Dubh, The Dark King and the Strangest Death
Three Dark Secrets
This is one of the strangest, most convoluted tales ever associated with a king in Scotland, so bear with me while I pick out some of the strands - without a promise that I will come to the bottom of the mystery in any way. The king named Dubh, 'the black', ruled for only a few years in the late 10th century. No surprise in this, given the turbulence of the era and the competitive, rival kindreds which supplied the leaders of the fledgeling Scottish nation. There are few facts known about the reign of Dub, but a body of legend around him which probably arouse later. We know that he likely rules in conjunction with another king and that his death was associated with an eclipse of the sun.
The few recorded facts of the reign can be summarised quickly. The son of King Malcolm I, Dubh came to power in 962 when the previous ruler Indulf (or Indulb) died. Early annals state there was continued emnity between rival kingship factions which resulted in Dubh defeating Indulf's son Cuilén in battle. The place of this encounter - 'upon the ridge of Crup' - can't be identified, but it was possibly somewhere in Atholl as the mormaer of that provice, Dubdon, died there, as did the abbot of Dunkeld, named Duchad. Further internal aggression apparently led to Dubh's death in the year 967, but the earliest sources are silent about the circumstances, unlike others. One source says that he was driven out of the kingdom, possibly by a resurgent Cuilén , but it seems more likely that he was killed and in the north of the kingdom. Several historical sources state that he invaded the northern province of Fortriu and that he died in Forres. And that's where the stories take a strange twist.
It is thought possible that Dubh and Cuilén ruled jointly for a period, an arrangement known as comrighe, with each being lethrí 'co-king' who shared the kingship rather than either ruling as Iánri 'full king.' After Cuilén's defeat Dubh rode north to quell factional enemies. The 12th century Prophecy of Berchan contains much traditional material couched in enigmatic terms, and it says the following about Dubh's raid:
One of the kings goes on an useless expedition across the upper regions in the Plain of Fortriu; though he may have gone, he does not return, the black of the three dark secrets will fall.
What the three darks secrets exactly were, we shall unfortunately never discover. (They find a curious echo in the work of historian Andrew of Wyntoun, when a descendant of the Mac Duff kindred makes three requests of Malcolm III.)
The various accounts differ on what happened afterwards. The 14th century historian John of Fordun (Chronica, IV. 26, partly relying on earlier sources) says that that Dubh led his army to Forres, where he was slain, after which his body was hidden under a bridge at Kinloss and the sun refused to shine until it had been removed. Was the eclipse one of the three dark secrets?
Death by the Moon: The Eclipse of Kings
The first thing to say is that there was an actual eclipse in northern Europe around this time. A. O. Anderson advised that L’art de Verifier les Dates stated the event occurred at 4pm on 20th July 966. However, the 19th century historian W. F. Skene gave the date as 10th July 967. It has been suggested that this eclipse could not actually be seen in Scotland, but this is not certain. The Annals of Ulster state that the king died in 967, but the discrepancy is a minor point.
If the actual event was real and the death of the king also, the association between the two events would have been recognised as portenteous. The theme of a solar eclipse accompanying treachery is common in European literature. Plus the other motif of the 'sun refusing to shine when a murder is done' is another widespread motif in folklore (motif F.961.1.1 in Thomson's Motif-Index, iii, 247). As far as may be judged, Dubh was regarded (albeit in somewhat later writing) as a good and just ruler. However, it should be noted that royal death being associated with heavenly events did not necessarily signify the worth of the ruler involved. William of Malmesbury relates a tale of King William Rufus (in his De Gestis Regum) on the night before he died, when he 'dreamt that he was being bled, and a spurt of blood [shot] up to the sky overcast the sun and brought darkness upon the day'.
In Scotland the significance of strange celestial occurrences was also marked and from a very early date. The Annals of Ulster note that the moon was like blood around the time of the death of the Argyll king Domangart, son of Domnall Brecc, in 673. The Pictish king Angus son of Fergus also had his passing marked by a 'dark moon'.
Most significantly, in this northern context, is the tradition which surrounds the king named Giric, who died a century before Dubh. In a parallel with Dubh, Giric - co-incidentally or not - also jointly ruled with another king, named Eochaid. Giric was linked to the middle-eastern saint variously named St Cyricus or Cyrus (or Giric) and early records (the source once called the Pictish Chronicle) states that an eclipse of the sun took place in the ninth year of this king's rule, on the saint's day, 16th June 885. On this very day (according to the Chronicle of the Kings of Scotland), 'Eochard with his foster-father was now expelled from the kingdom.' The ancient church of St Cyrus (anciently Ecclesgreig) was in the Mearns and the king, under alliases Greg and Gregory seems very much associated with this region, with memories in place-names in neighbouring Angus. (Both Angus and Mearns seem to have formed the Pictish province of Circinn.) It is also noteworthy that Dubh himself had a son named Giric.
There is a possibility that the death and aftermath of Dubh is recorded in stone, on the massive monument known as Sueno's Stone, erected near Forres. This stone takes its name erroneously from a Viking king (Swein) who is supposed to have battled the Scots here, a story inspired in part by the scenes of armed violence carved on the stone. Spurious Viking tradition aside, it has also been conjectured that the stone is showing a message relating to a great battle here, possibly between the kingdom of Scots and the semi-autonomous rulers who sometimes displayed too much independence in this area, which in Pictish times had been named Fortriu and was later named Moray.
But surely the site is significant. Just outside Moray, on the road to Kinloss. A.A.M. Duncan proposed that the battle refers directly to that in which Dubh was slain. There is what appears to be a body stricken prone and laid beneath an arch or bridge (along with other corpses), and a head within a box - the head of the slain monarch? It may be the stone was set up by Dubh's brother, Kenneth II (Cináed mac Maíl Coluim), who reigned from 971-995. Kenneth was a ferociously active ruler who campaigned in many regions and he notable continued the feud in the far north, contending with Cuilén's brother Amlaíb.
The Compensation of Clan MacDuff
While Dubh's brother Kenneth ruled in the late 10th century, the later descendants of Dubh did not. True, the Annals of Ulster record the death in 1005 of Cinaed mac Duib, Kenneth III, king of Scots, but here the line - as rulers of the kingdom - falters. The reasons and details are not clear. This Kenneth III had a son named Giric, who may have ruled jointly with him (echoing past and future arrangements). Eligibility to rule was never straight forward in Gaelic society under the convoluted laws of tanistry, and sometimes changes were made to regulate succession among competing kindreds. For whatever reason, the children of Dubh were set aside. Whether or not they had a prior territorial claim on the region, Dubh's descendants may have become Mormaers and then Earls of Fife. The ancestry is not certain. But it is thought that Macbeth's queen Gruoch was a member of this kindred. Her grand-daughter married a son of Malcolm III named Aedh and the MacDuff rulers of Fife descend from this line.
They held this office until the latter 14th century. This kindred maintained a powerful, symbolic connection with the ritual enthronement of Scottish kings during this period, which was undoubtedly part of the compensation of the clan for being excluded from eligibility for the kingship. While this may appear odd, there are parallels from Ireland to show it was a feature in the upper echelons of Gaelic society. F. J. O'Byrne points out that ousted sub-kings still sometimes actually owned the inauguration sites of kings and therefore claimed and practised the rite to inaugurate new rulers.As late as the 16th century, he points out:
both Ó Catháin (O’Kane) and Ó hÁgáin (O’Hagan) of Tulach Óg were essential partners in the legal installation of O’Neill. A tract on the Uí Fiachrach says that at the inauguration of Ó Dubhda (O’Dowd of Tireragh), his arms, apparel and horse were given to Ó Caomháin, representative of an ousted dynasty... [Irish Kings and High Kings, p. 21]
According to Duncan (writing in Scotland, The Making of the Kingdom), the clan MacDuff were 'clearly close to the royal line in a special sense' and Bannerman writes:
Such inaugural nobles were often heads of dynastic segments rewarded in this way for
demitting their own legitimate claims to kingship within the kin-based system of
succession. That the ruling family of the province of Fife was closely related to the
reigning royal house is indicated by their shared forenames Donnchadh (Duncan), Mael-
Coluim (Malcolm) and perhaps particularly the otherwise rare Causantín (Constantine).
Dub king of Scots (d. 966) belonged to this royal dynasty and is the only one of that name on record, which makes it all the more certain that he was the eponymous ancestor of the Clann Duib of Fife.
The chief of the kindred was allowed the hereditary right to crown the new king of Scotland at Scone. The 15th century historian Andrew of Wyntoun claimed that MacDuff thane of Fife requested of Malcolm III the privilege for himself and his successors of enthroning the king of Scots at his inauguration, but the link is older than that. There was also a 'Law of Clan MacDuff', whereby anyone claiming kinship with the head of the clan within the ninth degree could claim santuary following a crime at Mac Duff's Cross (a monument later destroyed, though its base remains) which was situated on the border of Fife and Perthshire. Here there are traces of a uniquely powerful kindred with deep roots, special affiliations, and a family system that retained strong echoes of early medieval Gaelic structures.
|Site of MacDuff's Cross in Fife.|
Enter the Witches - A Later Fiction?
Mention witches and Scottish kings and one would inevitably think of Macbeth and the Weird Sisters. But 16th century, and later historians, first associated the obscure ruler Dubh with witches, albeit the tales was not as richly worked as in the literary Macbeth version. It seems highly coincidental that the area of Forres, associated as it is with Dubh's death and the Sueno Stone, should be the place where Macbeth encountered the three hags. Of interest also is the possibility that Gruoch, Macbeth's wife, was an ancestress of the MacDuff rulers of Fife. (The victorian historian W. F. Skene surmised that the descendants of Dubh arrived in Fife as followers of Macbeth in the 11th century.) Whatever the connections, the story of witches associated with Dubh was embelished out of all historical recognition. From the original scant few lines recorded about the king initially, he was later the centre of a melodramatic supernatural drama, culminating in the lurid tale inncluded by George Sinclair (Satan's Invisible World, included at the bottom of this piece). At the instigation of his dynastic rivals, several witches tormented the king and caused him to wither away for six months before he actually died by mistreating a wax image of him. Other versions, including that of John Leslie, state the ruler was given noxious medicine which hastened his demise.
Shakespeare not only used those traditions and pseudo-histories of Macbeth found in recent historians, but also utilised traditions associated with Dub, as filtered through the dubious inventions of Hector Boece's Scotorum Historiae, and its translation by John Bellenden. According to the latter, Dubh or Duff had hanged several relatives of the captain of Forres castle, for conspiring with witches against him. Donwald's wife took umbrage and tasked her husband with killing the king the next time he stayed at the castle. This was done during the night when he was alseep. Dubh's throat was cut and the corpse removed from the fortress. The next morning, when the alarm was raised, Donwald angrily accused the king's two chamberlains. The body was concealed beneath a stream: 'and buryit it in the middis thairof, quhair the streme usit to pas; syne put ane gret stane abone his body, that na thing suld appeir hid in the said place.'
Shakespeare also utilised Ralph Holished's re-imagining of the eclipse tale, which Holinshed expanded to ratchet up the sense of eerie occurrence:
For the space of six moneths togither, after this heinous murther thus committed, there apeered no sunn by day, nor moone by night in anie part of the realme, but still was the skie covered with continuall clouds, and sometimes such outragious windes arose, with lightenings and tempests, that the people were in great feare of present destruction... Monstrous sights also that were seen within the Scottish kingdome that yeere were these: horses in Louthian, being of singular beautie and swiftnesse, did eate their owne flesh, and would in no wise taste anie other meate. In Angus there was a gentlewoman brought foorth a child without eires, nose, hand, or foot. There was a sparhawke also strangled by an owle... But all men understood that the abhominable murther of king Duffe was the cause heereof.