Alba as ‘Britain’ after 900 and the
Pictish Antecedents of the Kingdom of the Scots
It has long been known that Alba was originally a Gaelic word for ‘Britain’,1 and that it acquired its modern meaning of ‘Scotland’ through its use as the Gaelic term for the kingdom of the Scots since the tenth century. Some pressing questions remain unanswered, however. In chapter 1 it was asked whether rí Alban, if it literally meant ‘king of Britain’, was originally a claim to be paramount ruler of Britain, as Michael Davidson has suggested. It finds no corroboration in any text of historical fiction (such as the early sections of a king-list), however, and would have been completely divorced from political reality. In the light of this it is little wonder that other explanations of Alba in this context have been favoured. All modern discussions have as their starting point the fact that, in those sources with the best claim to preserve contemporary record, the appearance of Alba as the kingdom's name coincides with the disappearance of any further reference to the Picts. The Pictish kingdom was ostensibly replaced by Gaelic Alba, as if Alba represented a deliberate break with Pictish identity, or at least a fundamental refashioning of Pictish kingship. How is this to be squared, however, with the indications in the previous chapter that the kingship's Pictish past continued to play a pivotal role in defining the kingdom as late as the reign of Mael Coluim III (1058–93)? It appears, in short, that the kingship of Alba after 900 cannot be explained straightforwardly either as a kingship of Britain or as a selfconsciously Gaelic renaming designed to mark a break with Pictish kingship. In this chapter it is argued that another explanation is available: one in which the Britishness of Alba is fully acknowledged without supposing that this meant a claim to be the predominant king of the whole island, and in which continuity with the Picts is seen not as a historiographical device, but as a fundamental facet of the kingship's identity. What lies at the heart of both is the compelling logic of the landmass between the Forth and the north coast as a concept that could legitimise the kingship's claim to be the highest secular authority in northern Britain.