The unknown patriot

July 7, 2000

After 800 years, the tale of the Scottish 'man in the iron mask' is being told, writes Steve Farrar

For more than two decades, Malcolm MacAlisdair was held prisoner in a bleak border castle, ruminating on the kingdom he had lost. His is a remarkable, tragic story - the Scottish "man in the iron mask", who might have significantly altered the course of his nation's history. Yet it has remained untold.

Now a reinterpretation of the few surviving records by Alex Woolf, a scholar at the University of Edinburgh, may herald MacAlisdair's re-emergence. The research, to be reported next week at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds, suggests that he was a key Scottish patriot.

More than 800 years ago, MacAlisdair fought to dislodge his uncle, David I, the medieval moderniser of Scotland, but his foe defeated him with English support. Then came his long incarceration. "The prisoner of Roxburgh was clearly considered a serious contender to the throne," Woolf says. "For the first ten years of his reign, David faced very strong opposition to his succession. I would argue that his success was ultimately dependent upon the support of Henry I of England."

Woolf contends that MacAlisdair struggled for years to assert his claim to Scotland. He was the illegitimate son of Alexander I, who reigned until dying in 1124. Yet with rules of succession still not set, it was MacAlisdair's uncle, David, who took power and, with the help of Henry I, quelled his rival's supporters and locked him in Roxburgh. No details survive of what his life would have been like in the great Norman-style castle that David had built near Kelso, close to the border with Cumberland and Northumberland.

In 1153, David's death prompted a rising in support of the prisoner's claim to the throne, this time against David's 12-year-old grandson, also called Malcolm. It failed, and Malcolm MacAlisdair found his son Donald, leader of the uprising, imprisoned beside him in 1156. The two names are mentioned no more, and Woolf concludes that both died prisoners.

The reason this story has not been told, Woolf contends, comes down to misinterpretation of the principal account of the day, the Chronicle of Holyrood. This refers simply to a prisoner called Malcolm being incarcerated in Roxburgh in 1134 after a rebellion against David.

Historians have long assumed that the prisoner was Malcolm MacHeth, a nobleman recorded by the chronicle as having made peace with his king in 1157 and dying as the earl of Ross 11 years later. Claims by an Anglo-Norman chronicler that the prisoner was Alexander I's illegitimate son were dismissed.

Woolf argues that it is illogical that a prisoner, released after 23 years, would be given an earldom. He believes that there were two Malcolms: MacHeth and David's rebellious nephew, so well known that his first name sufficed to identify him.

That MacAlisdair was held for at least 23 years is another clue to his royal credentials. "The idea of imprisoning someone for that long rather than executing or expelling them is strange," Woolf says. "However, if they were a kinsman of the king, it would not be right to kill them."

Woolf's research suggests that David met with stiffer opposition than has previously been thought when he took the throne after his brother's death in 1124. There are hints from two chroniclers of the period that English soldiers were needed to enforce his rule. For ten years there seems to have been trouble, and the constant challenge to his authority ended only once MacAlisdair was locked away.

That done, David introduced many of the modern facets of life he had experienced during his long stay in England. The kirk was reformed, money minted, towns and castles built and a host of Norman aristocracy arrived to make homes north of the border. It seems likely that had MacAlisdair triumphed, his Scotland would have been a very different place, with a decidedly more Gaelic flavour. Nevertheless, it was David's reforms that gave Scotland the strength to assert itself against England and survive as an independent state for almost six centuries.

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