Senchus fer nAlban

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Dating from the 7th Century, long before the Domesday Book, the Senchus fer nAlban (History of the men of Scotland) is Britain's earliest native census. It is a list of the population of Dál Riata, the Kingdom of the Gaels on the west coast of Scotland. At around only 70 lines of text, the Senchus is considerably shorter than Domesday; much shorter even than a modern census form and certainly shorter on detail. But then, it was created for a much simpler purpose.

While the modern census sets out to capture statistics to help target services and allocate budgets, Senchus fer nAlban had the opposite intent. Rather than asking what your country can do for you, it states what subjects should do for their country. This was a record for military and tax purposes.

The document divides Dál Riata into three groups, the Cenél nGabráin of Kintyre, the Cenél Lairnd based in Lorn and the Cenél nÓengusa who occupied the islands of Islay and Jura. It records the number of houses that make up each group and alongside these states their obligation for military service: For each it sets out that for every 20 houses they are to provide two seven-bench boats for sea expeditions.

Extract of text from Senchus fer nAlban. Image courtesy of the Board of Trinity College, Dublin
“Cenél Loairnd has four hundred and thirty houses, two seven-benchers every twenty houses in a sea expedition.”

The power at the centre of the kingdom was the fort at Dunadd, but the real heart of Dál Riata was the sea: It held the scattered island and coastal settlements together; it provided channels for trade with Ireland and mainland Europe and it was the route to new territories. For a kingdom based along the coastline, controlling the seas was vital. It’s easy to see why keeping a dependable record of naval resources was of such importance.

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While no census goes by without its accuracy being questioned, at least the date each was taken is known. But with no surviving original version of the Senchus, all academics have are later ‘versions’ of the document. It is thought to have been rewritten in the 10th Century. In turn, this later document formed the basis for the 14th Century version (pictured) housed at Trinity College, Dublin.

Genealogical text from Senchus fer nAlban. Image courtesy of the Board of Trinity College, Dublin
“Two sons of Eochaid Munremar. Ere and Orchu. Erc, moreover, had twelve sons. six of them took possession of Alba...”

The genealogy contained in the document appears a mix of truth and myth. The founding of Dál Riata is linked to Erc and Olchu, sons of Eochaird Munremar. While kings of Dál Riata, and even later rulers of Alba and Scotland were happy to trace their roots back to this line, records of these early rulers are sketchy. While the Senchus only mentions sons of Erc taking possession of Scotland, many have assumed that this possession was taken by force. This idea that Argyll was conquered by invaders from Ireland in the 5th Century has been challenged – archaeological evidence does not support any sudden change in the area at this time, rather a continuity in artefacts and buildings suggests much earlier links between Scotland and Ireland.

While which parts of the document are historical fact and which are fabrication is in doubt, one aspect of the Senchus is undoubtedly true. It demonstrates Dál Riata was a sophisticated society, with a level of centralised government far in advance of other parts of the British Isles.

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