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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 3, Chapter 1 - Union of the Picts and Scots; Reign of Kenneth Macalpine


The middle of the ninth century saw the Scots and Picts united under the scepter of Kenneth, the son of Alpin. The advent of this union was long deferred: it was at least consummated in A.D. 843; but even then it received no enthusiastic welcome from those to whom, as might have been foreseen, it brought great increase of power and prestige. The idea of mixing their blood to form one nation, and uniting their arms to establish one central throne, and so taking pledges for the maintenance of peace at home, and the acquisition of influence abroad, however meritorious it seems to us, does not appear to have approved itself to the two races that inhabited the one country of Caledonia. They entertained this idea only when it came to be forced upon them by the stern lessons of the battlefield - a school in which it would seem the education of infant nations must begin.

This union was preceded and prepared by a series of great battles. The question at issue in these fierce conflicts was, To which of the two nationalities, the Scots or the Picts, shall the supremacy belong, and by consequence the right to govern the kingdom? The wars waged to determine this point ended in a supreme trial of strength on the banks of the Tay near Scone.1 The engagement was a desperate one. Seven times the Picts assailed, and seven times were they driven back. Their king, Bred, fell in battle, and his armour, afterwards presented to Kenneth MacAlpin, was sent by him to hung up at Icolmkil.2 From that bloody field the Scots and Picts emerged one nation. Supremacy, which had been the object aimed at by the combatants till now, was abandoned for the more practical and wiser policy of union. Battle had swept away one of the two thrones which had hitherto borne sway in Caledonia, and the one throne left standing was that of the prince whose progenitor, Aidan, Columba had made to sit on the Lia-Fail, or Stone of Destiny, and anointed as the first really independent sovereign of the Scots.

The Picts closed their distinctive historic career when they lost this battle. They were by much the earlier inhabitants of the country, and doubtless regarded the Scots as a new people. The Picts or Caledonians, if not the first, were among the first races that found their way to Caledonia after its plains and mountains had looked up from the waters of the flood. Yet this ancient people were content to lose name and record in the annals of a race whose arrival in the mountains of Argyllshire dated only five centuries back. The award of battle had decreed that they elder should serve the younger, and to that award they bowed. Not Pictish blood lone, nor Scottish blood alone, but the two streams commingled, were to form the one blood which was to inspire the valour and fight the battles of the future. Scotland had made a great stride forward, and it was a happy omen for the future career of the united people that in making this new start they put the help into the hands of that race in whose hearts glowed the faith of Columba.

We refuse to credit the legends which say that battle was succeeded by massacre, and that the glory of victory was dimmed and the fame of the victors tarnished by the utter and cruel extermination of the vanquished people. It is true, no doubt, that from about this time the Picts disappear, or nearly so, from the page of history. Some historians have been able to find no solution of this mystery, save in the supposition that they were swept from off the face of their country by the unsparing and unpitying sword of the victorious Scot. "The extermination of the Picts." Says Fordun, "was total and final; not only were their kings and leaders destroyed, but their race and generation, and even their language failed."3 This is too ready and obvious a solution of the problem to be the true one. It is inherently most improbable. If the Scots of that day were guilty of a crime so enormous, they had sat for three centuries to little purpose, verily, at the feet of the Columba and his successors. The deed would have been as impolitic as it would have been cruel. The hour was near when a foe, which their fathers had not known, fierce as the vultures of the land from which he came, was to invade their country. Already the piratical fleets of the Norseman were beginning to be seen on their coasts. The Scots, in these circumstances, could have committed no more deplorable error than stamp out a valour which might on a future day do them good service on the battlefield. When the invader should be crowding, horde on horde, into their land, and the clash of swords rose loud, how sorely would the Scots miss those stalwart Caledonian warriors, who, if not locked in the sleep of death, would have contended by their side for a common country, and chased the Norse marauder to his galley.

Besides, it must be taken into account that massacre in the circumstances would have swept off a full half of the population of Scotland, and left the surface of the country to a large extent unoccupied. Yet we are not conscious of any diminution of the population in the times subsequent to the victory of Kenneth MacAlpin. Scotland is as full of men as before. It has no lack of warriors to fight its battles. Whence come these armies? Not merely from the narrow territories of the Scots in the western boarder, but from the less mountainous and more thickly peopled districts on the east and north, the very regions which, on the supposition of massacre, had been converted into a desert. How came these parts to be again so quickly populated? Did the Scots, by some marvellously rapid process of increase, fill in the short time the empty land? Or did new races spring from the ashes of the slain to repair the ravages of the sword? These considerations make the theory we are discussing wholly untenable, and force us to the conclusion, which is certainly by much the more agreeable alternative, even, that the Picts, although the more numerous people, loyally accepted the award of the battle, and putting the good of country before the considerations of race, permitted the sword, which had already shed quite enough of flood, to be sheathed, and the wounds of their country to be closed.

It is deserving of our notice, moreover, that the monarch under whom we see the united races beginning their career as the one Scottish nation, was the son of that King Alpin, whose bloody head had been affixed as a trophy of the Pictish arms to the gates of Abernethy. The dishonour put upon the father was wiped out when the son entered these same gates in triumph to fill the throne of an united people, and stretch his sceptre from west to east across the entire country, and from the banks of the Forth to the great ocean stream that rolls betwixt the promontory of Cape Wrath and the precipices of the Orkneys.

It is not always that unions accomplished on the battlefield are lasting. It sometimes happens that when the pressure of the sword is removed the old rivalries and enmities break out afresh, and the nationalities united for a moment again fall asunder, to be parted, it may be more widely than before. It was not so, however, in the union affected betwixt the Scots and the Picts on the battlefield on the Tay. Nor is it far to seek for the causes that gave the union permanency. In the veins of Kenneth MacAlpin there flowed the blood of both races. A Scot by the father’s side, and a Pict by the mother’s, both people had a share in him. Moreover, he enjoyed the prestige of having been crowned on the Lia-Fail. With that stone were linked the traditions of dominion and rule. These traditions stretched back to the remote times of the Irish monarchs, who were said to have received consecration upon it. What is more, this stone was supposed to possess the mysterious power of imparting a peculiar sacredness and a kingly virtue to the man who was crowned upon it. It had been the privilege of no Pictish monarch to take his seat on that venerable stone. That honour was reserved for the kings of the Scottish nation alone. In our days the ceremony, though still practised, does not count for much;’ but in that age it wax the better half of the coronation. Where that stone was there was the legitimate sovereign, and there was the rock of the kingdom, in the popular belief at least.

There was another and mightier element of cohesion in the union of which we speak, than either the blood that flowed in the veins of Kenneth MacAlpin, or the virtue of the august chair in which his coronation had taken place. The two peoples were by this time of one faith. When the northern Picts were converted from Druidism to Christianity by Columba, the way was opened for their becoming one with the nation of which the great missionary as a Dalriadan Scot was a member. Columba was the true apostle of union. Pict and Scot had sat together in the school of Iona. Pict and Scot had gone forth together in the same missionary band to evangelise in the fields of France and Germany; and if they could be members of the same church organisation, and sit at the same eucharistic table, surely they could meet in the same national Council, and pay their homage at the foot of the same throne. After all it was the Rock of Iona rather than the Stone at Scone that was the bond of union between the Scots and Picts.

The work of the sword at an end, the labours of the legislator must now begin. This second task, we may well imagine, was even harder than the first. During the fierce struggle for supremacy which had been going on during the previous reigns, many disorders had grown up, doubtless, which called loudly for correction. There had been a loosening of the bonds of society all over the land. In the Highlands especially the clans had enjoyed a larger than usual measure of license, and were not to be easily broken into orderly and settled courses. Yet the attempt must needs be made. The time was favourable, for the throne was stronger than it had ever before been, and around it was now a united nation. And Kenneth, the chroniclers say, did not let slip the opportunity that offered, but devoted the later half of his reign to reforming the laws, repressing and punishing crime, and improving the administration of justice, than which no greater boon could he have conferred upon a people whose latent forces, which waited the great occasions of the future, would amply repay all the pains it might cost to discipline and regulate them.

In all ages the glory of the legislator has been held by the wise to surpass that of the conqueror. A code of enlightened jurisprudence is worth more than a hundred victories on the battlefield; though it may sometimes happen that the rough work of the sword must prepare the way for the quiet and patient labours of legislation. The old chroniclers credit Kenneth with being the author of a body of laws which they dignify by the name of the "Code MacAlpin." The exploits of Kenneth on the battlefield are well authenticated, we can speak only hesitatingly of his labours in the Cabinet. Without attributing to him the work and fame of a great or original legislator, we may concede, nevertheless, that before descending into the tomb he made it his study to leave behind him some monument of his juridical industry and wisdom. Kenneth could hardly avoid, one should think, making some rude essay towards framing laws for the altered circumstances of the now united nation, embodying what was best and wisest in the forms and administration of both peoples.

Of the laws of Scotland before the days of Kenneth we are altogether ignorant. They are said to have been composed by Ethfin, "son to Eugene with the crooked nose," and that is all we know about them. But pour ignorance is no proof that there was no code in Scotland till Kenneth came to the throne. "Wherever society exists," says Mr. Cosmo Innes, "life and the person must be protected. Wherever there is property there must be rules for its preservation and transmission. Accordingly in the most ancient vestiges of the written law of Scotland we find constant references to a still earlier common law." The laws relating to land must have been simple indeed, for in those days no one had any personal right in the soil; it was the property of the tribe. But as the people lived by the land, and the staple industry was agriculture, there must have been laws regulating and defining the extent to which the individual members of the tribe might use that soil which was the common property of all. The first approximation to the creation of the individual right in the soil, so far as we can perceive, was the grants made to the Columban monasteries. When a Columban Brotherhood was established in a district, a certain amount of land was gifted to it by the King or the Mormaer. The brethren were to cultivate the portion assigned them with their own hands or those of their converts. The monastic glebe was both a means of subsistence to the monastery, and a model farm which served to stimulate and guide the rural industry of the neighbouring population. They dotted the land with Christian nations, in miniature, exhibiting to the surrounding pagan population the whole economy of Christian civilised life. These grants created no individual rights in the soil. The lands were the property of the Columbites, not as individuals but as a community. Still, as set apart from the tribal territory, and held by a distinct tenure, they were an approximation to the system of personal holdings, which afterwards came into use.

The jurisprudence of Ireland was more advanced than that of Scotland. Its political and social arrangements were settled at an earlier period. And what so likely as that the Scots, when they came across to Argyll, brought with them some of the Irish codes. Ireland was their mother country. They turned to it for their models in framing both Church and State. Columba worked on the same lines in evangelising Scotland which Patrick adopted when, a century before, he crossed the sea to spread the light of the Christianity in Ireland. We are safe, therefore, in assuming that the "Code MacAlpin" had its first beginning on the other side of the Irish channel. These beginnings were the foundation on which Kenneth build when, resting from his wars, he set to work to legislate for the united nation. Whatever in these ancient codes was adapted to the new circumstances of his subjects he would preserve; what was lacking in them his own wisdom would supply; and in this way doubtless the code that bears his name came into existence. Only part of it is his; much of it was in being before he began his legislative labours, and much has been added since. The code is the composition of no one man, nor the production of any one age. It reflects the image of various ages.

The spirit of the "MacAlpin Code" and the justice of its enactments may be best shown by a few examples.

"I. That in every shire of the kingdom there should be a judge, for deciding of controversies, well seen in the laws; and that their sons should be brought up in the study of the laws. . . . .III. He that is convicted of theft shall be hanged; and he that is guilty of slaughter, beheaded. IV. Any woman convict of a capital crime, shall be either drowned or buried alive. V. He that blasphemes God, or speaks disrespectfully of his saints, of his king, or of his chieftains, shall have his tongue cut out. IV. He that makes a lie to his neighbour’s prejudice, shall forfeit his sword, and be excluded the company of all honest men. VII. All persons suspected of any crime, shall suffer the inquest of seven wise and judicious men, or of any number of persons above that, provided the number be odd. . . . IX. All vagabonds, sturdy beggars, and other idle persons, that may, and do not, gain their livelihood by some honest calling, shall be burnt upon the cheek, and whip with rods. . . . .XIV. He that is injurious to his father, by any member of his body, shall have that member cut off, then hanged, and remain unburied above ground. . . . XVI. All witches, jugglers, and others that have any paction with the devil, shall be burnt alive. XVII. No seed shall be sown till it be first well cleansed from all noxious grains. XVIII. He who suffers his land to be over-run with poisonous and hurtful weeds, shall pay, for the first fault, an ox to the common good; for the second, ten; and for the third, he shall be forfaulted of his lands. XIX. If you find your comrade and friend killed in the field, bury him; but if he be an enemy, you are not bound to do it. XX. If any beast be found straying in the fields, restore him, either to the owner, the Tocioderach, or, searcher after thieves, or to the priest of the parish; and whoever keeps him up for three days, shall be punished as a thief. . . . .XXIII. If your neighbour’s kine fall a fighting with yours, and if any of them happen to be killed, if it be not known whose cow it was that did it, the homyl-cow (or the cow that wants horns) shall be blamed for it; and the owner of that cow shall be answerable for his neighbour’s damage."

There was surely some occult reason for this law. Why the blame should be laid on the cow which nature had made incapable of committing the offence we cannot even conjecture, unless it were that by way of compensating for her want of horns the cow had received a double dose of quarrelsomeness and pugnacity. The laws that follow are without doubt the product of the times subsequent to the reign of Malcolm Canmore. No Columban missionary needed the protection which they provide for the person and life of ecclesiastics. The Columbite Father could journey from north to south without the slightest risk of injury or insult. The reverence entertained for his character and office was a more effectual defence than any enactment could be. But when these laws had birth it is obvious that the state of matters had changed. They are a confession that the clergy were unpopular, that the Roman rites were liable to be contemned and scoffed at, and that the Columban feeling, whatever may be thought of this way of expressing it, still strongly pervaded the Scottish people.

"XXVII. Altars, churches, oratories, images of saints, chapels, priests, and all ecclesiastical persons, shall be held in veneration. XXXVIII. Festival and solemn days fasts, vigils, and all other ceremonies instituted by the church, shall be punctually observed. XXIX. He who injures a churchman, either by word or deed, shall be punished with death. XXX. All sepulchres shall be held in great veneration, and a cross put upon them, that they may not be trampled. Upon. XXXI. The place where any man is killed or buried, shall be untilled seven years. XXXII. Every man shall be buried according to his quality. If he be a nobleman and has done great actions for the commonwealth, he shall be buried after this manner: Two horsemen shall pass before him to the church; the first mounted upon a white horse, clothed in the defunct’s best apparel, and bearing his armour; the other shall be upon a black horse, in a mourning apparel; and when the corpse is to be interred, he who is in mourning apparel shall turn his back to the altar, and lamentably bewail the death of his master; and then return the same way that he came: the other shall offer his horse and armour to the priest; and then inter the corpse with all the rites and ceremonies of the church."4

The bulk of these enactments embody an admirable wisdom. Some of them are obviously borrowed from the great Hebrew lawgivers, with whose code the Columban teachers were, of course, familiar. The enactment which doomed the spot where innocent blood had been shed to lie for seven years untouched by the plough, was well fitted to deepen in the popular mind the abhorrence of murder. Waving with rank and noxious weeds, it warned the wayfarer not to pollute himself by treading on so accursed a spot. Touching the statute against witchcraft, we shudder when we think that for this imaginary crime the terrible doom of burning was awarded and inflicted. But before charging our ancestors with cruelty, it may be well to reflect that up to the beginning or middle of last century, the highest judicial tribunal in Scotland held witchcraft to be a crime, and burned the poor unhappy creatures convicted of it at the stake.

So far this relic of the legislation of early days. Success in arms may be a glory, or it may be an infamy. Whether it is the one or the other, depends altogether on the use which the victory is put. But the work of the legislator can hardly be other than beneficial, and therefore glorious. The man who establishes a great and righteous principle, and embodies it in law, is greater than the man who wins a hundred battles. He has done a work for all time. What the sword of one conqueror has set up, the sword of another casts down; but a Truth once established can never be lost. Even should the Gates of Error war against it they cannot overthrow it. It has become the possession of the race, and it goes down the ages ruling and blessing mankind.

The measures of Kenneth at this crisis were admirably adapted to make the two nations coalesce, and give stability to the throne by which henceforward they were to be ruled. The old seat of the Scottish kings was amid the Argyllshire mountains. This was by much too remote for the now enlarged kingdom of Alban. Its continuance there would have weakened the central authority, created impediments to justice, and delayed intelligence when, it might be, the safety of the kingdom depended on its quick transmission. Accordingly Kenneth established his capital at Forteviot, an the valley of the Earn. The spot was about equally distant from both seas. It lay betwixt the Highlands and the Lowlands. The Tay afforded ready access to the ocean. The watchers on the Red Head could espy the Norseman, and quickly notify his approach in the royal palace of Forteviot; and what perhaps was not the least of the considerations that weighed with Kenneth in fixing here the seat of his government, was that the site was within the Pictish dominions, and the residence of the king among them would naturally help to conciliate this brave and ancient race, still smarting from defeat, to the rule of the new dynasty.

The ecclesiastical capital, took, Kenneth removed to an inland and central position. The Rock amid the western seas, so long the headquarters of Scottish Christianity, was exchanged for a little valley in the southern Grampians, enclosed by woody crags, and watered by the Tay. Kenneth ordained that at Dunkeld should be the seat of the Scottish primacy (851). To impart to the second Iona something of the sanctity and prestige of the first, which the Vikings had made utterly desolate, Kenneth brought hither the relics of Columba.5 What was of better augury for the renown of his new cathedral and the prosperity of his enlarged dominions, he transported across Drumalban the Columban clergy whose ancestors Nectan had driven out of his kingdom a century and a half before because they refused to conform to the Roman customs. These religious teachers he defused through the Pictish territory, planting many of them in the places from which their fathers had been expelled. By this tolerant measure he did an act of reparation for a great wrong, and strengthened his own influence among his Pictish subject.

One other symbol of authority and rule remained to be brought out and put conspicuously before the nation. This was the Lia-Fail, or Fatale Chayre as the Scots styled it. With the reverence due to so venerable a symbol of dominion, this stone was brought to Scone, that the kings of Scotland might receive consecration upon it, and possess that mysterious and awful sanctity which, in popular belief, belonged to monarchs who had sat in this august seat. These three, the Throne, the Primacy, and the Stone of Consecration, were grouped at the centre of the kingdom, and within the Pictish territory, that the new subjects of Kenneth might feel that the union was complete, and that the Scottish monarchy had crossed Drumalban, not to make a transitory stay, but to find a seat of permanent abode.

After these labours the Scottish nation and its monarch enjoyed a few years of peace. We see the good king living tranquil days in his palace of Forteviot, in the quiet valley which the Earn waters, and the heights of Dupplin on the one hand, and the swellings of the Ochils on the other so sweetly embosom. On the west, the long vista guides the eye to where Drumalban rears its summits and looks down on the two nations which it no longer divides. We read, indeed, of some raids of the King Kenneth in his latter years into the country of the Saxons beyond the Forth, for that river was still the southern boundary of Alban.6 But the record of these incursions is so doubtful, and their bearing, even granting they took place, on the Scottish affairs is so insignificant, that they hardly deserve historic mention. Kenneth reigned sixteen years after the union of the two nations. He had served his country equally by his valour in the field and his wisdom in the closet. He died in 860 in his palace at Forteviot. His mortal malady was fistula.

The tidings that King Kenneth was dead would fly far and fast over Scotland, and wherever they came they would awaken sincere and profound sorrow. There was mourning in Dalriada, which, sixteen years before, had seen the son of the slaughtered Alpin descend its mountains to begin that campaign which had ended in a union that decreed that there should no more be battle betwixt Scot and Pict. There was mourning in Pictavia, which, though compelled to bow to the sword of Kenneth, had found that his sceptre was just and equitable. There was mourning amid the wild hills of the north onward to the strand of Caithness, for the clans had learned that the monarch who reigned in the halls of Forteviot was not a conqueror but a father. And now come his obsequies. What a multitude gathers at the royal gates of Forteviot! Mormaer and Toiseach, with their respective clans, from the Pentland to the Forth, are there, including warriors who aforetime, it may be, had mustered to fight against the man who dust they are now carrying in profound grief to the grave. The vast procession is marshalled, and proceeds with slow and stately march, along the valley westward. The pilbroch flings out its wail of woe, summoning dwellers in hamlet and glen to join the funeral cortege and swell the numbers of this great mourning. The procession wends its way betwixt lakes and mountains which have since become classic, though then they were unsung by bard or poet. Many days the march continues, for the way is long to the royal sepulchres amid the western seas. At last the desolate and lonely isle is reached. Iona is still the proudest fane in Europe, despite that the Vikings have ravaged it with fire and sword, and left it nothing but its indestructible name. The greatest of the Scottish kings, and even monarchs of other lands, leave it as their dying request to be taken to Iona, and buried in the Isle which the memory of Columba like a mighty presence sill overshadows. We see the funeral part arrive at Port na Churraich; they pass along the "Street of the Dead.6 and they deposit the remains of Kenneth in the burial place of the kings who have sat on the stone of destiny. They leave him there, the thunder of the Atlantic singing his requiem, for psalm and chant have ceased amid the fallen shrines of Iona.


FOOTNOTES

1. See ante, vol. i. 360.

2. The Chronicle of Huntingdon says that "in his twelfth year Kenneth encountered the Picts seven times in one day, and having destroyed many, confirmed the kingdom to himself." –Chron. Picts and Scots, p. 209.

3. "Sic quidem non solum reges et duces gentis illius deletis sunt, sed etiam stirps et genus adeo cum idiomatis siu lingua defecisse legitur."—Scoti Chron., Lib. iv. Buchanan limits the extirpation of the Picts to those who remained in arms against Kenneth after the great battle which gave him the crown. This would gain all the ends of the conqueror, and we may safely conclude that this was the whole extent of the slaughter.

4. The Macalpin Laws.—The authenticity of these laws has occasioned come controversy. They are given in Boece (Lib. x.). From Boece they have passed into Wilkins’ Concilia (i. 179, 180). Innes was at first a supporter of their authenticity, but afterwards changed his opinion so far as regards the form in which they are given by Boece. They are rejected as the work of Kenneth MacAlpin by Pinkerton (Enquiry), Hailes (Historical Memorials), and Chalmers (Caledonia). The more probable opinion is that stated in the text, even, that this code is the production of several ages, Kenneth adding what was required by his own times and the circumstances of his nation.

5. Septimo anno regni sui relequias Sancti Columbae transportavit ad ecclesiam quam construxit.—Chron. Picts and Scots, p. 8.

6. Portions of this road, by which the royal dead were conveyed from Port na Churraich to the place of sepulture, exist at this day.