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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 1, Chapter 26 - Union of the Scots and Picts; The Scottish Nation

In A.D. 787 new troubles came from without to complicate the affairs of the four kingdoms into which Scotland and England were then divided, and to add to the miseries with which they were already full. Ships of ominous look, from beyond the sea, appeared suddenly like a flock of vultures off the coasts of Britain. They made their appearance simultaneously on both the eastern and western shores of the island. Their prows moulded like beak of eagle, and their sterns tapered and curling like tail of dragon, gave dismal presage of the errand on which they were bent. Their long narrow build, and the rows of oars by which they were impelled, made their passage through the waves like that of bird hasting to the prey. They were the terror alike of the Scot and the Pict, of the Angle of the eastern kingdom, and the Briton of the western, all of whom suspended their mutual feuds to wage united battle against this common and formidable foe. From Norway and Denmark had come this horde of ravagers. The old chronicler, Simeon of Durham, who alone related the occurrences of these unhappy times, tells us that fearful prodigies heralded the arrival of these sea pirates. Dragons of fire and warriors in flame filled the night skies, and shook with terror the men of Northumbria and Mercia. And when at last these frightful prognostications received but too terrible fulfilment in the arrival of the Vikings, Simeon goes on to give us a harrowing description of the slaughter which they inflicted. It is signal that the first burst of this northern tempest should have fallen upon the two great religious institutions of the age. The riches known to be hoarded in these establishments was what, doubtless, drew thither these spoilers. "In the same year," (793) "the pagans from the northern region came with a naval armament to Britain like stinging hornets, and overran the country in all directions like fierce wolves, plundering, tearing, and killing not only sheep and oxen, but priests and Levites, and choirs of monks and nuns. They came, as we before said, to the church of Lindisfarne, and laid all waste with dreadful havoc, trod with unhallowed feet the holy places, dug up the altars, and carried off all the treasures of the holy church. Some of the brethren they killed, some they carried off in chains, many they cast out naked and loaded with insults, some they drowned in the sea."1

A few years thereafter a like calamity befell the older institute of Iona. The northern storm-cloud was seen to divide in two when it approached the shores of Britain. One tempest made its descent southward along the English coast, its track marked by the ruins the old chronicler so graphically describes. The other tempest crossed the Orkneys, sweep round Cape Wrath, and descended on the western shore of Scotland, expending its destructive rage on the Hebrides. The marauders bore off to their ships the spoil of the wretched inhabitants, destroying what they were unable to carry away, and after slaughtering the owners and setting fire to their dwellings, they departed, leaving the western isles and the adjoining coast a scene of desolation. The sanctuary of Iona had no exemption from these awful calamities. Neither its fame, nor the inoffensive lives of its inmates, could procure it reverence or consideration in the eyes of these barbarians. It was spared on occasion of their first visit (794), but in four years the Vikings returned to harry and slay; and in A.D. 802, as the Annals of Ulster record, Ikomkill was burned by these sea robbers, and in A.D. 806 its destruction was completed by the slaughter of its whole community, amounting to sixty-eight persons.2 This beacon of evangelical light, which had burned for two centuries, redeeming the land from pagan darkness, drawing to the feet of its elders scholars from other and distant countries, and so wonderfully shielded amid the tempests of battle between Pict and Scot which had raged around it for a hundred years past, but the light of which has begun to wax faint and low, was not fully put out by the hand of violence.

But the fallen Institute rose up again, though not on its old rock, nor in its former glory. Iona, up to the period of its suppression, had continued to be the recognised head of the Columban church in both Ireland and Scotland, but the authority in the Columban church, which till now had been single, was henceforth dual. The question had come to be, shall the seat of supremacy in the communities of Iona be placed in Scotland or in Ireland? That question was determined in a way not to give umbrage to either nation. It was resolved that henceforth there should be two parent or presiding institutions, one at Kells in Ireland, and another in Dunkeld in Scotland. In the little cup-like valley where the Tay struggles through the southern range of the Grampians, Constantine, king of the Picts, laid the foundations of a second Iona, a very few years after the destruction of the first. The relics of Columba were afterwards dug up and brought from the island of Hii, to sanctify the soil on which the new temple stood; for men had begun to believe in a holiness that springs out of the earth, rather than in that which comes down from heaven. It was easier consecrating with the soil with the bones of Columba, than animating the new institution with his spirit; easier rearing a new temple than rekindling, in its first brightness, the old lamp.

The conversion of the Pictish monarch in 7l7 to the rite—we say the rite rather that the faith of Rome; and the enforced exodus of the Columban pastors from his dominions, were, there is reason to think, the originating causes of those political changes and social convulsions that were immediately consequent on the change of religion, although few of our historians appear to suspect the connection between these two events. In order to see how these two things stood related, let us glance a moment at what Scotland had now become.

We do not hesitate to avow it as our belief that Scotland at the end of the seventh and the opening of the eighth century was the most Christian country in Europe. Perhaps we might venture to add the most civilized, for Christianity and civilisation are never far apart. The Christianity of Scotland, unlike that of Italy and of most Continental countries at that same period, was drawn from the Bible, and was of that kind which goes to the roots of individual and national life, and instead of expending itself in rites and ceremonies of hierarchical magnificence, develops in the quiet and enriching virtues of purity, truth, industry, and sobriety—the true civilisation. Iona had now for a century and a half been shedding its evangelical light over the country. Five generations of Scotsmen had been reared under it. The land was fairly planted with churches, its thin population considered. The pastors who ministered in them were thoroughly trained in Divine learning, and were a race of pious, humble, laborious, and, in many instances, studious and scholarly men. The education of youth was cared for. The population, happily relieved from the distractions of war, cultivated the arts of the time, both ornamental and useful. The same men who interpreted Scripture to them taught them how to use the pen and the chisel, how to construct their dwellings and cultivate their fields. The sons of princes and nobles were proud to enroll themselves as pupils in the school of Iona. Scholars from abroad came to visit a land that had become so famous, that thereby they might increase their stores of knowledge; and kings when dying commanded that their bones should be transported across the North Sea, ferried over to the island of Icolmkill, and laid beneath the shadow of its saintly towers. Where, in the Europe of that age, it there seen another country with a halo like this round it, unless it is Ireland in the fifth century?

But soon after the opening of the eighth century we find this fair picture deformed by sudden tempests. Whence and of what nature were these storms? The Dane had not yet set food on our soil, and even when his piratical hordes appeared off our coasts, the nation rose and drove him away, or limited his ravages to the islands and parts of the seaboard. The convulsions of this era had their origin within the country. Who or what was it that set Pict against Pict, and Scot at times against both? Historians have been unable to discover any cause of this sudden outbreak, and have spoken vaguely of it as referable to the wildness and barbarism of the age. But the age in Scotland was not barbarous: on the contrary, it was pious and peaceful; this being the fifth generation which had given the plough the preference over the sword, and cultivated peace rather than war with their neighbours. It begins now to be seen that these disturbances had a religious origin, and that they grew out of the visit of the papal envoy to the court of King Nectan of the Southern Picts, and his attempts to impose, at the sword’s points, on the pastors of the church, the badge of submission to the new faith and the foreign authority which he sought to install in the country. It is here, too, that the solution lies, as is strongly suspected, of what is so startling and inexplicable, even that when the troubles we now see beginning come to an end, the numerous and powerful nation of the Picts have entirely disappeared, if not from the soil of the country, yet from the page of history, and the comparatively small handful of Scots in Dalraida have come to the front and grasped the supremacy, and henceforward given their name to the nation and to the country. The point is a curious one in our history, and deserves a little examination.

It is to be noted, first, that the commencement of these troubles is coincident with the arrival of Boniface at Nectan’s court, and the expulsion of the pastors from the Pictish territory on their refusal to have their heads shorn in the Roman fashion. This raises a presumption against the strangers as mischief-makers. But, farther, at this same time, we find a great political revolution or convulsion within the Pictish kingdom apart from the troubles to which the expulsion of the clergy across Drumalban into Dalriada may have given rise with the Scots. We see the two great divisions of the Picts, north and south of the Grampians, bursting into sudden flame, arraying themselves in arms against each other, and this is followed by a century of strife and bloody battles. We know of no political occurrence which could have so suddenly and violently disrupted the bonds betwixt the two. But in the change of religion in southern Pictland we have a sufficient solution. It rallied the Pictish people under two creeds, and parted them into two churches. The Picts of the northern kingdom continued loyal to Iona. Their pastors, unaffected by the decree of the southern king, continued to feed their flocks as aforetime, preaching the evangelical faith of Columba, whereas those on the south of the Grampians had forsaken the faith of their fathers for novel rites and doctrines, and wore the coronal tonsure in token of their submission to a foreign master. War is just what we should expect in the circumstances. The animosities and hatreds which this great secession from the Columban church engendered could not fail to provoke it. The crisis would be rendered more acute by the consideration that it imperilled the political independence of the country, as well as undermined its ancient faith. It opened the door to invasion from Northumbria, with whom the southern Picts had become one in religious rite; and ambitious chiefs on both sides, under pretext of religious or patriotic aims, would find the occasion favourable for enlarging their territories or acquiring greater personal authority.3

The fact that the Scots appear as the allies of the northern Picts throughout this tumultuous and bloody century, corroborates the idea that religion mainly had to do with its troubles. The Scots, it is to be remembered, never fell away from Iona, and they would naturally sympathise with their co-religionists, the northern Picts, and be ready to help them in their conflicts with their Romanised countrymen on the south of the Grampians. The sudden and unexpected reappearance of Nectan from the monastery to which he had retired, the moment he saw a chance of recovering his throne, is also suggestive of the religious element in these complications, and shows that the foreign monks were pulling the wires that plunged the Pictish tribes into murderous internecine war.

It helps to throw light on the condition of our country, and the opinions that agitated it at that era, to reflect that when the establishment of Iona was plundered and burned by the Norsemen, the foundations of a new church were immediately thereafter laid in the realm of the Picts by the hands of a Pictish monarch. Plainly the old faith had still many adherents among the southern Picts, for Constantine who founded the new Columban sanctuary at Dunkeld, would not have adventured on showing so decided a mark of favour for the apostle of Iona unless he had known that among his subjects were many to whom the memory and doctrine of the abbot of Icolmkill were still dear. The act was a virtual revocation of the ban pronounced against the Columban clergy by his predecessor Nectan, and a virtual permission to the extruded shepherds to return and feed their former flocks. Some—perhaps many—did, doubtless, return, and found admission into the heritages and livings which their predecessors, a century before, had been forced to vacate. In what way their influence would be employed it is no ways difficult to guess. It would be put forth for the re-establishment of the Columban faith,and by consequence the ascendancy of the race by whom mainly that faith was held—the Scots, to wit. "The Pictish chronicle," says Mr. Skene, "clearly indicates this as one of the great causes of the fall of the Pictish monarchy."4 So long as both branches of the Columban church, the Irish and the Scottish, was governed from one centre, and that centre Iona, the Scots must have felt that they were one with the Irish, being linked to them by the most sacred of all bonds, but when the bond was broken by the erection of two parent institutions, the Scots doubtless felt that they were parted as a church, and parted as a nation, and that henceforth their thought must be turned more exclusively to the acquisition of influence and territory in the country where they had fixed their abode.

The Roman rite, we have said, does not appear to have made its way beyond the Grampians. The spirit of Columba still predominated in the North, and the pastors, sent forth from Iona, continued to feed their flocks, though, we fear, not in the same simplicity of faith, nor with the same fullness of knowledge and zeal, which had characterised them in an earlier and better age. But even among the southern Picts there would appear to have been two powerful religious parties all along during the dark century,—that intervened between the conversion of Nectan and the founding of the church at Dunkeld. We cannot otherwise account for the transference to the Pictish territory of the northern Institute. Rome would not have suffered such a monument of the old faith and the old liberty to exist, had she been quiet mistress among the southern Picts. The policy of King Constantine, in founding Dunkeld, was plainly one of conciliation. He aimed at securing the good will of those of his subjects who had not yet been brought to believe that Easter was more honoured by being kept on this day rather than on that, and that the chief glory of a pastor lay not in the depth of his piety, but in the form of his tonsure.

The conciliatory policy of Constantine, king of the Picts, was followed up by Kenneth Mac Alpin, the first Scot who reigned over the two peoples, when he brought the relics of Columba to consecrate the new church at Dunkeld—a proceeding which, he must have judged, would gratify his new subjects, and tend to consolidate his government over them. Nor was this all Kenneth Mac Alpin took a still more decided step in the same direction. He set the Abbott of Dunkeld over the church of the Picts.5 This was to undo the work of Boniface, and to restore the supremacy of the Columban Church over the whole of Scotland. The peace and quiet in which this revolution was accomplished may be accepted as a proof that the faith of Rome had not gone very deep among the southern Picts after all, and that a goodly portion of them had continued to cling to the old doctrines of the north, and refused to yield their faith to the novelties which the Roman missionary had brought with him from the sensuous and ritualistic south.

It is now the opening of the ninth century, and Scotland is in sight of its first great landing place. Constantine, able and patriotic beyond the measure of the sovereigns of his age and country, is on the throne of the southern Picts. He reigned, thirty years, dying in A.D. 820.6 He was succeeded in the government by several kings whose reigns were so short, and whose actions were so obscure, that their names hardly deserve, and seldom receive mention.7 The Pictish kingdom had now for sometime been on the decline. When the southern and northern Picts were united, and one king ruled the land from the Firth of Forth to the Pentland, the Picts were a powerful people. Their numbers, and the surpassing bulk of their territory, quite over-shadowed the Scots in their little domain of Dalriada. But from the day that Columba arrived on the western shore and kindled his lamp on Iona, the disproportion between the little Dalriada and the greater Pictland gradually grew less. The moral influence which radiated from Icolmkill, and the scholars it sent forth, gave power at home and influence abroad to the Scots, despite their foot-breadth of a kingdom. The names of greatest literary glory in France in that age were those of Scotsmen. When the emperor Charlemagne founded the University of Paris, it was to Scotland he turned for men to fill its chairs of philosophy, of mathematics, and languages. Among Scotsmen in France eminent for their attainments in literature and piety, was Joannes Scotus, or Albinus its equivalent. He left behind him not a few monuments of his genius, one of which Buchanan says he had seen, a work on Rhetoric with his name inscribed.8 Clement, another distinguished Scotsman, proved a thorn in the side of the popedom. He stood up in the centre of Europe in opposition to Boniface, whom Gregory II. had sent to the Germans, and maintained in public disputation the sole authority of the Scriptures against the traditionalism of Boniface.9 The tide was turning against the Papal missionary, when the eloquent and undaunted Clement was seized, sent off under a safe guard to Rome, and never heard of more. We may venture to affirm that Scotland had the honour of furnishing the first martyr who suffered under the papacy. This by no means exhausts the list of Scotsmen who, by their learning and piety, placed their little country on a pedestal whence it was seen all over Europe.

But ever since the day the foreign monks appeared among the southern Picts, a process had been going on amongst them exactly the reverse of that which Columba originated among the Scots. The new comers introduced religious dissensions, and these eventually broke up the union betwixt the northern and southern kingdoms. The dissolution of the union was followed by war. The strength of the Picts departed, and though a gleam of prosperity visited them in the days of Constantine, their power never fully returned and what they had gained under Constantine they more than lost during the reigns of his feeble successors. Moreover, there was a party among the Picts themselves who from community of faith favoured the Scotch succession. As the result of these concurring causes there had come to be a crisis in the Pictish supremacy. Is it Pict or Scot who is to be the future ruler of the land? And by what name shall North Britain be known henceforward? By that of Pictland, or by that of Scotland? Such was the question now waiting solution in the ancient Caledonia.

At this juncture the male line of Angus, king of the Picts, became extinct, and the throne was claimed by Alpin. Alpin was a son of the Achaius, king of Dalriada, with whom Charlemagne of France is said to have formed an alliance. Achaius had for wife a sister of Angus, the Pictish sovereign. Thus Alpin, the claimant of the Pictish throne, was a Scot by the father’s side and a Pict by the mother’s. He advanced his claim in A.D. 832. Modern historians incline to the belief that the transference of the sovereignty of the Picts to the line of Dalriada was effected by peaceable means. Not so, say the older historians; the Pictish sceptre, they tell us, was not grasped by the Scottish line till after several bloody battles. We prefer to follow the historians who stood nearest the event, and who moreover have tradition and probability on their side. The greater people were not likely to yield up the rule to the smaller without bringing the matter to a trial of strength on the battlefield. The first encounter between the two armies took place at Restennet, near Forfar. When night closed the battle, the uncertain victory was claimed by Alpin; but even this doubtful success had cost him dear, for a third of his army lay on the field. The Pictish king was among the slain, but the Picts notified that they did not hold the death of their monarch as deciding the issue of the war, for they straightway proceeded to elect another in his room.

The second battle was fought in the neighbourhood of Dundee. It was the Picts who triumphed in this fight, and they won the battle by a stratagem similar to that which Bruce employed four hundred and eighty years after at Bannockburn. The camp attendants were instructed to mount the baggage horses and make their appearance on the heights around the field when the combatants should be in the thick of the fight. This make-believe of a second army advancing to the aid of the Picts threw the Scots into panic. They broke and fled: the king and his principal nobles were taken captive on the field. The nobles were slain on the spot but Alpin was reserved for more ignominious execution. All ransom being refused for him he was bound, led away, and beheaded, and his head, fixed on a pole, was carried in triumph round the army. This barbarous exhibition over the gory trophy was stuck up on the walls of the Pictish capital, supposed to have been Abernethy.

There followed a few years’ cessation in the war.10 Elated by their victory, the Picts broke out in fiercer dissensions among themselves than ever. It happened, too, about this time, that they were assailed by the Danes, and one of their most powerful tribes all but exterminated.11 Thus the Scots had respite, and were able to recruit their strength, much impaired by their disastrous defeat. Kenneth, the son of the fallen Alpin, a brave and worthy prince, was placed on the throne. The young monarch was naturally desirous to prosecute the quarrel against the Picts, and his ambition to enlarge his realm by adding the Pictish territories to it was quickened by the cruel indignities to which his father had been subjected, and of which he was touchingly reminded by some adventurous youth, who took down the head of the murdered Alpin from the walls of Abernethy and carried it to the young Kenneth. He convoked an assembly of his nobles and strongly urged upon the a renewal of hostilities against the Picts’ but the older and more experienced of the nobles, were averse, believing that the time for another trial of strength was not yet come. Kenneth allowed the matter to sleep three years longer.

But in the fourth year Kenneth revived the project, and succeeded in overcoming the reluctance of his nobles by the following extraordinary stratagem, as Fordum relates, and in which Boethius, Buchanan, and others follow him. He invited the nobles to a banquet in the palace, and prolonged the festivities to so late an hour that the guests, instead of departing to their homes, sunk down on the floor of the banqueting room overcome by wine and sleep. The king had previously selected a youth, a relation of his own, whom he instructed in the part he was to play, providing him at the same time with a luminous robe, made out of the phosphorescent skins of fish, and a long tube which was to serve the purpose of a speaking trumpet. It was now past midnight: all was dark in the chamber were the feast had been held, and the silence was unbroken, save an occasional interruption from the heavy slumber of the prostrate mass that covered the floor. Suddenly a terrible voice rang through the banqueting room and awoke the sleepers. On opening their eyes, they beheld with amazement a figure in the middle of the hall, in a blaze of silvery glory, speaking in a voice of more than mortal power, commanding them to gird on the sword and avenge the murder of King Alpin, and thundering in their ears dreadful maledictions should they not obey. No sooner had the spectre delivered its message than it disappeared as noiselessly as it had entered, leaving those whom it had dazzled, or terrified by its unearthly brightness, bewildered by its mysterious exit. When morning broke the nocturnal apparition was the topic of conversation, and all were agreed that a celestial messenger had visited them in the night, and that it was the will of the Deity that they should renew the war with the Picts. They were confirmed in this conclusion by the king, who assured them that the same celestial visitor had appeared to himself, bringing with him a message which left him no alternative but a resumption of the war. The character of the times made the success of such a stratagem possible, and so makes the story credible.12

But whatever we may think of the story, we now find the Scottish nobles, who had hitherto held back, rushing into the field, and plunging, noble and soldier alike, into furious battle with the Picts. Crossing Drumalban, and advancing into the low grounds of Stirlingshire, the Scots, shouting their war-cry, "Remember Alpin," flung themselves upon the ranks of the Picts. The Pictish army was broken and routed. But one battle was not enough to decide the issue of the wear. The Picts rallied; battle followed battle, and when we think how much was at stake, and how inflamed were the combatants on both sides, we can well believe that these encounters were as sanguinary as the chroniclers say. At last the matter came to a final trial of strength near Scone. When this last battle had been fought the Pictish king lay dead on the field; and around him, in gory heaps, lay the bulk of his nobility and army. The Tay, which rolled past the scene in crimsoned flood, making flight impracticable, increased the carnage of the battle.13

That severities and atrocities were consequent on victory, to awe the conquered country, and prevent insurrection and revolt among the Picts, is highly probable. Submission was a new experience to this impatient and war-like people. But the legend that assigns to the Pictish race, as the result of its conquest by the Scots, the fate of utter extermination, is wholly incredible. Such an effusion of blood, even had it been possible, would have been as profitless as it would have been revolting. It was blood far to precious to be spilled like water. If that ancient and valorous race had been swept off the Norsemen from across the sea, and the Anglo-Saxons from the other side of the border, would have rushed in and taken possession of the empty land. How sorely should the Scots have missed the Picts in the day of battle! They were of the old Caledonian stock, descendants of the men who fought the Romans at the roots of the Grampians, and their blood instead of being poured on the earth was to be mixed with that of the Scots, to the invigoration of both. Mixed blood is ever the richest, and gives to the race in whose veins it comes a notable robustness and variety of faculty. It was not extermination but absorption or incorporation that befell the Picts at this epoch. It is true that their name henceforward disappears from history; but so, too, had the earlier name of Caledonian at a former epoch. It as suddenly and completely disappeared as that of Pict does now: but no one supposes that the people who bore it suffered extermination . In both cases it was the named only, not the race, that became extinct.

In A.D. 843 Kenneth Mac Alpin ascended the throne as ruler of the whole land. Under him the two crowns and the two peoples were united. The conquerors and the conquered gradually merged into one nation, and from the opening of the twelfth century the only terms employed to designate the country and its inhabitants were SCOTLAND and the SCOTS


1. Sim. Dun., Hist. Regum., ad an 793; Sken, i. 303.

2. Ul. Ann., Skene, i. 304.

3. Tighernac, Skene, i. 287, 288.

4. Skene, Celtic Scotland, i. 315.

5. Chron. Picts and Scots, p. 361; Skene, i. 316.

6. Ann. Ulster, Skene, i. 305.

7. Robertson, Scotland under her Early Kings, i. 20,

8. Buchanan, Hist., lib. v. cap. 53.

9. Alter qui dicitur Clemens, genere Scotus est, Bonificii epistola ad Papam, Labbei concilia ad ann., 745.

10. Chron., Picts and Scots, p. 209; Sken i. 206; Buchan., Hist., lib. v. c. 58.

11. Skene, i. 387, 308.

12. Fordun, lib. iv. Cap. 4; Buchanan, lib. v. cap. 60.

13. Buchan., lib. v. cap. 62.



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