In the ninth century, Scotland, as we know it today was still divided along tribal grounds. The Picts ruled over much of the territory north of the Forth, except for the Gaelic kingdom of Dal Riata that extended along the western coast. It was a time when Viking raids were taking their toll. One man stepped forward to unify the Picts and Gaels and create the foundation of modern-day Scotland.
Kenneth MacAlpin became the first King of Scotland in 843 AD. He became King of the Scoti, as the Gaels were known, on the death of his father, and later King of the Picts. The unified land was called the Kingdom of Alba, the origin of modern-day Scotland.
Kenneth MacAlpin has become a legendary figure in Scottish history. In this article, I shall provide the background that facilitated the creation of the Kingdom of Alba. I shall then delve into the life of the man who stepped up to the plate to become the first King of Scotland.
Illustration of Kenneth MacAlpin, by Jacob de Wet II, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Scotland in the 9th Century
The Picts were still the dominant tribe coming into the ninth century They had seen off the Romans centuries before, who failed to add the northern territories to their empire. The Romans called this tribe of fearsome warriors Picti, and the name stuck throughout history. It referred to the blue tattoos the Picts painted on their bodies.
By the ninth century, the Picts had another troublesome invader to deal with the Vikings. Their increasing raids were taking a toll.
This came to a head in 839AD when the King of the Picts and many of the tribe’s nobility were killed by the Vikings in battle.
This created the power vacuum which would draw in the Picts’ Gaelic western coast neighbors and ultimately unite the Picts and the Scoti. The term Scoti was another leftover from the Roman days. It was aimed at the Gaelic clans of Ireland who raided the western coastal areas of Roman Britain.
The Scoti or Scots lived around the area of Argyll in the Kingdom of Dal Riata (source). They were a Gaelic-speaking tribe that originated from Ireland. They did not always see eye to eye with their Pictish neighbors, a situation which led to conflict between the two tribes.
The Scots also had their own Viking issues.
The following video details the rise of Dal Riata following the departure of the Romans from Britain.
However, after the Picts were defeated in 839AD, a King would come to power to merge the two tribes in the face of a common enemy.
The Birth of a Future King
Kenneth MacAlpin was born around 810 AD. It is difficult to pinpoint precise dates from ninth-century Scotland as little recorded information remains.
He was born on the island of Iona, part of the early medieval kingdom of Dal Riata. On today’s map, Dal Riata would comprise much of Argyll and Bute.
MacAlpin was born into a royal line. His father, Alpin, was King of Dal Riata. However, his mother was said to be a Pictish princess. This helped her son’s later claims to become King of the Picts. However, when Kenneth MacAlpin was born the Picts were very much the dominant tribe, against whom his father often fought.
Kenneth MacAlpin is the anglicized version of his name Cinead mac Alpin.
The Western coast of Scotland had long played host to visitors from Ireland. However, traditional folklore says that it was in 500AD that a significant number of settlers from Ireland landed and created the Scottish Kingdom of Dal Riata.
These settlers were led by Fergus Mor Mac Eirc. After withstanding early unwanted attention from their new neighbors, Dal Riata began to strengthen as a kingdom.
These settlers were the Irish Scoti and Fergus Mor Mac Erc was the new King of Dal Riata and King of the Scoti. The term Scot was still some way from being associated with Scotland. However, the future King who began this process would undoubtedly have been taught his ancestral heritage.
Succession to the Throne
Kenneth MacAlpin became King of Dal Riata in 834AD following the death of his father. History suggests King Alpin had won a significant battle against the Picts before his luck ran out.
He was beheaded by the Picts, setting in motion the coronation of Kenneth MacAlpin as the new King of Dal Riata and King of the Scots.
As with much of this period of history, the lines between myth and historical fact become blurred. The legends and storytellers would have it Kenneth MacAlpin’s success was built on his warrior status alone, conquering the Picts and seeing off the Vikings. It was most likely much more subtle, a combination of force and gradual assimilation.
The new king had two fronts to address. There were the Picts to the East and the raiding Vikings to the West. It was these raids that may have made Dal Riata look eastward for more land and security.
Legend has it that Kenneth MacAlpin surged east, taking large areas of Pictish land. This may well have been true, but it may have been from sheer necessity in response to the conquering Vikings.
However, the Vikings were still battering the Pictish lands in the north and northeast.
In 839AD there was a major battle between the Picts and the Vikings. It did not go well for the defending forces. The Picts lost their King and much of their nobility in the battle. Their leadership was suddenly rudderless, and the King of the Scots saw his opportunity.
A Rival Emerges
Kenneth MacAlpin may have always wanted to add King of the Picts to his list of titles. He may even have believed it was his right on his mother’s side. When the Vikings wiped out the higher echelons of the Pictish nobility, MacAlpin was not going to miss out on his chance. He staked his claim to the recently vacated crown.
Pictland was made up of several tribal kingdoms. Many of the main players lost their lives in the battle of 839AD. However, the surviving members of the Pictish noble lines put forward their claims to be the new King of the Picts. One of these, Drust X, won the crown and instantly became the main rival to Kenneth MacAlpin.
This rivalry only lasted a couple of years. Kenneth MacAlpin was a clever ruler, who knew how to keep opposing parties happy and on board. However, he was also a warrior and ruthless, two essentials of the job for an early medieval king. He was not known as ‘Feeder of the Ravens’ for nothing.
MacAlpin faced off in battle with the new Pictish King in 841AD, defeating his rival. The once dominant Picts were now left between a rock and a hard place.
With no leaders, the advancing Gaelic Scots on the left and the raiding Vikings on the right, they needed a solution. It was time to sit down with their neighbors from Dal Riata for a chat regarding the next King of the Picts.
King of the Scots and Picts
The meeting of the remaining leaders of the two great kingdoms was held in Scone in 843 AD.
Scone was where the Kings of Scotland would be crowned for generations to come. How Kenneth MacAlpin walked away from Scone as King of the Scots and the Picts is shrouded in legend.
According to legend, the wine was very free-flowing at the feast which greeted the attendants at Scone in 843AD. Kenneth MacAlpin was perhaps keeping his head clearer than his rivals to ensure his plot worked.
By the end of the gathering at Scone, all seven of his rivals for the throne, including the recently defeated Drust X, were dead.
Legend has it that they were killed when their rigged benches gave way, dropping them into a pit to be impaled on spikes. This does seem an overly elaborate way to get rid of your rivals for someone who was so recently dominant in battle. It also requires a good deal of engineering effort and time.
However the rival nobles perished, Kenneth MacAlpin now remained as the lone contender for the throne.
Handily, the Pictish law of inheritance allowed for the crown to pass down on the mother’s side. This is where the conjecture on whether MacAlpin’s mother was a Pictish princess or this was a well-crafted story designed for this purpose comes into play for historians.
Either way, Kenneth MacAlpin was crowned King of the Picts at Scone. He was now King of the Scots and King of the Picts. Next up, he just needed to unify the two previously warring tribes.
Uniting the Two Realms
The Scots and the Picts were united against one enemy. It was good timing as a large Viking force raided Dal Riata again from the west. Kenneth MacAlpin moved the precious relics held in Dal Riata inland to be safely held within Pictland (source). The unfortunate consequence was Dal Riata now vanished from the history books.
He rewarded his fellow Gaels from Dal Riata with land in Pictland taken from rebels who had opposed him. However, the new King of the Scots and Picts knew brute force was not always the only answer to a problem. This was particularly true in winning the loyalty of his new Pictish subjects.
Assimilation was key to holding the peace, keeping local tribal leaders happy, and ensuring a long reign. Therefore, the age-old tool of marriage was key. Marrying important Picts to important Scots entwined the two tribes in a way that split loyalties.
It was also a tactic he was not afraid to use to counter the threat of the invading Vikings either. Invaders did not invade purely for treasures they could take back home. They also invaded for land and expansion.
History suggests that the wily MacAlpin was happy to allow the Vikings to retain the land they had conquered. They might then settle, begin labor-intensive farming, and show less desire for future conflict. There would still be skirmishes with the Vikings, but this could be seen as a useful way to keep Picts and Scots united against a common enemy.
Regardless of his claim to the Pictish throne on his mother’s side, there were always going to be rumblings of discontent. Accepting a Gaelic king from the now-vanished Dal Riata was never going to be an easy sell. Using the Vikings as a common enemy was one way of keeping the tribes unified. Looking south was another.
Common enemy number two was the Angles of Northumbria. A raid down south was another tool to show Picts and Scots how much they had in common. Get behind your king and we can all benefit from the booty and pride gained from raiding our common foe.
Kenneth MacAlpin ruled as king of the Scots and Picts until he died in 858 AD at Forteviot. He returned to his ancestral home to be buried on the island of Iona.
He was succeeded by his brother Donald I, whose son became King Constantine I four years later. It was the beginning of the reign of the House of MacAlpin, one which lasted until the middle of the 11th century.
The first King of the Scots and Picts true legacy was setting in motion the formation of the Kingdom of Alba by uniting the two previously warring tribes. With the formation of Alba, Pictland went the same way as Dal Riata and vanished from history. In truth, as the Gaels moved East their customs and their Christianity had begun to replace Pictish traditions.
The significance of Alba was that it was not named after a single tribe. It was still some way from being Scotland we know today, but without the unification of the Picts and Scots, it would not have been possible.
Eventually, regions including Strathclyde and Lothian became part of Alba, which would become known as the Kingdom of Scotland.
As the man who initiated the process, Kenneth MacAlpin is recognized in history as the First King of Scotland.