Scots, kingdom of

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Scots, kingdom of. In the 9th cent. a new kingdom emerged out of the ashes of the kingdom of Fortriu and in succeeding centuries became the dominant political force in north Britain. It was born out of the wreckage wrought by Scandinavian incursions in eastern Scotland. In 839 the Gaelic dynasty which had almost monopolized the kingship of Fortriu for half a century was annihilated in battle. Fortriu's heartland in eastern Perthshire was repeatedly devastated, reaching a nadir of desperation in 875 when Danes inflicted another crushing defeat at the battle of Dollar (east of Stirling) and drove the defenders back to the highlands of Perthshire. These Scandinavian attacks were not, however, followed by attempts to colonize eastern Scotland; the aggressors were often involved in struggles to control York and Dublin, the chief Scandinavian centres of power in Britain and Ireland, and used eastern Scotland as a staging post for attack or a haven for retreat. In eastern Scotland, as in other parts of Europe devastated by Scandinavian attacks, the raiders' immediate legacy was political and social dislocation. What brought misfortune to many could, however, also offer the opportunity for a few to refashion political relationships to their own advantage. By the beginning of the 10th cent. a Gaelic lineage—the descendants of Kenneth MacAlpin—had succeeded in entrenching itself as the rulers of eastern Scotland. For the first time in eastern Scotland kingship was monopolized by a single dynasty. With this new kind of kingship came a new identity for the kingdom and its people. From 900 the kingdom was no longer ‘Fortriu’ (or ‘Pictland’), but Alba, the Gaelic word for Scotland; and its people were no longer referred to as ‘men of Fortriu’ (or ‘Picts’), but now became Albanaig, the Gaelic for ‘Scots’ (literally ‘inhabitants of Alba’). The medieval kingdom of the Scots was born.

Alba had originally been the Gaelic word for Britain. It is hard to believe, however, that this term for the new kingship was adopted c.900 because of any claim to rule all Britain. The territory which the first kings of Scots held firmly in their grasp was probably little larger than an 11th-cent. English earldom. Until as late as the early 13th cent. Alba, ‘Scotland’ (or Albania/Scotia in Latin), was used to refer to the area east of the Grampian mountains stretching north from the river Forth to (approximately) the border with Moray. In the 13th cent. ‘Scotland’ came to be used regularly by Scots themselves to refer to the whole of what is now mainland Scotland.

The survival of this new kingdom can be attributed largely to the long reign of Constantine II. He succeeded his cousin Donald II, the first recorded ‘king of Scotland (Alba)’, in 900, and reigned for at least four decades. The emergence of ‘Scotland’ in this period can, therefore, be compared with other new countries of a similar size, such as Flanders and Normandy, which rose out of the ashes of Scandinavian devastation.

Constantine II's reign was also crucial to the kingdom's survival because he halted the Scandinavian tide of destruction. In 904 a Danish army led by the sons of Ivarr was defeated in battle in Strathearn (southern Perthshire). The kingdom was not attacked again by Vikings for more than 50 years. Constantine's success at keeping the Danes at bay was, however, achieved principally by a policy of rapprochement. His daughter married the Danish king of Dublin, while Constantine himself may have had a Danish wife: his son Indulf bore a Scandinavian name. The culmination of this new relationship with the Danes was a grand alliance of Scots, Danes, and Britons of Strathclyde against Athelstan, king of England. In 937 a campaign was launched backing Olaf Guthfrithsson's claim to be king of York, but the army of the allies was destroyed at Brunanburh. The threat of Scandinavian aggression returned briefly during the reign of Constantine's son Indulf (954–62), killed defending the kingdom from a Norwegian raid. This was the last occasion, however, when a king of Scots lost his life during a Scandinavian incursion. The possibility of raids from the north remained, but they no longer threatened to overwhelm the kingdom.

When the new kingdom of ‘Scotland’ emerged in the 10th cent. from its grim struggle for survival it was well placed to expand and dominate north Britain. It was based initially on the fertile lands of Strathmore and Strathearn. Its natural rival in the north was the kingdom of Moray which harnessed the resources of the rich Lowlands surrounding the Moray Firth. The kings of Moray, however, faced constant pressure from the Scandinavian earls of Orkney, and as a result their ability to challenge the kings of Scots was seriously weakened. They served, indeed, as a buffer protecting the kingdom of the Scots from the full power of the earls of Orkney. But the greatest danger to the kingdom would have arisen from a rejuvenated Northumbria stretching from Edinburgh to York. In the 7th cent. Northumbria had established itself as the dominant force in north Britain, but had since imploded into internal chaos and had been largely conquered and settled by Danes. The Danish kings of York, however, constantly looked west to Dublin in an attempt to establish pre-eminence among the Scandinavians in Britain and Ireland, and in turn were targeted by kings of Dublin. This left northern Northumbria—Lothian and the Merse—as a buffer zone between the kingdom of Scotland and York, which the Scottish kings endeavoured to bring under their control. In Indulf's reign Edinburgh was captured, and later Edgar, king of the English, recognized Kenneth II's claim to Lothian. In the late 10th cent. Northumbria south of the Tweed was revived as an earldom and was at times able to match the kings of Scots. It is likely that Kenneth II was driven out of Lothian by the earl of Northumbria in 994/5, but Scottish rule as far as the Tweed was decisively reasserted by Malcolm II at the battle of Carham (south-west of Berwick) in 1018. By this time the king of the Britons of Strathclyde (or king of the Cumbrians) had become a client of the king of Scots, and after the accession of Duncan I, king of the Cumbrians, to the Scottish kingship in 1034 it appears that the two kingdoms were ruled by one line of kings. When Macbeth, king of Moray, became king of Scots in 1040, Moray, too, became bound into the kingdom of the Scots, though it remained a springboard for dynastic rivals to the Scottish kingship until 1230. By the mid-11th cent., therefore, the kingdom had begun to assume a form recognizable as the Scottish kingdom of the Middle Ages and beyond. With the Norman conquest of Northumbria in 1070 the north of England was left without the strong regional leadership provided by the native earls, and the kings of Scots sought to exploit this to their advantage. Their ambition to expand into northern England was only relinquished in 1237.

The success of the kingdom of the Scots in this period was second only to that of the kings of Wessex, who during the 10th cent. brought most of what is now England under their rule. The new English realm was undoubtedly more powerful than its northern counterpart. This was already evident in the 930s, which saw on the one hand an English army penetrate deep into Scotland and, on the other hand, the destruction of a combined Scottish, Danish, and British force in England. English kings, however, made no sustained effort to conquer Scotland, and attempted merely to neutralize kings of Scots through agreements or submissions which were rarely of enduring significance. These agreements included English recognition that Strathclyde (in 945) and Lothian (c.975) fell within the king of Scots' sphere of influence. Britain's division into two power blocks had begun, and eventually crystallized into the kingdoms of England and Scotland.

Britain's nascent geographical polarity was not, however, reflected culturally. The territories ruled by the king of Scots included regions which were predominantly Welsh (in the south-west) and English (in the south-east), as well as Anglo-Danish settlers in the kingdom's heartland. Gaelic was the predominant language, and Gaelic institutions such as professional castes of poets and judges, or churches founded on the cults of Gaelic saints such as Columba and Brigit, were at the apex of the kingdom's culture and society. Gaelic saints, cultural institutions, and language were not, however, exclusively Scottish, but showed how the Scottish kingdom was but one region of a homogeneous Gaelic high culture which stretched from Munster to Moray. This Gaelic high culture was not isolated or backward, as some have supposed, but identified itself firmly as part of contemporary Christendom. A number of leading Gaelic kings and churchmen went on pilgrimage to Rome, including Macbeth. Neither was the Scottish kingdom closed to English and Scandinavian influence, as is suggested by the existence of ‘shires’ before 1100 and the custom of ‘fencing’ a court of law. Its cultural receptivity has, indeed, been immortalized in a string of church towers in the midlands built c.1100: two, at Abernethy and Brechin, are Irish round towers; others, however, as at Dunblane, Muthill, and Dunning, are northern English in style.

As far as the kingdom's core north of the Forth was concerned, cultural diversity did not mean that it suffered a lack of cohesion. The church was led by a chief bishop (at St Andrews); and the area between the Forth and the Spey was bound together by a network of provincial rulers (mormaers) and local officials (thanes) who kept order and mustered the able-bodied for defence. This is not to say that internal strife was unknown; but it could be withstood, even when it involved protracted rivalry for the kingship itself, following the failure of the royal dynasty in 1034. The solidity of the kingdom's core proved a firm foundation for the expansion of royal power after 1100.

Dauvit Broun


Barrow, G. W. S. , Kingship and Unity: Scotland 1100–1306 (1981);
Broun, D. , ‘The Origin of Scottish Identity in its European Context’, in Crawford, B. E. (ed.), Scotland in Dark Age Europe (St Andrews, 1994);
Duncan, A. A. M. , Scotland: The Making of the Kingdom (Edinburgh, 1975);
Smyth, A. P. , Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland 80–1000 (1984).