Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Nechtan

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NECHTAN, a Pictish personal name, of which there are many examples variously spelt in the ‘Chronicles of the Picts in Scotland,’ besides others in Ireland; it is supposed to survive in the Irish and Scottish clan names Macnaghten or Macnaughten, and the place names Dunnichen (Dun-nechtan) and Nechtans Mere in Forfarshire, and perhaps Naughton in Fifeshire. Of the many persons so called, only two are of historical importance, both of whom were kings of the Picts—Nechtan Morbet or Morbreac, son of Erip, and Nechtan, son of Derelei or Dergard.

Nechtan Morbet (d. 481?) is said in the earliest verses of the Pictish chronicle or manuscript of the tenth century (Imperial Library, Paris, 4126) to have reigned ‘twenty-four years. In the third year of his reign, Darlugdach [q. v.], abbess of Kildare, came as an exile to Britain for the sake of Christ. The second year after her arrival Nechtan dedicated Abernethy to St. Brigit [q. v.], and Darlugdach, who was present, shouted Alleluia in respect of that offering.’ The same legend is repeated in the additions to the Irish Nennius. The cause of the offering is said by the Pictish chronicle to have been that Nechtan had been driven to Ireland during the reign of his brother Drust, and, having sought St. Brigit, she prayed God for him, and promised that if he returned to his country he would possess the kingdom of the Picts in peace. It is not possible to reconcile the probable date of Nechtan Morbet's reign (457–81) with the probable date of St. Brigit's life, as her death is recorded in the Irish annals in 523, 524, or 525. Still the circumstantiality of the above statement as to the dedication of Abernethy appears to point, as so often happens, to a fragment of true history, the dates of which have been misplaced. Mr. E. W. Robertson (Early Scottish Kings, i. 10) conjectures that the foundation of Abernethy was antedated, and that its real founder was Nechtan MacDereli. This would accord better with its geographical position, but is inconsistent with the introduction of Darlugdach into the story and with the connection assigned to Abernethy with the Irish and not with the Roman church.

Nechtan, son of Dereli or Dergard, king of the Picts (d. 732), is first mentioned as king of the Picts in 717, when he is said to have expelled ‘the family of Iona’—that is, the clerics who followed the Irish customs—across the mountains (trans dorsum Britanniæ). He reigned, according to the earliest chronicle of the Picts, fifteen years, which synchronises with the date of his death in 732 in the ‘Annals of Tighernach.’ According to the legend of St. Boniface (Chronicles of Picts and Scots), that saint baptised him at Restenet, Forfarshire, along with his nobles and whole army. Bede, who narrates contemporary facts, informs us that in 710 Naitan, as he calls the king, conformed to the Roman date of the observance of Easter, and sent to Ceolfrid, then abbot of Yarrow in Anglian Northumbria, with a request that he would supply him with the best arguments in favour of the Roman rule both with regard to Easter and the shape of the tonsure, in order to confute the heretical practices of the Celtic church. He also begged that architects might be sent to instruct his countrymen how to build a church of stone after the Roman fashion. The answer of Ceolfrid has been preserved, and was perhaps written by Bede himself, at that time a monk of Yarrow. The adoption of these two symbols of the Roman church throughout the territory of the Pictish king was the cause of the expulsion from the Pictish territory of those Celtic monks who continued to recognise the Celtic customs. Skene conjectures that it was the publication of Nechtan's edict on these points which procured for the Moothill and Castle of Scone the titles of the Hill and Castle of Belief (Caislen Credi). A few years later Nechtan, after the fashion of so many early Celtic chiefs and kings, became a monk, and he was supplanted in the Pictish throne by Drust in 724; but, like the monks of that age, he did not abandon secular ambition or cease to fight for temporal power. In 726 he was taken prisoner and bound by Drust, as a son of Drust had been by Nechtan in the previous year. In 728 Nechtan, after two victories over Drust's successor, Elphin or Alpin, one at Moncrieff and the other at Scone, both within a few miles of Perth, regained the kingdom. On 12 Aug. 729 Drust was slain in a third battle at Drumderg or Mount Carno, the Cairn o' the Mount in Kincardineshire or the Mearns, by Angus, another king or chief of the Picts.

In 732 Nechtan died. Wyntoun in his ‘Chronicle’ credits Nechtan with the foundation of the church of Rosmarkie in Ross-shire, which afterwards became the cathedral of Moray (Cronykil of Scotland, v. 5819), but, by an error either in transcription or chronology, dates this foundation in 600 A.D. It would appear that the error is in the latter, for he places the foundation in the reign of Maurice, the emperor of the East, who was killed by Phocas in 602. It is not likely that Nechtan's power extended so far north as Ross; Scone was his capital. Perthshire and the adjacent counties of Forfar and Fife were the probable limits of his kingdom.

The fact of his converting his subjects, as the result of his own conversion, to the Roman customs, and his consequent submission to the Roman see, appear to be clearly proved, on the authority of Bede, to have taken place in the first or second decade of the eighth century, which substantially agrees with the dates in the Irish annals. This conversion and submission were almost contemporaneous with that of the monks of Iona itself through the influence of the example of Adamnan [q. v.], who had conformed to the Roman rule later in 703, and the exertions of the Anglian priest Egbert, who preached the orthodox doctrine in Iona in 716.

[Bæda's Historia Ecclesiæ Anglicanæ; Chronicles of the Picts and Scots, edit. by W. F. Skene for the Lord Clerk Register of Scotland; Reeves's Life of St. Columba; T. Innes's Civil and Ecclesiastical Hist. of Scotland; Skene's Celtic Scotland, vol. i.; E. W. Robertson's Scotland under her Early Kings, vol. i.]

Æ. M.