Óengus son of Fergus
(Hypothetical Pictish form
: Onuist map
; Old Irish
Óengus mac Fergusso
, Anglicisation: Angus mac
), was king of the
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
and the kingdom of
was attacked with less success. The most powerful
ruler in Scotland for over two
decades, he was involved in wars in Ireland and England.
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
Sources and background
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 Andrews, then called Cennrígmonaid.
the principal sources are the Irish
, of which the Annals of
and the Annals
are the most reliable. These include
materials from an annal kept at the monastery of Iona in
Scotland. Óengus and the Picts appear occasionally in
Welsh sources, such as the Annales Cambriae, and more frequently
in Northumbrian sources, of which the Continuation of Bede's chronicle and the Historia Regum
Anglorum attributed to Symeon of
Durham are the most important.
Picts were one of four political groups in
north Britain in the early
8th century. Pictland ran from the River Forth northwards, including Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles.
Selected political groups in Northern
Britain around 740 AD.
Prior to the Viking
, the main power in Pictland appears to have been the
kingdom of Fortriu
. Known high-status
sites in Fortriu include Burghead and Craig Phádraig by Inverness. Pictland appears to have had only one bishop
with his seat at Rosemarkie.
Forth south to the River
Humber lay the kingdom of Northumbria.
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.
growing power of the Mercian kingdom to the south added to the problems faced by
For most of Óengus's reign Northumbria
was ruled by the capable King Eadberht Eating
south-west of Pictland were the Gaels of
Dál Riata where the kingship was
disputed between the Cenél Loairn
of northern Argyll and the
Cenél nGabráin of Kintyre.
In 723 Selbach mac Ferchair
abdicated as head
of the Cenél Loairn and king of Dál Riata in favour of his son
, who was driven out
as king of Dál Riata by Eochaid mac
of the Cenél nGabráin in 726. Dúngal and Eochaid
were still in conflict as late as 731, when Dúngal burnt Tarbert.
The history of the fourth group, the Britons
of Alt Clut
the kingdom of Strathclyde, leaves little trace in the record.
Teudebur map Beli had ruled
Rock since 722, and continued to do so until his death
in 752 when his son Dumnagual succeeded
Rise to power
Irish genealogies make Óengus a member of the Eóganachta
, a kindred with its base in
. The branch of the kindred from which he came
was located in an area known as Circinn, usually associated with
modern Angus and the
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
King Nechtan son of Der-Ile
abdicated to enter a monastery in 724 and was imprisoned by his
in 726. In
728 and 729, four kings competed for power in Pictland: Drest;
, 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 Fettercairn) where the supporters of Óengus were
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
Percutio Dal Riatai
In the 730s, Óengus fought against Dál
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
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 Argyll were ruled
by Dúngal mac Selbaig whom
Eochaid had deposed as overking of Dál Riata in the
Fighting between the Picts, led by Óengus's son Bridei, and the Dál
Riata, led by Talorgan mac Congussa, is recorded in 731.
Dúngal mac Selbaig "profaned [the sanctuary] of Tory Island when he dragged Bridei out of it."
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
He appears to have been the King of
, 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 Dunadd were
taken. Muiredach of the Cenél Loairn was no more
successful, defeated with heavy loss by Óengus's brother Talorgan,
perhaps by Loch
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
Island, on the north-west coast of Donegal in 733, close to the lands of Áed Allán's enemy
Flaithbertach mac Loingsig.
Less certainly, the Fragmentary Annals of
report the presence of a Pictish fleet from
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
advantage of the absence of Eadberht of Northumbria to ravage
his lands, and perhaps burn York.
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
Battles between the Picts and the Britons of Alt Clut, or Strathclyde
, are recorded in 744 and
again in 750, when Kyle
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 Milngavie) in which Talorgan the brother of Óengus was
Following the defeat in 750, the Annals of
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
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
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
Humber and Æthelbald south of the Humber.
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 Dumbarton.
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.
Ouania is Govan is now
reasonably certain, but the location of Newanbirig is less
so. Although there are very many Newburghs, it
is Newburgh-on-Tyne near Hexham that has
been the preferred location. An alternative interpretation of the
events of 756 has been advanced: it identifies Newanbirig with
Newborough by Lichfield 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
for saving him after a
defeat in Mercia.
The cult of Saint Andrew
of the foundation of St
Andrews, originally Cennrígmonaid, is not
contemporary and may contain many inventions.
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
was executed at the command of Óengus.
Later generations may have conflated this king Óengus with the 9th
century king of the same
. The choice of David
as a model is,
as Alex Woolf
notes, an appropriate one:
David too was an usurper.
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
Hexham 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 Durham.
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
The Pictish Chronicle
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
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
belong to the family of Óengus, in particular the 9th century sons
of Fergus, Caustantín
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.
- Forsyth discusses the various forms of Óengus's name, also
providing Ungus(t) as an alternative Pictish form.
- M. O Anderson, Kings and Kingship, pp. 88–102.
- Most sources are collected in Early Sources of Scottish
History (ESSH) and Scottish Annals from English
Chroniclers (SAEC), edited by Alan Orr
- 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
- 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).
- John Bannerman, Studies in the History of Dalriada
(1974), remains the standard work on Dál Riata.
- 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.
- Forsyth, "Evidence of a lost Pictish source", pp. 27–28. The
genealogy appears in the Rawlinson B 502 manuscript, ¶1083.
- Woolf, "Carnifex tyrannus", p. 36.
- 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.
- 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.
- Woolf, "AU 729.2".
- Woolf, "Carnifex tyrannus", p. 36; Anderson, ESSH, pp.
- Anderson, ESSH, pp. 227–229.
- Anderson, ESSH, p. 232 & corrigenda, p.
- 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.
- Anderson, ESSH, p. 232.
- AU 741.10, available here.
- 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.
- Woolf, "Ungus".
- 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.
- Anderson, SAEC, pp. 55–56.
- Woolf, "Carnifex tyrannus", p. 37. For Earnwine, see Kirby, p.
150; Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms, p. 90.
- Foster, Picts, Gaels and Scots, p. 89.
- Anderson, ESSH, pp. 238–239; Anderson, SAEC,
- Anderson, ESSH, p. 240.
- 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.
- Woolf, "Carnifex tyrannus", p. 38; Anderson, SAEC, p.
- After Forsyth, p. 29. See also Anderson, SAEC, p.
- Forsyth, pp. 29–30; Woolf, "Carnifex tyrannus", p. 39.
- Kirby, p. 150.
- 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.
- Anderson, ESSH, p. 238; Forsyth, pp. 21–22; Foster,
"Discovery", pp. 42–43; Woolf, "Ungus". The most recent study,
Yorke, Conversion, favours Óengus.
- 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.
- Foster, "Discovery", p. 42; Broun, pp. 80–81.
- Woolf, "Carnifex tyrannus", p. 40.
- Forsyth, pp. 25–26; Yorke, Conversion, p. 167. Óengus
is listed 43rd, Caustantín 80th and Eógan 100th.
- Forsyth, p. 21.
- Forsyth, p. 22; Anderson, ESSH, p. 244; Anderson,
SAEC, p. 57; Woolf, "Carnifex tyrannus", p.37.
- 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.
- Forsyth, pp. 27–28.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- see also External links below for online
- 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,
- 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
- Anderson, Marjorie
Ogilvie, Kings and Kingship in Early Scotland.
Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh, revised edition 1980. ISBN
- Aitchison, Nick, Forteviot: a Pictish and Scottish royal
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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.)
- Yorke, Barbara. The Conversion
of Britain: Religion, Politics and Society in Britain c.
600–800. London: Longman, 2006. ISBN 0-582-77292-3