Siol nan Gaidheal
1005 - 1034
The time when oft-conquered England was made a province of the Dane is discussed in official British history as a time when Cnut imposed his hegemony upon all the northern lands. This suggests a convenient inevitability to the English capitulation by implying England was merely a victim of an unstoppable Viking juggernaut. We are of course accustomed by now to the almost total ignorance, disregard and contempt the historians of England have for Scottish affairs. For them, Scottish matters are relegated to the margins of a narrative whose purpose has changed little since their antecedents, the chroniclers retained by Alfred, peddled their tales. Their lay was propaganda for the legitimisation of Saxon imperium in the days of Athelstan. For the the Plantagenets’ the scribes hijacked Arthurian myth as a tool for advancing their spurious claims via the Galfridian conceit. Whig historians apologised for the union by portraying it as an inevitable consequence of the historical development of English constitutional institutions destined to dominate the globe. A single consistent theme is clear running through all these uses for which English mythistoire has been deployed - legitimisation for their cupidity. Perhaps this is a result of their own experience of conquest - regular and often. Nevertheless it seems remarkable that they should ignore the surest counter-example to the claims that the Danish yoke was inevitable. Perhaps it can be understood only because the man who was the only credible rival to Cnut when it came to asserting regal authority, the only figure who successfully resisted what the Saxon revisionists would portray as inevitable, and indeed who amplified the standing of his throne and his realm in this period throughout these islands, was the king of Scotia Invicta.
It was an Irish chronicler who styled Malcolm II Rex Victoriosissimmus. His reign from 1005 (the year of Macbeth’s birth) to 1034 saw the imposition of Scottish hegemony upon the northern half of Ireland and northern England, the first attempt at establishing primogeniture as the means for the getting of kings, the adoption of the name Scotia to denote his realm, the establishing of the Tweed as the southern extent of his realm, the building of countless alliances to both the north and the south of the realm to provide buffers against the expansionism of the Danes and perhaps most remarkably, his annis mirabilis upon which the chronicler’s designation of him as “the most victorious king” depends – the year 1010 when in a remarkable succession of five battles he inflicted decisive defeats upon the Danes and ensured Scotland would not suffer the same fate as England.
At the same time English fortunes suffered collapse as Ethelred the Unready fled into exile and England fell to Cnut after Edmund II Ironside’s defeat at Edgbaston (which was swiftly followed by his death). It is clear that the figure of Malcolm II is not allowed to loom as large in Saxon histories as it deserves because his successes cast a more revealing light upon English failures at the time than is desired by the partisan practitioners of history active today, the Anglo-Saxon revisionists who cannot bear to countenance the reality of Scotland without declaring Her irrelevance, to the extent that their utterances suggest some pathological syndrome in their irrational vehemence.
Our survey of the career of Malcolm II is neatly bookended by his interactions with the Danes. While a teenager he commanded the Scottish right wing that defeated the Danes at Luncarty and secured Scotland from their molestations for over a generation. The site of the battle lies near to the administrative centre of the realm at that time, Forteviot, a former Pictish power centre, and the Royal Standard around which the Scots rallied was the ancient Pictish emblem of an indefatigable wild boar. The battle has been remembered more often because of the participation of the Hays who mounted a decisive counter-attack than for the hardly inauspicious entrance of a young Malcolm onto the national stage, like Alexander at Charonea. Latter day historians have rationalised the orgy of beheading that ensued as a result of the Scots’ victory as the gathering of tokens entitling the bearers to a bounty. This was of course the more ancient Celtic custom of taking your enemies’ heads as trophies since the head was the seat of the soul. Thus ended in Scotland what is commonly termed the First Viking Age – the century and a half of war that had commenced with the sack of Iona.
In 1009 Malcolm and the integrity of the realm faced the threat to which the English would succumb. A large army of Danes landed in Moray and systematically started to progress to the seat of power, just as they had generations earlier before being halted at Luncarty. A bitter struggle, incurring Pyrrhic losses through attrition on both sides, ceased with the onset of snow, and the Danes withdrew to their beachhead to winter. When the snows receded and the campaigning season resumed the Danes were confident their freshly reinforced numbers would take the field while the Scots’ resolve wilted. However, at Mortlach, the threat posed by the Danes from Moray was eradicated.
Malcolm still faced an unprecedented crisis of a similar character and magnitude to that which engulfed England at this time. His personal captaincy was required on many fronts in response to many invading Danish armies. His ascendancy at five major battles that year is recorded; had he failed on a single occasion he would have forfeited the crown. He campaigned throughout the length of the land. The defining conflict of this period was with a Danish army amassed from contingents drawn from Scandanavia, the Orkneys and England, which assembled in the Firth of Forth before being driven north to land at the Barry Sands south of Carnoustie. They were not permitted to penetrate as deeply into the Scottish heartland as previous expeditions had, however. A few miles inland the Danish army was engaged and destroyed. Their leader, Camus, was beheaded and his body interred at a spot that is to this day marked by a cross slab. Amateur antiquarians disturbed his remains in the 17th century and found the headless skeleton of a man of great stature.
The figure of five battles is subject to the unionist historian’s automatic need to quibble away unsuitable facts. For example, the battles of Mortlach and Camuston are conflated on grounds no more compelling than that near Mortlach there is a place called Camuston. They are still content however to accord their own poster child, Alfred, his “year of the battles”. Alfred is relevant to our story, since the arrangement regarding the protection of the north of England he arrived at with the Scots, ratified in Malcolm’s time by Edgar, bears upon the reason for Malcolm’s interaction with Cnut. English prejudice cannot bear to contemplate Cnut and Malcolm without imposing a spurious relationship of dominance and submission between the two whose purpose is solely to flatter the English. This prevents them from apprehending the nature of the compacts genuinely entered into between the two nations at this time.
Cnut’s bloodless visit to Scotland is usually portrayed as the occasion upon which Malcolm II submitted to him, thus allowing those historians made uncomfortable by Malcolm’s success to relax at last secure in their deluded prejudices. Of course, the purpose of Cnut’s visit was significantly more complex and the details are alas lost to us. Nevertheless the most reasonable surmise, given the absence of armed conflict, is that the subject addressed was that portion of England that had hitherto been acknowledged by the English crown to be a Scottish protectorate. Certainly since the time of Edgar, and traditionally since the time of Alfred, the north of what is now England had been given into the custody of the Scots as a result of English inability to defend it. From what can be discerned the area was not ceded formally but it was reasonable that the Scots raise revenues where the English couldn’t. Given that the English throne, whose claim to the area the Scots had allowed to retain its priority, had itself fallen to the forces the Scots had successfully defended that claim against, the status of the north of England suddenly became moot. This was the purpose of Cnut’s visit – to claim the area as a result of his transition from the aggressor it was defended against to the wearer of the crown to which its allegiance was due. Indeed the English crown subsequently would attempt periodic legalistic contortions whereby it arrogated feudal superiority by misrepresenting this situation, and tried to extend its claim from the lands in England held by the Scottish crown, to Scotland Herself. This situation was not fully resolved until Bannockburn (it is interesting to note that Bruce’s first administrative act after that victory was not to consolidate his position, but to travel to the north of England to raise revenue and administer justice as was his right).
These events occurred a thousand years ago, but their consequences are felt today. English cupidity and arrogance leads them to assume whatever they cast their eyes on to be England, and whatever they encounter which is unfamiliar to be a mere inconvenience to be resolved by being made English. The chip on the shoulder that leads them to behave this way was placed there as a result of their failures to resist Danish and Norman invasions. If you can’t beat them, join them, they would say. Scots have always proclaimed their contentment with their Scotland, from Calgacus to the Declaration of Arbroath. This sense of adequacy is related to the contrasting success we have experienced historically in defending our inheritance. This enlightened attitude is best served today by the continued defence of that inheritance, and the elimination of any anomalies that constrain our ability to do so.
Alba gu brath.
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