First king of the Scots? Actually he was a Pict

Share this article

IN 843AD, the kingdom of Scotland was created when Kenneth MacAlpine led an army of Scots to victory over the Picts.

There have even been calls for a field near Stirling where the battle is said to have been fought - which attracts scores of tourists from America and elsewhere - to be officially recognised by the Scottish Parliament as the "birthplace of the nation".

But a forthcoming book by St Andrews University historian Alex Woolf will claim that all the evidence suggests MacAlpine was actually a Pict himself and stories about him as a great Scottish war leader were made up in later centuries.

The expert in early Scottish history said contemporary sources referred to MacAlpine as "king of the Picts" and gave the same title to the four kings who succeeded him. He also said both Kenneth and Alpine were Pictish rather than Scottish names.

The first reference to a Scottish Kenneth MacAlpine fighting against the Picts comes about 400 years after he was alive and the supposed battle of 843AD is believed to be a much later invention.

Mr Woolf, whose book From Pictland to Alba: Scotland 789 to 1070 is due out next year, admitted there was little contemporary evidence about MacAlpine, but what there was supported his theory.

"The myth of Kenneth MacAlpine conquering the Picts and killing the King of the Picts - it’s about 1210, 1220 that that’s first talked about," he said.

"There’s actually no hint at all that he was a Scot. Historians who work on this still tend to say that [he was a Scot] but add lots of caveats.

"The contemporary evidence does not make this at all clear. There’s nothing at all that says ‘King of the Scots’ and there’s no reference to a conquest of the Picts by the Scots.

"If you look at contemporary sources people called him King of the Picts and there are four other Pictish kings after him. So he’s the fifth last of the Pictish kings rather than the first Scottish king."

The 19th-century historian Charles Roger claimed a standing stone at Airthrey near Stirling marked the site of the 843AD battle, saying it was "believed that it was reared to commemorate the total defeat of the Picts by the Scots, under Kenneth MacAlpine, and which led to the destruction of the Pictish kingdom". He added: "It is beyond doubt that the battle which finally overthrew the Picts was fought in this vicinity."

But Mr Woolf said the battle was "completely made up". "I don’t think there’s even a late medieval account that puts it there. The one place we know Kenneth MacAlpine is connected to is Forteviot where he died," he said.

In 730, the Venerable Bede’s history of Britain spoke of four peoples - the Gaels, Picts, Welsh and English. But in 1140, Henry of Huntingdon expressed surprise that the Picts and their language had "disappeared". It is thought this prompted the idea that they suffered a crushing defeat in battle and were wiped out.

But historians now believe that a process of integration between the Gaelic-speaking Scots and Picts, who spoke a language similar to Welsh, took place over several centuries.

Mr Woolf said: "I’m coming round to the view that the disappearance of the Picts has been exaggerated. It looks to me that there was a much more peaceful fusion.

"Henry [of Huntingdon] says ‘Isn’t it odd the Picts have disappeared and even their language has disappeared’. But if you look around that period, the Scottish king lists all go back right the way through all the Pictish kings. They were clearly thinking in terms of continuity.

"However in the late 12th century, they become more interested in Gaelic Irish roots and stick them on instead. Had you asked someone in 1200 the question in the right way, you probably would have got them thinking they were still Picts."

He said that the country became known as Scotland because this is what it was called by the English. They had originally used Scotland - an English word - to refer to Ireland.

"It seems to be an English perception that something [in Scotland] had changed, maybe in the 12th century. It’s what the English say and that seems to be bought into by the Scots themselves by the end of the 12th century," he said.

"It seems that the educated and elite classes started to adopt English customs and began to see the people of Alba as Scots."

Mr Woolf believes that the Picts did not disappear but gradually adopted Gaelic words and by the 12th century were speaking a version of Pictish - which was like Welsh but without the Latin influences - "with a massive interference from Gaelic".

This reached the point where the English "cannot distinguish between them [the Picts and Scots]", accounting for Henry of Huntingdon’s belief they had disappeared and subsequent theories they were destroyed in battle.

Professor Ted Cowan, of Glasgow University’s Scottish history department, said: "When medieval minds were looking at the disappearance of a people, they thought it must be to do with military conquest.

"Whereas we’d probably say now that we’re talking much more about assimilation. The Picts and the Scots probably had peaceful relations and marital relations for several centuries before Kenneth MacAlpine’s time.

"The later traditions are definitely manufactured because they’ve got to tell a story."

Prof Cowan said Mr Woolf’s theory sounded "ingenuous" but also "speculative" saying little was known about Kenneth MacAlpine. However he agreed it was "probably right that Kenneth and Alpine are Pictish names".

Robbie the Pict, who changed his name from Brian Robertson, said he had campaigned to raise awareness of the Picts for years and welcomed the new research.

"Robbie the Pict was the name given to me and I adopted it because nobody would let me lose it. I started a Pictish High Commission and staged concerts at Pictish battle sites to make people conscious of the very existence of our forefathers," he said.

"The Picts got a rough deal in history. There does seem to have been unfair treatment. Their name, history and traditions have been usurped by the Scots."