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Friday, July 09, 2010

BARBARIANS

I admit that the Celts of Scotland were a colorful bunch. They got off to a rough start in 839 A.D. when Viking invaders wipped out most of their nobility. The survivors spent the next century battling with the invaders, raiding their English neighbors to capture horses and slaves, and of course, butchering each other whenever life started to get dull. They were a violent, dirty and rowdy bunch of primitives, but contrary to their popular image, they were not unsophisticated.
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Domnall II was the first man referred to as “ri (King of) Alban”, the ancient name for Scotland, and was crowned about 890 A.D. Of course people also referred to him as not being in his right mind. He was followed by Constantin mac-Aeda, who ruled until 943 A.D. when his nephew, Mael Coluim mac Domnaill, shipped the old man off to a monastery at swordpoint. When Constantin died in 954, he was succeeded by his two sons, first by the colorfully named Dub, who was murdered on July 20, 966, probably by his brother, Cinaed, who was king until 995 when he was murdered by his own soldiers.
Cinaed was succeed by Mael Coluim mac Cinaeda the “Glorious”, who died in 1034, and was succeeded by Donnchad mac Crinain, also known as “the man of many sorrows” and as “Duncan, the not feeling well”. In the spring 1039, the 18 year old Duncan led a raid on the Saxon-English city of Durham, south of the old Roman wall. But Duncan got it backwards; first his cavalry charged the city walls. The Saxon archers easily cut them down. Then Duncan ordered his infantry forward, whereupon the Saxon cavalry burst forth from the city and slaughtered his foot soldiers. The Saxon villagers gathered 3,000 Scotish heads off the battlefield, washed and braided their hair and then mounted the skulls on spikes around the market square, presumably because they lacked bunting.
For some reason Duncan decided to blame this disaster on his most trusted advisor, Mac Bethaad mac Findlach. And the next spring the king marched his army north, to attack Mac Bethaad’s hill fort outside of Elgin. There, on August 14th, 1040, young Ducan was caught in an ambush and killed. Duncan’s sons were too young to be kings, and besides Duncan had been such a failure the nobility decided it wouldn’t be worth the effort to wait for the boys to grow up. They were trundeld off to exile in the Saxon court of Edward the Confessor, and the tartan-wearers elected themselves a new king.
It is a hard truth about kings that only rich nations can afford the divine right to rule by any inbred moron who happens to float to the surface of the gene pool. Poor nations, - that is to say most nations - have always relied on some form of election to select the best qualified leaders. And Scotland, in the first centrury of the second millieniam, was so poor, that the only saint they had was a cave dwelling hermit named Gervadius, who at night ran along the beach waving a torch. And since Mac Bethaad mac Findlach had engineered that clever ambush, the Scotish nobles put the crown on his head.
Like most people in antiquity, his name told his story. “Mac” in Gaelic means “the son of”, and “Bethaad” means life, so he bore an early Christian nomen. His father, Findláech, had been murdered by his brother’s sons in 1020. Mac Bethaad got revenge in 1032 when he trapped one of his cousins in a manor house along with 50 men and burned it, and them, to cinders. This may be why they nicknamed Mac Bethaad “Ri Deircc”, or the “The Red King”, rather than the usual inspiration for such a nickname, since amongst Celts red hair is almost the default setting.
So Mac Bethaad became the King of Scotland, even though his authority did not extend much beyond the northern highlands. This rolling mountainous region, separated from the rest of the British isles by the Great Glen, is actually an extension of the the American Allegheny Mountains. South are the rolling central highlands of Northumbria, settled by the Vikings at this point for three centuries. Beyond that was the Strathclyde, the traditional battleground between Celts, Norsemen and Saxons, extending down to the old Roman wall, built to keep the barbarians away from the green and forested England to the south.
To strengthen his claim to the throne, Mac Bethaad married the widow of Duncan’s predecessor, Coluim, and adopted his son, Lulach. And for almost ten years, while the Saxons and Vikings concentrated on fighting each other, Scotland had a chance to recover. Each year of peace allowed the next generation of warriors grew a little taller. But Mac Bethaad, “The red, tall, golden-haired one”, and called the “reknowned and generaous King”, knew that eventually one of his enemies, foreign or domestic, was going to notice that poor Scotland was still vunerable. He began to look for allies.
The Viking King of Northumbria, Siward, paid homage to his godfathers back in Norway and Sweden, so that door was closed. The Irish Celts and the Saxon English were both, as likely as not, to be the next invaders. Mac Bethaad did manage to hire some soldiers from the Normans, in France, but he could not afford very many. So in 1049,Mac Bethaad made the long and risky trip to Rome, seeking the support of the Pope. On Easter of 1050, this Socttish Son of Life spread some silver aound the capital of the "Prince of Peace", but foolishly gave it to the poor. I’m sure they appreciated the food and firewood, but the gesture of Christian selflessness failed to impress the Cardinals. You should never believe the PR of any large corporation, be it a church, a government, British Petroleum or even Microsoft. In politics, everybody looks out for themselves.
Mac Bethaad’s trip to Rome set off alarm bells in Northumbria and England, and in 1054 the two enemies managed to bury their differences long enough to combine under the titlar command of Canmore, meaning the Big Head, who was Duncan’s son. Siward actually led the army, which, on August 4, 1054, on the Feast of the Seven Sleepers, met Mac Bethaad’s forces on Dunsinane Hill, between modern day Perth and Dundee.
The battle was a disaster for Mac Bethaad. He lost some 3,000 men, and all his Norman mercenaries. Siward quickly returned home, as did the English troops, both to protect their own provinces from the other. But they left Canmore balanced atop the Scottish midlands, while Mac Bethaad retained control of the highlands, raiding and making a pest of him self.
In 1057 Canmore struck again at Mac Bethaad, who was visiting Aberdeen. Mac Bethaad and his bodyguards ran for the Grampian Mountains, 20miles away. They climbed over the barren windswept Cairnmounth Pass, filing sullenly past the 4,000 year old gathering of stones that give this passage its name.
On the other side of the mountain, Mac Bethaad’s party paused to catch their breath outside the tiny village of Lumphanan. And it was here, just after dawn on August 15, 1057, that Canmore’s cavalry fell upon them in ambush, and in this violent shock, Mac Bethaad was killed, and his party scattered. After the fight, Mac Bethaad’s body was dragged to a convenient rock and his head hacked off, as proof of his death.
Mac Bethaad’s stepson, Lulach “The Simple”, also known as Lulach “The Foolish”, was named King at his father’s funeral, on the sacred island of Ionia.. Just seven months later, Lulach himself was killed by Canmore, who crowned himself Malcom III. With the death of Mac Bethaad, had come the end of the Highland Scottish Kings.
It was this sad, haunting demise which inspired William Shakespere, to build his darkest tragedy around, the bloody, relentless tale of Macbeth.
“Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale, Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.
Macbeth, Act V, scene v
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