Now then, last time we had a wander through the pleasant gardens of the reign of Constantine II, long lived king of Alba. In 943 when he decided to concentrate on service to his maker rather than to his kingdom, it was the son of his predecessor Domnall who came to the throne, a chap called Mael Colium. We don’t know a vast about Mael Colium, or Mael Colium I; to be frank, he’s not top of the list in conversations about great Scottish kings, nor is there an equivalent of Braveheart for Mael Colium, foolish as that may sound. In fact almost everyone on the planet has never heard of Mael Colium I. Sorry to rub this in, Mael Colium, just sayin’ you know. He is also at the start of a period of relative instability for the Alpinid kings; after the 43 year reign of Constantine, over the next 60 years there will be 7 kings, and I think only one of them wasn’t killed by somebody violently; effectively, the words “it’s time for you to become king of Alba” became the equivalent of Roy Batty sitting in the rain and announcing that it was time to die.
Part of the reason was the complicated external political environment kings like Mael Colium inherited; there were competitors, and it was complicated. I have attempted a map, by the way, which is as ever on the website, same map as I mentioned last time.
The last time we there, Strathclyde was in a bit of bother. The fastness of Dumbarton Rock, Alt Clut, was besieged and then sacked by the Viking invaders in 870, and appears to have been deserted for a good long time thereafter.
But although the history of Strathclyde is very very dim, with very little written record, it equally clearly did not die. One of the problems has been the differences in terminology; it is referred to variously as Strathclyde, and as Cumbria. And because it’s difficult not to think about the past without being affected by modern borders and divisions, one story has been of two kingdoms, Cumbria and Strathclyde. That appears to be unlikely; what seems to have happened in all probability is that the centre of gravity moved up the Clyde from Alt Clut, and a new centre established at Govan. And meanwhile the territory of the British kingdom of Strathclyde extended southwards across the Solway Plans and to include the ancient Roman fortress that we now call Carlisle, which of course these days is in England. Some evidence for Strathclyde’s shadowy extent comes from the conference of kings that Aethelstan held at Eamont in 927. Conferences like this are often held on borders, and very likely therefore this conference location marks one place in the border of Strathclyde; Eamont Bridge is about 21 miles south of Carlisle.
So after the disaster in 870 at the hands of the Vikings, Strathclyde appears to have made no impression on their Viking opponents in the western isles during their recovery; nor do they appear to have expanded at all at the expense of Galloway in the South West; however, they do appear to have had some success against their turbulent neighbour Northumbria.
Other than that though, the timeline and details are unknowable. However, a couple of long held myths do appear to have been given the ghostbusting treatment over recent years. So just in case they are myths that you hold close to you in the long winter nights for comfort and warmth, let me rip them from you. One is that Britons of Strathclyde, refusing to be conquered by the hideous Saxons, upped sticks to North Wales where they founded the kingdom of Gwynedd free from Saxon oppression, and there, therefore, good celts grew tall and true and straight for ever more in freedom and natural harmony. This is a myth that has been comprehensively debunked, and a tracked down to a forgery made in 1801 by a Welsh Antiquarian called Iolo Morgannweg. The second myth is from a 14th century Scottish writer John Fordun, who claimed that by this time Strathclyde was under the effective control of the kings of Alba, and was used as a kind of appanage for heirs of the king, like the position of Prince of Wales would become for kings of England. This also seems to be a later invention. Because under King Owain of Strathclyde, who fought alongside Constantine at Brunanbugh, Strathclyde was clearly a distinctive, independent kingdom, part of the diplomatic jigsaw. It retained its British character, its P Celtic language Brythonic as opposed to the increasingly Gaelic, Q Celtic culture to their north and east in Alba; and indeed the existence of a specific P Celtic language, Cumbric has been proposed and debated.
Now, next week I thought we might take a little time to discuss the history of Scandinavian Scotland. So for the moment let me just give you a very brief snap shot. Very broadly then, you need to visualise Scandinavian settlements stretching from the northern isles of Shetland and Orkney, down around the Western Isles and Argyle. Even further south was Galloway, independent kingdoms and peoples of gaells, Norse and Britons, very dimly lit, or that is to say, we know very little about its history, though I’ll do a bit of guessing next time.
Which brings us back to Alba, and the kingdom Mael Colium inherited in 943. In Pictish days, we spoke a lot of the dual kingdom, north and south of the mountainous ridge called the Mounth, and the distributed nature of power; that Pictish kings had to rely very much on local strong men exercising power of their behalf to extend their rule in a way that could be pretty nominal. Outside of the centre of Alban power in the Tay Basin, this still probably remained very much the case.
One reflection of this is the arrival of the name and position of Mormaer, a title which first appears in reference to the battle of Corbridge in 918. Traditionally, Mormaers have been seen as great men, almost kinglets, who had existed before Alba came about and had been regional leaders in Pictland. The story goes that the mormair in the 10th and 11th centuries were powerful, leading magnates in central Scotland, place like Fife; and the effective rulers of the more remote regions such as Moray where the Alban king’s authority was far away and weak.
So that’s the traditional view – the Mormaer as a powerful local kinglet a role developed in the mists of time and Pictish history. But since there is no evidence at all for the existence of Mormaers before the end of the Pictish kingdom it’s difficult to really argue for their existence before Alba; I mean it’s possible but who knows. As for their role, were they really as powerful as traditionally thought? One of the problems is that the very word becomes translated into Earl; Mormaer is a gaelic word, it becomes represented in Latin as comes, or companion, the same word that produces the title of Count. Comes becomes the word for Earl later on in Norman Scotland; and therefore folks assumed that Mormaers must be similar in function and power to 12th century Earls. Such is not necessarily the case.
The very word itself is something of a wrangle. The second syllable is easy peasy, and indeed lemon squeasy; the word Maer means Steward. The first syllable, mor, could be connected to the word for Great or for Sea. So, the traditional view seizes quickly on the great – Great Steward. That fits nicely into the powerful local kinglet theory, and we were all comfortable with that.
However, there is another view. Really, I hear you say, dryly, possibly wearily or even with some asperity, how many times you’ve heard such a phrase before in dark age history? There is a fragment of a law code which probably reflects the fines for the killing of people of various different social status – very much like the wergild of Anglo Saxon England. If you compare the Scottish tract, you find that the Mormaer’s payment is 50% higher than the next social layer or lord, or in later Scottish parlance, the Thane. In Wessex, the earl was 4 times greater than the AS thegn. Huh, weird. Why would there be such a difference? Why would Scottish Mormaers have such low relative status if they are essentially the same rank as earls? And then when the land holdings of the mormaer of Fife are studied, the amount of land they held was really not very different to any other lord; at best they look like first amongst equals, primus inter pares rather than like great magnates.
The alternative theory then has the mormaer as much more like a royal official, dependent on the king for their authority. There’s an attractive thought that maybe the word is in fact derived from Sea Steward rather than Great Steward; maybe it derived from the naval leaders of the kindred on Dal Riada. The Mormaer’s relative absence of land and the relative status is explained away if these are simply leading local lords pulled out by the king to fulfil and official function on their behalf. As ever with these things, it’s less exciting and romantic, but sounds a little more practical and plausible.
Either way, the role of the mormaer was primarily a military one; it was the Mormaer’s job to lead the local levy, and on occasion to levy justice. The office does appear to have become hereditary pretty quickly, though, which may suggest that in those more remote regions like Moray the Mormaer was able to build a local power base in these early days of the 10th century
Before we hop back to the political narrative and our new king, Mael Colium I, and while we are on a militarially connected topic, it might be worth mentioning one other thing, the way that church lands are used to support the Alban state in the 10th century. To tackle that topic, let’s discuss with the church, and how it’s structure was evolving in Scotland.
Vey broadly, the earliest arrival of Christianity way back in the 5th century had been marked by the start of an episcopal structure – that is, Bishops were probably established to spread the word and to minister to their flocks. But then came St Colomba, and in his wake came the Celtic monastic structure. This promoted the idea of the abbot as the leading figure in the Christian hierarchy, and they became more important than Bishops. With them therefore came a wave of new monastic communities, and those places that had previously housed a Bishop, probably became monasteries.
However, then came the synod of Whitby in 664 and the decision to adopt Roman practices, and episcopal centres slowly began to revive, and particularly below the forth and Tay, driven by Northumbrians and the see of Lindisfarne. A bishop appeared as far north as Abercorn on the south bank of the firth of forth, but after Northumbrian defeat at Nechtansmere in 685 the Bishop lifted his episcopal cassocks and legged it for the south. But through the 8th century and 9th century the evidence is of a growing episcopal structure at places like Glasgow and Govan, probably as part of Strathclyde, though there might have even been a bishop at Colomba’s home of Iona. North of the forth, the Viking attacks appear to have wiped out the Colomban monasteries in the 8th century, but as some sort of stability began to re-assert itself the Culdee communities were established in many locations. Culdees, as we might have mentioned last time, were very strict and austere monastic communities; often living cheek by jowl with communities of secular clergy not willing to go quite the whole hog. Although the Culdees originated in Ireland, they became much more widespread and important in Scotland. At this time, Dunkeld near Perth became the leading ecclesiastical site until increasingly replaced by St Andrews in the 10th century. as we have heard.
The long and short of this that Alba and Strathclyde were moving very much in the same general direction as the rest of Europe, towards and organised framework of bishops and their dioceses, and in this influence from the south, Northumbria in particular, would have been very strong. Monasteries were now far and few between, with Iona being by far the most successful and longest survivor of Colomba’s legacy.
So there we go, a brief survey of the church. Now, the church through the period had steadily built their wealth. The Church and Kings had been establishing a symbiotic relationship where kings endowed the church with land and riches and in return were offered the promotion and glorification only the church could give, plus access to literate civil servants and archivists, all recording charters and grants of land; we have seen how in the 8th century the Pictish kings kicked out the Celtic to establish what looked like a national church for example.
But through the chaos of the 9th century viking invasions it looks as though once again Scotland follows very much the same model and response as across all of Europe; suddenly, both church and kings decide that the valuable resource land represented was needed to meet his rather more immediate challenge, rather than being donated to the church in praise of God. You might know by the way that it’s not just the Scandinavians who had decided to go on the rampage at this time, you’ve got the slavs and the Magyars in Eastern and central Europe too. Magyar, by the way, is spelled M-A-G-Y-A-R, as in the Hungarians, and is not pronounced Magyar but modyar. I have told this to literally billions of people; well figuratively billions of people and not one of them has believed me, not one. Let one of you be the first.
So, kings took back many of the lands they had bestowed on the church, to give them the werewithal to recruit and maintain warriors. Now it’s difficult to see the evidence for this in Scotland, since charters that survive before the 12th century are very rare, but there are isolated examples, which therefore seem to suggest a familiar and standard approach to that taking place throughout Europe – which makes perfect sense. This was probably not a violent or adversarial process; it is very likely that the church happily participated; since without the protection of their kings, they could not defend their lands.
So I think I have rabbited on long enough about the backgroundy stuff, and let us get back to Mael Colium I, who arrived on the Alban throne in 943. We know a pitifully small amount of a man who reigned for 12 years until 954. One of Mael Colium’s challenges was that the previous king Constantine was still around; and in the world of king’s the phrase 1’s company, 2’s a crowd applies. It is not clear whether Constantine jumped into his Culdee’s community in St Andrews, worn out by a life of hard work and age, or if Mael Colium essentially said he’d been around long enough, time to go. Either way, he went.
Mael Colium, like every king of Alba was by necessity a man of war, and spent much of his reign doing that very thing – though we have but a few sentences to go on. One of those sentences was in the ASC, which recorded for 945
In this year King Edmund harried across all of Cumberland
Fair enough, and this mirrors the Annales Cambriae which states
Strathclyde was wasted by the Saxons
Which rather nicely illustrates the point about Strathclyde being called different things depending on your location, but being the same place.
However, going back to the ASC, that entry went on a bit more. The full quote goes like this:
In this year King Edmund harried across all of Cumberland and let it to Mael Colium, king of the Scots, on condition that he should be his co-worker on both land and sea
Whoa hang on second. This is a slightly bemusing statement. I mean you come all the way top the frozen wastes, to go and harry; and then you just give away the land you’ve just won by your heroic harrying, what’s that all about? I mean I accept it would be linguistically tempting to give the land you’ve harried to someone called Harry if you were in a hurry, but this is not the case here, Edmund lets Cumberland to someone called mael Colium, which doesn’t rhyme with either Harry or hurry. Sorry, being silly. The point is, if this campaign was such a towering success why did Edmund give his prize away?
There seems to be only one explanation really; that at the end of a year wandering over windswept and soggy moors, Edmund decided he didn’t want to do this again – effectively recognised that actually if push came to shove and he was forced to assert his sovereignty over Strathclyde, he would always lose in the face of Alba’s opposition. Mael Colium was just much closer, and with fewer distractions. And so Edmund tried to make a silk purse from the sows ear, and gave Strathclyde away in return for a pocketful of mumbles, otherwise known as Mael Colium’s promises. A pocketful of mumbles, since by 949 Mael Colium was back raining into English Northumbria as yet another Viking from Dublin had a hack at taking over Northumbria.
In fact the years of Mael Colium’s reign are marked by another blast of Northumbrian chaos. And it is, chaos. We’ve had Edmund wandering all the way up to Strathclyde; then in 948 the Northumbrian’s reneged on a deal with Edmund’s English successor King Eadred when they welcomed into their collective bosom the Viking with the coolest name since Ivarr the Boneless, namely of course Eric Bloodaxe. So King Eadred of England then returned in fury and the Northumbrians said aagh, so sorry didn’t mean it, here’s some reparation money and Bloodaxe was out on his ear. The very next year it’s the turn of Olaf Sihtriccsson to come over from Dublin, and this is bloke for whom Mael Colium broke ranks and joined in the raiding. I am not expecting you to remember any of this by the way, just take away the impression – armies wandering around Northumbria, constantly changing loyalties.
Now it sounds as though poor old Northumbria was being regularly torched and used as a dynastic football. And that could indeed be the case, but it just might not be. Actually, it is more than likely at the centre of this were a core group of Northumbrian lay and ecclesiastical noblemen, led by the redoubtable Wulfstan, ABY, who made carefully considered decisions about where best to lay their bets and minimise the immediate damage. No doubt they were as buffeted by all this change as was anyone, but quite probably each takeover was not accompanied by a bloodbath and a wholesale change of personnel.
Anyway, Erick Bloodaxe retreated to the Orkney Islands when he was kicked out of Northumbria by King Eadred, and he brooded and nursed his malice like Sauron under Mount Doom, and plotted and gathered his orcs, I mean his warriors. And before long he was back for a second bite at Northumbria, and succeeded in his ambition and become once more king in Jorvik.
Now, Eric then become a problem for the surrounding kingdoms, because in finest management style, he passed on his own problem. So since he was very probably helped back to power by Wulfstan and this Northumbrian elite Eric could not reward his warriors when he arrived back in Northumbria, he could not take land off the very Northumbrian elite who had supported him. So what to do? He went a-raiding in neighbouring places so that he could then hand out the rings of silver and gold to his followers according to his idiom.
This explain why, therefore, Mael Colium was part of the opposition to Eric – because he knew that if Eric took over Northumbria in the morning, by tea time he’d be sacking Alba. So when Eric returned for his second stint in 952 an alliance of Alba, Strathclyde and the English had tried to stop the takeover – only to crash and burn. Fortunately for Alba, it did not last; by 954, Erick Bloodaxe was dead, killed on the road north west at a place called Stainmore by another Viking. The Northumbrian elite calmly decided that England was their best option, Eadred was invited back and it was all over – Northumbria would remain part of England for ever. Unless Yorkshire ever manages to get that referendum of course.
954 was a poor year for kings in the British Isles, since Mael Colium met a similar fate, killed according to the chronicle, by the ‘men of Mearns’. We know not why the men of Mearns took agin the lad.
The next few decades are a blizzard of names, and we move through 6 kings. Idulf was Mael Colium’s oddly Scandinavian named successor, and is notable for a couple of things; it appears to be in his reign that Edinburgh became definitively Alban, or at least the rock fortress there did. And for this Scandinavian name, which possibly suggests the level of interaction between all these peoples. Looking back, we tend to see the Vikings as the enemy, the invader; but by the 10th century they are simply part of the diplomatic and dynastic scenery. Despite his Scandinavian name, Indulf was killed by a boatload of Vikings from the western isles.
Now we alternate between kings descended from Aed or Constantine – Dub, Cullen, Cinead II. It is a confusing and violent period, where we can glimpse of violence both internal to Alba, and, as we are used to, from outside. Dub was killed by his own people – we know not why. It’s from Dub, incidentally that the clan of MacDuff, rightly or wrong, will claim descent. Dub’s fall was likely to be dynastic; one year we are told he has defeated his rival Cullen from Aed’s side of the MacAlpine dynasty, and the next we are told he’d been kicked out and hey presto! In 967 Cullen is king.
Cullen managed not to be killed by his own people. Nope, in 971 he instead managed to be killed by the Britons, presumably from Strathclyde, burned to death in a house, alongside his brother. A desperate end; and interesting that Strathclyde appears to have been capable, therefore, of asserting her independence, another confirmation that Strathclyde was not yet tied to Alba. It’s a glimpse also of what royal brothers did; they appeared to stay by their ruling brothers and help them out, become trusted right hand men. And get burned to death if it all goes wrong.
Cullen had other brothers though, and thus the new king was Amlaib, another king with a Norse name. Amlaib was to live in times that were no more stable. In the 970s and 980s new Viking warlords came to the playground of the Irish sea and Hebrides, two brothers Maccus and Gothfrith. They fell on Anglesey in north Wales and burned and stole and killed, and throughout Britain alarm bells rang. But we have a brief period again when England had a powerful ruler with impressive control over both a navy and army; I speak of Edgar the Peaceable, Peaceable in the sense that he would have you be peaceable, and if you weren’t, he’d crush you. Edgar decided on a demonstration of his power, sailing a fleet round Wales and indeed Anglesey and again gathering of kings of Britain at Chester in the north West of England.
The king took his whole naval force to Chester, and six kings came to meet him, and all gave their pledges that they would be his allies on sea and land
There is much debate about the actual number of kings at this historic meeting; maybe 6 and maybe 8, and some Chroniclers add the rowing of barges into the ceremonies. Whatever the answer on this, the majority of these kings were probably Welsh, but among them also were in all probability the kings of Strathclyde, one Dyfnwal, and the king of Alba. But was it Amlaib who met with Edgar as king of Alba, whether or not he held an oar at the time? Or was it a chap called Cinead, son of Mael Colium I? Because there is then a super famous quote. By super famous I don’t mean as famous as, oooh I dunno, “this was their finest hour” thing, but you know in certain circles a pretty famous quote
Two earls…conducted Cinead to king Edgar. And when he had done homage to him, King Edgar gave him Lothian; and with great honour sent him back to his own
The quote is sort of super famous, you know in certain circles, quite small circles as it happens but you know, circles, because it seems to confirm that Scottish kings held Lothian from the English crown. But look, who’s this Cinead fellow? Cinead is in fact the son of Mael Colium I. Cinead appears to have been less than happy that the kingship of Alba flipfloped between descendants of Constantine and descendants of Aed.
So look it’s a bit chaotic. We’ve got a new bunch of Vikings, Maccus and Gothfrith wandering around the Irish sea. In Ireland we have the last of the great Scandinavian players Amlaib Cuaran creating legends with his skalds and his wars; we’ve got a confused dynastic struggle in Alba now, Cinead Vs Amlaib, we have Strathclyde appearing to have confidently and successfully asserted her independence. For a while, the English king Edgar’s personal authority helped turn aside some of these threats and confusions and keep the lid on things. For example, Maccus and Gothfrith looked him in the eye, bottled it and turned back to give Ireland some grief instead. But sadly Edgar was as shortlived as others of his English dynasty, and in 975 he died at the age of 31, and Cinead took the opportunity to visit war and destruction on Alban Amlaib and in 977 became king of Alba himself, and the line of Constantine once again had the upper hand.
Cinead II hung around for about 18 years; and proved to be a reasonably standard King of Alba in many ways. You know the sort of thing; he immediately started raiding and attacking Lothian and Northumbria, because that’s what you do, and for a while seems to have been pretty successful, and it could be that for a while Lothian was indeed stolen from Northumbrian hands. He had a hack at Strathclyde, because that’s what you do; but appears to have received the gift of a bloody nose at their hands. But probably there are two significant things in his reign. The first concerns the Scandinavians. In 987 the last great descendant of Ivar the Boneless, Amlaib Cuaran died; the Danes appear in great raids down the western coast of Scotland, raiding Iona for example, but in fact suffered badly at the hands of the king of Alba; a great slaughter was recorded after the raid at Iona, Gothfrith, by now known as the king of the Western Isles, met his end in Dal Riada. It’s a watershed of sorts; while it’s not the last we’ll hear about wars with Scandinavians, we are now moving to the period dominated by the Danes – Svein Forkbeard and Cnut, the men who will bring England to her knees, in what will be a bad century for the Anglo Saxons.
The second big king about Cinead II, is his death. Now the manner of his death is actually pretty standard for a king of Alba – i.e. it was violent, and he was killed by his own constituents. He appears to have killed a member of the family of the Mormaer of Angus; who in return organised the king’s assassination. An eye for an eye sort of thing, it all has the ring of the Godfather really. No, that’s not the significant thing’ the significant thing is that his successor, another Constantine, brings with him for the first time a long genealogy. You have come across this thing before, a genealogy designed to show what a thoroughly glorious chap he was, descended from other glorious folks. The genealogy is important because it reflected the cultural traditions that had grown up in Cinead’s reign and before, it was a fleshing out of the Alba foundation story.
Constantine’s genealogy links with the news we just had that Gothfrith was killed in Dal Riada; which is quite interesting, because no one has mentioned Dal Riada for years, and now suddenly the term was back. And then it was followed in the reign of the next and last of the Alpinid’s, Mael Colium III by another tract. It basically links those old kindreds of Dal Raida with the men of Alba. I have done a small map and a summary of the Dal Riada origins on the website for your delight and delectation, drawn from Alex Woolf’s book. The foundation story of Alba now presented is that the royal line is descended from the Cenel nGabrain; the leading kindred of Dal Riada. Now in historical terms, the connection made in the genealogy is unsafe, just as the story of Cinead MacAlpine and the slaughter of the Picts is unsafe, but that’s a bit irrelevant; this is about the foundation story, this is what the Albans wanted to say about themselves, and the importance of their Celtic and Dal Riadan heritage. Unsurprisingly then, the kindred of the Cenel nGabrain were located in the central belt of the Alban kingdom, in the Tay Basin, and Fife, Gowrie, the sort of area if you want a fall back, that the Maiathai used to inhabit all those centuries ago when we were talking about that. Next and closest to the royal line, come the Cenel Comgail in Strathearn just west of that central area, while the Cenel Loarn are the furthest away from the royal line by relationship, and the furthest away from the centre of Alban royal power in Moray, north of the Mounth.
Around this time then, around 1000, the Celtic foundation of the Alban kingdom was being coloured in; the newness of the Alban kingdom and its creation at the time of Cinead MacAlpine, it’s discontinuity from Pictland and its continuity from Dal Riada were more strongly emphasised. At the same time the problem of Moray is implicit in the Cenel Loarn and their positioning in the north. You might remember the Cenel Loarn had for a while been the leading kindred in Dal Riada over the Cenel nGabrain; the status of the mormaers of Moray is very difficult at this time – are they, or do they consider themselves actually kings? Alba’s structure may be closer to that dual kingship that exiting in Pictland, north and south, than we imagine.
The last king of the line of Cinead MacAlpine came to the Alban throne in 1005. His two immediate successors, would you believe, did not die peacefully in their beds sipping a nice cup of coco. Constantine was a descendant of the Aed side of the family, and had 2 years in the hotseat before his bum was terminally singed by his successor as it happens, another Cinead. This Cinead was the son of a predecessor from the opposing Constantininan side of the family, and so history repeated itself yet again. The new Cinead had 8 years in the son before history repeated itself again in that wonder of wonders, he was killed by the man who wanted to be king. The only novel factor here is that the new man, the last of the Alpinids, was from the same side of the family, descended from Constantine.
And so we come to our last Alipinid, Mael Colium II. We should have a bit of a fanfare I think, you know it always feels significant when we get to dynastic change. Having said that, there’s nothing particularly different about Mael Colium II – though there is one chapter that is finally closed.
The diplomatic context around his rule is very relevant. To his west we are in the time of the great Brian Boru, king of Ireland and victor of Clontarf; despite Brian’s death there, the times of constant invasions from the Irish based Vikings into Alba are gone. However, while one power fell in Ireland, another rose in the East in the form of the Danes. This is the time of Svein Forkbeard and Cnut, and their gradual, relentless subjugation of the England of Aethelred the Unready, and the establishment under Cnut of a great Scandinavian Empire.
All of this was to an extent good news for the Albans; after all, without wanting to indulge in too much schadenfreude, it’s usually quite nice to see your enemies ground into the dust. Aethelred’s pain and torment opened an opportunity for Mael Colium to have another hack at Lothian, which was back under Northumbrian control in the form of Earl Uhtred, yup, Earl Uhtred of Bebbanmberg, right name, wrong era for you Bernard Cornwall lovers. The first attempt was something of a damp squib, well worse actually, as Mael Colium reached Durham. And have you seen Durham? If you haven’t, well, it’s never going to be an easy place to deal with, even before the current Norman Castle and Cathedral arrived, and Mael Colium could not, and on the way back was crushed by Uhtred.
This was in 1006. But Mael Colium managed to keep his hands on his crown, and in 1018 he was back, for another super famous battle, the Battle of Carham in 1018. This time the boot was placed on the other foot, and then duly placed firmly on Uhtred’s backside. The likelihood is that when Mael Colium came over the border, Uhtred took the approach that would sink Harold at Hastings, and rushed to meet him with his household troops before he could gather all his levies. The result was that Uhtred was forced to recognise that Alba now extended all the way down to the river Tweed, to broadly speaking its current boundary, and Lothian passed definitively into the hands of the Scots and stayed there.
That is enough reason to celebrate Mael Colium II. There have been other reasons, but now rather more doubtful; this is the tradition that it was Mael Colium II that finally combined Strathclyde with Alba; but the clever money is now that we have to wait a few more years yet for that, and we’ll talk about that in a future episode.
Meanwhile, Cnut meanwhile was to reasonably quickly establish that he was boss on the Island, and in 1031, or possibly 1032, he made sure everyone was in no doubts. Here is the ASC
In this year Cnut went to Rome and as soon as he came home he went to Scotland, and the Scots king surrendered to him, Mael Colium and two other kings, Macbeth and Ech-mar-cach.
So that’s interesting, in a number of ways really. Ech-mar-cach, was a Viking king of Dublin and variously Man and Galloway. His presence alongside the king of Alba is another illustration of the way these people we think of as mortal, racial enemies are just like us really – they make alliances, they get on with it.
Another of course is the name Macbeth; yes, that Macbeth, here he is the lad, the ‘is this a dagger I see before my eyes’ chappie, husband of Gruoch, Lady Macbeth. He seems to be referred to in this entry as a king. But this is well before he had formally become king of Alba – his title at best at this stage would have been the Mormaer of Moray. So here perhaps is more evidence that the men of Moray, north of the Mounth, considered themselves if not quite independent of Alba, certainly reasonably autonomous; they considered themselves to be lead by kings rather than mere Mormaers.
We’ll deal with Macbeth in episode 14. Meanwhile Mael Colium appears to have done the most extraordinarily unusual thing for an Albanian king and died in his bed, peacefully. Good lord, would you adam and eve it, houdi elbow. He died at Glamis, on 25th November 1034, and with him, as we have said, came to an end the line of the Alpinids. Because he appeared to have no sons, only daughters.
The last thing to mention then, as Mael Colium breathes his last, is that Anglo Saxon Chronicle entry we just heard. It is interesting how often we are named by outsiders is it not? The Picts were named by the Romans, just for example. So in the ASC entry Mael Colium was referred to as king of the Scots, rather than king of Alba. So now maybe at last with this and the acquisition of Lothian we can finally start talking, without guilt, of Scotland.
So look we’ve just covered about 90 years of the History of Alba, but when I got to the end of this I though by golly, that could be the most confusing episode I have ever read. The thing is, I’m trying to keep the pace up a bit. But you know, I wrote it and got to the end wondering what on earth is going on. And then the other day Frank, who runs an astoundingly wonderful place called Paradise in Portugal, by the way, and is a bit of a birding God, he was confused by episode 11 I think. Anyone else confused? So I should summarise. In brief, what happened between 943 and 1034? I have 7 points to make.
- We get visibility for the first time of a Gaelic rank in Alba – the Mormaer, a regionally based strong man, probably an official of the Crown, but nonetheless quickly becoming hereditary
- An episcopal structure emerges in the church in Alba and Strathclyde in common with most of Europe, though it’s early outlines are dim
- Alba remains divided by the Mounth, and north of the Mounth the people of Moray in particular may consider themselves to be ruled by a man with the status of king
- The nature of relationships with Vikings change; by 1034, they are no longer an immediate existential threat to Alba, they are part of the diplomatic landscape
- Edinburgh and Lothian, currently south East Scotland, finally end up as part of Alba
- A succession of kings of England – Edmund, Eadred, even Cnut – appear to recognise a northwards limit to their control and ambition, around the edges of Strathclyde and Lothian
- The cultural identification of Alba with Gaelic Dal Riada is strengthened and deepened.
Honestly, I think that’s it really. Oh, and the principle is firmly established that kings of Alba should die a violent and unnatural death, obviously. So what do we think of the Alpinid kings then? On the plus side, they have ensured Alba survived the Vikings, and they have re-established a stable monarchy with it’s own culture and traditions, many of which will be central to medieval Scotland; there is a symbiotic relationship between church and monarchy; they have extended the kingdom southwards through Lothian. On the downside, much territory the Picts would have claimed as their own – the Northern Isles and Caithness – remains in Viking control. A B++ maybe. But for good or ill, they have established a new Gaelic culture that has changed Scotland for ever.