The Early Monarchy of Scotland

During the Dark Ages, each of the four peoples of Alba gained territory at one time or another only to be checked in a major battle. In AD 843, however, King Kenneth MacAlpin of Dalriada, who may have had a claim to the Pictish throne as a result of intermarriage (the Picts had a matrilinear form of succession), defeated the Picts and made himself ruler of all Alba north of the Forth. He promptly moved his political capital to Forteviot in the east, and the religious capital from Iona to Dunkeld. In spite of persistent efforts, however, Kenneth was unable to conquer the Angles in Lothian, and his successors soon found themselves too pre-occupied with Viking raids to look south.

It was only in about 1018 that Kenneth's descendant, Malcolm II, defeated the Northumbrian army at Carham and established his rule in Lothian, the region between the Forth and the Tweed. Malcolm's grandson, Duncan I, in the same year succeeded to the throne of Strathclyde, like Kenneth, benefiting from a claim through the female line. When Malcolm died in 1034, Duncan became the first king of all Scotland, although his kingdom did not include the lands held by the Vikings. The Celtic system of succession, called Tanistry, however, allowed the throne to pass to any male member of the derbfine, a family group of four generations - a sure recipe for internecine conflict. Thus it was that Duncan's cousin, MacBeth, the Mormaer of Moray, was able to gather sufficient support in 1040 to kill Duncan in battle (not in bed) and seize the throne. In spite of a bad press from Shakespeare, MacBeth was in fact a successful king for 17 years, and even made a pilgrimage to Rome. In 1057, he in his turn was deposed by Duncan's son, Malcolm III or Ceann Morr `big head'. Malcolm, who had been raised in England from the age of nine, took as his second wife Princess Margaret of England, who with her brother, Edgar the Atheling, had fled to Scotland after the Norman/Flemish Conquest in 1066. (His first wife had been daughter of the Norse Earl of Orkney.) Prompted by Margaret, Malcolm introduced Anglo-Saxon/Flemish customs into his court, while she endeavoured to enforce religious practices in the Roman rite, such as celibacy, on a reluctant Scottish church. Spurred on by his knowledge of England and by the possession of a ready-made claimant to the English throne in his brother-in-law, Malcolm raided Northumbria. This precipitated a Norman/Flemish invasion of Scotland in 1071, during which Malcolm was obliged to pay homage to William the Conqueror at Abernethy. He did not give up, however, and it was during his fifth border campaign in 1093 that he was killed at Alnwick Castle. Margaret, who died three days later, was canonized in 1251.


William the Conqueror's raid on Scotland in 1071 was not a serious attempt at conquest, but it did herald a period of Flemish influence in Scotland which was almost as profound as that in England. In 1093, Malcolm III was succeeded by his brother, Donald Ban, who had spent his his childhood with the Vikings in the Hebrides and who immediately reversed many of Malcolm's policies. William Rufus of England responded by backing Malcolm's son by his first marriage, Duncan, who had been held as a hostage in England, against Donald Ban. Donald Ban was first overthrown, then restored to the throne when Duncan was murdered, then overthrown again by Edgar, Duncan's half-brother. Edgar, the first of the three sons of Malcolm and Margaret sons to reign in Scotland, had, like his brothers, Alexander and David, received a Flemish/Norman education at the English court. It was perhaps natural, therefore, that he should reward those Flemings who had helped him against Donald, with grants of land in the Lowlands (a process already begun by Malcolm Ceann Morr). Alexander, whose sister married Henry I of England and who himself married Henry's daughter, continued this policy, as did David who reigned from 1124-1153. Indeed, it was David who brought to Scotland such famous families as the Bruces, the Comyns and the Fitzalans. (Walter Fitzalan was made High Steward of Scotland, and his descendants were to form the Stewart dynasty. The name was changed in the 16th century to Stuart, the French spelling, that language having no -W- at that time.) David, however, was a much stronger king than his brothers, who had effectively been clients of Henry I. Although he established an Anglo-Flemish aristocracy in Scotland, it was with a view to asserting the country's independence, and the feudalism he fostered was tempered with the strong emphasis on the extended family which was the hallmark of both the Celtics clan, and the Flemings family, tradition.


The 130 years following David's death saw just four kings: Malcolm IV (1153-65), William the Lion (1165-1214), Alexander II (1214-49), and Alexander III (1249-86). It was a period of consolidation with each king trying to re-establish the control in the Highlands, and in Galloway, which had been forfeited as the Celts had reacted against the way the crown had come under Flemish influence. Malcolm IV defeated Somerled after he had driven the Vikings from Argyll; William campaigned successfully in the north; Alexander II subdued Argyll; and Alexander III forced the King of Norway to recognise the Hebrides as part of the kingdom of Scotland. It must be said, however, that Somerled's descendants, the MacDonald `Lords of the Isles' paid as little attention to the Scottish kings they had to their former master. Throughout this time England made repeated efforts to establish its claim to overlordship, and for 15 years after a disastrous campaign in England in 1174, William the Lion was formally subject to Henry II. In the Quitclaim of Canterbury in 1189, however, Richard I (the Lionheart), sold Scotland back its independence for 10,000 marks to finance the Third Crusade. Alexander III's reign in particular saw increased prosperity, and Scotland's future looked set fair when in 1286 the king's horse stumbled in the dark and he was killed. His heir was his infant grand-daughter, the `Maid of Norway', who just four years later was to die in the Orkneys on her way to Scotland. No less than thirteen claimants now asserted their right to the vacant throne.


Alexander's death brought into Scottish history the formidable figure of Edward I of England, who had recently completed the conquest of Wales. Before the Maid of Norway travelled to Scotland it had been agreed by a panel of `guardians' that she should marry Edward's son and heir, although Scotland still should retain its independence. On her death, Edward was invited to choose between the claimants to the throne. At this point, sensing an opportunity, he re-asserted the English claim to feudal overlordship, a claim which was perforce accepted by the contestants, who were each hoping to be selected by him, but not by the `community of the realm', a group of important Scottish laymen and churchmen. Edward consulted with 80 Scottish and 24 English auditors at Berwick Castle and chose John Balliol over his chief rival, Robert Bruce. Both men had previously served in Edward's army. Balliol was a weak man, which is why Edward selected him, but even he reacted against the dictatorial treatment he subsequently received from the English king. In 1296, he made an alliance with France and invaded England. Edward responded with a counter-invasion, and large numbers of Scottish nobles including Bruce and his son, another Robert, most of whom also had estates in England, came to pay him homage. Furious, Balliol confiscated Bruce's lands in Scotland and gave them to `Red' John Comyn. Edward captured Berwick with great slaughter; then, with Bruce at his side, defeated Balliol at Dunbar, before conducting a ruthless campaign as far north as Elgin. In August, back at Berwick, Edward required 2000 Scottish landowners to sign the `Ragman's Roll' acknowledging himself as king. He then returned to England, carrying with him the Stone of Scone. The conquest seemed complete.

The next year, however, a young Scot, William Wallace, became involved in a fight with English soldiers at Lanark. He escaped with the help of a girl, possibly his wife, but she was captured and executed. Wallace started a resistance campaign and a few months later triumphed over a vastly superior force led by Edward's viceroy at Stirling Bridge. Wallace in his turn was defeated by Edward the next year at Falkirk, but remained at large until 1305, when he was captured and executed as a traitor in London. His revolt showed that there was a fierce desire for independence in Scotland (there was great anger that he was branded a traitor to a regime he had never accepted), but also that only a genuine claimant to the throne could lead a successful revolt.

Two possible leaders now emerged: Robert `the' Bruce, son of Balliol's rival in 1291, and `Red' John Comyn. The two men met in a kirk at Dumfries to discuss future plans; there is no record of the meeting, but an argument must have broken out, for Bruce stabbed and killed Comyn. It was not an auspiscious start to Bruce's campaign and he was immediately excommunicated by the church. Undeterred, however, he had himself crowned at Scone on 27th March, 1306. Retribution was swift; Edward sent an army north under de Valence, which routed Bruce at Methven. Bruce became a fugitive and his supporter Simon de Fraser suffered the same fate as Wallace the year before.

Bruce spent the next year on the run, but was soon to prove himself a charismatic and successful guerrilla leader, achieving his first victory in 1307, on Palm Sunday. Furious, Edward marched north with a large army, but died at Burgh-on-Sands. On his deathbed, he ordered that his bones should be carried at the head of his army until Scotland was subdued. His son Edward II, of very different mettle from his father, called off the campaign. But even with the withdrawal of Edward II, Bruce was still faced with the prospect of years of struggle against his Scottish enemies as well as the English garrisons in numerous castles. By 1311 he was strong enough to invade England and sack Durham, and by 1313 he had evicted the garrisons from every stronghold in Scotland except Stirling. At this point Edward II bestirred himself and set out with a large relief force. It was beside the Bannock Burn in front of Stirling on 24th June 1314 that the two armies met and it was there that Bruce achieved the famous victory with which he has always been associated.

Bannockburn was not a typical example of Bruce's tactics: he had survived by skirmishing rather than by fighting set-piece battles. Nor was it conclusive: fourteen more years were to elapse before the English finally recognised an independent Scotland by the Treaty of Northampton. These years saw Bruce acting as a statesman as well as a soldier, and in 1320 his Chancellor drafted the `Declaration of Arbroath', a letter to the Pope in which the magnates of Scotland pledged their commitment to Scottish independence and their loyalty to Bruce. In 1329, just before Bruce's death at the age of 53, from leprosy, the Pope granted Scottish kings the right to be annointed with holy oil.

The reign of Bruce was a high point in Scottish history, and seems a fitting time on which to base a map of the country. It saw Scotland united in purpose as never before. But it would be idle to pretend that Bruce's triumphs outlasted him. In the Middle Ages each king had to make his own destiny, and the accession of Bruce's five-year-old son was a signal for further chaos; just four years later Berwick, that barometer of Anglo-Scottish fortunes, fell to the English and was never held by the Scots again except for twenty years in the late 15th century. But that is another story....



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