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Articles about Clan Donnachaidh
King Duncan I
Our thanks to Bill Robertson, International Vice Chairman, for this article


Clan 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.

Duncan I 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.

From the 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.

Scotland in 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.

The 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 Danes.

After 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.

Crinan was 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 the cathedral.

Crinan and 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.

In 1020 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.

The 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.

Of these 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 thereafter.

Soon after 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.

Duncan I 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.

So Duncan’s 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.

Unlike 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.

Going 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.

Meanwhile, 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.

Meanwhile 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.

Duncan 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.

The claim 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.

Duncan had 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.

Within two 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 New Zealand.


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