After the brief interruption of Giric and/or Eochaid, the Alpin dynasty was back on the Scottish throne in the form of Donald II. On the in-tray of the new monarch was a clash between Pictish and Gaelic figures at court and the always ominous return of the Vikings. Listen to the podcast episode here or read on to find out more.
Although the Romans never settled in Scotland, their departure from Britain in the fifth century left a power vacuum which certainly did impact upon the northern part of the island. After centuries of conflict between the rival kingdoms of Picts, Scots, Britons (in Strathclyde) and Saxons (Northumbria), the Scots came to the fore under the rule of Kenneth MacAlpin in the 840s-50s. Kenneth was a powerful king who brought together the Pictish and Scottish kingdoms and made impressive marriage alliances with one daughter marrying the son of the King of the Strathclyde Britons (Rhun, son of Artgal) and another daughter, Mael Muire, marrying the Irish High King, Aed Findliath.
There was not yet a nation called ‘Scotland’ but the kingdom was showing promising development until the 860s when Britain and Ireland were beset by Viking invasions. Scotland never suffered quite as badly as England, where various kingdoms (most notably the once-mighty Northumbria) were conquered, but they still had to suffer their kingdom being raided while neighbours, Strathclyde saw their capital destroyed and their king, Artgal, murdered. In 877-78, the Scots experienced something of a crisis when their own king, Constantine I, was killed by the Vikings and his successor, Aed, was assassinated by a man called Giric, who then set himself up as king in some king of co-rule with Eochaid, the product of the marriage alliance between the Scots and the Britons under Kenneth MacAlpin.
Donald II was the son of Constantine I and probably born at some point in the 860s. His exact age is not known, but it is likely that he was only a child when Giric and Eochaid murdered Aed and supplanted the Alpin dynasty making Donald, the next in line, too young to challenge for the throne. Donald’s life would have been at risk with a new dynasty in place but thanks to the diplomacy of Kenneth MacAlpin some thirty years earlier, there was a place of refuge to be found in Ireland. Donald, along with his younger cousin (the future Constantine II) were taken in by their aunt, Mael Muire. Mael Muire was clearly an impressive woman, who after the death of her first husband (the High King Aed Findliath) married another High King, Flann Sinna and her death in 913 was noted by the Annals of Ulster (highly unusual for a woman in this time). A lot of the information we have about Scotland in this period comes from Irish sources, so it is probably due to Mael’s influence that the reign of Giric is largely ignored.
In 889, presumably now old enough to lead an army, Donald returned to Scotland. It is not clear whether he was invited back to lead an army or if he launched his own invasion, but either way he returned in triumph, defeating Giric in battle at the fortress of Dundurn and thus restoring the Alpin dynasty to the Scottish throne.
Unfortunately, very little is known about the specifics of Donald’s reign, though it does appear to have been a time of renewed Viking activity. Presumably, a lot happened over the next decade but all we really know for sure is that Donald enjoyed a victory at Innisibsolian and, in 900, a defeat at Dunnottar that cost him his life and brought his reign to a close.
While we are lacking in details, we have hints at a battley king. Indeed, Donald’s nickname in the Prophecy of Berchan (a long historical poem presented as a prophecy of Scottish history but in reality written after the events) was Dasachtach (madman/psycho), which at the very least implies a certain tendency towards beserk outbursts of violence. His reign starts impressively with the defeat of Giric at Dundurn (a massive walled fortress in Perthshire), where archaeological discoveries of burned timbers and arrowheads suggests a bloody encounter. Donald’s subsequent victory at Innisibsolian (possibly on the east coast – the ‘innis-‘ implies an island) against the Vikings also suggests a man who knows his way around a battlefield, and he is also thought to have held sway over the Lowlands of Scotland and re-established dominance over the kingdom of Strathclyde.
A lack of details for Donald’s battles limits how impressed we can be by them. Furthermore, he ultimately joins a rather long lists of ninth-century kings in Britain for whom the Vikings prove to be the crucial contributor to the establishment of an obituary. His defeat at the east-coast fortress of Dunnottar (Aberdeenshire) marked the end of his reign and a serious defeat that threatened to send the Scots back to the chaos of the previous generation when his father, Constantine I, met the same fate and the kingdom fell into division.
Donald II had a battley nickname and started impressively but ultimately the fatal defeat to the Vikings was too severe to allow a high score.
Score = 8/20
We have almost nothing to go on here other than a suggestion in the Prophecy of Berchan that Donald II cared little for sacred relics or psalms! No murder, no bedroom antics, no nuns…
Score = 1/20
On the one hand, we have almost nothing to say about what kind of a ruler Donald II was. On the other hand…
When Donald II died, he was referred to not as Rex Pictorum (King of the Picts) but Ri Alban (King of the Scots). Previously, Alba had been used as a generic term for the whole island of Britain (think of King Arthur and Albion) but for the first time it was now being used as a national term for Scotland. It seems to have been a deliberately ethnically neutral term, encompassing both Picts and Scots and creating a new, united identity. Indeed, Neil Oliver has called this reference in the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba as the nation’s birth certificate. It also provides the quirk that technically, as the people of Alba, the Scots could be termed Albanians!
Impressive as Ri Alban is, it is debateable whether Donald II deserves much credit. His successor, Constantine II, did far more to create this new national state and it may be that Donald’s death (rather than his reign) marks the new beginning of Scotland. Indeed, ethnic division seems to have been an issue for Donald. Giric had removed many Pictish figures from court in favour of Scottish allies and many hoped Donald would reverse this policy, whereas his upbringing in Ireland meant that he was even more steeped in Gaelic culture than his predecessor. It would be left to Constantine II to heal these divisions. Plus, you know, Vikings on the rampage!
Donald’s reign was significant more for what immediately followed than anything he actually did. There’s no evidence that he did anything of particular benefit for his people and it was likely a violent and unstable period.
Score = 6/20
Donald II was king from 889 to 900, a reign of 11 years which, when converted into a score out of 20 (where 20 is the longest reign of all the monarchs), gives him a total of 3.81.
Donald had one surviving son (that we know of), which when converted into a score out of 20 gives him a score of 2.22.
Total Score = 21.04
Donald II came storming into town with the Rex Factor flag flying high and proud – he won back the throne in battle from Giric, he defeated the Vikings…but then the Vikings defeated him in a rather permanent manner and that was that! He may have been the first “King of Scots” but sadly there is not enough to go on for Donald. It started well but he didn’t see it through to a glorious reign.
Our Verdict: No, despite his good start Donald II does not have the Rex Factor.
What do you think – does Donald II deserve the Rex Factor? Vote in our poll below and tell us your views!