The Firth of Forth: What Separates Your Picts from Your Angles?

Today, if you travel from the Scottish city of Edinburgh north towards the region of Fife, you’ll pass over the impressive Queensferry Crossing bridge, which will take you across the wide watery Firth and Forth that separates Lothian (the area around Edinburgh) from Fife. It’s a quick trip, a great view, and thousands of cars make it every day. With the modern crossing being so quick and effortless, it’s easy to forget that prior to bridges and regular ferries, the Forth would have been an imposing natural feature for millennia, a natural barrier to movement between the south and north shores.

The Firth of Forth, looking over a dozen miles to the southern shore from Kirkcaldy on the northern shore. Photo taken by author.

In the eighth century CE, we get a brief glimpse of one well-known writer’s thoughts on the Forth’s intimidating span. The monk known as the Venerable Bede would pen a Latin description of it as the freti, or firth, which separated the terrae Anglorum from Pictorum – the lands of the Angles from the lands of the Picts. Bede uses the Latin verb distermino for this separation, which brings together dis– (connoting separation or pulling apart) and termino (meaning “to mark off with boundaries, to bound, limit” according to the Lewis and Short Latin dictionary). So, Bede describes, the Forth was not simply a firth or obstacle, but a boundary-separation, marking the edge of two entirely different worlds.

A map of locations mentioned in text. Map made by author within Tableau.

If we are going to accept Bede’s specific description of the Forth as a division between these two worlds (the Angles and Picts), it helps us to consider what the monk thought separated the Angles and Picts. While modern scholarship is more careful with Bede’s work as representative of the reality of the era, it can undoubtedly open a window into how one monk living in the north of that era thought the frontier at the Forth functioned. Bede, writing within a monastery in the kingdom of Northumbria, considered himself Anglian or English. He saw the English as being united in a common language – which we today call Old English – and general lineage, claiming that all of the English were descended from Germanic tribes who had invaded and seized vast swathes of the island of Britain centuries before his time. In contrast, Bede’s Picts spoke their own language – Pictish – and had come from Scythia to Britain, settling in the northernmost parts of the island. While the historicity of any of this is now hotly debated and largely debunked, especially when it comes to essentialist ethnic ideas, it is clear that at least Bede considered the Forth to separate two peoples, each with their own languages and common descent.

When we think about a boundary or border, we often think of something that exists between worlds, as Bede depicts; it demarcates two spaces without existing as a space itself. However, the boundary often has a life and space of its own, an idea encouraged by the terms “frontier” or “borderland,” demarking a space-between-spaces. Increasingly, theorists of borders have recognized that these frontiers, rather than being spaces-between-spaces, were often “defined more by connections and interactions than by boundaries,” to quote Louise Hitchcock and Aren Maeir. If we examine some of these connections and interactions on the Forth, we open up a new world beyond Bede’s distermino, placing the firth front and center as a human landscape of activity and life.

One rich body of interaction and life on the seventh- and eighth-century Forth would be the presence of Christian foundations up and down the watery body. Religious settlements and centers existed at Abercorn, Aberlady, and Auldhame on the southern shore, and even Edinburgh would come to be associated with a sainted nun and supposed church, as Philip Dunshea has argued. At the entrance to the firth from the North Sea, the Isle of May boasts a monastic cemetery stretching back to the fifth century, and on the north shore, a Pictish religious house was founded at Culross. Many of these foundations leave behind beautiful and intricately-carved stonework in the form of monuments and high crosses which would have stood at these waterside establishments, demarcating a religious landscape. Indeed, these foundations may have made the Forth an active space of religious claim and response: Abercorn was the site of a brief seventh-century bishopric which claimed authority over the Picts on the north shore, and James Fraser has argued that Culross, founded later, might have been specifically founded to challenge that claim of religious authority.

The later church at Abercorn, thought to stand on or near the same place as the early medieval monastery; the Firth sits less than a thousand feet behind the church. Photo taken by author.

Imagining the Forth as an empty space, as in the picture above, is also a disservice: we can imagine it as full of movement and travel. Christopher Ferguson, drawing on J. Makepeace, has argued in a study of Northumbrian maritime movement and ports that Abercorn’s low-lying beaches would have made it a great spot for early medieval ships to land, and has underscored the rapid travel which could be achieved by sailors traveling up the Forth from the eastern coast of Britain, from the Northumbrian heartlands near Bamburgh and Lindisfarne – taking likely less than a day to travel from Bamburgh to Abercorn. This radically re-orients the idea of the firth as an edge-space or periphery – while it may have marked the edge of the lands of the Angles, any Angle with a good ship and favorable winds could travel from the royal hall at Bamburgh to the frontier-monastery at Abercorn in a matter of hours! When we add this to the excavations at the Isle of May which show clear occupation stretching back to the earliest parts of the middle ages, a world of ships and travel on the early medieval Forth turns the blank between-space into a landscape of its own.

In fact, the persistent and difficult case of the missing urbs, or town, of Giudi or Iudeu would suggest that secular population centers thrived in the Forth. Bede and other medieval sources mention Giudi, with Bede describing it being located in the middle of the Forth – a topic that has incited a great deal of scholarly debate! James Fraser has explored the difficulties of Bede’s phrasing, and the lack of any major archaeological find has meant that we are left to guess whether it sat on an island, peninsula, or even on the river to the west of the Forth at Stirling. However, as Fraser has discussed, it seems most likely that it was either an island or promontory mid-way up the firth, not far from modern-day Abercorn or Edinburgh. Giudi therefore diversifies our vision of the Forth as a centerpiece of activity in the early medieval, as a population center and fortress amidst the waters of the firth.

The coast at Dunbar, East Lothian, looking west into the Forth and towards the Berwick Law in the background. Photo taken by author.

We can also see the importance of the maritime zone through one of our better-understood sites near the Forth at Dunbar, which sits near the mouth of the firth. Dunbar, referenced by the eighth-century monk Eddius Stephanus as Dynbaer, was an important enough town within the seventh century to warrant a praefectus or prefect who imprisoned the Northumbrian Saint Wilfrid at the command of the king Ecgfrith. Together with the nearby hermitage at Bass Rock and religious community at Tyningham, David Petts has argued for the coastal landscape at the mouth of the Forth as comparable to royal and holy landscapes at the heart of Northumbria: vibrant, mobile, and structured.

What, then, separates our Picts from our Angles? Just a brief glimpse into the living and breathing world of the seventh- and eighth-century Firth of Forth, which to the Venerable Bede represented the dividing line between two peoples, demonstrates that quite a lot and very little separated them. The study of the Forth as a frontier space, filled with its own landscape of religion, secular settlement and mobility, grants us a better understanding of what a boundary means, above and beyond Bede’s distermino. In centering the Forth and its shores as a centerpiece of investigation, we transform the peripheral into a subject of its own, and gather a valuable glimpse into a rich human landscape of cultural diversity. Further research on the Forth’s frontier as a central subject promises to give us a better concept of how Pictish and Northumbrian frontiers functioned in late antiquity and the early middle ages.


Works Cited

  • Bede, The Venerable. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Edited by Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B Mynors. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.
  • Dunshea, Philip. “Edinburgh’s Renown in the Early Middle Ages.” In The Battle of Carham: A Thousand Years On, 50-78.
  • Stephanus, Eddius. The Life of Bishop Wilfrid by Eddius Stephanus: Text, Translation, & Notes. Translated by Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1937.
  • Ferguson, Christopher. “Re-Evaluating Early Medieval Northumbrian Contacts and the ‘Coastal Highway.’” In Early Medieval Northumbria: Kingdom and Communities AD 450-1100, 283–302. Turnhout: Brepols, 2011.
  • Fraser, James E. “Bede, the Firth of Forth, and the Location of Urbs Iudeu.” Scottish Historical Review 87, no. 1 (2008): 1–25. 
  • Fraser, James E. From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795. The New Edinburgh History of Scotland 1. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.
  • Hitchcock, Louise A., and Aren M. Maeir. “Beyond Creolization and Hybridity: Entangled and Transcultural Identities in Philistia.” Archaeological Review from Cambridge 28, no. 1 (April 2013): 43–65.
  • Lewis, Charlton T. and Charles Short. A New Latin Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1891.
  • Petts, David. “Coastal Landscapes and Early Christianity in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria.” Estonian Journal of Archaeology 13, no. 2 (2009): 79–95.

About the Author

Trevor Wiley is a second year doctoral student in the History Department at Boston College. His primary research interests are the frontiers and imagined boundaries of late antique and early medieval Britain, especially within the fifth to eighth centuries, as well as concepts of hybrid identity and experienced landscape within those frontiers. Currently, his research is focused on northern Britain, within the modern-day regions of northern England and southern Scotland.

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