by James E. Fargo, FSA Scot

Everyone is familiar with William Shakespeare’s play "Macbeth" in which the two protagonists fight for the Scottish throne. Not so clearly known is that this rivalry began several generations before the events described in the play. Our King Duncan was not the kindly old man portrayed but lived up to what became his clan’s war cry "Fierce When Roused". Macbeth, from the royal house of Moray, had a better claim to the throne on King Malcolm II death, based on celtic tanistry whereas Malcolm had adopted the English feudal system of primogeniture for his own royal line.

In 962 the kingship of Alba (Scotland) was contested between two rival branches of the MacAlpin dynasty after the death of King Malcolm I. The two princes ruled jointly until a falling out between them led to a battle upon a ridge called Duncrub (Dorsum Crup) about seven miles west of Perth in Atholl in 965. King Dub (or Duff) of Cumbria, a prince of the royal house of Alpin, was the son of King Malcolm I. Duff led an army against Prince Cuilen and his army of Moray men. It was the custom then to appoint the heir to the Scots throne, to the sub-kingship of Cumbria as the province had been given by King Edgar of England in return for homage for that province and to defend it from invading Danes.

Although Duff’s army was victorious at Duncrub, Duncan, hereditary lay abbot of Duncalden (Dunkeld) and Dubdon the mormaer of Atholl were killed. At this time in Scotland’s history it was common for senior churchmen to lead the armed forces of their church estates into combat. This abbot Duncan (b.920-d.965) was the father of Duncan of Atholl (b.949-d.990) who became the mormaer of Atholl upon Dubdon’s death in this battle. This Duncan of Atholl became the father of Crinan (born c.976 and killed in 1045) and two younger sons. The second son, Grim (thane of Strathearn and baille of Dull) was killed in 1010 at the battle of Mortlach. The youngest son became an ancestor of the Irvine clan according to Burke’s Peerage.

On King Duff’s death in 967, Prince Cuilen of Moray assumed the kingship until he was killed in 971 during a battle in Lothian with the son of King Dyfnwal of Strathclyde, an ally of Duff’s brother Kenneth. This brother, as King Kenneth II assumed the throne and reigned from 971-995. Kenneth finally killed Cuilen’s brother Olaf in 977 ending the royal house of Moray’s competition for the throne for that generation. Kenneth II was succeeded by his nephew (son of King Dub/Duff) as Kenneth III (King of Scots from 997-1005). On the death of Kenneth III, King Malcolm II (son of Kenneth II) ruled as King of Scots from 1005 to his death in 1034. Malcolm II made his grandson Duncan the King of Cumbria until he became King of the Scots upon Malcolm’s death.

Pinkerton, John "An Enquiry Into the History of Scotland Preceding the Reign of Malcom III, or the Year 1056" Vol. I, 1789, pp 78-99.
Wolff, Alex "From Pictland to Alba 789-1070" 2007, pp 201-202.