Throughout Scottish history, there have been great Scottish kings ranging from Shakespearean villains to unifiers, from conquerors to peacemakers. Many factors have been considered when putting together this list of the greatest Scottish kings, including strength of reign, victories in battle, economic hardships, international and domestic relations, and more. In this list, key figures such as William the Lion and Robert the Bruce will be discussed, as well as lesser-known monarchs like James IV.
1. Macbeth (1040-57): Scottish King and Shakespearean Villain
A name most often associated with William Shakespeare rather than real Scottish kings, Macbeth is the first great king on this list. Little is known of Macbeth’s early life, although it has been claimed that he was born around 1005 and was a grandson of King Malcolm II of Scotland (r. 1005-34). His father was a man named Findláech, and he was King of Moray, a semi-autonomous province in north-east Scotland. In 1032, Macbeth was made Earl of Moray.
In 1040, the King of Scotland, Duncan I (r. 1034-40) wanted to incorporate Moray into Scottish territory, so he launched an attack against the province. On the 14th of August 1040, at the Battle of Bothnagowan, Macbeth’s troops were victorious, and even better, Duncan I was killed in action. Macbeth seized the crown of Scotland for himself and miraculously became king.
Surprisingly, Macbeth’s reign was relatively unchallenged; throughout Scotland, he was accepted as the new king. As for Duncan’s family, there was little opposition from them. In 1045, Duncan’s father and brother were both killed in battle, while his widow fled Scotland with their children (two of whom would become Scottish kings in the future: Malcolm III and Donald III).
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As Macbeth’s reign was largely uncontested, it enabled him to travel further afield than many of his predecessors had. In 1050, he made a pilgrimage to Rome, and, according to Marianus Scotus (an eleventh-century Irish monk and chronicler), Macbeth gave money to the poor as if it were seed.
Four years later, the English Earl of Northumberland led a campaign into Scotland, which resulted in the Battle of Dunsinane on 27 July 1054. It was reported that 3000 Scots and 1500 English troops were killed in battle. Macbeth did not survive for much longer, as in 1057 while on campaign in the north, he was killed by a son of Duncan I, the future Malcolm III.
Macbeth is generally seen as a tyrant among Scottish king, largely thanks to Shakespeare. Yet during his reign, there are no recorded contemporary sources which refer to him that way. There are also no reports of Macbeth having dealt with witches (thankfully!), but his name still conjures up images of Scottish myths and legends.
2. Malcolm III (1058-93): Father of Four Scottish Kings
Next up on our list of the greatest Scottish kings is King Malcolm III, who ruled from 1058-93. The eldest son of King Duncan I (r. 1034-40), Malcolm fled Scotland with his mother following Macbeth’s accession to the throne . Quite where Malcolm ended up varies in different stories, although it is often thought that he was sent to England for safety, while his younger brother, Donald, was sent to the Isles.
When the Earl of Northumberland invaded Scotland in 1054, his sole aim was to restore Malcolm to the Scottish throne, which had been usurped by Macbeth. This particular attempt was a failure, but a raid into Aberdeenshire three years later saw Macbeth killed at the hands of Malcolm. Macbeth’s stepson Lulach suceeded him but he reigned for a mere eight months before he was killed by Malcolm on 23 April 1058.
In 1065, Malcolm gave refuge to Tostig Godwinson, after the Northumbrians had driven him out. He also granted asylum to a group of English exiles who fled William of Normandy’s invasion in 1066, shortly before he proclaimed himself King William I of England (r. 1066-87).
In 1069, the exiles left Scotland and began stirring up a rebellion in northern England. Over the course of the next few years, Malcolm raided as far south as Teesdale and Cleveland, and by 1070 he had married Margaret of Wessex.
The marriage was an interesting one — and the names of their children became more Anglicized, representing a break from traditional Scottish names such as Kenneth and Malcolm. Among their children were Edward, Edgar, Alexander, and David. Margaret also bore two daughters by Malcolm — Matilda (who would go on to marry the future King Henry I of England, making Malcolm his father-in-law), and Mary, who married Eustace III of Boulogne (a member of the First Crusade).
Following William the Conqueror’s death, his son, William II, became King of England. Although there had generally been peace between the two kings, negotiations broke down and they were preparations for war. On the 13th of November 1093, at the Battle of Alnwick, Malcolm III was killed, alongside his son, Edward. Margaret was devastated and died just 9 days later.
Malcolm not only established Scotland as a warring state but he also established the Dunkeld dynasty, which would go on to rule the country until the thirteenth century. He also fathered four Scottish kings (Duncan II, Edgar, Alexander I, and David I), and married his daughters into good European royal houses, establishing good connections in England and across the Continent.
3. David I (1124-53): The Pious King
Around 66 years after his father had been crowned, David I came to the throne. Born around 1084, David was Malcolm III’s youngest son, and thus his reign had been unexpected from the beginning. Nevertheless, he succeeded to the throne becoming Scottish king in 1124, upon the death of his brother Alexander, and would rule for just under thirty years.
Upon Malcolm III’s death, his younger brother, Donald took the crown, crowning himself as King Donald III of Scotland. However, King William II of England (r. 1087-1100) opposed Donald’s rule, and sent Malcolm’s eldest son, Duncan, to take the crown. He reigned for less than six months as King Duncan II until he was killed in November 1094, then Donald took the crown again. Three years later, Malcolm’s next eldest son, Edgar, was sent to Scotland, and he took the crown from Donald III and was crowned King Edgar of Scotland.
Edgar would reign for ten years, and when he died, the crown was passed to Malcolm’s next son, Alexander, who became King Alexander I of Scotland. Alexander died in 1124, leaving David as the Scottish king. However, David had to struggle against his nephew, and Alexander’s illegitimate son, for control of the crown. He eventually defeated him, and reigned in general prosperity.
Having grown up in both Scottish and English courts, David was particularly influenced by the Anglo-French fashions in England, and he brought them to the Scottish court when he became king. Like his brothers Edgar and Alexander, David was also notably pious, granting lands to the Church and also founding monasteries across Scotland.
Thanks to his interest in Anglo-Norman culture, Norman English became the predominant language spoken at court, while Gaelic was still spoken in the Highlands and Norse in the far north and the Isles. David was also heavily involved in the struggle for succession in England, following the death of his brother-in-law, King Henry I of England (r. 1100-35), in 1135. Naturally, David supported the claim of Henry’s daughter, Matilda, while King Stephen (r. 1135-54) attempted to usurp her.
In 1138, David invaded England, taking both Carlisle and Newcastle, before being defeated at the Battle of the Standard near Northallerton, North Yorkshire. Eventually, Stephen ceded, and granted David control of Northumbria under the Treaty of Durham in 1139, recognizing him as king of an independent Scotland.
David’s only son Henry died in 1152, leaving his son Malcolm (and thus David’s grandson) as heir to the Scottish throne. A year later, on 24 May 1153, David himself died at Carlisle Castle, aged around 69 years old. Thanks to his pious nature, David is recognised as a saint by the Catholic Church, with a feast day every 24th of May.
4. William I (1165-1214): The Lion King
Following his brother (King Malcolm IV’s) short reign (r. 1153-65), William ascended the throne on the 9th of December 1165. He would go on to have the second-longest rule of any Scottish monarch, reigning for 48 years.
Malcolm had died at the young age of 24, and as he had no children, so William became king. Unlike his pious brother, William was regarded as headstrong and warrior-like, hence his sobriquet: the Lion.
Like many of his forebears, he did not have a positive relationship with the English king, who at the time was King Henry II (r. 1154-89) . Following a heated exchange with Henry, in 1168 he made the first definite treaty of alliance between Scotland and France, which would in later years come to be known as the Auld Alliance.
Next, at the Battle of Alnwick on 13 July 1174, William was captured by English forces and transferred over to Normandy. He finally gave in to his captors and paid the equivalent of £26,000 to Henry for his release. In December of the same year, he signed the Treaty of Falaise, which formally acknowledged England’s dominion over Scotland. He then returned to Scotland, and in 1175, he swore fealty to Henry at York Castle.
On the religious side of things, on the other hand, William argued with Pope Alexander III, and won! He managed to secure a deal that meant that the Scottish Church only reported to Rome, thus denying Henry’s attempt to make the Scottish Church answerable to the English Church, which would then report to Rome. The Treaty of Falaise stayed in place until 1189, when Richard I (the Lionheart) was on the English throne, and needed money for the Third Crusade. Richard agreed to terminate the Treaty in return for £6500.
Despite the Scots regaining their independence, Anglo-Scottish relations remained tense through the early thirteenth century. King John of England (who ascended the throne in 1199) flexed English muscles at Berwick to show off his strength to the aging King William, and managed to secure a marriage of William’s only son, Alexander, to his daughter Joan.
William died, aged about 72, of natural causes in Sterling on 4 December 1214. He was buried at Arbroath Abbey (which he founded in 1192), and was succeeded by his son, Alexander II. In addition to his nickname, the Lion is still used on the Royal Banner of Scotland, which can be traced back to William’s reign.
5. Alexander III (1249-86): The Last King of Dunkeld
Following his father, King Alexander II’s death, Alexander III came to the Scottish throne aged just 7. Thanks to his young age and not yet reaching his majority (which was 21 years old at the time), Alexander’s early reign was dominated by two rival parties.
In 1251, aged just 10, he was married to Margaret of England, a daughter of King Henry III. Henry used the opportunity to demand that Alexander pay homage to him — Alexander refused, but eventually complied in 1255.
Once he had reached his age of majority in 1262, he continued from where his father had left off by attempting to claim the Western Isles for Scotland. He laid out a formal claim to King Haakon IV of Norway, but it was rejected. Haakon responded with an invasion a year later.
After sailing round the western coast of Scotland, he met with Alexander on the Isle of Arran, where Alexander both delayed and prolonged their talks until the autumnal storm season began.
Haakon eventually decided to attack Scotland, but, as Alexander had planned, the Norwegian king was caught in a storm, and had to turn back home to Norway. However, he never made it back to Norway, dying in Orkney on the 15th of December 1263.
Alexander now had the upper hand. In 1266, Haakon’s successor, King Magnus VI, signed the Treaty of Perth with Alexander and ceded the Western Isles (the Outer Hebrides) and the Isle of Man to Scotland, in return for a monetary payment. Alexander had won territory that had evaded his family before him.
Alexander’s wife, Margaret, died in 1275 after she had given him three children. However, all three children died before Alexander had, leaving the Scottish succession in turmoil. His eldest daughter, also called Margaret, had married King Eric II of Norway — and they had a daughter together (also called Margaret). Alexander made his three-year-old granddaughter, Margaret, Maid of Norway, his heir presumptive.
Alexander died aged just 44 on the 19th of March 1286, after falling from his horse and breaking his neck, despite repeated warnings that he should not ride in a storm in the dark. Despite his premature death, Alexander achieved great things and certainly deserves a place as one of Scotland’s greatest kings. However, he is often overlooked simply because of the succession crisis which followed his death: Scotland entered a period known as the interregnum, which was not fully solved until 1306, when the next great Scottish king on this list took the crown.
6. Robert I (1306-29): Scotland’s National Hero
Following the Guardian of Scotland, John Balliol’s, abdication in 1296, Scotland entered its Second Interregnum period. During this period there were a number of men who came forward as Guardians of Scotland while the country was kingless — the two most famous were William Wallace, and Robert the Bruce.
Due to his family line (Robert was a fourth great-grandson of King David I), Robert inherited the Scottish throne (or, rather, seized it) and was crowned as King Robert I on 25 March 1306.
Later the same year, King Edward I’s English forces defeated Robert’s Scottish forces at the Battle of Methven, forcing Robert to go into hiding. However, he emerged victorious at the next battle (Loudoun Hill) on the 10th of May 1307, fought against the new English king Edward II, who was not a warrior like his father.
The key victory in Robert’s reign came four years later, and it is often regarded as the most important victory in Scottish history: the Battle of Bannockburn, on the 24th of June 1314. The numerically inferior Scottish forces rounded on the English army, and defeated them soundly, with many of the English drowning in the Bannock stream. This victory helped to establish Robert’s position as king of an independent Scotland, and inspired the nobles to write to Pope John XXII (the Declaration of Arbroath, 1320) so that he could confirm it. Four years later, he did.
In 1326, the Auld Alliance was renewed between Scotland and France following the Treaty of Corbeil. A year later, Edward II was deposed in favor of his son, King Edward III of England, and in 1328, peace was concluded between the two nations at the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton. The most important term of this treaty was that Edward III renounced all claims of sovereignty over Scotland.
However, just a year later, on 7 June 1329, Robert the Bruce died of an illness some historians claim may have been leprosy. His legacy is that of a Scottish national hero — from being portrayed in films such as Braveheart and Outlaw King, to having his name become synonymous with successful times in Scottish history. He is, without a doubt, one of Scotland’s greatest kings, if not the greatest Scottish king in history.
7. James II (1437-60): The People’s King
Following the assassination of King James I, the king’s six-year-old son succeeded him as King James II of Scotland. James was a twin, but his brother Alexander died before the pair turned one, leaving James as the only heir.
When he was 18, in 1449, he married Mary of Guelders. The couple went on to have seven children, six of whom survived into adulthood — a great achievement for the fifteenth century. Additionally, the couple’s marriage greatly strengthened the relationship between Scotland and Flanders.
By the time James had come of age, he initially struggled to gain control of the country. Two rival clans — the Douglases and the Livingstons — had been ruling the country during James’ early years, and this in-fighting continued, even when he became king.
Eventually, William Douglas, the 8th Earl of Douglas, was murdered on the 22nd of February 1452, which created a civil war in Scotland for the next three years. The Douglases were finally defeated at the Battle of Arkinholm on the 1st of May 1455, ending the Douglas struggle for power.
Between 1455-60, James extensively traveled the country, establishing relationships with areas that had not been visited by the sitting monarch for decades, or even centuries. He was renowned for conversing with common people, from peasants to pub landlords.
James II was also a keen artillery enthusiast, which ultimately led to his death. In 1460, he attempted to besiege Roxburgh Castle, one of the last remaining Scottish castles still held by the English following the Wars of Independence. James II had ensured that a large number of cannons from Flanders were taken to the castle to help with the siege warfare. On the 3rd of August 1460, while standing next to a cannon, it exploded, killing James instantly. Nevertheless, the Scots continued with the siege, and finally won the castle back a few days later.
James’s widow ordered the destruction of the castle, and installed their eldest son, James III, as king of Scotland. She would act as regent until her death three years later. James II deserves to be remembered as a great Scottish king because of his extensive travels around his kingdom, and the fact he would converse with commoners — something which very few monarchs had done before him, and something which very few did afterwards.
8. James IV (1488-1513): Powerful Scottish King and Last British Monarch to be Killed in Battle
Like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him (who, incidentally, were all called James), King James IV came to the throne at a young age (fifteen to be precise), after his father (King James III) was killed at the Battle of Sauchieburn on 11 June 1488.
However, completely unlike his father, James IV is often regarded as the most successful of the Stewart monarchs. Little is known of James’s early life, save that he received a good education; he excelled at languages, could speak Latin, Spanish, French, Italian, and was the last Scottish monarch known to have spoken Gaelic.
During his father’s tumultuous reign, Prince James led a rebellion against his father, which culminated in his father’s death. James had allegedly forbidden anyone to harm his father, and lived with the guilt for the rest of his life. It was reported that he wore an iron belt around his waist, and added more weight to it every year, as penance for his sin of patricide.
However, James also proved to be a wise and effective ruler. Alliances with France and Spain were renewed, while a truce was commissioned with King Henry VII of England in 1493, and again in 1497. The second treaty worked wonders, as James IV agreed to marry Henry VII’s eldest daughter, Margaret Tudor, thus uniting the Scottish and English crowns upon their marriage in 1503. (This also meant that James IV was Henry VIII’s brother-in-law).
The long period of peace with England following his marriage to Margaret meant that James could focus on foreign affairs: he made peace with the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, and he helped his Danish uncle in his struggle against Sweden. Pope Julius II even granted James the title of “Protector and Defender of the Christian Faith” in 1507.
However, peace was not to last. In 1513, Henry VIII invaded France as part of the Holy League, and James chose to honor the Auld Alliance, rather than the peace with England. As a result, James led an army south into England and was killed at the ensuing Battle of Flodden Field on the 9th of September 1513, aged 40. He was the last monarch in Great Britain to be killed in battle.
Despite the premature end to King James IV’s reign, he is worth remembering as one of the greatest Scottish kings for a number of reasons. Firstly, he restored the peace that his father had disrupted and he gained an important marriage alliance with England (which would eventually result in his grandson King James VI of Scotland becoming King James I of England in 1603).