I'm writing a novel about Cinaed mac Ailpin, the 9th century King of Pictavia (which was to become Scotland). This is a space for recording nuggets of research. Please feel welcome to get involved in the comments. I'm over on twitter too @GUGAW

Sunday, 28 December 2014


I've been trying to work out if the infamous Kenneth MacAlpin, the 1st King of Scotland who united the Pictish people and the Gaels, was himself a Pict...or a Gael.

I care about this because my protagonist is alive in Scotland in 858AD.  Cinaed mac Ailpin, aka Kenneth MacAlpin the 'First King of Scotland', is coming towards the end of his reign.  Cinaed is hailed as uniting the Gaelic speaking Scots of Dal Riata in the west of Scotland and the Picts in the East.  But 'first King of Scotland' seems to have been a title given to him by latter history rather than representative of what was happening then.  Contemporary sources do however call him King of the Picts.

Cinaed Mac Ailpin of the mighty moustache and fancy braids (that's him with the big sword and hip axe)

So, was King Cinaed a Gael who conquered the Picts, a Pict who succeeded to the throne, or a bit of both?  It's important to me that I try to unpick this so I can attempt to represent the tensions happening across the different peoples and hopefully get a sense of who is allied with who.  Those tensions are pretty central to my story!

It's very tricky though. Trying to unpick the order of Kings in 9th century Scotland is like one of those logic puzzles where you piece one bit of information to a hoard of clues, cross out something that can no longer fit and then a clue turns up that throws it all up in the air.  I'm still not sure I've figured it out yet...but here's my first effort.

I'm not a historian, just someone who likes historical research, so I apologise in advance for the inevitable errors and look forward to any help in making corrections!  If you can help clarify anything below, even if it's to give a thumbs up that it matches your understanding, I'd be hugely grateful.

Right, let's start with what I can glean from Alex Woolf's book 'From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070'.

839AD is a good place to start.  Because in the year 839 there is an epic battle in which the power of Scottish rule began to shift and Cinaed mac Ailpin (aka Kenneth MacAlpin) rose up in the vaccuum.

First, a map, just so we know roughly where we are talking about.  See Dal Riata on the left and Pictavia on the right.

The Epic Battle of 839AD 

I haven't yet come across a name for this battle so let's call 'The Epic Battle of 839' for sake of reference. Woolf describes it as:
...one of the most decisive and important battles in British history (pg 66)
The Vikings (heathens) battled the men of Fortriu (the Picts) killing the Pictish King and his brother. The Dal Riatan King was also killed, and many more were slaughtered in the battle. The Annals of Ulster record the battle as follows:

839.9 The heathens won a battle over the men of Fortriu and Wen son of Onuist and Bran son of Onuist and Aed son of Boanta and others almost innumerable fell there.
The words ‘others almost innumerable fell there’ makes me feel sad. I can’t help but think this battle must have haunted the memories of the Pictish and Dal Riatan people, lamented in songs which never made it through the passage of time.  That a vast number of people died in the battle suggests that this was not a Viking raid but a culmination of a campaign in which Wen gathered together his forces (pg 66).

So who were these dead Kings?

Let’s first look at Wen, who died with his brother Bran in battle.

King Wen, son of Onuist, King of the Picts

Here’s King Wen.

Not actually King Wen of the Picts but let's pretend he is.
Clearly, this isn’t what Wen actually looked like, just some random bearded bloke I’ve found on the internet. But with so many names, it helps me get my head around it if I imagine them with faces! It also amuses me to imagine these ancient kings as handsome hipsters (hey, it worked for Peter Jackson…). I hope I’m not offending and you can still take me seriously…and these dudes have already died come the time of my setting.  This is my backstory.

What do we know about Wen, King of Fortriu, King of the Picts, who died in the Epic Battle of 839?
  • He reigned for 2–3 years, around 836/837–839 (pg 66)
  • Aka Eoganan son of Oengus* (gaelicised version of his name)(pg 61)
  • Wen is descendent of the Dynasty of Wrguist, a powerful family that had dominated Pictavia for at least 50 years (789–839). Wrguist was his grandfather. His uncle, King Constantin ruled for 30 (!) years and may have founded Dunkeld — the chief church of Columba (Columba is the apostle of Fortriu).
  • Wen’s father, Onuist, went on to rule for another 14 years after Constantin[pg65–66]. On Onuist’s death in 834 his nephew Drest son of Constantin (Wen’s cousin) co-ruled Pictavia with a chap called Talorcan son of Wthoil. Then Wen took the throne around 836 or 837 and reigned for 2 years before dying in the Epic Battle.
  • *(or maybe Wen reigned for 13 years….I’m struggling to unpick this one. Woolf on pg 66 describes Wen as being Eognanan of the Scottish lists…which puts Eognanan’s reign from 826–839. Where have I got confused?)
However long King Wen’s reign, it’s clear that he was a member of a very powerful family, a family who ruled the Picts and the Dal Riatans. A king who could call the Dal Riatan King Aed to his side to support him in battle (which suggests that Pictish King Wen was over-king of the Dal Riatan’s). So what happened when he and his brother Bran died? Who took the throne next? Before we unpick that, let’s look a bit more at Aed, King of Dal Riata at the time of the epic battle.

King Aed, son of Boanta, King of Dal Riata

Let's pretend this Aed mac Boanta, King of Dal Riata
What do we know about Aed son of Boanta, King of Dal Riata?
  • He reigned from 835–839 (pg 63)
  • He was probably a vassal to King Wen, the Pictish King (hence joining the Epic Battle of 839)
  • Before King Aed, Dal Riata was ruled by Constantin’s son Domnall — a Pictish prince (Domnall’s father was Constantin of the Wrguist dynasty above). The occupation of Dal Riata seemed to begin in 811 [pg 98], with Domnall reigning as King of Dal Riata for 24 years (811–835) under the control of his father and then uncle, Onuist. Which makes Prince Domnall the cousin of Pictish King Wen…(I’m using Woolf’s Dal Riatan King List on pg 64 for this).
So, was King Aed of the Dal Riatan’s Pictish or a Gael? I’m not sure, there could be 2 scenarios here. 
  1.  Given that King Wen of the Pictish Wrguist dynasty was the over-King, and the previous King of Dal Riata was a Pictish prince in occupied Dal Riata, King Aed could be Pictish royalty of the Wrguist dynasty.  But, if Aed was a Pict...would that mean Wen is the first King of united Scotland rather than the MacAlpin family?  ok, scenario 2...
  2. King Aed is a Scot and rules over Dal Riata as vassal to King Wen.  

I'm going to go with scenario 2 until I come across something else that makes me think differently.

What happened when the Pictish and Dal Riatan Kings died in 839?

Right, so the situation is that the Picts have just suffered a *horrific* loss to the Vikings. The Pictish and Dal Riatan Kings are dead. So to is the Pictish King’s brother and a lot of important Lords. That seems like a pretty big power vacuum? The Wrguist empire might be beginning to crumble…so what happened next?

King Wen is dead. Who is the next King of the Picts?

This is Wrad.  With his 3 sons he will attempt to rule Pictavia for
the next 9ish years.  They all die trying.

On King Wen’s death, a chap called Wrad rises up and takes the Pictish throne. He’ll rule Pictavia for the next 3 years, and his 3 sons — Bred, Kyneth and Drest/Drust, will attempt to rule for the 6 years after his death.

The Pictish king list below is taken from a combination of the Poppleton manuscript and Lebor Bretnach manuscript. It suggests Cinaed (that’s the King I’m trying to work out whether he’s a Gael or a Pict) became King of Pictavia soon after Wrad, with a very short rule between Wrad and Cinaed from a chap called Bred (pg93).
  1. King Wen of the Wrguist dynasty dies in 839
  2. Wrad son of Bargoit (aka Ferat son of Barot) reigns for 3 years (839–841ish)
  3. Bred (not sure whose son) reigns for 1 year (842?)
  4. Cinaed son Ailpin reigns for 16 years (842–858)
Another set of lists (pg 97) suggests that Cinaed’s rule in Pictavia was disputed and didn’t actually start in 842, listing other Kings after Bred. It also gives Bred a patronym - ‘son of Ferat’ - aka son of Wrad. If taken at face value the list looks a bit more like the below, with Wrad and his son's wrestling to keep the throne between 839-ish and 847-ish (pg97–98).

  1. King Wen of the Wrguist dynasty dies in 839
  2. Wrad son of Bargoit (aka Ferat son of Barot) reigns for 3 years (839–841ish) 
  3. Bred son of Wrad 
  4. Kyneth son of Wrad 
  5. Brude son of Fochal
  6. Drust/Drest son of Wrad 
  7. Cinaed son Ailpin reigns from 847ish - 858

King Wrad may have had a royal hall at Miegle (Perthshire) which was almost certainly an important church settlement. Cinaed’s eventual victory over the Wrad Family may have been one in which Dal Riata and Fortriu were allied against the people of the Tay Basin (pg 101).

Who is King of Dal Riata after King Aed dies in battle?

King Cinaed
The Chronicles of the Kings of Alba (CKA) records that Cinaed mac Ailpin…
‘two years before he came to Pictavia, assumed the kingship of Dal Riata’ (pg95)
If Cinaed ruled Pictavia from 842, and Dal Riata from about 2 years previous, this could take us back to 839. So my King, King Cinaed, may have succeeded directly following the death of King Aed. As with the the Dal Riatan Kings before him, Cinaed may have ruled Dal Riata under Pictish control. (pg96).

Neither Cinaed, nor his father’s name Alpin are diagnostically Gaelic or Pictish (pg97). So at this point I’m still not clear whether King Cinaed was a Gael, risen up to reclaim the Dal Riatan throne from the Picts, or ruling Dal Riata under Pictish control, which I presume would be vassal to King Wrad above.

Can looking at later Kings of Pictavia help unpick whether Cinaed was originally a Pict or a Gael?

Maybe it would help to look at what happened after Cinaed died and his brother, Domnall mac Ailpin, took the throne? The entry in the CKA says:
Duuenaldus (Domnall)…held the kingdom iiii years. In his time the rights and laws of the kingdom, of Aed son of Eochaid, were made by the Gaels with their King at Forteviot.
The bit that Alex Woolf (author of the book I’m gleaning all this from) finds interesting is that if Cinaed had led a Scottish conquest of the Picts one would assume that King of the Gaels would be Domnall himself…but the text seems to imply that King of the Gaels is someone other than Domnall? Woolf doesn’t think this is remarkable, even if Cinaed had been King of Dal Riata as well as king of the Picts that doesn’t mean Domnall succeeded to both kingships. It could have gone to another brother of Cinaed, or cousin, or descendent of a previous Dal Riatan King (I’m wondering whether one of King Aed’s kin, that Dal Riatan king who died in the Epic Battle of 839?). Maybe Domnall just didn’t have the social networks to pull of reigning both Pictavia and Dal Riata. Dal Riata is also likely to have been under Scandinavian occupation at this point. The above event mentioned in the CKA may have been an oath to maintain good relations between Dal Riata and Pictavia during Domnall’s reign (pg 105–106).

So, it doesn’t tell us whether Cinaed (and his brother Domnall) were Picts or Gaels, just that Domnall wasn’t King of Dal Riata. I recall Domall being a ‘son of a wanton foreigner’ (I can’t remember where) so maybe the brothers had different mothers and this made a difference? Something to explore further.

There is some pondering around whether the next King after Domnall — Constantin (Cinaed’s son) - was named after the Constantin of the Wrguist dynasty (that would be Pictish King Wen’s uncle) and was therefore claiming descent through the female line (pg 106). I take that to mean Cinaed marrying into the House of Wrguist, maybe a sister of King Wen. Doesn’t seem….unreasonable? (I'm going to highlight my guessing and hypotheses, just to be clear that this is just GUESSWORKA good power play to associate with a powerful Pictish family who had ruled for the previous 50 years? Maybe Cinaed married the widow of King Aed who died in the Battle of 839, Aed who had been King of Dal Riata immediately prior to Cinaed taking the throne…? Or….maybe Cinaed just liked the name Constantin.

Was King Cinaed a Gael or a Pict?

So back to my original question, was King Cinaed who reigned over Pictavia from 842ish to 858 AD a Gael who conquered the Picts, a Pict who succeeded to the throne, or a bit of both?

At the moment….I’m still not sure. But here’s what I’ve concluded:

  • Cinaed ruled Dal Riata from 839 when he took the throne after King Aed mac Boanta died in the Battle of 839.
  • Dal Riata was under the Pictish rule of the powerful House of Wrguist from at least 811. I’m looking forward to thinking about how the House of Wrguist and descendents/kin of Wen plays a role in my story!
  • Four members of the family of Wrad attempted to rule Pictavia between 839 and 847ish.
  • Domnall mac Ailpin, brother of Cinaed, probably didn’t rule Dal Riata, just Pictavia, when Cinaed died.
Here's some pretty much out of thin air guesses I'm making (remember, pink highlight means I've got nothing to back it up!) which I'll correct or confirm where possible as I continue reading:
  • Cinaed might have identified as a Scot/Gael prior to becoming King of the Picts
  • Cinaed's father was a Scot.  A woman - either his mother or Grandmother, was Pictish
  • Might Cinaed have got some of his fighting power by  marrying a Pictish woman, maybe even from the powerful House of Wrguist? What about Aed mac Boanta's widow (the King of Dal Riata who died in the 839 battle)
And, here’s some hypotheses/questions I’m going to explore further:
  • If Cinaed was a Pict, was he associated with either the House of Wrguist or the Family Wrad or someone else (Wrad is that chap who took the Pictish throne after King Wen died in battle)?
  • Is Family Wrad linked to House of Wrguist or are they another family who saw an opportunity to rule Pictavia?
  • If Cinaed was a Gael, what family or Cenel was he associated with? And how did he increase his power to conquer the Picts?
  • Did Cinaed and Domnall have different mothers (i.e. son of a wanton foreigner) and did this have some influence on Domnall not being King of Dal Riata?
  • Who was Aed mac Boanta (the King of Dal Riata who died in 839)? Could he have been linked to the house of Wrguist — maybe a cousin to Wen?
If you have anything to help me shortcut these questions, please let me know. I’m on Twitter @GUGAW or you can comment below.

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