King Kenneth MacAlpin and the Alban kings



The centre of administration of the Pictish kingdom in the 9th century was Forteviot on the River Earn. Close by the Dunkeld, King Kenneth MacAlpin (Cináed mac Ailpín) set up a new religious centre about 850AD. This was an acknowledgement of the fact that Iona was now no longer tenable as a religious capital, although the monastery was eventually re-established and it remained the burial place of Pictish kings until the time of Donald Ban.

While the record is one of almost constant strife at this time there must have been periods and localities where normal life continued without interruption, and the Picts practised the arts that still survive in fine sculpture and perhaps others that have perished.

Pictish fort at Burghead

Pictish fort at Burghead

The Pictish kings, who were warriors first and foremost, must have summoned fighting men from all their chiefs and headmen, although the numbers involved in these battles may not have been very great. Exposed communities took the brunt of the fighting. It is likely that at this time many ancient brochs were rebuilt and occupied while new ones were also constructed. A new defensive building development, perhaps copied from Ireland, was the tall round tower, of which examples remain at Abernethy and Brechin.

The sea was still a vital food source and communications route, and although coastal communities must have lived in suspense and fear for much of the time, even the limited trading of the times was essential and had to be maintained. Warfare demanded weapons, and many daily items required metal. Chiefs’ households wanted foreign luxuries: hides, wool, amber and copper were all being shipped out in return.

Abernethy round tower

Abernethy round tower

Kenneth MacAlpin died in 858AD and was succeeded by his brother, Donald I. In his reign there was a change from the previous law of succession to the Scots form of tanistry 1

The coronation chair containing the Stone of Destiny

The coronation chair containing the Stone of Destiny

Conflict with the Norse invaders continued. Forteviot was burned and Dunkeld was raided. The civil government was moved to Scone, to which Kenneth MacAlpin had already carried the coronation stone of the Scots in 850AD after it had been rescued from Iona. Around this time, perhaps because of the burning of Dunkeld, Abernethy became a religious centre. But St Andrews, with a legacy of Celtic Culdee – from the Gaelic Cele Dei, friends of God – monasticism, as well as the growing cult of St Andrews, based on the legend that the the apostle’s bones had been brought there, eclipsed other places as a place of pilgrimage and an ecclesiastical centre.

Donald II

Donald II

In the reign of Donald II, the first monarch to be called ‘King of Scotland’ or Ri Alba, from 889AD, Harold Fairhair established the Norwegian kingdom. Shetland, Orkney, Caithness and the Hebrides were de facto his possessions and became Norwegian earldoms. The ruler of Alba could do nothing about, or to stop the activities of predatory Norwegian earls. Nevertheless, the grim, dour persistence of the MacAlpin kings and their people preserved the greater part of their realm while other kingdoms vanished. At least three kings of Alba died fighting the Vikings; one was killed fighting the Britons and others fell to internal strife.

Harold Fairhair, the first king of Norway

Harold Fairhair, the first king of Norway

In 911AD the formation of the duchy of Normandy caused attention to turn to France. Calls for alliances came from Mercia and Northumbria, who were now facing menaces from all sides. A battle of Corbridge in 918AD  held the Norsemen south of the Tyne. Before long the Norse forces became firmly established as a power in Northumbria, and Constantine I, king of Scots, was making treaties with them.

In 926AD, Athelstan, king of Wessex and Mercia, took over Northumbria, and in 934AD he invaded the Sots both overland and from the sea. By 937 the Scots, Britons and Norsemen retaliated with a landing on the Solway coast. Athelstan, supported by other factions of the Norsemen, won the resulting battle of Brunanburh. Constantine I, like a number of his predecessors, retired to a monastery in St Andrews and was succeeded by his nephew, Malcolm I.

King Aethelstan

King Aethelstan

In 945AD Malcolm negotiated the possession of Cumberland from Eadmund of England in return for his collaboration. This means that this part of the kingdom of Strathclyde had become detached from the ‘Scottish’ end and had passed to English control at an earlier and unknown date.

Malcolm’s successor was his cousin Indulf. During the reign of Indulf, attempts were made to regain Northumbrian – once Bernician – territory, and Lothian may have been annexed at this time. Some time later, around 971AD, Eadgar of England formally ceded Lothian to Kenneth II. Southern gains were balanced by northern losses. By 987AD the Norwegian Earl Sigurd the Mighty of Orkney was also master of northern Scotland as far down as Moray.

David R. Ross

The House of Alban

Kenneth MacAlpin (died 858), son of Alpin, King of Dalriada

Donald I (reigned 858 – 62), brother of Kenneth MacAlpin

Constantine I (reigned 862 – 77), son of Kenneth MacAlpin

Aedh (reigned 877 – 78), son of Kenneth MacAlpin

Eochaid (reigned 878 – 89), son of Run Macarthagail, king of Strathclyde

Donald II (reigned 889 – 900), son of Constantine I

Constantine II (reigned 900 – 42, died 952), son of Aedh

Malcolm I (reigned 942  – 54), son of Donald II

Indulf (reigned 954 – 62), son of Constantine II

Duff (reigned 962  – 66/7), son of Malcolm I

Colin (reigned 966/7 – 71), son of Indulf

Kenneth II (reigned 971 – 95), son of Malcolm I

Constantine III (reigned 995 – 97), son of Colin

Kenneth III (reigned 997 – 1005), son of Duff

  1. Inheritance in Celtic Scotland was not a matter of the eldest son assuming the rights and titles of his father. Primogeniture was established gradually in the 12th century, in an imitation of Norman practice. Even then, it was at first only used in the royal succession, and other lordships continued to be inherited by the former system. This method has acquired the name of Tanistry. The tanist was the heir presumptive, and his right to the throne was conferred not by his father but by his mother. Matrilinear succession, in one form or another, was typical of the Celtic kingdoms. The tanist was very often the son of the reigning king’s sister. Whatever the roots of the custom, its effect was to ensure that a capable adult was available to take over – a vital consideration when the king was a war-leader. The defect of the system was the often murderous rivalry it promoted when there were a number of possible successors.

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2 Responses to King Kenneth MacAlpin and the Alban kings

  1. Very interesting post Tamara. I’m just now reading about King Aethelstan and the Battle of Brunanburh. I’m trying to learn more about this era so I find this fascinating.

  2. tamara says:

    Thanks for the comment, Susan. May I have a hope to find soon an article about your researches?

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