Pitalpin - An Actual Battle or A Dundee Myth?
This article details a battle which, very likely, is a fiction. The place-name Pitalpin is now subsumed within the western part of Lochee, itself now engulfed within the city of Dundee. The first part of the name is pit, a Pictish term for a piece of land or farm, and the second part seems to be the personal name Alpin. The name has given rise to the legend that Alpin, father of the mid-9th century king Kenneth, or Cinaed, who supposedly united the Picts and Scots, was slain here in battle.
The equation of the Pictish pit with an English word with quite a different meaning signals that the story is relatively modern. Let's get the facts out of the way first. All the early chronicles and annals agree that this Alpin was killed in Galloway. One source (formerly known as the Chronicle of Dalriada) states Alpin was slain around the year 841 in that region after he had wholly destroyed and devastated it, 'And then the kingdom of the Scots was transferred to the kingdom of the Picts.' Another version adds the detail that he was ambushed by a single assassin in woodland beside a ford while he rode out with his men. This evidence, it must be said, is not accepted as irrefutable fact and questions remain about the race and identity of his opponent, for instance. The actual place pinpointed as his burial spot was the Taxing Stone on the east side of Loch Ryan, known in the 13th century as Laight Alpin, 'Alpin's Grave', but latterly just Laight. His death is supposed to have occurred just over the border at Glenapp, Ayrshire. Despite the relatively meagre facts the traditions of Alpin's death in Galloway are altogether earlier and more convincing than rival stories that he died in Angus.
Modern scholarship has determined that both Alpin and his son Cinaed - supposed destroyer of the Picts - both bore Pictish names. Scholars point out that both kings were celebrated in elegaic poetry; Alpin's name was certainly remembered and Clan Gregor many centuries later adopted him as a supposed ancestor. Alpin in cognate with the British Celtic name Elphin, which is recorded in royal pedigrees and may be identical with the Pictish form.* This puts new light on his supposed battled against the Picts. It is possible, maybe even likely, that the place-names Laight Alpin and Pitalpin at opposite sides of the country record two different men named Alpin. In connection with the name near Dundee we should note the place-name Rathelpie near St Andrews, Fife, which was formerly Rathalpin, the'fort of Alpin'. A connection with the man who may have owned an estate at Pitalpin is conceivable.
* Irish scholar T. F. O' Rahilly postulated that this personal name may have had an exceptionally long pedigree and be derived in fact from the 2nd century Roman governor of Britain, Clodius Albinus.
Moreover, there was another king named Alpin who is recorded in the early 8th century. He was apparently one of the participants in a contest for the Pictish throne, displacing and expelling a ruler named Drust in the year 726. Two years later there was another battle, possibly at Moncrieff in Perthshire, and Alpin's son was killed. Shortly afterwards he was defeated again by Nechtan. He is heard of no more.
A Confusion of Sources: Earlier Writers
Many later histories of Dundee, presumably through misguided local pride, make prominent space for the Battle of Pitalpin (sometimes called the Battle of Liff) fought to the west of the burgh. The range of detail makes it difficult to determine where each author received his sources if he had not invented them himself. Even the date of the encounter is disputed, with the years 831, 833, 834, and other years touted.
One early national source was the History of John Lesley, Bishop of Ross, writing in the late 16th century. According to him, a Pictish king named Brude (Brudie) defeated and captured Alpin in a battle at a place named Horestia. There he commanded that Alpin be beheaded and 'stukne on a stake and borne to Camelodun his heid. As now in this days will testifie the place, qhauir alpin was heidet, takeng the name fra him; the place is neir Dundie, and from Alpin now namet Pasalpin.' The stone where Alpin was beheaded, the King's Cross, is also known as the Standard Stone from the 'fact' that Alpin planted his flag here before the battle. But the tale goes back at least to the work of (local and) national historian Hector Boece of Dundee, at least in the free translation published by John Bellenden in 1536. According to this, Alpin had partial Pictish ancestry and tried to take over their kingdom. He ravaged all Angus and was encamped in a hill near Dundee when Brude's army approached and the Scots were defeated, partly via a ruse from disguised women and carriage men among the Picts (which incident is similar to something which is supposed to have happened at Bannockburn):
In this battall was tane, King Alpine; and brocht, with his handis bound, to the nixt village, quhare he was heidit, with ane hewing ax, the iv yeir of his regne; fra the incarnation,DCCCXXXIV yeris. The place, quhare King Alpine was heidit, is callit yit Pasalpine, that is to say, the heid of Alpine. Efter this huge victory of Scottis, King Brudus returnit to Camelon with King Alpinis heid, and put it on ane staik on the hieast part of all thair wailis, to be ane signe of his victory. [The History and Chronicles of Scotland, vol. 2, reprinted Edinburgh, 1821, p. 149.]
Boece's account of the battle, wherever it was derived, was followed and embroidered by later historians in the 16th century, including the Englishman Ralph Holinshed and eminent Scot George Buchanan. The latter states that Alpin particpated in a battle at Restenneth, which is also probably a fiction. He also gives an account of the name of the king's death site:
The king's head was fastened to a pole and carried up and down the army, till at last the set it up for a spectacle in the most eminent place of the greatest town they had (which then was Abernethy). The place were he was slain as yet retains his name, being called Bas Alpin, i. e., The Death of Alpin.
Local Excitable Writers
One of the earliest written localised versions of the battle was contained in The History of the Picts, a work probably composed by the somewhat shadowy Henry Maule of Melgund Castle, in the late 17th century. (He was the last of his line, leaving only a daughter.) While his account is confined to a short summary, later proud local writers gave minute accounts of the conflict. Even the clerical writers of the New Statistical Account got carried away in their descriptions of the battle. One minister insisted that Brude camped with his Pictish army on the Tothelbrow, in the parish of Strathmartine, while four miles to the south, on Dundee Law, the Scots and Alpin had their base. The Scottish king is said to have raised his royal standard in the stone later called the King's Cross, 'in the centre of which a hole is hewn ten inches by eight, and ten inches deep'. Here the unfortunate king also had his head cut off.
The stone is still in situ, on the Camperdown estate of the Duncan family, now Camperdown Park, and it was probably the base for an upright cross
(as its name suggests) which has not survived. Not far west of this position a souterrain was uncovered in the 18th century, showing evidence of settlement here in earlier Pictish times.
Even the eminent Alexander Warden, writing in volume 4 of Angus or Forfarshire (p. 177), gives a confused account of the encounter. He states that it was the 8th century Alpin who was a participant in the battle, though he repeats the beheading story and says the corpse was buried at Pitalpin. He adds:
Some forty years ago a human skeleton was found there, which was for a time, shown in Dundee as the remains of Alpin. Near the close of last century several graves or cists, constructed of rude slabs of stones, were found in the locality, and in 1732 a fine 'snake bracelet', now in the Museum of the Society of Antiquaries in Edinburgh, was found in the same vicinity.
It is probably worth pointing out that the name Pitalpin originally attached to a small settlement on the Lochee/Dundee to Newtyle road, some distance north of the present Pitalpin street names to the west of Lochee (which would be to the south-east of Dryburgh marked on the map below. King's Cross Road in Lochee is similarly some distance away from the King's Cross stone.). The CANMORE website shows the location of the original Pitalpin near the current Telford Road in Dryburgh Industrial Estate, Dundee.
As described by James Myles in Rambles in Forfarshire (1850), Pitalpin's location is described as:
immediately after...the three milestone from Dundee, and close to the edge of the turnpike road [where] there is a thickly planted grove; it is encircled by a well cultivated field...The little dark-looking grove is called Pitalpy [p. 191]
Further information about the battle and its supposed site was discussed in the book Lochee As it Was and Is (pp. 216-224) by Alexander Elliot
Last century a mound quite close to Pitalpie had to be removed to make way for the opening up of that part of the estate of Dryburgh for agricultural use, the ground at that date being covered with gorse and timber. When the mound was opened it was ascertained to be an ancient sepulchre. Its contents consisted of several graves, and from the manner of their construction it was evident they had been the last resting-places of persons of distinction. Much care seems to have been bestowed upon the formation of these antique funereal repositories, each being built around internally witli flagstone slabs, and carefully covered with the same material. In ancient times it was only to the remains of the great and powerful that such elaborate sepulture was extended. Under the circumstances, and seen in the light of the legendary chronicle, it was only to be expected that the sepulchre would be regarded as having sheltered the remains of King Alpin and some of his distinguished generals who had shared his fate. A snake bracelet is also said to have been found amongst the debris [in 1732].'
In the Dundee Advertiser of date 16th September 1842 it is freely stated that the remains of the unfortunate King had been discovered at King's Cross. It is therein recorded that 'a skeleton was found in digging through the mound at Pitalpin on which the stone stands to commemorate the battle fought between the Scots and Picts in the year 834. This skeleton must be the remains of King Alpin, who was taken prisoner in the action and beheaded by the Picts, for though some historians state that his head and body were removed by the Scots to Icolmkill and there buried, yet the fact of now finding the head severed from the body, which was in the centre of the mound, and distant some fields from the mass of bones of those who fell in action, renders it certain that it must be the skeleton of some chieftain, and there is no record of anyone of note having fallen on that occasion except Alpin. . . . These royal remains have been carefully collected and placed in a shell, and are now deposited in the Watt Institution, where they may be seen by the public.'
He also states that,
Pitalpie Village was situated on rising ground on the N side of the 3-mile stone on the Coupar Angus road. A solitary ash tree marks the spot. The village consisted of eight thatched cottages which were occupied till nearly 1830. About then, they were removed, but the foundations and approach road can still be traced.
Elliot discusses James Thomson's History of Dundee (first published in 1847) as being one of the first local historians to seriously doubt the Battle of Pitalpin, based on accounts of his death in south-west Scotland. Then he goes on:
Thomson's view coincides with the statement of a person advanced in years who was conversant with the incident. This person, when questioned upon the finding of the remains, declared in homely Scotch that they were 'juist those of a bit tinkler-buddy.' Returning to the historic stone and the place it is alleged to hold in our annals, another and more reasonable theory has been adduced. It is contended that, instead of being a useful adjunct to a battlefield, it fulfilled a higher and probably a more legitimate destiny. Research—hard, stern, analytic—in this and in innumerable instances ousts tradition from its place and declares it a usurper. The romantic story of the standard, dear as it has been to Dundonians, when subjected to the broad light of inquiry, is found to have had no foundation in fact. That is the opinion of those who have given much serious thought to the subject.
The Damning Verdict?
It has to be obvious that the so-called Battle of Pitalpin (a.k.a. The Battle of Liff) never in fact took place. There was a misapprehension by later historians that there were Picts in Galloway and this may have contributed to the confusion between that region and Angus. If Pitalpin commemorates anyone it is unlikely probably to be the king generally supposed to have died there, though there is some possibility that it could be the earlier royal Alpin who participated and perished in the 'Pictish war' in the third decade of the eighth century. Most of the conflicts in that confusing period seem to have been fought, as far as we can tell, in southern Pictland. Local pride among Dundee writers seems to have perpetuated the legend, the origin of which shows a confusion in the derivation of the term 'pit'. The king's death here may be connected, in a legendary sense, with the supposed murder of Pictish royals by his son Kenneth at Scone, who are supposed to have be murdered by being cast down into a pit while at a banquet - retrospective associated revenge for that equally suspect slaughter?