Alba Undone – Royal Rivals


Ultred the Bold – Earl of Northumbria


Constantine mac Áeda had been able to concentrate on events along his southern border because few serious threats were made against him from the far North, from lands across the Mounth. The Viking colonies in Orkney had seemingly given little trouble during his reign, perhaps because their leaders were now exposed to the political ambitions of Norway’s kings. Scandinavian lords had evidently ousted the Pictish or Gaelic elite of Caithness, but their immediate neighbours southward were still the Cenél Loairn rulers of Moray. There is no record of conflict between Constantine and the Moravians, the latter presumably concentrating their energies on the Viking menace in Orkney and Caithness. By contrast, Constantine’s successor Malcolm seems to have encountered more than one instance of trouble beyond the Grampians. We have already noted his expedition to Moray and it was while on another northward venture that his life was ended. In 954, the year when the kingdom of York came to an end, he was killed near Dunnottar. His slayers were not foreign marauders but local inhabitants of the district. The nature of their grievance against him is a mystery, but it is possible to imagine them as supporters of the man who replaced him on the throne of Alba: his kinsman Ildulb, a son of Constantine mac Áeda. Ildulb’s name is a Gaelic spelling of Germanic Hildulf and was arguably bestowed on this mac Ailpín prince in memory of some earlier bearer of English, Scandinavian or Continental origin. Little is known of Ildulb’s eight-year reign except for one significant event: the transfer of Edinburgh to the kingdom of Alba. The details are sketchy, but the wording of the source suggests that this iconic stronghold, formerly the chief citadel of Gododdin, was evacuated by the English and handed over to the Scots. There is no hint of a siege or any other hostile action. On the contrary, it would seem that the ancient fortress – in Northumbrian hands since the seventh century – was granted to Ildulb by peaceful agreement. Its occupants at the time may have been answerable to a West Saxon overking through a Northumbrian lord – perhaps the ruler of Bamburgh – but we cannot be certain that this was the case at a site on the furthest limit of English authority.

Ildulb eventually met a violent demise, perishing in 962 at Viking hands near Cullen on the coast of Moray. Following his death, a violent power-struggle broke out between rival branches of the mac Ailpín dynasty, the main protagonists being sons of the two most recent kings: Malcolm’s son Dub and Ildulb’s son Cuilén. Dub emerged victorious after a battle at the unidentified Ridge of Crup in which the abbot of Dunkeld and the provincial ruler or mormaer (‘great steward’) of Atholl, both of whom presumably fought alongside the defeated Cuilén, were named among the casualties. Dub reigned for five years until kin-strife flared again, at which point he was ejected from the throne in favour of Cuilén, who in turn ruled for a further five years. After Cuilén took the kingship, Dub sought exile in Moray, seeking sanctuary with its Cenél Loairn rulers, before being slain there in 967. His death at Forres was attributed to ‘men of Alba’ in one source but to ‘the treacherous nation of Moray’ in another, the former account suggesting that the land of the Moravians was at that time regarded as being as much a part of Alba as the Perthshire domains south of the Grampians. It seems likely that both regions were now under mac Ailpín sovereignty. A story attached to one record of Dub’s death speaks of his unburied corpse lying hidden under a bridge at Kinloss, two miles north-east of Forres, an incident curiously reminiscent of a sculptured cameo on the nearby monolith known as Sueno’s Stone. Cuilén, meanwhile, continued to reign as king of Alba. He perished in 971 at the hands of the Strathclyde Britons, having incurred their wrath by violating one of their princesses. The girl’s father, a son of the aforementioned King Dyfnwal, sought vengeance by slaying Cuilén in battle. This took place somewhere in Lothian and may have marked Strathclyde’s rejection of Cuilén’s overlordship as much as punishment for a shameful deed. It provides clear proof of the Clyde kingdom’s resilience at a time when other once-powerful realms such as Mercia and Northumbria were struggling to retain their identities. The devastating siege of Dumbarton in 870 had severely damaged the Britons, but, as the events of the tenth century confirmed, they eventually recovered their power. Their destruction of Cuilén testifies to their remarkable longevity as a potent force in northern politics. Despite intense pressure from Vikings, Scots and West Saxons, the kings of Strathclyde even managed to expand their hegemony by encroaching on lands formerly held by English Northumbria. By c.970, a wide swath of territory in what is now south-western Scotland had reverted to the Britons. Many parts of this region were restored to native rule for the first time in three centuries.

Cuilén’s death was followed by the accession of Dub’s brother Cináed to the throne of Alba. He and Dyfnwal of Strathclyde were among a group of Celtic and Scandinavian kings who met with King Edgar of Wessex at a ceremony near Chester in 973. The attendees boarded a boat which they rowed along the River Dee, Edgar taking the helm and his fellow-kings hauling the oars. Later English chroniclers portrayed the event as an act of submission to Edgar, but it was more plausibly a display of co-operation between rival kings. The short voyage along the river no doubt represented the symbolic or ritual aspect of a mutual peace accord. In addition to Dyfnwal, the Strathclyde delegation at Chester included his son Malcolm, a brother of the prince who had slain Cuilén of Alba two years earlier. Malcolm may have been the acknowledged king of the Britons in 973, his father perhaps serving as advisor and mentor. No source describes the political relationship between Strathclyde and Alba at this time, but it was not necessarily warmer than it had been during Cuilén’s reign, despite Cináed being the brother of Cuilén’s rival.

Cináed bore the auspicious name of the mac Ailpín progenitor and was a man of similarly extensive ambitions. He had apparently disposed of Cuilén’s brother Olaf (Gaelic Amlaib) on his way to the throne and adopted a similarly aggressive stance throughout his reign. At some point, perhaps before the royal peacemaking ceremony at Chester, he launched plundering campaigns southward. His targets were the Clyde Britons and the Northumbrians, the former faring rather better than the latter. When he attacked Strathclyde, his army was repulsed with heavy loss in a battle at Moin Uacoruar (or Vacornar), a moin or ‘moss’ whose location is unknown. It was presumably to discourage counter-raids by the Britons that he erected defences at the ancient Fords of Frew on the River Forth, eight miles west of Stirling. His assault on Northumbria proved more successful, bringing his forces as far south as Stainmore and seizing as a high-status hostage an English prince of either the Northumbrian or West Saxon royal houses. Among Cináed’s motives in marching down to the River Tees may have been a claim to lordship over English-held estates in Lothian, in which case the prince in his custody was perhaps the son of a ‘king’ or earl of Bamburgh. If these events occurred prior to the meeting at Chester, they might even have given Cináed considerable leverage in discussions over the status of Lothian. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that later Northumbrian tradition regarded the eventual cession of Lothian to Alba as an outcome of face to face negotiations between Edgar and Cináed.

It may have been in Cináed’s time that Orkney formally became a Scandinavian earldom. The Icelandic sagas place this event somewhat earlier, in the reign of King Harald Fairhair (or Finehair) who ruled western Norway from c.872 to c.935. It is possible, however, that the thirteenth-century authors of the sagas did not know the true date, or that their sources gave inaccurate information. The first verifiable Orcadian earl was Sigurd who died in 1014. He might even have been the first formally recognised holder of the title, receiving it not from Harald Fairhair but from a later king of Norway or Denmark. If so, then the earldom may have originated in the last quarter of the tenth century, perhaps at a time when the Danish king Harald Bluetooth was pursuing expansionist policies at home and abroad. If Bluetooth engaged in warfare or diplomacy with Cináed of Alba, there is no record of any such contact. Perhaps their respective territorial ambitions never clashed?

After a reign of eighteen years, Cináed met a violent death in 995, perishing in mysterious circumstances at the instigation of a noblewoman called Finella. His assassination occurred at Fettercairn, ten miles north of Brechin, in the district of Angus where Finella’s father Cunchar held authority as a mormaer. The sources speak of Finella’s treachery and deceit in arranging the king’s murder, but she evidently had a genuine grievance, her only son having been killed by Cináed. Although later tradition wove a fictional tale around these events, we have no reason to entirely disbelieve them, nor should we deny Finella’s historical existence. A folk-memory of her name lingers today in the valley of Strath Finella, four miles north-east of Fettercairn, in what were once presumably her family’s ancestral lands. Little more can be said about her. The original form of her name in the earlier chronicles is Finuele, a form reminiscent of Gaelic Finguala (now Fionnuala), but her father’s name might represent Brittonic or Pictish-British Cincar. It is possible, then, that the stewardship of Angus was held in this period by Gaelic-speakers of Pictish origin, or by a family of immigrants from Dál Riata. The latter might seem more likely if we admit the possibility that the territorial name ‘Angus’ preserves a memory of Cenél nÓengusa, the rulers of Islay. Did some part of this kindred abandon their Hebridean home in search of new opportunities in the East?

Finella’s involvement in Cináed’s death may have arisen from more than a desire for revenge. Her political sympathies perhaps lay with his rivals in the house of mac Ailpín, namely the grandsons of Ildulb. One of these, a son of Cuilén called Constantine, made a successful bid for the throne and clung to power for a couple of years. He died in 997, another victim of the feud between royal factions, falling in battle at the confluence of the rivers Almond and Tay. The place of his death was Rathinveramon, the old Roman fort of Bertha, where a royal residence doubtless existed at the end of the tenth century. His conqueror and successor was Cináed mac Duib, a son of the Dub toppled by Cuilén in 967, whom we may here call ‘Cináed III’ for the sake of convenience. During Cináed’s reign a major assault against the Strathclyde Britons was launched by the West Saxon king Aethelred ‘the Unready’. This occurred at the turn of the millennium, in the year 1000, and resulted in a severe ravaging of Clydesdale by English soldiers. The attack could have been much worse had a fierce storm not intervened to keep Aethelred’s naval forces away from the Firth of Clyde. It would appear that the Britons got off lightly, for the English ships changed course by heading instead for the Isle of Man where their crews disembarked to plunder Scandinavian coastal settlements. Aethelred’s nickname, given above in its usual modern form, was actually Unraed, meaning ‘Poor Counsel’ in the sense of ‘badly advised’. It was a pejorative epithet alluding to his policy of paying Viking warlords large sums of money to stop ravaging his kingdom. In spite of these ‘Danegeld’ payments, his most fearsome adversary in the closing years of the tenth century was Sveinn Forkbeard, king of Denmark, who repeatedly raided the coasts of England. Sveinn’s depredations in the South seem to have drawn Aethelred’s attention away from northern events after the attack on Strathclyde, the distraction no doubt bringing relief to Britons and Scots alike.

Dynastic in-fighting within the mac Ailpín dynasty simmered for a few years before a further eruption of conflict led to yet another royal slaying. On this occasion, the warring parties sprang from the same branch of the family. The protagonists were Cináed III and his cousin Malcolm mac Cináeda, a son of the earlier king Cináed mac Mail Coluim – the proliferation of Cináeds and Malcolms in these years can seem somewhat confusing. The rivals clashed in 1005 at Monzievaird (‘Moor of the Bards’), near Crieff in Perthshire. Malcolm emerged victorious and took the kingship. His long reign of almost thirty years was punctuated by military campaigns beyond his south-eastern border, his main foes being the English earls of Northumbria, but he is also credited with wars against Vikings and Britons, both of whom he encountered on his frontiers in the West. One of his first ventures occurred in 1006 when he raided deep into Northumbrian territory. He laid siege to Durham, the seat of an important bishopric, but his army was defeated by an English counter-attack. The event and its outcome were summarised by the Irish annalists:

A battle between the men of Alba and the Saxons. And the rout was upon the Scots, and they left behind them a slaughter of their good men.

The bane of the Scottish army on this occasion was Uhtred, a young English nobleman whose father-in-law was the bishop of Durham. Uhtred’s own father was Waltheof, earl of Bamburgh, in whose domains the Durham bishopric lay. Gathering an army, Uhtred fell upon the besiegers, lifting their blockade and forcing them to flee. The army of Alba suffered heavy casualties, Malcolm himself barely escaping with his life. After the slaughter a grim fate awaited those of his warriors who lay dead upon the battlefield. A near-contemporary source, entitled De Obsessione Dunelmi (‘On The Siege Of Durham’), gives the gruesome details. It tells how Uhtred:

. . . caused to be carried to Durham the best-looking heads of the slain, ornamented with braided locks as was the fashion of the time, and after they had been washed by four women – to each of whom he gave a cow for their trouble – he caused these heads to be fixed upon stakes and placed around the walls.

Uhtred eventually succeeded his father as earl of Bamburgh. During his tenure of the earldom a major change occurred in the dynastic politics of England. The long line of West Saxon monarchs was broken when Cnut, the half-Polish son of Sveinn Forkbeard, was chosen as king by a faction among the English nobility. A rival faction supported Aethelred Unraed and, later, his son Edmund who claimed the kingship after Aethelred’s death in 1016. A brief civil war between Edmund and Cnut raged for several months before the rivals concluded a peace which partitioned the kingdom between them. Edmund died barely six months after his father, his death allowing Cnut to claim sovereignty over all of England. To Malcolm of Alba the change of regime presented an opportunity which he exploited to good effect two years later, in 1018, with an assault on Northumbria. At his side marched Owain Calvus (‘the Bald’), king of the Strathclyde Britons, as a trusted ally or loyal vassal. Against them stood the Northumbrians led by an English earl – unidentified in the sources – whom we may cautiously identify as Uhtred of Bamburgh. The opposing forces fought a battle at Carham-on-Tweed from which the northern Celtic powers emerged victorious. In the following year, Uhtred was assassinated while journeying south to pay homage to Cnut, his murder apparently being undertaken on the king’s orders. He was succeeded in the earldom of Bamburgh by his brother, Eadwulf Cudel (‘Cuttlefish’), who could only watch from the sidelines as Cnut ceded whatever remained of English-held territory in Lothian to Malcolm. The border between England and Alba was formally established along the Tweed as far as the old Bernician heartlands around the river’s lower course, thereby reducing Eadwulf’s earldom to little more than a northerly outpost of Cnut’s realm. It would have been small consolation to the disgruntled Cuttlefish that the kingdom of Owain the Bald, one of the victors at Carham, was soon to disappear completely from the political map. Owain’s successors were still ruling on the Clyde in the middle of the eleventh century, but their kingdom, the last outpost of the North Britons, fell under Scottish control before 1070. By then, the kingship of Alba had already passed out of mac Ailpín hands to Donnchad, a grandson of Malcolm mac Cináeda by his daughter Bethoc. This Donnchad is more familiar in his literary guise as the ‘King Duncan’ killed by Shakespeare’s villainous Macbeth who, in turn, was based on a historical ruler of Moray called Macbethad. By 1040, when Macbethad seized the kingship of Alba, the realm was already being referred to as Scotia, a Latin name meaning simply ‘Scotland’.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *