by Nigel Tranter

Reviewed by David Maclaine

Kenneth is the story of one of the most remarkable and enduring events of the Viking Age. In the tumult of Norse and Danish assaults in the ninth century, kingdoms were overthrown, and an empire broke into fragments. But in the north of Britain a remarkable figure bucked that trend. The Kenneth of Nigel Tranter's novel is Kenneth MacAlpin, founder of a dynasty that would rule for more than 800 years. As the tale begins, its title character is only a little-heeded grandson of the king of Dalriada, a realm of former Irish immigrants still clinging to a patch of coast between the Britons of Strathclyde and the much larger Pictish Kingdom of Alba, whose leaders are already closely related by intermarriage with Kenneth's family. Kenneth, his grandfather Eochaidh and King Angus of Alba are returning from a raid, hard-pressed by Saxon enemies. They win a victory after some crucial decisions by the young prince and a cross-shaped cloud in the sky that convinces them of Saint Andrew's assistance. A search for relics of that saint follows, another of the author's trademark outings into a lovely countryside of a young man and an appealing young woman, and then a series of missions by Kenneth in which he attempts to strike back at the Northmen afflicting their shore and to unite the Celtic kingdoms against the invaders.

Readers who take up the novel may be aware that by its end Kenneth, now known as the Norse-Slayer, will unite two realms in a new kingdom. Before then, he must fight more than a few battles, which the author lays out with care and skill, and meet an assortment of interesting characters. As is usual in a Tranter novel, the greatest descriptive powers are deployed in a detailed account of the land: the hills and shores of every journey and, in this case, especially the islands and inlets not only of the Picts and Scots, but also of Northern Ireland, Cumbria and Wales. Along the way Kenneth provides a keen and loving view of the birth pangs that gave us Scotland. (1990, 352 pages)

More about Kenneth at

Kenneth appears on the list of The 45 Best Historical Novels Set in the Viking Age

Other novels set in early medieval Scotland:

Far After Gold by Jen Black (2009), historical romance set in the tenth century about a Christian woman from the Hebrides kidnapped and sold to a pagan Viking. See Carla Nayland's review or more info at

The Island House by Posie Graeme-Evans (2012), about a present-day archaeology student and a Pictish girl from 800 A.D. who suffered from the clash of three religions and was cast out of her Christian community for falling in love with a Viking. More info

High Kings and Vikings by Nigel Tranter (1998), about the thane of Glamis during a period of raiding by the Viking leader Thorfinn of Orkney at the turn of the eleventh century. More info

Nonfiction about early Scottish history:

Early Medieval Scotland: Individuals, Communities and Ideas by David Clarke et al. (2013). More info

Picts, Gaels and Scots by Sally Foster (revised edition, 2004). More info

Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland, 80-1000 A.D. by Alfred Smyth (1989). More info


Kenneth MacAlpin at Wikipedia

Back to Novels of the Medieval Celts

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