Kenneth MacAlpin, "the Hardy"

KING KENNETH 1 (843-858) "Kenneth the Hardy"



Kenneth Mac Alpin is generally considered the first king the united Scots of Dalriada and the Picts, and so of Scotland, north of a line between the Forth and Clyde rivers.

Ancient Gaelic-speaking people of northern Ireland settled in western Scotland sometime in the 5th century AD. Originally (until 10th century) "Scotia" often denoted Ireland, and the inhabitants Scotia were Scoti. [This is of course based upon the area of Ireland where the Scoti dwelt]. This ancient Dalriadic land, later the area of Argyll and Bute, where these Scots settled, became known as the kingdom of Dal Riada the counterpart to Dal Riata in Ireland. St. Columba introduced them to Christianity and helped raise one person, Aidan, to the kingship Scottish Dalriada in 574.

Footprint in Stone, Dunadd
[Footprint, Dunadd]
The original seat of the Scottish Dalriada is thought to be Dunadd, in north Lochgilphead, Argyll. The dark age fortifications on top of the isolated crag of Dunadd, on the edge of the Crinan Moss, were probably the capital of the ancient kingdom of Dalriada. Dalriada was established by Irish immigrants, or raiders, from county Antrim, Ireland around 500 AD., although Scottish raiders had been coming to these shores since circa 330 AD. The site now consists of a series of eroded terraces which, from three separate excavations, have shown evidence of metal-working, including many beautiful brooches, making it consistent with its interpretation of a royal residence of the first Kings of Dalriada. Interestingly, below the summit, on one of the lower terraces are a rock carving of a boar, (an ancient Celtic spiritual symbol, also found in Gaul) an enigmatic description in ogam, and the outline of a footprint! All this seems to indicate that not only was this spot a place of ancient Dalriada, but possibly the place of original inauguration of ancient kings.

This is echoed by the later inauguration of the Lords of the Isles, whose own inauguration ceremonies at Finlaggan on Islay purposely recalled the kings of Dalriada. Other centres of this ancient seat, (seemingly to be connected with the tribute of grains), are at locations of other ancient royal forts, notably: Dunollie (Oban), Tarbert and Dunaverty (Kintyre).

Map of Scottish Dalriada

[Ancient DalRiada]
They then expanded eastward into what came to be known as the Forest of Atholl and Strathearn (from the river Earn) and northward into the area of Elgin. The union of the lands of modern Scotland began in 843, when Kenneth MacAlpin, then King of the Dalriada, became also king of the Picts and Scots (within a few years, joined "Pict-land" to "Scot-land" to form the kingdom of Alba). By 1034, by inheritance and warfare the Scots had secured hegemony over not only Alba but also Lothian, Cumbria, and later Strathclyde--roughly the territory of modern mainland Scotland, except for the far north and the western Isles. In the 12th century the kingdom was divided into Scotland, Lothian, and Galloway; later Scotland came to be the name for the whole land, and all its inhabitants came to be known as Scots, whatever their origin. The 11th century Duan Albanach, Scotland's earliest Gaelic poem, still gives the country this name, and it remains the Gaelic term for Scotland to this day. But 'Scotland' superceded it in the new language of the Lowland administration, whilst Alba (Albany) was relegated to the title of a royal dukedom in 1398.

Ciniodh (Kenneth) MacAlpin, known aslo as "Kenneth the Hardy", was believed born around the year 810 AD, but later took the Christian name of Kenneth. His father, Alpin MacEochaid, was king of Scots in name only, as at that time some of the area around Dalriada was actually ruled by the Picts of Caledonia.

His mother is said to have been either a daughter of Achalas, King of Argyllshire or a princess of the royal lines of the Picts. In either case, he was born into a strong royal bloodline. On his father's side he could lay claim as righful heir to the throne of Dalriada and his mother's bloodline gave him the right to petition for the throne of South Pictland, or Caledonia, to use the Roman term.

Mac Alpin
[Kenneth MacAlpin]
Little is known about his father Alpin although, according to tradition, he took advantage of the Viking raids of early 830's to lead a revolt against the Caledonians. (More on this in Scottish Origins). In 836, after some early success during which he possibly destroyed Galloway, Alpin son of Eochaid the Venomous , virtually the last of the Dalriadic Scottish kings, fell near Laicht Castle, on the ridge which separated Kyle from Galloway, supposedly killed by a single man who lay in wait in a thick wood overhanging the entrance of the ford of a river. He was succeeded by his son Kenneth.

The Picts victory over Alpin MacEochaid only earned them the right to face the Vikings in battle. A battle they had to be somewhat concerned about, for the Vikings had suffered very few defeats in this century to anyone. They were defeated by the Norsemen in a fierce battle but had not been destroyed.

After Kenneth had ruled his father's land for only a few years, the Vikings struck at the Picts and Scots in 839. It was an odd battle. The Scots were engaged in a losing battle against a branch of the southern Picts still resisting the Scoto-Pictish union; the Vikings watching to see the outcome. When the Scots withdrew the Vikings promptly attacked the Picts delivering a serious defeat to the Southern Picts. The Scots managed to escape to fight another day. The outcome was a disaster for the Picts. This was described by the Irish annalists as a battle between the Gentiles and the men of Fortren. According to tradition, Fortren was the new name given to the combined kingdoms of the Scots and Picts. In the great slaughter that ensued, Eoganan son of Oengus, his brother and successor, and many others were killed. After this battle, the warrior and royal class of the Picts was so severely depleted that they never again offered any serious threat to Vikings or Scots for control of their country. In an unintentional way, the Vikings had helped the Scots rule the Picts y so weaking them.

By Pictish marriage custom, inheritance passed through female (matriarchal descent) and Kenneth's maternal ancestry probably provided some claim to the Caledonian throne, to which now he applied himself.

Though a marriage to the daughter of Constantine (his second cousin) increased his standing, his petition was not accepted during the next four ascensions of the Caledonian Crown. Now Kenneth's sovereignty of Dalriada was regarded as an obstacle to his becoming Ard-righ (High King) of Alban just as there is was sometimes a tendency to prevent the merging of two ancient noble families or houses. The Pictish nobles seem to have resisted his claim and it appears to have taken several years for Kenneth to gain rule over all of the Picts. In the reign of Drust, the last Pictish King of Caledonia, it is said that Kenneth planned and executed an episode that is now known as 'MacAlpins treason'.

Less than eight years had passed since the disastrous defeat by the Vikings in c. 839 and Caledonian rule was still greatly weakened. The country was largely occupied by Viking forces, and he could not mount any serious challenge to their forced authority. It was in those conditions, c. 847 AD, that Kenneth invited the seven remaining Mormaers (Earls) of Caledonia to court to discuss his claim to the throne. According to legend, a great banquet was held at Scone which had become the sacred centre of Pictavia, and the guests were plied with food and wine. Late in the evening, after the guests - including Drust the King - were sufficiently inebriated, they were attacked and slaughtered by Kenneth's men in a scene right from a Shakespearean tragedy and treachery. This is but one version of "MacAlpin's Treason", of which, as with many oral traditions, there are many. One version of the story tells of the benches, on which the mormears were seated, being pulled out from under them, dropping them into a killing pit. Such was the way of Kings of Scotland in this era.

Kenneth cleared the way for his claim to the throne of Caledonia and was crowned not long after in the Pictish monastery of Scone on the ancient Stone of Destiny. This traditions exists, to the present day, the Coronation Stone for all the British monarchs, becoming King of the Picts as well as the Scots (although officially there is only a king/queen of all Britian). The Stone of Destiny (or Scone) has a sacred, religious and ceremonial heritage to the Scots dating back to the 6th - 7th century when the stone, then called the Li Fail and once used to crown the Irish kings at Tara. Allegedly, the stone was brought by Fergus (MacErc) to Dalriada. There are a great many legends about the origins of the stone, but despite the legendary claims it seems to have been quite an indigenous rock. Over time it became known as the Stone of Scone, in reference to its new location in Scone. (The seat of Alba). Kenneth MacAlpin, now king of the Scots and the Picts, and the whole of Scotland north of the Forth and Clyde established Alba, the first united kingdom in Scotland. Its territory ranged from modern Argyll and Bute to the north, across much of southern and central Scotland. Alba was one of the few areas in the British Isles to withstand the invasions of the Vikings, although they did suffer terrible defeats. The ancient link with Ireland (from which the Celtic Scots had emerged) was eventually broken as a cordon of Scandinavian settlements was established in the Western Isles, the far north of Scotland, and Ireland. With southern England also conquered by the Norsemen, (the Saxons called them all generically Danes), Alba was left isolated.

Moot Hill
[Moot Hill]
Kenneth and his successors waged many wars against the English and the Norsemen who continually raided the coasts and threatened the independence of Scotland. The early capital of King Kenneth was at Dunkeld, which was later enlarged to hold the remnants of Saint Columba. It was not long after his accession to the kingship of the unitied Picts and Scots that the capital of the kingdom was moved to Scone, where the historic "Moot Hill" became from then forward the legal center of all Scotland, as it had previously been of Pictland.

Kenneth has a skillful reputation in politics as well as warfare, at a time when being a successful warrior was the only way to hold on to power. It is said that he was proclaimed king at Scone, a masterstroke as this was in the centre of Pictish territory, and brought with him the Stone of Destiny.

Map of Ancient Alba

[Ancient DalRiada]
He ruled until his death as Kenneth I, King of Alba, the New Kingdom created by the combination of the two previous nations. During this time he seems to have made some further conquests against factions of the resisting Picts and possibly invaded Lothian, Dunbar and Melrose. After attacks on Iona by Vikings he removed relics of St. Columba, probably in 849 or 850, to Dunkeld, which became the headquarters of the Scottish Columban church.

Kenneth I died in 858, near Scone in Pictish territory, and was buried on the island of Iona. Upon his death in c. 858, his brother Donald became King and ruled as a member of the House of Alpin. Kenneth MacAlpin was the founder of the dynasty that ruled Scotland for centuries.

It is considered unlikely that Kenneth was ever "crowned" king in the modern understanding of the sense of a coronation. He certainly did not get the Papal blessing, as this did not happen to a Scottish king until 1329. But certainly he was the King of Picts and Scots even if these ceremonies were altogether different than we know today. Kenneth's importance in Scottish history lies in the fact that he is traditionally seen as the monarch who became the first to unite the Picts and Scots.

Due to an absence of written records, it remains unclear what happened to the Picts after this time. Apart from their ornately carved stones, jewellery, and a few (possible) graves and settlement sites, the Pictish culture vanishes from history. The future of the land was now Scottish. However it is important not to underplay the importance of the Picts and their effects and contributions to Scottish history and culture. They didn't simply disappear, but were assimilated into a culture known henceforth as Scots, not Picts. The Picts, genetically speaking, are still very present in the blood of most all Scots.

As usual with early history there is more than a touch of myth and legend surrounding him. It isn't wholly accurate to say that he united the Picts and Scots for the first time, as several kings had already done so. The significance of Kenneth's reign is that after him the Picts and Scots stayed united. Nevertheless, he remains one of the most important of early Scottish rulers and the most important leader of a young and struggling nation.


İSkye-Net, R.M. Gunn, 1999/2009


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