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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 3, Chapter 9 - Reign of Kenneth; Battle of Luncarty; Alteration of Law of succession

The Scots had halted in their path, or rather they had stepped out of it, and gone aside from the straight course, and they needed to be beaten back to it with the rod of national calamity. In no long time we find them smarting from a stroke, which doubtless they deplored as a misfortune, but which they ought to have accepted as a benefit. There, again, on their eastern coast were the Norse galleys filled with warriors athirst for blood, wielding battleaxes rudely fashioned of bog iron, and swords sharpened and tempered by more skilled artisians than the armourers of Scandinavia.

These marauders had crossed the main to load their ships with booty and captives, and go back to their own land and there revel in the spoil. That was all the Vikings thought of or cared for. They had come forth, however, on another errand, though they knew it not. They had been summoned from their fiords to reunite the sundered parties of the Scots, by concentrating in one supreme struggle for independence the passions and energies which meanwhile were being expended on petty personal feuds, and recall to a sense of duty a nation that was becoming unconscious of its high mission.

But first an occupant has to be found for the vacant throne. The dissolute life and brief reign of Cullen had, as we have seen, been brought to a sudden end on the highway by an act of violence which ad been provoked, though not justified, by his own criminal amours. It required some courage, one should think, to sit down on the fatal Stone of Scone, after recent experiences of the cares and risks that waited on royal power in Scotland. Kenneth, the third of that name—an honoured name in the royal line of the Scots—the brother of Duff the Black, was the successor of Cullen. No sooner had he mounted the throne (971) than he addressed himself to the task of setting in order a kingdom which had, as might well be believed, under such a ruler as Cullen, fallen into confusion. It was rare indeed that there was not a smouldering rebellion in one or other of the northern counties. But this danger was greatest aggravated by an evil which it was more difficult for Kenneth to reach with his arms than insurrections in Lochaber or Ross-shire. The numerous islands which besprinkle the western seas, and which charm the eye of tourist with their picturesque beauty or their rocky grandeur, were in those days so many "cities of refuge," whither the thief, the robber, the manslayer, and the rebel could fle3e, and where he might defy justice. The difficulty of coping with this evil was the greater from the circumstance that the Norwegians had begun to exercise at times the sovereignty of these islands, and were n not willing to weaken the power of the kings of Alban by extending their protection to the enemies of their government. If Kenneth could have submerged this hjarborage of outlaws and freebooters in the waves of the Atlantic, he would, no doubt, have robbed our western coast of much of its attractiveness, but he would have lightened the cares of his government, and consolidated the peace of his kingdom. He had begun to grapple with the monster evil, and was making some progress in its suppression, when his attention was called away to another quarter of his dominions. Nothing, Kenneth doubtless thought, could be more unfortunate at this moment. It placed the king and the Scottish nation between two fires. On the west were a score of isles about to blaze into insurrection; in the east hung the Norwegian war-cloud, in the dark folds of which slumbered the lightnings.

Never had such a flotilla of Norse war-galleys been seen as now cast anchor off the Red Head on the Angus coast. For some days they did not move from the spot, but hovered above the shore, like a flock of birds of prey, as if they wished to render the inhabitants helpless through terror before swooping down upon them with their battle-axes and sharp-edged swords. It was being debated on board whether they should make their descent on England or on Scotland, England, it was argued, was the richer land, and there they would gather greater abundance of spoil, whereas in the northern and poorer country they could hope to glean but little, and that little with greater peril owing to the fiercer nature of the people. But over against this the Norsemen had to set the consideration that in either case they should be unable to avoid an encounter with the Scots, who might possibly hasten to the help of the English, if only to ward off the danger from themselves, and thus they should have to fight two nations instead of one. The wise men of the Norse council therefore resolved to strike where they were. Rounding the tall cliffs of the Red Head, their galley entered the estuary of the Esk at Montrose, and the invaders leaping on shore, carried sack and slaughter along the banks of the river; and meeting with no opposition for some days, they extended their ravages southward to the Tay, and westward along the great valley of Strathmore.

The king was at Stirling when the news reached him of this new invasion of the old enemies of his kingdom. Kenneth mustered what forces he had with him, and giving orders for the rest of the population to arm and follow, he set out to meet the invaders. The Viking host had by this time penetrated into the interior and come to Perth. The two armies met near the confluence of the Tay and the Earn. The battle that followed is one of the more famous in the history of these invasions. Both Dane and Scot burned with hereditary hate. What had the pagan Viking to do in this land? It was not his, and the Scot was determined that it never should be his. If he comes here to find a grave, he shall have it; but as regards these mountains and plains, they have been the dwelling of the Caledonian from immemorial time, and what was the possession of our fathers, shall be the possession of our sons. So said the Scots. In this spirit it was that the battle was joined.

It raged with sanguinary fury. What a soft and gracious spot the scene of the conflict looked at sunrise; but before noon, battle had transformed it into a very shambles, frightful to behold, although the rage with which the combatants struggled with one another made them heedless of the horrors around them. Hacked and mutilated trunks, cloven skulls, lopped-off limbs, Dane and Scot stretched out and clutching one another, their faces darkened in death, and their eyes still burning with the fire of battle, strewed the fair meadows on which the conflict took place, and dyed the two rivers which water the valley which war had made as ghastly as it usual aspect is sweet and inviting. The day had gone against the Scots, and they were beginning to escape from the field in terrified crowds. It was now that an incident occurred which turned the fortunes of the battle, and threw a romantic gleam of patriotic heroism over its carnage.

It happened that a stout yeoman and his two sons were polishing in a field which lay in the track of the fugitives. Indignant at seeing the Scots turn on their back on the enemy, he stopped his polish, unyoked his oxen, and arming himself and his sons with the implements of their husbandry, he took his stand right in the path of the runaways, and partly by reproaches and partly by blows, he arrested their flight, and compelled them to face about and resume the battle, himself and his two sons heading the fight. Courage is as infectious as cowardice. The old Caledonian war spirit, which had stood its ground before the Roman legions at the foot of those very mountains which looked down upon this battle with the Danes, flamed up in the breasts of the Scots. The Viking host was defeated; and the day, which till now had been full of disaster, and was closing darkly over the Scots, was turned with almost magical quickness into one of victory.

The story, doubtless, has received some embellishments in its transmission downwards, but its historic supports are too numerous to permit of its being regarded as wholly legendary. The incident, in some form, must have occurred, for how otherwise could it have obtained the footing it has got in history, both written and heraldic, as well as in the traditions of the country? The ground itself witnesses to the fact. The broken weapons and the fragments of skeletons which are dug up in it, tell of some long past, but fiercely fought battle. The name of the stout and bold peasant who changed a moment of dire peril to his country into one of glorious triumph was Hay. He entered the field a simple ploughman, he strode out of it a belted knight. If ever after he put hand to plough, it was to till the wide acres which his grateful sovereign gave him as a reward of his valour in the fertile Carse of Gowrie. Thus were laid the foundations of the noble house of Errol.

Boece and Buchanan, and the historians who follow them, have told the adventure of Hay and his two sons in the battle of Luncarty with circumstances not, indeed, impossible or even improbable, but of a character so surprising and romantic as to make the truth of the story be suspected. Why, it has been asked, should Hay and his sons have been ploughing their fields when a desperate battle was raging at no great distance from them? In occurrences like this there are always circumstances involving difficulty which a full narration of details would satisfactorily clear up. Were the whole facts of the case known to us, which they never can be, there is little doubt that the patriotism of Hay and his sons would stand clear of all suspicion. Against this one objection to the story we have to set numerous concurring testimonies in favour of its actual occurrence. That a battle of a very sanguinary description--was fought with the Danes at Luncarty will, we suppose, be generally granted. That the stout Perthshire yeoman may have come in at a critical moment and turned the fortunes of the battle, is surely not an impossible occurrence e. How often has it happened, in both ancient and modern warfare, that the heroism of one or a few men has all at once changed the aspect of conflict and turned defeat into victory? This is the substance of the story, disengaged from its accidental circumstances. That such a feat was performed by Hay we have many corroborative evidences. There is the widespread popular tradition. Boece and Buchanan did not create that tradition. It existed long before their day, and must have had its first origination in an achievement of the character ascribed to Hay. There is, moreover, the armorial bearing given the family of Errol, in which are conspicuous the agricultural implements which their brave ancestor so suddenly converted into weapons of battle to the discomfiture of the Danes. And finally, as corroborative of the achievement, we have the high position of the house of Errol from an early time. Their descendant was High Constable of Scotland in the reign of Robert the First, and if we mistake not, the present representative of this noble house fills the same high office.

After this, Scotland saw some tranquil years. Strengthened by this great victory, the king laid his--hand more heavily upon the thieves and robbers that infested the northern countries. He brought in what would now-a-days be called an Option Bill, giving these worthies a free choice betwixt an honest life and the gallows. He taught the nobles reverence for the crown; he threw his shield over the common people, protecting them from rapacious exactions. Arts and agriculture revived in the breathing space given them from the home robber and the foreign plunderer, and Kenneth embraced the opportunity offered him by the quiet and contentment that prevailed to effect an important alteration in the law of succession to the crown, of which we shall speak presently.

After the battle of Luncarty, Kenneth, we are told in the Chronicle of the Picts, built forts on the banks of the Forth, doubtless to prevent the incursions of the Danes. It is interesting to know that in those days the Forth was liable to be visited by those black fogs which embarrass at times the navigator in the same waters in our day, and which kept Mary Stuart three days on end from landing when she came to take possession of the Scottish throne. In the Saxon Chronicle the Forth is termed Myrcford, the mirk of dark firth; and so does it figure in the Norse sagas, where the name given it is Myrk-va-Fiord. Having done his best to bar the entrance of the Danes into Scotland by way of the Dark Frith, Kenneth set out to ravage Saxonia. History throws no light on the causes which tempted him to the expedition, or the results that flowed from it. Beyond the somewhat improbable statement that the King of the Scots carried captive a son of a king of the Saxons. If Kenneth carried off any one it was probably some Northumbrian ruler of inferior dignity. And here the Chronicle of the Picts closes with the intimation that this King (Kenneth) gave the great city of Brechin to the Lord."1

In the early ages of the Scots, and down to the reign of Kenneth III., the crown, as we already said, did not pass directly from father to son. On the death of the monarch it was not the next of kin, but the one of all his relations who was judged the most fit to govern, that was chosen to succeed him. The arrangement was demanded by the state of the country and the character of the Scots. It needed a man of mature understanding and firm will to govern a people so impetuous, and at times so intractable. These qualities were not to be looked for in one of tender years. Accordingly, on the demise of the sovereign, the Estates assembled and chose a successor, taking care only that the person elected, in addition to possessing the requisite qualifications, should be of the stock-royal—that is, a descendant of Fergus the First, King of the Scots. The nobles in the main were averse to a change in their ancient law, which had worked well. But the king pressed the matter. He pictured the evils that attended the present mode of election to the throne, the intrigues and contentions of candidates, and the seditions, conspiracies, and wars that sometimes were fostered by disappointed competitors: and he represented on the other side that by enacting that on the death of the king the crown should pass directly to his son, and if that son were of tender age, that a regency, consisting of the wisest in the nation should be appointed till he attained majority, all the advantages of the present system would be retained, and all its inconveniences avoided. To these arguments Kenneth is said to have added others of a more palpable kind to gain the concurrence of the nobility. Be this as it may, the king carried his project, and the law of succession to the crown, which had obtained since the foundation of the Scottish monarchy, was from that day changed. It was enacted "that the king’s eldest son, for the future, should always succeed to the father, whatever his age should be; likewise, if the son died before the father, that the next of kin should succeed the grandfather. That when the king was under age, a tutor or protector should be chosen, being some eminent man for interest and power, to govern in name and place of the king, till he came to be fourteen years of age, and then he had liberty to choose guardians for himself." This change in the law extended to other things besides the throne. The law of succession in private families is said to have been altered or modified at the same time.

Boethius and Buchanan have loaded the memory of this prince, who on all the other transactions of his reign acted a wise and upright part, with the guilt of procuring the death of Malcolm, Prince of Cumberland, to make way for the direct succession of his own son. The Scottish king at that time held Cumberland as a feudatory of the English monarch. The arrangement was mutually advantageous, being a bond of amity between the two kingdoms, and a defence to England on its northern boundary against Danish invasion. The governor of Cumberland was commonly regarded as heir-apparent to the Scottish throne. He held an analogous position among the Scots, as Caesar under the early emperors, or as the Dauphin of France or the Prince of Wales in our own day. The management of the little principality was admirable apprenticeship for the government of the larger kingdom. The Prince of Cumberland under Kenneth III. was Malcolm, the son of Duff. He was pre-eminent among the Scottish youth for manly and princely qualities, and his advent to the throne was looked forward to with eager expectation by the nation. It so happened that about the time that Kenneth began to agitate for a change in the law of succession, Malcolm, Prince of Cumberland, died. The king appeared touched with a genuine sorrow for the loss of the prince, and gave him a funeral becoming his rank, and the place he held in the nation’s esteem. The fact that the two events—the change of the law of succession, and the death of Malcolm, son of Duff, who stood between Malcolm, son of the reigning sovereign, and the throne—were contemporaneous, or nearly so, has furnished Boethius and Buchanan with presumptive ground for the grave charge they nave advanced against this king. Fordum is silent. All the probabilities of the case appear to us to be against the two historians named and in favour of Kenneth, and we refuse to be partners in affixing so dark a stain on grounds so slight on the memory of a monarch who, during a long reign, and under a variety of conditions, some of them sufficiently hard, had maintained a name unblemished as respects magnanimity and honour.

Nevertheless, Kenneth was far from reaping the advantages he had promised himself from the change he had been so anxious to effect in the constitution of the kingdom. The latter years of his life and reign were clouded by troubles springing out of that very matter. How often, whilst painfully shaping his steps amid domestic snares, he must have wished that the Danes would come back and give the Scottish thanes legitimate vent for their passions and ambitions, by summoning them to the red field of conflict for country! Even after the grave had closed over him, and all earthly tumults around him had be4enm hushed, save that of the western billows where he lay entombed, this measure continued to vex the country, and to yield a harvest of conspiracies and wars.

The story of the king’s end has been variously told; one thing is certain, that Kenneth III., like so many of his predecessors, died by violence. He had gone, according to Johannis Major and Hector Boethius, on a pilgrimage to the grave of Palladius, whose bones by this time had acquired a wonderful repute for sanctity, and whose tomb had become a famous resort of pilgrimage. After performing his devotions at the shrine of the saint, the king turned aside to visit the castle of Fettercairn, of which Finella, a sort of Scottish Heroedias, was mistress. This lady, who owed the king a grudge for hanging her son Crathilinth for the crime of making to free with the king’s laws and the lives of his subjects, took care that he should not leave her castle alive. Winton, however says that the king was sent away with every token of good will, but that he was slain by horsemen who lay in ambush for him on the road. His death occurred in A.D. 995, and the twenty-fifth of his reign. A funeral cortege is beheld moving slowly westward along the great plain which the Sidlaws bound on the one side and the mightier Grampians on the other. The royal barge, followed by a flotilla of boats carrying numerous mourners, conveys the royal corpse across the Sound of Iona, and the sepulchres of the kings at Icolmkill receive another tenant.


1. "Cinadius autem vallavit ripas vadorum Forthin. Primo anno perexist Cinadius, et praedavit Saxoniam, et traduxit filium regis Saxonum. Hic est qui tribuit magnam civitatem Brechne Domino."—Pict. Chron. Dr Skene is of opnion that the Pictish Chronicle was written at Brechin in the reign of King Kenneth, seeing it breaks off with the intimation of the gift of this city by Kenneth to the Lord.—Celtic Scotland, i. 369.



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