Clan MacDuff Overview

Clan MacDuff Overview

by Dr. Jeremiah P. Spence, Ph.D.

Notes on the MacDuffs of MacDuff and Clan MacDuff


MacDuff Websites:


Septs of Clan MacDuff: Duff, Fife, Fyfe, Spence, Spens, Wemyss.

Tradition says that the founder of the MacDuffs, who became the Thanes of Fife, were those who opposed King Macbeth and assisted King Malcolm III to the throne of Scotland, was the 1st Earl of Fife. The MacDuffs enjoyed the privilege of crowning the King and of leading the Scottish army. The old Earldom of Fife became extinct in 1353 on the death of the 12th Earl, Duncan but in the following centuries, separate families of Duffs and MacDuffs featured prominently.

The earlier history of Clan MacDuff is a mixture of real and mythological history; however, it is likely that MacDuff descends from one or more of the royal families of the pre-Scotland Gaelic kingdoms. This is evidenced by their close relationships to the earliest kings of Scotland and their claim to one of the seven kingdoms of medieval Scotland, being that of Fife, a more agricultural region, with ports and closer to the English realms.

The early King of Scotland, Macbeth’s strictness of rule and justice of government made him many enemies among the nobles of his realm, who found themselves subject to law equally with the humblest peasant. In the end it was the king’s jnsistence on fair play which brought about his downfall. The chronicler, Andro of Wyntoun, tells how Macbeth was building his great new castle, of which the traces are still to be seen, on the little mount of Dunsinnan in the Sidlaws. For this work of national importance the lieges had to furnish teams and working parties. As he watched the building, Macbeth one day saw one of the teams of oxen engaged in drawing timber fail at its work.

On inquiry he was told that the inferior oxen had been furnished by Macduff, Thane of Fife, and with indignation he threatened to put the Thane’s Own neck into the yoke and make him draw. Macduff knew that the king was apt to be as good as his word, and he forthwith fled. He went first to his castle of Kennachy, then took boat across the Fifth of Forth from the spot still known from that circumstance as Earlsferry. At Kennachy his wife, who seems to have been of stouter heart than her husband, kept the pursuing king in treaty till she saw Macduff’s boat safely reach the middle of the Firth. From this occurrence arose the rule down to a recent period that any fugitive taking boat at Earlsferry was protected from pursuit till he had made his way halfway across the Firth.

Macduff fled to the court of Siward, Earl of Northumbria, where he represented to Macbeth’s cousins, sons of the late Duncan, King of Scots, that the time was ripe for them to secure possession of their father’s throne. Duncan’s legitimate sons held back, knowing that they were Macbeth’s natural heirs, who must shortly succeed to the crown without effort. But an illegitimate prince, Malcolm, son of King Duncan and the miller’s daughter at Forteviot, saw his opportunity, and seized it. All the world knows how, helped by Siward and guided by Macduff, he invaded Scotland, drove Macbeth from Dunsinnan to Lumphanan on Deeside, and finally slew him there.

Afterwards, Malcolm III. being firmly seated on his throne, Macduff asked, for his services, three special boons: first, that in all time coming his descendants should have the privilege at royal coronations of leading the king to the coronation chair; second, that, when the kings of Scots made war, the Thanes of Fife should have the honour of commanding the vanguard; and third, that if the Thane or his kindred to the ninth degree should slay a man he should be entitled to remission on payment of a fine, twenty-four merks for a gentleman and twelve for a yoeman, while if anyone slew a kinsman of the Thane he should be entitled to no such relief. As a result of this last boon, as late as 1421 three gentlemen in Fife who could claim kin with Macduff obtained a remission for the slaughter of Melville of Glenbervie upon payment of the stipulated fine. A more famous occasion on which the Boon of Macduff came into play was at the coronation of King Robert the Bruce. Duncan, the Earl of Fife of that time, had married Mary de Monthermer, niece of Edward I. of England, and was upon the English side, acting as Governor of Perth.

Gilmichael, fourth Earl of Fife, who died in 1139, left two sons, of whom the elder, Duncan, carried on the line, while Hugo the younger, became ancestor of the house of Wemyss, which now probably represents the early thanes and earls of Fife. His son and heir was Duncan (Donnchad III mac Duff mac Duibh), 4th Earl of Fife, Mormaer of Fife, 1118-1154, Duncan, and as head of the native Scottish nobility, had the job of introducing and conducting King Malcolm around the Kingdom upon his accession; however, Malcolm died not long after being crowned. He is known to have fathered two sons and one daughter: Duncan II, his son and heir, succeeded his father in 1154.

It is claimed that perhaps as early as 1150 that Spens nobles were kin of the Earls of MacDuff and eventually described as a Sept of Clan MacDuff. It is claimed in multiple sources, without proof or documented sources, that the founder of the Spens families in Scotland, one Jean le Despencier, 1123-1171, who presumably came from Ponthieu, France around the time of the Norman invasion of the British Isles, married the fourth daughter of Duncan (Donnchad III mac Duff mac Duibh), 4th Earl of Fife, Mormaer of Fife, 1118-1154. Historical examinations of this period note that there may be other children beyond the three most frequently documented. It is suggested in numerous sources, that the fourth child, a daughter, whom I have named Lisbeth MacDuff for the sake of simplicity, married Jean le Despencier, 1123-1171. We have a few but important bits of historical evidence to reinforce this supposed kinship between the MacDuff and Spens families. The earliest recorded Coats of Arms of Spens men included the upright lion of the MacDuff family. Also, kin of MacDuff had the right of refuge from pursuit, which will be discussed further below, and on at least two separate occasions Spens men demanded and received the right of refuge as kin of MacDuff.

So, it might be entirely correct to state that Spens persons from at least the 1300s believed themselves to be direct kin of the MacDuff family, independent of whether or not the historical marriage between Spens and MacDuff actually took place centuries previous. To just add a bit more to the claim of Spens being kin of the MacDuff, the John of Spens of Glen Douglas, Boquhapple, Drummond, 2nd Baron of Lathallan, 1380-1437, married Isabel of Wemyss the heiress of Rires, who was a direct descendant of Hugo of MacDuff. Thus, the entire line of Spens of Lathallan after 1410 was certainly descended from MacDuff via the Wemyss family. These close marriages into predominant families from Perth to Edinburgh to Fifeshire, provide great insight into the relative station of the Spens family during these ancient times.

Law of Clan MacDuff

Clan Macduff was the first Scottish clan to be recognized as a clan by the Scottish Parliament, by legislation dated November 1384.

The Earl of Fife and the Abbot of Abernethy were both “Capitals of Law of the Clan MacDuff”. The law protected all murderers within ninth degree of kin to the Earl of Fife, as they could claim sanctuary at the Cross of MacDuff, and could find remission by paying compensation to the victim’s family. The remains of the Cross of MacDuff is located near Black Cairn Hill near the city of Abernethy. The cross marks the spot where the clan Macduff was granted rights of sanctuary and composition for murder done in hot blood.

The chiefs of the clan had the right to enthrone the King on the Stone of Scone. When the Stone of Scone was taken to England by Edward I of England, Robert I of Scotland had himself crowned King of Scots a second time, in order to be crowned by a member of clan MacDuff, in that case the Earl of Fife’s sister.

Scottish Barons and the Barony in Scotland Overview

In Scotland, a Baronis the head of a “feudal” barony (also known as prescriptive barony). This used to be attached to a particular piece of land on which was the “caput” (Latin meaning ‘head’), or the essence of the barony, normally a building, such as a castle or manor house. Accordingly, the owner of the piece of land containing the “caput” was the Baron or Baroness. The Court of the Lord Lyon issued a new ruling April 2015 that recognizes a person possessing the dignity of baron and other feudal titles (Lordship/Earl/Marquis). Lord Lyon now prefers the approach of recognizing the particular feudal noble dignity as expressed in the Crown Charter that the petitioner presents. These titles are recognized as the status of a minor baron but not a peer. Scottish feudal baronies may be passed to any person, of either sex, by inheritance or conveyance. Scotland has a distinct legal system within the United Kingdom. Historically, in the Kingdom of Scotland, the Lord Lyon King of Arms, as the Sovereign’s Minister in matters armorial, is at once Herald and Judge.


Scottish Prescriptive Barony by Tenure was, from 1660 until 2004, the feudal description of the only genuine degree of title of UK nobility capable of being bought and sold (along with the Caput, or property), rather than passing strictly by blood inheritance. Statutes of 1592 and the Baronetcy Warrants of King Charles I show the non-peerage Table of Precedence as: Baronets, Knights, Barons and Lairds, Esquire and Gentlemen. A General Register of Sasines was set up by Statute in 1617, with entry in the Register giving the prescriptive right (right by normal or correct usage), after so many years, to the “caput” or essence of the Barony. The individual who owned the said piece of land containing the caput was hence the Baron or Baroness.

Uncertainty over armorial right was removed by the Lyon Register being set up by Statute in 1672, such that no arms were to be borne in Scotland unless validly entered in Lyon Register. Up until 1874 each new Baron was confirmed in his Barony by the Crown by Charter of Confirmation. Up until 28 November 2004 a Barony was an estate of land held directly of the Crown, or the Prince and Great Steward of Scotland. It was an essential element of a barony title that there existed a Crown Charter erecting the land into a Barony, recorded in the Register of the Great Seal of Scotland. Often the original Charter was later lost, however an Official Extract has the same legal status as the original Charter.

From the Treaty of Union of 1707 – until 1999 – a unified Parliament of Great Britain(since January, 1801, known as the Parliament of the United Kingdom), at Westminster, was responsible for passing legislation affecting private law both north and south of the Scottish border. In 1999 the devolved Scottish Parliament was established, and Private law measures can now be passed at Holyrood, the seat of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. Using a prescriptive feudal grant allowed developers to impose perpetual conditions affecting the land. The courts became willing to accept the validity of such obligations, which became known as real burdens. In practical and commercial terms, these real burdens were like English leasehold tenure.


An English barony is a peerage (yet the abolition act of 1660 allows for some remaining non-peer baronies not converted by writ to remain as feudal baronies of free socage “incorporeal hereditament” similar to a lordship of the manor), but whether Scottish barons rightfully rank as peers is disputable. They are known as minor barons currently treated as noble titles of less than peerage rank. The Scottish equivalent of an English baron is “Lord of Parliament”. The feudal baronial title tends to be used when a landed family is not in possession of any United Kingdom peerage title of higher rank, subsequently granted, or has been created a knight of the realm. The name recorded by the Lord Lyon as part of any grant of arms or matriculation becomes the holder’s name for all official purposes.

The holder of a Scottish barony (e.g., “Inverglen”) may add the title to his existing name (e.g., “John Smith, Baron of Inverglen”) or add the territorial designation to his surname (“John Smith of Inverglen, Baron of Inverglen”); some of the oldest Scottish families prefer to be styled by the territorial designation alone (“Smith of Inverglen”). Formal and in writing, they are styled as The Much HonouredBaron of Inverglen. A baron may be addressed socially as “Inverglen” or “Baron,” and introduced in the third person as “John Smith of Inverglen, Baron of Inverglen” or “The Baron of Inverglen”. When referred to informally in the third person it is incorrect to refer to him as “Baron Inverglen” or “Lord Inverglen”, as these would imply a peerage title (i.e. Lord of Parliament). A married couple may be styled “The Baron and Baroness of Inverglen”, “Inverglen and Madam Smith of Inverglen”, “Inverglen and Lady Inverglen”, or “The Baron of Inverglen and Lady Inverglen.”

The oldest son of a feudal baron may be known by his father’s territorial designation with the addition of “yr” (abbreviation for “younger”), as in “John Smith of Inverglen, yr” and the eldest daughter if heir apparent is entitled to use the courtesy title “Maid of [Barony]” at the end of her name.

The United Kingdom policy of using titles on passports requires that the applicant provides evidence that the Lord Lyon has recognized a feudal barony, or the title is included in Burke’s Peerage. If accepted (and if the applicant wishes to include the title), the correct form is for the applicant to include the territorial designation as part of their surname (Surname of territorial designation e.g. Smith of Inverglen). The Observation would then show the holder’s full name, followed by their feudal title e.g. The holder is John Smith, Baron of Inverglen.

Scottish heraldry

A Scottish Baron’s helmet. The former Lord Lyon declined to award the following baronial additaments to the arms of those feudal barons registering arms now that the Abolition of Feudal Tenure etc. (Scotland) Act 2000 is in force. However, the current Lord Lyon has confirmed in a recent policy statement that he will officially recognize feudal barons or those possessing the dignity of baron who meet certain conditions and will grant them arms with a helmet befitting their degree. Scottish Barons rank below Lords of Parliament, and, while a noble, are not conventionally considered peerage titles; unlike others, the title can be hereditary or bought and sold.

In showing that Scottish barons are titles of nobility, reference may be made, amongst others, to Lyon Court in the Petition of Maclean of Ardgour for a Birth brieve by Interlocutor dated 26 February 1943 which “Finds and Declares that the Minor Barons of Scotland are, and have both in this Nobiliary Court, and in the Court of Session, been recognised as ‘titled’ nobility, and that the estate of the Baronage (The Barons Minores) is of the ancient Feudal Nobility of Scotland”.

Sir Thomas Innes of Learney in his ‘Scots Heraldry’ (2nd Ed., p. 88, note 1) states that ‘The Act 1672, cap 47, specially qualifies the degrees thus: Nobles (i.e. peers, the term being here used in a restricted seventeenth-century English sense), Barons (i.e. Lairds of baronial fiefs and their “heirs”, who, even if fiefless, are equivalent to heads of Continental baronial houses) and Gentlemen (apparently all other armigers).’ Baronets and knights are evidently classed as ‘Gentlemen’ here and are of a lower degree than Barons. The Scottish Head of Baronial Houses, includes all the various styles and titles which designate the territorial nobility i.e. baron of X.

Barons may also wear two eagle feathers when in traditional dress. If the baron is a member of a clan it is advisable to consult the clan chief on clan customs and traditions. The Lord Lyon only gives guidance and not governance on the wearing of feathers and recommends consulting with a clan chief.


Supporters, are now usually reserved for the holders of the older baronies (chartered before 1587) and those that have been in continuous family ownership. In England, supporters are reserved for the peerage, and a Scottish baron who approaches the English College of Arms is not allowed supporters. A compartment has occasionally been granted to barons, representing their territories, even in cases where there are no supporters.

Badge and Flags

A badge – distinct from the crest – as a separate armorial device, is not necessarily a feature of the arms. The badge may be used by the “tail” or following of a landowner baron. The grant is linked to the baron’s pennon, a heraldic flag, in the livery colours that carries a large representation of the badge. The pennon is blazoned in the grant or matriculation. The livery colours are usually the two most prominent colours of the arms themselves.

A Standard – an elongated shape, tapering from 1.2 m down to 60 cm, with the fly edge split and rounded (lanceolate). The length is according to rank, from 7.5 m for the Sovereign down to 3.5 m for a Knight, Baron or Chief. It bears the Arms as on the shield, with the tail parted per fess with the Crest, Badge and/or Supporter, plus the motto on one or more Ribands. The Standard is set before the Baron/Chief’s tent (as it’s a “Headquarters” flag and does not indicate that the Armiger is in residence) rather than carried like the banner. A Standard requires a separate grant by the Lord Lyon and is only made under certain conditions.

A Banner – a square or rectangular upright representation of the Arms designed for carrying in warfare or tournaments, but now flown as a “house flag” when the Armiger is in residence and is NOT the flag of the Clan or Family. Originally, conspicuous gallantry in battle was marked by cutting off the tail of the Standard or Pennon, turning it into a Banner. Strictly speaking, the sizes and shapes are:

Carrying flag – this should be sized as follows (width x height): Peers, 1.2 m x 1.5 m; Feudal Barons, 90 cm x 115 cm; Chiefs, 85 cm x 110 cm; Chieftains, 80 cm x 90 cm. A Ensign may be occasionally granted and blazoned. This is a square flag, smaller than the flying banner, and carrying the full embroidered achievement (arms, crest, motto), again fringed in livery colours.