Forests on Early Medieval Kingdom Boundaries

Atlas of Finn mac Cumaill's Places Project Icon ‌ 

Professor Elizabeth FitzPatrick © 2018

The Atlas of Finn mac Cumaill’s Places makes a case for discrete cultural spaces on the boundaries of early medieval kingdoms that served some of the essential roles of forests for kings and later lords in Ireland and Scotland. (See: The Royal Forest of Arran: landscape and legend) It is shown that such ‘forests’ are encoded in hunting-related terminology and place-names used in the Gaelic Finn Cycle of Tales (fianaigecht). Where identified, they have distinctive topographies and prehistoric cores and may have had roles in boundary formation at the inception of territories and subsequently in boundary maintenance and power display.
 View looking north across Pollardstown Fen to Suidhe Finn on Almhain, County Kildare.
View looking north across Pollardstown Fen to Suidhe Finn on Almhain, County Kildare. Almhain is the legendary abode of Finn mac Cumaill. It was the landmark of historically important threshold lands of the provincial kings of Leinster that included the Chair of Kildare Hills, Pollardstown Fen, the Curragh Plain, Feighcullen and the Bog of Allen (image: Elizabeth FitzPatrick).

Royal forests are known from continental Europe as early as the seventh century. The term forest, from Latin forestis, meaning ‘outside’, refers in the judicial sense to land that was outside of the law and in the possession of a ruler. Forests were often sizeable land-blocks preserved for elite hunting and for the exploitation of natural resources including stone, mineral and metal ores, timber and pasture. The long-standing position on forests in Ireland and Britain is that since there is no historical evidence for early medieval Gaelic, Anglo-Saxon or Pictish kings having established forest law, forests did not exist before the Norman Conquest. However, this position has been challenged for Anglo-Saxon England by Rollason (2016, 145) who has found that ‘pre-Conquest English palaces were already set in or near the sort of areas that would later be called forest’.  Furthermore, some forests may have had their beginnings in the Roman saltus – an area of unappropriated wilderness (wood, mountain, marsh, pasture) over which a ruler was normally lord (Carlà 2013, 1), and perhaps earlier in Iron Age sacred woodland (Rollason 2016, 147). Research on forests in Anglo-Norman Ireland (1169-1399) has been undertaken by Beglane (2018) who suggests that they were largely exploited for venison and timber. The work of the Atlas project (FitzPatrick and Hennessy 2017) demonstrates that several later medieval English-controlled forests have their ancestry in earlier boundary lands of Gaelic territories that are associated in place-names with the legendary warrior-hunter and border hero Finn mac Cumaill. However, the basis and role of those land-blocks for early medieval rulers appears to have been much broader than hunting, including functions such as, assembly, battle, boundary maintenance and power display.

Place-Names and Topographical Indicators
There is no hunting manual for medieval Ireland like Livre de Chasse or Master of Game. However, knowledge of hunting places and practices are encoded in the Finn Cycle of Tales. Finn and his fían or wild band are central figures in the literature and oral tradition of Gaelic-speaking peoples. Finn (Old Irish find) from the Indo-European root windo-/vindo- reads as ‘knows, finds out’ (Wagner 1970) and also ‘white’ (Sims-Williams 2006). While some scholars have viewed Finn as a reflex of a possible Celtic god, Windos, others advise that Finn is not a supernatural being and that there is no convincing evidence for the cult of a god Windos among the Continental Celts (Carey 2002). However, an explanation is required for the thirty or more places (among them Celtic settlements that became major Roman border forts) in the greater continental European landscape that have the root vindo- in their place-names. Examples of these are Vindobona (Vienna, Austria), Vindonissa (Windisch, Switzerland), Vindilis (Belle-Île-en-Mer, Brittany) and Bou-Vinda (Boyne Valley, County Meath). The archaeology and territorial geography of Finn-named places in the Gaelic-speaking world may help to shed some light on the significance of vindo- places in Continental Europe.

 Carn Seefin, Keeraunnageeragh Mountain, Connemara
Carn Seefin on Keeraunnageeragh Mountain in Connemara (Pl. I) lies between Ordovician granite and older Dalradian metamorphic rocks that host copper and gold pyrite, chalcopyrite, sulphur and lead, among a range of other minerals, all of which has been mined in the modern period. The mountain and its lowland skirt lie within the Screebe Estate, which is home to a herd of red deer (image: Paul Naessens). 

Named places in fíanaigecht where Finn and his fían hunt and access the Otherworld, and landscapes onto which Finn-related place-names were layered, had a reality as royal marchlands of Gaelic kingdoms. The principal topographical indicator of an early medieval royal ‘forest’ in the Gaelic world is a notable hill or low mountain, usually characterised by a very bare or sparsely vegetated summit and upper slopes. A mix of river or lake, marsh, fen, bog, rough pasture and woodland is typically found in the lowland skirt. The place-name Formaoil (‘very bare’) is commonly used of these landforms, but not exclusively so, as other locations that share their characteristics are recorded by their proper names and sometimes by an over-layering of different legendary and mythological figures (e.g. Almhain, Co. Kildare, Benn Étair, Co. Dublin and Cruachain Brí Éle, Co. Offaly). Formaoil is conveyed in the Finn Cycle as Finn’s domain – an in-between place outside of society – which mirrors the marginal geography of real forests. The resources of forests included everything they could provide, from pasture to timber, honey, building stone, mineral and metal ores. Preliminary investigation of the resource potential of Finn mac Cumaill’s places indicates that several of them are endowed with useful earth materials (FitzPatrick and Hennessy 2017).

Place-Names and Archaeological Indicators
A cairn or mound on the summit of a landmark hill or low mountain, contrived in fianaigecht as the point from which Finn observes the hunt, is particularly emblematic of these places. Monument names such as Suidhe Finn (Finn’s Seat) and Carn an Fhéinneda (Mound of the Fían) were applied to them. Together with the hills and mountains on which they are situated, they were the most visually obvious expression of a king’s marchland and perhaps used to announce the presence of a royal ‘forest’. In Ireland there are thirty-seven instances of the place-name Suidhe Finn and variants of it. A little over half of those are distinguished by cairns or mounds. Typical examples include, Cnoc Suidhe Finn (Pallasgrean, Co. Tipperary), Carn Suidhe Finn (Keeraunageeragh Mountain, Connemara) and Suidhe Finn (Clomantagh, Co. Kilkenny).

 Croghan Hill, Co. Offaly
The great mound of Cruachain Brí Éle on the summit of volcanic Croghan Hill in north County Offaly features in The Boyhood Deeds of Finn  (image: Elizabeth FitzPatrick). 

The threshold lands or ‘forests’ of Gaelic rulers are palimpsests in archaeological terms, generally with complexes of prehistoric monuments at their cores. The obvious medieval practice in these places, of layering in mnemonics of boundary generation, such as, ferta, ogham stones, early Christian churches, battle sites, assembly venues, hunting installations, household lands, was almost certainly a means of preserving the memory and pedigree of key boundary places. Those that maintained their importance through time are often distinguished in their latest manifestations by major country house demesnes incorporating deer parks. 

 Knockseefin at Pallasgrean, Co. Limerick map II
Among the archaeological monuments
of the volcanic hill of Knockseefin and
its lowland skirt at Pallasgrean,
County Limerick are the summit mound
of Suidhe Finn, a complex of ring-barrows
and a late deer park
(image: Ronan Hennessy).

Project Funding
Royal Society of Edinburgh, European Visiting Research Grant (2018-19)


  • 2017 (with R. Hennessy) Finn’s Seat: topographies of power and royal marchlands of Gaelic polities in medieval Ireland. Landscape History 38:2, 29-62.
  • 2015 (with R. Hennessy, P. Naessens and J.F. Nagy) Decoding Finn Mac Cumaill’s Places.  Archaeology Ireland 29:3, 2015, 26–31.
  • 2013 Formaoil na Fiann: hunting preserves and assembly places in Gaelic Ireland. Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 32, 95-118.


  • 2018 Finn’s wilderness place and boundary landforms in medieval Ireland. In, Egeler, M. (ed.), Landscape and Myth in Northwestern Europe (Brepols).  
  • 2018 (with P. Naessens) Medieval boundary landscapes and hunting places in fianaigecht. In, Arbuthnot, S., Ní Mhurchú, S. and Parsons, G. (eds), Proceedings of the Second International Finn Cycle Conference.  

Recent International Lectures 
Gaelic Medieval Landscape Identity and Imagined Cultural Space in Fíanaigecht. Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University. 14-16 March 2018.

Institute of Archaeology, Oxford. Early Medieval Topographies of Power: England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, day-seminar, 7 February 2017.

Institute of Archaeology, Oxford. Wilderness and Territorial Boundaries in Medieval Ireland, 27 February 2017. Celtic Studies, Oxford. Wilderness People: Learned Families of the Gaelic Court 1200-1600, 23 February 2017.

University College London Institute of Archaeology and British Museum Seminars, London. Wilderness and Territorial Boundaries in Medieval Ireland, 13 December 2016.

The Eleventh Annual Angus Matheson Lecture, Glasgow University. Finn mac Cumaill’s Places: Boundaries and Natural Resources in the Gaelic World, 29 November 2016.

Institut für Nordische Philologie, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Wilderness in the Mythical Tales and Real-World Landscapes of Finn mac Cumaill. Landscape and Myth in North-Western Europe, 6-8 April 2016.

 Research Finn 2
Dr Ronan Hennessy and Dr Paul Naessens on the cairn of Carn Suidhe Fhinn, Keeraunageeragh Mountain, Connemara (image: E. FitzPatrick).