Scottish Origins, Ch. 3 - Early Scottish history

Scottish Origins, Chapter 3.

Scottish Nationality & Kenneth the Hardy

By the middle of the 9th century the Norsemen had moved into the Pictish Kingdom. In the west they attacked the Scots of the Kingdom of Dalriada, who had expanded north into Argyll and Uist.

The Stone Destiny in English Throne

[Stone of Scone/Destiny]
The Scots/Picts capital near Dunstafnage near Oban, was threatened and under the leadership of Kenneth MacAlpin, the Scots moved inland, towards Scone on the East coast. The Vikings helped the Scots and southern Picts create an enlarged Kingdom called Alba, with Scone (pronounced Skoon), as its capital. On the Stone of Scone, Kenneth MacAlpin, already king of Scots, was made King of Picts. The famous stone had very religious and ceremonial ancestory to the Scots dating back to the 6th - 7th century when the stone was brought by Fergus to Dalriada to crown the Kings of Scots. This stone was stolen from the Scots by Edward I "longshanks" of England in the 1296. For centuries it was placed under the throne - pictured above left - of the English Monarch. It was finally returned to Scotland some 700 years later.

At this point in time, circa mid 9th century, the Scots themselves only represented 1/10 (10%) of Scotland's people. They became dominate through battle and marriage. The Celtic (pronounced Keltic) Scots passed Kingship down through the male line. The Celtic Picts, had a matriarcal system: by way of the female.

Therefore, Scots marriages, over time, to Pictish lines put and end to the Pictish system. They became part of Scottish society. The Picts were, due to their own rules of lineage, in essence, married out of existence as a named race. Obviously, they were still around, just called Scots now. All this was due to the male lineage taking precedence of Kingship from the Celtic Scots. But this does not mean the Picts disappeared as some assume.They were just assimilated into Scots and Viking societies.

In these genetically mixing years, men broke the meager soil, planted grain, hunted on their beloved horses, (especially the Picts who where by all accounts expert horsemen), herded cattle, carved their Pictish stones with loving care, and built a mix of Christian Churches and pagan fires, and led perfectly normal lives.

As already mentioned, there was a new and more deadly enemy to the Scot-Picts, and an enemy of all in their way. The slender Longships of the Norse raiders, determined and hearty men, (reportedly many were six feet tall, which for those days was quite large), they invaded at will, all of the British Isles, Europe, Russia and elsewhere for plunder and slaves. Interestingly, the Vikings, whose original lands were already overpopulated, didn't take many slaves; but they did take the women and the loot they wanted.

Kenneth MacAlpin, King of Scots

In 839, an interesting battle took place. Some Picts were fighting the rebellious Scots under Alpin of Gabhran's house, a large army of Norsemen came upon their rear. Though Alpin was killed, and his head impaled by the Picts -- the Pictish army now turned to face the Norsemen and were destroyed in a wild pitched battle. The Picts not only lost to the Norsemen, they were "destroyed almost to their very number". Eoghann, the last King of Picts, died with them. Now there was no Pictish leader to oppose the Scots. Why the Norsemen took part in a battle between Picts and Scots, that did not involve the Norsemen, is really easily explained. The Norsemen believed to die in battle was a sure way of entering Vahalla, the great warriors reward in "Asgaard", and because of this pagan belief, the Vikings showed little fear of dying in combat. They happened upon the battle between the Picts and Scots, which the Scots were losing, and promptly attacked the winners -- the Picts. Not only did the last of the Pictish Kings die in the battle, so did Scots, King Alpin. Kenneth the Hardy, son of Scots slain King Alpin, avenged his fathers death by taking the remaining territory of the Picts. His ascendency to King of Scots and Picts, was not a peaceful one though. From his stronghold in Argyll, he extended his borders south, defeating the Picts in a rapid series of campaigns. In about 835, he conquered the Kingdom of Scone. To read a more detailed history of Kenneth MacAlpin and Alba, click here.

Kenneth MacAlpin
[Kenneth MacAlpin, Kenneth the Hardy]
Now first king of Scots and Picts, (southern Picts), MacAlpin is surrounded by legends of brutal treachery. One such legend says murdered seven Earls of Dalriada, kinsmen who might have disputed his claim to King of Scots and Picts. According to another, he is said to have invited the Pictish King Drostan with all his nobles to banquet with him at Scone. While they were seated, and perhaps taking advantage of their gluttony of both drink and food, the Scots drew out the bolts supporting the boards, whereupon the Picts fell into the hollows below their benches. While caught in some strange contraption up to their knees, they were all slaughtered. Truth? It is impossible to be certain, but slaughters like this were commonplace in the early medieval period. The ascendency of Kings was a bloody and treacherous affair -- not for the faint of heart. Not many Scots kings during this period reigned more than a few years.

One would think that after a history making battle, such as the one mentioned above, there would be a dramatic battle named after it. It was, after all, a turning point. Curiously this didn't happen, and the reason is most likely, that it actually took another century, and more battles, before the union betwixt the Picts and the Scots was a stable union. In time, however, it did become stable and the Scots gained tremendous lands, wealth, and access to expert horsemanship, as well as countless more Scottish subjects, from the fall of the Picts. The two peoples had been locked in ferocious combat for so long that the bonds of war had actually helped unite the people, as two metals in a great flame, they became fused and then were tempered by a cooling hand of Christianity.

Kenneth MacAlpin was the first King of Picts and Scots, the same title given to the brother and then the son who succeeded him. The Picts pass from history as most unknown races do, and also with them, the Kingdom of Dalriada, though the evocative memory of that would last for a thousand years among the western Clans. For a more detailed history of MacAlpin, click here

The Vikings were another story. As already stated, it is worth mentioning again the importance the Norse and Danish had, not only on Scotland alone, but to all of the British Isles and France, Spain, Germany, Russia, countries in Eastern Europe, and the Mediterranian, as in Sicily, and North Africa. It seems amazing to this author how little credit we as a modern society give to the Vikings as settlers as well as invaders. If you are descended from Europe, there is a very good chance the Vikings had some effect on your heritage.

In Scotland they invaded then settled. The Norsemen had easy pickings in early Scotland, which at the time was a confused collection of rival kinglets, prior to MacAlpin. It was not until 843 that the country was united under already mentioned Kenneth MacAlpin, a Scot who now ruled Scots and Picts. Although the Vikings were yet to be a part of this new kingdom - Alba - they would eventually become as much a part of the Scottish heredity as the Picts. It would take over two more centuries.

When Kenneth MacAlpin died in the latter half of the 9th century, Scotland went through a series of mediocre kings who were kept very busy trying to hold the Norsemen out of Scotland and keep its borders fixed. Three kings died in battle, others had short reigns. The Scots unity held, but barely. One hundred and sixty years of Norse invasions and counter attacks occured, led by, only partially successful kings, (three of who died in battle) and then, finally the Vikings began to settle more than invade.

The unity did not keep the Norsemen out. They took Dumbarton, on the River Clyde, and lorded it over the area, and they were the death of Scots' Kings, Constantine, Donald the Second and Indulf.

These were times when kings did not die in their beds. Turbulence was never far from the surface, and a king was liable to be struggling against the Norsemen, and new territorial aggression from England, as well as the uncurable rebelliousness of the men of Moray in the north. It was not until Malcolm II arrived on the throne in 1005, that the country even acquired, at last, a geographical unity with fixed borders. Malcolm II vainly tried to extend his borders to occupy parts of the north of England, but had his armies cut to pieces.

England also had trouble with the Vikings, the 'Danes' (a generic term the English called all Vikings), had been invading England and now began to thirst for England's land. They took nearly half of England by force and then demanded to be paid to stop further aggression. Actually, it was an English king's idea to pay the money, or "Danegeld" (Dane gold) as it came to be known, to halt the Viking attacks. This "ransom" or Danegeld was at first successful, and the Danes left the rest of England alone...for a while.

However, the idea of easy loot, the Danegeld, was just too much for the Vikings to resist and they began to demand more and more payment of Danegeld from the English, at this point in time, England was in serious crisis. Plus, the Danes were now settling large areas of England and marrying the locals. The villages in the north and east of England still have many Viking names. Eventually the Danes became so powerful in England, one of their own became King of England. This was King Cnut who took the English throne in 1016.

King Cnut of England (pronounced Ka-newt) now began to eye Scotland, especially the Lothian area, which he considered belonged to him by right. What right isn't clear. His forces went to repossess it in 1018, and the combined Britons and Scots massacred them on the banks of the River Tweed, at a battle called Carham in 1018, under the King of Scotland Malcolm II, a descendent of Kenneth MacAlpin. The army they defeated was an Angle army from Northumbria, which brought the rich Lothians under Malcolm II's rule. Scotland, and her borders, were now stable, but not for long.

Alfred the Great
[Alfred the Great of England]
Meanwhile, in the farthest southwest corner of England, Alfred the Great and his descendents, made a stand against the Danes and won a series of victories, which led, in time, to the Saxons reclaiming England. The Vikings, remained however, slowly mixing with Britain and in all of Europe with the native populations and eventually the "Age of the Vikings" comes to a gradual end.

Alba grows even more:

In the same year as the Scottish victory at Carham, 1018, the King of the Britons of Strathclyde died without issue (no heir) and was succeeded by Malcom II's grandson and heir -- Duncan, (who was not the aging and venerable monarch portrayed by Shakespeare in "MacBeth" ). Duncan had some type of claim to the throne of Strathclyde through the female line. Exactly how he did this isn't clear, but 16 years later, in 1034, Duncan became King of Scotland. In this way the frontiers of the Scottish Kingdom were still further extended, reaching far down into what is now English territory.

The Last of the Celtic Scottish Kings

MacBeth, his wife Grauch, on right
[MacBeth & Grauch]
Duncan I of Scotland, was actually, (as opposed to the more well known Shakespeare version), an impetuous and spoiled young man whose six years of kingship brought glory neither to Scotland nor to his family. Against wise advice, Duncan invaded Northumbria and attacked Durham. The poorly planned campaign was a total disaster for the Scots and Duncan was compelled to withdraw. News of his disasterous and humiliating defeat had preceeded his return to Scotland and in no time he was faced with a revolt among the lords, particularly from his cousin MacBeth, Mormaer (or lord) of Moray. In a skirmish at Bothgouanan, Duncan was slain by MacBeth. Duncan had come to the throne by a strange set of claims to succession. MacBeth had a much better claim, as far as strict descent was concerned: so had his wife, Grauch, who was his cousin. (not unusual in those days). Both MacBeth and his wife were descended from Kenneth MacAlpin, and the Moray party were keen to have MacBeth the new ruler of Scotland. Again, reality is much different from legend, and as you will see, MacBeth was not at all the same MacBeth portrayed in fiction. Of course I refer, again to Shakespeare's, excellent, but inaccurate version "MacBeth" with whom most of us are familiar. It is a beautiful work of art and fiction, but it is far from reality and worse, gives a "good" impression of Duncan, and bad version of MacBeth. Royality murdering each other was almost like a sordid game in all medieval history, and was quite common and even secretly encouraged by nefarious advisors.

Under MacBeth, north and south Scotland were united and a stable Scottish kingdom looked likely. MacBeth appears, contrary to popular belief, to have been a wise monarch who ruled Scotland successfully for seventeen properous years. Coming to power in a turbulent time; where differing peoples, whom were trying to adjust to unity, but didn't want to give up their own incompatible ways of life; MacBeth organized troops of men to patrol the wilder countryside and enforce some kind of law and order. An example of the stability of the kingdom under MacBeth, was when he was able to make a pilgrimage to Rome in 1050; returned to find his kingdom quiet and went on to enjoy seven more years of successful rule.

Unfortunately, MacBeth (who had just united Scotland for 17 years) was killed in the year 1057 AD. One of Duncan's sons, Malcolm, (known as Ceanmor or Canmore, meaning 'big head'), who was brought up in exile in England, raised an army, with English help, invaded Scotland and reached deep into Aberdeenshire. At the battle of Lumphanan, he defeated MacBeth, who was slain in battle, and after some further resistance, he became king of Scotland, calling himself Malcolm III -- with English assistance. Never again were the emerging Kings of England to leave Scotland alone.

There are times in history that one could say were turning points, without being overly dramatic. Had MacBeth's reign continued, Scotland would have a very different flavour of history today.

The north of Britain would absorb the life giving red of the Scots and English for seven more centuries of brutal carnage.


  • Chapter 4, Scotland under MacBeth's successors.

  • Return to ORIGINS chapter menu.

    | Home | Scottish Timeline | History Messageboard ||

    Free Web Hosting