This summer my family holiday was a long-anticipated one to Scotland. In between heading up mountains, Nessie hunting and kayaking on lochs I was fortunate enough to visit some of the locations Kenneth’s Queen and perhaps some of the places truly visited by Kenneth (Cinaed) Mac Alpin more than a thousand years ago.
Because we were based in the west the later locations of the book – Forteviot, Scone and Dunkeld will have to wait for another visit, but the two key early locations of the book were very much on our itinerary.
The island of Mull is referred to only in passing in the book, but off Mull is the sacred Isle of Iona. In the days of Cinaed Mac Alpin, despite Viking raids, this was an important abbey and undoubtedly the centre of pilgrimage. In Kenneth’s Queen the family spend a few idyllic years there, while Cinaed starts some dodgy Viking deals. Was the real Cinaed Mac Alpin ever there? Iona is traditionally considered his birthplace, although I often wonder if this is really true. When upstarts rise up to take the throne, there is often an attempt by their successors to give them additional credence. Was placing his birth on such a sacred location part of that? We shall never know. He must have been born somewhere – why not Iona?
The abbey there today is on the site of the abbey founded by Saint Columba hundreds of years before the days of Cinaed Mac Alpin. As such as important centre it seems inevitable that a member of the ruling class such as Cinaed would have at least visited it on occasion. He certainly had enough clout with the abbey to eventually bring the relics of Saint Columba from this island to keep them safe from Norse raids.
Iona is believed to be the resting place of the early Scottish kings, including Cinaed and Domnall. We visited the burial ground on Iona and to describe it as an emotional experience is an understatement. In Historical fiction vs Historical fact, I wrote how strange it feels to view Cinaed and Domnall as anything other than young men. For a long time those young men lived in my head. In that burial ground on Iona I was perhaps at last truly in their presence, but they are no longer alive.
A few days later we visited the fort of Dunadd – one of the great power centres of Dal Riata. Despite the lack of records, it is a near certainty that Cinaed and his family must have spent some time there. In Kenneth’s Queen it is where he first brings Baena, his young bride and later returns for some of the most momentous events of his life.
My first thoughts on arrival at Dunadd was that it seemed smaller than I expected. But as we climbed, this proved to be deceptive.
And looking down from the top it was far easier to imagine the King looking down on all he owned with perhaps the troops amassing in the plain beneath just as I described in the book.
We found the sacred symbols, the bowl and the footprint where we had a friendly dispute over which one of us could be King of Dal Riata! My foot fitted best, but only, as my eldest son pointed out, because I was wearing an old pair of his walking boots which are at least two sizes too big for me! Did Cinaed once place his own foot into a print on the rock to declare himself king?
At the top it was exciting to sit in a place where Cinaed, his wife, or Domnall might have once sat. Perhaps this was the hall where so many of the key scenes of Kenneth’s Queen took place – an announcement of the death of a chief, the selection of a king and the arrival of a Pict messenger bearing bad news all took place there.
Despite a gap of centuries this trip to Scotland brought me a new connection with those characters and an even deeper love for their land. However it also made me aware of a glaring error in Kenneth’s Queen which I would now like to apologise for. How did I write more than 90,000 words on Scotland without once mentioning the midges? Those young warriors out on campaign must surely have been eaten alive!
Travel to 9th century Scotland yourself in Kenneth’s Queen available on Amazon in paperback and eBook.