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As we stated last week the dominant kingdoms in Scotland before the Viking Age was the northern Pictish kingdom of Fortriu on the shores of the Moray Firth, the Kingdom of Strathclyde, and the Kingdom of Dál Riata. By the 9th century, the Gaels of Dál Riata (Dalriada) were subject to the kings of Fortriu (a Pictish kingdom) of the family of Constantín mac Fergusa (Constantine son of Fergus). Constantín’s family dominated Fortriu since after 789. The dominance of Fortriu came to an end in 839 with a defeat by Viking armies. The Viking Age brought great changes in Britain and Ireland, including Scotland. By the middle of the 9th century, when Ketil Flatnose is said to have founded the Kingdom of the Isles, the Vikings had destroyed the kingdoms of Dál Riata and Northumbria, greatly diminished the power of the Kingdom of Strathclyde, and founded the Kingdom of York. The Kingdom of Strathclyde became a sub-kingdom of the Kingdom of the Picts.

One of the main repercussions of the Viking raids was that King Uen of Fortriu and his brother Bran, Constantín’s nephews, together with the Áed mac Boanta, king of Dál Riata, were killed. These deaths led to a period of instability lasting a decade as several families attempted to establish their dominance in Pictland. By around c. 848 Kenneth I MacAlpin (Cináed mac Ailpín) had emerged as the winner.

Cináed mac Ailpín defeated the rival kings, winning out by around 845-848. He is traditionally considered and counted as the first “King of Scots,” or alternatively “King of Picts and Scots.” Modern scholars point out, he was actually King of Picts, and the terms ‘King of Alba’ and the even later King Scots were not used until several generations after him. During the reign of Cínaed’s grandson, Caustantín mac Áeda (900–943), outsiders began to refer to the region as the Kingdom of Alba rather than the kingdom of the Picts, but we do not know whether this was because a new kingdom was established or Alba was simply a closer approximation of the Pictish name for the Picts.

The reign of Kenneth MacAlpin begins what is often called the House of Alpin, which is a modern concept. The descendants of Kenneth I MacAlpin were divided into two branches; the crown would alternate between the two, the death of a king from one branch often hastened by war or assassination by a pretender from the other. Malcolm II was the last king of the House of Alpin.

When did the title of these kings transform from to Rex Pictorum (“King of the Picts”) to Rex Scotie? Domnall mac Causantín (Modern Gaelic: Dòmhnall mac Chòiseim), anglicized as Donald II (died 900) was King of the Picts or King of Scotland (Alba) in the late 9th century. He was the son of Constantine I (Causantín mac Cináeda). Donald’s death is dated to 900 by the Annals of Ulster and the Chronicon Scotorum, where he is called king of Alba, rather than king of the Picts. He was buried on Iona. The change from king of the Picts to king of Alba is seen as indicating a step towards the kingdom of the Scots, but historians, while divided as to when this change should be placed, do not generally attribute it to Donald in view of his epithet. Most historians feel that by the time of King Alexander III 1249-1286 the unity of modern Scotland was complete.

So who was the first King of Scotland? Although historians cannot pinpoint when the title went from King of the Picts to King of Alba and to King of Scots it is difficult to say who was the first king. For example King David II of the Scots was also the last king of Strathclyde and he died in 1124 and as just mentioned it wasn’t until Alexander III that the unity of modern Scotland was complete. There is a good case for Kenneth I MacAlpin although historians do even question this. The theory is that the kingship of Gaels and Picts underwent a process of gradual fusion, starting with Kenneth I, and rounded off in the reign of Constantine II. Hence the change in styling from King of the Picts to King of Alba. The legacy of Gaelic as the first national language of Scotland does not obscure the foundational process in the establishment of the Scottish kingdom of Alba.