Scotland boasts a long, distinguished line of monarchs stretching from the modern day back to the early middle ages. From the Kenneth MacAlpin in the ninth century to the Union of the Crowns in 1603, many have ruled Scotland in its early and frequently fragmented forms.
Notably, from the Acts of Union in 1707 to today, there have also been 12 British monarchs, with Scotland playing a key role in the rise of the British Empire and its eventual global dominance.
Of these, the current monarch Queen Elizabeth II is the longest-reigning, followed by Queen Victoria and George V.
Today, we’ll be spanning the centuries to meet some of Scotland’s longest-reigning kings.
Alexander III (6th July 1249 – 19th March 1286)
Born 4th September 1241, Alexander III became at just seven years old following the death of his father, King Alexander II.
Coronated at Scone Palace on 6th July 1249, Alexander III reigned for a total of 36 years, 256 days.
His reign is notable in that he successfully concluded the Treaty of Perth, which saw Scotland secure sovereignty over the Western Isles and the Isle of Man.
Upon his death in March 1286, Scotland was plunged into turmoil. His daughter and heir, Princess Margaret, died before she could be crowned. The subsequent succession crisis saw Edward I of England capitalise on the turmoil and heralded the beginning of a dark, tumultuous period in Scottish history.
David II (5th March 1324 – 22nd February 1371)
The reign of David II is a rather chequered one. Having spent several years of his reign in exile or captivity, one would assume this left Scotland in a vulnerable position. This is far from the truth.
Reigning for 42 years from 1329 until his death in 1371, David II was the last male in the Bruce line.
Born at Dunfermline Abbey on 5th March 1324, he too was anointed King of Scots at a young age, with much of his early reign managed by a number of guardians, including Sir Thomas Randolph, 1st Earl of Moray and Sir Andrew Murray of Bothwell.
In 1333, following defeat to an English army at the Battle of Halidon Hill, the young David and his wife – the daughter of Edward II of England – fled to France.
After nearly a decade of exile, David returned to Scotland at the age of 17 before being captured in 1346 after defeat at the Battle of Neville’s Cross.
Having spent time in captivity at the Tower of London – and later Windsor Castle – a ransom of 100,000 marks was paid by Scotland’s nobility for the return of their king. In 1357, David II returned once and for all.
By all accounts, David II is believed to have been a proactive monarch during the following years of his reign, and at the times of his death Scotland was in somewhat of a stable condition.
In February 1371, David II died. He was buried in Holyrood Abbey and succeeded by his nephew, Robert II. His death marked the beginning of a new era in Scottish history and the rise of the Stuart kings.
Constantine II (c.879 – 952)
The earliest of kings on our list here is Constantine II; a very notable monarch in Scottish history for a number of reasons.
Believed to have been born in the late 9th century, some time around 879AD, Constantine II is thought to have reigned for an impressive 43 years from 900AD to 943AD.
A grandson of Kenneth MacAlpin, Constantine II is recorded as the King of Alba – a title which first appeared during his lifetime.
During this period, Constantine II would have ruled a kingdom far different to his aforementioned counterparts, with much of the core of his domain situated around the Tayside region. His southern border would likely have been marked by the shores of the River Forth while the lands of Moray or Caithness would have represented his northern-most holdings.
Constantine II’s reign is noted for the transformation of the region during this time. While his grandfather was crowned King of the Picts, just two generations later we see references to the Kingdom of Alba, marking the beginning of a long, protracted process of state building that would take centuries to eventually complete.
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At the time of his reign, Constantine II would have saw a Britain far different to that of his successors. During this period, the Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, which would later form the core of the fledgling Kingdom of England, continued expanding northward, enveloping contested lands in Northumbria.
Similarly, he would also have been forced to contend with frequent Norse incursions, prompting him to develop closer ties with southern kingdoms.
In 934, King Athelstan of England invaded Scotland by sea and land with a force that included four Welsh Kings. Much of southern Alba is believed to have been pillaged by the invasion force, which prompted a major retaliation.
Constantine II allied himself with Olaf Guthfrithson, King of Dublin, and Owain, King of Strathclyde and marched south. In seeking revenge, the King of Alba and his counterparts helped light the spark of early English patriotic fervour.
A disastrous defeat at the Battle of Brunanburh in 937 led Constantine to abdicate the throne in 943 and retire to a monastery in St Andrews. He was succeeded by Malcom I, his predecessor’s son.
William I (c.1142 – 4th December 1214)
The longest-reigning King of Scotland before the Union of the Crowns in 1603, William I – or “William the Lion” – is a towering figure in Scottish history.
Born in 1142 during the reign of King David I, William would reign for 49 years from December 1165 to December 1214.
William I succeeded his older brother, Malcolm IV, who died unmarried in 1165 at just 24 years old.
Much of William’s reign was marked by conflict and quarrelling. His attempts to regain control of Northumbria, his paternal inheritance, failed.
In 1174, William I marched south in support of a revolt against Henry II of England. At the Battle of Alnwick, he is said to have charged English troops single-handed and was subsequently captured and imprisoned.
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Having been captured and held captive in Falaise, and with his kingdom occupied, William I acknowledged Henry II as his feudal superior and agreed to offset the cost of the English occupation of Scotland.
This agreement, which formed part of the Treaty of Falaise, also saw the Scottish clergy subject to that of their English counterparts.
The Treaty of Falaise plunged the kingdom into crisis, triggering revolts in Galloway and disruption in the northern areas of the realm for several years. In 1189, King Richard I of England agreed to terminate the treaty in return for 10,000 silver marks. Richard’s crusade required significant funding.
Despite protracted turmoil, William I’s reign is remembered as somewhat of a success. In 1169, he secured the first concrete treaty of alliance between the Kingdoms of France and Scotland, heralding the early beginnings of the Auld Alliance.
James VI (19th June 1566 – 27th March 1625)
At 57 years and 246 days, James VI is the longest-reigning Scottish monarch – and by quite some margin.
The son of Mary, Queen of Scots and Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, James was crowned king of Scotland in July 1567 following his mother’s abdication. He was just 13 months old at the time, meaning the country was governed by regents during much of his early reign.
Notably, James VI of Scotland was the great-great grandson of Henry VII. This meant that, upon the death of the childless Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, he succeeded the last Tudor monarch to become James I of England and Ireland.
He would reign as James VI & I for another two decades until his death in 1625, spending the majority of his time in England and returning to Scotland just once during this period.
Although the kingdoms of Scotland and England remained separate political and legal entities during his reign, the Union of the Crowns marked the beginning of a new era in British monarchic history.