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The first kings of Scotland

In the first part of a new series heralding the kings and queens of Scotland, we look back at the first kings of Scotland, and the formation of the Kingdom…

In the first part of a new series heralding the kings and queens of Scotland, we look back at the first kings of Scotland, and the formation of the Kingdom of Alba and the House of Alpin

The early Kings of Scotland

Historians generally agree that the first of the kings of Scotland was Kenneth MacAlpin, King of Dál Riata, who ruled over Scotland’s western seaboard, which took in much of what is now Argyll and the Western Isles. In AD843 MacAlpin also ascended the throne of the Pictish kingdom to the east, which at its height, stretched as far south as Fife, thus uniting both realms to form what later became known as Alba, and finally, Scotland.

The primary sources for the early kings of Scotland were written centuries later, relying on oral traditions, so are in some ways unreliable and contradictory. They include the Chronicles of the Kings of Alba, written in the 13th century, and, because Dál Riata included Antrim in Northern Ireland, The Annals of Ulster, written in the 15th or 16th century.

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The Isle of Iona was the burial place of many early kings and chiefs. Credit: Tim Graham / Alamy

Modern historians such as Archibald Duncan have interpreted much of these works. These shadowy monarchs, for all their relative obscurity, have played their part in the formation of a modern Scotland.

Kenneth MacAlpin (Kenneth I)

Kenneth’s father was Alpin, who had attacked and conquered the Picts. When the kingdoms united, however, many future Alban kings were still sometimes referred to as ‘Pictish kings’, which may imply that the Pictish kingdom was considered more powerful than Dál Riata, and that Kenneth’s father was punching above his weight when subduing it.

Some early historians have suggested (with little proof) that, after his victory, he married a Pictish princess, which gave their son Kenneth a claim to the Pictish throne, as Pictish succession could pass through the female line.

However, the Lowland kingdoms of Strathclyde and the Lothians remained independent, until the early 11th century when they were absorbed into Scotland. We have scant knowledge of the early kings of Alba, though regnal lists do exist. Various accounts of royal reigns were written in later centuries, often for political or ecclesiastical reasons. Kenneth was born around AD810.

Sometime between 840 and 842, on the death of his father, he ascended the throne of a kingdom that took in most of what is now Argyll. He was probably born on Iona, where St Columba had established a monastery in the 7th century. Dál Riata was a seaboard kingdom, and during Kenneth’s reign it was under attack by Vikings. In fact, parts of the Western Isles were lost to them, and from their newly won islands the Vikings constantly raided Dál Riata.

Kenneth continued his father’s conquest of the Picts, though no details have emerged about his campaigns. In AD843 the Pictish king either died or was killed in battle, and Kenneth claimed the Pictish throne, effectively uniting the two kingdoms. He died in 858 at Forteviot, where he had established his capital, and was buried on Iona. Kenneth was succeeded by his brother Donald.

Donald I

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Donald I. Credit: Historical Images Archive

Donald I was Kenneth’s younger brother. He became king of Alba when Kenneth died around 858. According to the Annals of Ulster, he ruled for four years. He is chiefly remembered for codifying the laws of Alba, first drawn up by Áed Find, his great grandfather. These laws have since been lost, but probably laid out the privileges and responsibilities of the nobility and the church.

Not much is known of Donald’s life, though later historical writings refer to him as a keen soldier. He died in 862, though the manner of his death is unclear. In one chronicle, he is said to have been assassinated, while another states he died a natural death. Like his brother, he was buried on Iona.

Constantine I

Constantine I, son of Kenneth, was born in 836, making him 26 years old when he ascended the throne. He reigned for 15 years, and during his reign, according to later chronicles, Viking raids intensified, and much of his time was taken up defending his kingdom. Indeed, in 875 or thereabouts, there was a battle (possibly in Atholl, an area in the central Highlands) in which many Alban defenders were massacred.

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The ‘Black Cave’ near Crail, Fife, is where Constantine I was supposedly beheaded by Vikings. Credit: UK City Images / Alamy

As with all the early Alban kings of Scotland, little is known about Constantine’s life or character. Even his death is a matter of conjecture, with two conflicting accounts being given. In one account, Constantine was killed in a Viking battle, and in another he was beheaded by them either near present-day Crail, or at Newport-on-Tay. Legend tells us that the ‘Black Cave’, near Crail (which can still be seen), is the exact location.


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King Áed, second son of Kenneth MacAlpin, ruled for only one year before he was murdered. Credit: National Galleries Scotland

Áed (also known as ‘Aedhr’) was the second son of Kenneth MacAlpin and had one of the shortest reigns of any MacAlpin king. He became king when Constantine I, his brother, was killed in 877 and ruled for one year. He was born in 840 and was 37 when he ascended the throne.

Áed is the most obscure of the MacAlpin kings, though we do know that he was the father of Constantine II. Alba was in turmoil in 877 – the Vikings having recaptured Pictland and laying waste Alba. Because of his short reign, Áed had little chance to do anything about it. In 878 he was murdered by Eochaid, who despite having Pictish blood, held a tenuous claim to the throne.

Eochaid and Giric

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Giric, who murdered King Áed, ruled alongside Eochaid. Credit: National Galleries Scotland

Eochaid was not of the MacAlpin dynasty. According to the Welsh Harleian Genealogies, compiled in the 12th century (now housed in the British Library), he was the son of Arthgal ap Dyfnwal, King of Strathclyde, and a Pictish princess. Some sources claim that Eochaid coveted the throne, and plotted Áed’s murder. However, he did not carry out the deed. The assassin was a man called Giric, who may have been Eochaid’s kinsman, friend, or merely servant.

We do know, however, that Alba became a dual kingdom (a ‘diarchy’), with Eochaid and Giric ruling together. Of the two, Giric was probably the more powerful, as he features more than Eochaid in later chronicles. The diarchy ended in 889, possibly with both men being deposed, and this paved the way for Donald II to ascend the throne.

Donald II

As Donald II was the son of Constantine I, the MacAlpin dynasty was restored. Being the rightful heir to the throne, he was taken to safety in Ireland when young by his aunt. In fact, most of what we know about Donald now comes from later Irish writings.

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Donald II was defeated and killed by Vikings at Dunnottar Castle in AD900;. Credit: VisitScotland / Kenny Lam

During his reign, the Viking raids on Alba continued unabated, and his time was largely taken up defending his kingdom and leading his warriors into battle. One supposed battle took place at the beginning of his reign when he defeated Giric’s army, which possibly shows that Eochaid and Giric did not willingly give up the crown. Another took place at ‘Innisibsolian’ against the Vikings, though the location of this battle is unknown. Donald won the battle at Innisibsolian, but he was not so lucky at the Battle of Dunnottar on Scotland’s east coast, in 900, where his troops were defeated, and he was killed.

Constantine II

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Constantine II had a long and powerful rule lasting 43 years. Credit: National Galleries of Scotland

Son of Áed, Constantine II was Donald’s cousin and ruled from 900 to 943 – his long reign means he is considered one of the most successful of all of the early kings of Scotland. Like Donald II, he may have spent his early years in the safety of Ireland. As with his predecessors, his reign was beset with Viking raids. In 903 one of the worst was the sacking of Dunkeld, the ecclesiastical capital of his realm. The Chronicles of the Kings of Alba, in recording this event, first uses the name ‘Alba’ for Constantine’s kingdom.

But worse was to come. At the Battle of Corbidge in 918, Constantine’s army found itself facing a combined Viking and Northumbrian army. The Alban soldiers were partly victorious – they won on three fronts but were defeated in a fourth. Because of this, the result was a stalemate. By the early 11th century, however, northern Bernicia and Strathclyde had been absorbed into what was to become Scotland.

Our series on the kings and queens of Scotland will continue in the next issue of Scotland.

This is an extract. Read the full feature in the March/April 2023 issue of Scotland, available to buy from Friday 17 February. 

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The Isle of Mull: Made in Mull

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