There is an assumption that the Caer Ruthers (Fort of Rydderch) we take our name from was in some way associated with Rydderch Hael the Brythonic king of Strathclyde, who lived in and around the latter stages of the 6th Century.
However, archaeological evidence would suggest that the ‘Fort’ may have been in situ at least 400 years earlier, backing up the theory that the Rydderch of ‘Caer Rydderch’ was not in fact Rydderch Hael, but someone else.
As we all know the name Carruthers came from the Brythonic language meaning Fort of Rydderch (Roderc). In the Cumbric dialect of the area, which is not dissimilar to ancient Welsh, the pronunciation would be spoken as Caer ‘Ruthers’ ie Car-Ruthers. It is from the land around this ancient ‘fortification’ that our name derives.
In Blacks book the ‘Surnames of Scotland’ he states about Carruthers: From the lands of Carruthers in the Parish of Middlebie, Dumfriesshire in local speech pronounced Cridders. Henderson (N.I p202) renders the place name Fort of Rydderch, the King Roderc of Adamnan, but Watson (William John Watson, Historian, published (1926) ‘Celtic Placenames of Scotland’ , professor of Celtic studies in the University of Edinburgh, 1865-1948.ed) more cautiously states “the second part is probably a personal name” (i,p. 368).
The family tome, the Records of the Carruthers Family by Stanley Carruthers and R C Reid, seems to agree with Watson where they suggest that the Ruther in the name does not suggest it was Rydderch Hael, king of Strathclyde, but rather ‘a leader of a small section of the Britons of Strathclyde who still maintained Christian traditions after the withdrawal of the Romans’.
John Gillespie on the other hand in his publication Carruthers Family-an interesting Record (1905), suggests; Ruther was believed to have come to the country at the time of the Norman conquest and settled in a place called Carruthers in the Parish of Middlebie. He built a fort on the heights above the site of the ancient hamlet of Carruthers (Birrens hill ed.) and the fort was given the name Caer Ruthers (from the Saxon name Caer for fort). But again, if the lands of Carruthers existed before the Norman conquest, then the fort itself had to have existed before then as well. And why use a Saxon term to describe the fort, rather than the word in the Scots/Old English language, which was spoken in the region at the time, and which actually called a fort, a fort?
Reading in the 1878 publication, the Historical Families of Dumfriesshire and the Border Wars, written by CL Johnston, there is a suggestion that Carruthers, along with many other Border families intermarried with Norman settlers. This could be true, but again would suggest that the people living on the land and therefore the place called Carruthers, existed well before 1066 and the Norman invasion by William the Conqueror.
The most agreed site for many reasons, is that it sat on Birrens Hill (also known as Carruthers Hill) in the parish of Middlebie and above the old parish of Carruthers.
Interestingly, the evidence on the ‘fort’ on Birrens hill seems to confirm that something ancient was on the there. This ‘structure’ has been described archeologically as; the remains of an enclosure likely to date to later prehistory (most probably the end of the first millennium BC or early centuries AD).
It also includes the remains of a later farmstead and the upper boundary dyke of a field system. The enclosure is subrectangular in shape with rounded corners and a probable entrance to the south. The later farmstead remains cluster at the South end of the enclosure and the boundary dyke follows the line of the enclosure’s East side.
The monument is located in rough pasture on the crest of Birrens Hill at about 250m above sea level. Birrens Hill is a ridge projecting south from Carruthers Fell and the monument has long views to the south over the Solway Plain. The Ordnance Survey 1st Edition map surveyed in the mid-19th century depicts the upstanding remains and labels the site as a ‘fort’. The 2nd Edition map also maps the upstanding remains, labelling the site ‘earthwork’.
Birrens Fort, as used by the Romans, is recorded in the Antonines Itinerary which is a register of the stations and distances along various Roman roads. The name derives from Brittonic (Welsh) roots and may mean ‘flowery hillock’ or ‘flowery hollow’. However, as there are granaries at the fort, Blatobulgium (the Roman name for it) may be a nickname meaning ‘Flour Sacks’ as it was located in the territory of a tribe named the Selgovae.
There have been more inscribed and sculptured stones found at Birrens than anywhere else in Scotland. An altar stone dedicated to the Celtic goddess Ricagambeda was found at Birrens.
It is now believed that the Rydderch of Caer Ruthers fame, was most likely not Rydderch Hael, but instead a local warlord of the Selgovae tribe, who lived above Hadrians wall during the early centuries AD in what was to become the kingdom of Caer-Guendoleu.
If this were the case, the name of Caer Ruthers, may be older than first thought, dating as far back as the 2nd or 3rd centuries AD.
Rydderch Hael and Old King Cole
The dating of the Birrens hill site would seem to exclude Rydderch Hael, king of Strathclyde as the owner of the ‘Fort”. Rydderch Hael ruled over a Brythonic kingdom, not Gael, which was established in the 5th Century after the Romans left Britain. The timing therefore calls his association with Caer Ruthers into doubt.
Furthermore, as king, his stronghold was in Dumbarton, the capital of the Brythonic Kingdom of Strathclyde. This is situated on the north bank of the river Clyde being at least 90 miles north west of Birrens hill using todays road network, a huge distance for anyone in those days to travel, and most certainly there is no evidence the capital of Strathclyde was ever in Annandale.
Historically, Rydderch Hael reigned around the mid 6th century, 400 years after the archaeological site of Caer Ruthers on Birren hill.
Even the nearby Burnswark hill, which is an alternative site for Caer Ruthers, shows that the Brythonic tribe who lived there, were moved on by the Romans after the death of the Emperor Hadrian and during Antonines assault on Caledonia in 120AD. It is thought that Burnswark hill may have been the opening shot of that campaign.
Did Rydderrch Hael give Carruthers land?
There is also a strange claim that Rydderch Hael ‘gave’ the land to the Carruthers as a gift. This is quite simply not supported by any evidence, historical facts nor any level of common sense.
Simplistically, the land of Carruthers was named after the area around where the fort of Caer Ruthers lay. Carruthers therefore existed only after the fort was built and the land was subsequently named after it. The family name, taken from that land, is recorded as first appearing as a surname in the early 1200’s. Surnames in Scotland were intially used by landowner ie ‘of Carruthers’ in the 12th and 13th centuries. Until then the ‘name’ of the family never existed.
Secondly, the lands of Carruthers, were lived on by the descendants of the Selgovae, whose lands it seemed had always belonged to them. This was before, during and after the reign of Rydderch Hael.
Old King Cole
Carruthers of Dormont have in the past suggested that family legend has us linked with Old King Cole (Coel Hen), who preceded Rydderch Hael by over 100 years or so. He was head of several post-Roman Brythonic Royal families of the Hen Ogledd (the “Old North” ) covering modern Northern England and Southern Scotland
Coel’s particular association with the north of Britain has led to the suggestion that he may actually have been the last of the Roman Duces Brittanniarum (Dukes of the Britons) with his headquarters at York. He certainly imposed his power over a great swathe of the country, and can be considered the first King in Northern Britain.
Clan Dunlop have this to say about him; Coel Hen (412-420), the Old King Cole of the nursery rhyme was king around the turn of the 5th Century, probably after the Roman withdrawal from Britain c. 412 AD. His capital was probably in either York or Trapain Law in Lothian. His territory included southern Scotland then known as Rheged. He went to war against the Scots and the Picts, fighting in Ayrshire at what is now known as Coylton. Ayrshire was probably at the northern limit of his territory.
Early versions of the nursery rhyme are Scottish; Robert Burns knew several. The Scots and the Picts were triumphant and King Coel was said to have drowned in a bog in Tarbolton c. 420. The capital would then move northwest to Ail-Cluathe (Alt Clut) and this became the capital of the Britons.
And there is this piece by them on Rydderch Hael: Rydderch Hael (560-612) is best known from the story as the king who threw his queen’s ring into the Clyde after discovering she was unfaithful to him. The distraught queen asked St. Mungo for help. The ring was found by St. Mungo inside a salmon and thus the queen was vindicated. Rydderch is also said to have possessed an Excalibur -like sword called Dyrnwyn.
Old Welsh legend has it that the sword could only be used by someone from noble birth and that it could also burst into flames! He also gave protection on his land to Merlin the druid, and had his Royal Palace at Patrick.
We know something of the Brythonic Royal family at this point. Just west of Yarrow, north of Ettrick, stands a stone with an inscription in Latin : Hic memoriae et bello insignisimi princi pes Nudi Dumnogeni hic iacent in tumulo duo filii liberalis translated as: ‘Here Nudos’ princely offspring rest, Dear to fame, in battle brave, Two sons of a bounteous sire, Dumnonians, in their grave.’ Inscribed in the latter sixth century it commemorates two sons of Nudd Hael of the royal house of Damnonia.
Accepting that the kings of Strathclyde had their seat in Dumbarton, near Glasgow, it seems that Rydderch Hael may not have actually been associated with ‘Carruthers/Caer Ruthers’ at all. The fact that Rydderch was not an uncommon name in the Cumbric dialect, it is more than feasible that the fort belonged to someone less prominent in the legendary and historical scheme of things and from a much earlier time.
To summarise, if either Birren or Burnswark hills were the site of Caer Ruthers, the former being considered the most likely due to its proximity to ‘Carruthers’, the ‘forts’ would both have existed before the reign of Rydderch Hael and in fact in place during the Roman occupation, who were there until 411 AD.
This would put Rydderch Hael squarely outside the archaeological timescale of the fort being built by him or his followers, and far more likely to have been built, whatever the structure, by a local tribal leader of the Selgovae in the 2nd – 3rd century AD.