Duncan I, King of Scots, died at Pitgavenny, near Elgin, on the 14th of August, 1040.
Duncan mac Crínán ruled as King of Scots from 1034 until the 14th of August, 1040; just six years. This was the guy whom Shakespeare made famous in his tragedy ‘Macbeth’. So, everyone has heard of Duncan, which is good in one sense. Unfortunately, there was only one salient fact in the play; the remainder of the tale is pure invention, whether you like it – the play I mean – or not. There have been a couple of excellent movies made out of Will Shakespeare’s story; one directed by Roman Polanksi and one more recent, starring Jason Connery, son of Sean.
Shakespeare based his play upon a distorted version of events he found in Raphael Holinshed's 'Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland' (written in 1587). Willie wrote it to please his new King, James VI & I and, according to Nigel Tranter’s novel of King James, ‘The Wisest Fool’, with the King’s involvement. The presence of witches in the story would have appealed to James as he was certainly interested in such things. In 1597, James wrote a book on spirits and witchcraft, called 'Daemononlogie' and during his reign, he was personally involved in persecuting witches. What was that fact? Duncan An t-Ilgarach (Ilgairachd), which means ‘ill blooded’, was indeed a King of Scots.
Duncan mac Crínán was born (approximately) on the 5th of August, 1001. He was the son of Bethoc, who was the eldest daughter of the then King Malcolm II and the hereditary lay Abbot of Dunkeld, a guy called Crínán, who was (allegedly) descended from the kin of St. Columba and the Kings of Ireland. So, Duncan was the grandson of Malcolm II. Duncan’s first claim to fame occurred in 1018, when he was granted the Throne of the Brythonic-Welsh Kingdom of Strathclyde on the death of Owen the Bald, a vassal of Malcolm II, who died without issue. Perhaps Malcolm didn’t have the right to make such a grant, but he certainly had the might. Some historians cast doubt on Duncan taking over Strathclyde, but by the time of Alexander I, a few Kings later, his brother David held that very same title before becoming David I. If that was to be the case, why not Dunky? At least it would’ve provided precedent for yon Davie. Probably then, Duncan became King of Strathclyde and his grandfather’s grand scheme for a United Kingdom of all of the territories of ‘Scotland’ took one significant step closer to being realised.
Malcolm’s plan was for his successor to rule over the lands of the Picts and Scots (the Mortuath’s of Atholl, Moray, Angus & the Mearns, Mar & Buchan, Fife, and Strathearn) as well as that of the Angles of Lothian (defeated by Malcolm at the Battle of Carham in 1018) and the Britons of Strathclyde and Bernica (Cumbria). In Malcolm’s day, the rule of the High King of ‘Scotland’ did not reach the Orkneys, Shetland and the Western Isles, which were under the control of the King of Norway. Sutherland and Caithness in the far north were nominally under his control, but I don’t think the King of Norway would have agreed. The end goal was for Malcolm’s grandson – because he didn’t have a son – to become the first Monarch of the Four Kingdoms of ‘Scotland’. When you think about it, we love to denigrate the English for their territorial ambitions anent Scotland, but really, we can’t blame them, for the nation of Scotland was formed by a similar process of subjugation. The only difference is that Scotland’s objectives were achieved, despite patriotic resistance, whereas England’s hopes of domination were consistently and successfully dashed by the likes of Wallace, Bruce and Douglas.
When Duncan was thirty-three, he succeeded his grandfather on that old man’s death (he was eighty, which was quite a feat for the time) on the 25th of November 1034. In becoming Duncan I, he became the first King of the line of the House of Dunkeld (or Atholl, if you prefer, although the history books consistently list Dunkeld, after Crínán the Abbot). Duncan’s succession ended the line of Kenneth mac Alpin and the early months of his reign were peaceful. Maybe that was down to respect for Malcolm and a “let’s wait and see how he copes” strategy of the alternative candidates. Maybe it was down to Duncan having had himself crowned whilst the Mormaors were absent on Iona at Malcolm’s funeral. There were several contenders for the Throne.
You see, despite being proclaimed by Malcolm as his successor, Duncan’s ascension flaunted all the established rules of Tanist succession, which would have mean someone like Malcolm’s younger cousin, Boede of Duff (Dubh), becoming King. On the other hand, it could have had something to do with Malcolm having managed to kill several competitors, including Boede, Gillecomgain, and Malcolm mac Bodhe; the latter in the year prior to Duncan's investiture. The remaining contestants were all grandsons of Malcolm II, through his daughters’ marriages, and the other two both became adversaries of Duncan the First. There was Thorfinn Sigurdson, the Jarl of the Orkneys, Malcolm’s Earl of Sutherland and Mormaor of Caithness. And there was Macbeth (Mac Bethad mac Findláich mac Ruaridh), Mormaor of Moray and half-brother of Thorfinn.
Duncan was not a great military commander, in fact, he was pretty incompetent, unlike his grandfather. In the spring of 1035, after an alleged, but failed attempt at poisoning Macbeth, Duncan sent his brother-in-law, Moddan (Matain mac Caerill), north after Thorfinn. Moddan’s army was attacked and routed at Reay (Dounreay) by Thorfinn and Moddan was killed. Then in the summer, despite being outnumbered by Galleys borrowed from Siward, Thorfinn defeated Duncan in a sea battle off Deerness. Give him full marks for persistence, Duncan’s next foray took him into northern England, when he led an army south to besiege Durham. That 1039 expedition ended in disaster and he was forced to retreat ignominiously, pursued by his erstwhile ally, Siward. That defeat led to insurrection by the Mormaors, who wanted to “put hyme [Duncan] down” and declared for Macbeth. Duncan marched north this time and, while Macbeth was at the River Lossie facing the King of Dublin, Duncan was met by Thorfinn at Torfness (Burghead), on the 14th of August, 1040. Once again, Duncan lost.
Fleeing the battle, he was intercepted by Macbeth and true to form, despite having superior numbers, he was killed by Macbeth in a battle near Spynie. Duncan died of his wounds in a Smiddy at a place called Pitgavenny, near Elgin. Within two weeks of the decisive battle, Macbeth was elected High King and enthroned at Scone. Duncan was buried on Iona, alongside many another Kings of Scots.