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23.03.03 McGuigan, Máel Coluim III, “Canmore”

23.03.03 McGuigan, Máel Coluim III, “Canmore”

The reign of Máel Coluim mac Donnchada, nicknamed “Canmore” and known to English speakers as Malcolm III, has been subject to imaginative reconstruction almost from the point it ended. The trend was begun by Turgot, prior of Durham and later bishop of St Andrews, with his twelfth-century Life of Margaret, Máel Coluim’s second wife. In more recent centuries, William Shakespeare and Walter Scott are among those who have shaped modern views. The result is that Máel Coluim is simultaneously one of the most famous and one of the least clearly understood kings of medieval Scotland. Neil McGuigan’s extensive study addresses this problem head on. His fine book illuminates the life and reign of a figure who played a central role in a pivotal moment in the history of medieval Scotland, while also examining the development of his reputation in later times. It is much more than a biography, providing readers with a detailed account and analysis of the history of Scotland and northern Britain in the second half of the eleventh century. This is an impressive achievement, though the breadth of the book’s coverage also contributes to a slight unwieldiness.

The main body of the book comprises a prologue, introduction, eighteen chapters, and an epilogue. For the purposes of this review, we may divide these into groups. The first consists of the prologue and introduction, which together provide important contextual information. The prologue situates the book with respect to shifting scholarly attitudes toward Máel Coluim, his reign, and his achievements. McGuigan emphasizes the need to avoid teleological readings of his reign, and asserts his intention instead to understand the eleventh century “on its own terms” (10). It also briefly introduces the vast and varied array of sources used by McGuigan. As he points out here and elsewhere, eleventh-century Scotland is not very well documented, and those interested in its history must rely to a considerable extent on sources written in neighboring countries, particularly England, but also Ireland, Wales, and elsewhere. The introduction provides an overview of the physical, ethnic, and political geography of northern Britain in the early medieval period. It also sets the tone for the rest of the book also in situating Scotland in its appropriate Insular and European contexts.

Chapters 1 and 2 together provide the immediate historical background to Máel Coluim’s reign. Chapter 1 focuses on Scotland’s original royal dynasty (the Alpinids) down to the death of the last member to hold the kingship, Máel Coluim II (d. 1034). The emergence of a rival power--Clann Ruaidrí or the House of Moray, the dynasty of Máel Coluim’s two immediate predecessors, Macbeth and his son-in-law Lulach--is then discussed. Chapter 2 examines that rise of Máel Coluim’s own dynasty, Clann Chrínáin or the House of Dunkeld, named for Máel Coluim’s grandfather, Crínán, abbot of Dunkeld. The family’s origins are examined in depth, though conclusions are necessarily speculative.

Chapters 3 and 4 sketch an image of what Máel Coluim’s childhood and adolescence might have been like. Máel Coluim was only the second member of his family to hold the kingship, his father Donnchad (Shakespeare’s Duncan) having reigned for six years prior to his death in 1040. Donnchad was succeeded by Macbeth, during whose reign Máel Coluim spent time in exile, only returning to claim the kingship in 1057. Contemporary sources have almost nothing to say regarding this period of Máel Coluim’s life, so McGuigan draws on comparative evidence from across the insular world. A key question here is the whereabouts of Máel Coluim during Macbeth’s reign, and McGuigan is careful to interrogate each possibility in detail.

The following two chapters--chapters 5 and 6--are dedicated to a discussion of the nature of kingship and the role of kings in the eleventh century. McGuigan again relies heavily on comparative Insular and European sources to augment what survives from Scotland. Chapter 5 contains discussions of inauguration, the royal court and its circuit, the royal household, the nature of lordship, and law and order. Chapter 6 examines the administration of the kingdom, with a discussion of its provincial structure, the status and identity of the maer and mormaer, and the structure of the Scottish Church. It closes with a brief but valuable discussion of the importance of the king, his army, and military service in providing the people of the kingdom with a sense of cohesion as fir Alban, “the men of Scotland” (201-207).

The following six chapters provide the chronological backbone of McGuigan’s account, which is structured around a series of key moments in Scotland’s relations with its southern neighbors, the best documented aspect of Máel Coluim’s reign. The first of these was a peaceful visit by Máel Coluim to the English royal court in 1059, followed two years later by an invasion of the territory immediately south of what then constituted Scotland. Discussion of these in chapter 7 is followed by an overview of English history in the middle of the eleventh century and the Norman invasion.

Chapter 8 argues that the Norman conquest of England was seen as an opportunity by Máel Coluim, and spends a considerable amount of time discussing the impact of the Norman onslaught, particularly in the northern part of the country, and on the flight to Scotland of Edgar Atheling and his sisters, Margaret--who subsequently married Máel Coluim--and Cristina. Chapter 9 focuses on Máel Coluim’s meeting with the new rulers of England at Abernethy in 1072, which is presented as a response to a still imprecisely understood Scottish campaign in the preceding years. Despite handing over his son as a hostage at the meeting, Máel Coluim is presented as having come out on top in this round of relations with the Normans. Chapter 10 centres on a meeting between Máel Coluim and Robert Curthose in 1080. The background to this meeting was a Scottish invasion of the Bamburgh polity, part of a campaign by Máel Coluim to expand Scottish influence there. McGuigan again presents this Scottish campaign as opportunistic, coinciding as it did with a period of internal division and conflict within the Norman ducal family, and depicts Máel Coluim as negotiating a positive outcome that created the conditions for peace between Scotland and England for more than a decade.

The peace established in 1080 ended with a Scottish invasion of England proper--not the Bamburgh polity but territory undeniably under Norman control--in 1091. This event, the subsequent invasion of Scotland by the Normans, and the implications of the resultant peace are the focus of chapter 11. Again, Bamburgh looms large; having formalized his relationship with Máel Coluim in 1091, William Rufus established his authority over the region in 1092. The end of the Bamburgh polity opened the way for Norman settlement on the borders of Máel Coluim’s kingdom, creating a new basis for Anglo-Scottish relations.

The final chapter in this block, chapter 12, examines in detail the well-documented last year of Máel Coluim’s life, which included a peaceful visit to England followed by an invasion during which Máel Coluim and his son, Edward, were killed. The relationship between the two events is discussed in depth, with the focus on the fact that on his first visit Máel Coluim failed to secure a meeting with William Rufus to discuss the marriage of his daughter--Edith/Matilda, then resident in England--and the Normans’ growing presence in the North.

The following two chapters shift focus away from Scoto-English affairs to look at Máel Coluim’s relations with other neighbouring polities, the contemporary significance of which is likely hidden due to lack of surviving evidence. We can certainly agree with McGuigan that dealing with Clann Ruaidrí would have been a priority. This dynasty was then in the process of establishing an alternative power base for itself in Moray, immediately to the north of the heartland of Máel Coluim’s kingdom. This is discussed in chapter 13, as are Máel Coluim’s relations with the jarls of Orkney--his first wife, Ingibjǫrg, was the daughter of Jarl Finnr--Norway, Ireland (especially Leinster), the Gall-Goídil, and the maritime Kingdom of the Isles. There is a slightly longer consideration of ecclesiastical inks with Scandinavia based on the evidence of Adam of Bremen. Chapter 14 shifts attention to the south again, with a discussion of the conquest of Lothian. McGuigan argues that the conquest was gradual, the territory first becoming part of Máel Coluim’s personal imperium distinct from the heartland of his kingdom (patria) in a process closely related to the extension of Scottish ecclesiastical authority over the same region. A more thorough incorporation into the kingdom was only possible after the fall of the Bamburgh polity and using tactics adopted and adapted from the Normans, McGuigan suggests.

So much of the previous chapters having been devoted to foreign policy, chapters 15 and 16 examine developments within Scotland during Máel Coluim’s reign. McGuigan frames his discussion of religious and broader cultural changes as means of achieving “status, security and legitimacy” for the kingdom (391). Chapter 15 examines developments within the Scottish Church, which have traditionally been associated with Margaret. Ultimately, McGuigan argues, the Scottish Church was probably not as distinct prior to Máel Coluim’s reign as it is depicted in certain contemporary sources--the Life of Margaret chief amongst them--and some modern historiography, and that the changes that did occur during the late eleventh century were local manifestations of broader Church reform movements.

Chapter 16 focuses on the royal court and on the learned culture of the kingdom. This culture was outward looking and inter-connected with other parts of Europe, including England, Flanders, Scandinavia, and elsewhere. But it was primarily part of a broader “Gaelic-speaking ecclesiastical culture” (427) centered on Armagh in Ireland. Due to the nature of this learned culture, which shared a single vernacular and interest in the same kinds of materials, it is difficult to identify texts produced in Scotland. McGuigan takes a maximalist approach, accepting the arguments of Thomas Clancy and others regarding the Scottish provenance of certain Middle Irish texts. These arguments would not go unchallenged in Ireland, but are here used to demonstrate the vibrancy of the Scottish intellectual culture of the period.

The penultimate section of the book looks at Máel Coluim’s legacy. Chapter 17 examines the development of his reputation down to the year 1700. Key to this is the fact that, with the exception of his immediate successor--his brother Domnall/Donald--all the kings of Scotland down to the 1280s were Máel Coluim’s direct descendants. Royal dynasties in later centuries--including the Bruces and the Stewarts--claimed the crown ultimately from their relationship to the “Canmore dynasty,” as it became known. Máel Coluim thus came in later centuries to be viewed as a foundational figure, who shaped the kingdom’s laws and much else besides. In part because of his association with Margaret, Máel Coluim’s reign was also conceived as a turning point in Scotland’s history and identity, when the kingdom shifted its focus from the Gaelic and Celtic past toward the English and European--and by implication “civilized”--future. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw further developments of this idea as Scotland sought a new place in the Union, discussed in chapter 18. McGuigan also points out that this view was accepted to a considerable degree among Scottish Gaels, for whom Máel Coluim’s reign came to be seen as the beginning of the decline of the Gaelic language in Scotland.

The epilogue attempts the difficult task of assessing Máel Coluim and his reign. McGuigan’s conclusion is perhaps unexpected, as he suggests that the significance of Máel Coluim’s reign has been exaggerated both by both fans and critics, both those who see it as the beginning of a new “feudal” era in Scottish history and those who lament the decline of Gaelic. This is not to say that Máel Coluim’s reign was unimportant. McGuigan argues that events during this period “had a significant effect on the future of the kingdom, on its territorial shape, its political and cultural relationship with England and with other parts of Europe” (496). But even these developments, he suggests, could arguably be seen as the result of the Norman conquest of England more than any of Máel Coluim’s actions or decisions. In the end, and somewhat surprisingly given the Prologue’s rejection of teleological readings of the past, it is with regard to his “dynastic accomplishment,” as the founder of Scotland’s royal dynasty, that McGuigan credits Máel Coluim with greatest success (496).

The main body of the book is preceded by useful genealogical tables and maps, accompanied by eight pages of black-and-white photographs, and followed by two appendices. The first appendix is a reprint of Woodman’s edition and translation of the Old English text known as Gospatrc’s Writ, the second a discussion of the beginning of the decline of Gaelic in lowland Scotland. There is also an extensive bibliography and an index.

The depth and breadth of McGuigan’s analysis are very impressive throughout. He demonstrates a laudable capacity to engage with sources in a variety of languages and of diverse genres and forms, and is just as comfortable discussing hypocoristic Gaelic saints’ names as he is parsing the evidence of twelfth-century Anglo-Norman historians. Among so broad a consideration of his subject, one theme shines through particularly brightly. McGuigan’s previous research has focused on the fate of “Middle Britain,” especially the territory of the early medieval kingdom of Northumbria, between the tenth and the twelfth centuries. His belief in the significance of the history of this region--particularly the Bamburgh polity--to our understanding of the history of Scotland, England, and especially Scoto-English relations, emerges powerfully from this book.

There is little in the book’s argument and analysis to quibble with. McGuigan leaves no argument uninterrogated nor avenue unexplored, so that it is difficult to disagree with his conclusions. On the other hand, I have some reservations about its format and length. In places, the discussion seems aimed at a broad readership, as when McGuigan outlines aspects of the nature of medieval kingship. But, in addition to the cost of the book, some such readers will be put off by its (occasional) density and by its length. This book dwarfs the recent biographies of other medieval Insular kings, such as Sarah Foot’s biography of Aethelstan of England (283 pages) or Seán Duffy’s biography of the Irish king, Brian Boru (349 pages). [1] I wonder whether it could have been condensed in places, such as the chapters on Máel Coluim’s youth and those exploring the nature of eleventh-century kingship. Moreover, English history--particularly, but not only the history of the Bamburgh polity--gets a lot of coverage. While this provides valuable context for understanding Máel Coluim’s reign, it could be argued that readers would be better served if a detailed study had been published separately and a briefer account given here.



1. Sarah Foot, Æthelstan: The First King of England (New Haven, 2011); Seán Duffy, Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf (Dublin, 2013).