Scotland's History Articles Kenneth MacAlpin (Cináed mac Ailpín)

Kenneth MacAlpin (Cináed mac Ailpín)

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One figure looms large in Scottish history. A king who united Scotland and fought off the Norse invaders to save his country from doom. That man was Kenneth MacAlpin.

The problem with this heroic tale is that it bears little relation to the known facts. A further problem is that there are very few known facts. What we do know is further compounded by confusing and contradictory accounts and a fair degree of myth and legend.

Kenneth was born around 800AD in the Gaelic Kingdom of Dál Riata at a time when the Gaels were dominated by the more powerful Pictish kingdom. His father, Ailpín, was beheaded fighting for a Pictish king and historical sources suggest that his mother was a Pictish princess.

In the confusion and terror caused by the ferocious ninth century Viking raids, the Pictish kingship was almost completely destroyed in 839 AD.

It is at this point that Kenneth appears in the annals. In the power vaccuum left as a result of the Viking slaughter of the Pict royal line MacAlpin sees off competitors to become King of Picts. Some accounts alude to Kenneth killing Pict rivals for the throne though this account is of dubious origin.

What is fairly clear is that at some point between 839 and 848 AD Kenneth (with blood claims to both thrones) claims the kingdoms of the Picts and the Gaels.

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As Kenneth MacAlpin triumphed in Pictland, he faced a new challenge. A Viking fleet of 140 ships intent on destruction attacked Dál Riata. It spelled doom for the Gaelic kingdom; the Gaels collected the relics of their saints and moved them to Kenneth's new Pictish kingdom. Dál Riata vanishes from the chronicles and we only hear of Pictland from this point.

Kenneth was able to reward his Gaelic followers with lands taken from the men who supported his rivals, but he no doubt faced resentment from the Picts over their new Gaelic overlords. Unity was needed: something the Picts and Gaels had in common, to define them as a single people, and, as is so often the case throughout history, this came in the form of a common enemy. Kenneth raided the Angles of Northumbria for booty.

Kenneth died in 858 at a place called 'Cinnbelachoir' - believed to be near Scone. For the Gaels he was the conqueror of the Picts and their bards lamented his passing: "That Kenneth with his host is no more brings weeping to every home. No king of his worth under heaven is there, to the bounds of Rome."

What the Picts thought is unrecorded. They must have believed the Gaels and Kenneth's successors would adopt Pictish ways, but - as is apparent from the story of King Constantine II - it is the Picts who vanish from history.

The true legacy of Kenneth MacAlpin is that he founded a dynasty that would see the unification of the Pictish and Gaelic kingdoms evolve into a new entity - the Kingdom of Alba. This embryonic kingdom would become the country we now know as Scotland.

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