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Issue 56 - The Clan MacDuff

Scotland Magazine Issue 56
April 2011


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The Clan MacDuff

James Irvine Robertson looks at another of Scotland's great families

Lay on MacDuff,’ said Macbeth before exeunt, fighting. MacDuff next appears in the play carrying Macbeth’s head. This line probably makes the MacDuffs the most celebrated Scottish clan in the world. The play is not history - far from it as Macbeth was one of the greatest early Scots kings rather than the double-dyed, hen-pecked villain depicted by Shakespeare - but it was accurate in that MacDuff was the pre-eminent nobleman in the realm.
He owned vast swathes of both the Highlands and Lowlands. The family were king makers
and spawned some of the most powerful clans
in Scotland.
In the middle ages the MacDuffs were acknowledged as the premier clan in Scotland. They were prominent at the very beginning of Scottish history, being part of the kindred of St Columba from whom stemmed the early kings. The first Duff -Dubh, meaning dark haired or dark in complexion - seems to have been the son of Aedh whose parents were King Malcolm II and Saint Margaret. Three of Aedh’s six brothers were successive kings - Edgar, Alexander and David I. According to Sir Iain Moncreiffe, Aedh may have been infirm which explains why, as the eldest of Malcolm’s sons, he did not become king himself. He was hereditary abbot of Dunkeld, a powerful lay office as well a leader of the Celtic church.
In earlier times kings were chosen from the most able and ruthless of the extended royal family but Aedh’s grandsons Constantine and Gillemichael, the sons of Duff, supported King David’s line and his grandson Malcolm II who inherited the throne at the age of 12. In exchange these MacDuffs
were made the leading family amongst the nobility of the nation.
The MacDuff chief spoke first in Council and in Parliament. He led the Scots army in battle and it was he who had the right of crowning the kings
of Scots.
The MacDuff earls of Fife held royal authority in their domains. Any killer within the ninth degree of kinship of the earls of Fife could claim sanctuary at the Cross of McDuff near Abernethy and obtain remission by paying a fixed compensation in livestock to the victim’s family. This was commuted into 24 silver merks for a dead gentleman or 12 for a commoner.
As well as holding land in the lowlands, the MacDuffs had charters on territory in Inverness-shire, Moray, Banffshire and Strathbraan just over the highland line to the west of Dunkeld. Amongst families and clans that stem from the MacDuffs are the earls of Wemyss, the Mackintoshes, Farquharsons, Camerons, Spens and Abernethy.
The last of this line of MacDuff earls of Fife to hold power was Donnchadh, Guardian of Scotland, who married a granddaughter of King Edward I of England. His daughter Isabella married Robert Bruce’s chief rival, John Comyn, Earl of Buchan, whose cousin the Red Comyn, also John, was killed by Bruce at the altar of Greyfriars in Dumfries.
Bruce was crowned on 25th March 1306 by Bishop William de Lamberton at Scone but he needed a MacDuff to make the coronation legitimate. The Earl of Buchan was in England but Isabella arrived the next day and so Bruce held a second coronation to ensure that a MacDuff placed the crown upon his head.
Having aligned herself so clearly with Bruce, she was hunted by the English and joined Bruce’s wife, sisters and daughter as fugitives. They were betrayed and captured when supposedly under the protection of the church in the sanctuary of the Girth of Tain.
Edward I commanded that she be suspended from an open cage on the walls of Berwick castle. She spent four years there before being taken to the Carmelite friary in Berwick.
She died without heirs and, under the terms of an agreement signed by her father, the earldom of Fife was inherited by Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany, the third son of Robert II.
Three centuries of such prominence left MacDuffs scattered on lands throughout the nation. Strathbraan and the north east of Scotland held the strongest concentrations of the name and it was a line from a tenant farmer in the north east at the end of the 16th century that made a remarkable rise to social prominence.
They became merchants and within a couple of generations were in possession of a great fortune. This was invested in estates which were bought up during the economic depression leading up to the Union in 1707 when Alexander Duff was MP for Banffshire. They also married profitably.
When he died in 1722 William Duff of Dipple had a rent roll of £6,500, the largest in northern Scotland. His son, another William, was a politician in the Whig government of George II and, having proved his descent from the original earls, became Viscount MacDuff and Earl of Fife. He had all his family’s financial sagacity and continued to buy up estates in Aberdeenshire.
He commissioned the architect William Adam in 1735 to build the magnificent Duff House which is now described as ‘a treasure house and cultural arts centre operated by a unique partnership of Historic Scotland, the National Galleries of Scotland and Aberdeenshire Council.’
His eldest son was also an MP and again doubled the size of the family’s estates and founded the borough of MacDuff, building its harbour and turning it into a successful centre for ship building and commercial fishing.
During the last serious famine that afflicted Scotland in 1782-3, he reduced rents and imported grain from England which he sold to his tenants at a loss of £3000. His successor was a general in the Napoleonic Wars and a Knight of the Thistle.
The 6th Earl of Fife married Princess Louise eldest daughter of King Edward VII in 1889 and was elevated to a dukedom. They had a daughter Alexandra who married Prince Arthur of Connaught, grandson of Queen Victoria and, after a thousand years, the Duffs were back amid the royal family.

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