DUE entirely to the unionist education diktats prevalent for much of the last 300 years, it is always irritating to discover that most older Scots tend to know more about British, i.e. English, history than Scottish history.

For instance, if you ask most Scottish people which King of Scots was known as “The Lion” then a few will correctly reply William, who reigned from 1165 to 1214. Ask the same people who was the only King of England to have “the Great” after his name and was famous for burning the cakes and they will nearly all reply Alfred. Except that when he died in 899, Alfred wasn’t even King of England because “England” didn’t exist.

Alfred was King of the Anglo-Saxons, but his kingdom in the latter half of the ninth century was originally just Wessex, one of the seven identified kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon southern Britain. Gradually through intermarriage and conquest, Wessex became the dominant kingdom even though it had to share “England” with the Danes who occupied the Danelaw.

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Almost a century after Kenneth Mac Alpin forged a recognisable Scotland out of the Kingdoms of the Picts and Scots, the first person to be called “King of the English” was Edgar, great-grandson of Alfred, but the House of Wessex did not have a firm hold on England, and after the Battle of Ashingdon in 1016 in which the invading Danish army was victorious, the kingdom was briefly split in two – Wessex under Edmund Ironside and the rest under Cnut or Canute – before Canute became King of all England on Edmund’s death two years later. Incidentally, some historians refer to Canute as “the Great” because he ruled over his own “United Kingdom” of Denmark, England and Norway in an area known to some as the North Sea Empire. So much for ancient England being a proud and independent nation...

We know so much about Anglo-Saxon England because the history of the time was all carefully chronicled and preserved. As I have explained, we can have no such certainty about Scotland from the departure of the Romans until the 11th century. Yet we can say with some degree of faith that the country we know as Scotland dates from the time of the Mac Alpin dynasty, and the start of King Kenneth Mac Alpin’s reign around the years 843 to 848 has a good a claim to be the birthdate of Scotland.

That is because – as I showed last week – Kenneth Mac Alpin does have a legitimate claim to be called the first King of Scotland, though in truth he personally ruled over a large fraction of what is now Scotland – Strathclyde’s King was Kenneth’s son-in-law, what are now the Lothians and Scottish Borders were under the control of the Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria, while Shetland, the Orkneys and much of what is now Caithness and Sutherland were under Viking control, as were swathes of the Hebrides. Still, Kenneth united the Picts and Scots once and for all and this formed the basis of what became known as Alba.

Written evidence of what happened after Kenneth’s reign does exist and can be found in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris in a collection of ancient documents that form the Poppleton Manuscript. These include the Chronicles of the Kings of Alba. Put together with other accurate sources such as the Annals of Ulster, we can learn how the first kings of the new kingdom of Scotland succeeded each other, but maddeningly no chronicle of any kind exists that renders their words and deeds exactly, and later accounts depend on oral tradition more than anything.

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We do know, however, that more than any other, the Mac Alpin dynasty crafted the shape of modern Scotland. We don’t know exactly how they did it, but the Mac Alpins somehow triumphed against the odds.

THE best description I have read of those times is by the historian Michael Lynch who writes in his superb A New History of Scotland: “The crucial eighth and ninth centuries need to be viewed as a three-dimensional picture. There was recurrent jostling for power on the frontiers of neighbouring kingdoms; except where natural physical barriers reinforced them, frontiers were not fixed and in such circumstances migration across them was as natural an instinct as cattle raiding.

“There was calculated destabilisation of one kingdom by another or the creation of satellite states. But the status of such client kingdoms might range from the simple paying of tribute to outright overlordship. And there was also considerable cultural cross-fertilisation between peoples, whether produced by intermarriage, changing dedications of saints, or the efforts of holy men.”

And most obviously by kings. Donald I, brother of Kenneth, succeeded to the kingship when Kenneth died in 858, but we know virtually nothing about him except that he reigned for just four years and was reported to be buried on Iona.

A famous name now enters the regnal list – Constantine, or Causantin. There had been an earlier King of the Picts of that name, but he should not be confused with this Constantine who was the son of Kenneth Mac Alpin and inherited the throne on the death of his uncle. He was still known as King of the Picts even though he ruled over the Scots, and the main thing we know about him was that he tried to defend his lands against the marauding Vikings who were raiding from Ireland under their leaders, Ivarr and Amlaib.

These men reportedly besieged the last great stronghold of the Strathclyde Britons, Dumbarton Rock, around 870 and took many prisoners back to Ireland – it is now known if Constantine went to the aid of the people of Strathclyde, but the centre of that kingdom moved to Govan thereafter, suggesting much greater influence and control by the Picto-Scotttish monarch, though his standing was weakened by the loss of a battle against the Vikings in 875 even though the raiders went home.

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It was a more serious invasion of his kingdom that led to Constantine’s death, as he died after a battle against the Vikings in the year 877. Legends have it that he was either beheaded on a beach in Fife or trapped in a cave and killed.

Constantine’s brother Aed now took the throne but died less than a year later, reportedly murdered in a blood-feud for the crown. That brought Giric to the throne – or did it? For in an arrangement that has historians arguing to this day, it seems that Giric co-ruled the kingdom alongside his cousin or foster-son Eochaid. No matter how they carved things up, Giric and Eochaid were successful rulers and fine soldiers as they not only secured their borders but apparently raided south and possibly into Ireland. The legends that named Giric to be a “Gregory the Great” can be safely ignored, however, as no permanent possessions of land were gained.

THE Vikings still ruled the far north and much of the Hebrides while Strathclyde was now very much under control of the Mac Alpin kings, but it was at this point around 890 that trouble emerged in the shape of Donald II, known to posterity as “the Madman”.

We do not know if he dethroned Giric and Eochaid or if they just died but Donald became king of the land that was now called Alba – on his tombstone on Iona it apparently called him so, which makes Donald “the Madman” the first king of the territory that really did become Scotland. Why he was known as “the Madman” is still in dispute but it does appear that he was terrifying in battle, at least until he was killed in one against the invading Danes, reportedly near Dunottar in the year 900.

The next king of the Mac Alpin dynasty was the man to whom all Scottish Gaels own a great debt, Constantine II, King of Alba. As his name suggests, he was destined to rule Scotland from birth and was given the royal name by his father Aed that could be traced back to Emperor Constantine the Great himself. It is reported in some annals that Constantine was sent to Ireland to be taught by monks and their Gaelic ways very much influenced him. At this time in the early tenth century, Strathclyde was still a separate kingdom and the Vikings controlled Orkney, Shetland, Caithness, Sutherland, Easter Ross and the Hebrides and the islands of Arran and Bute. In short, Constantine II started out with a small kingdom centred on Perthshire and one which was increasingly fractious, especially over religious matters.

Under Constantine, the Pictish church was overruled and replaced by more Gaelic influences while his long rule of 43 years saw the completion of the process of the replacement of Pictish language and culture with Gaelic. In short he helped to make Scotland a Gaelic kingdom. He also defined a whole set of laws for Alba and established the authority of mormaers, or earls, across the kingdom.

He also consolidated the Mac Alpin dynasty in quite spectacular fashion, winning a tremendous victory in battle against the Vikings in 903 or 904 near Scone which had become the centre of his kingdom with the Stone of Destiny and a royal church. He then made peace with the Northumbrians and fought with them against a Viking invasion in 918 at the second Battle of Corbridge, thus securing the stability of his southern borders.

A committed Christian – he would eventually retire to a monastery – Constantine nevertheless married off his daughter to the pagan King Olaf of Dublin to ensure that the west coast was not open to attacks from the Irish-based Vikings. It also brought Alba into alliance with the Dublin Vikings and that proved disastrous. For in 937, Constantine marched south with Owen, King Strathclyde and his son-in-law Olaf Guthfrithson to take on the might of the House of Wessex, de facto rulers of England.

We don’t know where the battle took place, but we do know what caused it – the invasion of Strathclyde and Alba by Aethelstan, King of the English, in 934. Exactly why he invaded the previously peaceable kingdoms north of his lands is not known, but Constantine retreated into the Highlands and did not give battle, with the English chronicles suggesting he submitted to their king – no other evidence of such a submission exists.

By 937, however, Olaf wanted to conquer the former Norse city of York (Jorvik) and Constantine wanted to show Aethelstan that his territory was sacrosanct. He also probably calculated that a victory would give him huge swathes of English land and forever make Scotland much larger with the border set south of the Tweed instead of the Forth of Forth and the rest of England carved up with his new Viking allies.

Accounts of the battle from the English viewpoint speak of a slaughter of the Scots and Vikings, but the Annals of Ulster are more circumspect: “A great, lamentable and horrible battle was cruelly fought between the Saxons and the Northmen, in which several thousands of Northmen, who are uncounted, fell, but their king Amlaib [Olaf], escaped with a few followers. A large number of Saxons fell on the other side, but Aethelstan, King of the Saxons, enjoyed a great victory.”

Constantine lost a son, but was able to retreat and the damage done to the English meant they did not invade Scotland for centuries. Instead the Wessex dynasty consolidated their rule and knew where England’s province stood.