount of information which has survived about Óengus compared with other Pictish kings, the nature and geographical range of his activities and the length of his reign combine to make King Óengus one of the most significant rulers of the insular Dark Ages.


  1. Forsyth discusses the various forms of Óengus's name, also providing Ungus(t) as an alternative Pictish form.
  2. M. O Anderson, Kings and Kingship, pp. 88–102.
  3. Most sources are collected in Early Sources of Scottish History (ESSH) and Scottish Annals from English Chroniclers (SAEC), edited by Alan Orr Anderson.
  4. Early 8th century bishops include Curetán, Fergus and Brecc. Anderson, ESSH, pp. 221; Yorke, Conversion, pp. 153–155. Surveys of North Britain can be found in D.W. Harding, The Iron Age in Northern Britain: Celts and Romans, Natives and Invaders (2004), and Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550–850 (2003). Foster, Picts, Gaels and Scots (2005), excludes southern Scotland and northern England.
  5. Surveys of Northumbria include David Rollason's Northumbria, 500–1100: Creation and Destruction of a Kingdom (2003), and Nick Higham's The Kingdom of Northumbria AD 350–1100 (1993).
  6. John Bannerman, Studies in the History of Dalriada (1974), remains the standard work on Dál Riata.
  7. Anderson, ESSH, pp. 240–241 & 243. "Rotri, king of the Britons", whose death is recorded in the Annales Cambriae s.a. 754, has sometimes been identified as a king of Alt Clut, but this notice refers to Rhodri Molwynog ap Idwal, King of Gwynedd.
  8. Forsyth, "Evidence of a lost Pictish source", pp. 27–28. The genealogy appears in the Rawlinson B 502 manuscript, ¶1083.
  9. Woolf, "Carnifex tyrannus", p. 36.
  10. Yorke, Conversion, pp. 49–50, 54 & 288–289 discusses the reconstructed relationship between late Pictish kings. Talorgan is a hypocoristic form of Talorg; Anderson, ESSH, p. 253, note 2.
  11. For reports of events from 724 to 729, see Anderson, ESSH, pp. 221–227. For Óengus as Nechtan's supporter, Henderson, pp. 155–156; Woolf, "Carnifex tyrannus", p.36.
  12. Woolf, "AU 729.2".
  13. Woolf, "Carnifex tyrannus", p. 36; Anderson, ESSH, pp. 229–230.
  14. Anderson, ESSH, pp. 227–229.
  15. Anderson, ESSH, p. 232 & corrigenda, p. xviii.
  16. Talorgan was related to Nechtan, and is called his brother in 713, which may mean half-brother, foster-brother, or brother-in-law. Anderson, ESSH, pp. 214 & 236.
  17. Anderson, ESSH, p. 232.
  18. AU 741.10, available here.
  19. Anderson, ESSH, pp. 182 & 232–238; Woolf, "Carnifex tyrannus", pp. 36–37; M.O. Anderson, Kings and Kingship, pp. 184–186. Who led the Dál Riata in 741 is unclear: the sons of Fiannamail ua Dúnchado named by the Annals of Ulster may be unconnected, and the mention of Alpín son of Crup, sometimes taken to be the same person as the Alpín overthrown in 729, may be misplaced.
  20. Woolf, "Ungus".
  21. Anderson, ESSH, pp. 227–228; Woolf, "Carnifex tyrannus", p. 36. As already noted, most Irish annals say that Flaithbertach was supported by a fleet from Dál Riata.
  22. Anderson, SAEC, pp. 55–56.
  23. Woolf, "Carnifex tyrannus", p. 37. For Earnwine, see Kirby, p. 150; Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms, p. 90.
  24. Foster, Picts, Gaels and Scots, p. 89.
  25. Anderson, ESSH, pp. 238–239; Anderson, SAEC, p. 56.
  26. Anderson, ESSH, p. 240.
  27. Woolf, "Carnifex tyrannus", p. 38; M.O. Anderson, Kings and Kingship, pp. 186–187. The entry for 752 in the Annals of Tigernach, recording "the battle of Asreth in Circinn", is thought to be misplaced.
  28. Woolf, "Carnifex tyrannus", p. 38; Anderson, SAEC, p. 56.
  29. After Forsyth, p. 29. See also Anderson, SAEC, p. 57.
  30. Forsyth, pp. 29–30; Woolf, "Carnifex tyrannus", p. 39.
  31. Kirby, p. 150.
  32. Woolf, "Carnifex tyrannus", pp. 39–40. This version of the St Andrews foundation legend is given in M.O. Anderson, Kings and Kingship, pp. 258–260.
  33. Anderson, ESSH, p. 238; Forsyth, pp. 21–22; Foster, "Discovery", pp. 42–43; Woolf, "Ungus". The most recent study, Yorke, Conversion, favours Óengus.
  34. Henderson, pp. 155–156; MacLean, pp. 200–201; Woolf, "Ungus". It is less certain whose remains the sarcophagus contained. Woolf and MacLean argue for Óengus while Henderson favours Nechtan mac Der Ilei. Clancy, "Caustantín", favours a 9th century date.
  35. Foster, "Discovery", p. 42; Broun, pp. 80–81.
  36. Woolf, "Carnifex tyrannus", p. 40.
  37. Forsyth, pp. 25–26; Yorke, Conversion, p. 167. Óengus is listed 43rd, Caustantín 80th and Eógan 100th.
  38. Forsyth, p. 21.
  39. Forsyth, p. 22; Anderson, ESSH, p. 244; Anderson, SAEC, p. 57; Woolf, "Carnifex tyrannus", p.37.
  40. Yorke, Conversion, p. 49. Sons of kings became kings more frequently in the 9th century, but it was not until the 11th century that kings were succeeded by their descendants rather than their brothers or cousins.
  41. Forsyth, pp. 27–28.
  42. Nechtan son of Der-Ilei and his brother Bridei are thought to have had a Gaelic father, Dargart mac Finguine of the Cenél Comgaill. See Clancy, "Nechtan"; Yorke, Conversion, pp. 54–55.
  43. Broun, passim; Woolf, "Carnifex tyrannus", p. 40. Arguing otherwise, see Bannerman, passim. The arguments are compared in Yorke, Conversion, pp. 49–50, 54 & 288–289.
  44. The strongest claims are made in those accounts which take Óengus to have been joint Bretwalda with Æthelbald, such as Charles-Edwards, Forsyth and Yorke. Other, such as Broun and Woolf, make less sweeping claims, but make Óengus among the most powerful Pictish kings and the dominant force in northern Britain. For Óengus's significance on a cultural and artistic level see Henderson & Henderson, p. 12; MacLean, pp. 200–201.


Primary sources

see also External links below for online editions.
  • Anderson, Alan Orr, Early Sources of Scottish History AD 500 to 1286, Volume One. Reprinted, with corrections by Marjorie O. Anderson, Stamford: Paul Watkins, 1990. ISBN 1-871615-03-8
  • Anderson, Alan Orr, Scottish Annals from English Chroniclers A.D. 500–1286. London: D. Nutt, 1908.
  • Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, revised R.E. Latham, ed. D.H. Farmer. London: Penguin, 1990. ISBN 0-14-044565-X

Secondary sources

  • Anderson, Marjorie Ogilvie, Kings and Kingship in Early Scotland. Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh, revised edition 1980. ISBN 0-7011-1604-8
  • Aitchison, Nick, Forteviot: a Pictish and Scottish royal centre. 2006.
  • Bannerman, John. "The Scottish Takeover of Pictland and the relics of Columba" in Dauvit Broun and Thomas Owen Clancy (eds.) Spes Scotorum: Saint Columba, Iona and Scotland. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1999 ISBN 0-567-08682-8
  • Broun, Dauvit. "Pictish Kings 761–839: Integration with Dál Riata or Separate Development" in Sally Foster (ed.) The St Andrews Sarcophagus: A Pictish masterpiece and its international connections. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1998. ISBN 1-85182-414-6
  • Charles-Edwards, T.M., "'The Continuation of Bede', s.a. 750: High-Kings of Tara and 'Bretwaldas'", in Alfred P. Smyth (ed.), Seanchas: Studies in Early Medieval Irish Archaeology, History and Literature in Honour of Francis J. Byrne, Dublin & Portland: Four Courts Press, 2000. ISBN 1-85182-489-8
  • Clancy, Thomas Owen. "Caustantín son of Fergus (Uurgust)"
  • Clancy, Thomas Owen, "Nechtan son of Derile" in M. Lynch (ed.) The Oxford Companion to Scottish History. Oxford & New York: Oxford UP, 2002. ISBN 0-19-211696-7
  • Foster, Sally. "Discovery, Recovery, Context and Display." in Sally Foster (ed.) op. cit.
  • Foster, Sally. Picts, Gaels, and Scots: Early Historic Scotland. Second edition, London: Batsford, 2004. ISBN 0-7134-8874-3
  • Forsyth, Katherine. "Evidence of a lost Pictish source in the Historia Regum Anglorum" in Simon Taylor (ed.) Kings, clerics and chronicles in Scotland, 500–1297: essays in honour of Marjorie Ogilvie Anderson on the occasion of her ninetieth birthday. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000. ISBN 1-85182-516-9
  • Henderson, George & Isabel Henderson. The Art of the Picts. London: Thames and Hudson, 2004. 0-500-23807-3
  • Henderson, Isabel. "Primus inter Pares: the St Andrews Sarcophagus and Pictish Sculpture" in Sally Foster (ed.) op. cit.
  • Kirby, D.P. The Earliest English Kings. London: Unwin Hyman, 1991. ISBN 0-04-445692-1
  • MacLean, Douglas. "The Northumbrian Perspective" in Simon Taylor (ed.) op. cit.
  • Woolf, Alex. "AU 729.2 and the last years of Nechtan mac Der-Ilei" in The Scottish Historical Review, Volume 85, Number 1. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006. ISSN 0036-9241
  • Woolf, Alex. "Dún Nechtain, Fortriu and the geography of the Picts" in The Scottish Historical Review, Volume 85, Number 2. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006. ISSN 0036-9241
  • Woolf, Alex. "Onuist son of Uurguist : tyrannus carnifex or a David for the Picts ?" in David Hill & Margaret Worthington (eds.) Aethelbald and Offa : two eighth-century kings of Mercia (British Archaeological Reports, British series, no. 383). Oxford: Archaeopress, 2005. ISBN 1-84171-687-1
  • Woolf, Alex. "Ungus (Onuist), son of Uurgust" in M. Lynch (ed.) op. cit.
  • Yorke, Barbara. The Conversion of Britain: Religion, Politics and Society in Britain c. 600–800. London: Longman, 2006. ISBN 0-582-77292-3

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