In this part . . .
Scotland had its own royal family separate from England from the earliest times until the Scottish king James VI also become king of England (as James I) in 1603. During the Middle Ages, many of these rulers came from two or three dominant families - the Bruces, the Balliols, and, most long-lasting of all, the Stewarts. These ruling families faced similar challenges to their counterparts down south. They had to fight to keep their kingdom united - and they often had to fight the English to stop them invading their country. Because England was an enemy for much of the time, the Scottish kings formed alliances with countries in mainland Europe, especially France.
In This Chapter
● Checking out the rival Pictish and Scottish kingdoms in Scotland
● Tracing the story of conversion to Christianity
● Examining how Scotland united under a single ruler
The early chroniclers describe Scotland as the home to a number of different tribes or peoples. They all had their own monarchs, who frequently fought each other to gain extra territory. This murky story of Scotland’s early days is difficult to understand because few written sources exist and the records contain big gaps. Historians aren’t even sure of the exact origins of some of the people involved.
The main players in the early history of Scotland are two peoples, the Picts, who seem to have occupied a large chunk of mainland Scotland, and the Scots, who came originally from Ireland and lived in a kingdom called Dalriada, in the west of Scotland and the Western Isles.
Both these groups were in turn made up of several smaller tribes. Each of these small, close-knit groups had its own ruler, who would owe allegiance to the overking of the Picts or Scots, so from the fifth to ninth centuries many kings ruled Scotland at once, and in many cases, historians don’t know much about them.
From time to time, these diverse tribes were united under a single, dynamic leader who claimed to be king of the whole of Scotland. None of these periods of unity lasted for long until the mid-ninth century, when the Scots king Kenneth MacAlpin overcame the Picts and united the country for good.
Picts from Scotland, Scots from Ireland, and shadowy war leaders with names like Gabran and Loarn - the early story of Scotland is a confusion of Celtic names about which historians know frustratingly little. But as time goes by,
historians started to get a sense of what the Scots and Picts were like - both from their artistic remains that still lie scattered around Scotland, and from the surviving records of their rulers’ activities, especially their battles.
Things start to become a little clearer during the period when the Romans ruled much of Britain. The broad picture is that the far west of the country was occupied by the Scots; the Picts occupied much of the north and east; the southwest was home to the kingdom of Strathclyde, home to Welshspeaking Britons; and the southeast was settled by Angles from Northumbria. In addition, the far northeastern tip of Scotland, plus Shetland and Orkney, were home to Norsemen who had originally come on raiding expeditions but later made permanent settlements.
Strange but true: Scots from Ireland
Today people are used to thinking of Scots as people from Scotland. But back in the early centuries A.D., things weren’t quite so simple. The Scots, believe it or not, originally came from Ireland (strange, but true). Actually, it’s not quite so strange if you look at a map. The northeasternmost point on the island of Ireland is actually only about 16 miles across the sea from the Mull of Kintyre in far western Scotland, so anyone who wanted to make the crossing didn’t have too far to go.
The first Scots to make that trip across the sea were probably raiders who travelled in search of plunder in the third century. By the fifth century, they were settling down in Scotland - initially in the western isles and the western highland region now known as Argyll. Around a hundred years after this settlement, they had formed a kingdom on this western region, and this kingdom was called Dalriada.
The people of Dalriada were not originally one coherent group, but a confederation of tribes. The key ones were
● The people of Oengus, who settled on the isle of Islay.
● The people of Loarn, who occupied Colonsay and Lorne.
● The people of Gabran, who were spread across Kintyre other parts of the mainland, and the islands of Arran and Bute.
The last group, the people of Gabran, were the most widespread, had the largest population, and controlled key areas such as the borders with the area of Strathclyde. As a result, they became the most powerful, and their leaders became overkings of Dalriada in the sixth and seventh centuries before being supplanted by the people of Loarn.
The kings of Gabran
Coming from Ireland, where Christian missionaries had been at work since St Patrick in the fifth century, the people of Dalriada were either Christians when they arrived or converted soon afterwards. A key figure in their history was St Columba (c 521-97). Columba was the son of an Irish royal family who had been driven out of Ireland and found himself among the islands of the Scottish coast.
On the island of Iona, Columba founded a monastery that became the centre of a network of other abbeys in Dalriada. From these monastic houses, monks left to convert the Picts, and missionaries such as St Aidan travelled southwards to convert the people of Northumbria in northern England.
The kings of Dalriada made full use of all the power and potency of the church in the sixth century. Whether they did so out of devout faith or because they realised it could make them look more powerful is not known. But it was certainly effective. In 573, Columba ordained Aedan mac Gabrain as overking of Dalriada, explaining that he was doing so on the instructions of an angel from heaven.
With the angels on his side, Aedan soon showed himself to be a powerful warrior. He set out to conquer the Picts and swept across their territory, reputedly travelling as far as Orkney in his zest for conquest. His men marched far eastwards, too, cutting their way through Pictish lands towards Edinburgh. According to the writer of the poem Berchan’s Prophecy, Aedan fought the Picts for 16 years.
But Aedan’s success did not last. He conceded several defeats at the very beginning of the seventh century - some in the eastern Scottish region of Angus, some in the south, near the border with the Angles of Northumbria. These defeats show both how far his armies had reached and how hard it was to keep power over such a far-flung area.
Under Aedan’s grandson, Domnall Brec (the name means Spotty Donald), the decline continued. After a number of defeats, Domnall was killed in 642 in a battle with the king of Strathclyde. Soon, the leaders of other Scots tribes were challenging the rights of the kings of Gabran to be supreme rulers of Dalriada.
The kings of Loarn
Things weren’t easy either for the next ruling dynasty of Dalriada kings, the kings of Loarn. Ferchar Fota ruled Dalriada from the 670s to 697 - although for some of that time, he was king only in name, since he was attacked by the people of Strathclyde and suffered a punishing defeat in 678.
Another king of Loarn, Selbach, was also harried by his neighbours in the 720s. This time it was the Picts who did the damage. And from this time onward, Dalriada was attacked again and again by its increasingly powerful Pictish neighbours. Through the eighth century and into the ninth, the Picts increasingly became the dominant people in Scotland.
The Britons of Strathclyde
Strathclyde was the kingdom based in the Clyde valley and immediately to the south of the major Scottish river, the River Clyde. Its people were Welsh in origin and were known to the Scots as Britons. The Scots later called the region Dumbarton, which means The fort of the Britons and is still the name of a town on the Clyde.
By the sixth century, the kings of Strathclyde were a powerful bunch, and they became a thorn in the side of the rulers of Dalriada, stopping them from expanding southwards into the lush lowlands. The numerous rulers of Strathclyde are known mainly for their military exploits and included:
● Ywain, who defeated the Scots ruler Domnall Brec in 642.
● Elffin, who helped his allies, the Picts, beat the Northumbrians in 685.
● Tewdwr, who fought the Picts in 750.
● Arthgal, who was beaten by the Vikings in 871.
● Another Ywain, who, allied with the Scots, was beaten by the forces of the English kingdom of Wessex in 934.
● Owain the Bald, the last king of Strathclyde, who died in battle in 1018.
The northern Picts
In the first century A.D., the Romans conquered what they called Britannia, or Britain. Britannia was their name for their new British province, but the name concealed a truth that was a pain for the Romans - they never managed to get the whole of the British Isles in their clutches. They certainly managed to dominate England, and they conquered a fair bit of Wales. But the people of the far north resisted Roman rule fiercely.
The Romans saw the inhabitants of Scotland as barbarians. The earliest document referring to the Picts by name is a Roman account of the year 297, and it makes clear that the Romans saw the Picts as war-painted warriors - the name Pict means painted. Some sources suggest that they were people who had come originally from mainland Europe, but their origins are shrouded in mystery.
But what historians can say is that in the Roman period, these painted warriors were well established north of the Roman fortification called the Antonine Wall, which in the second century ran across Scotland between the Rivers Forth and Clyde, fencing off the area of lowland (southern) Scotland that the Romans were trying to take over in the reign of the emperor Antoninus Pius (138-61).
Welcome to Pictland
After the Romans left Britain for good in 410, the Picts continued to gain strength. By the sixth century, they occupied the area from the Firth of Forth northwards, only excluding the far northeastern tip of Scotland (which was occupied by Norse peoples) and the far western land of Dalriada (occupied by the Scots). As a result, a vast tract of Scotland was in fact Pictland.
Modern historians can track the Picts by looking for their physical remains - stunning carved stones bearing relief carvings of beautiful abstract patterns and of battle scenes. The Picts can also be tracked by the place names they left behind. Names beginning with the syllable Pit belonged originally to Pictish places. Pitlochry, the town to the north east of Perth, is one of the best known, but many other smaller settlements with Pit names are scattered around Scotland showing where the Picts once were.
The people labelled Picts were actually members of several smaller tribes or subkingdoms. Historians discovered a little bit about these groups from Roman writers. Some of the tribes they mention are:
● The Caledonii: People who lived in the central Highlands and fought off invasion attempts by the Romans.
● The Taexali: A group who lived in the valley of the Dee, not far from Aberdeen.
● The Venicomes: A tribe who occupied the areas now known as Fife and Strathmore.
By the fourth century, all these people seem to have been thought of as Picts.
Long lists of Pictish kings survive, but they are just lists of names - and many of the same names are repeated, so it’s even more confusing. The Northumbrian historian Bede, writing in the early eighth century, says that the Pictish rulers handed down their crowns through the maternal line. This succession is very unusual in the male-dominated world of the time - so unusual that some modern writers question whether it was actually the case. Certainly all kinds of cousins seem to have inherited the crown in Pictland - it wasn’t a question of one ruler passing the kingship on to his eldest son, as became the case in later centuries. But historians differ about whether a strict matrilineal system existed. On the one hand, Bede says it did, and some of the monarchs fit the pattern. On the other, some recent historians point out that kings may have been put forward as rulers because of their strength and their ability to rule. No one knows for sure.
Among the dozens of Pictish rulers mentioned in the king-lists, a handful stand out as important personalities about whom historians have been able to find out more. Here is the low-down on some of the better known kings of the Picts:
● Bridei mac Maelchu (c 555-c 584): He was around in the middle of the sixth century and defeated the people of Dalriada in battle towards the beginning of this period. He was a pagan king who received the Christian saint Columba, who visited the royal court to ask the king and his people to protect Christian missionaries.
● Bridei mac Beli (672-693): This second Bridei fought a war with the Northumbrians, who he eventually defeated.
● Nechtan mac Derile (706-c 732): Nechtan had a troubled reign, suffering defeat by the Northumbrians and a civil war amongst his own people. He was forced into ‘early retirement’ in 724, but returned to fight a number of rival contenders for the Pictish throne. He was finally defeated by Unuist, otherwise known as Oengus, a man from Fortriu, near the border with Dalriada.
● Unuist mac Uurguist (c 732-61): Unuist was a formidable war-leader who fought endless battles to broaden his power beyond Pictland. He wielded huge power throughout much of Scotland.
These powerful Picts saw themselves as warrior-leaders. It was their aim to dominate their neighbours by military might or to fight off neighbours who were trying to dominate them. When they defeated one of their neighbours, though, the Picts didn’t usually move in as direct rulers. Instead, they forced the defeated ruler to accept the status of subking or installed some friendly relative as subking - and left for home with as much booty as they could carry.
A new kind of king
In the year 789, an event changed the pattern of kingship in Scotland. As usual, it began with a battle. A new challenger to Pictish power appeared from the west. His name was Castantm - or Constantine, as historians call him today - and he probably came originally from Dalriada. What happened in 789 was that he attacked the reigning king of the Picts, Conall, and defeated him in battle. Conall wasn’t killed. In fact, he had enough support to carry on ruling, with restricted power, for a few more years. But in 807, he was killed, and Castantm became ruler of the Picts.
Castantm was a new kind of king because he ruled both Dalriada and Pictland directly, without subkings. In other words, Scotland was turning into a united kingdom, and a trend of overall kingship was beginning that would last for hundreds of years.
What was new about Castantm?
Ruling directly without subkings wasn’t the only new thing about Castantm’s rule. Another unusual thing about the king was his name. Its modern equivalent, Constantine, was the name of one of the most important Roman emperors. The original Roman Constantine was the leader who converted to Christianity. Before Constantine, being a Christian was illegal in the Roman empire - Christians were persecuted, and people were encouraged to worship the old gods of the Classical world or local pagan gods who were similar to the Classical ones. Constantine made Christianity legal. Later, when the Roman empire broke up, its eastern capital city was called Constantinople (it’s Istanbul, Turkey, today) after the great Christian ruler. With its fine churches and shrines, Constantinople became the greatest Christian city in the world.
Like the Roman Constantine, Castantm learned to work with the church. He developed the city of St Andrews as both a centre of royal power and a centre of the church. St Andrews is one of Scotland’s oldest Christian sites. It is said to have been founded in the fourth century by St Regulus, who was shipwrecked nearby when bringing the remains of St Andrew to Scotland from the Greek island of Patras. He buried the saint’s remains there, and a monastery was established. By promoting this ancient Christian site, Castantm was identifying himself closely with the church. This identification was a political benefit, too, because giving himself a power base in St Andrews strengthened his influence in the eastern part of Scotland, helping to cement the unity of his kingdom.
Onward, Christian soldiers
To modern eyes, Castantm looks like a king with a split personality - a Christian who loved the monastery at St Andrews and a powerful warrior leader. But these two sides of his character came together because he fought off attacks from marauding Vikings, who in the early ninth century were focused on plundering the Scottish coast. Several attacks occurred, and on at least three occasions (in 795, 802, and 806), the raiders burned down the monastery of Iona, Scotland’s premier religious site. By defending his lands against the Norsemen, Castantm could also claim to be striking blows for Christianity.
In 820, Castantm died, and his crown passed to his brother Oengus, who ruled until 834. Oengus continued his brother’s work as a Christian king, founding a new monastery at Dunkeld. He used his Christian connections to send churchmen as ambassadors to Europe, maintaining good relations with the most powerful empire on the mainland, the Frankish realm of the great ruler Charlemagne, who had a great palace at Aachen (near the borders of what are now Germany and Belgium), and whose empire stretched across much of what are now France and Germany.
By the end of Oengus’s reign in 834, much of Scotland was united under one ruler. The family of Oengus and Castantm seems to have come from Dalriada, so they were of Scots ancestry. But a large chunk of their kingdom was Pictish, and they seem to have tried to dominate the Picts, not simply by force but also by adopting some of their customs. For example, Castantm’s younger son, who followed Oengus to the throne in 834, had a Pictish name, Drest.
Everything seemed set for a united Scotland to continue under this successful ruling family. But in 839, the raiding Vikings returned and slaughtered virtually all the male members of the royal family. As a result, a power vacuum occurred - and into this vacuum stepped a dynamic new leader who was to forge a greater and longer lasting ruling dynasty.
Att Together Now
The early ninth-century kings Castantm and Oengus pulled off the achievement of uniting Scotland under their rule (see preceding section). But their dynasty didn’t last. It took another ruler, Cinaed mac Alpin (now known as Kenneth I), to unite Scotland and keep it united. Kenneth is often known as the first king to rule the whole country, which isn’t quite true. But Kenneth is still a very important figure because his family ruled a united Scotland for more than 200 years.
Canny Ken: Keeping Scotland together
Kenneth I came to power in Scotland in around 840. At this time, he still faced a number of challengers for power, members of Castantm’s family who probably ruled small territories in Perthshire and Angus. By 848 or 849, these rivals had gone, and Kenneth was virtually undisputed as king of Scotland.
How did Kenneth achieve his rise to power? Well, it probably wasn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Scotland had been a collection of separate tribes and mini-states for most of its history, and many areas had more than one claimant to the throne. The biggest split was between the western lands and the northern and eastern territories that had been ruled by the Picts.
War and peace
In the west, Kenneth fell back on the old technique of bringing in a trusted colleague. He invited over a leader from Ireland, one Gofraid mac Fergusa, to western Scotland. Historians don’t know a lot about Gofraid, but his name is a mixture of Norse and Celtic elements, so he could have been a compromise leader, able to please both the Scots and the Vikings who were in the habit of attacking Britain’s shores at around this time.
Kenneth saved his own energies for eastern Scotland. Between about 842 and 848, he was busy in the east imposing his authority. Historians aren’t sure how he ruled. Some people think he was a peaceful ruler who was accepted with little bloodshed. Others portray Kenneth as a war lord. Certainly, the early chroniclers stress his battles and military ruthlessness, so he probably had to conquer his way to power in the east.
Staying safe on the throne
However he achieved his victory, Kenneth was widely accepted as ruler of Scotland by the year 848. Once he was settled on the throne, Kenneth set about making sure of his power using one of the most popular methods open to early rulers - arranging favourable marriages for his children.
Kenneth was blessed with several daughters. Early medieval kings sometimes looked down on their womenfolk because girls weren’t usually thought to have the right stuff to be rulers - for that, you had to be a macho warlord.
But princesses were useful to early kings in another way. They could get married to your neighbours to create useful political alliances.
Canny Kenneth married his daughters to a bunch of influential rulers, including:
● Rhun, son of the king of Strathclyde.
● Olafr Hvitr, king of Dublin and one of Ireland’s Norse rulers.
● Aed Findliath, another ruler in Ireland.
Alliances with this lot must have bought Kenneth a great deal of security. Ireland would launch fewer attacks, and less trouble should occur in western Scotland, as a result.
But Kenneth’s army was still busy making war with enemies who threatened to give him a pounding on several fronts at once. Kenneth’s challenges included:
● Fighting off Viking raiders who were still turning up on Scotland’s coast and making off with booty from villages and monasteries.
● Repelling challenges to his kingship from rebels who ignored his careful alliance-making in Strathclyde.
● Taking part in a series of battles against the Northumbrians in an attempt to extend his rule southwards.
All together, it sounds as if Kenneth had a busy time making war, and when he died in 858, he was probably still fighting to keep his kingdom secure. He had made important gestures of peace, such as the marriage alliances and building a new church at Dunkeld where St Columba’s relics were housed.
But his reign was mostly one of war.
Sons, brothers, nephews
After the death of Kenneth, the throne of Scotland passed through the ruling family, not generally from father to son as became the tradition later, but via other routes - for example, uncle to nephew, or brother to brother. Most of the late ninth century kings who inherited the throne in this way had quite short reigns, and their lives were dominated by family squabbles and war with the Vikings. In fact, sometimes these activities were linked because the Viking and Scottish royal families intermarried. The five rulers who followed Kenneth were:
● Donald I (858-62): Famous as a war leader, Donald continued the work of his brother, King Kenneth. He introduced a famous law code, confirming his authority as ruler of Scotland.
● Constantine I (862-77): Constantine was Donald’s nephew. He fought off Norse attacks before making peace with the Norse king of Dublin. When a new king came to the throne in Ireland, the raids began again, and Constantine died fighting the Vikings.
● Aed (877-8): Constantine’s younger brother, he was killed in battle by his rival Giric.
● Giric (879-89): The son of Donald II, Giric's position was insecure because he had taken the throne by violence from Aed.
● Donald II (889-900): This son of Constantine defeated Giric and spent the next few years in further battles against the Vikings.
King of Alba: Constantine II
After a succession of short-lived and briefly reigning kings, the next ruler, Constantine II, was a different proposition. He ruled from 900 to 943, long enough to set his own stamp on the kingdom. He was the cousin of the previous king, Donald II, and was known as a strong warrior lord.
In some ways, though, it was more of the same for Constantine. The Vikings were still raiding and posing a threat to security in Britain both north and south of the border. And by now, the Vikings had a strong foothold in Britain. They had settled in the area around York, and, although most of them just wanted to put down roots and live in peace, Viking York, or Jorvik as it was known then, was a potential base for any Norse leader who had ambitions to extend his power in England or Scotland.
That’s what happened in 910, when a new batch of Vikings arrived, and their leader took over York. This ambitious Viking was called Ragnall, and his people were soon settling in eastern Northumbria. To Constantine, they looked like a dangerous threat both to his own power and to his own ambitions to take over
Northumbria. In 918, the Scots and Norse armies finally clashed at Corbridge, a town on the Tyne, on Hadrian’s Wall, the old Roman wall that divided England and Scotland.
Constantine was the victor and took northern Northumbria under his rule. Ragnall made peace with Constantine so that the two communities could trade with each other and protect themselves from yet another potential aggressor, the up-and-coming power of the southern English kingdom of Wessex. In the following years, Constantine ironically found himself actually supporting the Vikings in York because they could shield him from potential attacks from Wessex.
In 937, the men of Wessex moved northwards, and the showdown came at the Battle of Brunanburh, an unknown site. The famous warrior Constantine was overwhelmed. The Scots were pushed back northwards, and the advance of Wessex as the most powerful of the English kingdoms was confirmed. (For more about Wessex, see Chapter 4.)
Constantine was a spent force after this defeat. A few years later, in 943, he gave up his throne. He went off to one of Scotland’s most important monasteries and became a monk, leaving the complex and violent business of ruling Scotland to his heirs.
The kingdom of Constantine was, like that of his predecessors, a realm that embraced the whole of Scotland. But Constantine was a powerful enough character to stamp it with a new name - a new brand, almost. Instead of being known as the kingdom of the Picts and Scots, Constantine called it the Kingdom of Alba, a new name that stressed the unity of the realm. It was another step in the process of pulling Scotland together that had begun back in the previous century.
More Kens and Cons
The reign of Constantine II was a success in the terms of the day. The king was a successful general who held his kingdom together - and he was helped by the fact that fate allowed him to rule for more than 40 years. Life wasn’t quite so kind to those who came after him. The period from the end of Constantine’s reign in 943 to the accession of Malcolm II in 1005 saw more short-lived rulers. Here’s a selection of them:
Malcolm I (943-54): He agreed to a treaty with Edmund, king of the English, to cement Scottish power in southern Scotland.
Constantine III (954-62): He was killed when fighting the Vikings.
Kenneth II (971-95): Like Malcolm, he knew the importance of the English and agreed with King Edgar to keep the boundary between the two realms safe in return for recognition of his (Kenneth’s) overlordship in Lothian.
● Constantine III (995-7): Known as Constantine the Bald, he was killed by his rival, Kenneth, who became Kenneth III.
● Kenneth III (997-1005): He had to fight continuously to keep his crown.
Well, if your eyes are glazing over at this swift procession of Kenneths, Constantines, and others, the main point is that many of these kings found it hard to hang on in there because they were always being challenged by rivals from inside and outside their own families. And as if this opposition wasn’t enough, they also had to keep their eyes on what the English were doing south of the border.
Things took a turn for the better with Malcolm II (1005-34). At the start of his reign, it didn’t look that way, though, because he launched an ambitious raid on England and ended up defeated and in disarray outside Durham. Looking over his shoulder, as it were, he saw that the Vikings were still threatening the northern parts of his kingdom.
Like the more able Scottish rulers of this period, Malcolm realised that success as warlord was best managed by using the art of diplomacy, as well as skill with the sword. Malcolm succeeded because he made a number of shrewd moves against his enemies. But there was no gain without pain for Malcolm - each of his shrewd moves was really a double-edged sword:
● Shrewd move No. 1 - Make an alliance with the Vikings. A year or two after coming to the throne, Malcolm married his daughter to a prominent Viking, Sigurd the Mighty. Sigurd controlled Shetland, Orkney, a big part of northern Scotland, and the Hebrides. He was an important person to keep sweet if Malcolm wanted his northern borders to be both secure and peaceful. Things looked a bit wobbly when Sigurd died in 1014, but Malcolm took advantage of what may have been a problem. His grandson, Thorfinn Sigurdsson, needed a powerful supporter to hang on to power after Sigurd died. Malcolm threw his weight behind Thorfinn and gained more power in the north in the process.
● Shrewd move No. 2 - Defeat the Northumbrians. To keep his southern borders safe, Malcolm needed to keep the Northumbrians from encroaching on his territory. He defeated them in battle in 1018, but his success attracted the gaze of another potential rival, the great Danish ruler of England, Cnut (see Chapter 5). Cnut was a busy man, with interests all over Europe, so it wasn’t until 1031 that he led his forces northwards and threatened Malcolm. The Scot was forced to submit to Cnut, and Cnut’s ally Siward of Northumbria policed the border region, preventing Malcolm from making further inroads in Northumbria.
● Shrewd move No. 3 - Remove some rivals. Kenneth III’s family still included members who had strong claims to the Scottish throne, so Malcolm set about having some of them removed. That means murdered, basically. One hapless descendant of Kenneth was put to death in 1032, and at least one other followed him to an early grave. But Malcolm wasn’t able to remove the entire family.
Malcolm II did enough to ensure that his preferred candidate as successor, his grandson Duncan, would take over the throne when he died in 1034. Thanks to mighty Malcolm, the new king took over a large, robust, and strong kingdom.
Malcolm was followed by his grandson, Duncan I, who ruled from 1034 to 1040. Now, if you’ve seen Shakespeare’s Macbeth, you’ll know about Duncan. In the play, he’s the benevolent, nice, and rather doddery king who gives Macbeth all sorts of honours and titles - and is rewarded with treachery when Macbeth and his evil wife kill him to speed their path to the throne.
Was Duncan really such a goody? Well, historians don’t know a lot about the personal lives of the early Scottish kings, so it will come as no surprise that Shakespeare had to make up quite a lot about Duncan. The king was probably quite young - maybe in his 20s - when he first wore the crown. He also had his grandfather’s go-getting character, liked to raid Northumbria, and actually launched an attack on Macbeth, who was a member of Kenneth III’s family that were rivals to the line of Malcolm and Duncan. The nice old king of Shakespeare’s play is a bit of a myth.
Duncan’s desire to get rid of Macbeth proved his undoing. When the two met in battle at a place called Pitgaveny near Elgin in 1040, Macbeth was the victor, and Duncan was dispatched. The king’s young children were taken into exile, away from the dangerous Macbeth, and a power vacuum was left in Scotland. Macbeth was ready to step in.
Macbeth - villain or hero?
Yes, that’s the Macbeth who’s the main character in Shakespeare’s famous play. In Shakespeare, Macbeth is a lord who, in cahoots with his wicked wife (whom the Bard doesn’t even give a name - she’s just Lady Macbeth), bumps off King Duncan and steps into his shoes.
Just as Duncan wasn’t the white-haired old king portrayed by Shakespeare, the real Macbeth, as far as historians can tell, was a very different character, too, from Shakespeare’s usurper. For a start, Macbeth went into battle against Duncan because he was forced to - Duncan attacked him. Second, no evidence supports the notion that the historical Macbeth was the kind of baddie who makes such a big impression in Shakespeare’s great tragedy. Third, Lady Macbeth was probably not the fiend-like queen that the great playwright described.
But Macbeth did depend on his wife for his crown, not because she helped him kill Duncan but because of who she was. Mrs Macbeth was actually a woman called Gruoch, the granddaughter of Kenneth III and the vital link in the royal chain that gave Macbeth his claim to the Scottish throne. Malcolm II had killed off most of the male members of Kenneth’s family, but Gruoch remained, and her husband had a good claim to the throne. In 1040, having killed Duncan in battle, Macbeth became king thanks to his well-connected wife.
Keeping the throne
Once Macbeth had won the throne, he had to work hard to hang on to it. Various people in Scotland and beyond wanted him out, to strengthen their own power bases. Sources of potential and real challenges to Macbeth’s rule included:
● Orkney, the home of dead ex-king Duncan’s cousin Thorfinn.
● Atholl, where others had their eyes on the throne.
● England, where Edward the Confessor supported an invasion by one Siward.
Siward was able to defeat Macbeth when he first invaded in 1046, but later Macbeth kicked him out. From that point on, Macbeth seems to have been much safer on the throne. The reign was fairly peaceful for a few years, and in 1050, Macbeth disappeared for a few months on pilgrimage to Rome. Shakespeare’s character would never have done that, but Macbeth turns out to have been a notable patron of the church.
The Duncan family returns
After Macbeth beat Duncan in battle, the defeated king’s children were taken into a safe exile, but when they grew up, they began to plan to take back Scotland from their enemy Macbeth. As had been the case earlier in the reign, the English got involved in the fight for the throne, too. The struggle was a game of two halves between Macbeth and Duncan’s son Malcolm, with his English backers:
First half: In 1054, Siward, a previous opponent of Macbeth, launched an invasion of Scotland. Siward hoped that if he beat the Scots, the English king Edward the Confessor would promote Malcolm as the new king. Siward won the battle, and Malcolm pushed his way into southern Scotland, but the victory wasn’t conclusive. Siward’s son was killed in the fighting.
● Second half: In 1057, Malcolm brought the fight to Macbeth once more, this time still more decisively. Macbeth was killed in a battle at Lumphanan. However, Malcolm was still not the undisputed king until he had disposed of Lulach the Simpleton, Gruoch’s son by a previous husband. Lulach didn’t last long. By 1058, he was killed, and Malcolm III was ruler of Scotland.
New Brooms: The Canmore Kings
In 1057 and 1058, Malcolm III disposed of Macbeth and Lulach, the last remaining rulers who were descended from Kenneth III, and set himself firmly on the throne of Scotland. His actions were typical of a time when countries were ruled by warrior kings who built their power through success in battle. Malcolm was known as Ceann Mor, which means great chief, and the Canmore dynasty that he founded was to be one of Scotland’s most successful.
The Canmore kings achieved a lot in Scotland. They benefited from outside influences, developing Scottish culture so that it took on board some of the best of the Anglo-Saxons and later the Norman kings. They brought in better systems of government and helped reform the church, but toward the end of their period, they lost some of their territory and power.
Malcolm: War lord, new style
Malcolm III reigned from 1058 to 1093. On the face of it, he looked very much like the Scottish kings who had preceded him - he was a seasoned war lord who didn’t hesitate to make treaties with his neighbours and then break them when their backs were turned.
Malcolm was a rather different character from his forbears. For one thing, he was more cosmopolitan. He had a good Scottish lineage, of course, and could trace his line back to Kenneth I. But he had spent a lot of time in England, at the home of Earl Siward in York, and there he absorbed the local Viking-based lifestyle. Later, after he became king, he married an Anglo-Saxon princess who introduced him to the highly sophisticated culture of the English. But at heart, Malcolm was an old-fashioned Scottish leader, keen to expand his territory and protect his borders.
Make peace, then war
One place where Scottish kings often had trouble was in the south, along the border with Northumbria. Malcolm, though, had made peace with Tostig, the Earl of Northumbria, so his border was secure. Peace reigned until in 1061 when Tostig decided to go off to Rome on a pilgrimage. Once Tostig had set off on his journey, Malcolm launched a major raid on Northumbrian territory. It was an indication that the Scottish king wanted to expand his power base - and was none too scrupulous about how he was going to do it.
Sometimes Malcolm had no choice but to make peace. In 1072, the formidable Norman king William I, who had come over from Normandy and conquered England in 1066 (see Chapter 6), decided he would invade Scotland, too. William turned up with both foot soldiers and sea-borne troops, looking typically scary. Sensibly, Malcolm decided he’d make peace with William. He did homage to the Norman king and promised to throw out the Anglo-Saxon exiles who had hidden in Scotland after William conquered England.
Malcolm obeyed the terms of his agreement with William until 1079, when he made another raid into Northumbria, intent on pushing his border southwards. When he heard what the Scots were up to, William sent his eldest son, Robert Curthose, to stop Malcolm in his tracks. Malcolm and Robert met and made another treaty, preventing further Scottish southwards expansion.
Was this latest attack a defeat for Malcolm? The Normans had prevented him from pushing on south, so in a way it was. And they built a castle at Newcastle to guard the border. But Newcastle was further south than Malcolm’s original border, so the Scots had gained some ground. It wasn’t a total defeat.
New queen, new culture
When Malcolm became king, he was married to Ingibjorg, a member of the Norse family that ruled Orkney. The pair had two children, Duncan and Donald, but around 1069, Ingibjorg died. Shortly afterwards, fate took a hand, and a group of Anglo-Saxon exiles, fleeing northwards from the ravages of William I, arrived in Scotland. Two members of the party were a pair of princesses, Margaret and Christina, sisters to Edgar, who was the Anglo-Saxon claimant to the English crown. Soon enough, Margaret and Malcolm got married.
The Anglo-Saxon court where Margaret had been brought up was a sophisticated place, which had strong connections with mainland Europe, with the learning of the church, and with the latest in modern manners. The Anglo-Saxon court was rather more sophisticated than the Scottish court, and before long, the new queen was introducing her husband and his court to the ways of the Anglo-Saxons. She accomplished this task in all sorts of ways:
Margaret and Malcolm’s children were given Anglo-Saxon names - Edward, Edmund, Aethelred, and Edgar. The couple may have thought that one day one or more of them might get the chance to become king of England.
The court began to adopt Anglo-Saxon or European clothing, hair styles, and the like.
Manners at the court improved, and at mealtimes, the court used the latest tableware - no more throwing the scraps on the floor. Well, not quite so much of this kind of behaviour anyway.
Margaret was interested above all in religion. She knew that the mainland European and Anglo-Saxon churches had brought in reforms to make priests more effective in their daily work with parishioners and to make monasteries stricter in their observance of the monastic rules. She hoped to introduce such changes in Scotland, too:
● A church assembly was called to discuss how to bring in new reforms.
● Monks were invited from down south to show the Scottish monks how to regulate their lives.
● Margaret had her sons instructed about the religious reforms so that they would able to continue her work.
The religious reforms were a starting point. But more lasting reforms would come later, building on the start the queen had made with the backing of Malcolm III.
More Norman troubles
At the end of his reign, Malcolm renewed his tussle with the Normans. Another of his raiding forays in 1091 was followed by a further treaty with William I - and by yet more fighting when neither side could resist provoking the other. Finally, in late 1093, Malcolm went all out for an invasion of Northumbria. The Normans ambushed Malcolm, killed him, and wounded his son Edward, who died soon afterwards. A few days later, Queen Margaret died, too.
When Malcolm III died, together with his heir Edward, in 1093, confusion surrounded who should take over because in those days, the crown still didn’t automatically pass from father to son. Several would-be kings, some with the backing of the English king William II, jumped on the royal bandwagon, and few of them ruled for long or made much of an impression on Scotland. Here’s a little information on these men who reigned in Scotland at the turn of the 12th century:
● Donald III (1094-97): Malcolm III’s brother, Donald was an old man by the time he became king and was known in Gaelic as Domnall Ban, or Donald the White-haired.
● Duncan II (1094): Duncan was Malcolm III’s son by his first wife,
Ingibjorg. He had the backing of William II, beat Donald III in battle, but was murdered after a few months on the throne.
● Edmund (1094-97): Malcolm’s eldest surviving son did a deal with Donald III and seems to have ruled in parallel with his uncle. But he had a power struggle with his younger brother, Edgar. Edgar captured him and let him live out his life quietly as a monk in England. Donald, meanwhile, was imprisoned and lived a only couple more years after he and Edmund were deposed in 1097.
● Edgar (1097-1107): Edgar cemented his bonds with England by having his sister marry English king Henry I. This tie kept the peace with England, and Edgar made a treaty with the Norwegians, allowing them control of the Hebrides. Edgar’s rule was more peaceful and stable as a result.
● Alexander I (1107-24): Yet another of Malcolm’s sons, Alexander was once more dependent on England for support - his wife, Sibylla, was the illegitimate daughter of Henry I of England. As a feudal dependent of Henry, Alexander fought on Henry’s side in the English king’s wars in Wales. But he protected the independence of the Scottish church, refusing to let Scottish churchmen swear to obey the English archbishops.
His reign lasted for 17 years before he died in Stirling Castle.
Several of these Scottish kings actually relied on the English for their position. What they were doing was becoming part of the feudal system, the arrangement through which English kings wielded their power. Under the feudal system, the Scottish rulers became dependents, or vassals, of the English king. (For more about this system, see Chapter 6.) This arrangement meant that the English king gave them support, and in return, the Scottish ruler supported the English in politics and on the battlefield. It was an arrangement that put the Scottish kings on a lower rung of the political ladder than the English, but in difficult times, it gave them the support they needed.
David: Devout and determined
David I (1124-53) was a strong king who had a lasting influence on Scotland. He had close ties with England and got heavily involved with the civil war that raged in that country in 1130s and 1140s. But he was able to introduce church reforms and governmental improvements that meant that Scotland was better run and, on the whole, wealthier.
The English connection
David, the youngest son of Malcolm III, was an important man before he became king. He held vast lands in southern Scotland, and through his wife, Matilda of Senlis, was Earl of Huntingdon and thus one of the most important aristocrats in England.
When he became king of Scotland, David soon began bringing in English friends, senior nobles like Robert de Brus and Walter Fitz Alan, who became his key advisers. The English and Scots didn’t exactly mix very well in the Middle Ages, so it sounds like a problem for the Scottish nobles. Some Scots did resent the English influx, and the newly arrived English were given
extensive lands. But these territories were mostly in southern Scotland, so the incomers did not alienate the native Gaelic population, who were mainly concentrated in the north, too much.
The real problem with David’s English connection came when English king Henry I died in 1135, and a dispute started over the English succession, leading to a civil war between the supporters of Henry’s daughter, Matilda, and Stephen, the grandson of William I of England. (For more about this war, see Chapter 6.) David fought on the side of Matilda, to whom he had sworn allegiance. The darkest days of Scottish involvement in the war came in 1138, when a Scots force under David’s nephew, William Fitz Duncan, brutalised parts of northern England, killing innocent people and carrying off women as slaves. They were defeated by an English force led, improbably, by the archbishop of York, at the Battle of the Standard, which was fought near Northallerton in August 1138.
The Battle of the Standard was a huge setback for David and Scotland, and any king involved in such a defeat would have to do a lot to redeem his reputation. Thankfully, David did not devote all his energies to the disastrous civil war. Several periods of peace enabled him to concentrate on his business in Scotland, and on his interest in the church, both areas where he was much more successful.
David’s links with the English and Normans put him in touch with the latest developments in the church. Some especially interesting reforms were going on in the monasteries.
Many monks in England and on mainland Europe felt that the once-strict rules of monastic life had slackened too much. A reform movement began, with new monasteries observing more strictly enforced regulations, better organization, and a more austere lifestyle. Foremost amongst these new reformed monastic orders were the Cistericans, named after their mother monastery at Citeaux in France, and the Tironensians, from Tiron, also in France. Both groups were to have a lasting impact in Scotland.
David encouraged the reformed monasteries in the best way he knew, by founding new monasteries and inviting monks who were well versed in the reforms to come to Scotland. His foundations included:
● Selkirk Abbey, home to Tironensian monks and the first reformed monastic house in Britain.
● Melrose Abbey, a Cistercian foundation.
● Newbattle Abbey and its two daughter-monasteries, Kinloss and Holmcultram.
● Cambuskenneth, a monastery of Augustinian canons.
It was an impressive record by any standards, but David knew what he was doing. It was partly pay-back time for the war-crimes committed by his men during the civil war in England, but the monasteries came with other, more worldly benefits, too. The Cistercians, especially, were large-scale farmers, and their activities brought better farming methods to Scotland.
Monasteries brought an increase in economic activity, and so developed trade. This process was enhanced as towns sprang up around many of David’s castles, towns that soon played host to markets and the host of craft workers and merchants that urban populations attract. Scotland as a whole, not just the monks, began to benefit from the resulting rash of buying and selling. The country was becoming more prosperous under David I.
David’s other improvements were to do with the way Scotland was ruled. Whereas most of his predecessors had been war lords, David was keen to be seen as something more - a just and fair king. He had a law code drawn up and made it known that he would hear petitions from all his subjects, even the humblest. A network of sheriffs ran the legal system in the regions, so the law, in theory at least, stretched its long arms right across the kingdom. The Scots must have seen a huge difference between their developing legal system and the situation in England, where the war dominated life at every level.
Ironically, though, many of David’s improvements were influenced by what he saw happening in England. South of the border before the war, the royal court had developed in ways that David wanted to imitate. David introduced to Scotland the great offices of state that helped both court and country run more smoothly. The chancellor headed up the legal system, the chamberlain was the head of the royal finances, and the constable managed security. Even a steward supervised the running of the royal household.
David’s other good idea about government wasn’t very original. He encouraged his son Henry to take an active part in ruling the country, thereby preparing for the day when the young man would take over the country in his own right. But that succession couldn’t happen because in 1152, while still in his 30s, Henry died. The king had no more sons, so he settled on his eldest grandson, Malcolm, as his heir. David began to prepare the young boy for kingship, but David died in 1153, when Malcolm was still only 11 or 12 years old.
The legacy: Malcolm IV
Coming to the throne as a boy, David’s grandson Malcolm IV (1153-65) was seen as a soft touch to others who wanted to grab the throne or wield power in Scotland. He was hardly on the throne when a rebellion erupted in the west of the country. This revolt was quelled, but Malcolm also had to face a challenge from the south - in the shape of the strong English king Henry II (see Chapter 7). Henry snatched back the earldom of Northumberland from Scotland and forced Malcolm to become his vassal.
Malcolm was known as Malcolm the Maiden. This nickname doesn’t mean that he was effeminate, simply that he never got around to marrying. He seems to have been in love with the idea of being a knight - especially the old-fashioned kind of knight who devoted his entire life to military pursuits. In 1159 Malcolm marched off to fight on the side of his overlord, Henry, in a war in France.
Malcolm’s trip to France earned him his knighthood, but lost him the respect of many of the Scottish nobles, who felt he should have stayed at home and learned the business of ruling his country. The young king was still only a teenager, after all. But before Malcolm could do much to redeem himself, the young king got ill, and he suffered repeated bouts of illness until he died in 1165.
William the Lion sleeps tonight
Scotland’s longest ruling medieval monarch was William I (1165-1214), brother of Malcolm IV and grandson of David I. He had been made Earl of Northumberland as a boy but had been forced to give up his earldom when Northumberland passed to the English king Henry II in the previous reign. William was preoccupied throughout much of his reign with getting this territory back, as well as with strengthening the power of the Scottish royal family more generally. His nickname, William the Lion, was given to him after his death and refers to his reputation as a Lion of Justice.
William’s attempts to restore Scottish power in the south and win back Northumberland added up to a chapter of accidents. He began by asking Henry - and was promptly refused. Then he tried a range of ruses, military and diplomatic:
● William launched a series of military attacks on northern England, which ended in him being ambushed and taken prisoner in 1174.
● In 1175, he was humiliated by Henry and forced to do the Englishman homage - thus making William the feudal inferior of Henry.
● In 1189, a new English king, Richard I, was short of money and agreed to sell William his freedom - but still would not give him Northumberland.
● In 1194, William persuaded Richard to agree that William’s daughter Margaret should marry Richard’s nephew Otto, and that Northumberland should be part of the marriage settlement of the couple. But the marriage plans later fell through.
● In 1209, the next English king, John, forced William into another humiliation - William had to renounce his claims to the northern parts of England once more.
This sorry chain of events makes William look like an incompetent - a mangy lion, if ever there was one. But those defeats weren’t all there was to William.
In spite of all his schemes to win back Northumberland, when it came to governing the territory that was in his hands, William made a better job of things. By the end of his long reign, the royal rule over the north was as strong as it ever had been. William achieved this in several ways:
● He built and strengthened the royal castles to provide a network of bases.
● He made sure that his most trusted lords were installed in these castles and in lordships throughout his kingdom, effectively bringing royal power to the remotest regions.
● He was shrewd in promoting loyal men to senior positions in the church.
William was not always a sleeping lion. Even in his last couple of years, when he was an old man and very frail, he kept an eye on the business of government, ably assisted, it seems, by his queen, Ermengarde, who was much younger than him, and his son Alexander. With his death clearly near, the court was well prepared for the hand-over of power, and Alexander was inaugurated as king the day after William died.