Second comes right after first! Donald I was the second King of Scots, following in his brothers illustrious footsteps, but would he be able to make his mark in the annals of Scottish history? Read on to find out more or listen to the podcast here.
When Donald came to the throne, there was not technically a country called “Scotland”. Following the Roman departure from Britain, four peoples came to dominate what we would now call Scotland:
- 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 the…
- Saxons – the new power in England, pushing into south-east Scotland via the kingdom of Northumbria
The Picts had come to dominate until everything was thrown into chaos by the arrival of the ninth-century equivalent of a computer virus – the Vikings. A battle in 839 wiped out the entire Pictish leadership, leading to a power vacuum that would eventually be filled by Kenneth MacAlpin. Kenneth’s exact origins were unknown but he probably came from the Scottish kingdom of Dalriata on the west coast. After defeating Pictish rivals for the throne, Kenneth ruled over both Dalriata and Pictland and spent most of his time engaged in war and diplomacy, invading the Saxons in Northumbria while making marriage alliances with King Artgal of Strathclyde and Aed Findliath in Ireland.
Donald (or Domnall) came to the throne in 858 on the death of his brother, Kenneth MacAlpin. We don’t know when exactly he was born nor the identity of his mother but he is described as being the “son of a foreign wife” implying that his father, Alpin, took a second wife. Some historians have speculated that this may have been to a Viking bride (which would be the earliest evidence of an alliance between a native dynasty and the Vikings), as well as explaining hints at an alliance between Kenneth and Norse Vikings.
Kenneth did leave sons but Donald’s accession does not represent a usurpation of the throne. There were no concrete rules about the succession in this period but it was common for there to be an alternating succession between brothers before continuing to the next generation. So Donald would follow his brother Kenneth, but when Donald died the sons of Kenneth should follow him. Partly this was a way of ensuring that the king would be a mature man capable of leading his army in battle but it also provided a way of managing rival claims to the throne (though in the long term it created a lot of deadly rivals!)
One of the key sources for the reign is the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba, a king-list of the Scottish monarchs from Kenneth MacAlpin to Kenneth II completed in c. 1200. There is not a lot of evidence for Donald’s reign, so we might as well quote his entry in the chronicle in whole:
“Donald, [Kenneth’s] brother, held the same kingdom for 4 years. In his time, the Gaels established the rights and laws of the kingdom of Áed the son of Eochaid, with their own king at Forteviot. He died in the palace of Cinn Belachior on the Ides of April.”
And that’s it! Donald I died in 862. Belachior is thought to be a church settlement near Scone, at the heart of the Pictish kingdom. The Chronicle of Melrose recorded that he was “assassinated at Scone” but there is no other evidence to suggest foul play. In reality, he probably got old in the waiting for the throne and died of natural causes.
There are no contemporary portraits of Donald I, or indeed descriptions of his appearance, so we like to let our imaginations run free on the podcast with the Heritage Playing Cards illustrations of the monarchs. When it came to Donald’s card, we couldn’t help but notice that there seemed to be something missing – his trousers!
Sadly, there’s no contemporary evidence to suggest that Donald had a predilection for wearing shorts or showing off his knees but in the absence of an appropriate epithet, Donald’s lack of trousers will definitely stick in the mind. Plus we’d like to imagine that he was the inspiration for a certain song!
According to the Chronicle of Melrose, “In war he was a vigorous soldier”, so Donald would probably have been no stranger to a spot of battleyness. Unfortunately, we don’t have any real examples of Donald’s vigorous martial skills beyond the fact that he would likely have fought with Kenneth’s armies and then consolidated the Scottish rule over Pictland as king.
Donald almost certainly would have taken part in his fair share of battles but sadly these have been lost to history and were presumably not significant enough to be remembered.
Score = 9/20
According to the Prophecy of Berchan (a long historical poem presented as a prophecy of Scottish history but in reality written after the events, making the prophecy much easier!), Donald was described not just as the “son of a foreign wife” but “the wanton son of a foreign wife”! This certainly implies notably violent or depraved behaviour…but sadly we don’t have any evidence to back this up. Unlike Kenneth MacAlpin, there are no colourful legends about angel fish wings or elaborate murder, just this one hint of bad behaviour.
It’s hard to imagine that a “wanton” and “vigorous soldier” in ninth-century Scotland did not get up to any mischief but without specific examples, Donald can’t score highly.
Score = 4/20
Thankfully, Donald does give us more to talk about when considering how good a ruler he was. The one example of definite, positive action in his reign relates to establishing law:
“In his time, the Gaels established the rights and laws of the kingdom of Áed the son of Eochaid, with their own king at Forteviot.”
Inevitably, we don’t have any record of what these rights and laws actually were, making it difficult to draw too many conclusions about the nature of his government. These now lost laws related to Aed Find, an eighth-century king of Dalriata, and probably involved Irish customary rights and laws in relation to the church and granting of privileges. Its significance is that it shows the level of control Donald and the Alpin dynasty now enjoys that it is able to extend Scottish laws over the Picts, with the agreement taking place at the Pictish palace of Forteviot.
However, this section also raises an interesting question about the extent of Donald’s domains due to the curious phrase “the Gaels established the rights and laws…with their own king”. This seems to imply that the king of the Gaels (presumably Dalriata) is somebody other than Donald, who we might expect to be just “the king”, and thus Donald is king of the Picts but not Dalriata. Before we go back and reduce Donald’s Battleyness score, this may still indicate a level of strong leadership on his part. Rather than Dalriata rebelling against his rule, this may represent a form of devolution, with Dalriata functioning as a sub-kingdom and accepting the laws laid down by Donald at Forteviot.
There’s not much to go on but Donald at the very least enacted a law and there are no reports of internal strife or external attacks, which in the context of a chaotic and violent period is pretty decent.
Score = 10.5/20
Donald reigned from February 858 to April 862, a reign of 4.17 years. Which, when converted into a score out of 20 (where 20 is the longest reign of all the monarchs) is a score of 1.45.
Surprisingly for a “wanton…vigorous soldier”, Donald does not appear to have left any legitimate, surviving children behind. His score, therefore, is a disappointing 0.
Total Score = 24.95
Donald seems to have been a perfectly successful king – he continues to cement the Alpin dominance over the Picts started by his brother and introduces a lawcode to apply across Dalriata and Pictland. However, a short reign with very little definite action means that Donald’s role in Scottish history is never going to rival that of Kenneth MacAlpin.
Our Verdict: No, Donald I does not have the Rex Factor.
What do you think – does Donald I deserve the Rex Factor? Vote in our poll below and tell us what you think!