Lords of Alba: The Making of Scotland

Lords of Alba: The Making of Scotland

by Ian W. Walker

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The early Scottish kingdom underwent a fundamental transformation between the tenth and twelfth centuries. This book on early medieval Scottish history considers how and why the Scottish kingdom was changed at this time. It looks at the role of individuals who initiated or influenced this process.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752495194
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 01/19/2006
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 1 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

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Lords of Alba

The Making of Scotland

By Ian W. Walker

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Ian W. Walker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9519-4


The Viking Onslaught

At the end of the eighth century the political map of the British Isles consisted of a mosaic of large and small kingdoms. These kingdoms were engaged in a constant competition for control of land and wealth. This competition took the form of almost incessant warfare, ranging from small-scale raiding to major campaigns aimed at securing tribute or control. In this struggle individual kingdoms sought to secure supremacy over their neighbours, whether temporarily or over a longer time frame. A number of the more consistently successful kingdoms were slowly beginning to emerge as nascent superpowers. They included the Ui Neill kingdoms in Ireland, the Mercian imperium in southern Britain and, in the north, a new union of the two previously independent kingdoms of the Picts and the Scots. The last of these would subsequently develop into the medieval kingdom of Scotland.

The traditional account of the origins of the united kingdom of the Picts and the Scots centres on the dramatic story of a brutal massacre carried out by a ruthless warlord. This is the story of Kenneth MacAlpin and his massacre of the Picts at Scone in 849. The fullest version of the legend can be found in the twelfth-century account of Gerald of Wales, which may itself be based on an earlier Irish tale, now lost, called Braflang Scoine or 'The Treachery of Scone'. It runs as follows:

... [The Scots] brought together as to a banquet all the nobles of the Picts, and taking advantage of their excessive drunkenness and gluttony, they noted their opportunity and drew out the bolts which held up the boards; and the Picts fell into the hollows of the benches on which they were sitting, caught in a strange trap up to the knees, so that they could not get up; and the Scots immediately slaughtered them all.

It is still widely believed that it was as a direct result of this episode that Kenneth was able to eliminate the Picts and establish a Gaelic-speaking Scottish kingdom in their place. He is widely credited with transforming forever the political shape of northern Britain through this violent act. In fact, the origins of the medieval Scottish kingdom are much more complex than this would suggest. They were not the result of a sudden revolution. Instead, they were the result of an evolutionary process whereby relations between a number of neighbouring peoples developed over a period of centuries. The first of these peoples to come together and form the core around which the later Scottish kingdom formed were the Picts and Scots.

The neighbouring Picts and Scots had, in fact, been drawing together over a long period of time. This was a process fostered by increasingly close political ties – including dynastic intermarriage, some commonality of religious traditions, the settlement of Gaelic-speakers in Pictish territory and cultural assimilation. It was also a process promoted by the arrival on the scene of a common enemy in the form of the heathen Vikings from Scandinavia. The latter came from a rather different cultural tradition with no access to Christianity, few close contacts with the British Isles and a Germanic language and culture.

Kenneth MacAlpin did not establish the medieval Scottish kingdom by a massacre of the Picts. He was not even the first man to rule both Picts and Scots. This feat had already been achieved during the preceding century, most notably by Oengus, son of Fergus, King of the Picts (729–61), who also ruled the Scots of Dalriada between 741 and 750. He had managed to secure at least temporary supremacy over both peoples. The success achieved by such powerful men often consisted of some form of overlordship rather than direct rule and was usually brief. It nevertheless introduced the concept of a united rule of these two peoples.

There was much more than such temporary episodes of common rule working in favour of integration of these two peoples. There was clearly a great deal of intermarriage among the ruling elites as witnessed by the increasing appearance of Gaelic names among the Pictish kings. The appearance of St Columba and other saints from Gaelic Ireland among the Picts from the 590s had introduced a major Gaelic cultural influence. This brought the Picts within the Gaelic cultural sphere for the next 200 years and produced a Christian society heavily influenced by Gaelic models. In 697 at the synod of Birr in Ireland, Adomnan Abbot of Iona, promulgated his Cain Adomnan or The Law of the Innocents, which was designed to protect non-combatants – the elderly, women, children and the clergy – from the effects of warfare. It was endorsed by no less than 40 leading churchmen and 51 kings, all of them Gaelic with the exception of Bruide, son of Derile, King of the Picts, who was nevertheless clearly considered a ruler from the Gaelic cultural world. In addition to this cultural influence Gaelic colonisers had also begun to infiltrate Pictish territory from the kingdom of Dalriada on the west coast. This seems to be confirmed by the appearance of the name 'Atholl' for one of the Pictish provinces, which probably originated as the Gaelic ath Fhodla or 'New Ireland'. In all these ways Gaelic influence was gradually transforming the kingdom of the Picts.

The honour of being the first ruler of a properly united kingdom of Picts and Scots also belongs not to Kenneth MacAlpin but to a man called Constantine, son of Fergus. In 789, he succeeded in seizing the Pictish throne through a military victory over Conall, son of Tadg, King of the Picts, who was driven into exile in Strathclyde or, possibly, in Ireland. The origins of this individual are unclear but the name of his father suggests perhaps a Gaelic or Gaelic-influenced background. The name of Constantine that he himself bore suggests a strongly Christian background and perhaps even a hint of wide ambition. He was almost certainly named after Constantine the Great, the Roman emperor who had secured Christianity as the official religion of the empire. In 792 the Annals of Ulster record the death of Donn Corci, King of the Gaelic Scots of Dalriada, and Constantine, King of the Picts, appears to have succeeded him as the direct ruler of Dalriada rather than simply as an overlord, like Oengus mac Fergus thirty years before. The later king-lists seem to confirm this, although it is possible that these have been adjusted to reflect subsequent political realities. The new united kingdom appears to have been known as the kingdom of Fortriu after its central province, but its rulers were still sometimes referred to as kings of the Picts.

King Constantine, son of Fergus, was now joint ruler over the Picts and the Scots and, while the written sources for his rule are meagre, a unique monumental record of his reign survives. The Dupplin Cross, which once stood on a hillside overlooking the site of a royal palace at Forteviot in Perthshire, can now be found inside the later church at Dunning nearby. It bears a badly weathered inscription in a panel on its west face. It has been interpreted to read Custantin filius Fircus rex ... or 'Constantine son of Fergus, King ...' with the rest now tantalisingly illegible. The king himself is portrayed on the opposite face of the cross as a mounted warrior above four foot soldiers who probably represent his army. The iconography of the biblical King David on other panels confirms Constantine's status as a Christian ruler in the Old Testament mould. This cross is clearly a major monument created for an important and powerful Christian warrior king.

King Constantine was certainly a powerful enough figure to take an interest in the internal affairs of the neighbouring kingdom of Northumbria to the south. In 796 he offered refuge to Osbald, who had been King of Northumbria for only 27 days in the spring of that year. An aristocratic faction led by Ealdorman Wada had killed King Aethelred at Corbridge on the Tyne on 18 April 796 and Osbald, one of their number, was raised to the kingship. He was however quickly put to flight and driven from the kingdom by the supporters of Aethelred and arrived by ship, presumably in the Tay. He lived in exile as Constantine's guest until his death in 799, and he was replaced in Northumbria by a man called Eardwulf, who defeated Ealdorman Wada. In 807, the exiled Conall, son of Tadg, formerly king of the Picts, was killed in Kintyre by another Conall, the son of Aedacan, who was perhaps the local ruler. This exile may have been attempting to restore his fortunes but, if so, the location of his death, on the far fringes of Constantine's rule, suggests that he was not very successful.

King Constantine was also one of the first rulers in the British Isles to face an unexpected threat from across the North Sea. It was in 794, during the early years of his reign, that the first raiders from Scandinavia devastated the islands of Britain. In the following year, they pillaged and devastated Iona and Skye on the west coast of his newly expanded kingdom. In 798, they made further incursions in Scotland and the Hebrides, although the extent of these is unrecorded. This pattern will be familiar to students of the Vikings elsewhere in Western Europe. It marked the initial phase of Viking activity, when small groups of raiders launched seasonal hit-and-run attacks against wealthy coastal sites. In Constantine's kingdom the prime focus for such raids was, of course, the wealthy head monastery of the church of St Columba on the island of Iona. It was attacked in 795, the monastic buildings were burned in 802 and worse was to come in 806. In 801 Bresal, son of Segene, who had been Abbot of Iona since 770, died, a circumstance possibly hastened by his experiences at the hands of the Vikings in 795. In 806, however, no less than 68 monks of the community were killed and the monastic buildings were burned for a second time. This terrible massacre seems to have prompted Abbot Cellach, who apparently survived it – perhaps he was taken captive and subsequently ransomed – to flee to relative safety in Ireland and commence the construction of a new monastery at Kells.

In the next century or so these Viking raiders would transform the politics of the British Isles. The intervention of increasing numbers of these outsiders effectively subverted the existing political system. Many long-standing kingdoms were overwhelmed or undermined while others managed to weather the initial assault before recovering and striking back. The political map of the British Isles would be transformed by the intervention of the Vikings and an entirely new system would emerge. In Ireland the Ua Briain kings of Munster would rise to challenge the Ui Neill. In southern Britain Wessex would unite with its old rival Mercia to strike back at their Viking tormentors and ultimately form a united kingdom of England. The consequences of Viking activity for northern Britain have been the subject of far fewer accounts. In essence the experience of northern Britain was very similar to that of the rest of the British Isles but it deserves more consideration than it has previously received.

The initial phase of Viking raids, in common with elsewhere in Europe, appears to have died down during the 810s. This is reflected perhaps in the fact that, when Abbot Cellach resigned his abbacy in 814, he retired to Iona to reside there until his death the following year. This suggests that the monastery had at least recovered sufficiently to provide a suitable place for Cellach, who had fled from there eight years previously, to spend his final years there in peace. He was subsequently buried on the island, presumably with appropriate funeral rites. In 818, Cellach's successor, Abbot Diarmait was able to journey between Kells and northern Britain in apparent safety from Viking attack.

In 820 Constantine, son of Fergus, King of Fortriu, died peacefully after a reign of some thirty years. This was a long reign for this early period when the rule of kings tended to be short and to end in violence. There was, however, something even more remarkable about the rule of Constantine. In contrast to previous rulers Constantine successfully managed to pass on his joint rule over Picts and Scots to his brother and successor, Oengus II, son of Fergus. This happened almost thirty years before Kenneth MacAlpin is supposed to have eliminated the Picts.

It was during the reign of Constantine's brother, Oengus II, son of Fergus, that the Viking assaults resumed. They now entered a new phase with larger raiding parties making more intense attacks on the richest targets. Inevitably, Iona was chief among these and, on 24 July 825, it suffered its worst experience to date at the hands of the Vikings. The Annals of Ulster simply record 'the martyrdom of Blathmac at the hands of the heathens on Iona'. A more elaborate account of events is provided by Walafrid Strabo, a German monk, in his poem on the martyrdom of Blathmac. He recorded:

The violent accursed host came rushing through the open buildings, threatening cruel perils to the blessed men; and after slaying with mad savagery the rest of the company, they approached the holy father [Blathmac] to compel him to give up the precious metals wherein lie the holy bones of St Columba; but [they] had lifted the shrine from its pediments and had placed it in the earth, in a hollowed barrow, under a thick layer of turf, because they knew of the wicked destruction to come. This booty the Danes [sic] desired; but the saint remained with unarmed hand, and with unshaken purpose of mind; [he had been] trained to stand against the foe, and to arouse the fight, and [was] unused to yield.

There he spoke to thee, barbarian, in words such as these:- 'I know nothing at all of the gold you seek, where it is placed in the ground or in what hiding-place it is concealed. And if by Christ's permission it were granted me to know it, never would our lips relate it to thy ears. Barbarian, draw thy sword, grasp the hilt, and slay; gracious God, to thy aid commend me humbly.'

Therefore the pious sacrifice was torn limb from limb. And what the fierce soldier could not purchase by gifts, he began to seek by wounds in the cold bowels of the earth.

This raid reinforces the impression that the monastery had recovered from previous attacks. It had a significant number of buildings, large numbers of monks and rich treasures worth stealing. Indeed, otherwise it would have provided a poor return for the raiders.

In the following decades, the Viking raids on the British Isles gradually increased in scale, ferocity and intensity. They were also more frequent in northern Britain, although they may still have been seasonal and did not occur in every year. In this region, however, few records survive to illuminate the Vikings' activities and their impact on the local population. Instead we are left with little more than speculation. The local populations of the Hebridean islands and the west coasts probably withdrew as the heathen incomers commenced the settlement of these outlying areas of the Picto-Scottish kingdom. The Vikings appear to have been less prevalent on the east coast of northern Britain although this may be a quirk of the surviving sources. They failed, however, to sever entirely the sea lanes between northern Britain and Ireland, which continued to offer safe, if possibly irregular, passage for members of the Columban church at Iona. Thus Abbott Diarmait crossed safely to Scotland with the relics of St Columba in 829 and returned with them in equal comfort two years later.

In 834, Constantine's brother and successor, Oengus II, son of Fergus, King of Fortriu died. He was succeeded by his son Eoganan, who would face the first major crisis of this second Viking onslaught. In 839 the Viking attacks reached a climax when a major Viking force invaded the heartland of the Picto-Scottish kingdom. The Annals of Ulster record that 'The heathens won a battle against the men of Fortriu and Eoganan son of Oengus, Bran son of Oengus, Aed son of Boanta and others almost without number fell there'. This major defeat was a disaster of huge proportions for the newly combined kingdom. It not only lost two adult members of its ruling dynasty, it lost other important senior figures, like Aed, and many of its best warriors. It was the sort of calamity that could result in the downfall of the kingdom. In 839 it must have seemed to many that the kingdom of Fortriu was on the verge of becoming the first kingdom in the British Isles to fall to the Vikings. Indeed, the English kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia would fall to Viking assault in precisely this way in the 860s and 870s.

The kingdom did not fall, however, in spite of a period of internal crisis that followed this defeat and which witnessed five different rulers in the short space of ten years. Why were the Vikings who defeated Eoganan and his army apparently unable to subjugate his kingdom? There may be a number of explanations for this. The relatively small Viking armies of this early period were independent forces with no central control or direction. They appear to have consisted of units of thirty or so ships under leaders of local status. They might combine when an opportunity presented itself but such alliances were usually short-term and quickly dissolved. The force that defeated Eoganan in 839 may have been such a temporary alliance. It may have broken up in the immediate aftermath of its victory and its component parts were thereafter perhaps too small to conquer the entire kingdom. Its unknown leaders may have quarrelled about the spoils or been killed in the fighting. It seems likely that a combined Viking force gained the initial victory but thereafter dissolved and was therefore unable to exploit it fully.


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Table of Contents


List of maps,
One The Viking Onslaught,
Two The Kingdom of Alba,
Three A Scottish Constantine,
Four The March to the South,
Five The Great King and the Exiled Prince,
Six Malcolm, King of Alba,
Seven A New Kingdom?,
Family Trees,
Select Bibliography,

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