Kenneth MacAlpin is traditionally seen as the first King of Scots, unifying the northern kingdoms against the Vikings and establishing a new nation in the process. However, the truth is a little more nuanced and involves a host of disputed events including warfare, skulduggery, lost animals and a curious smell of fish. So, just who was Kenneth MacAlpin and does he have the Rex Factor? Read our latest blog to find out and vote in our poll to give your verdict.
The world Kenneth MacAlpin inhabited was complicated, and the idea of a country called “Scotland” did not yet exist. When the Romans left Britain in 410, they left a power vacuum which in modern-day Scotland contained four key kingdoms:
- Picts – the resident Celtic peoples in north and north-east Scotland
- Scots – Irish settlers in the kingdom of Dalriata in western Scotland
- Britons – the native southerners pushed up to the south-west of Scotland by…
- Saxons – the new power in England, pushing into south-east Scotland by the kingdom of Northumbria
After a topsy-turvy few hundred years, the Picts emerged as the dominant power at the start of the ninth century and showed signs of forming a larger, centralised state. However, this was thrown into yet more turmoil by the arrival of the Vikings. Initially, these were just raiding parties, sacking coastal areas and the Scottish islands (particularly monasteries like Iona, which proved both easy and rich targets). However, they soon started to push further inland and in 839, the Picts lost a disastrous battle in which their king, his sons and brothers (effectively all the key royal males) were killed.
This created a new power vacuum and a rather confusing period of history. The post-Roman age has often been characterised as the “Dark Ages” due to a lack of written evidence and this is particularly relevant in this period because of the Viking attacks. The monks of Iona and Northumbria were a bit too busy being hacked up by the Vikings to maintain their written records, while the Irish chroniclers struggled to keep up to speed with events in Scotland. Consequently, the sources for this period are a little fragmented and often contradictory, while some of the accounts from the medieval period a few centuries later should often be read with a pinch of salt!
Kenneth was born in…well, we’re not really sure! Some time early in the ninth century (esteemed medieval source the Chronicles of Wikipedia goes for 810!) and he was the son of Alpin (hence Mac Alpin) and…again, we’re not really sure – Mrs Alpin! Kenneth’s background is frankly somewhat murky, which in itself is quite revealing.
According to his official genealogy, K-Mac was descended from the Cenel nGabrain line of Dalriatan kings, thus going all the way back to Fergus Mor (the great and first king). The problem is, this genealogy was written retrospectively by later medieval writers looking to provide a regal continuity for Kenneth MacAlpin (by now established as Scotland’s first king). As such, it’s not entirely correct, there being a few generations missing and there is actually very little evidence of Alpin’s existence beyond his status as Kenneth’s father. However, Kenneth could not have become king without any royal connections, so it is possible that his father was from a minor royal line (perhaps in Galloway) and that the battle of 839 created the conditions necessary for Kenneth to emerge from obscurity onto the centre stage.
However, it was not an empty throne, for there were still Pictish rulers after 839. In fact, there were quite a few of them, with Urad ruling from 839-42, then Bridei VI briefly ruling in 842, then a Ciniod in 843, Bridei VII in 843-45 and finally Drust X in 845-48. Kenneth’s reign is often dated to either 843 or 848, so it is probable that he became king of Dalriata in 843 and then spent five years battling for the throne until by 848 his rivals had been defeated. So, how did he become king? Some accounts suggest that he conquered the Picts in battle and wiped them out with a virtual genocide, others suggest something more akin to a political coup with a merging of the Picts and the Scots rather than something as dramatic as conquest or genocide. Kenneth’s unknown mother may have been of Pictish royal stock and he himself was described as rex pictorum (King of the Picts), so the idea of him as the first king of “Scots” is arguably a later invention.
Clearly, everything up to Kenneth becoming king is open for debate (even what he was king of!) but thankfully what he actually did as king is more widely accepted. The key source for this is the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba, a king-list of twelve reigns from (handily) Kenneth I (i.e. MacAlpin) to Kenneth II. Later historians have had to interpret some of the contradictory or slightly inaccurate information given but it is the best single account of Kenneth’s reign and brief enough to quote in full:
And so Kenneth, the son of Alpín, the foremost of the Scots, ruled that Pictavia successfully for 16 years. However Pictavia was named after the Picts; whom, as we said, Kenneth destroyed. For God, to punish them for the fault of their malice, deigned to make them estranged and indifferent to their heritage: because they not only scorned the Lord’s mass and injunctions; but also were unwilling to be reckoned equal to others in the law of impartiality. Indeed, two years before he came to Pictavia, he took over the kingdom of Dál Riata. In the seventh year of his rule, he transferred the remains of Saint Columba to the church which he built, and he attacked Saxonia [Northumbria] six times; and he burnt down Dunbar and captured Melrose [then part of Northumbria]. However the Britons burnt down Dunblane, and the Danes [Vikings] laid waste to Pictavia, as far as Clunie and Dunkeld. He finally died of a tumour, before the Ides of February on the third day of the week in the palace of Forteviot.
Kenneth’s reign, then, was largely taken up by warfare but despite this he was able to die in bed and was buried on the island of Iona, the heartland of the Scottish kings. However, how will he fare when we review him?
If we assume that Kenneth did conquer the Picts, then his record looks pretty impressive. Indeed, he has been given the epithet An Ferbasach (Conqueror) The wonderfully named Scotichronicon (a medieval account written by Walter Bower) details a wonderful story about Kenneth’s dodgy dossier to justify war with the Picts, for which he had four reasons:
- The Picts killed his father and kinsmen
- They had stolen his dog
- They had allied with the Saxons
- They’d gone against an agreement to marry Scottish princesses and choose their kings from the female line
However, it seems that the injustice of Kenneth’s K-9 was not enough to convince his men, who were afraid of fighting “like idiots or weaklings” leading to Kenneth coming up with a cunning ruse to convince them, namely by building an angel costume out of fish scales that glowed in the dark and then going into their bedrooms and telling them that he was an angel of God and they should obey their king! Suitably convinced, the next day they destroyed the Picts in battle.
The veracity of story is perhaps slightly dubious. However, that a whole series of Pictish kings were eliminated in just five years hints at some violence so even if there were no dogs or fish involved, this does not mean there was no battle.
Irrespective of this, we do know that he invaded Northumbria six times, plundering a fortress at Dunbar and a monastery at Melrose. These were probably just raids for money and supplies rather than territory but shows Kenneth’s power that he could raid so far south.
On the other hand, if Kenneth did not conquer the Picts and instead enjoyed a much more boring gentle merger between the kingdoms then Kenneth is not such a conqueror after all. He also suffered some defeats in this period, with the British kingdom of Strathclyde re-asserting its independence and burning Dunblane (towards the south of his kingdom). However, he did offset this with a marriage alliance, making this a one-off bonfire.
More significant was the presence of the Vikings. There is no evidence to suggest that Kenneth fought the Vikings off, rather we know that they raided quite far inland (Clunie and Dunkeld) and probably also took control of the western islands. Indeed, in 848, Kenneth moved the relics of Columba from Iona because they could no longer be protected. Still, given events in Ireland and England, one raid in the reign is not too disastrous (and may have occurred when he was beating up the Saxons).
While the full extent of his activity is debated, Kenneth took the throne (likely involving some force), gave the Saxons a good kicking and never really had much trouble from the Vikings in a period when kingdoms were disappearing in their wake.
Score = 14/20
In addition to his fishy angel antics, Kenneth seems to have acquired a reputation among medieval scholars as something of a crafty ruler. There have been suggestions that the lack of Viking invasions were due to some form of collaboration – the raid he suffered was from the Danes to the east but the Norse Vikings in Dublin seem to have been rather less battley in this period.
Much better, however, is the Treachery of Scone. In this interpretation, Kenneth did not conquer the Picts (entirely) by battle but rather by deceit. To resolve the succession crisis, he invited his Pictish rivals to a banquet and sat them down on special benches being held above a pit by bolts. When the Picts were suitably inebriated, Kenneth gave the signal for the bolts to be removed and the Picts fell into the pits, where they were killed. This is evil cunning on a Bond villain scale of skulduggery!
Sadly, Kenneth does not seem to have been notably naughty in the bedroom to really push up his score to the higher echelons!
In a brutal age, anyone can commit murder, but Kenneth took this to a new level with his overly-elaborate takedown of his rivals. Some bedroom frolicking would have upped his score but Crafty Kenny gets a decent score for his conniving ways!
There are hints that Kenneth had a slightly more noble hinterland beyond sword-waving and fancy dress. Transfering Columba’s relics from Iona to Dunkeld show not just the way that he valued the bones of the Gaelic saint but also some political symbolism, transferring the prized possessions from Iona (Dalriata) to Dunkeld (Pictland), in other words creating the heart of his new kingdom. That this happened in 848 (the year he defeated his final Pictish rival) is surely not a coincidence.
When not waging war and looking for his dog, Kenneth enjoyed his downtime at Forteviot, a palace rather than a fortress, famed for its art and architecture. Kenneth cannot take the credit for this (though it does suggest he may have appreciated the finer things in life) because it is a Pictish palace in Strathhearn. Again, however, his presence here is symbolic, demonstrating his dominance over Pictland.
Aside from political symbolism, Kenneth’s sophistication in realpolitik is shown by his marriage alliances. Following a raid on his lands by Strathclyde, Kenneth married one of his daughters to Rhun, the son (and heir) of King Artgal, thus preventing further raids and giving his family a stake in a rival kingdom. Another daughter, Mael Muire, married Aed Findliath, the High King of Ireland (and after he died another High King, Flann Sinna). Kenneth was clearly a major figure of the period and veryastute in his alliances.
It’s all very well making points of political symbolism, but Kenneth could be rather less subtle. Some have suggested that he perpetrated genocide upon the Picts, causing the disappearance of their language and culture in this period. In reality, the Pictish language was already in decline and Gaelic influences (and indeed kings) were in Pictland in the half century before Kenneth’s reign. If anything, the Gaelic church was more significant in merging the two kingdoms. Kenneth is, therefore, not such a significant figure – not the first Scot to rule the Picts and Dalriata, not the first “King of Scots” and not the most significant cause of the fusion of the two kingdoms.
Furthermore, while he may have resided at a palace, there is no actual evidence or tradition that Kenneth was, himself, interested in art or culture or that his patronage has bequeathed anything to history.
This was a brutal age and not one in which you would have wanted to have been a subject, particularly not to a rather scary-sounding king smelling fishy and waging war when his dog goes missing. On the other hand, he was clearly a respected figure, able to make impressive marriage alliances and to keep his borders largely secure. In context, given that the decades before and after his reign saw devastating Viking raids, Kenneth’s reign was probably better than most in this period.
Score – 10.5/20
Taking the first date listed, Kenneth reigned from 843-58, a reign of 15 years. In fairness to Kenneth, 15 years in the ninth century is actually pretty good, it’s just that much later successors will rule for much longer!
Score = 5.20/20
Again, it’s difficult to be entirely sure but we can be pretty confident that Kenneth had at least two sons and two daughters, leaving him four children in total.
Score = 8.89
Total Score = 50.09.
It seems inexplicable that a man who dresses up as a glow-in-the-dark fish angel so that he can declare war to get his dog back could be anything other than a Rex Factor winner. However, many of the legends about Kenneth MacAlpin are unreliable and his significance has probably been over-emphasised by later historians to create a “founding father” myth for Scotland. That said, Kenneth did create the dynasty that would gradually create Scotland and he was a successful and (politically) sophisticated ruler, an unusual success in an era of Viking chaos.
Our verdict: Yes – Kenneth MacAlpin has the Rex Factor!
What do you think – does Kenneth MacAlpin deserve the Rex Factor? Vote in our poll below and tell us what you think!