Donnachaidh claims descent from Duncan I, High King of Scots of the House of
Atholl (Dunkeld). He was the first of the line of the “House of Dunkeld” who
were generally considered strong and competent monarchs. During this era
Scotland not only maintained her status as an independent state, but grew to
be one of the better governed nations of Western Europe. The first King of
the House of Atholl was Duncan I, who reigned from 1034 to 1040.
was the first High King of Scots descended from the Kin of St. Columba and
in turn a forefather of Clan Donnachaidh. His ascent to the throne was
extremely controversial and changed the succession thereafter.
time that Kenneth MacAlpin united the Picts and the Scots in 844, the
individual Kings of Scots inherited their crowns by way of Tanist descent
(i.e., elected during the king’s lifetime) in accordance with Pictish
custom. Although the Scots maintained their kingship by succession through
the male line, the Pictish tradition had been matrilinial. An arrangement
was therefore made whereby the Pictish princesses married Scots kings, thus
maintaining the status quo, but the descent was not set in one family line.
Kings were selected in advance from sons, nephews and cousins in parallel
lines of descent from a common source, Kenneth MacAlpin. The great advantage
of this system was that minors never achieved the crown, as happened to
Scotland’s detriment in later times after the system was discarded.
the 11th century was a tribal Celtic land. The area nominally
within the zone of influence of the High King did not include the far north
of Sutherland and Caithness, or the Orkneys and the Western Isles which came
under control of the King of Norway. Scotland was divided into six tribal
areas ruled by Mormaers, or High Stewards; there were also two kingdoms in
the south. The tribal areas were Atholl, Moray, Angus & Mearns, Mar &
Buchan, Fife and lastly Strathearn. The largest of these Stewardships was
Moray which went from the east coast to the west coast. Atholl was second
largest, the name Atholl being derived from the old gaelic, meaning “New
Ireland”. Third was Strathearn which included the Firth of Clyde and the
Firth of Forth. South of Strathearn was the Kingdom of Strathclyde, with its
capital, Dumbarton. The second kingdom was the area now called Cumbria in
the far southwest. The language of these two kingdoms was Welsh, while the
rest spoke Gaelic. The capital of the High King was the small town of Scone.
The whole country at this time was essentially rural, dotted with small
villages but no large towns. There was a highly developed legal system of
Celtic law, the most notable feature being that land was never owned by an
individual, but always held in common ownership for the clan.
position of High King was usually elected from the Mormaers of Moray and
Atholl, and those chosen were usually from the one family in Moray and
another single family in Atholl. Battles between clans and leaders were
common. Malcolm II became High King after defeating and killing his
predecessor and first cousin Kenneth III, and his eldest son Girc at the
battle of Monzievaird in Strathearn. The High King was regularly engaged in
wars against the Norse to the north, the Angles from the south, or the
nearly 200 years of alternating Tanist succession, a furious dispute arose
when the tradition was broken by Malcolm II, the last of the dynasty founded
by Kenneth MacAlpin. Instead of correctly affording the kingship to his
younger cousin, Boede of Duff (Dubh), he decided that his own offspring
should inherit the crown. The problem was that Malcolm had no son. But he
did have three daughters, and Princess Bethoc the eldest was married to
Crinan, Archpriest of the Sacred Kindred of St. Columba.
descended from the Tir Conaill royalty of Ireland, in descent from the kin
of St. Columba. He was a great chief, and wielded power equal to the
Mormears; he was Thane of the Isles and Abthane of Dull. His father was
Duncan Macdonachadh, Abbot of Dunkeld, Archpriest of the Kindred of St.
Columba. His Arms consisted of St. Columba enthroned on two wolves. In the
Orkeyinua Saga he is called Hundi Jarl Chief of the Dogs, being Chief
of the Clan with the fighting qualities of the Wolf. When attack on Dunkeld
by Vikings could no longer be avoided he had the bones of St. Columba, which
had been kept in Dunkeld Cathedral since 835, moved to safety. The Vikings
attacked and sacked Dunkeld in 1045 and Crinan died trying in vain to save
Bethoc had two sons, Duncan and Maidred, and it was Duncan who King Malcolm
II proclaimed would succeed him. Malcolm’s second daughter, Donada, was
married to Findleach MacRory, Mormaer of Moray, and Olith, the youngest, was
married into the most powerful political force threatening Scotland, Sigurd
II, Norse Prince and Jarl (Earl) of the Orkneys. He was a Viking warrior
with designs on territory in the north and west. But the threat of the
Norsemen changed dramatically on 23 April 1014 when the High King of
Ireland, Brian Boru, defeated them at the Battle of Clontarf. Brian Boru was
assisted by a large contingent of Scots sent by Malcolm II under the command
of the Mormaer of Marr and Buchan. The Norse were lead by Malcolm II’s son
in law, Sigurd Hiodversson, who had sent his wife and son Thorfinn to be
domiciled under the protection of Malcolm II for the duration. Sigurd did
not survive the battle. Malcolm II then proclaimed his grandson Thorfinn,
Earl of Caithness (the first time the title Earl was used in Scotland),
thereby bringing that area under his influence. Thorfinn’s half brothers
retained the Orkney and Shetland Islands. Meanwhile, England was in turmoil
after the Danish invasion by Sweyn Forkbeard and his son Canute, who became
king. Taking advantage of this turmoil, Malcolm II marched south and
captured the kingdom of Bernica.
Findlay (Findleach) MacRuaridh, Mormaer of Moray and the father of Macbeth,
was killed by two of Macbeth’s cousins, apparently through jealousy felt by
the house of Moray for Atholl, and because Findlay had become too friendly
with Atholl, which was Malcolm II’s House. Findlay’s murderers became in
turn Mormaer of Moray, the youger being Gillecomgan, gaining his title in
1029. He had ambitions to become the High King and to this end he married
Grouch, grand daughter of Kenneth III, who Malcolm II had slain in order to
gain the High Kingship. Grouch and her brother, Malcolm MacBodhe, were the
only surviving grandchildren of Kenneth III, as Malcolm II had seen to all
the others. Grouch, who was also the daughter of the logical Tanist Boede
of Duff, instigated a revolt against the planned succession to Duncan. As a
consequence Malcolm slew Boede, leaving his heiress Grouch with a
significant sovereign claim. She then went on to muster fierce opposition
against Malcolm who in 1032 raised the men of Atholl to attack Gillecomgain
in his fortress. He and fifty of his men were burnt to death. It was
intended that Grouch and her infant son Lulach were to be dispatched also,
but she was visiting relatives elsewhere at the time and survived. She fled
with her son to the protection of her cousin in law Macbeth, son of Donada
and Findleach. Macbeth was elected Mormear of Moray at the age of 23 and
soon after, in 1032, Grouch married him. The following year Malcolm II had
her brother Malcolm MacBodhe killed.
struggle between Moray and Atholl was growing more acute. Malcolm II was by
this time in his late 70’s and the succession was a matter for concern. An
additional complication was caused because King Malcolm’s sister Dunclina
was married to Kenneth of Lochaber who, through the structure of Tanistry,
had a secondary claim to the crown as a cousin of Boded, in descent from
Kenneth MacAlpin. The sons of all these various marriages were each and all
in the running for kingship when Malcolm II died on 25 November 1034, aged
80, at Glammis.
sons, the heir with the closest right to succession was Dunclina’s son
Banquo, Thane of Lochaber. Yet, in accordance with Malcolm’s wishes, Duncan,
the son of his eldest daughter Bethoc, succeeded as King Duncan I at the age
of 33. There was another son, Maldred, but it’s not clear why Duncan was
chosen. Maldred became King of Cumbria, having married into the Cumbria
royal family. Prior to this, on the death of Owen the Bald in 1018, Duncan
became King of Strathclyde, making him in time the first monarch of a united
Scotland. Being also the son and hereditary heir of Archpriest Crinan,
Duncan became Scotland’s first Priest-King, in the style of the earlier
Merovingian Kings of Gaul (France). This concept of the monarch as both the
sovereign and the religious patriarch remained at the core of Scots culture
Duncan’s succession, Grouch persuaded Macbeth to challenge Duncan for the
crown. She was not alone in her resentment of Duncan, and a series of riots
erupted led by various clan chiefs. Not even Banquo, a captain in Duncan’s
army, could contain the riots. A military council was convened, and Macbeth
gained control of the King’s troops and managed to subdue the revolt. He
thus became more popular than the King, further elevating the ambitions of
Lady Macbeth, who now knew the crown was within her husband’s grasp.
married Sibylla of Northumbria, a cousin of the Danish Earl (Jarl) Siward of
Northumberland. They had three sons, the eldest two, Malcolm III Canmore,
and Donald III Ban each becoming King, and Maelmaire Earl of Atholl, from
whom Clan Donnachaidh descends.
accession left three grandchildren of Malcolm II in crucial positions. In
the north Thorfinn the able and powerful Jarl of the Orkneys, Sutherland and
Cairthness. In Scone was Duncan I of Atholl, ambitious for more power, and
between them was Macbeth, Mormaer of Moray, cousin and friend of Thorfinn.
Shakespear’s portrait, which presented him as a wise old man, Duncan was
young and rash, and not particularly able; he lasted six years as High King.
He proved himself incompetent, losing four major battles in endeavors to
expand his territory. Contemporary chroniclers describe him as a vicious,
bloodthirsty, selfish tyrant.
In 1040 he
made the classical blunder of opening a war to gain more territory on two
fronts. He marched south with one army to attack northern England, hoping to
take advantage of the chaos in England following the death of Harold
Harefoot on 17 March and a disputed succession. Before this, Duncan demanded
that Thorfinn recognize his sovereignty over Caithness; this Thorfinn
ignored. Then he named his nephew Moddan ruler of Caithness and sent a
force of Atholl clansmen to enforce that claim.
south, Duncan attacked Durham and contemporary accounts criticise his
leadership. He ordered cavalry to attack the fortifications of the city and
they were annihilated by defenders on the city walls. The defenders then
counter-attacked with their own cavalry. Duncan lost nearly all his foot
soldiers, and the survivors fled, leaving Duncan to suffer a massive defeat.
in the north at the Caithness border, Moddan confronted a large force under
Thorfinn and wisely retreated. Duncan then decided to concentrate on the
north and ordered Moddan to gather a new and larger army and march north
again, while Duncan sailed north with eleven warships. He met Thorfinn’s
five longships off Deerness. Thorfinn attacked, targeting Duncan’s ship
which was quickly overrun and boarded. Duncan escaped overboard to another
ship and then tried to retreat. But Thorfinn grappled his ships to Duncan’s
and the battle continued, until eventually Duncan and the remnants of his
fleet withdrew to the Moray Firth.
the Athollmen under Moddan had reached Thurso, where they awaited Irish
reinforcement. The fact that Duncan had to rely on Irish forces illustrates
how unpopular he was, being unable to raise sufficient Clansmen to his
cause. On the other hand, Thorfinn’s support was stronger than ever and he
attacked Moddan at Thurso in the night and routed him. Virtually all were
killed or captured, and Moddan himself was killed.
persisted undaunted in his quest, and on 14 August, 1040 his new army, said
to be between 5,000 and 10,000 including Irish levies, met Thorfinn at
Burghead. The Irish crumpled first, then Duncan’s counter attack failed. The
“Orkneyinga Saga” reported that Duncan was killed by his own men immediately
after the battle.
that he was assassinated in Macbeth’s castle after the battle of Burghead
seems unlikely. It is clear that Duncan died on the same day as the battle,
and Macbeth was almost certainly not there.
led the country into expansionist wars north and south, and had lost four
battles in a row, Durham, Deerness (at sea), Thurso and Burghead. Add to
that the fact that he was very unpopular. An inauspicious start to the reign
of the House of Atholl.
weeks of the Battle of Burghead and the death of Duncan in late August 1040,
Macbeth, Mormaer of Moray, was elected High King and enthroned at Scone.
Reprinted with permission by the Clan Donnachaidh Society of