Did tenth century Scotland have a black King?


In a few esoteric corners of the Internet, one will come across the assertion that Kenneth III, King of Scots from 997 to 1005, was of African origin. It's a fascinating notion - but is there any truth to it?

Image: Victorian engraving of King Kenneth, sourced from www.britannica.com.

Content note: othering; slavery, including possible sex slavery.

There has been some excellent work done recently refuting the notion that medieval European society was one hundred per cent white, but unfortunately the subject has also attracted some highly eccentric theorists. One of the most extreme manifestations has been the assertion, occasionally seen in corners of the Internet, that anyone and everyone known as “So-and-so the Black” (dubh, svart, niger, etc.), was actually of African descent. The most prominent example to have been latched onto, notably promoted by medievalpoc.tumblr.com, has been Kenneth III, King of Scots 997 – 1005. The idea of a black King of Scots seems bizarrely counter to all expectations, but that does not of itself make it false. So is it true? Was Kenneth black?

The first thing to note is that “Black So-and-so” has always been, and remains to this day, a commonplace nickname in Scotland referring to hair colour. Somebody “the Black” need no more be African than Rob Roy MacGregor was Native American because ruadh means red. Furthermore, Kenneth was not actually called Cínaed Dubh at all, but Cínaed mac Dhuibh: Dubh was not a descriptor, but his father’s name. He was actually known as Cínaed an Donn, Kenneth the Brown.

So, case closed? Not quite. Those very errors over what Kenneth was called are precisely what keep it open. If he had actually been “Kenneth the Black”, it could be assumed to refer purely to his hair, just as if he were called “the Red” or indeed “the White”. But brown is the default hair colour of white North Europeans. Brown hair could never have been considered worth remarking on: when people were called “the Brown”, it almost certainly did refer to skin colour.

But an Donn might actually mean “the Chief”; and even if it does mean that he was unusually swarthy, it wouldn’t necessarily indicate non-white heritage. So what do we actually know about Kenneth’s immediate ancestry?

The first thing to say is that half of it is completely unknown: there is no record of who his mother was. His father, Dubh, was a son of King Malcolm I. Tenth century Scotland was racked by a generation-spanning feud between the families of Malcolm and his rival King Indulf: Dubh reigned 962-67 before being killed, probably on the orders of Indulf's son Cuilen, who succeeded him only to be overthrown himself in 971 by Dubh's younger brother, who duly became Kenneth II.

While “Dubh” was a commonplace epithet for the black-haired, it was a very unusual personal name; I am not aware of another Dubh in any medieval genealogy. (The Chronicle of the Kings of Alba actually translates it literally into Latin, calling him “Niger” – but it does the same thing with Cuilen, who is rendered as “Caniculus” or “little dog”.) Why did King Malcolm name his son “Black”?

Dubh’s mother, like Kenneth’s, is unknown to history. Their male line ancestry goes back to the Dalriadic kings, and thence to Ireland: there is no doubting the “whiteness” of that side: but is it possible that there could have been an African strain in the female line? Neither written record nor archaeology has revealed any direct contact between tenth century Scotland and any part of Africa: but the word “direct” is key here. A connection can be traced.

In the eighth century, much of the Iberian peninsula had been conquered by Muslim armies of largely Moroccan Berber extraction, and many more Africans had settled there since. Contact had quickly sprung up between Moorish al-Andalus and Ireland: Hiberno-Spanish trading contacts had existed since prehistoric times, and the new rulers were in no hurry to lose them. Diplomatic contacts seem to have been established as well, though these did not prevent the Norse warlords who had settled on Ireland’s coast from raiding Iberia for goods and slaves. (Indeed, around 859, Norwegian exiles based in the Orkneys led a raid on Morocco itself, sacking the city of Nekor after a fierce battle and carrying off hundreds of captives to Ireland. Two noblewomen were later ransomed, but most of the prisoners were enslaved; the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland record that "those black men remained in Ireland for a long time". I was not aware of this raid when I originally wrote this article, but learned of it through the excellent blog of Dr Caitlin Green.)

Contact between Ireland and Scotland, meanwhile, was of course constant. Gaelic was then still a single language; the Kings of Scots – both dynasties – were keenly aware of their Irish heritage, basing their legitimacy on that rather than on the Pictish side of their ancestry even though nine tenths of their subjects must have been Pictish; and the Hebrides, like coastal Ireland, were heavily settled by Vikings.

With Moorish slaves, whether captured in Viking raids or brought from al-Andalus by merchants, for sale in the markets of Dublin, some taken by Scottish-based captors, it would be highly surprising if some were not bought by Scottish masters and taken home. There is no evidence that any of the Moorish merchants or diplomats who visited Ireland made it as far as Scotland, but slaves almost certainly did, and their exotic appearance would have made them highly prized. A king, of course, would not have married a slave or freedwoman, but there is not the slightest reason to suppose that Dubh’s parents (or Dubh himself and Kenneth’s mother) were married: Celts and Scandinavians in this period were still largely unperturbed by bastardy. The later stigma against it was largely a consequence of the expanding power of the Church in the twelfth century.

We have, therefore, a plausible – though completely hypothetical – sequence of events. A black slave bought in Ireland could have been presented or sold to Malcolm I, could have become his concubine, and could have been the mother of Dubh – which would certainly account for his unusual name and his son’s presumed brown complexion. We will never know the truth, but it is an intriguing possibility.

Kenneth was killed in 1005 by his first cousin, Malcolm II, known as “the Destroyer”; his granddaughter Gruoch later married a grandson of this Malcolm, and they ruled together for seventeen years. His name was Macbeth. Later tradition, made famous by Shakespeare, says that he was killed by one of the MacDuff Mormaers of Fife – whose name indicates that they, too, were descended from King Dubh. Kenneth’s heirs lost the throne, but the MacDuff line persisted until the fourteenth century, and for over three hundred years it was a MacDuff who placed the crown on the head of each new King of Scots.

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