A Narrow Sea - Episode 08
Kings of Scots
Written by Dr Jonathan Bardon
It was during the years of Viking raids and settlement that the kingdom of Scotland came into being.
In 843 Irish annals record that Kenneth mac Alpin, King of Dál Riata (which flourished on both sides of the North Channel between Ireland and Scotland) was ‘the first king from among the Gaels that assumed the kingdom of Scone’. Scone, in Perthshire on the east bank of the River Tay, was the capital of the kingdom of the Picts: here their rulers were inaugurated on Moot Hill by sitting on a sacred piece of sandstone, the Stone of Scone.
No conquest seems to have been involved; King Kenneth mac Alpin’s Dál Riata and the territory of the Picts simply merged and - for the next century and more - the kingdom would be known as ‘Alba’, the Gaelic name for Scotland. What is certain is that Gaelic law, Gaelic customs and the Gaelic language replaced those of the Picts in this new kingdom, and, indeed, spread far beyond Alba’s frontiers.
King Kenneth mac Alpin’s main achievement was that, after six military campaigns, he added Lothian to his kingdom of Alba: this included Edinburgh and territory to the south of it.
Much of the land we now know as Scotland lay beyond Alba. Caithness, the Northern Isles and most of the Hebrides had Viking rulers; and the English held much land north of the River Tweed (which roughly marks the border between Scotland and England today).
The Strathclyde Britons even held lands as far north as what we now know as Dumbarton – which sits on the west coast above Glasgow. In 870 Al Clud, the capital of these Strathclyde Britons, fell to the Vikings. Great numbers were seized and taken to Dublin to be sold as slaves. Despite the fall of its capital, this British kingdom survived for another century and more.
Kenneth mac Alpin’s dynasty survived, his blood line stretching (however anaemic in places) to the present Queen, though most of his successors had short reigns and nearly all of them met with violent deaths, including Duncan and Macbeth – later to be immortalised by Shakespeare. Meanwhile, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms south of the River Tweed and the Solway Firth had been united into one kingdom, England.
But in 1066 William, Duke of Normandy, defeated and killed King Harold at Hastings. Within a few brutal years William had overwhelmed all England.
Sixty years later, the Normans were penetrating deep into Scotland. Curiously, they arrived there, not by conquest, but by invitation. King David I, crowned at Scone in 1124, described himself as ‘King of Scots’, a term to cover the wide variety of peoples he ruled. Anxious to bring progress to his kingdom, David introduced the feudal system of landholding, saw to the minting of Scotland’s first coinage and founded towns, making them royal burghs with their own charters, including Edinburgh, Perth, Stirling and Dunfermline.
As a result of a marriage alliance made by his forebears, King David I was also Earl of Huntingdon and he invited Norman nobles from his southern estates to make a new home in Scotland.
There was plenty of room for the newcomers, and a marked improvement in the climate in the twelfth century did much to make previously infertile land now suitable for farming. In return for agreed regular military service, King David granted an area called Annandale (in the far south of modern Scotland) to Robert de Brus (originally from Brix near Cherbourg) and most of Renfrewshire to Walter Fitzalan (who had come from Brittany). He also made Fitzalan the ‘High Steward’ of Scotland. Others of Norman, French or Flemish origin making a new home in Scotland included Frasers, Sinclairs, Chisholms, Douglases, Murrays, Lindsays, Giffards, Morvilles, Riddells, Oliphants and Somervilles. In later centuries many of their descendants would settle in Ulster.
Many nobles took care to marry in to the Scottish royal family, thus giving some of their descendants a claim to the Crown. Descendants of the High Steward, calling themselves Stewarts, would in time found a long-ruling dynasty.
Meanwhile, during the reign of Henry II (King of England and most of France) the Normans had also come to Ireland. Though they arrived in 1169 at the invitation of Dermot MacMurrough, King of Leinster, they came to conquer: by the end of the twelfth century they had overrun the most fertile parts of the island. In Ireland the Normans made least impression on Ulster; nevertheless in 1177 John de Courcy, a knight from Cumbria, had conquered the coastlands of Antrim and Down. He erected a network of motte castles and built a great stone fortress at Carrickfergus. By the end of the thirteenth century this area had become the Earldom of Ulster, ruled by another Norman, Richard de Burgo (grand nephew of the Earl of Kent), who not only extended his territory along the north coast to Inishowen but also possessed much of the western province of Connacht. Earl Richard had his daughter Elizabeth married to the lord of Annandale in Scotland, also now Earl of Carrick, who was none other than Robert the Bruce.
Due to a shortage of royal male heirs, Robert the Bruce was one of many who made claim by blood connection to be King of Scots. After a ruthless struggle for power, he finally succeeded in 1306. Now he had to defend his throne against Edward I of England, who also laid claim to all the lands of Scotland.