About 1400 years ago, a Cumbrian mother sang a song to her new baby, a boy called Dinogad.
Dinogad’s smock is pied, pied –
Made it out of marten hide…1
So our baby boy is wrapped in pine marten furs; perhaps he was born on a cold, wintry day like today. The poem goes on to describe how Dinogad’s daddy went out with his dogs, Giff and Gaff, to catch fish, deer, boar and grouse, presumably to provide a very rich dinner for a very large household.
The poem, known as Dinogad’s Smock, could easily have been lost to history. It’s found scribbled in the middle of a rather serious and dramatic work known as Y Gododdin, which is a series of elegies mourning a whole generation of eastern Scottish* warriors lost in a battle some time between c.570 and 600CE. Scholars can tell by the way it’s written that it’s not meant to be part of the Gododdin story. It seems that Dinogad’s Smock was a popular rhyme probably scrawled in the margin of a very old manuscript of Y Gododdin, and it found its way into the body text by accident when the whole thing was copied years later.
There’s a lot of debate about the exact date of Y Gododdin, and hence Dinogad’s Smock, but the general opinion is that Y Gododdin was composed by the bard, Aneirin, at about the time of the disastrous battle in c. 570-600CE. They were probably originally sung rather than read, because few people could read, and the music helped people commit it to memory. As literacy spread in the following centuries, these old songs were written down and the popular ones were updated each time someone made a copy. But some old-fashioned phrases and words were kept as they were part of the character of the piece – think about the Temptations’ My Girl and The Drifters’ Sweets for my Sweet. Now, if any modern girl was called any of those things they’d laugh their way into next week, but they date the composition of these songs firmly to the 1960s. In a similar way, scholars have decided that Dinogad’s Smock probably really is 1400 years old2.
Locating Dinogad’s Smock to Cumbria took a long time. The earliest Book Of Aneirin is kept in Cardiff Library, which is hardly surprising given that it’s written in Old/Middle Welsh. But, of course, Welsh wasn’t a language restricted to one corner of Britain 1400 years ago: we all spoke our own variant of it. The link to Cumbria is the mention of the Rhaeadr Derwennydd, or Derwent waterfall. There are about ten river names in Britain derived from the same root (it just means water flowing through an oak wood) – including four that are actually called ‘Derwent’ – in Cumbria, Derbyshire, Northumberland and Yorkshire. The give-away in the end was a survey completed by a resourceful academic3 who established by the simple expedient of writing to all the country’s water authorities that the only Derwent that has a waterfall is the Cumbrian one.
The Derwent’s waterfall is now famous to tourists worldwide as the Lodore Falls, which still crash picturesquely through woodland just south of the lake of Derwentwater, at the head of Borrowdale. Up the slope from the Lodore Falls is a wooded area known as Hogs’ Earth – is this the place that Dinogad’s daddy went hunting for boar? – and above that, a hill called Castle Crag.
This part of the central Lake District is thinly populated now with barely a tea room or country pub to interrupt the view, but it has always been inhabited. The Lodore Falls are at the foot of Ashness Fell, which is next door to Castlerigg fell, site of a very famous and very beautiful neolithic stone circle. Castle Crag’s name isn’t just a romantic fancy, either – there is archaeological evidence of settlement from the iron age and post Roman period. That’s Dinogad’s time, and it’s not entirely bonkers to suggest that this is where Dinogad, his singing mother and his hunting father, looked after a significant part of the centre of Rheged.
The final irony of Dinogad’s lullaby ending up in Y Gododdin is that recent opinion4 suggests that the Scottish* Gododdin people were fighting not the north-eastern Angles, as was thought for years, but an alliance of their fellow ‘Welsh’-speaking Britons led by Urien of Rheged. That would mean that Dinogad’s daddy was, in fact, one of the warriors on the winning side of the slaughter of the Gododdin in that dreadful 6th century battle.
Special note: My thanks to Tim Clarkson, author of The Men of the North, a book on this period and area, for drawing my attention to Dinogad’s Smock. Tim is kind enough to take an interest in this blog and thought my Cumbrian readers would like to hear about baby Dinogad; he provided many of the sources for background and analysis. Tim remains undecided as to whether Rheged really is Cumbria, but supports the identification of the Derwent waterfall with the Lodore in Cumbria. He points out that, given the ongoing uncertainty about the identification of Rheged as Cumbria (and hence of Taliesin’s work with Cumbria), Dinogad’s Smock is the earliest certain Cumbrian poem. That’s quite grand for that 6th century baby, isn’t it?
Further note: Professor Andrew Breeze, who recently lectured on The Names of Rheged for the Dumfries & Galloway Natural History & Antiquarian Society, is a key proponent of the Lodore Falls theory. I am thankful to Tim and his band of commenters – including the professor – for drawing this to my attention.
*Further note: Jonathan (below) points out, rightly, that my use of the word, ‘Scottish’ is anachronistic. The Gododdin people spoke a variety of Welsh, as we did here, too, and we would have had rather more in common than perhaps my use of the word, ‘Scottish’ implied. It simply refers to modern geography. There was no Scotland at this time.
- See p117 of A. Conran’s Welsh Verse (1986). As copyright applies to translation, I’m struggling to find a version that I can produce in full for you. Tony Conran’s is the most obviously poetic, but a more scholarly translation can be found in AOH Jarman’s Aneirin: Y Gododdin (Llandysul: Gomer Press), pp68-9.
- See discussions in John Koch, The Gododdin on Aneirin: Text and Context from Dark Age North Britain (1997). Kenneth Jackson, Language and history in early Britain (1953), AOH Jarman, Aneirin: Y Gododdin (1988).
- R. Geraint Gruffydd (1990), ‘Where was Rhaeadr Derwennydd (Canu Aneirin, Line 1114)?‘, pp 261-6 in ATE Matonis and Daniel F Melia (eds), Celtic Language, Celtic Culture: a Festschrift for Eric P Hamp (Van Nuys, Californita: Ford & Bailie).
- John Koch, The Gododdin on Aneirin: Text and Context from Dark Age North Britain (1997).