The Kingdom of Alt Clut: The Brittonic Realm in the Heart of ‘Scotland’

Kingdom of Alt Clut

At the mouth of the River Clyde, where the river meets the firth, lies Dumbarton Rock. This imposing great chunk of volcanic rock looms large over the surrounding landscape and features an impressive castle.

The castle which rests on the rock was originally built by King Alexander II in the 13th century to defend against the threat of Norwegian attack, and was famously home to Sir John Menteith, the man who captured William Wallace.

Extensive reconstruction in the 17th and 18th centuries to accommodate modern artillery means that the castle looks drastically different from what your average 13th-century local would have gazed upon each day.

But Dumbarton Rock has been a source of regional power for far longer than 800 years. Several centuries prior to Alexander II’s ambitious construction project, the rock was the cultural, military and economic home of an ancient dynasty, the rulers of the Kingdom of Alt Clut.

Here’s what you need to know about Scotland’s ancient Brittonic kingdom.

The Kingdom of Alt Clut

The term ‘Alt Clut’ means ‘Rock of the Clyde’ in Brythonic, a Celtic language spoken by the indigenous population of mainland Britain prior to the arrival of the Romans. For context here, the construction of the 13th-century fortress is closer to the present day than the arrival of Roman legions on the shores of Britain.

And when the Western Roman Empire fell in the mid-5th century, it was from here that a powerful successor state arose.

At its zenith, the Kingdom of Alt Clut was a true regional power which encompassed the entirety of the Strathclyde region, large parts of southwest Scotland and a significant portion of Cumbria in northern England.

By all means, the Kingdom of Alt Clut was fiercely independent and stood its ground amidst a period of unparalleled social and cultural upheaval in the wake of the Roman withdrawal, right through to the dawn of the following millennium.

Kingdom of Alt Clut

To its north, the Britons of Alt Clut had to contend with the mighty Gaelic kingdom of Dal Riata located on the west coast, as well as the formidable Pictish kingdom – both of whom were frequent foes.

Crucially though, in the east of what is now Scotland, the 5th and 6th centuries saw the emergence of an aggressive and expansionist new foe, the Angles.

First arriving on the shores of Britain as mercenaries employed by local Romano-British nobles, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes quickly became the dominant military forces across large parts of southern Britain.

Expanding northward into areas such as Northumbria, the Scottish Borders and the Lothian region, these small petty kingdoms would one day grow into extremely powerful confederacies and sizeable kingdoms.

And the Kingdom of Alt Clut was a prime target for a host of these ambitious Anglic rulers.

 Yr Hen Ogledd, the Old North

The Kingdom of Alt Clut is referred to in a number of sources dating from the 6th century onward. Most notably in the Welsh epic poem, y Gododdin.

Other sources, such as the poets Aneirin and Taliesin, also speak of the kingdom as an influential state which held great political sway during this time period.

Notable early rulers referenced in sources include Coroticus and his descendent, Rhydderch Hael, who is named in Adomnán’s Life of Saint Columba.

In the mid-7th century, the Annals of Ulster recorded a great victory for the Kingdom of Alt Clut at the Battle of Strathcarron. In this instance, the Annals claim that a king named Eugein scored a decisive victory over Dal Riata.

Conflict with the kingdom of Dal Riata appears to have been a frequent occurrence during the 7th and 8th centuries. Sharing a border overlooking vital sea lanes, one might assume that skirmishes were largely focused on expanding territorial holdings and ensuring control of lucrative trade routes to the Irish Sea.

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In the 8th century, rivalry with the Pictish kingdom saw hostilities frequently erupt. King Oengus of the Picts is said to have made at least three separate attempts to subjugate the Britons of Alt Clut, all of which were unsuccessful.

Pictish advances on the kingdom were later supported by the Northumbrians and saw some success. In around 756, the Pictish and Northumbrian kings Oengus and Eadberht laid siege to Dumbarton Rock and are said to have extracted a submission from King Dumnagual.

Notably, while Eadberht’s host made its long journey back to home soil the army was set upon and wiped out. However, it is unclear whether this was at the hands of the Britons or their Pictish allies.

Kingdom of Alt Clut

Despite some territorial losses along the way – including the Northumbrian conquest of Cumbria – for several centuries the plucky Kingdom of Alt Clut managed to survive in the cutthroat world it shared with expansionist neighbours.

With the dawn of the 9th century, however, the Britons of Alt Clut would encounter an entirely new enemy. One that all the kingdoms of Britain and Ireland came to fear and loathe. The Norsemen arrived on British shores.

A dynamic new enemy

The arrival of the Norse sent shockwaves across the political landscape of 9th-century Britain. To the south, the Kingdom of East Anglia was ravaged and its king, Edmund, was put to the sword.

The once mighty Kingdom of Mercia – which witnessed a long reign as the foremost power in Saxon England – was decimated at the hands of the Norsemen while its sister kingdom to the south in Wessex clung onto life for several decades.

Northumbria was also utterly crippled by Norse attacks. And one might assume this played to the advantage of the Britons of Alt Clut. But they too would experience the wrath of the Norsemen.

In the 870s, the Annals of Ulster report that Dumbarton Rock fell under siege by a huge Viking force under the command of Amlaíb, King of Dublin and ‘Imar’ – who is speculated to have been the famed Norse king, Ivar the Boneless.

This four-month siege resulted in the destruction of the original fortification at Dumbarton Rock and led to a significant number of locals being captured and sold into slavery in the markets of Dublin.

“Amlaíb and Ímar returned to Áth Cliath (Dublin) from Alba with two hundred ships,” the Annals of Ulster state. “Bringing away with them in captivity to Ireland a great prey of Angles and Britons and Picts.”

The destruction of the fortress prompted the Britons of Alt Clut to move further down the River Clyde and establish a new central base of power in Govan.

Rising Powers

Despite the crippling impact of Norse attacks, the Kingdom of Alt Clut – later referred to as the Kingdom of Strathclyde – still played a key role in British politics during the 10th century.

After Aethelstan was crowned as the first King of England, it is believed that a Strathclydian king paid homage to him alongside Constantine II of Scotland.

And later, when a coalition of British kings including Constantine II joined together to check the power of this rising English kingdom, King Owain of Strathclyde is said to have joined them.

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The subsequent defeat at the Battle of Brunanburh secured English dominance in the south of Britain and did little to help the Kingdom of Strathclyde in years to come.

Aethelstan’s successor, Edmund, ravaged the kingdom and is said to have had two sons of king Dyfnwal ab Owain blinded.

Edmund also gifted the kingdom to King Malcolm I of Scotland. However, Dyfnwal later regained his crown and ensured that the kingdom would live to see another day.

Dumbarton Rock Castle

The Kingdom of Strathclyde is believed to have remained independent until the mid-11th century, albeit perhaps paying homage to the kings of Alba during intermittent bouts.

Holdings in Cumbria were still under Brittonic control until around 1050 when the Earl of Northumbria seized the region surrounding Keswick.

And in its traditional heartland, the kingdom still existed until around the same time. But the once mighty Kingdom of Alt Clut wouldn’t see out the century.

Sometime during the reigns of kings Malcolm II, Duncan I or Macbeth, the kingdom was conquered by the Scots and integrated into the kingdom.

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