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“Lay on, Macduff”, cries Macbeth as he challenges him towards the end of Shakespeare’s historical ‘Tragedie’ set in Scotland in the 11th century. By murdering the usurping tyrant Macbeth and restoring the proper royal line in the person of King Malcolm III, Macduff is the hero of the piece. 800 years later, if following a romanticised arc of the story, Macduff’s descendant, Alexander, Earl Macduff, was finally rewarded: with a dukedom and a royal bride, Princess Louise, the eldest daughter of the Prince of Wales.
But there’s more complexity to this story, both in the 11th century and in the 19th. By helping to place Malcolm, son of King Duncan, on the throne in place of his cousin Macbeth, Macduff, the Thane of Fife, was aiding in the process by which traditional Celtic practices of tanistry—by which the throne passed back and forth between different branches of the royal line—were abandoned in favour of primogeniture, the system favoured by the Normans then amassing power across the border in England. So it’s likely Macduff was within spitting distance of the throne himself, and willingly ‘demoted’ his lineage for the sake of greater unity within the Kingdom. At the other end of the story, the dukedom of Fife, created in 1889, is the last non-royal dukedom created in the United Kingdom. But since its creation, the descent of this title has been anything but straightforward, first passing to one woman then to the son of another, so that today its holder is from an altogether different Scottish family, Carnegie.
That the real Macduff of the 11th century was himself of royal blood can be inferred from the royal names borne by later members of his family: Kenneth, Duncan, Malcolm (See a conjectured family tree for the MacDuffs here). His own name isn’t certain, but he was probably a son or grandson of King Dubh, meaning ‘the black’, anglicised as ‘Duff’ (d. 967). The ‘sons of Duff’ (ie, Mac Duff) were given the important region on the east coast of Scotland, Fife, to rule (as a ‘mormaer’ the Celtic term similar to ‘earl’), as well as the nearby abbacy of Abernethy, in Perthshire, as a hereditary position. Abernethy was an important ceremonial centre of medieval Scotland: it had once been a capital of the Pictish people and was an early Christian bishopric. And so, with its lands, came also the ceremonial honour of bearing the crown of Scotland at the royal coronation. Clan Macduff’s position as premier noble family amongst the Gaelic nobility, and its blood proximity to the royal line itself, can also be detected in the coat of arms attributed to them, a simpler version of the arms of Scotland itself, with a red rampant lion on gold.
Not much evidence remains of the rule of the Clan MacDuff in Fife and Perthshire. There is a ‘Cross of MacDuff’ on the north coast of Fife, the remains of an ancient monument (possibly mid-11th century) which supposedly served as the traditional place of refuge for anyone in the clan; some suggest this was Macduff’s castle as ‘thane’ (or king’s official) of Fife. On the south coast of Fife is ‘Macduff’s Castle’, also possibly from the 11th century, but remodelled in the 16th century by the Wemyss family, and now a ruin.
During the wars of independence in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, the Macduff lords therefore saw themselves as potential contenders for the throne, and while the Bruce family were championing Scottish independence, Alexander, Lord of Abernethy, swore fealty to Edward I of England in 1291 and was given positions of authority in English-held Scotland. Meanwhile, his kinsman, Duncan IV, Earl of Fife, supported Robert the Bruce, who ultimately prevailed; his cousin Isabella married Bruce’s brother, Edward, and was thus nominally Queen of Ireland during his short reign there, 1315-18. The lines of both Fife and Abernethy died out later in that century, with both titles passing ultimately to the Stewarts. The hereditary honour of bearing the royal crown passed through them to the Douglas family who still hold it today in the person of the Duke of Hamilton. But the earldom of Fife remained extinct until it was revived in the mid-18th century—sort of.
Table of Contents
The Earldom RevivedRoot Id is Required.
Abbreviated Duff Family Tree (Created with TreePress)
In the 1750s, a man named William Duff put forward claims to be descended from one of the junior branches of the house of MacDuff of Fife. And although the Lord Lyon ruled in 1757 that the senior representative of the line of the ancient earls of Fife was the Wemyss family, who owned Macduff’s Castle (above) and lots of land in the area, nevertheless, Duff was rich and powerful enough to get himself a revived Fife earldom, in 1759—but with a twist: not wishing perhaps to offend the ancient nobility of the county of Fife (of which Duff was not a recognised member and where he owned little if any land), nor to give him a seat in the Parliament of Great Britain, his peerage was created in Ireland.
The first Earl Fife (no ‘of’) had in fact already been created Baron Braco (of Kilbryde, in County Cavan—though Braco itself is a village in Perthshire), in 1735, but his chief landholdings were in the far northeast of Scotland, in Banffshire and Morayshire, notably the small estate at Dipple on the River Spey. The Earl’s father, William Duff of Dipple, was a very wealthy merchant, who built his business on the import and export trade in Aberdeen. They were nonetheless members of the old local gentry, with previous marriages within local powerful families, the Gordons, Ogilvies, Grants and Forbes. In the early 18th century, family lawyers worked out the means to acquire the feudal barony of Balvenie in Banffshire, with its medieval castle, to give the family greater polish in polite society. They were able to trace their lineage back to a certain John Duff, who had acquired land in the counties of Banff and Moray and around the river Spey in the early 15th century, but any real connection between John Duff and the early Clan Macduff is unprovable.
The wealthy William Duff went into politics, and represented Banffshire in Parliament, 1727-34. He built a grand house for his burgeoning dynasty, Duff House, in 1740. Designed by William Adams, the family lived here until 1903, when it was given to the local town of Banff—it was subsequently used as a hotel, a sanatorium, a POW camp and barracks, and since 1995 forms part of the National Galleries of Scotland, in the care of Historic Environment Scotland.
As Earl Fife (no ‘of’), and Viscount Macduff, William Duff added the ancient arms of the earls of Fife (the red lion on gold) to his own family’s mostly green coat of arms. He died only a few years later, and was succeeded by his son, James, who also had a long career as an MP—as an Irish peer, he could still sit in the British House of Commons, until he was made a member of the House of Lords with a British peerage (Baron Fife, in the County of Fife) in 1790. The second Earl was a man of his times and thus very interested in improving his estates. He rebuilt the harbour of a town on the north coast of Banffshire, across the bay from Banff town (and Duff House), and changed its name to Macduff (1783). In London, he lived at Fife House, in Whitehall, built in the 1760s, but this was sold on his death in 1809 to the Earl of Liverpool (the future Prime Minister), and demolished later in the century.
It was his nephew, the 4th Earl, who really struck gold—in liquid form—with the family’s lands in northeast Scotland. His father, the 3rd earl, had only held the titles for two years. James, 4th Earl Fife, followed in his uncle’s footsteps in founding a new town, Dufftown, on the lands of his barony of Balvenie, situated on a tributary (the Fiddich) that feeds into the river Spey, in 1817. This was a ‘planned town’, designed to give employment to soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars and to develop his estates into one of centres of whiskey production—today Glenfiddich is only one of the world-famous distilleries based in this town.
The 4th Earl himself had been a soldier in the wars, as a volunteer and later a commissioned officer in the Spanish armies fighting against Napoleon. Upon his return to Britain, he became an MP and a Lord-in-Waiting to King George IV, and was re-created Baron Fife (1827) since his uncle’s British peerage had expired with him. He retired to his Scottish estates in his later years, and continued to develop them, in part by selling off some of the estates further to the south, including Balmoral, which he sold to Prince Albert in 1852. The 4th Earl too died without children, in 1857, and the earlier (Irish) titles passed to his nephew, another James.
James, 5th Earl Fife, was the son of a general, and had served as an MP for two decades before succeeding to the family titles. Yet another barony was created within the UK peerage, Baron Skene of Skene, at the same time, to allow him to sit in the House of Lords. The Skene estates, in Aberdeeenshire, had been inherited earlier in the century, and included a castle with a 12th-century core and 17th-century extensions. It was later sold to the Hamiltons.
The 5th Earl married higher into the Scottish nobility than his predecessors—Lady Agnes Hay was the daughter of the 18th Earl of Erroll and Lady Elizabeth FitzClarence. The latter was one of the many daughters of King William IV and Dorothea Jordan, thus bringing the Duff family closer in to the orbit of the royal family itself. It is through Lady Agnes that a great number of currently living British public figures can claim descent from the Hanoverian dynasty, including former prime minister David Cameron, television presenter Adam Hart-Davis, and the writer Artemis Cooper. The latter is the daughter of the popular historian John Julius Norwich, whose own father’s name reflects his connection to this clan: Duff Cooper (whom we have encountered before in another blog post, due to his wife, Lady Diana Manners of Rutland).
Promotion to Dukes of Fife
The only son of the 5th Earl and Countess, Alexander Duff was born in 1849 in Edinburgh, and after his father had become Earl Fife, was known as ‘Viscount Macduff’. In the 1870s, he was an MP for Elginshire, and Lord Lieutenant of that county (the former, formal name for Morayshire). After he succeeded as 6th Earl Fife and Baron Skene, he took his seat in the House of Lords and served in the Liberal governments of the 1880s, and became involved in the creation of the South Africa Company. In 1885, his Irish earldom was finally ‘normalised’ in a sense, by being re-created as ‘Earl of Fife’ in the UK peerage. Then at the end of the decade, in July 1889, he married Princess Louise of Wales, one of the grand-daughters of Queen Victoria. Two days later, he was created Duke of Fife, with the subsidiary title Marquess of Macduff (in the County of Banff).
Louise was nearly 20 years younger than her new husband. She and her sisters Victoria and Maud had spent much of their childhood away from court, in the summers at their father’s estate at Sandringham in Norfolk, or sometimes with their mother’s relatives in Denmark. Though the eldest, she was known to be shyer than the other two. Once she married Alexander Duff, the couple became a solid addition to the extended Victorian royal family, and in 1905, Louise was given the additional honour of the title ‘Princess Royal’, as eldest daughter of the sovereign (now Edward VII). As a widow, from 1912, however, the Duchess of Fife was mostly a recluse during the reign of her brother George V, appearing in public mainly as a companion to their widowed mother, Queen Alexandra.
The 1st Duke and Duchess of Fife lived on Portman Square when in London, or Fife House in Brighton, and at Montcoffer House when in Banff (formerly the residence of the Fife estate manager, they ducal couple moved here once they no longer resided at Duff House). For a country seat, they moved to Mar Lodge, near Braemar. This estate had formed a core part of the ancient earldom of Mar, one of the oldest and grandest medieval Scottish lordships, confiscated from the Jacobite 23rd Earl of Mar following the 1715 uprising. William Duff had purchased it back in the 1730s, and built a new residence, Dalmore House. That house was demolished in the 1830s and Mar Lodge was built as a hunting retreat. Much of this Lodge was destroyed in a fire in 1895, and a new Mar Lodge was built for the Duke and Duchess of Fife. It has a famous ballroom, notable for its thousands of deer antlers, and a private chapel, Saint Ninian’s, which became the family burial site. When the 2nd Duchess (below) died in 1959, the succession was divided, with the Mar estate passing to her nephew by marriage, Captain Alexander Ramsay, and then into various private hands until it was acquired by the National Trust for Scotland in 1995, which lets out holiday flats in the restored main house.
In an interesting echo of the role played by his putative ancestors in Scottish coronations, the Duke of Fife acted as Lord High Constable at the coronations of 1902 and 1911. The following year, he became very ill following his family’s shipwreck off the coast of Morocco, and died in Egypt. All the 18th-century titles became extinct. But provisions had been made since he and Princess Louise had only daughters (one son had been stillborn in 1890). In 1900, he was re-created Duke of Fife and Earl Macduff, with his daughters named specifically as heirs, to be followed by their sons. In 1905, the daughters’ titles were raised from ‘Lady’ to ‘Her Highness, Princess of Great Britain and Ireland’. Of these, Alexandra would soon move up another step to HRH through her marriage, while Maud would remain the only member of the royal family with the style ‘HH’ after all others were removed following the dynastic changes made in 1917 and the birth of the House of Windsor.
In 1912, therefore, Princess Alexandra became the 2nd Duchess of Fife. A year later, she became formally Princess Arthur of Connaught, by marriage to the son of Queen Victoria’s third son, Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn. She had initially hoped to marry another cousin, Prince Christopher of Greece and Denmark, but this idea was quashed by her parents. The Duchess and Prince Arthur (he was not referred to as the Duke of Fife) were important members of the working royal family in the first years of George V’s reign, as he had no living brothers and his children were still very young. She became known for her nursing activities during World War I, pursuing more formal qualifications in 1919, and becoming a specialist in gynaecology. This active, not just symbolic, service made her very popular, and she carried this popularity with her to South Africa where she accompanied her husband as Governor-General, 1920-24, and she continued to work on improving hospitals there.
Prince Arthur died before his father, in 1938, so their only son, Alastair, became 2nd Duke of Connaught in 1942. He had previously been known as Earl of Macduff, as his mother’s heir, and was one of the first members of the dynasty to bear ‘Windsor’ as a surname, as a collateral great-grandchild of a sovereign (he had been born a prince, with ‘His Highness’, but these were removed in 1917 in the dynastic re-organisation). Alastair was stationed in Canada during World War II, and died in somewhat mysterious (or perhaps covered up) circumstances only a year after he had succeeded to his grandfather’s titles. It was whispered that the new Duke of Connaught had fallen out of a window, intoxicated, and died from hypothermia. Back in London, his mother continued to run her own Fife Nursing Home until bad health forced her to retire from public life in 1949, and she died in 1959.
The heir to the dukedom of Fife was not Princess Alexandra’s sister, Princess Maud, as she had died several years before. It was instead Maud’s son, James, Lord Carnegie (b. 1929), who became 3rd Duke of Fife in 1959, and ultimately 12th Earl of Southesk in 1992. Princess Maud, known as Lady Maud Carnegie from her marriage in 1923, then Countess of Southesk from 1941, was never in the spotlight like her elder sister and did not carry out royal duties. Her husband had served in the army in the First World War and as aide-de-camp to the Viceroy of India in 1917. He rarely engaged in politics, but in 1939-40 did take up with a Scottish far right pro-Nazi group, with a stated aim of preventing the war. He later downplayed his involvement, but the group’s evident antisemitism did not play well in the public eye and after the war, the Earl and Countess of Southesk remained mostly out of the spotlight. When he died in 1992, he was the oldest member of the House of Lords, at nearly 100. They lived at Elsick House, in Kincardineshire, on a large estate near the North Sea, south of Aberdeen. This house had come into the Earl’s possession from his mother’s family, the Bannermans of Elsick, and this family’s arms were added to his own.
Before continuing the story of the dukes of Fife, therefore, we need a gear shift, away from the family of Macduff, and towards another Scottish clan from the east coast, this time from across the Tay, in Angus, rather than Fife. There had been a Clan Carnegie in Angus since the mid-14th century, and by the early 15th century they had acquired lands of Kinnaird, near Brechin, and built a fortification on the site of a much older ruin.
From the mid-1500s, they began to assert the title of hereditary cupbearer of Scotland, and added this symbol to their coat of arms. Several generations were active in late 16th-century royal government, and in 1616, David Carnegie, a Lord of Session and member of the Scottish Privy Council, was created Baron Carnegie of Kinnaird, and later 1st Earl of Southesk, named for the river South Esk that runs through Angus. His younger brother, John, was created Earl of Ethie, for his seat at Ethie Castle, near Arbroath, but this was later exchanged for the Earldom of Northesk, in 1662. This junior branch spells the name Carnegy, and continues today. I don’t think, by the way, that the Scots-American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie connects directly to this family.
The 17th-century Carnegies of Southesk were loyal supporters of the Stuarts: the 2nd Earl of Charles II when he was in exile, and the 5th Earl of ‘James III’ (the ‘Old Pretender’) during the Jacobite uprising known as the Fifteen. Indeed the Pretender stayed at Kinnaird Castle for a short period towards the end of the rising. As a result, the 5th Earl was attainted, his property and titles confiscated. Claims to these passed to the junior branch, the Carnegie baronets of Pittarrow (cr. 1663, in County Kincardine), who in the 1760s managed to re-purchase Kinnaird and other family estates. Indeed, the 3rd Baronet (the claimed ‘6th Earl’) made his loyalties clear by fighting against the Jacobites at Culloden in 1745.
A century later, the 6th Baronet, James, a distinguished soldier, obtained a reversal of the attainder from Parliament, in 1855, and was recognised as the 9th Earl of Southesk and Baron Carnegie of Kinnaird and Leuchars. In 1869, he was created Baron Balinhard of Farnell, a name taken from the supposed ancient progenitors of the family. This was a UK peerage giving him a seat in the House of Lords. His ancestral seat, Kinnaird Castle, though retaining its 15th-century core, was remodelled in Victorian baronial style, but mostly burned down in 1921.
Much of Kinnaird Castle was rebuilt by the 10th Earl of Southesk, known as a great collector of art, and is today used as holiday apartments, while his grandson the 12th Earl, aka the 3rd Duke of Fife, took up residence at Elsick House. A second cousin of Queen Elizabeth II through his grandmother, Princess Louise, James, 3rd Duke of Fife, lived most of his life in Scotland managing his estates in Angus; he also reconnected to the earlier parts of the Macduff story through his marriage to a daughter of one of the Dewars, of whiskey fame.
Today the dukedom of Fife is held by his son, the 4th Duke, David (b. 1961), who is at present #80 in the line of succession to the British throne. His son and heir is known as the Earl of Southesk as his courtesy title.
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)
About the Author
I am a historian of monarchy and the high aristocracy of Europe. I focus primarily as an academic on the early modern period and France, but my interests range from early medieval Ireland to 20th-century Russia.
I teach history at Manchester Metropolitan University in Manchester, England, and am the senior editor of The Court Historian, the journal of the Society for Court Studies. I am also a musician and an avid traveler. I love heraldry and genealogy. My ancestors came from Germany to the American colonies in the 18th century and I am a proud Virginian.