Áedán (c.534–606/9), son of Gabrán and king of Dál Riata, belonged to the lineage of Cenél nGabráin and had at least one brother, Éoganán (d. 597). His father, Gabrán son of Domangart, reigned as king of Dál Riata c.538–558. His mother, said to have been Fedelm daughter of Fedelmid king of Uí Fhiachrach Aidni, is also represented as the mother of Brandub (qv), overking of Leinster; one tradition claims, rather improbably, that a tribute levied on Brandub was remitted by Áedán due to the intervention of their mother. The names of Áedán's wives do not survive, but he apparently had six or seven sons: Artúr, Domangart, Bran, Eochaid Finn and Eochaid Buide (if these are not duplicates), Conaing, and (probably) Gartnait. The personal names of his sons display a curious mixture of Gaelic, British, Pictish, and Anglo-Saxon influences. Áedán also had at least one daughter, Maithgemm, who became the mother of St Laisrén (qv), alias Mo-Laisse, of Lethglenn (Leighlin). Áedán was about 40 years of age when he became king (574) in succession to his cousin Conall son of Comgall – the man who had granted Iona to Colum Cille (qv). In his late-seventh-century ‘Vita Columbae’ (iii, §5), Adomnán (qv) claims that the saint ‘ordained’ Áedán as king of Dál Riata; it is said that he had wished to choose Áedán's brother Éoganán, but obeyed the orders of an angel who showed him an enamelled book with the names of all future kings of Dál Riata.
From the date of his accession, the chronology of Áedán's reign is somewhat problematic. At the time, Dál Riata was considered a sub-kingdom of the province of Ulaid, as the dynasty's original realm was in north Co. Antrim. Accordingly, the overking of Ulaid, Báetán (qv) son of Cairell, exacted hostages from Áedán; it seems that they were handed over at a meeting at Island Magee in Antrim, but it is not clear when this happened. Subsequently, Áedán attended the convention of Druim Cett (near Limavady, Co. Londonderry) at which Colum Cille and the Cenél Conaill king of Tara, Áed (qv) son of Ainmere (qv), were present. The purpose of this meeting, as interpreted by most contemporary historians, was the formation of an alliance against the overking of Ulaid. The annals record the convention at 575, but persuasive arguments have been advanced to the effect that it should be placed somewhat later, perhaps c.590. As Áedán's adversary Báetán died in 581, the Ulaid overking against whom the alliance was directed was probably the powerful Fiachnae Lurgan (qv). Apparently it was agreed that, while the Irish portion of Dál Riata was subject to the king of Tara, Áedán's kingdom in Scotland should be independent, although the Dál Riata fleet was still obliged to serve his Irish overlord when required. Áedán was strictly warned by Colum Cille (according to the saint's earliest biographer, Cumméne Find (qv)), not to break this alliance. It seems clear that Áedán was closely involved in ecclesiastical circles and enjoyed considerable status. However, the claim that he was the subject of an appeal by Berach (qv) of Cluain Coirpthe when, according to the latter's Life (§14), he was threatened by druids, is probably to be explained in the light of the saint's alleged Dál Riata parentage.
Áedán pursued an expansionist policy against the various peoples of northern Britain. This involved aggressive action, punctuated with alliances sealed by marriage agreements. In 580/81, Áedán launched an expedition to Orkney; on balance it seems more likely that this action was taken against, rather than in support of, the king of the Picts. His victory in a battle on the Isle of Man (583) has been interpreted by some as an attempt to expel Ulaid colonists. Relations with the Picts were apparently stabilised when Gartnait, probably a son of Áedán, succeeded in the right of his mother to the Pictish overkingship c.584. Gartnait was in turn the father of a certain Cano (qv), whose identity has been absorbed into that of the fictional hero of ‘Scéla Cano meic Gartnáin’. Nonetheless, further action by Áedán against the petty kingdoms of central Scotland led to the battle of Lethríg (589), and to a campaign against the Miathi the following year, which saw the death of his son Artúr (and perhaps also Eochaid Finn, if Adomnán, i, §8, is correct). Áedán campaigned against the British of Strathclyde with some degree of success; they gave him a Welsh nickname, bradawc (the wily).
Turning against the Angles of Northumbria, presumably because these were now pressing hard upon the realms of south-eastern Scotland, Áedán fought at least two unsuccessful battles. Two of his sons, Domangart and Bran, were killed by the Angles, but it is not clear whether they fell in an engagement in 598 or in the great battle of Degsastan (603). That year, Áedán invaded Northumbria; his allies in this ill-fated venture included the Cenél nÉogain dynast Máel-umai son of Báetán (qv) (d. 572), whose brother Colmán Rímid (qv) laid claim to the kingship of Tara. They were heavily defeated at Degsastan (perhaps in Liddesdale, or in the Tweed valley), although the Irish managed to kill Eanfrith, brother of the Northumbrian king Ethelfrith. Áedán died in 606/9, being almost 75, and having reigned for thirty-five years. He found his place in Irish saga, featuring prominently in the eighth-century tale ‘Compert Mongáin’. He was succeeded in the kingship of Scottish Dál Riata, as allegedly prophesied by Colum Cille, by his son Eochaid Buide (d. 629/31), from whom descended most of the later kings of the Cenél nGabráin lineage.