800 – 1000A.D.
During the 9th century, when work on the four Latin gospels of the Book of Deer began, ‘Scotland’ as a political entity did not exist. Instead, the geographical area of modern-day Scotland was a heavily tribalised land of competing kingdoms. Even Pictland, from where the Book of Deer originated, was a federation: there was a king of the North Picts and a king of the South Picts and within Pictish territory there were particular regions of power such as Fortriu, an area encompassing present-day Moray and much of the rest of north-eastern Scotland.
The ‘unifying’ of the Scots and the Picts under Kenneth McAlpin (c.843) was a result of the ongoing threat of invasion from Norsemen. By the end of the ninth century the McAlpin dynasty ruled ‘Alba’ but this territory still did not include Stratclyde and Lothian, held by the Britons and Angles respectively. Political power in Alba also remained fluid because tanistry, a policy of alternating succession between different branches of the royal house, was preferred to hereditary succession.
At this time the Anglo-Saxons were suffering heavy incursions from the Danes and only Alfred the Great, King of Wessex (871-899) was able to mount a successful resistance to the Danelaw. ‘Law’ is a Norse word, and the term Danelaw refers to the territory ruled and controlled by the Vikings in northern and eastern England with its power centres in Northumbria and East Anglia. In terms of settlement, the Danish presence began to be registered in England only in the late ninth century although raiding of monasteries (Lindisfarne in 793 and Iona 795) had been going on for a century before this. While the Danes attacked England the Scots faced attacks from Norwegian Vikings, particularly in the outer Hebrides. As long as the Anglo-Saxons were occupied by external threat from across the North Sea the Scots remained relatively free from interference from the south. Indeed, Alfred the Great’s grandson, Edmund, ceded Cumbria (which included Strathclyde) to Malcolm I, King of Scots (943-54). Edmund’s hope was that the Scots would join their neighbours to repel the Viking incursions. Despite this territorial gain in the south Malcolm I lost control of Moray in the north and this semi-autonomous region would be a source of political instability in centuries to come.
On the mainland of Europe the expansionary activities of the Vikings were matched by the imperial ambitions of the Frankish kingdom under Charlemagne (768-814). Charlemagne was acclaimed emperor by the Pope on Christmas Day 800 A.D., in what was the first attempt to revive the Roman Empire in the Latin West since its demise four hundred years earlier. This action of the Pope’s was a deliberate provocation to the Byzantine Emperor in the East and marked a shift of the centre of civilisation westwards, towards France and Germany, and away from the classical centre of civilisation around the Mediterranean. Charlemagne was a warrior king but like Alfred the Great of Wessex he was also interested in administration and learning and his rule expanded the domain of ‘culture’, including the development of minuscule script. From this period onwards the non-Latin ‘Celtic’ culture would be under threat.
One of the King of Scots mentioned in the Gaelic notes of the Book of Deer is Malcolm II (1005-34), who endowed the monastery of Old Deer with royal revenues from lands in Buchan. Malcolm II was the last of the McAlpin dynasty since he had no sons who survived him. At the Battle of Carham (1018), near Coldstream on the Tweed, he joined forces with the king of Strathclyde and defeated the Northumbrian forces to consolidate the Scottish presence in Lothian. However, he was not the only ‘king’ of Scotland at this time; when King Canute came north in 1031 he was met by three northern leaders. Also present at this convocation was Macbeth, at the time mormaer of Moray and close ally of Malcolm II. The accession of Macbeth to the Scottish throne (1040-57) after the death of Malcolm II’s grandson, Duncan, shifted power away from southern Scotland and back to the north. One indicator of the relative political stability of Macbeth’s reign is that in 1050 he left Alba on a pilgrimage to Rome. It has been said that with the overthrow of his reign and the advent of the Canmmore dynasty the Celtic/Gaelic aspects of Scottish society declined among the elite; the Canmores aligned themselves with the English to gain the Scottish throne and their victory meant the overthrow of Lulach, Macbeth’s successor, who was the son of Lady Macbeth and her first husband.
While the Anglo-Saxon kingdom suffered invasion and conquest by the Normans (1066) Scotland remained relatively free from external interference. In 1068 Malclom Canmore married Princess Margaret, sister of a claimant to the English throne and a political refugee after the Conquest. Malcolm III used this alliance as a pretext to invade England yet although William I demanded fealty from Malcolm in 1072 there was no attempted Norman takeover of Scotland. Scotland was therefore uniquely placed in the British Isles. At a time when the subjugation of Anglo-Saxons under foreign rule was recorded in Domesday Book (1086) Scotland still had a native aristocracy to act as patrons of religion and the arts and uphold the native language of Gaelic ( in marked contrast to the lowly status of ‘English’ at this time). It has been said that Margaret, the Anglo-Saxon princess of Malcolm Canmore, ‘anglicised’ the Scottish church at this time by bringing monks north from Canterbury. It is true that none of her royal children were given traditional Gaelic names but this in itself is not indicative of any attempt to eradicate Gaelic influence. More noteworthy, in this respect, are developments in the political power structure which led to greater centralisation of power in southern Scotland. The Book of Deer lists several Mormaers of Moray as patrons and Moray, despite the overthrow of Macbeth, continued to be an alternative power base to the Scottish throne throughout the eleventh century. Indeed one of the mormaers listed in the Book of Deer, a son of Macbeth’s stepson, Lulach, actively disputed the Scottish kingship with Malcolm III until he was killed in 1085. In their revolt against the Canmore dynasty the men of Moray sometimes joined cause with the Scandinavians, who were still fighting for control of land in the Hebrides and the far west. It was not until the next century, under David I, that the mormaerdom of Moray would be effectively destroyed and a new nobility of French and Flemish knights would be ‘imported’ to offset the influence of the men of the north.
A phenomenon of this time was the ‘internationalisation’ of religious activity through the establishment of new religious orders and the papal call to a crusade. There was already a Muslim presence in western Europe (Spain) in the tenth and eleventh centuries but Pope Urban II’s call to arms in 1096 meant Europeans themselves went on the offensive. By 1099, when Jerusalem was taken by the Christians, a new term, ‘Frank’, was being used by Arabs and other non-Europeans to designate all ‘westerners’ (including Scots and English). Due to the activities of the crusaders the Christian West became more familiarised with its long-abandoned classical heritage and was also being exposed to Arabic practices in medicine and technology, which were more advanced than in the west. The establishment of trading colonies in the East also saw huge movement on roads which had not been used to such an extent since the fall of the Roman Empire. Many traders introduced Europe to Eastern goods, which improved the European diet.
The Book of Deer’s 12th century Latin charter was granted by David I (1124-53), youngest son of Malcolm and Margaret and one of the most significant monarchs in Scottish history. During childhood he spent a period of exile at the English court where he was exposed to Norman influences. Undoubtedly this led to a policy of the gradual ‘Normanisation’ of Scotland, as witnessed in such developments as the growth of burghs and the first Scottish coinage. David I encouraged the immigration of Continental nobility to Scotland and he extended his own power to Carlisle which resulted in a shift of power southwards to the Lothians, along with a cultivation of ‘Inglis’ at the expense of Gaelic. His patronage of new monastries also encouraged an influx of French and English monks who brought with them a different understanding of church hierarchy and discipline. However, this does not mean the Gaelic heritage was entirely neglected; David I’s interest in Gregorian monastic reform aligned him with other Celtic church reformers such as St Malachy.
At the same time as Scotland was undergoing fuedalisation England underwent a period of anarchy and confusion under the reign of Stephen (1135-1154). The cultural developments at this time were nevertheless diverse: in northern France the ‘Gothic’ style of architecture was being pioneered and in Normandy the practice of medicine was being professionalised. Later in the century universities would be founded, first in Italy (Bologna) and Paris, and later at Oxford and Cambridge. By the thirteenth century the establishment of a Cistercian monastery at Deer would reflect the ‘Europeanisation’ of even an outlying kingdom like Scotland.