Isles, kingdom of the

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Isles, kingdom of the. The origins of the kingdom of the Isles can be sought as far back as the 840s. It was apparently the successor kingdom in western Scotland to Dalriada (last mentioned in the Irish annals in 839). It developed in the power vacuum left by the departure of Kenneth MacAlpin, king of Dalriada and ‘conqueror’ of the Picts, to Fortriu in 842. Kenneth may have had a hand in its inception, because its first king appears to have been his ally, and possible father-in-law, Gofraid mac Fherghusa, described on his death in 851 as Toisech or Rí Innse Gall, ‘king of the Isles’. The extent of the kingdom is unclear, but by the late 10th cent. it included the Isle of Man.

The inhabitants of this new kingdom were of mixed Gaelic and Norse origin, there having been heavy Norse settlement between c.795 and c.825, a 30-year period of unparalleled turmoil in western Scotland, which saw the Isle of Skye overwhelmed and Iona attacked at least five times. In the 850s the mixed population of the Isles made an appearance in Ireland. They were called Gall-Gaidheil, ‘Scandinavian Gaels’, and were led by Caittil Find, presumably Gofraid's successor as Rí Innse Gall. Like early gallowglasses, they were supporting Mael Sechnaill, king of Tara, against the Scandinavians of Dublin and his Irish rivals. They may have joined forces with Ireland's most powerful king because they felt threatened by the formidable Norwegian warrior- king Olaf, who had become king of Dublin in 853.

After a period of complete obscurity, from the 930s a close relationship developed between the Isles and Dublin. In 937, a Rí Innse Gall called Gébennach was slain at the battle of Brunanburh, fighting against Athelstan, the Anglo-Saxon king, apparently as a subordinate of Olaf Godfreyson (or Guthfrithsson), king of Dublin, described by Florence of Worcester as ‘king of the Irish and the many islands’.

Under Maccus and Godfrey, the sons of Harald and members of a side branch of the Uí Imar, the Dublin royal family, the kingdom of the Isles began to impinge violently upon its neighbours. Maccus ravaged Penmon in Wales in 971 and attended a meeting of kings at Chester in 973, where he was called ‘king of the very many islands’, whilst Godfrey raided Wales in 972, 980, 982, and 987, when he took 2,000 captives from Anglesey. Both these kings appear to have made Man their base. With the death of Godfrey's son Ragnall in 1005, this lineage seems to have come to an end.

In addition to a continuing close relationship between the Isles and Dublin, the kingship of both being held on occasion by the same figure, the 11th cent. apparently saw a conquest of the Isles by Thorfinn the Mighty, jarl of Orkney, from the 1040s until his death c.1065. However, the most important event for the future history of the Isles was the reign of Godfrey Crovan, probably from Islay. Godfrey was a capable warrior who had taken part in the battle of Stamford Bridge as a mercenary. He conquered Man with a force of Hebrideans and took the kingship c.1079. In 1091 he also seized control of Dublin. However, in 1094 his Irish venture was brought to an end, when he was driven from Dublin by Muirchertach Ua Briain, king of Ireland. He died in Islay in 1095. His descendants were the kings of Man and the Isles for the next 200 years. By the treaty of Perth (1266) Man and the Isles, which had fallen under a shaky Norwegian overlordship, became part of the kingdom of Scotland. The lordship of the Isles was vested in the Scottish crown in James IV's reign in the 15th cent.

Andrew Jennings