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Fergus I (supp. d. c.305 BC), mythical Scottish king, is probably first recorded in the king-list preserved by Ralph de Diceto at the end of the twelfth century, where he appears as Forgsus filius Feradach, that is, Fuirgg son of Feradach. That list, or one similar, is likely to have been among the elements forming the Scottish origin-narrative, apparently wrought by an unknown poet working in eastern Scotland in the first half of the thirteenth century, which formed the basis for John Fordun's account of the beginnings of Scottish history, composed in the mid-fourteenth century. According to Fordun, Fergus son of Ferchard was a nobleman of royal blood. Incensed by Pictish maltreatment of Scots who had crossed from Ireland to ‘Albion’, he led a company of young men thither and in 330 BC established himself as king, gave his subjects laws, and fixed boundaries between his own and the Pictish realms. He brought with him the marble chair which his remote ancestor Simon Brecc had carried from Spain to Ireland, and was himself crowned in it, as were all his royal descendants. His arms were a red lion on a yellow field. Later historians added that he was drowned off Carrickfergus (accordingly named from him) after a reign of twenty-five years.

Fordun's was not the only account of Scottish protohistory circulating in the later middle ages. King-lists survive in which Fergus I is not mentioned, and he does not appear in the Original Chronicle of Andrew Wyntoun, completed about 1420, where the first Scottish king is said—with much greater historical justification—to have been Fergus son of Erc, alias Fergus Mor (d. 501). But the appeal of a regal antiquity to rival that of the English monarchy was too great for Scottish historians. Fordun had reconciled the inconsistencies between rival traditions by making Fergus Mor the restorer of a kingdom originally established by Fergus I but overthrown in the mid-fourth century, and in this he was followed by all the principal fifteenth- and sixteenth-century historians except Wyntoun. These writers often exploited Fergus for their own ideological or political purposes. Thus Walter Bower expanded on Fergus's coat of arms in order to give greater antiquity to the Franco-Scottish ‘auld alliance’, while Hector Boece and George Buchanan, in their concern to limit monarchic power, presented him as a king elevated by, and ruling with, the consent of his subjects.

The anachronisms and improbabilities in all these accounts were devastatingly exposed by Thomas Innes, in his Critical Essay on the Ancient Inhabitants of the Northern Parts of Britain or Scotland (1729; reprinted 1879). But by then Fergus had already received the dubious accolade of being placed at the head of the extraordinary sequence of ‘portraits’ of Scottish kings which Jacob de Wet produced for Holyrood Palace between 1684 and 1686; his picture was among those to be labelled with his name ‘in large Characters’, as that of one of ‘the Kings most famous’ (Laing, 330).

Henry Summerson

Sources  

Johannis de Fordun Scotichronicon genuinum, ed. T. Hearnius, 5 vols. (1722), 1 · Radulfi de Diceto … opera historica, ed. W. Stubbs, 2: 1180–1202, Rolls Series, 68 (1876) · W. Bower, Scotichronicon, ed. D. E. R. Watt and others, new edn, 9 vols. (1987–98), vol. 1 · G. Buchanan, Rerum Scoticarum historia, ed. R. Freebairn (1727) · A history of greater Britain … by John Major, ed. and trans. A. Constable, Scottish History Society, 10 (1892) · H. Boethius [Boece], Chronicle of Scotland, trans. J. Bellenden (1540); repr. (1977) · D. Brown, The Irish identity of the kingdom of the Scots in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (1999) · D. Broun, ‘The birth of Scottish history’, SHR, 76 (1997), 4–22 · M. O. Anderson, Kings and kingship in early Scotland, rev. edn (1980) · T. Innes, A critical essay on the ancient inhabitants of the northern parts of Britain or Scotland (1729); repr. (1879) · C. Kidd, Subverting Scotland's past (1993) · The ‘Original chronicle’ of Andrew of Wyntoun, ed. F. J. Amours, 6 vols., STS, 1st ser., 50, 53–4, 56–7, 63 (1903–14) · ‘The contract with James Dewitte, painter, for the portraits of the kings of Scotland in the palace of Holyrood’, Bannatyne miscellany III, ed. D. Laing, Bannatyne Club, 19B (1855), 327–42