Kenneth MacAlpin

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Kenneth MacAlpin (Anglicized from Cináed mac Ailpín), known as “Kenneth the Hardy,” was born in Iona about 810 AD and lived until 858. His father was Alpin Mac Eochaid, said to be the true  king of the Scots, and his mother was a princess of the royal lines of the Picts. Through his parents, he was a strong contender for the thrones of both the Scots and Picts. At that time, the Scots kingdom of Dalriada was under the rule of the Pictish king, Oengus II. In 834 Alpin MacEochaid  rebelled against the Pictish King of Scots and Picts. In the ensuing battle, however,  both Alpin and Oengus were killed.

During the same period the Vikings were raiding the coasts of Scotland, destroying, pillaging and plundering the people regardless of tribe or race. They were the enemy of both Scots and Picts. By 839 the Norsemen had conquered and settled Shetland, the Outer Hebrides, and as far south as the mouth of the Clyde. Dalriada was being harassed by the long boats of the Vikings as well.

In 839, the Vikings killed the Pictish king, Eogan, his successor and much of the ruling class of the Picts, leaving them seriously weakened. MacAlpin (literally son of Alpin) was then able to reclaim Dalriada from the Picts, and about 841 he was crowned King of Scots, taking the first name of Kenneth.

Kenneth then went after the throne of the Picts. Kenneth resorted to what is known even today as MacAlpin’s Treason. The Pict King of Caledonia was named Drust. In the name if peace and conciliation Kenneth invited Drust and the noble families of the Picts to a banquet. King Drust and the remaining Earls of Caledonia attended the feast, where they were promptly murdered. Drust was the last Pictish king. There was undoubtedly Pictish resistance to his usurping of the throne, but weakened and harassed by the Vikings, and with their nobility dead, the Picts were unable to reclaim their kingdom.

Kenneth thus became King of both Scots and Picts. By 847 he had united the old kingdoms, establishing them into a single entity. He called the first united kingdom in Scotland Alba. Its territory ranged from modern Argyll and Bute to the north, across much of southern and central Scotland. He transferred his capital from Dunadd to Scone, in the heart of Pictish land, The Stone of Destiny, which had been brought from Ireland, was also moved to Scone. This stone was used in the coronation ceremony of the Kings of Dalriada and for hundreds of years the Kings of Scots would sit on it to be crowned.

There may have been others who believed that they had a greater right to the throne, but Kenneth was brutal and bloodthirsty, and held power by his own strength and cunning. His reign was violent but successful. He maintained an uneasy peace with the Vikings, but he still warred against the Angles to the south, and, on occasion, the Britons of Strathclyde. He kept a firm grip on the throne by relying heavily on his own charisma and stamina, but he also strengthened relationships with neighboring tribes and allies by inter-dynastic marriages through his daughters. One married Olaf, the King of Dublin; another married Aced Findliath, who became High King of Ireland in 862; a third daughter married Rhun, prince of Strathclyde.

Alba was one of the few areas in the British Isles to withstand the invasions of the Vikings, although they did suffer terrible defeats. The ancient link with Ireland (from which the Celtic Scots had emerged) was eventually broken as a cordon of Scandinavian settlements was established in the Western Isles, in the far north of Scotland, as well as in Ireland. With southern England also conquered by the Norsemen, Alba was left isolated.

Kenneth ruled until February 6, 859, when he died of an illness, thought to be cancer, and was buried on the island of Iona. He was succeeded by his brother Donald I, although both of his sons eventually succeeded to the throne. By the time of his grandson Donald II, thirty years later, Alba was being called Scotland.

While not the first monarch to rule both Picts and Scots, Kenneth is generally considered to be the first king of modern Scotland. He founded a kingdom that remained united, and eventually expanded, but he did it by deception, treachery and ruthlessness. Few of the gory details are recorded, however, and some historians have since whitewashed his past and his reputation. Nevertheless, he remains one of the most important of the early Scottish rulers, and the accepted genealogy of the kings and queens of modern Scotland starts with Kenneth MacAlpin.

By 1034, by inheritance and warfare, the Scots were predominant over not only Alba but also Lothian, Cumbria, and Strathclyde—roughly the territory of modern Scotland. By around 1200 the kingdom was divided into Scotland, Lothian, and Galloway, and in the late 1200s Scotland came to be the name for the whole land, and all its inhabitants were called Scots, whatever their origin.  

In the late 1200s and early 1300s William Wallace and Robert Bruce again fought to keep Scotland whole and independent. Robert was crowned King of Scots at Scone Abby March 27, 1306. Sir William de Irwyn, his secretary and honorary armor-bearer—and our ancestor—was also present.