A good case could be made for regarding David
I as the most significant and greatest king ever to rule in Scotland. His
long reign 1124-53 saw the country undergo what one historian has called 'an
explosion of new ideas, policies and practices.'
He is traditionally most
famous on two counts; firstly that he brought into Scotland numerous
Norman knights to whom he gave generous land grants, creating virtually a
new aristocracy; and secondly, that he presided over the spectacular
growth in the wealth, property and influence of the church.
saw in the Normans qualities from which government and society might have
been expected to benefit. The oldest surviving charter of his reign is
that which grants the lands of Annandale to Robert de Brus, whose family
origins were in the Cotentin area of Normandy. Similar land grants were
made to families like the Comyns, the Balliols, Lindsays and Grahams - all
of them providing personalities of significance in later years. In his
court and councils, these new men were prominent. Walter Fitzalan, son of
a Breton family, became Steward, with extensive lands in Renfrewshire and
central Ayrshire; and his descendants, taking his official position as a
family name, became the Stewarts who were to rule Scotland, and England
too, in due course.
Other important and enriching foreign influences were
introduced by the religious orders which also gained from David's
Before he became king, David had invited a group of Augustinian
canons to establish themselves as a community in Selkirk. Their venture
was successful, and they moved to new quarters in Jedburgh in 1118. They
were the trail-blazers. In 1128 Tironensians came to Kelso, and another
Augustinian house was established near Edinburgh Castle. These canons were
particularly devoted to the veneration of the relics of the true cross,
and their new headquarters, dedicated accordingly, was named Holyrood. In
1136 members of the great Cistercian Order were invited to come from
Rievaulx in Yorkshire to take possession of new lands centring on Melrose;
while in 1150 the latest and, in the eyes of many, the most beautiful of
the abbeys of the east Borders, was founded at Dryburgh as a home for
Where the king led, subjects followed, and
landowners endowed religious houses like Dundrennan and Sweetheart Abbeys
in the west Borders.
These monasteries and abbeys grew and prospered, as
did the communities around them - the Cistercians were always famed for
their skill in estate and land management - and they were able in turn to
establish branches, as it were, often far from their original base. Thus
Melrose had colonies at Newbattle and Coupar Angus, while Kelso was mother
house to later houses at Kilwinning, Arbroath and Lindores.
and cultural influence of these developments was immense and gave to
Scotland new international contacts as the influx of Norman landowners had
done. There was, of course, one snag. The lands given by David to Norman
knights and the religious orders, had come, in most cases, from land
Dryburgh Abbey. (Photo: Gordon Wright)
previously in the possession of the
crown. The time was to come when the wealth and property of the Church
exceeded that of the monarchs, one of whom remarked bitterly that though
King David was doubtless a saint, he was 'a sair saint to the crown.'
new landowners and the new church foundations might fairly be seen as
tending to internationalise and modernise the country. This claim can
certainly be made for another of David's devices - the burghs.
towns, if they grow and develop naturally, do so for a variety of reasons.
In each of the royal estates there was always some point at which the king
might reside from time to time, and to that point were brought the
supplies which all the local tenants were obliged to provide as their
rent. Often the king was not even in residence; or at times there would be
more produce than he and his court required, and the surplus would be
disposed of, offered for sale or exchange in a kind of market.
advantages of a market are always quickly obvious to any community.
Trading - buying and selling - is the basis of any kind of economy which
rises above mere self-sufficiency. Markets attracted customers, and
customers were quickly seen as being ready to pay for the privilege of
setting up their stalls, and the king was able to ask that a kind of toll
or rental should be paid to him by each trader. Later, the king could
adjust matters slightly by giving to the citizens of these market towns
the right to charge these tolls for themselves, paying the crown an annual
or regular fee for this privilege.
Similar developments occurred in villages near to a castle,
or an abbey, or a monastery and were especially to be expected around a
harbour, or at a point on a river which could be reached by sea-borne
trading vessels, or a point at which the river could be crossed by ford or
bridge. Important Scottish towns have their origins in these developments,
Perth and Stirling for instance, on Tay and Forth; or Aberdeen, Dundee and
Berwick on the coast.
Over all this activity David presided, governing with
efficiency, using methods which he had learned from the Normans. The
country was, for the most part, divided anew into units called counties,
which a royal official, the Sheriff, would supervise. The Sheriffs and
their counties came under the further supervision of the king's Justiciar,
and royal castles were built at key points, where they did not already
exist, to provide the administrative and military centres from which the
Sheriffs and the Justiciar could work.
Scotland under King David was
powerful, even in relation to Norman England; and for most of David's
reign Scotland's border with England lay further south than before or
since, along the Tees in the East and incorporating the ancestral lands of
Cumbria. In addition David had gained, by his marriage to the daughter of
a former English Earl of Northumbria, extensive lands in the east midlands
of England - Huntingdon, Bedford and Northampton. These lands were
obviously valuable to the king, but his possession of them set on foot a
series of events which in the long run brought disaster upon his people.
Like anyone else holding lands in England, David did so as a
subordinate or vassal to a superior - the King of England. Feudal
land-holding involved a degree of ceremonial; and regularly, nobles and
knights had to present themselves before their king to swear loyalty -
fealty - and do homage. The ceremony involving kneeling in a defenceless
and submissive pose, intended to show the inferiority of the person
performing the ritual. David knelt, at one time or another, before Henry I
and Stephen, and his successors in their turn did homage for the family
lands in England. They all knew, of course, that the person kneeling there
was the Earl of Huntingdon. To the eyes of the English kings and
courtiers, the various Earls of Huntingdon looked remarkably like the
Kings of Scots. Kings of England had cherished the notion that they were
somehow superior to the Scottish kings, and had some title to their
obedience. Malcolm III for instance, had submitted to William I at
Abernethy in 1072 and to William II in 1091. These submissions, however,
were in reality admissions of temporary military defeat, and the Scots
kings had not yielded to the English notion that Britain held one real
king - the King of England - and a variety of lesser, so-called kings
including the King of Scots. But whether the King of Scots took it
seriously or not, the repeated acts of homage, performed over a long
period of time gave to the English kings an assurance of their right to
control not just Huntingdon but Scotland as well.
One historian has written
of King David, 'He had found Scotland an isolated cluster of small
half-united states, barely emergent from the Dark Ages; he left her a
kingdom, prosperous, organised, in the full tide of medieval life, and
fully part of Europe, as she remained through the rest of the middle ages
and some time after.' To write this is perhaps rather to under-estimate
the preparatory work begun by David's parents and brothers, but it is
certainly true that he had raised Scottish importance to a new and much
higher level than before.
Not only did Scotland now exist as a very
respectable little kingdom in the eyes of the outside world, but at home
too David had created a new unity. This was displayed when his son, Henry,
died in 1152, leaving three boys who were now David's heirs. David acted
quickly, having the eldest of his three grandsons, Malcolm, taken on a
royal tour around the kingdom, where he was everywhere presented and
acknowledged as David's successor. Within the year David was dead, but he
had done his work well, and his grandson came to rule as Malcolm IV with
no serious challenge.
The reigns of David's two grandsons, Malcolm IV and
William, contrasted in some respects very greatly. Malcolm reigned for
only twelve years, dying young, unmarried and childless. William enjoyed
the longest reign of any Scottish king - forty-nine years - and left four
legitimate children to provide for the succession.
William 'the Lion', a
man of action rather than subtlety, unwisely drifted into war with Henry
II of England. In the confused pattern of marches and skirmishes which
followed, William was surprised and captured by an English force.
the King of Scots physically in his clutches, Henry was able to dictate
terms. At Falaise, in Normandy, as a prisoner, William had to give his
formal assent to the longstanding, but never admitted, claim of the
English kings to be the feudal overlords of the Scottish monarchs. This
treaty of 1174 was never to be forgotten by the English, and it coloured
relations between the two countries for as long as Scotland survived.
in a sense, William's reign was disastrous for Scotland, opening the way
to centuries of war and suffering. He bought back his status in 1189,
paying Richard I the equivalent of a ransom in return for cancelling the
Treaty of Falaise, but no matter that Richard made this bargain, later
English kings when the chance arose, simply acted as though William's
submission at Falaise stood for all time.
For the rest of his reign William
governed Scotland with reasonable success; putting down a northern rising
which had attracted Norwegian support, chartering more burghs - including
Glasgow - and founding new religious houses, notably the abbey at Arbroath,
where in 1214 King William was buried.
His son, Alexander II, found himself
involved in the English baronial action against King John, which
culminated in John's reluctant acceptance of Magna Carta in 1215; and the
King of Scots was one of those whose grievances John promised to redress.
At one point it even looked as though the rebel barons might choose
Alexander as an alternative king to John, but their choice fell upon Louis
of France instead, and Alexander's chance of spectacular professional
advancement was gone. He had, in later years, a very up and down
relationship with John's son Henry III, but his energies were mainly
employed in dealing with domestic troubles.
Galloway and Moray, and their
various local ruling families and factions, were still capable of
mischief. Alexander employed a tactic, which later kings were to use also;
having found an apparently loyal supporter in these restless areas, he
then gave that supporter responsibility for maintaining good order in the
future. Thus in the north the Earl of Ross acted as the king's strong
right arm and in Moray he fostered the power of the Comyn Earls of Buchan.
Another branch of the Comyns played a similar role in Galloway, where they
later became closely connected with another family whose influence was to
grow in the area - the Balliols.
Also, Alexander had to meet unrest and
violence along the western coast, where from time to time the kings of
Norway, seeking to make more effective
Arbroath Abbey, burial place of
William the Lion and site of the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320. (Photo:
their control over the Hebrides, would incite, or at least
take advantage of, local disturbances. To deal with such a threat, in
1249, Alexander led an expedition which succeeded in bringing Argyle under
royal control; but, whatever plans Alexander may have had to extend his
authority into the islands, he did not live to carry them out, dying on
the Island of Kerrera, near Oban, with his work incomplete.
The accession to the throne of an
eight-year-old boy, Alexander III, might at other times have been expected
to mean disunity, intrigue and weakness in the governing of Scotland. But
as it turned out, the unity and sense of common purpose developing from
the days of David I, proved sufficiently strong for the child-king's
status to be accepted without challenge and for the affairs of the kingdom
to be conducted efficiently by committees of officials, nobles and
churchmen until Alexander took effective personal control at the
comparatively advanced age of twenty. Given the later reputation of
Scottish nobles and courtiers for greed and treachery, their behaviour in
the decade after 1249 is quite remarkable.
Such intrigue as did carry with
it any threat of serious mischief came from King Henry III of England,
whose shifty and conspiratorial nature prompted him to attempt to draw
advantage from the presence of a child ruler in the neighbouring kingdom.
Henry had been in a position to influence the Scottish monarchy
since Alexander II had married his sister, such marriages after all being
intended precisely to create closer ties and interchange of influence
between the families and realms of the two partners. However, the
influence of Henry and English power upon Scotland had ended with the
death of Queen Joan, and Alexander II's re-marriage to Marie de Coucy,
mother of Alexander III. No doubt Henry now saw the possibility of
re-asserting his powers in relation to Scotland, and thus swiftly arranged
for the marriage of his daughter Margaret to the young Alexander.
December 1251 Alexander and his leading courtiers travelled to York, where
on Christmas Day Alexander was knighted by the English king and on the
following day was married to that king's daughter.
It would appear that
Henry made an immediate attempt to benefit from the happy occasion,
accepting Alexander's homage for his lands in England, and going on
swiftly and smoothly, to invite the boy to do homage for his kingdom as
well. It may be that Alexander was quick-witted and shrewd far beyond his
years; it may be that his advisers had coached him well in what he might
expect in York. In any case, astonishing though it may appear, the
eleven-year-old Alexander responded that he had come to be married, not to
deal with such serious matters of state policy, on which he could not
speak without proper discussion with his Council.
Alexander and the kingdom
had both been well-served during the years of his minority by the various
men and groups who wielded power during those years. The whole period is
distinguished by an unexpected political maturity. The Comyn and the
Durward factions seemed able to live together and work together, sometimes
in control, sometimes not, but neither group was treasonous in its
purposes, and both, when in power, administered with whatever competence
they could command. It seemed as though the work of Malcolm III and David
I had at last been crowned with success, and that stability would be the
Alexander himself behaved with confidence and skill. He
appointed to his Council the leaders of both major political groups, thus
emphasising the fact of unity. The young king and his advisers presided
over a period of economic advance, which they consciously encouraged.
Burghs grew in importance and increasing trade brought growing prosperity.
One Scottish burgh and port - Berwick - was handling trade worth 25 per
cent of the total trade of England; on the land, arable acreage and
production increased considerably, raising living standards of the people
as a result; and trade and agriculture alike were encouraged and protected
by the competence of Alexander's administration. Law and order - always
necessary for economic confidence - were guaranteed by the work of
sheriffs in the various burghs and shires; of justiciars in larger areas,
and by the king himself, who travelled regularly and extensively around
The one external threat to security which Alexander II had not
been able to remove before his death, was that posed by the remaining
Norse presence in the Western Isles and the constant possibility that a
vigorous Norwegian monarch might choose to breathe new life into Norse
ambitions. Just such a crisis developed as Alexander took personal charge
of his kingdom. He began by offering to buy the Norse-held islands from
the Norwegian crown, and when his offer met with no favour, he allowed
attacks by local Scots leaders to be made against the more accessible
parts of the Norse territory. The Norwegian king Haakon, a man of immense
character and prestige, was not likely to allow such challenges to go
unpunished, and in 1263 he led a great fleet and army to restore the
diminished power of Norway in the Scottish outposts of its empire, and to
compel more submissive behaviour from Alexander.
Haakon's fleet sailed,
reaching Lerwick in the Shetland Isles by the middle of July. By August he
was gathering with his subordinates and supporters at Skye and in the
Firth of Lorne. The reinforced - but delayed - Haakon sailed for Kintyre
and into the Firth of Clyde. The Island of Arran was occupied and Bute
overrun, while Scots and Norwegians talked terms of peace at Ayr. As the
talks went on, the year advanced and the weather became more unsuitable
for seaborne armies.
On 30 September westerly gales began to cause damage
to Haakon's fleet, anchored between the Island of Cumbrae and the Ayrshire
coast. The crews and warriors, on galleys driven ashore, were attacked by
the Scottish local forces under Alexander the Steward; and throughout 1
and 2 October, skirmishes took place along the shore at Largs, as the
Scots fought to repel the Norwegians who had landed. On 2 October, Haakon
himself came ashore to take charge, but the best he could do was to
achieve an orderly retreat from the shore back to his ships, which then
left the Clyde and began the long voyage home.
The Battle of Largs marked
the end of the old Norwegian domination of the western seaboard of
Scotland, not because the battle itself was of any major importance, but
because Haakon had been unable to arouse genuine support among the
islanders. They had long followed Norway's lead and many families were
more than half-Norse in their ancestry and traditions but, as the
generations had passed the geographical realities had come to affect man's
thoughts and feelings. MacDonalds, Macruaries and MacSweens were now
half-hearted at best in their loyalties to Norway, and the notion that
their future interests lay in association with Scotland was clearly
So, the great king withdrew homewards. Depressed and ailing
he rested in Orkney, where in the Bishop's Palace in Kirkwall, he died.
Pencil at Largs commemorates the Battle of Largs in 1263. (Photo: Gordon
The Bishop's Palace, Kirkwall, Orkney. (Photo: Gordon
new Norwegian king, Magnus, accepted that Norway's day of supremacy was
over, and at Perth in 1266 a treaty gave to the Scottish king all
Norwegian territories on the Scottish mainland and throughout the Western
Isles. With this treaty, honourably observed by both sides, relations
changed and friendship grew where previously enmity had been normal. In
1281 Alexander's daughter, Margaret, married King Eric, Haakon's grandson,
and the relationship between Scotland and Norway was clearly intended to
With his other powerful neighbour, England, Alexander
had maintained reasonably good relations, as long as Henry III reigned.
That shifty monarch, having made his early attempts to bring Alexander and
his kingdom under English feudal domination, seems to have abandoned such
schemes, contenting himself by treating Alexander - who was, after all,
his son-in-law - with apparently genuine personal affection; and when he
was faced with baronial rebellion, the Scottish court was clearly
sympathetic to Henry. But things were to change. In 1272 Henry died, and
his son Edward became king. Then, in 1275, Margaret of England, Alexander's
wife, also died, and Alexander was now dealing not with a reasonably
genial father-in-law, but with his ex-brother-in-law, Edward I who was a
very different man from his father and who had his own ideas for the
future of Scotland.
It was therefore with some concern that Alexander and
his courtiers travelled to England in 1278, to do homage for his English
lands. The old images of kneeling Scottish kings haunted English minds.
Alexander as a boy had avoided the trap set for him by Henry III. Would
the new English king make some similar attempt?
When the meeting took place
Edward and his ministers clearly meant mischief. Alexander swore to 'bear
faith to Edward . . . and will faithfully perform the services due for the
lands I hold of him.' In that, all versions of events agree. But the
Scottish records of the meeting state that Alexander added 'reserving my
kingdom'. At this the Bishop of Norwich is reported to have suggested that
the English king may claim the right to homage for that kingdom as well,
to which Alexander responded: 'No one has the right to homage for my
kingdom, for I hold it of God alone.' The Scottish version may be
doctored; the English version shows signs that it definitely was. However,
there can be no doubt that Edward had tried to reassert the English claim
that Scotland was merely a sub-kingdom, and, equally, no doubt that
Alexander had rejected any idea of acceptance of the English case.
then, Alexander might well be seen as the most successful of Scottish
rulers. Scotland's territory was not so extensive as it had been briefly,
under David I, but it was compact and stable. Scotland politically and
Scotland geographically, coincided sensibly. The long contest with Norway
was over. Relations with England were peaceable and courteous. Trade
flourished, the land prospered, and good order prevailed at home. The
future, too, looked bright. Alexander had two sons, both now grown men,
and a daughter, queen by marriage, of Norway. There seemed every reason to
feel that Alexander's legacy of success would pass safely onwards through
Then, in 1281, David, the second son, died; in 1283
Margaret died also, leaving an infant daughter with the widower King Eric.
Suddenly tragedy had struck Alexander's family, and danger approached his
kingdom. In 1284 the heir to the throne, Alexander, also died, and the
immediate future for Scotland was a matter of concern. Still, the Scottish
state which Alexander had fashioned held firm. The Scottish parliament in
February confirmed the baby girl over in Norway as the legal heir to her
grandfather, showing a degree of responsibility and discipline which
testifies to the order and form which Alexander had given to his kingdom.
However, one heir only, and that a female child, was not enough to give
reassurance for future stability. Alexander, still only in early middle
age, must marry again, and build a second family to guarantee the future.
So, in November 1285 at Jedburgh, Alexander married Yolande of Dreux,
thereby linking himself in friendship with powerful French interests.
March 1286, Alexander held council in Edinburgh, and, the business over,
set off to cross into Fife to join Yolande at Kinghorn. The late afternoon
and evening were dark and stormy, and the king was urged to stay in
Edinburgh and wait for better conditions in the morning, but brushing
aside all such advice the king left for the crossing of the River Forth at
Queensferry. The ferry master there added his warning that the weather
conditions made the crossing too dangerous to be prudently attempted, but
even his professional advice could not deter Alexander from his purpose.
He teased the ferryman, asking if he was afraid to die in his king's
company, and under this kind of moral blackmail the ferryman gave way,
prepared as he said, 'to meet my fate in company with your father's son.'
The eight-oared ferry made slow progress in the teeth of the northerly
gale, but eventually reached safety on the northern shore.
By now it was
dark, and in the darkness and the gale, the master of the salt-works at
Inverkeithing, who had come to meet the king, now argued with his master
that he ought to remain in Inverkeithing till daylight. Having come
through the dangers of the voyage Alexander saw no reason to fear the mere
fact of darkness. He did ask for, and received, two local men to guide him
and his three attendants on the last leg of his journey eastwards to
As the king rode off into the darkness, Earl Patrick of Dunbar
was chatting in his castle with a local worthy, Thomas of Ercildoune - 'Thomas
the Rhymer' - popularly believed to have the second-sight, and thus the
power of prophecy. What would tomorrow bring, asked Patrick. 'Before the
hour of noon there will assuredly be felt such a mighty storm in Scotland
that its like has not been known for long ages past. The blast of it will
cause nations to tremble, will make those who hear it dumb, will humble
the high, and lay the strong level with the ground.' However impressed or
alarmed Patrick may have been, Thomas's fears seemed absurd when the
morning of the 19th dawned fair and grew fairer as the sun climbed higher.
Just before noon, as Patrick was preparing for his midday meal, a
messenger, urgent and desperate for audience with the earl, brought news
that his king lay dead on the shore at Kinghorn.
His journey in the
gathering darkness had led Alexander to a point where his horse lost its
footing, whether on a cliff pathway, or in soft and treacherous sand on
the shore, is not clear. By whatever accident the king was thrown, and
died with his neck broken from the fall.
So Thomas's storm broke. The King
was dead. His wife and his son's wife were childless. His children were
gone, and only the girl Margaret, now the girl-queen of Scots, remained of
the line which ran back through Malcolm Canmore to Kenneth MacAlpin.
those circumstances Scotland's institutions and political leaders were
going to be tested to the uttermost. Some institutions and some leaders
stood the test, some only for a time, some for longer, but Scotland could
never now be what Alexander and a secure monarchy might have made her. Not
only would things never be the same; they would never again even be
comparable. The steady, solid development which saw its peak in Alexander's
reign was halted, and was never effectively resumed.
Scotland's luck died
with Alexander at Kinghorn and never the slightest whiff of good fortune
was to come the way of the Scottish people for the next seven centuries.
was not long before people knew what they had lost; and the chronicler and
historian recording these days, saw and felt the emotions of 1286 and the
years which followed.
Annual Commemorative ceremony at the monument to King
Alexander III at Kinghorn,18 March 1990. (Photo: Gordon Wright)