“Treachery in the Remotest Territories of Scotland:” Northern Resistance to the Canmore Dynasty, 1130-1230

“Treachery in the Remotest Territories of Scotland:” Northern Resistance to the Canmore Dynasty, 1130-1230

By R. Andrew McDonald

Canadian Journal of History, vol.33 (1999)

Introduction: The Annals of Ulster, a rich source of information for events in medieval Scotland, note in laconic style tinder the year 1130, “a battle between the men of Scotland and the men of Moray, and in it four thousand of the men of Moray fell, including their king, Angus . . . .” One hundred years later, a gruesome scene was played out at Forfar, where an infant girl, the last member of a family that had opposed the Scottish kings for over fifty years, was killed by having her head smashed on the market cross. These events frame a century during which the kings of Scots descended from Malcolm III “Canmore” and his second wife, Queen Margaret (both d. 1093), faced persistent opposition from the remote and unassimilated northern fringes of their kingdom, especially the regions of Moray (a large and ill-defined area encompassing the lands around the Moray Firth, stretching from the Grampians to the western seaboard) and Ross (the province north of Moray, bounded by the River Oykel and the Dornoch Firth to the north and the shore of the Cromarty Firth to the south). This paper deals with a hitherto largely neglected facet of medieval Scottish history: resistance to the so-called “Canmore dynasty” (Malcolm III and his descendants) from Moray and Ross between the early twelfth century and 1230. It begins by outlining the incidents of insurrection faced by the Scottish kings in this period, and then proceeds to analyze this resistance, paying particular attention to the leaders, timing, military aspects, and geographical context of opposition. The paper concludes by examining questions of regional identity in twelfth-century Scotland and reflects upon whether a strong sense of Moravian identity might have contributed to the tenacity of resistance.

Given the frequency, tenacity, and often bloody nature of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century insurrections, serious consideration of them remains surprisingly limited in recent scholarly work. The reasons for this are not far to seek. First, the evidence itself is scattered among a variety of English, Scottish, and Irish sources, which are often difficult to interpret and provide little in the way of either context or explanation. Second, the focus of modem scholarship on themes of medieval kingdom-building, the Europeanization of Scotland in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and the relatively early emergence of Scotland as a unified kingdom under the Canmore kings, have tended to overshadow or obscure questions of resistance, alienation, and dissent. To take but one example from a work concerned specifically with the regions under consideration here: the 1976 Moray Book devoted only a dozen lines to the various uprisings associated with the far north before brushing them aside to concentrate on the coming of the “new order” with its glittering symbols of castles, monasteries, burghs and feudalism. In a similar, and uncharacteristically judgmental tone, Professor Barrow contrasted the “harsh, brutally Iron Age quality” of tenth- and eleventh-century Moray with the new sense of “liberation and relief’ felt when the region was annexed by David I in 1130. Views such as these (in fairness, later treatments by Professor Barrow were much more even-handed), born of a focus, imposed by the sources, on the centre of the Scottish kingdom and its monarchs, nonetheless leave the impression that the insurrections of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were merely a series of sporadic, haphazard, piratical raids that were easily crushed. This paper argues that not only were many of the uprisings carefully timed and orchestrated predatory strikes against the Scottish kings in their weakest moments, but also that careful reexamination of these insurrections is crucial to our understanding of key issues in the history of twelfth-century Scotland.

The long and eventful reign of Malcolm III “Canmore” ["Great Chief"] (1058-93), which established the so-called “Canmore dynasty” that would rule Scotland until the death of Alexander III in 1286, brooked little opposition. This was due, in large measure, to the fact that Malcolm’s path to the kingship had been a bloody one, during which he had taken care to eliminate any potential rivals. Within eight months of killing his predecessor, Macbeth (1040-57), at Lumphanan in August of 1057, Malcolm eliminated Macbeth’s stepson and successor, Lulach (1057-58), in March of 1058. Nonetheless, there are hints in Irish sources of unrest in Moray during the reign of Malcolm III. In 1085, “Donald, Malcolm’s son, king of Scotland . . . ended his life unhappily.” Both the identity and status of this individual are open to question, but it is possible that he was an otherwise unknown son of Malcolm III by his first wife, Ingibjorg of Orkney, or else a member of Malcolm’s kin who may have had some role in governing or administering the north. Similarly, the circumstances of his death are not clear, but mishap or violence seem to have played a role. This makes it tempting to link the death of this Donald with another event of 1085: a raid of Malcolm III in which Lulach’s widow and large amounts of booty were taken, and from which Lulach’s son, Mael Snechta, narrowly escaped. Mael Snechta himself lived until 1085, when his obit appeared in the Irish Annals along with other churchmen who ended their lives “happily” [i.e. in religion]. What cannot be ascertained is whether the death of Donald precipitated Malcolm’s raid or vice versa, or, indeed, whether the two events are related at all, but it might well be that one represented vengeance for the other.

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