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Dark Age Scotland
Dark Age MapThe Dark Ages is one of the most evocative times in history, where historical sources are few and fragmented. It was a time when a king's reputation depended on success in battle, with an obligation to enrich his followers with the spoils of war.

When the Romans invaded in AD 79, Scotland consisted of warring Iron Age tribes, yet by the end of the first millennium, one kingdom - the Gaelic-speaking Kingdom of Alba - dominated, heralding the birth of the Scottish nation.

The Romans defeated the Caledonians at the Battle of Mons Graupius (AD 84), yet withdrew afterwards under the Emperor's orders. Roman politics could be very fickle. They returned to build two walls to mark the northern extremity of their Empire - the first was Hadrian's Wall, the second, more northerly wall was Antonine's. The Romans eventually left, under constant pressure from uprisings elsewhere in the empire and political strife at home. The Caledonians remained free.

After the Romans' departure four kingdoms emerged. The Picts, famous for their carved symbol stones, covered northern Scotland from the river Forth to Shetland. The Britons who wrote poetry in Old Welsh, held Dumbarton Rock and the south. The Gaelic-speaking people of Dál Riata (famed for their metalwork like the Hunterston Brooch) had their royal fortress at Dunadd in Argyll. Finally there was the Angles, Germanic invaders who held the Kingdom of Bernicia, or Northumbria, in the south-east, and who brought with them the Anglo-Saxon tongue that became the Scots language.
Hunterston Brooch

The Hunterston Brooch from around AD 700 shows the Gaels to be a cosmopolitan and highly artistic culture. The brooch is thought to have been made in the Gaelic west of Scotland and draws on both Irish and English influences in metal working.

In the early seventh century the Angles took Edinburgh from the Britons and pushed west to Galloway. In AD 685 they struck north into Pictland as their power expanded. This reached its climax near the village of Dunnichen in Angus as the Picts, under King Bridei, massacred the King of the Angles and his army, tricking them into a surprise attack. The Battle of Dunnichen, like Bannockburn, ranks as one of the most decisive in Scottish history - if the Picts had lost, Scotland as a nation may have never been.

In AD 793 the ferocious Viking raids began on monasteries like Iona and Lindisfarne, creating fear and confusion across the kingdoms. Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles fell to the Norsemen.

In AD 839 the Vikings wiped out the Pictish royal family. Competitors emerged for the kingship, and, after a long civil war, Kenneth MacAlpine (Cináed mac Ailpín), King of the Gaels of Dál Riata, became undisputed King of the Picts in AD 849. He brought with him the relics of St Columba from the Island of Iona to Dunkeld - the saint and his preachings were a powerful symbol of authority to accompany a Gaelic king to his new kingdom. Pictland hadn't quite been conquered, but rather the foundations had been set for a new Gaelic Kingdom, which included the Picts.

It wasn't long before the Vikings were back, this time to conquer Britain. In AD 867 they seized the Anglian Kingdom of Northumbria; three years later they stormed the Britons’ fortress of Dumbarton and conquered much of England. The Picts and Gaels were encircled.

Then in AD 900 Constantine mac Aed (Constantín mac Áed) became King of the Picts. Within four years he had defeated the Vikings at Strathcarron, however, it wasn’t the sword but diplomacy that was Constantine’s strength. He married off his daughters into the Viking warbands, bringing them into alliance, and reformed his kingdom along Gaelic lines - renaming it Alba. Alba was the prototype for the Scottish nation, and the true founding father of the nation was Constantine II, grandson of Kenneth MacAlpine.

Pictish carved stone

Pictish carved stone from the 9th century. These wonderful examples of Dark Age art stop being carved in about AD 900 when Constantine II becomes King of Alba and Pictish culture is subsumed into Gaelic culture. The Picts as a distinct group disappear from history at this point.

The tide had turned against the Vikings. Two powerblocks had survived their onslaught, Alba and England.

In AD 934 Æthelstan, the Anglo-Saxon King of England, set about subduing the north of Britain to his will. With a vast army he besieged Constantine at Dunnottar, but to no avail - the rock fortress was too strong. Æthelstan retreated whilst Constantine gathered his allies - Britons, Angles and Vikings - in order to invade England. Constantine was defeated at the bloody Battle of Brunanburh, but his diplomacy had left Æthelstan’s ambitions shattered.

Constantine’s lasting achievement was to bring Alba safely through Viking and Anglo-Saxon onslaughts and to weld the Picts and Gaels into one Gaelic-speaking nation.

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