top of page

Kenneth MacAlpin: The First King of Scotland





One dreary September evening, as the rain lashed down and turned earthen roads to rivers of mud, the great hall in the village of Scone was to host a banquet between kings. King Drest rode from the north with his bodyguards and other Pictish nobles, wrapped in dun cloaks which were now drenched and soaked. Into the village they rode, still a sight to behold, riding atop their stout ponies with spears reaching up to the grey sky.


As soon as they were spotted, messengers ran to the hall and the way was prepared for them. A servant came to greet them, who was courteous and welcoming; though they were wary of the king who had invited them. But the warmth of the hall beckoned them forth, for it was cold and damp outside and they had ridden long. The door had been opened for them and the smell of roast boar drew them near.


They dismounted their ponies and handed over their weapons to the guards, for they had come to secure peace in times of war. The servant announced their arrival and they were greeted by their host with a softly spoken: “welcome, brother”. Their host was King Kenneth MacAlpin, who did not come from Scone, but Dál Riada far to the west which is now called 'Argyll': 'the coast of the Gael'.


The year was 843 and the Pictish kingdom had been shaken to its core by a Viking attack four years before, which in one battle wiped out the House of Angus that had reigned for over a century. While King Wurad managed to hold it together for a few years afterwards, his sons (including Drest) struggled with other claimants, including Kenneth. Kenneth had recently conquered Southern Pictland (what is now Fife, Perthshire, Angus and Kincardineshire) and defeated Drest in battle, but now he sought a truce.


As meat and mead were served, the Picts began to relax and enjoy themselves. They listened to tales of heroes told by the bards and played games of chance and strategy with their hosts. The mead kept coming and some were starting to vomit. Then suddenly, Kenneth signalled to his servants and they pulled out bolts holding the sides of the benches, plunging the Picts into pits filled with sharpened stakes. Those who didn't die immediately cried and bled, then were mercilessly slaughtered by the Scots. Kenneth was now the only one left to claim the title of 'King of the Picts'.



Moot Hill Chapel at Scone Palace, in front of which is the Stone of Destiny said to have been brought by Kenneth MacAlpin, the setting of the above story was probably in a nearby hall



So said two medieval monks: Gerald of Wales and an Irish abbot named 'Berchán' (though many of the details above are from my own imagination just to set the scene). 'The Treachery of Scone' was their explanation for how the Scottish king, Kenneth MacAlpin, became King of the Picts. Curiously, nobody at the time mentioned this event, but they also didn't say how Kenneth became King of the Picts either; they simply addressed him by the title.


Beginning with the earliest Scottish sources, he has gone down in history as the man who 'vanquished' the Picts, and so he is ultimately held responsible for their disappearance as a people (whether literally or not). It is he who is said to have brought the Stone of Destiny to Scone that future Scottish kings would be crowned upon, and by conquering the Picts he helped forge the Kingdom of Scotland as a major power in Britain.


Because of the lack of sources that tell us about Kenneth, historians have many different ideas about what actually happened at the time. Reconstructing what kind of man he was is difficult, but we can compare what others thought of him with the historical record of what happened. We may start with a brief biography: he was probably born in 810, just as the Vikings were beginning their raids on Dál Riada, and he was the son of the shadowy King Alpin.


According to the 13th century Chronicle of Huntingdon, Alpin defeated the Picts in battle, but this victory went to his head and he rashly attacked the Picts again and lost. The 14th century Scottish historian, John of Fordun, said they beheaded him. It's likely Kenneth would have felt the need to take revenge again for his father's killing, but the situation between the Picts and Scots seems to have been complicated, as there's a possibility that Kenneth's mother was Pictish (though she's not in the historical record so we have no way of knowing for sure).


You see, the Scots had been subject to the Pictish kings ever since Angus I of Pictland invaded Dál Riada in the 730s and 40s. Fordun even claimed that the question of Scottish succession to the Pictish throne was raised by Alpin's immediate predecessors. It seems then that relations were complicated and the sudden presence of the Vikings likely added to the turmoil of the time.


I have already mentioned how the Norsemen had wiped out the dynasty founded by Angus, and by the 830s they had begun to colonize the Isles off Scotland's north and west coasts. Did Kenneth feel that the only way to secure his kingdom's survival was to finally defeat the Picts, who had dominated his folk for a century?



Vikings from Norway in particular terrorized the Picts and Gaels, first raiding and then settling the Isles and specific points on the coast of Ireland, founding most of what are now her cities and establishing trade connections that stretched to the Middle East through Russia



Dál Riada would only have consisted of the narrow coastline of Argyll once the isles were lost to the Norse, so gaining control of Pictland to the east may have meant his kingdom stood a chance of surviving if the Norse chose to move inland. This is the position of George & Isabel Henderson in their 2004 book, The Art of the Picts and it's also the conclusion I came to reading the situation.


Also, whoever ruled the Picts had a hand in Dál Riada's fate, but Kenneth may simply have not trusted that the other claimants to the Pictish throne were capable of protecting Dál Riada. After all, the Norsemen were attacking the Picts from the north, so Dál Riada would probably not have been a priority to the Picts. According to the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba, Kenneth moved against the Picts within two years of becoming King of Dál Riada (which probably means 843).


Here we can compare what the different sources tell us about Kenneth's approach to achieving his goals: the Scottish sources emphasize his role as a conqueror (calling him such with the title An Ferbasach), while Gerald of Wales and Berchán considered him to be devious and cutthroat. Both characterizations seem to emphasize his ruthlessness, which would make sense given the desperate situation his kingdom seems to have been in at the time.


How exactly he achieved the unification of the Pictish and Scottish kingdoms is still not clear though, mainly because the sources are so sparse and contradictory. The two earliest sources that give us details of his acts are the Pictish Chronicle and the Prophecy of Berchán. The Chroncicle says he “destroyed” the Picts, while the Prophecy contains the 'Treachery of Scone' tale. Both sources are potentially compatible if he did murder his rivals treacherously, but the Chronicle may simply have glossed over that detail. After all, it is Scottish royal propaganda and such an act would have painted Kenneth in a very bad light to say the least.


But how would the Picts have responded to such an act? Would they have taken it lying down and accepted such a snake as their king? While John of Fordun (perhaps unsurprisingly) didn't repeat the 'Treachery of Scone' story, he did say some of the Picts rebelled against Kenneth, but were defeated and expelled from the kingdom.


However, even Fordun considered Kenneth to have been a trickster, as he tells a strange tale of how he convinced the Scottish chieftains to fight against the Picts: after his father was beheaded by the Picts, he called on the chieftains to help him avenge his father's death, but they refused. So he decided to dress up in fish scales and pretended to appear to each of them as an angel in their beds, telling them it was God's will that they fight the Picts. The next morning they all ran to Kenneth to pledge their willingness to fight.


Going on the meagre evidence we have, we may conclude that Kenneth MacAlpin was both cunning and ruthless, a man probably driven by dire straits to finally turn the tables on the folk who had bullied his own for a century (though the Scots had often attacked the Picts before then). While we still can't be sure if he really did seize power the way the 'Treachery of Scone' tale says he did, all the sources we have seem to emphasize his personal ambition.


But in a curious twist, another verse in the Prophecy of Berchán, despite being a source for the 'Treachery of Scone' story, actually praises Kenneth, for it says:


“Evil will be Scotland's lot because of [the death of Kenneth MacAlpin]; long will it be till his like will come.”


Now this line is from the second part of the poem, which is anonymous and not attributed to Berchán, so it seems that we are being presented with two different perspectives on Kenneth. Alternatively, the 'Treachery of Scone' story may have simply been descriptive and not intended to blacken his name. Perhaps Berchán didn't have a problem with Kenneth's treachery since he was a fellow Gael. In all honesty though, I think it's more likely we're dealing with the perspectives of different poets.


This implies that, even if there were at least some folk who thought Kenneth was capable of Bond-villain levels of treachery and may have strongly disapproved, there were others who admired him for his achievements (or perhaps even the same folk held both perspectives). The Chronicle of the Kings of Alba says he attacked Lothian six times and razed Dunbar and Melrose, which implies he was a very aggressive king. However, the fact that it also says Vikings attacked Dunkeld and Clunie and the Strathclyde Britons attacked Dunblane shows it was an overall very violent time. It says he died from a tumor in 858.



Iona Monastery was in the Hebrides and was too vulnerable to Viking attacks, so its relics were taken to Dunkeld instead (whose cathedral is pictured here). It seems the Vikings were determined to plunder the last of Iona's relics.



Despite the violence at the time though, the claims of early Scottish historians that the Picts were wiped out either by Kenneth or Donald I, his brother who ruled after him, are hard to prove to say the least. There is a reference in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to Picts being attacked by Norsemen in 875, by which point the Picts were meant to have been extinct according to the later Scottish sources. Kenneth's successors until Donald II (889-900) were also all referred to with the title 'King of the Picts', which implies the Picts were still around as a folk to be ruled. After Donald II though, Scottish kings were addressed only as 'King of Alba'.


While 'Alba' is now the Gaelic name for Scotland, at that time it was a geographic term specifically for Scotland north of the Forth and Clyde rivers and included both Pictland and Dál Riada even before Kenneth's time. I wish to clarify here that the title 'King of Alba' was also given to Kenneth and his successors (as well as one earlier Pictish king), so the significance is more with the disappearance of the 'King of the Picts' title rather than the appearance of the 'King of Alba' one. In a Pictish context it probably indicated their lordship over Dál Riada, which means there was already a precedent for both groups to be considered together.


Even then, references to 'Picts' falling out of the historic record by the 10th century doesn't necessarily mean they were replaced by Scots from the west (though an influx of Scots may well have happened at that time); it could simply mean that the Picts had come to consider themselves 'Scots' by that point. The Chronicle of Melrose says Kenneth created new laws, so presumably they replaced the old Pictish ones.


Such changes are hard to tell in the archaeological record, but George and Isabel Henderson believe the regime change would have involved the deliberate suppression of Pictish culture. The loss of the House of Angus may have shattered the Picts' collective confidence and Kenneth could have sensed this and took advantage of it for his own ends.


However, his power base was the Pictish palace at Forteviot in Perthshire and Scone was also likely a significant local site, so he seems to have decided to occupy the old power centers rather than build new ones nearby or on top of them (which would have definitely sent a message of a break with the past or domination of the locals). He probably wanted to emphasize the continuity of his rule with the past, while at the same time bringing in changes: 'same kingdom, but now we do things differently'.


The jury is still out on whether Kenneth MacAlpin really did betray Drest and the other Pictish nobles as told by Gerald of Wales and Berchán, but it seems clear at the very least that his rise to power was not peaceful and was probably not wanted by the Picts (at least not all of them). Still, he might have been able to secure the throne for his successors because enough of the Picts preferred to maintain Alba as a territory as that's what they'd grown used to. It may also have given them a sense of stability and security compared to fighting with the Scots, especially while Vikings were still a menace.


Perhaps the decline of Pictish culture can be compared to that of Gaelic culture itself in the 18th and 19th centuries, which happened through a combination of government suppression and disdain among the Highlanders for their own culture. The British government suppressed it because the Highlanders were the main source of support for the Stewart dynasty (i.e. Jacobites). Thereafter, it came to be seen as 'backwards' and unhelpful in gaining employment opportunities in broader Scottish/British society by the Highlanders themselves. We could draw a comparison whereby government pressure on a culture eventually leads to the folk themselves giving it up, or 'going along to get along'.


Even if modern historians think that the earlier sources overstated Kenneth's impact and instead see the 'Gaelicization' of the Picts as a more gradual process (perhaps even underway before Kenneth's time), his reign still marks the 'beginning of the end' for them as a folk. He seems to have used a combination of cunning and opportunism to achieve his aims, though we can tell little else of his character apart from that. To many though, he is remembered as the 'first King of Scotland', which I think still rings true because it marks the beginning of Scottish dominance over the Picts after a century of the reverse; even if it actually took another few decades for the Picts to 'disappear' as a distinct group.


Conor Cummings

Comments


bottom of page