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Dunollie Castle and the Clan MacDougall

Formidability in the Face of Factions: The Significance of Dunollie Fort - Part 2

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(Read Part I)

As mentioned in Part 1, the Dál Riatan fort of Dunollie has been an archaeological headache for some scholars, as its remains lie beneath a castle built by the MacDougall clan in the thirteenth century, when lordship over Lorn passed into their hands. The timeline of the fort of Dunollie is somewhat clearer than the actual events of social and daily life within the stronghold due to textual rather than archaeological evidence. Discussed most often out of the Dál Riatan forts, Dunollie's royal history is loosely documented in the Annals of Ulster, Adomnán of Iona's Vita Columbae, and Cethri prímchenéla Dál Riata—as well as further removed sources such as Bede's The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in the 8th century.

Manuscript of the Annals of Ulster 500–1000AD

Manuscript of the Annals of Ulster 500–1000AD ( Public Domain )

These various texts tell a similar, though not the same, tale of the tumultuous history of Dunollie, recorded from its foundation under the guidance of Loarn the Great of Cenél Lorn. The first reference of the site itself comes down through history due to the warfare that took place within its borders, stemming from internal struggles within the Dál Riata—not from their exterior skirmishes with the kingdom of the Picts. Recent research provides sufficient evidence that the kingdom of Dál Riata was not nearly as unified as it appears in texts, and James Fraser believes this is because each of the four main kindreds was further broken down into other cenéla which consistently disputed within one another.

Map of Dál Riata at its height, c. 580–600. Pictish regions are marked in yellow.

Map of Dál Riata at its height, c. 580–600. Pictish regions are marked in yellow. ( Public Domain )

Dunollie suffered greatly from the division within Cenél Lorn. Attributing to the lack of tactile evidence at the site are the numerous attacks on Dunollie—the first from an as yet undetermined source. However, the second incident of Dunollie's destruction is documented in either 685 or 686 AD, when Dunollie was forcibly usurped by Ferchar Fota. Only eleven years later, Dunollie was again burned by Selbach, son of Ferchar, from the kindred Cenél nEchdach.

The Annals of Ulster dictate that Selbach, like his father, attempted to take high seat from his brother Ainbcelladh (sometimes Ainfcelladh), who himself was from an alternate kin-group within Cenél Lorn, Cenél Cathboth. Ainbcellah ruled Lorn and the Dál Riata after Ferchar died, but was deposed in 698 AD and taken captive to Ireland. His stronghold was taken over by his brother Selbach and Dunollie burned, most likely because the Irish had also attempted to take the fort from Selbach.  From 701 until his abdication in 723 AD, Selbach remained leader of Dunollie Rock, killing Ainbcellah in 719 (sometimes disputed as 718) upon the latter's return attempt to take back both the kingdom of Dál Riata and the fort. It is these destructive attacks on Dunollie within so short a time span that causes much of the trouble archaeologists come across. Not only was the site of Dunollie reused time and time again, but much of the evidence was undoubtedly burned.

Following this destruction and Dunollie's subsequent restoration in 714 AD, Selbach's appears to have been the last consistent reign at Dunollie for many years. A succession of short regimes followed him, including the attempted leadership of his own son, until 736 AD when the kingdom of the Picts defeated the Dál Riata and leadership fell to Óengus mac Fergusa. He claimed Dunadd for himself and for a short time, it appears that the Dál Riata have been overcome. However, the Pictish triumph does not immediately lead to the destruction and/or disappearance of Dunollie from the historical record except that. It appears that the Dál Riatan tribes continued to war with the Picts into the 9th century, various other cenéla attempting to reclaim their territory until the 10th century when Dunollie and Dunadd cease to be mentioned in the Annals.

Approximate location of Pictish kingdoms.

Approximate location of Pictish kingdoms. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

An understanding of the history of turmoil and political unrest is pertinent to the archaeology of Dunollie Fort as, despite its paramount location, little datable evidence survives to the modern day. Though The Annals of Ulster provides the most detailed account of the lineage of Dunollie Rock during the early medieval period, the social activities within the fort outside of politics is scarcely known, just as the cause for its temporary disappearance from texts. Regardless, Dunollie is not again mentioned as a seat of power until the 12th century when Somerled, lord of the area surrounding Dunollie—the Kingdom of the Isles—died and his son Dubgall mac Somairle founded Clan MacDougall at Dunollie Rock, eventually culminating in the 13th century castle that stands today in place of the ancient fort.

Dunollie Castle, historic seat of the MacDougalls.

Dunollie Castle, historic seat of the MacDougalls. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Despite the attempts by the Picts and the Vikings to smother the important coastal base, archaeological and geographical evidence does indicate that Dunollie continued to be appreciated we after its place in the Dál Riatan history.

Top image: Dunollie Castle and the Clan MacDougall. ( CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )

By Ryan Stone

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