The Killing of Duncan and Accession to the High Kingship

So as the year 1040 approaches, what do we have? The present king, Duncan, serves “out of turn” according to the tradition of alternating houses. He has suffered an ignominious defeat at Durham with the loss of many Scottish warriors. In the north, there looms a rival warlord who can claim eligibility for the high kingship both through his marriage ties and possibly through his own royal blood–most certainly, if one goes back far enough, through the House of Loarn. The two come from rival provinces, Moray and Atholl. Moray has a history of resisting the Alban kings.

Next we find the two clashing near the town of Elgin, deep in the heart of northern Moray. What is Duncan doing there? We can only speculate. Perhaps Moray chose to withhold conveth (tribute) after the disastrous battle before Durham, and Duncan rode north to try to collect. Perhaps this was a routine “royal circuit” which the high king made through his provinces, and Macbeth took advantage of the opportunity to attack Duncan in his own territory. My pet theory–which many will dispute–is that Duncan was the ill-fated “Karl Hundeson” in the Norse sagas who lost a sea battle against Thorfinn, then landed on the northeast shore of the Moray Firth and retreated inland, expecting his sub-king Macbeth to reinforce him.

Whatever the circumstances, Duncan went up against Macbeth and lost. Duncan was buried with previous kings on the sacred Isle of Iona. Macbeth was now the biggest dog on the hill, and he rode to the capital city of Scone to claim the high kingship for himself.

Macbeth’s claim had to be ratified by the nobles and Church officials, and presumably it was. Either he was considered the most suitable candidate for the job, or he had an army too large to argue with–possibly both. His only potential rival was Duncan’s brother Maldred, who had succeeded Duncan as king in Cumbria, but no mention is made of him. Duncan’s oldest son Malcolm (Canmore) was nine at the time, far short of the 17 years needed for him to hold office under Celtic law.

There seems to have been no attempt to force Duncan’s widow to flee with her three boys, for it is two years before she arrives at the court of her kinsman, the Earl of Northumbria. Donal–later Donalbane–appears to have been fostered in the Western Isles, while the youngest boy shows up later in Cumbria. But Malcolm, who came to be known as Malcolm Canmore, went first to Northumbria with his mother, and then south to the court of King Edward the Confessor of England. There he grew to manhood, and eventually found support to challenge Macbeth for the Scottish throne.

Little is recorded of Macbeth’s high kingship, a fact which in itself indicates that it was relatively peaceful. There were still skirmishes with Northumbria, and Viking raids along the coast. Most interesting is a reference in the annals to a battle “between the Scots themselves” in which Crinan, Duncan’s father, was killed. Although some scholars call this a civil war, the wording in the annals hints that a company of Scots from different provinces were en route together to a common destination when the conflict broke out. The location is in Atholl, west of Crinan’s stronghold at Dunkeld. Could a war band have been heading west to ward off an attack by Thorfinn, or by the Vikings being squeezed out of Ireland at that time? Alas, we can only speculate.

The picture we get of Macbeth’s reign is a time when Scotland was strong enough to hold its borders against Northumbria, against Thorfinn, against the Viking overlords being expelled from Ireland. Through treaty or through might, Macbeth preserved Alba in relative stability for most of his 17-year rule. Laws were recorded, and the queen donated family lands to the Church. In fact, Macbeth felt secure enough in his authority that he left the country for a time in 1050 to visit Rome, where he is recorded as having distributed silver “by throwing it about,” a tradition for visiting heads of state.

But in England, Malcolm Canmore was coming of age. His education and upbringing were English, his notion of succession shaped by English thought, the divine right of kings reinforced by the Roman Catholic Church. Even under Celtic law, he was by heritage and training a natural choice to be the next King of Scots.

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Next: Dunsinane, or the Battle of Dundee

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