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History of Medieval Scotland

History of Scotland - Medieval Scotland (843 AD - 1296 AD)

When Kenneth MacAlpin achieved his ambition of being styled King of Scots and Picts, the land of Alba began it's 500-year transformation into the fiercely nationalistic medieval Scotland of Wallace and Bruce. The price paid was a heavy one for the Gaels who founded ancient Dalriada, for the very factors that conspired to unite Scotland under one language and one king worked to alienate the clan-based, Gaelic-speaking west so that by 1296 the Highland line was clearly established culturally as well as geographically.

MacAlpin's kingdom stretched from west to east across the face of Scotland, with a British kingdom firmly established in Strathclyde to the southwest, and the Angles permanently based in Lothian and Northumbria. From now on Alba would be styled "Scotia" and Scottish language and culture, over the next 200 years, would completely overlay and submerge the Pictish language and story, until within three or four generations, the Picts themselves became the stuff of legend.

Of course, the Pictish people were still there - making up the bulk of the population in Scotia, and without them Scotland would be unrecognizable as the distinct country it is. For a very long while, both before and after MacAlpin, the Pictish warriors fought the Britons, the Angles, the Danes, and the Norse, holding them off and preserving the core of early medieval Scotland for the Scots.

MacAlpin's first steps in uniting the Scottish peoples were to move his capital to Forteviot in the east, move the religious capital to Dunkeld (bringing St. Columba's bones with him), and bring the Stone of Destiny to Scone, one of the old Pictish capitals. This shift in powerbase from west to east was permanent and of long-lasting import to the clans of the west.

Little is known of the kings over the next 150 years, besides a recitation of the major battles. For through this time, Scotland's four peoples - Gaels, Picts, Angles, and Britons - forged ties of friendship and cultural exchange through their lengthy and fiercely contested efforts to hold off the Vikings (this is not to say they didn't continue to fight one another!).

The glories of the Viking age are well-told in myth and legend. Their blood now flows in the veins of people from Kiev to Iceland. Their cultural impact on all Europe cannot be overestimated. By the mid-700s, the Danes had established their base in Dublin and ruled there for hundreds of years, establishing most of the major coastal cities of Ireland. From Dublin, they sailed around England and established a strong kingdom on the east side, based in Yorkshire. Their power was so great that for years a Danish king sat on the English throne and their laws and customs are incorporated into English Common Law.

In 872 AD, Norway was finally consolidated under the reign of a mighty king, Harold Fairhair. As a consequence, many Norse jarls sought independence in the west and the invasions of northern Scotland began. The Norse gained the Orkneys and Shetlands, holding them for hundreds of years, and took much of Caithness and the Western Isles as well. But the courage and strength of the Scots held firm; medieval Scotland's core remained independent and, over time, the Norse territories were incorporated into Scotland.

Scotland was now surrounded by Vikings and cut off from Ireland and England as never before. The Scots peoples had much in common - except for the Angles, they had a common Celtic background. All were tribal groups and both Celtic and Angle law was based on payment as restitution for crime. The anglish and gaelic languages were beginning to merge in common areas. Most importantly, they were Christians, while the Vikings were pagan.

In the year 1018, the angles of Lothian were finally brought under the Scottish crown by Malcolm II. At the same time, the king of Strathclyde died and the crown passed to Malcolm II's grandson, Duncan. In 1034, when Duncan ascended the throne, he ruled most of modern Scotland, aside from the Norse territories of the isles.

Eleventh century medieval Scotland was an exciting place to live - changes abounded and the century produced several landmarks in Scottish history. Duncan, as we all know, met his fate at the hands of MacBeth, who, after ruling effectively for 17 years, was in turn murdered by Malcolm Canmore (crowned as Malcolm III and progenitor of the Canmore kings who ruled until 1296).

Malcolm III married Margaret, an English princess who had fled to Scotland with her family after the Norman Conquest (1066). Their union had far-reaching effects on Scottish culture and history. Margaret devoted herself to "civilizing" and reforming both the Scots nobility and church. Depending on your inclinations, she either did the church good or harm, as she fought relentlessly to bring the Scots church into greater conformity with Rome. There is no doubt she was extremely pious and her charitable works (hospitals, orphanages, abbeys, etc.) of great benefit to the Scots. She was canonized in 1251. Of cultural import, Margaret convinced Malcolm to make Saxon the official court language. Over time, these languages merged into the unique form of English spoken only in Scotland (see the Robert Burns page).

While these changes served to unite the eastern and southern portions of medieval Scotland, they served to further alienate the west, which continued to use the gaelic language and clung to the Celtic Christianity of their ancestors. More and more, the highland clans drifted from the mores of the east, being more influenced by the Norse of the Western Isles (and intermarriage with them) than by the rest of Scotland, which drew more from English (and later Norman) culture.

The divide of east and west became much more pronounced under David I (the Saint, ruled 1124-1153), youngest son of Malcolm and Margaret. David had escaped a murder plot by his uncle, Donald Bane, fleeing to England where he was raised by Henry I. He obtained lands that encompassed both sides of the border (eg, Huntingdon) for which he paid fealty to the English king. His upbringing was Norman, his friends were Norman, his language was French.

When he assumed the throne, he brought the Normans with him, transforming eastern and southern Scotland into a feudal kingdom modeled on the English. Mormaers and thanes became dukes and earls, their lands granted in law by the king to his friends. Many of these new magnates possessed lands in both Scotland and England; in later times they would have to choose where their loyalties lie.

While David I was Normanizing his portion of medieval Scotland, extending her borders well into England, and, all in all, very capably ruling, the western clans were caught up in their own battles with the Norse. The 12th century is the age of Somerled, the great half-Viking king who recaptured Argyll and the Isles from the Norse. His descendants (the MacDonalds) styled themselves "Lord of the Isles" and were a thorn in the side of the Scottish monarchy for almost three hundred years.

David I was succeeded by an 11-year-old grandson, another Malcolm, who proved no match for Henry II, losing much of David's gain in northern England. Fortunately, his brother William (the Lion) who followed, was able to recoup while Richard I abandoned his English kingdom for the Crusades. William was a great warrior and wrested the northern portions of mainland Scotland (Caithness, Sutherland, Ross) from the Norse. His banner was the red lion rampant on a yellow background - the flag of the Scottish monarchy to this day.

Somerled had been killed in battle by Malcolm IV and his possessions nominally came under the rule of Scotland, though his descendants would conspire for centuries with various English kings to gain Scotland's rule for themselves. Nevertheless, it was under 13th century Canmore kings (Alexander II and Alexander III) that the western isles were finally ceded from Norway to Scotland. Only the Orkneys and Shetlands remained under Norse rule until they were peacefully ceded to Scotland as part of a dowry to James II in 1468.

In 1286, after a long and productive reign, Alexander III died, leaving as heir a three-year-old granddaughter, Margaret, the Maid of Norway (her mother had married King Eric II of Norway). A group of six "Guardians" served as regents for four years. At the age of seven, en route to her kingdom, the little girl died without ever stepping foot on Scottish soil. She left a chaotic Scotland, with no fewer than 13 claimants to the throne.

In the 400 years from Kenneth MacAlpin to Alexander III, Scotland traveled from the land of legend and myth into the realm of history. The Picts, Britons and Angles merged into one people with a common law, language and religion. The depth of their national feeling was as yet unmeasured, but the blood of those who had fought tooth and nail against the Vikings flowed strongly in their veins. While having more in common with the Scots than with the Norse or Irish, yet the western lands had never wholeheartedly embraced the Scottish monarcy and its new ways. The highland clan system had also developed during these years, with the great clans growing stronger and their loyalties rigid.

Could medieval Scotland in 1296 hope to retain her independence against the wily Edward I of England? Would the feudal magnates with lands on both sides of the border be willing to die to maintain Scottish sovereignty? Would the clans come down from the mountains to fight for a monarchy and a nation they felt despised them? Could any of the many claimants to the throne win the hearts and minds of the Scots people?

History tells the tale.

Move on to History of Scotland - William Wallace to James VI (The Age of Independence) or visit our William Wallace and Robert the Bruce pages.

A note on tanistry (or why early medieval Scots kings were constantly being murdered by their uncles, nephews and cousins):

In ancient Ireland, the High Kings of Tara were chosen by a group of lesser kings from one of their number based on fitness. Not a bad method. In ancient Pictland, a ruling group of seven nobles families chose from their numbers based on matrilineal descent, with a twist involving the notion of rotating between the families. Very complex and not well understood by the historians.

The Gaels of Dalriada, having brought their Stone of Destiny with them to Alba, developed a system called tanistry which incorporated some elements of both Irish and Pictish tradition. Originally, a Gaelic king would be elected from a wide circle of anyone whose great grandfather had been a king. The heir apparent was called the "tanist". Under Pictish influence, this system resolved into a rotation between the two main branches of the royal house. This led to a lot of rivalry and violence between the houses.

As the idea of direct hereditary descent became current, kings would seek to annihilate claimants of the rival house to ensure succession by their sons and grandsons. MacBeth is the great historical example. Malcolm II had no sons and wanted to secure the kingdom to his grandson, Duncan. So, he killed his predecessor's grandson (of the rival house). However, MacBeth was stepfather of the murdered man's heir and fought for and gained the throne on that basis. In turn, Duncan murdered MacBeth and regained the throne for himself (this short note leaves out quite a bit of the ins and outs).

The Canmore kings were able to establish direct hereditary descent (not without opposition), which made things considerably easier, but primogeniture as practiced in England did not prevail in Scotland until much later. In a nutshell, succession fell to the closest male relative of the old king, until all in that first generation were dead. For example, let's say King Joe had three sons. Each of them would rule in succession (oldest to youngest) before the son of the oldest son could gain the throne. Very messy and confusing when drawing the genealogical charts.

Move forward to the Wars of Independence
Move back to Ancient Scotland

Additional Resources: Medieval Scottish History Books




The Picts and the Scots
The Picts and the Scots

By Lloyd and Jenny Laing

History of the Scots arrival in Dalriada and eventual merging with the Picts as they battle against Anglo-Saxons and Danes. Fascinating historical account of the merging of two peoples into the Scots Highlanders.

Orkneyinga Saga : The History of the Earls of Orkney
Orkneyinga Saga : The History of the Earls of Orkney

Translated by Hermann Palsson

Grand Icelandic saga telling the story of the Viking lords of the northern islands when they still owed allegiance to Norway rather than Scotland.

Oxford Companion to Scottish History
The Oxford Companion to Scottish History


Essential companion for anyone interested in Scottish history. It includes Columba, Macbeth, and William Wallace; Burns Clubs, curling, and shinty; clans, Clearances and Covenanters.

Castles and Ancient Monuments of Scotland
Castles and Ancient Monuments of Scotland

by Damien Noonan

Filled with over 300 color photos, this wonderful guide details ancient stone circles, barrows, ancient abbeys and chapels, as well as every castle in Scotland.

Somerled : Hammer of the Norse
Somerled : Hammer of the Norse

By Kathleen MacPhee

Somerled, the great Scottish chieftain, was half-Norse through his mother. Forced into exile in Ireland, he grew up as a warrior hermit, until leading his people against the Norse to regain his family's lands and become Thane of Argyll. His legacy was in fathering the Clan Donald, the creation of the finest galleys ever seen in Scottish waters, and the enduring power base of the Lordship of the Isles.

New Penguin History of Scotland
The New Penguin History of Scotland


A must-have for any student of Scottish history. From prehistoric times through the present, each chapter is written by an expert in the field.

Medieval Scotland
Medieval Scotland (Cambridge Medieval Textbooks)

By A.D.M. Barrell

Covers early medieval Scotland through the 16th century. Celebrates the Scots' achievement of a cohesive nationhood, against high odds, when the Irish and Welsh failed to unify their countries.

Burgess, Merchant and Priest : The Medieval Scottish Town
Burgess, Merchant and Priest: The Medieval Scottish Town

By Derek Hall

Hall is an urban archeologist and puts his narrative skills to work in this fascinating story of the bustling, vigorous Scottish towns, including Edinburgh, Glasglow, Perth, and more. Find out how urban Scots lived in the middle ages.





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