Hammerhead Preview: the Battle of Dunnichen, 685 CE

The Hammerhead wargames show is being held on Saturday 5th March at Newark Showground, UK, and, as usual, I’ve been busy preparing a game for the day. Hammerhead is unique for the UK in that every single game in the show is a participation game; it’s an inclusive and rather wonderful opportunity to go and try out new systems or learn existing ones from experienced gamers. The last Hammerhead (March 2020) was the final show before Covid hit the UK so this one will undoubtedly be something special. You can find full details if you click the link above.

If you follow the blog, you won’t have missed the fact that I’ve recently been doing lots of Dark Ages gaming, encouraged by a visit to Northumbria last year, Wiglaf Miniatures’ offerings and reading Matthew Harffy’s Bernicia Chronicles novels. Plus, it’s in the blood really; if I had to choose one period to game over all others, it would be Early Medieval.

I’ve also been busy developing my own Midgard rules which we’re going to be using for the game at the show. Midgard is probably best described as a ‘narrative heroic battle’ game, in which tactics are important but the mighty deeds of heroes make the difference between victory and defeat. Using it, we have played games ranging from Greek mythology, Tolkien-based Middle-earth and the Wars of the Roses, but it’s absolutely ideal for this period of the Dark Ages where individual leaders could – and did – lead by example and reputation.

Which conveniently brings us on to this year’s game. It’s based on the Battle of Dunnichen (also known as Nechtansmere) that occurred on May 20th, 685 CE. The simple facts are that Ecgfrith, King of Northumbria, took a raiding party into Pictish territory and was slain by the Pictish forces of his cousin, Bridei mac Bili. The details of exactly what happened have been hypothesised by many researchers and historians – was it a Pictish ambush or did the Saxons seek battle? Does the mysterious Aberlemno stone depict a Biblical event, or does it show Pictish spearmen defeating Northumbrian mounted warriors in this historic battle? Much ink (and ale) have been spilled debating these very issues, and more than one range of miniature Picts has been based on the carvings shown here, some of which you will see in the armies in play.

Scene from the Aberlemno Stone – is this Picts fighting the Northumbrians?

I have chosen a course somewhere between the two for this scenario: Ecgfrith and his Saxon vanguard have become separated from his thegn, Berct, and his hearthguard. Facing a gathering host of hostile Picts, the Northumbrians have sensibly dismounted and taken up position on the slopes of a hill while waiting for Berct to turn up.

Can the Picts storm the position and kill Ecgfrith, or will reinforcements arrive in time for the King of the Northumbrians to save his reputation and make good his escape?

If you’d like to come and play the scenario, we’ll be running the game several times during the day. Games will last around 90 minutes but could be longer with all the inevitable chatter. Multiple players per side are to be encouraged to achieve the appropriate atmosphere of heroic competition!

Bridei’s Pictish cavalry – a mixture of different generations of Gripping Beast miniatures.

You can find us at GA04 inside the main hall at Hammerhead – see map below – and watch out for the black t-shirts (original, I know) with a natty Midgard scene on the front. Tom, myself and Martin look forward to seeing you there.

Find us at stand GA04 – through the main entrance and turn left. We’re near the cafe!

THE COMMANDERS

Being a heroic game, it’s important to know your leaders – and your enemies – before going in to battle. The opposing commanders – Ecgfrith and Bridei – were actually cousins, despite ruling different kingdoms. The Early Medieval world was far more inter-connected than you might think!

NORTHUMBRIAN LEADERS

King Ecgfrith of Northumbria, depicted wearing a version of the famous Coppergate Helmet recovered in York. Forty years old at the time of the battle, he was a renowned warrior who had already beaten the Picts in a battle in 671. Ecgfrith and his horn blower are Black Tree Designs miniatures; his standard bearer is from Gripping Beast. All shields and banners have been painted by hand.
Berct, Thegn of Northumbria. Berct is a historical figure who was clearly close to Ecgfrith and a trusted commander. We don’t actually know if he was present at Dunnichen but it seems likely.
Cerdic, Thegn of Northumbria. This fellow is a fictional character – one of Ecgfrith’s hard men (so hard he doesn’t need a helmet). OOP Tanatus Miniatures Saxons.
Wulfhere, Champion of Northumbria. An awesome Gripping Beast sculpt from many years back.
Berct’s Saxon cavalry – hopefully riding to the rescue! These are a mixture of Gripping Beast and Crusader Miniatures.

PICTISH LEADERS

Bridei mac Bili, King of the Picts, with an advisor and bodyguard. All Gripping Beast miniatures.
Drust, Champion of Bridei, bearer of the deadliest blade in Pictland. He managed to deck Ecgfrith in one of our play test battles and Cerdic in another – a dangerous fellow indeed! Both Black Tree Designs miniatures.
Erp, Chieftain of the Picts. A Black Tree leader with a standard bearer by Gripping Beast.
Talorcan, Pictish Chieftain with his retinue. The hornblower is an Old Glory figure, the other two are Gripping Beast.

7 thoughts on “Hammerhead Preview: the Battle of Dunnichen, 685 CE

  1. Damn! I know i’ve said it before but I’m going to say it again; i dearly wish I could make it down! This game is going to be something so please take a stack of pictures! 🙂

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  2. This looks absolutely gorgeous, well done you and I hope it is well received at the show. Unfortunately we have had to cancel our own appearance due to surgery so can’t see it person but will keep an eye out for the future.

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