Kenneth I MacAlpin

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Kenneth I MacAlpin (d. 858), king of Dal Riata (c.840/1–58) and ‘king of the Picts’ (842/3–58). Kenneth is anachronistically regarded as first king of Scotland because he is deemed to have unified the Picts (north of the Firth of Forth) with the Gaels (in Latin, Scoti) of Dalriada (Argyll). ‘Scotland’ (Alba in Gaelic) did not emerge until 900, however, and is likely to have begun as a much smaller area than the united territories of the Picts and Dalriada.

It is typical of the ‘Dark Ages’ of documentary history that so little information survives to illuminate Kenneth's career. There are no contemporary sources which can confirm or explain his alleged unification of Picts and Scoti. From as early as the late 10th cent. it was commonly thought that Kenneth founded the kingship of the Scots by conquering the Picts. It is possible, however, that Kenneth's role as founding father was devised by the dynasty descended from him who monopolized the kingship from 889 to 1034 and who, in 900, presided over the abandoning of Pictish identity and the creation of the new kingdom of Alba.

Kenneth's ancestors were probably kings of Dalriada and his father Alpin may have been king before him. Both Dalriada and the Picts were suffering from the first large-scale Scandinavian incursions which, in 839, wiped out the Gaelic dynasty which had ruled the key Pictish region of Fortriu since 789. The confusion in Fortriu which followed is reflected in two king-lists which espouse different successions in the 840s. By 849, however, all are agreed that Kenneth had secured his grasp on the kingship. Whatever his attitude to the Picts may have been, he clearly looked to Gaeldom for support, and in 849 erected a church in Dunkeld which housed relics of St Columba, implying that Kenneth sought to cultivate the enormous influence of the Columban network of monasteries as a power base. Such a policy was not new, however, and had probably been anticipated by the Gaelic king of Fortriu, Constantín son of Fergus (789–820).

Kenneth raided Northumbria repeatedly, but his kingdom suffered assaults from the Britons of Strathclyde as well as Scandinavians. He died of a tumour on 13 February 858, at Forteviot (5 miles south-west of Perth), and was succeeded by his brother Donald I.

Dauvit Broun

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