Kingdom of Scotland: Key Moments That Shaped Its History

With an 864-year existence, the Kingdom of Scots was home to many remarkable events and significant figures.

Jul 8, 2023By Anthony Arcane, BA Anthropology (Archaeology Concentration), MSc Ancient Cultures

kingdom of scotland


The origins of the Kingdom of Scotland can be traced back to 843 CE when Kenneth MacAlpin, King of the Scots of Dál Riata, inherited the throne of the Picts and formed a unified front. Spanning across 864 years, the Kingdom of Scots would be at the forefront of expansion, wars, and unionization. As a result, the Kingdom of Scotland was rich with heroic and controversial figures.


The Expansion of the Kingdom of Scots

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Macbeth, King of Scotland, by Jacob Jacobsz De Wet II, 1684 – 1686 CE, via the Royal Collection Trust


When Kenneth MacAlpin passed away in 900 CE, his unified kingdom covered southern and central Scotland, extending from modern-day Argyll to Caithness. While Donald II and Constantine II, Kenneth’s successors, would later establish the legitimacy of the Kingdom of Scotland, Kenneth was still regarded as the King of the Picts and Dal Riáta rather than the King of “Scotland”. As established in Archie Duncan’s The Kingship of the Scots 842 – 1292, it wasn’t until either Donald II or Constantine II, that the title of King of Scotland was used.


In 1034 CE, Duncan I became the King of Scotland and he would later attempt to expand the kingdom’s territory with unsuccessful operations to seize Moray and Durham. Although Duncan I failed to expand the Kingdom of Scotland’s territory, he did usher in the reign of a significant historical figure — Macbeth.


The Kingdom of Scotland would extend its borders using treaties: The Treaty of York established the boundaries between Scotand and England, near the modern borders in 1237 CE. Following the Battle of Largs and the Treaty of Perth, the Kingdom of Scotland had seized the west coast of Scotland, and by 1266 CE, during the reign of Alexander III. Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, Orkney, and Shetland were later integrated through the Marriage of Erik II of Norway and Margaret of Scotland in 1281 CE. As a result of their union, the Scotland we know today was created. Further expansion of the Kingdom of Scotland would halt with the Wars of Scottish Independence.

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The Kingdom of Scotland and the Wars of Scottish Independence

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The ivory handled Hawthornen Sword erroneously believed to have belonged to Robert the Bruce, 1501 – 1600 CE, via the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh


So, how did the Wars of Scottish Independence start? In 1286 CE, following the death of Alexander III, the King of Scotland, Scotland was left in the hands of his three-year-old granddaughter Margaret, Maid of Norway. But, already in the middle of disarray, Margaret died in 1290 CE while sailing near Orkney. Margaret’s death created rivals for the succession and an empty Scottish throne that needed to be filled.


Capitalizing on the inner turmoil between the top two rivals, Robert de Brus, 5th Lord of Annandale and John Balliol, Lord of Galloway, Edward I of England pronounced himself Lord Paramount of Scotland in 1291 CE. Whoever was chosen to be the King of Scotland, did so under the sovereignty of the King of England. In 1292 CE, Edward I crowned Balliol the King of Scotland, but their relationship was anything but equitable.


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Copper alloy aquamanile in the form of a knight, 1275 – 1300 CE, via the British Museum, London


The relationship between England and the Kingdom of Scotland was dysfunctional immediately. Edward I seized every Scottish fortress, forced every Scottish official to retire in favor of his own, and demanded Scottish nobility pledge allegiance to himself. In doing so, Edward I sowed the seeds of the Wars of Scottish independence.


Balliol proved to be rebellious, and rightfully so, when Edward I demanded military aid from Scotland in 1294 CE for his war in Gascony, France. Not wanting Scotland’s men to fight someone else’s war, Balliol sought to establish the Auld Alliance, a covenant of mutual aid with the French, in 1295 CE. Upon hearing of the Franco-Scottish negotiations, Edward I strengthened his northern borders in preparation for conflict with Scotland and the war began.


With great swiftness, Edward I sacked Berwick, Scotland’s most important trading port in 1296 CE. Thousands of residents would be massacred by Edward’s forces. A month later, the English force was victorious at the Battle of Dunbar forcing Balliol to surrender the Kingdom of Scotland to Edward I. Not only did the English subdue most of Scotland rather quickly but they sought to strip the nation of its identity. Edward I removed the Stone of Scone, a stone used for the inauguration of Scotland’s monarchs, from Scone Abbey to Westminster Abbey, a final nail in the coffin.


Sir William Wallace

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Sir William Wallace portrait, by an unknown artist, 1870 CE, via


Although Balliol surrendered, one of Scotland’s most influential heroes, Sir William Wallace was still causing havoc and inspiring the Scottish people. Fanning the flames of  war, Wallace attacked Lanark and killed Sheriff Hazelrig in 1297 CE. Of course, the previous encounter wasn’t unprovoked. Although historians doubt her existence, Wallace’s secretly married wife, Marion Braidfoot, was supposedly executed by Sheriff Hazelrig before Wallace slew him in an act of vengeance.


Whether or not Braidfoot existed, the murder of Hazelrig marked the point of no return. Acting as the appointed Guardian of the Realm, Wallace would continue to oppose English rule when other Scottish nobles surrendered to Edward I in 1297 CE under the Treaty of Irvine. The most significant and well-known of Wallace’s victories was the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 CE. Despite the English force likely being larger than that of Scotland’s, Wallace and Andrew de Moray would use the terrain to their advantage. The English units that had crossed a bridge and were trapped by the natural curves of the river and an approaching schiltron — a shield wall formation with spears extended. The English units that were unable to cross the bridge witnessed their first major defeat.


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Engraving of London Bridge Gate with heads on pikes, by C.J. Visscher, 1606 CE, via the British Library, London


However, Wallace was nearing his end. Wallace would suffer a crushing loss at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298 CE. The Battle of Falkirk was not only a major defeat for the Scottish army, but Wallace also resigned as Guardian of Scotland and went into hiding for seven years. Wallace was later betrayed by John de Menteith in 1305 and captured near Glasgow. After Wallace was handed over to the English and tried for treason, he was hung, quartered, and beheaded.


With his head mounted on London Bridge and his dismembered remains being sent to the four corners of Scotland, the War of Scottish Independence was all but over. Although Wallace met a brutal demise at the hands of the English and served as a warning, Wallace became a Scottish hero and an enduring symbol of bravery.


Robert the Bruce

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Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland, by Jacob Jacobsz De Wet II, 1684 – 1686 CE, via the Royal Collection Trust


After Scotland’s hero was killed by the English, another legendary figure stepped forward to defend the Kingdom of Scotland: Robert the Bruce. As the Earl of Carrick, Robert the Bruce supported William Wallace’s rebellious campaigns against Edward I and was appointed a Guardian of Scotland in 1298 CE. After Balliol’s release from London Tower in 1299 CE and departure to France, Scotland was left without a monarch again. Despite Bruce’s initial rebellious nature, Bruce would return to Edward I’s peaceful side and submit to him in 1302 CE. It wasn’t until Bruce inherited his family’s claim to the Scottish throne after the death of Robert de Brus, 6th Lord of Annandale, that Bruce would begin to change Scotland’s fortunes.


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1st Great Seal of Robert the Bruce, 1306 CE, via the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh


In 1306 CE, there were two candidates for the empty throne of Scotland, Bruce and John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch. Already rivals, Bruce would murder Comyn at Dumfries in 1306 CE, earning Edward I’s outrage and causing contention throughout the land. Following the death of Comyn, Bruce quickly traveled to Scone and was crowned King of Scotland by Bishop William de Lamberton. Edward I considered Bruce a traitor and sought to destroy any chance of another uprising. The beginning was difficult for the new king of Scotland.


The English defeated Bruce at the Battle of Methven, and Clan MacDougall defeated him at the Battle of Dalrigh in 1306 CE. To make matters worse, the English captured Bruce’s wife and executed three of his brothers. With very little choice, Bruce became a fugitive and sought refuge in Ireland. In 1313 CE, Bruce emerged from hiding, defeated John Comyn, Earl of Buchan, and captured Perth. Bruce’s success grew with the conquering of Galloway, Douglasdale, and Edinburgh by 1314 CE. Bruce’s final and most crucial victory came at Bannockburn against Edward II and a significantly larger English force.


With 6,000 Scottish soldiers against 25,000 English soldiers, Bruce’s victory proved that Scotland’s forces were not to be underestimated. Despite the victory at Bannockburn, it wasn’t until 1328 CE with the Treaty of Northampton that the English recognized Bruce as the King of Scots. Additionally, the English abandoned all English claims to the Scottish throne.


The Union of the Crowns

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Mary Queen of Scots pendant, 1542 – 1587 CE, via the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh


Between 1525 and 1560 CE, the Kingdom of Scotland underwent the Scottish Reformation and began to alter centuries of traditional beliefs. As a result, political prowess and faith rather than militarism distinguished leaders. Leaders such as Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, John Knox, and James VI would temper the Kingdom of Scotland’s trajectory towards being unified with the Kingdom of England.


Mary Queen of Scots

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Blairs Memorial Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, commissioned by Elizabeth Curle, 1600 CE, via Blairs Museum, Aberdeen, via


Perhaps the most famous and controversial female figure in Scottish history, Mary Queen of Scots is somebody that to this day intrigues the masses. At just six days old, following the death of James V of Scotland, Mary inherited the throne of Scotland and was immediately thrown into the heart of politics. Europe was dominated by monarchies that aimed to expand their alliances and power by means of marriage. Despite her age, Mary was used as a marriage pawn by England and France. Due to failed negotiations between Scotland and England, Mary was sent to France in hopes of securing an alliance. Following the nine year period of the “Rough Wooing”— a war started by the ambitions of King Henry VIII to exert dominion over Scotland, Mary returned to Scotland in the middle of Scottish Reformation at the age of 18.


The Scottish Reformation replaced the Catholic church, which had been powerful in Scotland for over five hundred years. Due to Protestant figures such as James Knox and Elizabeth I, Mary underwent a plethora of misfortunes due to her faith. Mary, already  being Catholic, challenged the Protestant reformation and would not help matters by arranging her son James VI of Scotland and I of England to be baptized in the Catholic faith. After fleeing Scotland in 1568 CE, Mary was imprisoned for 19 years before she was found guilty of treason and executed in 1587 CE.


The Kingdom of Scotland and the Act of Union

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James VI of Scotland and James I of England, by Jacob Jacobsz De Wet II, 1684 – 1686 CE, via the Royal Collection Trust


Despite Mary Queen of Scots having been executed, her legacy would live on. Mary’s son, James VI succeeded to the Scottish throne at 13 months old. Following the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 CE, James VI succeeded to the English throne and became James VI of Scotland and James I of England — a moment that would be identified as the Union of the Crowns. In 1604 CE, James proclaimed himself King of Great Britain and paved the road for the future Act of Union. Although the relationship of James and Mary was strained due to the political unrest, her death was not in vain. In 1606 CE, James ordered the construction of a magnificent tomb for his mother in Westminster Abbey, an endeavour that would take six years to complete.


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Wood Ceiling Boss from Linlithgow Palace, 1617 CE, via the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh


James’ first step to creating a unified front was to establish a unified Church of Scotland and England, a task that would lead to the Wars of the Three Kingdoms from 1639 to 1651 CE. The wars would be followed by a period of turbulence known as the Seven Ill Years during the 1690s. It wasn’t until 1707 CE that the Act of Union would finally be implemented. The Act of Union created a single Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and would mark the end of the Kingdom of Scotland. Although the United Kingdom was established, one of the darkest and most romanticized periods of Great Britain would begin in 1708 CE, the Jacobite Risings in Scotland.

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By Anthony ArcaneBA Anthropology (Archaeology Concentration), MSc Ancient CulturesAnthony Arcane is an experienced explorer, archaeologist, academic, adventure-athlete, and classicist with a focus on Eastern and European material culture. Arcane's focus is emphasized through the study of material culture and ancient texts in: Greek, Roman, Celtic, Viking and Late Norse, Egyptian, Scythian, Native American, and the Ancient Kingdoms of Britain. Arcane founded Horizons International Archaeological and Environmental Co. Arcane has been approached by National Geographic and the Discovery Channel due to his intense passion for the ancient world. Having traveled the world, Arcane is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a member of the Explorers' Club.