Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Duncan I

DUNCAN I (d. 1040), king of Scotland, succeeded his grandfather, Malcolm Mackenneth (d. 25 Nov. 1034), in the throne of Scotland. His mother's name, according to a twelfth-century tradition, was Bethoc, the daughter of the latter king; his father was Crinan or Cronan, abbot of Dunkeld (Marianus Scotus, p. 556; Tigernach, pp. 284–8; Chronicles of the Picts and Scots, p. 152). This Cronan must be regarded as a great secular chief and lay abbot of Dunkeld, occupying a position somewhat similar to that of the titular comharbs of Armagh during the same century. According to Mr. Skene, Bethoc was married to Cronan before 1008 A.D., the year in which her younger sister married Sigurd, earl of Orkney.

During his father's lifetime Duncan appears to have borne the title of ‘rex Cumbrorum,’ i.e. to have been king of the Strathclyde Welsh. He was probably appointed to this office on the death of Owen or Eugene the Bald, who is said to have been slain about the time of the battle of Carham (1018 A.D.), in which he was certainly engaged (Sim. of Durham, ii. 118; Skene). As Lothian, the northern part of the great earldom of Northumbria, was ceded to Malcolm about the same time (Sim. of Durham, pp. 217–18), Mr. Skene considers it not improbable that Duncan was ruler of the whole territory south of the Firths of Forth and Clyde. His name, however, is not mentioned with those of his father, Macbeth and Jehmarc, when those princes submitted to Canute in 1031 A.D. (A.-S. Chron. i. 290–1).

Malcolm appears to have cleared the way only just before his own death for his grandson's succession by the murder of one whom the ‘Ulster Annals’ call ‘the son of the son of Boete, son of Cuiaed,’ in whom we may probably see the rightful heir to the throne by law of tanistry (Ann. of Ulst. p. 321; Skene, p. 399). Next year Duncan appears to have become king of Scotia without opposition; and in virtue of his former possessions must have been direct sovereign or at least overlord of Cumbria, Lothian, and Albania. The latter half of his reign was disturbed by the aggression of Eadulf, earl of the Northumbrians, who, apparently in 1038, harried the ‘Britons’ of Cumbria (Sim. of Durham ii. 198; Skene); and it is perhaps to the same time that we ought to assign Duncan's unsuccessful expedition against Durham (Sim. of Durham, i. 9; Skene).

In the northern part of Scotland Sigurd, earl of Orkney, had fallen at the battle of Clontarf (1014 A.D.), leaving a young son, Thorfinn, who, being King Malcolm's grandson, was also Duncan's cousin. Between Thorfinn's domains and Albany, or Scotland, properly so called, lay Moray, ruled by its Celtic mormaer. To this office Maelbaethe or Macbeth seems to have succeeded about 1029 A.D., and the title he, like his predecessor, bore of ‘Ri Alban’ seems to have challenged the pretensions of Malcolm and Duncan. The latter king probably aimed at resuming his cousin's territories of Caithness and Sutherland, when he gave this earldom to his nephew, Moddan, whom he sent north to make good his claim. Forced to retire before his rival Thorfinn, Moddan found his uncle at Berwick, received fresh troops, and was again despatched towards Caithness, while the king himself sailed in the same direction, hoping to place Thorfinn between the two armies. A naval engagement in the Pentland Firth frustrated this plan, and drove Duncan southwards to Moray Firth. Meanwhile Moddan had occupied Caithness, and was now at Thurso, waiting reinforcements from Ireland, while Thorfinn had gone south in pursuit of Duncan, who was mustering a new army. Moddan was surprised and slain by Thorfinn's lieutenant, Thorkell Fostri, who then hastened to rejoin the earl at Torfness or Burghhead. After a desperate struggle Duncan was defeated, ‘and some say he was slain.’ Such is the account given of Duncan's death in the ‘Sagas,’ where he himself appears under the ‘strange designation of Karl or Kali Hundason,’ that is, either ‘the Churl, or Kali, the son of the Hound,’ where the hound can be none other than Crinan, the abbot of Dunkeld (Skene, i. 401; cf. however, Rhys's theory in Celtic Britain, p. 260, where the writer would identify the Hound's son with Macbeth).

More precise, however, is the entry of Marianus Scotus (ap. Pertz, v. 557), an almost contemporary annalist, who says that in the autumn of 1040 was slain ‘a duce Macbetho mac Finnloech, who succeeded him, and reigned for seventeen years.’ A gloss gives the day of the month 14 Aug. This Macbeth must be identified with the Maelbaethe, mormaer of Moray or Ri Alban mentioned above. According to Mr. Skene, Macbeth, after wavering in his allegiance to Duncan, finally threw in his fortunes with Thorfinn, and ultimately divided the realm with his ally. Macbeth thus, in Mr. Skene's opinion, obtained the districts south and west of the Tay ‘in which Duncan's strength mainly lay,’ while ‘Cumbria and Lothian probably remained faithful to the children of Duncan.’ A consistent tradition, going back through Fordun (c 1361) to the twelfth century, makes the murder perpetrated at Bothngouane or Bothgofnane (Pitgaveny, near Elgin), whence the king was carried to Elgin before his death. From this place the corpse was taken to Iona for burial (Chron. of Picts and Scots, ed. Skene, p. 52; Fordun, ed. Skene, i. 188). Marianus Scotus, consistently with his own dates, makes Duncan reign five years nine months; in this he is supported by one or two early authorities, most of whom, however, write six years (ib. pp. 29, 63, &c.; cf. pp. 101, 210).

According to Fordun, Duncan's rule was very peaceful; but no stress can be laid on the account he gives of this king's yearly progress through his realm to restrain the injustice of his lords. The same writer remarks that he was slain by the unsteadiness of a family that had already slain his grandfather and great-grandfather. In a poem written before 1057 A.D. he appears as ‘Duncan the Wise;’ in Tighernac's ‘Annals’ he is said to have perished ‘immatura ætate a suis occisus;’ and the prophecy of St. Berchan, perhaps dating from the early half of the twelfth century, calls him ‘'N-galrach,’ or the much diseased. He is described as ‘a king not young, but old.’ There are allusions to his ‘banner of red gold,’ and his skill in music. These phrases are of some interest as belonging to the prototype of Shakespeare's ‘King Duncan,’ whose mythical story may be traced with all its accretions in Fordun, pp. 187–8; Bower, ed. Goodall, iv. cc. 49, 50, &c., and v.; Mayor (ed. 1521), fol. 42; Boethius, book xii.; Buchanan, book vii.; and Holinshed (ed. 1808), v. 264–9.

Duncan had two sons, Malcolm (afterwards Malcolm, king of Scotland) and Donald Bane (Tigernach, sub ann. 1057; Marianus Scotus, p. 558; A.-S. Chron. ii. 196). His wife, according to Boece, was the daughter of Siward, earl of Northumberland (fol. 249 b). A third son, Maelmare, is said to have been the ancestor of the earls of Atholl (Skene, i. 434). From Simeon of Durham we may infer that Duncan had a brother Maldred, who married Aldgitha, the daughter of Earl Uchtred, and granddaughter of Ethelred the Unready, and by her became the father of Cospatric, earl of Northumberland (Sim. of Durham, i. 216).

[Authorities quoted above.]

T. A. A.