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Historical introduction

A formative period

The foundations of modern Scotland were laid in the period which is the focus of the project. The very existence of burghs and parishes, counties and sheriffs, Scots law and Scots coinage, charters and government administration, were unknown before 1093. Even our idea of Scotland as a country stretching north from the Tweed and the Solway, and the Scots as its people, would have been unimaginable. By the time that Alexander III suffered his fatal accident on the night of 19 March 1286, however, burghs were to be found in all areas bar the West Highlands and Islands; parishes had been established across the whole country; there were counties and sheriffs throughout the land apart from the West Highlands and Islands; a system of royal justice accessible to all freemen had taken root; coins were minted in nearly every royal burgh; charters had become the norm in establishing property-rights; and royal government was routinely conducted in writing and records were kept centrally. The kingdom's borders had become established roughly in a way that was to endure: by the end of his reign Alexander III's realm included Berwick and the Isle of Man (neither of which is in Scotland today), but did not yet stretch to Orkney and Shetland. As a result of all these changes 'Scotland' and 'Scots' came for the first time to be thought of as referring to the country and its people that were ruled by the king of Scots. It was not only those of Gaelic origin who identified themselves as Scots, but also those of Norman (Bruce, Hay), Breton (Stewart), French (Balliol), Flemish (Douglas, Murray) and north British (Galloway, Scott, Randolph, Galbraith) and English backgrounds whose family names resound across Scottish History.

The royal dynasty

This was also the period when a royal lineage in a modern sense first took shape. All kings between 1097 and 1286 were direct descendants of Mael Coluim (Malcolm) III (reigned 1058-93) and his second wife St Margaret daughter of Edward the Ætheling and descendant of kings of England. After Mael Coluim III's death in 1093 his brother and sons fought for control of the throne. The eventual victor was Mael Coluim and Margaret's son, Edgar (1097-1107), who was succeeded by his brother Alexander I (1107-24). Alexander is the first to have had a royal official (the chancellor) responsible for the writing of documents. He was succeeded by David I (1124-53), who dominated northern Britain - taking tribute from the kingdom of Argyll in the west, destroying the kingdom of Moray in the north and writing instructions to the earl of Orkney - as well as taking advantage of civil war in England to extend his realm southwards: from 1136 to 1157 what is now Cumbria in north-west England was ruled directly by the king of Scots, and the heir to the throne was earl of Northumberland. David was succeeded by his teenage grandson, Mael Coluim IV (1153-65), who could not wield the same power as his grandfather, although he succeeded in Galloway in what is now south-west Scotland. Mael Coluim was succeeded in 1165 by his brother, William I (1165-1214), who struggled throughout his reign to subdue the north and west, and tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to reclaim northern England. Alexander II (1214-49) finally and brutally established Scottish royal power in the north and in Galloway, and died while on campaign in the west. He was succeeded by his son, Alexander III (1249-86), who was not quite seven years old when he was inaugurated as king. In 1263 in the Treaty of Perth the king of Norway formally handed sovereignty over the kingdom of Man and the Isles to the king of Scots.

After the 1090s there were so few descendants of Mael Coluim III and Margaret that it had been obvious who within the royal family would succeed. There were rivals for the throne who posed a serious threat when they offered leadership to disaffected elements in the north. Within the immediate royal family, however, there was solidarity rather than competition. When William's son, Alexander (b. 1198) was recognised in 1201 by all the leading men of the kingdom as the heir to the throne, and William's brother, David earl of Huntingdon, eventually followed suit in 1205, a modern pattern of succession had become fully established. The stability within the immediate royal family that had endured for three generations was now explicitly placed on a firm footing. There can be little doubt that, without that stability, the fundamental changes in Scottish society, economy and government would not have managed to gather momentum. It may be questioned, indeed, whether modern Scotland would ever have come into being.

British context

At the beginning of our period Britain was an island of many kings. The king of England was by far the most powerful. To the west of England there were various Welsh rulers (the most notable were those of Gwynedd in the north and Deheubarth in the south), and a zone in between of semi-independent lordships. The king of Scots was the main power in northern Britain, with a king of Moray in the north, a king of Man and the Isles in the west, and a king of Galloway in the south-west. The power wielded by kings of England and the kings of Scots was fluid, depending as much on the king's personality and good fortune as on anything else. By the end of the period this situation had been transformed. There were only two kings-king of England and king of Scots-who were seen as rulers of sovereignty territories. Stable systems of government and law had been established. The kings of England and kings of Scots were also closely related. St Margaret was the only member of her generation of the Anglo-Saxon royal family to have children, which meant that the Scottish royal dynasty were heirs to Anglo-Saxon kings. From the beginning this gave them a significance which English kings accorded to no other Celtic rulers. At the outset of his reign in 1100 Henry I, king of England, married Matilda, sister of Edgar, Alexander I and David I. In the thirteenth century both Alexander II and Alexander III took the sister or daughter of the king of England as their first wife. As ideas of royal power became less fluid and became defined more and more in legal terms, so the pre-eminence normally enjoyed by kings of England in Britain gradually took the form of claims to overlordship. This was successfully resisted in Scotland, although it could be a cause of tension in relations between the two kingdoms. Welsh attempts to preserve some measure of independence were, however, eventually crushed by Edward I, who conquered Wales in 1282-3.


This was also a pivotal period of cultural change. Around 1100 Gaelic would have been spoken by all sectors of society in most of Scotland, including most of the south. The main exceptions are likely to have been the areas that were predominantly Norse in the North and West, and also the South-East, where the population, particularly south of the Lammermuirs, would have been mainly English-speaking, although people with Gaelic names are found here and in northern England. By 1286 it is likely that Gaelic had been replaced by English (or what we would now call Scots) in many parts of the Lowlands. This was probably a relatively recent development: in parts of Fife the shift can be dated to around 1200, while Gaelic names predominate in Angus up to around 1230. The main cause of change is likely to have been the growing importance of burghs for the livelihoods of country-dwellers who had surplus produce to sell after paying their renders to their lords.


For the most important of these lords this was also a time of cultural and social change. The greatest of them-the earls-were typically from families who were already established in Scotland in 1093. During the next century and a half they took on the new aristocratic culture that was spreading from northern France, and was characterised by new military and social practices centred on knighthood. The foremost of these families to adopt these innovations enthusiastically was the royal dynasty itself. David I (1124-53) and his grandsons, Mael Coluim IV (1153-65) and William I (1165-1214), were also major English lords, and brought many of their knightly companions and followers from England and settled them in lordships in Scotland. The most famous among these were the Bruces, who were given the major lordship of Annandale, and the Stewarts, who acquired their surname from holding the office of royal steward, and who became lords of Renfrew and parts of Kyle, and expanded from there into the Firth of Clyde.


This was also the period when the Church became not just a focus for religious devotion, but an institution with a fully operational hierarchy of obedience that united Latin Christendom under the papacy. In Scotland it became important that the most senior churchmen-bishops-should be based in a particular place that should reflect the power and majesty of the Church as Christ's body. The result was the construction of Cathedrals, of which the most remarkable was St Andrews: among the biggest and architecturally innovative buildings in Britain when work on it began in 1160. Latin Christendom was also united spiritually in a wave of new support for monasteries. Some were founded on old sites-like Iona; others were new (like Kelso), or not far from an old religious site (like Arbroath), or called to mind an ancient monastery (like Melrose).


Finally, it was during this period that the idea of Scotland as an independent kingdom was first formally articulated. This became necessary in the twelfth century when English archbishops claimed authority over the Scottish church. By the time Alexander III was inaugurated as king in 1249 this idea had developed into something we can recognise as a sense of Scotland as a sovereign territory. When Alexander III died suddenly on 19 March 1286, and his young granddaughter, Margaret, failed to survive the journey from Norway in September 1290, the stage was set for Edward I to claim overlordship over Scotland, and for Scottish sovereignty to be tested through the often dramatic, ghastly and bloody events of the Wars of Independence.


ca 1070: The English royal family, ousted by William the 'Conqueror', duke of Normandy, take refuge in Scotland. Margaret, a member of the English royal family, marries Mael Coluim (Malcolm) III at Dunfermline.

1072: William the 'Conqueror', king of England, invades Scotland. At Abernethy (just south of Perth) Mael Coluim (Malcolm) III does homage to William and gives up his eldest son, Donnchad (Duncan) as a hostage.

1093: Mael Coluim III killed on raid into England. His brother Domnall Bán (Donald III) takes the throne.

1094: Donnchad (Duncan) II, son of Mael Coluim III, obtains English help in seizing throne from Domnall Bán. Before the year is out, Donnchad is killed by Domnall, who becomes king again.

1097: Edgar, son of Mael Coluim III and Margaret, takes the Scottish throne with the help of William II, king of England. Domnall Bán is imprisoned and mutilated.

1100: William II of England dies. His brother Henry I becomes king, and marries Matilda/Maud/Edith (she was known by all these names!), daughter of Mael Coluim III and Margaret. David, youngest son of Mael Coluim III and Margaret, is looked after by Matilda.

1101: Pope sends letter to Scottish bishops instructing them to obey the new archbishop of York. This is probably the context for an uncompromising statement of St Andrews' claim to be the archiepiscopal seat of Scotia (i.e. Scotland north of the Forth) which is found in a version of the St Andrews foundation-legend composed at this time (1093×1107).

1107: Edgar dies; his brother Alexander becomes king. Alexander I's position as client king is demonstrated by his willingness to fight for Henry I king of England in Wales. Either now, or soon after, Alexander I's younger brother, David, is established as ruler of (what is now) southern Scotland.

1113: David becomes earl of Huntingdon.

1120: Alexander I 'head-hunts' Eadmer of Canterbury as the new bishop of St Andrews. Eadmer is a keen proponent of the archbishop of Canterbury's claim to exercise jurisdiction over Britain. Alexander I refuses to compromise on his control of the church in his kingdom, and relations break down between him and Eadmer. Eadmer returns to Canterbury.

1124: Alexander I dies and is succeeded by David I.

1125: David I pushes for St Andrews to become an archbishopric. He fails, but succeeds in having Robert, the new bishop of St Andrews, consecrated by the archbishop of York without the need to swear obedience to the archbishop as his metropolitan.

1135: Death of Henry I of England. The succession is disputed between Stephen of Blois (whose mother was Mary, another daughter of Mael Coluim III and Margaret) and Matilda, daughter of Henry I. David I backs Matilda.

1138: David I, despite suffering defeats in his invasions of England, is recognised by Stephen as ruler of NW England; David's only surviving son and heir, Henry, is recognised as earl of Northumberland.

1149: David I knights the future Henry II of England at Carlisle (one David's chief residences). Henry II recognises Scottish control of the northern counties of England.

1152: David's only surviving son and heir, Henry, dies, leaving three immature sons: Mael Coluim (Malcolm), William and David. Mael Coluim is recognised as David I's heir, and William is installed as earl of Northumberland.

1153: Death of David I; Mael Coluim IV (aged 12) succeeds him. There are no descendants of Mael Coluim III alive who were in a position to claim the throne ahead of the boy Mael Coluim. (Alexander I's illegitimate son, Mael Coluim, had been imprisoned in Roxburgh Castle since 1134, and the sons of William 'fitzDuncan', who was son of King Donnchad II and had died a couple of years earlier, were under age.)

1157: Mael Coluim IV agrees to return northern counties of England to Henry II in return for his being recognised as earl of Huntingdon.

Death of Robert, bishop of St Andrews. This leads to a fresh attempt to obtain archiepiscopal status for St Andrews. Again, this fails, but the new bishop of St Andrews (Arnold, 1160-2) and his successor are allowed to be consecrated without professing obedience to York.

1159: Mael Coluim IV fights in Henry II's army at Toulouse, and his knighted by him.

1160: Mael Coluim's absence at Toulouse is resented by Scottish earls who besiege Mael Coluim at Perth. Fergus, king of Galloway, retires (under duress?) to the monastery of Holyrood.

1164: Somairle (Somerled) king of Argyll and the Isles invades up the Clyde, and is killed in battle at Renfrew.

1165: Death of Mael Coluim IV; his brother William becomes king.

1173-4: William participates in revolts against Henry II by leading raids into northern England. In July 1174 William is captured. This leads to the first written submission by a king of Scots: the 'Treaty of Falaise'. Edinburgh and Roxburgh castles are surrendered to English garrisons.

1176: Pope Alexander III, concerned by the powers claimed over the Scottish church by Henry II, and the consequent diminution of papal control, becomes the first pope to support Scottish claims to independence from the archbishop of York.

1179-87: Domnall son of William son of Donnchad II leads a revolt in Moray and challenges William for the throne. He is finally defeated by Lachlan/Roland, lord of Galloway.

1189: Henry II dies, and is succeeded by Richard I, who (for a large sum) gives a written concession to William I (known as the 'Quitclaim of Canterbury') cancelling the Treaty of Falaise of 1174.

1189 or 1192: The pope, in the bull Cum universi, finally recognises the independence of the Scottish church. There is still no Scottish archbishop, however. Instead, each Scottish bishop is directly and independently under the pope's authority. This does not apply to the bishop of Galloway (who is happy to be under the archbishop of York's authority) or the bishop of the Isles (who is under the authority of the recently created archbishop of Trondheim in Norway).

1196: William I subdues the earl of Orkney (who controlled northern Scotland). The lord of Galloway and the king of the Isles are instrumental in defeating the earl of Orkney.

1201: Recognition of William's son, Alexander (then aged 3), as heir to the throne.

1212-15: The sons of Domnall son of William son of Donnchad II (the 'MacWilliams') lead another revolt on Moray.

1214: William dies; his son Alexander II (aged 16) is king.

1215-17: Alexander campaigns in northern England and is recognised by many N. English barons as their lord. When Henry III of England's supporters regain the initiative against their opponents after the battle of Lincoln Alexander II loses northern England.

1221: Alexander marries Joan, sister of Henry III of England. Alexander first raises the subject of securing papally sanctioned coronation for kings of Scots. This is resisted by kings of England.

1225: Pope instructs Scottish bishops to meet together in annual councils to oversee running of church in Scotland (except Galloway and the Isles).

1230: The MacWilliams are finally destroyed.

1234-5: Revolts in Galloway after the death of Alan, lord of Galloway, and Alexander II's refusal to recognise Alan's illegitimate son, Thomas, as lord, or at least to prevent the division of Galloway among Alan's daughters. Alexander II's victory is secured because of the intervention of Ferchar Mac in tSagairt ('Son of the Priest'), earl of Ross.

1237: Treaty of York. Alexander II formally renounces claim to northern England. In the formal ceremony of the treaty, Alexander II is treated as an independent monarch. The treaty is framed as an agreement between two sovereigns.

1249: Alexander II dies while on campaign in Argyll. He is succeeded by his son, Alexander III, who is not quite 8 years old. A further attempt to secure papally sanctioned coronation (and anointment) is refused; but the pope rejects Henry III's claim that the king of Scots is his vassal.

1250: Canonisation of Margaret, wife of Mael Coluim III, and ancestor of the Scottish royal dynasty.

1251: Alexander III marries Margaret daughter of Henry III. Henry III abortively raises issue of homage.

1260: Alexander III's request to the pope for coronation and anointment is rejected, but the pope formally recognises the liberty of the Scottish kingdom.

1263: King Hákon VI of Norway invades the kingdom of the Isles; his forces are rebuffed at Largs. Hákon dies in Orkney on the return journey to Norway. MacDougall (Meic Dubgaill) kings (now lords) of Argyll recognise authority of king of Scots.

1266: Treaty of Perth: Hákon's successor, King Magnús, formally cedes the kingdom of Man and the Isles to the dominion of Alexander III.

1275: Rising in Man against Scottish rule is brutally suppressed.

1278: Alexander III rejects Edward I's claim to homage for the kingdom of Scotland.

1284: Death of Alexander, son and heir of Alexander III. Community of the realm formally recognise as heir Alexander III's only living descendant, his young grand-daughter, Margaret, daughter of King Eric of Norway.

1286: Death of Alexander III. Six Guardians appointed by the 'community of the realm' to govern the kingdom in the absence of Margaret, Alexander III's grand-daughter.