We have mentioned the most complete lack of resources from which we suffer in the 9th and 10th centuries in Scotland. One of the consequences is that we rely a lot more than we would like, on later English historians. These are chroniclers that you experienced History of Englanders, covered as you are now with your light covering of cobwebs and dust, will recognise from days gone by, from the days of yore, when men were real men and women were real women and small furry creatures from Alpha Century you know the rest. Oderic Vitalis, Symeon of Durham, Henry of Huntingdon, Roger of Wendover. Good friends, good times. I miss them, and it is good to be back with them. It might well be that they had access to information or chronicles that we have since lost. Anyway, one of these guys, Henry of Huntingdon, wrote this very famous thing, looking back from 1154, as England’s king Stephen hit the bottom of his grave with a thud:
But we see that the Picts have now been wiped out and their language also is totally destroyed so that they seem to be a fable we find mentioned in old writings.
I imagine that you are sitting a little straighter, looking quizzically at the MP3 player. Que? I hear you say, what’s all this then? How can this be? After all, in the Shedcast history of Scotland we know that the Picts are top Dog, numero uno, number 1. How could it possibly be that the Picts manage to disappear from history? And delightfully enough, the answer is a classic shrug of the shoulders, pout of the lips, wave of the hands ‘dunno’, or a ‘who knows who can tell, anyone for the last choc ice now?’. But let us do our very best to shed a little light on the whole affair.
Before we go through the story, we might just set things up a little, since there appear to be 3 main explanations.
The first gained its real currency in the modern era from the writings of a chap called George Buchanan. George was an impressive humanist scholar in the 16th century. But you will understand that History in the 16th century was different to the history of today; a quick read of the likes of Thomas More or Polydore Vergil will make it clear that history in the 16th century had a moral purpose, it was there to tell a story and the educate; and it was important to tell that story in a compelling way so that the listener got the point. One outcome from this was all those speeches they made up from the main characters – all a lot of fun, all a lot of hogwash. Personally, I am a fan of hogwash, but I realise that it is no longer acceptable in the eyes of the biscuit dunking classes. Anyway, so George embroidered the story a little; he told a story of how a Gael called Alpin was horribly murdered by the Picts; and that his son Kenneth, that is Kenneth MacAlpin gained his revenge by becoming king of the Gaels, and then conquering Pictland and rubbing out the Picts. We have referred to this story beforehand I believe, since it’s been pointed out that Gaelic Dal Riada was a pimple on the buttock that was Pictland, and the idea of a conquest was really, really stretching credibility. None the less, I think this camp has the best or shall we say funnest story. It originated probably in the early 13th century before Buchanan later picked it up, embroidered by a chap called Gerald of Wales, a chatty sort of chronicler. Gerald was a fan of the holy grail of publishing, the effective re-use of assets, and so he re-versioned a Saxon story of treachery – the ‘Black Dinner’ as it was called, where Kenneth invited the Pictish king Drest and his nobles to supper, and then murdered them when they were least expecting it. Which just goes to show that expecting to be murdered at any time is a good idea preparation-wise. And by the way a note on pronunciation; although I have manfully tried to use Gaelic and Britonnic forms of names rather than anglicised, Kenneth MacAilpin is probably one of those very well-known names so I have just cheated, and used the angelicised version. The other reason is that I am of course incapable of pronouncing Cinaed MacAilpin correctly anyway. But from now on Cinaed MacAilpin it is.
Once all the leaders of the Picts were dead and gone, Buchanan went on, Cinaed handed out the land of the Picts to his Gaelic warriors and the language and culture of the Picts was wiped out in a river of blood. And just to back the story up, let us note that the outcome of the story is absolutely 100% verifiably true and accurate. It was Gaelic culture that triumphed, the G-Celtic Gaelic that became the standard language, north of the Forth at very least; Gaelic place names are ubiquitous and completely dominate with only shards of Pictish remaining – all of the same stuff we talked about a few episodes ago which have led to the enigmatic Pict thing. So although Gerald and George may have done some embroidering, the story is given serious credence by the fact that it describes the outcome at very least. Let us call this story the “Gaelic Conquest” version.
The next story is well known to many alive today, who were probably taught it in school. This is a more uplifting tale to be honest. This tells the story in the context of the Viking invasions specifically. It tells of the brutal destruction wrought by the Vikings, Dal Riada over run, weeping women and children fleeing into Scotland in despair while their menfolk lay dead and butchered by the heathen; it tells of a terrible defeat of the Picts by the Vikings, and northern Britain stands on the edge of eradication, termination, enslavement, in short, not good news. Into this story came Cinaed MacAilpin. He gathered together all the peoples – Pict, Gael and Briton, and led them against the murderous invaders. The Vikings were duly pushed back, and a new kingdom was established to reflect and celebrate the new unity – called Alba. Though over time, it was Cinaed’s own ancestry of the Scotti, the Gaels, that began to be used; and so Cinaed MacAilpin became the first king of the Scotti or king of Scotland. Let us call this the National Unity version. Once again let us note that this version of events explains in a simple straightforward way the situation we end up with. In fact, both the Gaelic Conquest and the National Unity versions provide a straightforward explanation for the outcome, and if we are lovers of Occam’s Razor, that the most simple answer is usually the right answer, then both of these solutions have much to recommend them over the third story.
The third version is a rather vague melding sort of thing, the sort of explanation we have become used to from historians tiresomely trying to uncover what actually happened; and within it, are different versions of how it might have played out. The general idea is that there is no conquest by the Dal Riadans because that idea didn’t exist until the 13th century, and therefore looks like an attempt to explain a situation where knowledge of the process had been lost. They note that far from being the man who swept away the Picts, Cinaed MacAilpin was actually described as a king of the Picts, and 4 kings after him were also called King of the Picts, so what’s all this about a Gaelic take over? His name could well be translated as a Britonnic, Pictish name as is could be a Gaelic name, and having Pictish Kings who started as kings of Dal Riada is hardly unusual – Domnal son of Constantine, for example, just a few years before Cinaed rocks up was the son of a Pictish king. So the fact that Cinaed apparently came from Dal Riada does not mean that he was dal Riadan. None the less, these Melders need to explain the thing about the dominance of Gaelic, and where all the Picts go to, essentially. So the story is one of assimilation, melding. That under pressure of the Vikings, the Dal Riadans are indeed forced to flee, that some process of combination goes on where Pict and Gael becomes Albanian, and eventually Scot; in this process, it is Gaelic culture and language that wins out. It is a story has as one sub version of it very little violence at all; and in other versions, violence at least in the political classes; Neil Oliver for example, has a Gaelic king called Giric butchering or at least replacing the entire Pictish nobility, in a very similar way to the Norman Conquest of England; though you have to then explain why Gaelic, the language of the conquerors, becomes the dominant language rather than the language of the mass of the people; because our experience tells us, like in England that it is the languages of the mass of people that wins out over the language of a small elite. But key to the melding story is that there is no Gaelic conquest with armies from Dal Riada marching over to Pictland and turning it into a new country; it’s a process where slowly Picts and Gael becomes Albanian. The problem is, it’s far more complicated a process – how does all of this happen? Though I’d note that like all the genocide stories, they are all nice and simple in providing a theoretical answer, but quite unlikely because of the scale required, and the absence of any physical evidence of cataclysmic change.
And so, the battlelines are drawn; is it Gaelic Conquest, is it a story of National Unity in the face of the common external threat of the Vikings, or is it a melding, a cultural and political take over? Let us now return to the narrative, and you can all see what you think.
We left our heroes facing an invasion in 839 into the northern heart of Pictland in Fortriu. Uuen, the mighty king of the Picts had called together his great men from around his kingdom, and from Dal Riada, and king Aed had answered the call. This then is the entry in the Annals of Ulster for 839, and the answer you have been waiting for all this time. I don’t think you’ll be surprised:
The heathens won a battle over the men of Fortriu and Uuen son of Onuist and Bran son of Onuist and Aed son of Boanta and others almost innumerable fell there
It was therefore, disaster. The finest of Scotland were butchered; the gates holding back the Viking flood were breached, and the destructive tide of Vikings spread out across northern Britain. Pictland and dal Riada were both left leaderless. We don’t know where this battle took place, we can’t even give it a name, but it would be one of the decisive battles of Scottish history, as decisive as Nechtansmere, though for a slightly different reason. The unbroken bloodline of the Pictish kings was broken. Over the next few years, there would be chaos not only from Viking violence, but internal civil war as a stream of Pictish kings struggled for supremacy and control as the waters threatened to drown them. It will be a decisive battle because it cleared away a stable, dominant Pictish dynasty, and made room for the new.
And so it is around this time that appears our main protagonist, Cinaed MacAilpin. Now the traditional story, is that Ailpin was a king of Dal Riada, son of one Aed Find who we have mentioned before but you have probably forgotten in the welter of names; and that after the disaster against the Vikings at Fortriu, his son Cinaed became king of Dal Riada in 840 in turn, though what then happens to Ailpin is a bit unclear; one approach is to suppose that he was killed by the Picts. And then in 842 Cinaed suddenly becomes king of the Picts to boot. So remember traditional stories – Cinaed and his Gaelic chumps wallop the Picts and execute a takeover; or gathers everyone together to fight the Viking invaders.
The modern view notes a few things; that some of the evidence on which the story rests has been shown to have been added later, very naughty, and is therefore unreliable, and it is a relatively small core which appears corroborated and reliable. They note that the only surviving chronicle is in Gaelic – and that there is no doubt that Cinaed MacAilpin’s name could quite as easily have been Britonnic – specifically, Ciniod son of Elphin. Essentially, both Cinaed and his Pops Ailpin, or Elphin, could well have been Picts; certainly the name Ailpin is not used in Ireland to our knowledge to that date, and therefore there’s nothing specifically Gaelic about it. As we’ve noted, to have a Pictish king of both Dal Riada and Pictland is perfectly standard. So that’s point number 1 – the assumption that Cinaed is Gaelic is unsafe. Shock horror, mountains fall, school children gasp. We simply do not know.
There is also evidence to suggest that Cinaed’s accession to the throne of Pictland was contested as we have said. There are six names in the frame for Pictlist kingship between 842 and 848, including the last, one Drest, who’s death was supposedly at the hands of MacAilpin’s treason. One version incidentally has Drest and the Picts falling into trap pits full of spikes. So, we can’t confirm or deny gaelic-ness or Pictness, but what we can say is that it is perfectly possible Cinaed was a pict; and we can say that far from a peaceful and heroic gathering together of the peoples of northern Britain to fight off the heathen, actually it looks as though there’s quite a lot of unseemly squabbling and infighting, while the Vikings happily burn the place to the ground around them all.
MacAilpin was clearly a warlike and successful king; he is recorded as carrying out multiple attacks against English Northumbria, into Lothian south of the Forth, although there does not seem to have been any major transferral of territory – Lothian is still Northumbrian on Cinaed’s death for example. But it categorically does not seem to have been the case that he carries out a glorious counter offensive that pushes da narty vikings back under their stone. In fact, rather the other way round.
Because it looks as though in 847 the Vikings raided Dal Riada; and whether or not you take the view that they had already established permanent settlements by this stage, it looks as though they came to stay, or at very least made life impossible for the inhabitants of parts of Dal Riada. Here we are helped by later archaeology and place name analysis. It looks as though the islands of Dal Riada were lost to the Gaels and taken over by the Vikings around now; Gaelic place names were wiped out, there is archaeological evidence of Gaelic villages with their traditional roundhouses with the square Viking halls roughly superimposed on them. There is no remaining trace of the names of the CenelnGabrain and Cenel nOengusa, based on the Isles of Islay and Arran and the long peninsula of Kintyre – they were apparently eradicated by the Norsemen. Whether cultural or physcial, the islands and peninsulas of Argyle we have been speaking of for the last 9 or so episodes have been lost. The more mainland based Gaelic kindred, the Cenel Loairn and Cenel Comgaill still leave their imprint in place names, so they seem to have survived in part at least. And if you need any further evidence of chaos, destruction and the end of days, at this time also, Cinaed seems to have finally ordered the relics of St Columba to be removed from the Island monastery of Iona; they were probably split up, some going to Eastern Pictland and the monastery of Dunkeld, and half to Ireland and the monastery of Kells. If he was Dal Riadan, king Cinaed seems to have deserted his kinsmen pretty swiftly, though of course very probably only from necessity.
Cinaed MacAilpin died in 858 at the Pictish palace of Forteviot. There appears to be no mention of Alba at this point at all in anything remotely contemporary; nor incidentally, of the town of Scone which I have seen described as Cinaed’s ‘capital’ on the wonderful Wikipedia. And I am not being sarky by the way –I love Wkipedia more than a well-drawn pint of Wherry, that that, my friends, is saying something. Cinaed MacAilpin died described as a king of Pictland; the word Alba has not been used, and will not be for 60 years; all we have is one refence in one of the sources to Cinaed as a Rex Scottorum; Elsewhere, he is plain old honest to goodness king of the Picts. The reason I am semi ranting is to make the point that the things with which Cinead is credited rubbing out the Picts and creating a new Gaelic kingdom called firstly Alba and then later Scotland – is really nowhere to be see. But he had clearly been a successful leader even if not responsible for achieving all that has been laid at his door. He’d not kicked out the jams, or even the Vikings; but some sort of normality had been restored; he could proudly announce “We have normality. I repeat, we have normality. Anything you still can’t cope with is therefore your own problem”. Most of all, maybe his biggest significance in the long term was that in 842 he established a new dynasty – the Alpinids; and in the end, it is this dynasty, rather than this man, that will establish a new identity in northern Britain which is recognisably the ancestor of modern Scotland.
His son and successor Domnall also died a king of Pictland. He reigned but 4 years the lad, but it looks as though he may have died at either Scone or St Andrews, or Rigmonaid as it was known then. At some point we are going to have to cover the creation of the town which holds the world’s greatest university, but in the words of Aragorn, this is not that day. Not much is known about Domnall, but there is this quote:
The rights and laws of the kingdom of Aed son of Eochaid were made by the Gaels with their king at Forteviot
Which kind of suggests that what we have here is once again an underking of what remains of Dal Riada, talking to his boss, the king of Pictland.
Now, I am conscious that we are heading towards, or in fact in the thick of, a list of kings battles and dates, and gentle listeners I know of no way of avoiding this. Because this is battle city we now enter folks, this is the land of battles. The next king of Pictland, as he was yet again known, was Cinaed’s nephew, another Constantine, who would reign from 862 to 876.Remember that this is the time in England of the great Heathen Army. And then in 866 a Danish kingdom was established by Ivar the Bonelss in Northumbria, right on the borders of Pictland. There was every bit as much of a storm in northern Britain as there would be in England, as Ivar and a Viking called Olaf decided that the time had come to stop messing about on the edges with little Dal Riada. Like Ivarr would do a little later in England, deciding to reduce all England to his will rather than messing about with a few raids, Olaf and Ivar decided it was time to take on the big boy in the north – to destroy Pictland. Our Ivar of course had form – he had the chops, the chops of destruction, he had an HND starred distinction in destruction, a Masters degree summa cum laude in destruction. In 853 he had subjected Ireland to the edge of his axe, and forced them to pay tribute. In 866 it was Pictland’s turn.
Olaf, with his heathens, wasted all Pictland and occupied it from the first of January to the feast of Saint Patrick
Olaf and Ivar were master of Pictland. Well St Pat’s day is 17th March, so he had Pictlanbd for a while at least. Now he was on a roll, a hard, violent, bloodsoaked roll, this was not one of your sweet, iced kind of bun, and we now get one of the rare references to the British kingdom of Strathclyde in the sources. Because Ivar and Olaf now took the battle to the mighty cliffs and walls of Alt Clut, or Dumbarton Rock as it is also called. For 4 months the Vikings camped at the foot of the rock fortress, while the Britons fought off every attempt of the Vikings to defeat them. But while they resisted, Vikings raiding parties fanned out into the defenceless countryside, and burned destroyed, plundered, pillaged, raped, brutalised and relaxed quietly when possible while the Britons in Alt Clut watched helplessly on. And in the end it was all to no avail. In the end, the Norsemen forced their way in and sacked the fortress. The extent of the destruction must have been complete; the fortress of Alt Clut will not be mentioned again in the chronicles until the 13th century when it becomes a royal castle.
At this point also, by the way, there appears to be another potentially super significant point in Scottish history. It’s really not clear when Dal Riada becomes a purely Scottish concern, as opposed to a kingdom straddling the northern Irish Sea. You will not be surprised to learn that the folks writing at the time don’t mention it. For them there is not Irish Dal Raida or Scottish Dal Riada, since these things don’t exist yet. It was all just well, a bunch of kindred, and group of which called their kingdom Dal Riada. The traditional assumption is that the split came sometime in the 7th century, but actually in could be as late as now, in the late 9th century; we are told that a great fortress in northern Ireland fell for the first time to the Norse; it is a place called Dunseverick, which happens to be a royal site of Dal Riada. It’s not possible to know if this is the date– but maybe this is when the split finally happens, in 871.
At the end of all this destruction the Norsemen went to celebrate their gains. In 871 we are told:
Olaf and Imar returned to Dublin from Britain with 200 ships bringing away with them in captivity to Ireland a great prey of English, and Britons and Picts.
Now, I imagine that you are taking sides here. Maybe you are hanging out your Norwegian flag on the ironing board and cheering Olaf on. Or anachronistically sticking a Saltire to the bottom of your cycling shorts to display your loyalty to any passing motorists. And you may be full of patriotic fervour for the noble Scots in their battle to maintain their freedom, the plucky lads and lasses of the Picts, the Gaels, the English and the Britons fighting together to keep their freedom from the Norse jackboot. If so, you might want to pause a moment. Here’s a contemporary entry for 872:
Artgal, king of the Britons of Strathclyde, was slain at the instigation of Constantin Cinaed’s son
Which as it happens is not unique. There’s an entry from the previous year in a similar vein in Ireland. Essentially, it’s important not to view 9th century Scotland through a modern context of a united Scotland. While the Celtic kingdoms of Northern Britain clearly shared much more than divided them, they were separate concerns; the Norse were just another piece on the chessboard, to be used by wily kings as they thought they could win the best advantage; they didn’t see this necessarily as an existential struggle, didn’t see it in the big historical terms that we might do; nor incidentally, is there any sign of the MacAiplin’s pulling together the Celts of Northern Britain to join together and throw the Norse from their country. Or at least you might get a hollow laugh from Artgal’s shade if you suggested such a thing.
It’s also an indication that the Picts were not done, not finished, they were still in the game, they were not down and out. And next, in 872, we get this:
In the third year, yet, Olaf drawing tribute, was killed by Constantin.
Hurrah! Let’s hear it for Pictland, the boys are back in town, the boys are back in town. Greatest comeback since Lazarus and all that. Olaf was no more. Phew! Ooh dear that was bad, but it’s all over now, back to your farms, there’s nothing to see here. Sadly – not the way it goes. Because into Olaf’s place stepped another as the relentless waves of Norsemen continued. 3 years later in 875, Constantin was back in the wars again:
After a short while in his fourteenth year a battle was fought at Dolair between Danair and the Scotti and the Scotti are slain to Achcochlan.
Now I realise I have found myself back in the weeds, sorry about that. This battle seems to have taken place at Dollar, just north of the Forth. But it’s an interesting example of how historians have changed the way they look at the texts. The use of Scotti is now doubted, seen as a later added gloss and not the contemporary word used, and they think the same of the use of the word Danair or Danes. All that remains really is that Constantin the king of the Picts was slaughtered. His struggle with the Norsemen was over. Because he was toast.
Right then. So far I think we can discount the idea that Cinaed MacAilpin, whether Gael or Pict, was the heroic first king of a united Scotland. Obviously, you might want to hang on in there and disagree, all opinions are available here at the History of Scotland, but from my point of view, the National Unity argument is gone, has hit the back of the bin with a satisfying ping. There’s been no real mention of Scottii or Scotland, no mention at all of a new kingdom called Alba; Gaelic leaders are being assassinated by Pictish kings, Cinaed and his successor are resolutely described as kings of the Picts. So, for me, it’s gone. We are left with the theory of Gaelic Conquest, a violent take over, or a melding, like a Vulcan.
And with the death of Constantin son of Cinaed we come to the critical period. Between 876 and 900 something very fundamental happens, which leads in 900 to the death of a king, Domnal, who was described not as a king of Pictland, but as the king of a new kingdom – Alba, a kingdom that become known as Scotland. So actually, it is here that the critical events took place, or at least started a process – not in 842 with Cinaed McAilpin. We need to find a way of explaining this, we need to find a way of explaining why at one moment we seem to be bumping along happily in the well-established tradition of kings of Pictland in 876, and then why there is suddenly instead this king of Alba in 900.
So, here is a possible story then to explain it all. In 876 a chap called Aed comes to the throne of Pictland; he is Constantin’s brother, Cinaed’s son. But Aed for some reason didn’t cut the mustard, mustard seeds being relatively difficult to cut anyway it has to be said. You go and try it, I’m telling you, it’s no simple matter. Either way, given that Pictland was undergoing a series of hammer blows from the Norse, the Picts needed a man in charge who was firmly in control of the location of his towel, and could at very least handle a mustard seed.
One of Aed’s comites, a companion, was a man called Giric. Giric was a Gael. Giric was a Gael who felt he had a better grasp on his towel than the new king Aed. He had a problem though – he had no claim whatsoever on the throne, he could claim no descent from the new Alipinid royal line; he could claim no descent from any royal line as far as we know. So he seems to have teamed up with a descendant of Cinead called Eochaid, to add a little legitimacy to his regime. But it was Giric who called the shots.
Within 2 years of his accession then, Aed was dead, Giric had taken control. As he did so, he would have looked around to stablise his regime and remove any threats. His eye then would have fallen on two inconvenient sources of potential trouble from poor dead Aed’s family – namely, Aed’s son Constantine, just 5 years old, and his older cousin Domnall. Next time Giric’s eye went a wandering, young Constantine and Domnall were nowhere to be seen – they’d been spirited away. It appears that Constantine and Donall had friends who realised that once Giric had tasted Alpinid blood, he was going to be tempted to come back for more.
Given that Giric was a Gael, it was rather ironic that Constantine and Domnal fled to a Gaelic court, a court of the O’Neil in Ireland. But it was the obvious choice – their Aunt happened to be married to the High King of Ireland. And so they joined the Gaelic court, and they grew up and they waited, and they learned; and they did not forget.
Giric was a usurper, but as far as we know, he was a pretty effective one, given that he stayed on the throne for 14 years until 890. We know very little about his rule indeed. Some historians say that this is where the big takeover by the Gaels happen; that Giric the Gael, on a throne to which he could barely claim any right, essentially decimated the Pictish nobility and replaced them with his own Gaels. Later versions of king lists say that Giric:
Gave liberty to the Scottish church which, up to that time, had laboured under the customs and mores of the Picts
It could be that the church of Dal Riada was aggressively opposed to the Picts, and led a cultural assault on the ways of the Picts to accompany Giric’s political assault; afterall, the Dal Riadan church was dominated still by the heritage of Iona and St Colomba, while as we saw in the 8th century the Picts had sent the familia of Iona home. The quote also suggests that Giric himself favoured Gaelic ways, and lends a little weight therefore to the idea that he may have led a political coup.
However, after 14 years, the long expected backlash came. A bit like Richard III waiting for Henry Tudor, Giric would have watched the shores for the arrival of Constantine and Domnall, his Alpinid competitors; and when they duly landed, he took up residence in one of those mighty hill fortresses we keep hearing about; in a place called Dundurn. It did him no good whatsoever; ‘in Dundurn the upright man was taken by death’ intoned the chronicle, and archaeology clarifies what this meant in practice; the evidence of fire and remains of arrowheads speaks of a violent end, not a negotiated retirement and the opportunity to spend more time with the family.
The elder of the two young Pictish Princes, Domnall, duly became king in 890. Which would seem like the perfect time to re-establish the good old days of the Pict. But both Domnall and Constantine appear to have had a better idea. They had been brought up in a Gaelic court, with Gaelic traditions, culture and dress. They came to a country which had been ruled by a Gael for 14 years and gone through the pain of trying to establish the very same culture they’d just come from. So, they had absolutely no intention whatsoever of going back to the old days and going through all that pain a second time.
Domnal reigned only for 11 years, and died in 900. It was a turbulent reign. The Norsemen continued their attack, and put Pictland to the sword –and incidentally, this is the very last time the chronicles use the word Pictland. Domnal struck back and won a victory, but then was defeated and killed and brought Constantine to the throne, his partner in flight to Ireland in the reign of Giric.
The really exciting bit then is this very simple entry in 2 chronicles:
Domnall, son of Constantine, King of Alba, dies
Wait – Alba? Where did that come from? Why not king of the Picts or Pictland? In fact therefore it is Domnall who is identified as king of a united Scotland, or Alba as it is called initially. Aed, the man killed by Giric, is the last man referred to as king of the Picts. From here on the process of eradication of the Picts and their memory is in full swing.
We’ll talk more next time about the name Alba and what happens in the next reign to reinforce the new branding and identify and all that; for this episode, let’s stick to the critical point – what happened to the Picts?
We have effectively discounted National Unity under Cinaed MacAilpin; and I think we can rule out conquest by Cinaed MacAilpin as well I think; there is no evidence for it in his reign, kings after him continue to be called king of the Picts; the Gaels had been overrun in many of their territories by the Norse, they were far too tiny to take on the Picts anyway.
We are therefore left, I think with the third, the Melding argument, cultural assimilation; and a process that starts not with Cinaed, but with his successors. So the question is – was that a violent or peaceful process? The violent approach paints a picture of the vicious removal of the Pictish nobility. Like one of the Leicester Tiger’s imperious rolling mauls, the Gaels they push out and replace the Pictish nobility – a Palace coup, or indeed what you might call an elite takeover similar to the Norman conquest – a slicing off of the local nobility and replacement by the incoming invader; and the imposition of an alien Gaelic culture on the remaining Picts. It’s a reasonable, if dramatic theory.
But it isn’t necessary to explain events. It is entirely possible to take four elements, put them together and come up with a non violent transition to a new society and identity.
Firstly, number one, numero Uno – leadership. Domnall and Constantine came to the throne effectively as Gaelic in culture, despite the fact that they were Picts. Their court might well have looked Gaelic, if you wanted to get on in life and earn yourself a bit of patronage, you’d better fit in. And so the nobility, whether Pictish or Gaelic originally all began to look, sound and smell Gaelic.
Secondly, number two, strategy. Domnall and Constantine may very well have taken a look at the situation and said, right, look, we are getting kicked all over the park by the Norse who have already stolen a fair percentage of our territory, so we need to get rid of this Gaelic – Pictish thing, it’s not helpful, we are all people, we all like buns. So, they got the management consultants in who charged them a fortune to tell them what they already knew, and they said right, let’s all get behind a new identify, a new logo, and new branding. We shall now be known as Alba, and as Albanians.
Thirdly, Number three, the Norse. Basically, there may very well have been no need to kill a single Pictish noble to make way for new Gaelic ones – so many had been killed by the Norse anyway, there may well have been a comfortable amount of spare land to accommodate any new, landless Gaels. This may well have been a welcome infusion of new blood. When the Gaels could equally well have flown Dal Riada, to be settled on land by a compliant Pictish leadership grateful for the influx of new blood.
Finally, Four, Number 4 – the church. As we have just heard, the church would have been right there by now, reinforcing a cultural re-aligment behind the Gaelic world.
So, sorted then, right? Together events and common sense called for a bold re-alignment round a new identify. Cool. But, there is a bit of a problem, which is the last factor we need to consider today. This is language. Although there is no doubt the process would have taken a good long time, and be no more than started in 900, by the 12th century as we heard from Henry of Huntingdon, the Pictish language was basically gone, and most place names become Gaelic too. You might be looking at me right now with a confused face, a sort of slightly confused wide-eyed innocence. So? Surely that’s the way it goes – the Gaels have conquered all, culturally at least, so everyone starts speaking the new language. Afterall, we always get this story about how marvellous it is that plucky old English wins out in the end over da narty Norman French.
If you are thinking that, well, I am going to argue with you. If you are not thinking that, you can feel slightly smug. Actually, the astounding thing about English is NOT that it finally wins out over da narty French – the astounding thing is how long it takes to do so!
Here’s the basic rule. With elite takeovers, it is the language of the masses that wins out. And you can see why. The poor, illiterate, native population has little contact with their elite overlords, and few tools to learn a new language. If the new overlords want their new serfs to pick the cabbages on time, though why anybody would want to actually eat a cabbage is beyond me, they needed to learn the language of their serfs. For a while the old grand language sticks around as a badge of exclusivity and culture, but two systems can’t run together for ever. There are plenty of examples of this happening; in Normandy and the Vikings; in southern Italy and the Normans; in England with the Normans.
So this is bad news for the idea that the melding was a non-violent process, an elite takeover – because in this case, the language changes too. Normally, the invaders language only takes over when the process is deeply disruptive and aggressive, and where settlement patterns are substantially affected; where invaders cone and take land; the Anglo Saxons into Eastern England, the invasion of the Balkans by the Slavs. The change in language from Pictish to Gaelic would seem to argue for a violent and fundamental removal of the Picts from both power and land, both Nobility and people, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Maybe conquest didn’t happen in Cinaed’s time, but maybe it did happen later.
There is a possible answer to this, espoused and argued by the historian Alex Woolf. He points out that the connections between these kingdoms in Scotland – Pictland, Strathclyde, Dal Riada – are really very close. We are hampered by the fact that no examples of Pictish survive, but it seems very likely that the differences between Q Celtic, the Goedelic Celtic of the Gaels, and the Brittonic P Celtic of the Picts and the Britons were relatively small. The key, is that it is entirely possible that Gaels and Picts could understand each other.
In this situation, what would happen? Woolf uses the history of Scots and English to model this. Scots was a language that stemmed from English and Flemish settlers in Scottish towns from the 12th century onwards. Once settled, the Scots and English languages developed separately, taking on different new words; and in many cases Scots actually proved more traditional in keeping Old English words. After the act of Union in 1707, Scots then began to slowly be replaced by Standard Southern English, gradually and incrementally. No process of ethnic cleansing was required. Since the languages were mutually intelligible, it was relatively easy to import anglicizations into Scots. It remained easy to switch between codes as needed; to the point where now most Scots speak what linguists call Scottish Standard English – Standard English with an accent and some distinctive vocabulary.
So essentially, maybe this is what happened in Scotland from 900 onwards. Two mutually intelligible Celtic languages, Pictish and Goedelic Celtic influenced each other during then 10th century, and converged into an Albanian language; that language was heavily re-inforced by a dominant Gaelic Church and Gaelic political elites, and so the Gaelic forms ended up by predominating. Quod erat demonstrat, sic biscuitus disintergrat.
So look, there we are. There are no certainties in all of this of course – who knows what the next bunch of historians will come up with. But it seems more than likely that the demise of the Picts was not about a destructive process of Gaelic invasion from Dal Riada, and maelstrom of fire and death that wiped out a people. Just as the Picts emerged from the Caledonii and the Maiathai as they defined themselves as non-Roman, so the Alpinid dynasty found a way to forge a stronger people to respond to and to face down the threat to their very existence from the Norse. The timing of the national tradition all around Cinaed MacAilpin is a bit odd, and we can reject the idea of it happening under his rule; the critical events seem to be 50 years after he comes to the throne. But in a way the story of national unity combined with one of cultural assimilation is where end up – just a little later than we originally thought.