The reign of King Dubh (or Duff) of Scotland marks the beginning of a period of dynastic conflict, making the “King of Scots” job something of a poisoned chalice. The rival descendants of the two sons of Kenneth MacAlpin – Constantine I and Aed – were now in open competition for the throne and Dubh was the first target for usurpation by his own kin. To find out how he fares, you can listen to his podcast here or read on to find out more.
For the most part, the previous hundred years had been a successful period for the kingdom of Scotland. Indeed, it had actually come into being, with Kenneth MacAlpin starting the process in the 840s by uniting the kingdoms of the Picts and the Scots. The odd period of Viking raids and invasions caused some instability and made the job “King of Scots” one that came with a worryingly limited life expectancy, but the crafty Scots toughed it out and under Constantine II (900-43) pushed the Vikings out altogether, became the dominant power in northern Britain and for the first time the nation of Scotland was truly in existence.
Despite these successes, there was a potential problem lurking beneath the surface. The succession at this time was not strictly patrilineal (i.e. from father to son) but rather alternated between brothers before then going down to the next generation. Initially, this made a lot of sense, as it more or less ensured that an adult male of royal descent would come to the throne rather than an infant who could not lead an army against marauding Vikings. However, several generations on since Kenneth MacAlpin, the claimants to the throne were not just brothers but cousins (and of increasingly distant degrees!) It was perhaps only a matter of time before the succession became a matter of dispute and unfortunately for Dubh, that time had arrived.
We don’t know when Dubh was born, but realistically he must have been at least 18 to have been able to successfully claim the throne (i.e. the early 940s). Dubh was the son of Malcolm I and so part of what we are calling the Blue Team, descended from Kenneth MacAlpin’s eldest son, Constantine I. As can be seen from the family tree above, his rival (in the Red Team descended from Aed) was Cuilean, his third cousin (I think!) We do not know why a dispute arose in Dubh’s reign – perhaps Cuilean was ambitious, Dubh overbearing or a personal dispute arose.
Unfortunately, the evidence for Dubh’s reign is pretty minimal (perhaps because of the instability caused by a dynastic conflict). For an overview of the reign, we turn to the Chronicles of the Kings of Alba (CKA), a short written account of the Kings of Alba from Kenneth MacAlpin to Kenneth II:
“Dubh the son of Malcolm ruled for 5 years. Bishop Fothach was laid to rest. There was a battle between Dubh and Cuilean above Crup ridge, in which Dubh had the victory: at which Duncan the abbot of Dunkeld and Dubdon the governor of Atholl both fell. Dubh was driven from the throne, and Cuilean held it for a short time. Donald the son of Cairill died.” (CKA)
As ever with the CKA, a lot of unfamiliar names and not a lot of specifics on the reign! To break it down, Cuilean fights Dubh for the throne (probably in about 965) but Dubh emerges victorious, with two notable figures being killed. Despite his victory, Dubh is subsequently expelled from the kingdom (probably in 966/67) for reasons unknown and Cuilean achieves his ambition of becoming king after all. The identity of Donald son of Cairill (or his significance to Dubh’s reign) is not so clear!
What Happened to Dubh?
Dubh’s fate is rather puzzling: we have very little information about him other than the fact that he wins a battle and then gets kicked out and replaced by the man who failed to usurp him. Perhaps Cuilean had engineered a coup d’etat or launched a more successful invasion that forced Dubh. Some historians have speculated that Dubh may have lost support at court, possibly because of the death of the Abbot of Dunkeld and the governor of Atholl in the battle where Dubh defeated Cuilean. Either way, it represented a dramatic fall from grace.
Following his expulsion, Dubh’s fortunes were sadly not to improve. The Annals of Ulster provide a simply summary of what happened next: “Dub, Malcolm’s son, the king of Scotland, was killed by the Scots themselves.” The Chronicle of Melrose went slightly further: “Him the treacherous nation of Moray slew; he was slain by their swords in the town of Forres.” Dubh was killed in 967, apparently by his fellow Scots and specifically those Scots in the territory of Moray (the east coast of Scotland). Moray seems to have been a rebellious territory that resisted attempts at overlordship by the Scottish kings. Maybe Dubh was attempting to gather support for an attack on Cuilean and was given a definitive ‘no’ in response!
A more colourful account of Dubh’s death, however, is provided by John of Fordun, a medieval chronicler with a penchant for a good yarn. According to Mr Fordun, Dubh was lording his way around Moray and punishing “diverse evildoers” but was assassinated in his bed by “wicked robbers” when his bodyguards were too busy “in games, plays and feasting”. Dubh’s body was buried under a bridge near Kinloss and covered lightly with a green turf. However, the whole kingdom was then plunged into darkness until a light shone on the bridge, revealing his body so that he could be buried on Iona. Interestingly, there were a couple of total eclipses in this period and John is not the only one to provide an account of Dubh being buried under a bridge, so perhaps there is some truth in it after all!
Another legend associated with Dubh is that of Sueno’s Stone – a 6.5m high Picto-Scottish stone in Forres depicting various symbols including a battle. It is often thought to be celebrating Kenneth MacAlpin’s triumph over the Picts but the most popular alternative suggestion is that it is a monument to Dubh left by his brother, the future Kenneth II.
We know very little about Dubh, but to his credit, almost all of what we know is that he won a battle. Specifically, the Battle of Duncrub or Crup Ridge in 965. The location was probably Strathearn in Perthshire (north of Stirling, west of Perth/Scone) and it was clearly a signifcant battle as the Abbot of Dunkeld and the Earl of Atholl were killed, plus Dubh defeated his rival, Cuilean, and held on to the throne. Unfortunately for Dubh, he was then kicked out a couple of years later. It is not clear whether this was in an unrecorded battle, a show of force that he could not resist or simply the murky world of politics, but overall it’s not such an impressive record.
Score = 5/20
We really have very little to go on here. If we make a real stretch of it then perhaps the death of the Abbot of Dunkeld (Dunkeld being perhaps the major religious centre in mainland Scotland at this time) was scandalous enough for Dubh to lose support and suffer a usurpation. Killing an important bishop would be good scandal…but this is hardly Henry II and Thomas Becket. If Dubh was responsible then the Abbot was likely fighting against him and it may even be that he was on Dubh’s side (the chronicle doesn’t specify)
Score = 4/20
Would you have wanted to be a subject under Dubh? According to John of Fordun, the answer should be yes:
“He was a man of dove-like simplicity towards those who loved quiet and peace; but a cruel, terrible, and bloody avenger towards rebels, plunderers, and thieves.He passed the years of his reign at peace with foreign nations.”
Furthermore, the fact that there is a legend about Dubh’s death which implies that it was a bad thing also suggests an element of goodness about Dubh. Unfortunately, if you’re looking for actual concrete evidence of anything good that Dubh actually did…then there’s nothing. The reigns of Constantine II, Malcolm I and Indulf had seen internal peace and external expansion whereas in contrast Dubh’s reign marks the beginning of a dynastic conflict and instability at the heart of the Scottish kingdom.
Score = 1/20
Dubh reigns from 962 to 967 – a reign of five years which, when converted into a score out of 20 (where 20 is the longest reign of all the monarchs), gives him a total of 1.73/20
We are aware of just one surviving legitimate child for Dubh, which gives him a converted score of just 2.22/20.
Overall, that gives Dubh a rather meagre score of 13.96.
To have the Rex Factor, you don’t necessarily need the biggest score but you need that certain something, a legacy, a great achievement, that certain something and star quality…ah let’s skip to the end here, Dubh clearly does not have what it takes to be awarded the Rex Factor!
Our Verdict: No, Dubh is nowhere near the Rex Factor.
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