Although there is no good reason to doubt that Fergus existed, he is more a figure of legend than of history. He is said to have taken part of Britain along with the people of Dál Riata ["Feargus Mor mac Earca cum gente Dal Riada partem Britaniae tenuit, et ibi mortuus est." AT 17: 124; similarly in CS 35]. He is mentioned in the Armagh Memoranda (in the Book of Armagh, ca. 807) ["xii (maicc) Eirc, Fergus Mor mac Nise" Bannerman (1974), 120] and in the Tripartite Life of St. Patrick, which calls him both mac Eirc and mac Nisse [ibid., 121]. He occupies a prominent place in Senchus Fer nAlban (a tenth century revision of a seventh century original), which names his son Domangart, and gives descendants for several generations. He was grandfather of Comgall and Gabrán, the ancestors of the septs of Cenél Comgaill and Cenél nGabráin, the latter the most notable sept of the royal dynasty of Dál Riata. The other two main septs of the Dál Riata were Cenél Loairn and Cenél nÓengusa, named after ancestors Loarn and Óengus, who were later said to be brothers of Fergus [Senchus Fer nAlban]. The Duan Albanach states that Loarn was the first king of Dál Riata (for 10 years), followed by Fergus (27 years) and his son Domangart (5 years) [Duan Albanach, 131], while the synchronisms state that the first three kings were Fergus Mór mac Eircc, Óengus Mór mac Eircc, and Domangart mac Fergusa [Thurneysen (1933), 86; Boyle (1971), 173]. The Latin Lists make Domangart (5 years) the son and successor of Fergus (3 years), without including any reigns for either Loarn or Óengus [see, e.g., KKES 264, 270, 281]. The alleged reigns of Loarn and Óengus look like later additions, and they probably do not belong on the list. Since there was a strong tendency for Irish king lists to begin with the first Christian king, it may well be the case that there was a tradition that Fergus was the first Christian king of the Dál Riata, something also suggested by his appearance in the Tripartite Life. Another possibility is that Fergus was the first member of the dynasty to rule from Scotland rather than Ireland [Bannerman (1974), 124]. However, even though there were probably kings of the Dál Riata prior to Fergus, the evidence does not justify giving that title to any of the individuals who appear in the genealogy of Fergus.
One interesting feature is that Fergus is known in some sources by another name, Mac Nisse, a name which is also applied to his son Domangart [see his page]. Thus, in Senchus Fer nAlban, we have the statement that Fergus Mór was another name for Mac Nisse Mór ["Fergus Mór mac Eirc ainm aile do Mac Nisse Mór unum filium habuit .i. Domangart." (Fergus Mór, son of Ercc, another name for Mac Nisse Mór, had one son, i.e., Domangart) Senchus 41, 47], although they had been apparently distinct sons of Ercc in the previous paragraph [see the Commentary section below]. Nisse is apparently the genitive of Ness, a woman's name [Bannerman (1974), 50]. Since Fergus and his son Domangart were obviously not sons of the same woman, the suggestion of Bannerman that Ness was an ancestor deity, and that Mac Nisse should be corrected to Moccu Nisse, meaning (very roughly) of the tribe of Ness, is an attractive explanation for this epithet of Fergus and his son [ibid., 50-1].
Date of Birth: Unknown.
Place of Birth: Unknown.
Date of Death: ca. 501?
[AT, CS (see above)]
Place of Death: Unknown.
Presumed father: Ercc.
[Senchus Fer nAlban (see above), Genelaig Albanensium, Bannerman (1974), 41, 108; for the genealogies, see the page of Eochaid mac Echach]
Domangart mac Fergusa, d. ca. 506?, king of Dál Riata.
The origin legend of Dál Riata
Two early Irish tales, De Maccaib Conaire and De Sil Chonairi Moir, tell how the Erainn septs of the Múscraige, Corco Duibne, Corco Baiscind, and Dál Riata, said to be descended from three sons of Conaire Mór, i.e., Cairpre Músc, Cairpre Baschaín, and Cairpre Riata, went from Brega to Munster, allied with the Eoganachta, and obtained lands in Munster as a reward [Bannerman (1974), 122]. A tale appended to the Amra Choluimb Chille is evidently a continuation this story, stating that the Dál Riata were of the race of Cairpre Rigfota (i.e., Cairpre Riata), of the men of Munster, which they left because of a famine, one group going to Scotland (Alba), with the other part staying where the Irish Dál Riata were (i.e., in northeastern Ulster) [Amra Choluimb Chille, 423-5]. The legend that the Dál Riata were descended from a man bearing the name Riata was known to Bede, who gives the ancestor's name as Reuda ["... qui duce Reuda de Hibernia progressi ..." Bede i, 1 (p. 19)]. This need not indicate that Cairpre Riata was historical, but it does prove that the legend was in existence by Bede's time. In the genealogies quoted below, Cairpre Riata appears as either Cairpre Rigfota or Eochaid Riata. Note that in these genealogies Cairpre Riata/Rigfota is son of Conaire Cóem, who is then several generations removed from Conair Mór, the father of Cairpre Riata in the above tale. This is evidence of the activity of the pseudohistorians, who were actively inventing generations to fill in the large blank space in Irish history going back to Noah's flood.
Like other Irish dynasties, there are genealogies which allege to trace the kings of Dál Riata back to Adam through the "Milesian" dynasty traced by the pseudohistorians from the mythical Míl of Spain. As with other Irish genealogies at the dawn of the historical period, it is not possible to say with certainty where the valid genealogy ends and the fiction begins, but the vast majority of the earlier generations were concoctions of the Irish synthetic historians. In the case of the Dál Riata pedigrees, they agree only back to an alleged great-grandfather of Fergus named Óengus. Three different versions of the genealogy back to Forggo mac Feradaig are given here for purposes of comparison. Of these genealogies, the one from Genelaig Albanensium is the shortest. The two longer genealogies also do not agree, with each having generations not present in the other.
Genelaig Albanensium: "... mc. F[h]ergusa mc Eirc mc Echac[h] Munremair m Óengusa mc F[h]ergusa Ulaig mc F[h]iachach T[h]athmail mc F[h]edlimid Lamdoit mc C[h]ingi mc Guaire mc C[h]indtai mc C[h]orpri Rigfotai mc C[h]onaire Chóem mc Moga Láma mc C[h]orpri C[h]rom C[h]ind mc Dáire Dorndmáir mc C[h]orpri F[h]ind Móir mc C[h]onaire Móir mc Eterscéoil mc Éogain mc Ailella mc Iairm mc Dedad mc S[h]in m Ros[h]in mc Thrir mc Rothrir mc Airndil mc Mane mc F[h]orgo mc F[h]eradaig ..." [Bannerman (1974), 65]
Genelach Ríg nAlban: "... m. Fergusa m. hEircc m. Echdach Muinremuir m. Óengusa Fir m. Feideilmid m. Óengusa m. Feideilmid m. Cormaicc m. Croithluithe m. Find Féicce m. Achir m. Echdach m. Fiachach m. Feidelmid m. Cincce m. Guaire m. Cintae m. Coirpri Rigfota m. Conaire Cáem m. Lugdach m. Cairpri Chrommchinn m. Dáire Dornmáir m. Cairpre m. Conaire Móir m. Eterscéla m. Éogain m. Ailella Áin m. h-Éir m. Dedad m. Sin m. Roshin m. Triir m. Rothriir m. Airnnil m. Maine m. Forggo m. Feradaig ..." [Rawl. B. 502 162d7-28, CGH 328; cf. "... Muirecht ingen Echach Muinremair m. Óengusa m. Fergusa m. Fiachach Cathamail ríg Alban ..." ibid., 144g15-17, p. 165]
Poppleton MS: "... filii Fergusa, filii Eirc, filii Echach Muinreuir, filii Oengusaphir, filii Fedilínthe Aislingig, filii Oengusabuiding, filii Fedilinther Uamnaich, filii Sencormaíc, filii Cruithinde, filii Fínd Fece, filii Achircir, filii Achachantoit, filii Fiachrachcathmail, filii Echdachriada, filii Conore, filii Mogalanda, filii Luigdig, filii Ellatig, filii Corpre Crumpchímí, filii Dare Dornmoír, filii Eorbre, filii Admoir, filii Conarremoir, filii Etersceuil, filii Eogamí, filii Elela, filii Iair, filii Dedaid, filii Síu, filii Rosíu, filii Theír, filii Rothir, filii Rom, filii Arandil, filii Manine, filii Forgo, filii Feradaig, ..." [KKES, 257]
As artificial constructions, there is no reason to regard any one of them as "more accurate" than the other. With the possible exception of a very small number of generations just prior to the historical period which might (at least arguably) represent a reliable tradition, these names need to be rejected. As noted before, the different versions of the genealogy agree only for the three generations preceding Fergus:
great-grandfather (very uncertain): Óengus Fír.
Supposed grandfather (uncertain): Eochu/Eochaid Muinremur.
Supposed father (possible): Ercc.
While it would be difficult to rule out the possibility that these generations represent an accurate tradition of the ancestry of Fergus, there is also no compelling reason to accept them as genuine. The best case would be for the correctness of the name Ercc, on the theory that Fergus's patronymic was given correctly in the sources naming him. The further back we go, the less likely it is that the names have been transmitted accurately.
Supposed brothers (probably
Loarn, ancestor of Cenél Loairn.
Oengus, ancestor of Cenél nOengusa.
As Bannerman has noted, Fergus is the only son of Ercc who is named in the earliest sources. Not before Senchus Fer nAlban do we have any other sons attributed to Ercc, and there is no reason to believe that these additional alleged sons appeared before the tenth century revision of Senchus Fer nAlban. Of the many "brothers" given to Fergus (see below for a general discussion), Loarn and Óengus would appear to be genuine individuals after whom the septs of Cenél Loairn and Cenél nÓengusa were named, even if there is great suspicion that their genealogical affiliation as brothers of Fergus is a late invention. See the discussion of Bannerman [Bannerman 119ff., especially 121-2].
The sons of Erc in Senchus Fer nAlban:
In addition to the supposed brothers Loarn and Óengus who appear in many sources, Senchus Fer nAlban has an account of further brothers which is both very confused and transparently fictional. At the beginning, Erc is given twelve sons (plus a possible thirteenth), who are divided into two groups of six each, the first group of which is further subdivided into three groups of two each. However, when descendants of the various sons are listed later, this list is then contradicted on a couple of important points.
Sons of Ercc listed at the beginning:
["Dá mac deac immorra la Erc .i. a sé díb gabsat Albain .i. dá Loarnd .i. Loarnd Bec & Loarnd Mór Dá Mac Nisse .i. Mac Nisse Bec & Mac Nisse Mór. Dá F[h]ergus .i. Fergus Bec & Fergus Mór. A sé ali i n-Héind .i. Mac Decill Óengus cuius tamen semen in Albania est. Enna. Bresal. Fiac[h]ra. Dubt[h]ach. Alii dicunt h-Erc habuisse alium filium cuius nomen uocabatur Muredach." (Erc, moreover, had twelve sons, i.e., six of them took possession of Scotland (Alba), i.e., two Loarns, i.e., Loarn Becc & Loarn Mór, two Mac Nisses, i.e., Mac Nisse Becc & Mac Nisse Mór, two Ferguses, i.e., Fergus Becc & Fergus Mór. Six others in Ireland, i.e., Mac Decill, Óengus, whose seed, however, is in Scotland, Enna, Bresal, Fiachra, Dubthach.Others say that Ercc had another son whose was called Muiredach.) Senchus, 41, 47]
Mac Nisse Bécc
Mac Nisse Mór
Sons of Ercc mentioned in the remainder of the text:
Following this list of thirteen possible sons, Senchus Fer nAlban continues with the twelve (almost certainly mythical) sons of Erc's alleged brother Olchú. We then have our first apparent contradiction, in which Fergus Mór and Mac Nisse Mór are identified ["Fergus Mór mac Eirc ainm aile do Mac Nisse Mór unum filium habuit .i. Domangart." (Fergus Mór, son of Ercc, another name for Mac Nisse Mór, had one son, i.e., Domangart) Senchus 41, 47]. After listing the descendants of Fergus through his son Domangart, we get the statement that Fergus Becc was killed by his brother (by which one is unstated), and a few alleged descendants of Fergus Becc are listed. We then have the statement that Óengus Már, Loarn, and Mac Nisse Már were the three sons of Ercc (note the change in epithet and the lack of one for Loarn) ["Óengus Már & Loarnd & Mac NIsse Már. tri meic Eirc in sin." Senchus 42]. There then follow a list of the descendants of Óengus Már (called son of Ercc), followed by the naming of one son of Óengus Becc, son of Ercc, and a list of descendants of Loarn Mór (whose parentage is not given in that section). Thus, this later part of Senchus Fer nAlban would evidently give the following list of five sons of Erc who left descendants.
Fergus Mór alias
Mac Nisse Mór/Már
Thus, the Fergus Mór and Mac Nisse Mór of the original list become combined as one person, while the single Óengus is divided into Óengus Már and Óengus Becc. It looks as if Senchus Fer nAlban, as we have it now, has imperfectly combined two different schemes (both artificial) regarding the sons of Erc. Bannerman would attribute this confusion not to the original (seventh century?) author of Senchus Fer nAlban, but to a tenth century reviser of the material [Bannerman (1974), 119-120].
The pseudohistorical kings of Scotland prior to Fergus
The Irish origin legends of the Dál Riata are extremely vague about the history of Scotland prior to Fergus mac Eircc, and do not seek to give a connected history of an earlier period. However, by the late medieval period, Scottish historians such as Fordun, Boece, and Buchanan had fabricated an elaborate fictional pseudohistory of Scotland. From an earlier Fergus, son of Ferchar or Feradach, corresponding to the Forggo mac Feredaig in the earlier genealogies, and supposedly living at the time of Alexander the Great, there were said to be some forty or so kings of Scotland up to king Eugenius in the fourth century, with whom the monarchy is said to have temporarily ended. Some of these kings are traceable to names which appear in the earlier genealogies quoted above, and this entire series of alleged earlier Scottish kings was supplied with fictional accounts of "reigns" which filled in the bare list of names, giving the tale at least a semblance of history. The monarchy was said to have been restored by Fergus, son of Erthus (son of Ethodius, brother of Eugenius) by Rocha, daughter of the Danish prince Rorik ["Fergusius filius Erth, filii Echadii, qui fuit frater Eugenius regis bello prostrati per tyrannum Maximum, ..." Fordun, iii, 1 (vol. 1, p. 105); "Ethodius, the bruþer of Eugenius, bannyst, as we haif schawin, was plesandly tretit be the King of Denmark, and gat certane landis, quhair he remanit with his wife; on quhom he had a son, namytt Erthus, quhilk eftir the deth of his fader Ethodius marijt ane nobill lady, namytt Rocha, dochter to Rorik, greatest prence of Danys, nixt the King, and gatt on hir ane son, namyt Fergus, quhilk recoverit the realme of Scotland, as we sall now schaw." Boece 1: 268]. Erthus and Ethodius are corrupt forms of the names Ercc and Eochaid, while Eugenius is a false Latinization of Eochaid which was in common use in later medieval times. Using a very corrupt version of the lists of kings, a "history" of the period after Fergus mac Eircc was also put forth, embellishing things to the point that there is often no relationship between what they relate and the little bit of genuine history which can be recovered for that period. For example, this pseudohistorical tradition was also responsible for introducing two additional sons of Fergus, another Eugenius, allegedly an eldest son of Fergus ruling between Fergus and his son Domangart, and Constantine, allegedly a younger son of Fergus, ruling after Domangart. [For a detailed discussion of Fordun's work and methods, see Broun (1999), especially pp. 69-72]
mother (fictional): Rocha of Denmark.
Falsely attributed son (fictional): Eugenius/Eochaid, king of Dál Riata.
Falsely attributed son (fictional): Constantine, king of Dál Riata.
A falsehood of much later origin
brother: Muirchertach mac
Erca, king of the Uí Néill (called "high-king of
Ireland" by later historians).
Falsely attributed father: Muiredach mac Eogáin meic Néill Noigallaig.
Falsely attributed mother: Erca, daughter of Loarn Mór.
There is no good reason to accept this theory, which would convert Fergus's father Ercc into a daughter Erca and identify her as also being the mother of the early sixth century Irish king. The claim that Muirchertach's mother was a daughter of Loarn is also late [see Bannerman (1974), 127-8].
Amra Choluimb Chille = Whitley Stokes, ed., "The Bodleian Amra Choluimb Chille", Revue Cetique 20 (1899): 30-55, 132-183, 248-287, 400-437.
AT = Whitley Stokes, ed. & trans., The Annals of Tigernach, Revue Celtique16 (1895), 374-419; 17 (1896), 6-33, 116-263, 337-420; 18 (1897), 9-59, 150-303, 374-91. See also the CELT website.
AU = Seán Mac Airt and Gearóid Mac Niocaill, eds., The Annals of Ulster (Dublin, 1983). See also the CELT website.
Bannerman (1974) = John Bannerman, Studies in the History of Dalriada (Edinburgh & London, 1974).
Bede = Bertram Colgrave & R. A. B. Mynors, ed. & trans., Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford, 1969).
Boece = Hector Boece, The Chronicles of Scotland. Translated into Scots by John Bellended, 1531 2 vols., (Scottish Texts Society, 3rd ser., vols. 10, 15, 1938-41).
Boyle (1971) = A. Boyle, "The Edinburgh Synchronisms of Irish Kings", Celtica 9 (1971): 169-179.
Broun (1999) = Dauvit Broun, The Irish Identity of the Kingdom of the Scots (The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 1999).
Duan Albanach = Jackson (1956) [critical edition], Jackson (1957) [parallel text and translation]; unless otherwise specified, citations are to the latter.
Fordun = John of Fordun, Scotichronicon, 2 vols., (Edinburgh, 1759).
Jackson (1956) = Kenneth Jackson, "The Poem A eolcha Alban uile", Celtica 3 (1956): 149-167.
Jackson (1957) = Kenneth Jackson, "The Duan Albanach", Scottish Historical Review 36 (1957): 125-137.
KKES = Marjorie Ogilvy Anderson, Kings and Kingship in Early Scotland (Edinburgh, Totowa, NJ, 1973).
McCarthy (2005) = Daniel P. Mc Carthy, "Chronological synchronisation of the Irish annals", available at http://www.cs.tcd.ie/Dan.McCarthy/chronology/synchronisms/annals-chron.htm. The dates on this page, which can be regarded as no more than approximations for this period, are based on these tables.
Senchus = John Bannerman, ed., Senchus Fer nAlban, in Bannerman (1974), 27-156 (text at 41-7, translation 47-9)
Thurneysen (1933) = R. Thurneysen, "Synchronismen der irischen Könige", Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie 19 (1933): 81-99.
Compiled by Stewart Baldwin
First uploaded 26 April 2007.
Minor revision 30 April 2007: added a paragraph on pseudohistorical kings from Fergus son of Ferchard to Eugenius (with thanks to Will Johnson for pointing out the lack of a discussion of this topic); also added several "generations" to the quote of the pseudohistorical genealogies.
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