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Mid-Argyll Theme - 14
From Dál Riata to Scotland

The conventional story how the Kingdom of Scotland emerged gives a high profile to the kings of Dál Riata, the ruling family in the area around Kilmartin. In this picture the Dál Riatan fort of Dunadd appears as a kind of embryo of the later Kingdom of Scotland, for it was from here that it all grew.

Constantine son of Fergus, king of Dál Riata (789-820), had become so powerful that he subdued Pictland, occupied the Pictish power centre at Forteviot, and built a church at Dunkeld in about 815, in the heart of Pictish territory. It was a sign that the Scots had achieved (at least for a while) both secular and ecclesiastical control of the Picts.

This control was not maintained, however, and Dál Riata lost their grip of Pictland for a while, but finally the Scots and the Picts were united under the power of another king of Dál Riata, Cinaed mac Ailpín. His re-conquest of Pictland, and his removal of the relics of St Columba to the church of Dunkeld making it the national shrine of his new realm in 849, sounded the death-knell for Pictland as an independent kingdom. Now the Scots were in charge of a 'united kingdom' - one which was still called Pictland, but within a few decades adopted a new name, Alba - the old Gaelic name for Britain, and still the Gaelic name for Scotland. It was to be a Gaelic kingdom, and the Pictish language would rapidly disappear under the rule of the new Dál Riatan rulers - Cinaed and his dynasty.

The name Custantin filius Fircussu [Constantine son of Fergus] is just decipherable on the base of the Dupplin Cross, originally erected at the Pictish royal palace at Forteviot [Replica, photo K. Forsyth]

That is the conventional picture of how Scotland emerged. There are serious problems with such a model, however, and the picture of Gaelic warriors overpowering Pictland does not sit easily alongside some of the few detailed records we have of this period:

Recent research has therefore cast doubt on the traditional view of a Gaelic conquest of Pictland. An alternative is that Pictland thoroughly dominated the Gaels to their west, from that attack of 736 onwards. By the time of Cinaed mac Ailpin, Dál Riata had virtually ceased to exist as a viable kingdom, and it more or less completely disappears from the annals. The last king of Dál Riata to be mentioned is Donn Corci ('Brown Oats' - a nickname?) who died in 792.

Rather than seeing Cinaed mac Ailpín as a Dál Riatan king who put an end to the Picts, we should perhaps see him as the Pictish ruler who oversaw the final disappearance of Dál Riata. After all, when he dies in 858 he is 'King of the Picts', not King of Dál Riata, though he may have had some Dál Riatan ancestry.

This king's uniquely successful family monopolised the kingship of Pictland for a long time thereafter, in spite of opposition from competing families. It may have been to justify their unusual success in holding onto power that the dynasty invented the myth of the 'conquest' by Cinaed of Dál Riata. In this case, when Cinaed moved the relics of Columba to his great church at Dunkeld, far from representing the Dál Riata's triumph, this signalled the ultimate collapse of her integrity when even her patron saint was absorbed by the all-powerful Pictish church. 

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