Kenneth MacAlpin: King of the Picts and Legendary Founder of Scotia
There is scarcely any concrete information about the man widely credited with the foundation of medieval Scotia, the precursor to today’s Scotland. There are facts about battles that occurred and kingdoms that were defeated. Yet about the man himself, there is little more than legend. In the 1200 years since the reign of Cináed mac Ailpín (anglicized to Kenneth MacAlpin), his legend has only grown. The King of the Picts now seems to have been caught up in the Stone of Destiny also known as the Holy Grail. Yet beneath all of the extraordinary claims about the 9th century Scot, there is a real-life man who faced impossible odds to save his people and found a country.
Quhen Alpyne this kyng was dede, He left a sowne wes cal'd Kyned,
Dowchty man he wes and stout, All the Peychtis he put out.
Gret bataylis than dyd he, To pwt in freedom his cuntre!
This short verse, taken from Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland by the 15th-century author Andrew of Wyntoun, is one of the earliest accounts of Kenneth’s noble deeds. Most of what is known today has been pieced together by historians. It is known that throughout much of the 8th and 9th centuries, the coastlines and northern interior of the British Isles and Ireland were relentless assaulted by the Vikings. The fear and confusion of their raids produced a sense of chaos and anarchy. Into this vacuum of power stepped Kenneth MacAlpin.
Kenneth was born sometime between 800 and 810 AD. His father was King Alpin II of Dalriada (Dál Riata), a Gaelic kingdom founded in 500 AD by Irish invaders led by Fergus Mor. At the time of Kenneth’s birth, the Gaels were dominated by the powerful Pictish Kingdom. Kenneth’s mother was, according to legend, a Pictish Princess of extraordinary beauty. Alpin II was ultimately beheaded by the Gaels for fighting on the behalf of a Pictish King, the second most hated enemy of the Gaels (after the Vikings). Little is known about Kenneth’s parents but there is reason to suspect that Alpin abandoned his comrades for love of the unnamed Pictish Princess, an act that cost him his life.
Bearded Pictish warrior from the Bullion Stone, Angus, now in the National Museum of Scotland. ( CC by SA 3.0 )
Around the same time that Alpin was killed in the battles between the Picts and the Gaels, the Viking raids became increasingly frequent and ferocious, perhaps because they knew many of the land’s men were otherwise engaged. By 839 AD the Pictish kingship was almost entirely wiped out by Viking warriors. It is here that Kenneth enters the story. Many fighters sought to fill the vacuum of power and become the next king. Kenneth sought to claim the Gaelic and the Pictish throne, both of which he had some right to. However, according to legend, he was challenged by the seven royal houses of the Picts, especially the Pict Drust X.
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The Viking invaders almost entirely wiped out the Picts. ‘Vikings Heading for Land’ by Frank Dicksee ( public domain )
Caught between the Gaels and the Vikings, the Picts knew that they needed a strong leader so a great meeting was called at Scone at which all of the claimants to the Crown were to attend, including Kenneth. The story goes that “the alcohol flowed freely at the meeting. Then, in what has since been referred to as Mac Alpin's treason, Drust and the Pictish nobles were all killed by the Scots: allegedly (and improbably) by having their booby-trapped benches collapsed so Kenneth's rivals plunged into pits in the floor and impaled themselves on spikes set there for the purpose” (Undiscovered Scotland, 2016).
This probably did not happen – the engineering feats alone seem hard to believe – but Kenneth most likely did kill, one way or another, all of his rivals to the throne. “What is fairly clear is that at some point between 839 and 848 AD Kenneth (with blood claims to both thrones) claims the kingdoms of the Picts and the Gaels” (BBC, 2014).
The First King
Kenneth became the first king of the House of Alpin, named after his father. His lands included the Pictish Fortrio region and the Gaelic Dál Riata kingdom. Kenneth dubbed his new kingdom Scotia (in Gaelic, Alba). Yet, just because he was now the undisputed king did not mean peace was anywhere near in sight. Young Scotia was surrounded by hostile enemies: to the north were the highlanders, called the Men of Moray; to the west were the Irish, lying in wait to reclaim Fergus Mor’s conquest; to the south was the Anglo-Saxon realm of North Umbria; and at all times in all places, especially on the coasts and the islands, there was the threat of a Viking invasion.
Map showing the approximate areas of the kingdoms. ( Rexfactor)
It was this last threat that was most worrisome for King Kenneth MacAlpin. Legend has it that a huge fleet of 140 Viking ships was headed toward Dál Riata, intend on destroying the Gaels once and for all. With surprising speed and foresight, Kenneth order to Gaels to collect all of their religious relics (including the treasured remains of St. Columba) and move them to the safety of the interior Pict lands, once enemy territory but now unified. Scotia’s ecclesiastical capital was thus transferred from the coastal Iona to the interior Dunkeld. At this time, “Dál Riata vanishes from the chronicles and we only hear of Pictland from this point” (BBC, 2014).
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The Gaels took a risk in trusting the Pictish king and Kenneth made certain to reward them for their faith in him. He distributed among his Gaelic supporters’ lands that had been taken from his defeated rivals. The Pictish commoners may have resented their new Gaelic landlords but Kenneth did not give anyone the chance to rekindle old ethnic rivalries. What was needed now was unity, “something the Picts and Gaels had in common, to define them as a single people, and, as is so often the case throughout history, this came in the form of a common enemy” (BBC, 2014). Fortunately for nascent Scotland, Kenneth had this in spades. He rallied his people to fend off the Viking attacks and even launched a raid or two of his own across Hadrian’s Wall into Anglican North Umbria.
Kenneth died in 858 A.D. of natural causes (most likely a tumorous cancer). He was buried on the island of Iona and succeeded by his brother, Donald I. The Kingdom of Alba lasted until 1296 when the English invaded. Kenneth MacAlpin is the 33rd great-grandfather of Queen Elizabeth II.
Top image: Detail from a frieze in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Queen Street, Edinburgh. ( rampantscotland.com)
BBC. "Kenneth MacAlpin (Cináed Mac Ailpín)." Scotland's History. BBC, 2014. Web. http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/history/articles/kenneth_macalpin/
Patin, James Fred. "Kenneth I Mac Alpine, King of the Picts." Mac Alpine. Geni Family Tree, 18 Nov. 2016. Web. https://www.geni.com/people/Kenneth-I-mac-Alpine-King-of-the-Picts/6000000001041559796
Royal Family History. "King Kenneth MacAlpin." King Kenneth MacAlpin. Royal Family History, 2016. Web. 30 Nov. 2016. http://www.britroyals.com/scots.asp?id=kenneth1
Undiscovered Scotland. "King Kenneth I: Biography on Undiscovered Scotland." Undiscovered Scotland. Undiscovered Scotland, 2016. Web. http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usbiography/monarchs/kennethi.html