Kenneth MacAlpin, or rather Cináed mac Ailpin (Modern Gaelic: Coinneach mac Ailpein), was a king of the Picts who, according to national myth, was the first king of Scots. He is therefore known in most modern regal lists as Kenneth I and is said to have reigned from some point in 843 until his death on 13th February 858. The House of Alpin, which is an entirely modern construct, held the position of King of the Picts and subsequently King of Scotland or King of Scots for nearly 200 years. Describing Kenneth’s life is difficult because so much is wrapped up in myth and revision, however all subsequent Scottish monarchs claimed descent from him and as such, the current British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II is descended from him through Malcolm III, Robert the Bruce and James VI and I.
Kenneth's origins are uncertain as are his ties, if any, to previous kings of the Picts or the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata. Medieval genealogies are unreliable sources, but it is possible that he descended from Dál Riata’s Cenél nGabráin royal line, or at the very least from some unknown minor sept of the kingdom. According to myth, Kenneth gained the Pictish throne for the Scots through military conquest, however this is disputed, as evidence of this narrative only comes to fore during the reign of Kenneth II (Cináed mac Maíl Coluim), who was king from 971 to 995, when the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba was compiled. In fact, there is no firm evidence that he was even a Gael and could plausibly have been Pictish, or at least partly Pictish; there are after all four Pictish kings after him.
Perhaps a more likely scenario to Kenneth’s ascendancy is that the kingships of Gaels and Picts underwent a process of gradual fusion, perhaps starting with Kenneth, and rounded off in the reign of Constantine II, when in 906 he met Bishop Cellach at the Hill of Belief near the royal city of Scone and cemented the rights and duties of Picts on an equal basis with those of Gaels (pariter cum Scottis) and hence the change in styling from King of the Picts to King of Alba.
This does not mean that Kenneth did not have to fight for the throne, it is just that he is unlikely to have done so as an ‘outsider’. In 839 a succession crisis rose in the Pictish Kingdom of Fortriu, which is often referred to synonymously with Pictland in general, when King Uen son of Óengus, his brother Bran, Áed mac Boanta and other notable members of the dynasty were killed in battle against the Vikings. This situation resulted in at least four would-be kings warring for supreme power.
Kenneth's reign is dated from 843, but it was probably not until 848 that he defeated the last of his rivals for power. The Pictish Chronicle claims that he was king in Dál Riata for two years before becoming Pictish king in 843, but this is not generally accepted. Little detail is known of his reign, although a few sources offer some insight. In 849 he had the relics of Saint Columba, which may have included the Monymusk Reliquary, transferred from Iona to Dunkeld. Apparently he also invaded Anglo-Saxon lands six times, capturing Melrose and burning Dunbar.
His reign also saw an increased degree of Norse settlement in the outlying areas of modern Scotland. Shetland, Orkney, Caithness, Sutherland, the Western Isles, the Isle of Man, and part of Ross were settled. Vikings are also described as laying waste to Pictland, reaching far into the interior. This Norse activity weakened the links of the Pictish Kingdom with Ireland and effectively shut down those with southern England and the continent. Consequently Kenneth and his successors were to consolidate their position in their kingdom and the union between the Picts and the Gaels, already progressing for several centuries, began to strengthen.
Kenneth died on 13th February 858 at the palace of Cinnbelachoir, which is thought to have been near Scone. He left at least two sons, Constantine and Áed, who were later kings, and at least two daughters. One daughter married Rhun, king of Strathclyde, their son and future king Eochaid being the result of this marriage. His other daughter, Máel Muire married two important Irish kings of the Uí Néill. Her first husband was Aed Finliath of the Cenél nEógain, her second husband was Flann Sinna of Clann Cholmáin. Kenneth was succeeded by his brother Donald.
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