Donald III (Donalbain) – 1093-97

In 1093, Scotland seemed to have put its dynastic divisions behind it, but despite having had a long and stable reign, as well as a large number of sons, Malcolm III’s surprise death led to a chaotic period of internal conflict, largely thanks to his younger brother and immediately successor, Donald III (known in Shakespeare’s Macbeth as Donalbain). However, Malcolm’s sons would not sit back and let their uncle rest on his laurels and they had the advantage of enjoying the support of the English king, William Rufus.

To find out more about Donald III, you can listen to his episode here or read on to find out more.

Backgroundy Stuff

Malcolm III‘s reign was pivotal in Scottish history. After over a century of dynastic warfare, where Scotland’s alternating system of succession (whereby the throne went brother to brother rather than father to son) led to a succession of short and violent reigns, Malcolm brought Scotland out of the dark ages and into the medieval period. He killed not one but two of his predecessors (Macbeth and Lulach) and put down a rebellion in their territory of Moray, after which he faced no further opposition at home. He took advantage of the epic events of 1066 in England by marrying Margaret of Wessex, the sister of the last royal Saxon prince (Edgar Aetheling) and made a number of raids in Cumbria and Northumbria. Margaret brought to Scotland a more cultured and cosmopolitan court.

Malcolm III and Queen Margaret of Wessex

Malcolm III and Queen Margaret of Wessex

However, Malcolm’s marriage to Margaret (combined with his raids into Northumbria and occasional support for Edgar Aetheling) brought him into the firing line for the new Norman dynasty ruling England after 1066. Furthermore, his marriage was not universally popular at the Scottish court, with certain factions taking umbridge with the prominence she gave to Saxon exiles. Thus when Malcolm was unexpectedly killed in an ambush at Alnwick in 1093 and Margaret died of shock a short time later, there was a power vacuum in Scotland and a range of groups looking to move Scotland in a different direction.


Early Years

Scottish medieval chroniclers do not seem to have taken much interest in recording when their kings were born, but Donald was probably born between 1033-40, making him a surprisingly old 60-ish when he became king in 1093. He was the son of Duncan I and perhaps a woman called Suthen. The -ban nickname means “the fair” or “the white”, probably referring to his hair colour (either fair in his youth or white by the time he actually got to be king!) He was the younger son of Duncan, with Malcolm III being his older brother.

King Duncan I (father of Malcolm III and Donald III)

King Duncan I (father of Malcolm III and Donald III)

Donald’s father, Duncan I, was killed in 1040 by Macbeth. In Shakespeare, the two brothers discuss what they should do in response and decide to go their separate ways:

Malcolm: “What will you do? Let’s not consort with them: To show an unfelt sorrow is an office which the false man does easy. I’ll to England”

Donalbain: “To Ireland, I; our separated fortune shall keep us both the safer: where we are, there’s daggers in men’s smiles: the near in blood, the nearer bloody.”

Malcolm and Donalbain  decide to scarper!

Malcolm and Donalbain decide to scarper!

In reality, Donald would have been at most 7 years old at this time and possibly even younger, so it is highly unlikely that he had any control over his fate at this time. However, the brothers do seem to have gone in separate directions, with Donald going west to either Ireland or perhaps the Hebrides, while Malcolm went either south to Northumbria or possibly north to Orkney. Malcolm would return to Scotland and become king in 1058 but nothing is known of Donald’s exile and it is possible that he did not return to the Scottish court until Malcolm’s death in 1093, making his exile 53 years in length.


Given Donald’s absence and the fact that Malcolm left sons, it is perhaps surprising that it would be realistic for him to even attempt to become king, let alone succeed. However, Scotland did not yet have firm rules on its succession. His direct great-great grandfather, Kenneth II, had attempted to legislate for primogeniture, whereby the throne would go to the king’s eldest son, but this had not yet been pursued successfully. The old system was for it to alternate between brothers before going to the next generation, and under this system Donald was actually the rightful claimant.

However, given Donald’s absence from court it is almost certain that Malcolm III would have intended to have been succeeded by one of his many sons (Duncan by his first wife or Edward, Edmund, Edgar, Alexander and David by Margaret). Unfortunately, not only did Malcolm and Margaret die within weeks of each other in 1093 but so did their eldest son, Edward. Duncan had long been based in the English court and while Edward was probably recognised as heir, it was not clear who should be next in line.

Perhaps the key factor was that there was a strong element at court who saw this as an opportunity to rid Scotland of Margaret’s English allies in what is sometimes seen as a ‘Gaelic Reaction’. As such, the sons of Malcolm and Margaret were persona non grata while Donald acted as a figurehead for old school Scottish ways. So, Donald besieged Margaret’s sons in Edinburgh castle and, after they fled to England, became king.

Dynastic Conflict

We know very little of what Donald was like as a king because the next few years were dominated by conflict with Donald and his nephews, all of which was being directed by the English king, William Rufus. Rufus had been looking to secure his northern borders against the bellicose Malcolm III and would not have been pleased to see another warlike Scottish king take his place who had even less connection to the Normans than his predecessor. However, in Malcolm’s sons Rufus had a much more appealing opportunity. Margaret’s sons were now staying in England at his pleasure and in time would no doubt see him as their liege lord. In the meantime, he had a more immediate ally in the form of Malcolm’s eldest son by his first wife, Duncan.

William Rufus, the second Norman King of England determined to get rid of Donald III.

William Rufus, the second Norman King of England determined to get rid of Donald III.

Duncan had been in England since he was a child when Malcolm had to give him to Rufus’ father, William the Conqueror, as part of a peace treaty in 1072. Since that time, he had been brought up at the Norman court (both in England and Normandy) and effectively trained as a Norman knight. He had never been back to Scotland and was a respected figure at the Anglo-Norman court. Crucially, he also recognised Rufus as his superior, so in 1094 he was given an army and sent off to Scotland. Frustratingly, we don’t know whether any battles were fought but Duncan succeeded in taking the throne, with Donald retreating to the Highlands.

Unfortunately for Duncan (now Duncan II), he did not have long to enjoy his time as king. Given that Donald came to the throne in part because Malcolm and Margaret’s sons were considered too English, Duncan was to all intents and purposes a Norman,had not set foot in the country for over twenty years and was only king by virtue of a foreign army. Consequently, he proved unpopular and faced various uprisings, which he was only able to quell by making the tactically dubious agreement to send his foreign troops home. Sure enough, later that year he was assassinated and Donald was back on the throne.

This time, however, Donald was not alone. Somehow, he had made contact with Margaret’s eldest surviving son, Edmund, and a murky deal was agreed between uncle and nephew. Donald remained king but Edmund seems to have been given Strathclyde to rule as an appanage and was almost certainly recognised as Donald’s heir. It is not clear how the working relationship operated in practice but king lists do not usually acknowledge Edmund as being king, so the assumption is that Donald remained king in his own right rather than sharing the throne.

Inevitably, however, this new deal did not go down well with Edmund’s younger brothers or indeed William Rufus. So, taking advantage of the superfluity of Scottish princes at his disposal, Rufus now acknowledged the next oldest brother, Edgar, as king and sent him off in 1097 with an army commanded by Edgar Aetheling (Edgar’s maternal uncle). Once again, the invasion was successful but this time Donald and Edmund were captured. Edmund was tonsured and sent to be a Cluniac monk in Montacue (Somerset) while Donald was kept imprisoned in Scotland. Oddly, Edgar seems to have spared his life for a time until in 1099 he was caught plotting while Edgar was out of the country and finally his luck had run out – he was blinded and died shortly afterwards.



We know nothing of what Donald got up to prior to 1093, but the next few years were very busy. Despite being out of the country for over 50 years and facing numerous royal princes, he succeeded in winning the throne. Some have suggested he was aided by the King of Norway who was looking to extend his influence in the Scottish isles but there is no firm evidence of this. According to John of Fordun, he besieged his nephews in Edinburgh castle in order to take the throne:

“Donald the Red, or Donald Bane, the king’s brother, having heard of [Margaret’s] death, invaded the kingdom, at the head of a numerous band, and in hostilewise besieged the aforesaid castle, where he knew the king’s rightful and lawful heirs were.”

(John of Fordun)

Again in 1094 he took the throne, this time usurping his nephew, Duncan II. That he was able to do this suggests that he had some form of military presence in the Highlands of Scotland despite his initial defeat and the man certainly deserves points for persistency!


Unfortunately, we just don’t know any of the finer details of what happened from 1093-97 – we don’t know if he had to fight any battles in 1093 or 1094 to win the throne, nor indeed whether he was defeated in battle in 1094 and 1097. His success are ultimately outweighed by his defeats – he won the throne twice but he also lost it twice (the second time decisively). The odds, in fairness, were always against him given that there were so many nephews against him and backed by the far superior military force of William Rufus, but he did not do enough to make his usurpations stick.

Our Verdict

Winning the throne twice is impressive, but losing it twice is perhaps rather damning. The evidence seems to suggest more that Donald sneakily took advantage of weaknesses and power vacuums and came up short whenever faced with a real army. Not a man to cross but also not one to fear in a fair fight.

Score = 3/20



Donald has rather more going for him on this front. It seems highly unlikely that he was the intended heir in 1093 and he could not simply have turned up unannounced and taken the throne, suggesting that he had plenty of contacts at court and had been planning for this opportunity for some time. His proclivity for plotting shows again in 1094 when he made a deal with one nephew, Edmund, which involved murdering another, Duncan II. It is even suggested that he was plotting against Edgar (another nephew) from prison in 1099!


In the context of medieval Scottish history up to this point, killing off your rivals is not actually such an unusual thing – in fact it’s almost standard practice that you would expert to find in the handbook! His brother, Malcolm III, had killed two of his predecessors, the oldest of whom, Macbeth, had killed their father, Duncan I. As such, Donald’s actions do not really stand out as spectacularly scandalous.

Our Verdict

Donald was up to mischief but no more than was standard for the time and he lacks a really shocking act (or series of acts) to warrant a higher score.

Score = 5.5/20



The only thing that can really be said in Donald’s favour is that, for some at least, he was popular at court. The fact that he was chosen as king in 1093 despite there being so many sons of Malcolm III to choose from indicates that he met with the approval of at least some of his subjects. That he was able to return so soon after his initial deposition in 1094 gives further credence to this idea of a ‘Gaelic Reaction’ and suggests that Donald was not all bad when it came to the business of kinging.


On the other hand, there really is no evidence that he was actually any good as a king! It is likely that the 1093-97 period involved a lot of upheaval and military activity, even if there were no grand battles. After three decades of stability under Malcolm III, this constant infighting would have been bad for the people and undermined Scotland’s strength as a nation and to be fair, it was essentially Donald’s fault! It is also uncertain to what extent we can say that he was really so very Scottish in identity – his exile and upbringing seems to have been in Norse controlled territories – and the sense of a ‘Gaelic Reaction’ is perhaps easy to exaggerate. It is unlikely that there were swathes of Saxons abundant in Scotland, more likely a small but powerful faction at court who were expelled in what may be more about personal loyalty than national identity.

Our Verdict

Some people may have wanted him to be king but he did not do a very good job at it and dragged Scotland back into a period of internal fighting and dynastic uncertainty that seemed to have been overcome by Malcolm III.

Score = 0.5/20


Donald III has two reigns – the first lasted from November 1093 to May 1094 (8 months – 0.67 years) while the second lasted from November 1094 to late (let’s call it November!) 1097 (3 years). This gives him a total of 3.67 years, which when converted into a score out of 20 based on the longest reign overall gives him a total score of 1.27/20.


Donald had no sons, which adds credence to the idea that he had acknowledged his nephew, Edmund as heir. However, he does have one daughter, Bethoc, whose descendant, John Comyn of Badenoch, would actually make a claim to the throne in 1291.

Regardless, that one child converts into a score of 2/20.

Overall, Donald III has a total score of 12.27 – not very high, but will that affect his chances in the greatest challenge of all…

Rex Factor

Donald III must have been a very charismatic man to have twice won a throne from which he spent the vast majority of his life at a very great distance. He could murder, he could make shady deals and he had great ambition…but unfortunately he kept on failing and did not have the ability to make it stick, leaving behind a legacy of nothing but a temporary blip.

Our Verdict

No, Donald III does not have the Rex Factor.


What do you think – does Donald III deserve the Rex Factor? Vote in our quick poll below and let us know.

4 thoughts on “Donald III (Donalbain) – 1093-97

  1. Pingback: The Great Cause (1290-92) | Rex Factor

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