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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 3, Chapter 2 - Donald; Constaintin; First Battle with the Danes


The good king Kenneth has gone to his grave, and the light would seem to have departed with him. No sooner is he laid in the tomb than the shadow of an eclipse falls upon the historic landscape, and for some time we travel onwards in comparative darkness. Several successive reigns pass away before we can see distinctly what is passing on the soil of Scotland. The chroniclers who narrate the transactions of these dark centuries—and they are the darkest of Scottish history—were not eye-witnesses of what they record; they gleaned their information from a variety of traditional and monumental sources, and however painstaking and truth loving they may have been, it was impossible for them to avoid being at times wrong in their conclusions, and mistaken as to their facts.1 We are all the more sensible of the darkness in which we find ourselves from its contrast to the clear light that irradiated our country a few centuries previous, and which makes the times it brightened, though in reality far more remote, seem to us much more near.

Great events bring their own light with them, and write their own history. This is especially true of events which have the spiritual for their basis, and which summon into action the souls rather than the bodies of men. Such epoch has an electric brilliancy which keeps it above the horizon despite ages of intervening darkness. How distinct and palpable is still the Scotland of the sixth and seventh centuries! We follow as vividly the voyage of Columba across the Irish Sea to the shores of Iona, as if we had sailed with him in the osier-ribbed vessel which carried him across. We watch from day to day the rising walls of that humble edifice within which he is to gather the youth of many lands, and there train them in a theology drawn from the pure fountains of Holy Scripture. We become his companions when he goes forth on his missionary tour among the Picts, and see him roll aside the darkness of Druidism from the north of Scotland, and revive the dying lamp of the faith in the Lowlands. Our interest in his labours grows as his work draws nigh its completion, and we see Scotland dotted with Columban brotherhoods, schools of Christian knowledge, and centuries of Christian industry and art. We are parted from the men who accomplished this great work by thirteen centuries, yet we think of them as they had been our contemporaries, and had only recently rested from their labours.

But with the death of Kenneth MacAlpin, or rather with the decay of the Columban age, there comes a great change. Scotland hardly looks the same country as when Columba stood at the head of its scholars and Kenneth MacAlpin lead its armies. It has receded into the far distance, and we stand gazing into a haze. Scotland, it is true, does not lack kings. Kenneth MacAlpin has successors who have sat upon the Lia-Fail at Scone, but they pass before us like phantoms. Nor does Scotland lack warriors; at least it does not lack battles. The land rings incessantly with the clash of arms. But if the sword is busy, we fear the plough rests. The acres under tillage diminish instead of multiplying, and fields which had been redeemed from the wilderness by the skilful and diligent husbandry of men who had learned their agriculture as well as their Christianity from the elders of Iona, fell back again into the desert and become covered with bracken, while the wild boar, dislodged from his covert, comes back to his old haunt and lies in wait for the traveller. The lamp has waxed dim, and its flame sunk low in the schools of learning and in the sanctuaries of religion. We hear of armies crossing the Tweed to fight for the doubtful possession of Northumbria, and extend the Scottish dominions to the banks of the Tyne, or even the Humber, but hardly do we hear of missionary bands in their home-spun woollen garments and sandals of cow hide, setting forth, as aforetime, from the Scottish shore to carry the name of Scot and the faith of Culdee to countries afar off.

The moment was critical. All that had been won—and much had been won—was on the point of being lost. Scotland had begun to work its way back to its former condition of divided and warring nationalities. So would it have appeared to an onlooker. But no; Pict and Scot must not part company. If they would fulfil their destiny they must contend side by side on the same battlefield, and feel the purifying and elevating influence of a great common cause, prosecuted through toil, through painful sacrifices, through disheartening reverses, till, borne to victory, it has been crowned with complete achievement. It is not the success that comes with a rush, but the success that comes as the fruit of slow, patient, and persistent labours and conflicts that anneals, hardens, and at last perfects nations destined to rise to a first place, and to render the highest services to mankind. It is on such a process that Scotland is about to be taken. It is to be put upon the anvil and kept on it for seven generations, till Pict and Scot shall not only have mingled their blood but fused their souls, and for the narrow aims of Clan substituted the wider and nobler aspirations of Nation.

Even before Kenneth was laid in the sepulcharal vaults of Iona, the Scots had warning that the clouds were gathering, and were sure to break in storm. They had seen what the sea could bring forth. Ships of ominous build, swift as the eagle, and as greedy of prey, had once and again appeared off their coast, and sent a thrill of terror along the sea-bo0ard. These unwelcome visitors would retreat, and after disappearing in the blue main would suddenly return, as if they took pleasure in tormenting their destined victims before pouncing up0on them. To come and see and go back would not always suit the purpose of these plundering sea-kings. One day they would strike. Already they had swooped upon the extreme north-western parts, and struck their cruel talons into the quivering land. Iona gone, its monks slaughtered, and its building blackened with fire, remained the monument of their visit. There were the "hammers" which by long-continued and terrible blows were to weld into homogeneity and consistency the rugged and unruly mass of humanity that occupied Scotland.

The first to take his seat on the Stone of Scone and assume the government of the kingdom after Kenneth MacAlpin was his brother Donald. Had the nation forgotten the services of the father, seeing they pass by the son and place the brother on the vacant throne? No, Scotland is not unmindful of what it owes to Kenneth MacAlpin; but in those days the succession to the crown was regulated by what is known as the law of Tanbistry. This was a wise law in times so unsettled as those of which we write, and must have largely helped to steady the nation. When it happened that a monarch died leaving a son to succeed him who was of tender years, it was held unwise to put the sceptre into his hands. The vigour of manhood was needed to cope with the saucy and turbulent chieftains of the then Scotland, and in the hands of a child the sceptre would have run great risk of being contemned. On the death of a monarch, therefore, his nearest collateral relative, or that one of the royal family who was deemed fittest for the office, was selected, and the son meanwhile had to wait till years had given him experience, and the death of the reigning king had opened his way to the throne.2

As regards the prince now on the Scottish throne, nearly all we can say of him is that he wore the crown for four years. He stands too far off in point of time, and he is seen through too thick a haze to permit us to take his measure. Historians have given us two different and opposite portraits of King Donald, painted him, probably, as they wished him to have been, rather as he really was, for they had hardly any better means of judging of his true character than we have. Boece and Buchanan represent him as given up to all sorts of vicious indulgences, as governed entirely by low flatterers, and as neglecting the business of the state, and wasting his own time and the public revenue on "hunters, hawkers and parasites". The scandals of the court came at last to such a head that the discontented chieftains among the Picts thought that the time had come for asserting their independence and restoring their ancient monarchy. With this view they formed an alliance with the Saxons of England, assuring them that the northern kingdom was ready to drop into their arms would they only unite their forces with theirs in the effort to wrest the ancient Pictland from the Scottish sway. The Saxons marched northward as far as the Forth. Had the raid succeeded it is probable that the Saxons would have kept the country themselves, and left the mutinous and treacherous Picts to find a kingdom where they could. Happily the arms of Donald prevailed, and Scotland remained the united nation which Kenneth had made it.

In Donald, as the old chroniclers have striven to reproduce him from the mists of a remote time, we have, as we have said, a picture with two totally unlike sides. On the side which we have been contemplating there is shown us a profligate prince and a kingdom falling in pieces. Turn the obverse. We are startled by the grand image that now meets us. The voluptuary and trifler is gone, and in his room is a prince, temperate, brave, patriotic, sustaining the state by his energy and virtues. So have Fordun and Winton, both of whom wrote before Boece, represented Donald. They tell us, took, that not only was he careful to preserve the splendid heritage of a united people which his brother had left him, but that he was studious to keep war at a distance by cultivating friendship with neighbouring kings. We make no attempt to reconcile these two widely divergent accounts. We see in them the proof that the real Donald is not known, and now never can be known. In a question of this sort it is the earliest authorities who are held to speak with the greater weight, seeing they stand nearest the sources of information; and as it is the earlier chroniclers that give us the more favourable portrait of Donald, he is entitled to the presumption thence arising in his favour. Donald closed his short reign of four years---too short if he was the virtuous prince which some believed him to have been, but tool long if he was the monster of vice which others say he was---in the year 864. The rock in the western seas received his ashes.

On the death of Donald the succession returned to the direct line. We now see Constantin, the son of Kenneth MacAlpin, assuming the crown. The memories of the great father lend prestige to the throne of the son, and give authority to his sceptre. And, verily, there was need of all the vigour which could possibly be infused into the government of the kingdom, for the hour was near when Scotland would have to sustain a severer strain than any to which it had been subjected since the days of the Romans. The tempest which had rolled up from England d in the previous reign, and which had discharged itself on the southern shores of the Forth, was a summer blast compared with the hailstorms which were gathering in the countries on the other side of the North Sea. The battle with the Norseman was now to begin in deadly earnest. A few premonitory blows, sharp and quick, had the Viking dealt on the borders of the Country, but now he was to assemble all his hordes, and come against the land like a cloud, and strike at the heart of the kingdom. For two centuries to come the kings of Scotland would have other things to think of than the wine cup and the boar hunt, and the Scots would do well to reserve their blood for worthier conflicts than a raid into Northumbria.

Before the great battle opened Constantin found that he had a little war on his hands at home. The district of Lochaber suddenly burst into flames. This provincial conflagration had been kindled by a Highlander named MacEwan, whom Constantin had appointed to be governor of the district. The ambition of this man was not to be bounded by the narrow confine of his Highland principality. He had higher aims than he could find scope for in Lochaber. A number of discontented men, who too doubtless thought that their great merits had been overlooked, gathered round him and offered him their help in his attempt on the throne. Constantin had timely notice of the tempest that was brewing amid the mountains of Lochaber, and without giving it time to burtst6, he crossed the hills and appeared on the scene of the disturbance e. MacEwan, who did not dream that his treason had travelled as far as the valley of the Earn, and was known in the Palace of Fort-Teviot, was surprised to find himself face to face with his sovereign. His followers dispersing, left their leader to enjoy alone whatever promotion Constantin might be pleased to confer upon him. That promotion was such as his services deserved. He was hanged before the Castle of Dunstafnage, which he had made his headquarters, and the rebellion expired.

After this appeared a portent of even worse augury which struck alarm into the heart of both king and people. The tempest this time came not from the land but from the sea. The Danes had landed on the coast of Fife, and had already begun their bloody work. The tidings of what had happened sent a shock through the whole kingdom. Contrary to their usual custom the invaders had made their descent on the eastern coast, where they were not looked for, and as the Scotland of that age had no army of observation, their landing was unopposed. They held no parley with the natives, they offered no terms of submission, but unsheathing their swords, they began at once to hew their way into the interior of the kingdom. Their course lay along the fertile vale of the Leven, and its green beauty under their feet quickly changed into ghastly red. The cruel Dane was merciful to none, but his heaviest vengeance fell upon the ministers of the Christian Church. A considerable number of ecclesiastics is said to have made good their escape to the Isle of May, but their persecutors followed them thither, and remorselessly butchering them, converted the little isle into a horrible shambles. Possibly the Danes deemed their slaughter a pleasing sacrifice to their god Odin, for paganism in all its forms is a cruel and bloodthirsty thing.

King Constantin, assembling his army, marched to stay the torrent of Scottish blood which the Danish sword had set flowing. He found the Danish host divided into two bodies, and led by Hungan and Hubba, the two brothers of the Danish king. One corps was robbing and slaughtering along the left bank of the Leven, and the other was engaged with equal ardour in that to them most congenial work of the right bank of the same stream. Constantine led his soldiers against the Danish force on the left. Recent rains had swollen the Leven, and the Danes on the other side durst not tempt the angry flood by crossing over to the assistance of their comrades. Left alone with the Scottish army they were utterly routed, and Constantine inflicted a severe chastisement upon them, cutting them off almost to a man.

When the Danes on the right side of the river saw how complete was the victory of the Scots they fell back before them, and resolved to make their final stand in the neighbourhood of their ships. Their fleet lay at anchor in Balcombie Bay, in the eastern extremity of Fife, two miles beyond the town of Crail. A sweet and peaceful scene is this spot, seen under its normal conditions. The blue sea, the bright sandy beach, the vast crescent of rocks and shingle, steep and lofty, that sweeps round it a full mile in circuit, lying moreover, in the bosom of a far mightier bay of which the southern arm finds its termination in the promontory of St Abbs, and the northern in the precipices of the Red Head, make a fine a piece of coast scenery as is almost anywhere to be held. Yet dire was the carnage that day enacted on this usually quiet and secluded spot.

The Danes strengthened their position by drawing round the bay a-top, a bristling barricade of rocks and stones, with which the spot plentifully supplied them. They dug entrenchments on the level plain outside their bulwark, which further strengthened their camp. Immediately beneath, in the bay,—they might almost drop a pebble upon their decks,--were moored their galleys, ready to carry them across the sea, if the day should go against them, and they lived to go back to the country whence they had come. The Danes fought for life, the Scots for country, and both with fury and desperation. The battlefield was the open plain above the bay, in our day an expanse of rich corn fields, all the richer, doubtless, from the blood that then so abundantly watered it. The hottest of the strife would rage at the barrier of boulders thrown up to break the onset of the Scots. It was the object of the latter to drive the Danes over their own rampart, and roll them down the slope into the sea; but the invaders made good their footing on the level ground, and forcing back the body of their assailants, escaped the destruction that yawned in their rear. The slain lay all about, and the blood of Scot and Dane trickling down in the same stream dyed the waters of the bay, and gave terrible intimation to those in charge of the galleys of the desperate character of the struggle that was going on shore.

The good fortune of Constantin did not attend him in this second battle. This was owing to no lack of spirit or bravery on his part, but grew out of the fret and discontent that continued to smoulder in the Pictish mind against the sway of the Scottish sceptre.

A contingent of Picts is said to have left the field while the battle was going on, and their desertion disheartening their comrades, turned the scale in the fortunes of the day. When the battle had ended, Scotland was without a king. As Constantin was fighting bravely in the midst of his fast falling ranks, he was surrounded by the Danes, seized and dragged to a cave in the rocks, and there beheaded. Ten thousand Scots are said to have perished in that battle. Of the Danes the slain would be even more numerous, for the entire force on the left of the Leven was cut in pieces in the first battle, and considering how desperately the second was contested, the Danish dead in it would count at least man for man with the Scots. The Danes sought no closer acquaintance with Scotland meanwhile. Making their way to their ships, they set sail, leaving behind them a land over which rose the wail of widow and orphan, to be answered back by an equally loud and bitter cry from the homes to which they were hastening, as soon as they should have arrived there with the doleful tidings they were carrying thither.3

The body of the king was found next day. A sorrowing nation carried it to Iona, and laid it in the sepulchres of the Scottish kings. It was only twenty years since the funeral procession of Kenneth MacAlpin had been seen moving along the same tract, in greater pomp, it may be, but not in profounder grief. The father had died on the bed of peace, the son had gone down in the storm of battle, and now rest together in the sacred quiet of the little isle. Constantin had reigned fourteen years, dying in A.D. 877.4

Such was the first burst of the great storm. The clouds had rolled away for the moment, but they would return, not once, nor twice, but many times in years to come. Henceforward the Scottish peasant must plough his fields and reap his harvests with the terror of the Dane hanging over him. At any moment this flock of Norse vultures might rise out of the sea, and swoop down upon his land and make it their prey. He must be watchful, and sober, and provident. He must care for the interests of his country, and know that his individual security and defence lay not in the strength of his clan, but in the strength of his nation; in the unity and power of all its clans, near and remote. He must cease to seek occasions of quarrelling, least, haply, the common enemy should come suddenly and finding him fighting with his neighbour, should have an easy victory over both.

The Danes of that day were the most powerful of the German nations. Their narrow territory, overstocked with inhabitants, was continually in labour to relieve itself by sending forth new swarms of piratical adventurers. Its youth, hardy and martial, w3ere always ready to embark in any enterprise that offered them the chance of waging battle and of gathering spoil.. They had been born to slay or to be slain, and better not to have lived than to live and not to have mingled in the carnage of the battlefield. Their welcome at the gates of Valhalla, and their place among its heroes, would, they knew, be in strict accordance with their prowess in war and the enemies they had slaughtered. Such was their ethical creed. They troubled themselves with no questions of casuistry touching the rights of the inhabitants of a country marked out for invasion. All lands were theirs if only their sword could give them possession. If it was a case it belonged, without dispute, to the people of Odin, and nothing could be more pleasing to this deity than that his worshippers should take possession of it, and consecrate it by the erection of his altars. Such were the people that hung upon the flank of the Scotland of the ninth and following century.

It is after a different fashion that the overcrowded or hungry populations of our day go about the business of seeking out and occupying new settlements. Crossing the sea with his wife and little ones, the emigrant sets to work with his axe, felling not men but trees, and having cleared a space in the primeval forest, he sets up his homestead, and begins those operations of spade or plough which soon teach the earth around his humble log-house to wave with cornfields or blossom with orchards. But so prosaic a mode of finding for himself a new home was little to the taste of the emigrant of the ninth century. The country that could be won without battle was scarce worth possessing. The claimant of new territories in that age crossed the main in a galley blazoned with emblems of terror: the prow the head of horrid dragon, and the stern the twisted tail of venomous snake. The earth grew red at his approach. The invaded region was cleared out with the sword, and its new occupant set himself down on the gory soil.

This fate had already been meted out to South Britain. Descending on it with the swift and destructive force of one of their own hailstorms, the Anglo-Saxons made the country their own. They cleared out the inhabitants with the summary agencies of fire and sword, and driving a few miserable remnants of the population into the corners of the land, they gave to the country a new race and a new name. They called it Anglo-land. A similar fate had been allotted to Scotland by the Dane. Its ancient people were to be hewn down. Some few might be spared to be hewers of wood and drawers of water to the conqueror, but the Dane was to be its lord and master. Its ancient name was to be blotted out: the sanctuaries of the Culdee were to be razed and the shrines of Thor set up in their room. It was this tremendous possibility that made the two nationalities coalesce. They were fused in the fire. Every battle with the Dane, every heap of slain which his sword piled up, and every shipload of booty which he carried across the sea, only helped to strengthen their cohesion and fan their patriotism. The question was no longer whether shall Scot or Pict take precedence in the government of the realm? The question now had come to be, shall either of the two be suffered to rule it, or indeed to exist in it? Shall the name of Caledonia cease from the mouths of men, and shall the country in all time coming be known ad Dane-land?


FOOTNOTES

1. When Malcolm Canmore died (l093), Scotland had no written history of any sort. The school of Iona in the sixth and seventh centuries had produced a numerous class of expert and elegant penmen and copyists, who furnished their country men with transcripts of the Scriptures, commentaries, and books for Divine service. Scottish civil history has its first beginnings in the charters granted to Abbeys. The oldest charter extant is by King Duncan (1095) to the monks of Durham. Then follows a charter by David I. The "Chronicle of Mailross," written in the Abbey of Melrose in the thirteenth century, is, says Mr. Cosmo Innes, "the most ancient Scotch writing of the nature of continuous history that is now extant." State papers begin in the reign of Alexander III., or later half of the thirteenth century. Next comes the "Poem of the Bruce," the Scotch Odyssey by John Barbour, Archdeacon of Aberdeen (1375-1395). Then follows Andrew Wyntoun (1420), Prior of Lochleven. His history has little value as a poem, but is very valuable as a chronicle. In the end of the fourteenth century, John Fordun laid the foundation of Scottish history in his Scoti-Chronicon. Hector Boece wrote in 1533. His work is in classic Scotch prose.

2. Johannis Major,Historia Britannioe, Lib. iii. cap. ii. p. 90 Edin., 1740.

3. We have great faith in the traditions of a country, if they are natural, and are corroborated by some monumental evidence, and are not tainted by the element of miracle. The chronicler with his pen may put any number of legends he pleases on his page, but nothing but the event itself can write its story on the face of a country, so as to take hold of the belief of its inhabitants and be handed down by them. Of this battle we have still living traditions in that party of the country. The inhabitants of the east of Fife point out the cave amid the rocks of Balcombie Bay in which Constantin was murdered, and the trenches and embankments of the Danes at the head of the bay are still traceable, after the lapse of a thousand years. They are styled by the country people the Danes’ dykes. See also Johannis Major, Historia Majoris Britannioe, Lib. iii. cap. ii. p. 90. 1740.

4. Dr. Skene (Celtic Scotland, i. 327), guiding himself by the Ulster Annals and the Chronicle of the Picts, relates this campaign differently. He finds that the Danes had been driven from Dublin by the Norwegians; that they crossed to Alban, and entered the country by the valleys watered by the Forth and the Teith; that they fought a battle with the Scots at Dollar; that they drove the Scottish army before them to the northeastern extremity of Fife, where the great battle was fought in which Constantin lost his life. There are, however, very great difficulties in their ships. On arriving, and beginning their march through the whole breadth of the country, what did they do with their fleet? They could only send it round the north of Scotland by the Pentland, to wait the arrival of the army on the east coast. Considering the hazard of a march through a country whose whole population was hostile, were not the Danes more likely to accompany their ships, and make their assault in unbroken force on the east coast, whence, if they were beaten, they had an open road to their own country? It is extremely unlikely that the expelled colony of Danes should have been able to drive the Scots before them across the entire island, and that the Scots should make a stand only when they had no alternative but fight or be driven into the sea. These improbabilities are so great that we may venture to say they never took place.