Mormaer of Moray

The Mormaerdom or Kingdom of Moray (Middle Irish: Muireb or Moreb; Medieval Latin: Muref or Moravia; Modern Gaelic: Moireabh) was a lordship in High Medieval Scotland that was destroyed by King David I of Scotland in 1130. It did not have the same territory as the modern local government council area of Moray, which is a much smaller area, around Elgin. The medieval lordship was in fact centred on both the lower Spey valley and the environs of Inverness and the northern parts of the Great Glen, and probably originally included Buchan and Mar, as well as Ross.

History of Moray

Before 1130: Dynasty of Findláich to Óengus

In the century or two before 1130 the name Moray described a polity, far larger than the later county or district of the same name, which at its largest extended from Drumochter in the south to the Scandinavian held lands of Caithness and Sutherland in the north. Moray would also eventually cover from Buchan in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west.[1]

Njal's Saga, a Saga of the Icelanders mentions Mormaers and Kings in northern Scotland from the later 10th century, namely Jarl Melsnatr (Máel Snechtai) and King Melkofr (Máel Coluim) of "Scotland". Both date from the period 976 to 995.[2] However no king named Máel Coluim reigned in Scotland in this period. Njal's Saga was not written as a historical guide for details outside Iceland or Scandinavia and the text is notoriously unreliable.

Moray was ruled by a Gaelic-speaking dynasty, the most notable perhaps being King Macbeth of Scotland, who ruled from 1040 to 1057. These rulers were sometimes styled Ri meaning king or mormaer meaning great steward.[1]

Irish annals record the killing of Findláech, son of Ruaidri, 'mormaer of Moray', in 1020 by the sons of his brother, Mael Brigte. Both Findlaech and Mael Coluim are styled 'king of Alba' rather than 'of Moray' in one obituary but this may be an error or exaggeration.[1] Mael Coluim's brother and successor, Gillie Coemgáin is recorded as Mormaer of Moray.[3] The death of Mael Coluim, son of Mael Brigte, is recorded in 1029 and, in 1032 that of his brother Gilla Comgain, killed along with 50 of his men.[1]

Gilla Comgain's successor and probably also his killer, was his cousin Macbeth (Mac Bethad mac Findlaig). Macbeth married Gilla Comgain's widow Gruoch, a princess of the mac Alpin dynasty, and became king of Scots in 1040, after defeating and killing Duncan I of Scotland (Donnchad ua Mail Choluim) in battle. Later sources suggest that MacBeth had a claim to the Scottish throne through his mother, but his Gaelic pedigree, on record only two generations after his death, traces his descent through his father Findlaech, and grandfather Ruaidri, from the house of Loarn, Kings of Dál Riata.[1]

The pedigree of Macbeth from the Loarn kings of Dál Riata offers a clue to the origins of his dynasty in Moray. Moray may have been a separate kingdom for a time, independent of the dynasty of Kenneth mac Alpin. However it seems likely that rulers of Moray were subject loosely to the Kings of Alba. Moray acted as a buffer against further Scandinavian penetration from the north, and its rulers were remembered with respect in Scandinavian sources such as Orkneyinga Saga.[1]

Macbeth himself was in turn killed and defeated in 1057. After which, his stepson Lulach, son of Gilla Comgain, and presumably also of Gruoch, claimed the Scottish throne briefly before being himself killed in 1058. Lulach's son, Mael Snechtai, died in 1085 as 'king of Moray'. Later, an earl named Aed or 'Heth' who witnesses royal charters early in the next century may also have been based in Moray. The last ruling member of the dynasty, styled 'king' or 'earl' of Moray, was Óengus (Angus) son of the daughter of Lulach. Óengus (Angus) challenged David I of Scotland in battle, but was defeated and killed at Stracathro in Angus, in 1130 and thus the Kingdom of Moray was destroyed by David I of Scotland.[1]

With the death of Angus brought the rapid feudalisation of Moray under Flemming Freskin, who was of Flemish and Norman descent and his descendants who adopted the significant designation 'de Moravia', which means 'of Moray'. (The de Moravia family would later become Earls of Sutherland in the 13th century). Claims that William fitz Duncan became the last Mormaer of Moray cannot be substantiated and his claim for the Scottish throne proved unsuccessful. Malcolm MacHeth, who rebelled against David I, but was later made Earl of Ross may have been related to the old rulers of Moray, as may also have been the mysterious Wimund. Later MacHeth claimants to Moray were unsuccessful.[1]

After 1130: Suppression of Moray

David I of Scotland's suppression of the Kingdom of Moray in 1130 did not mark the end of the province's significance or of the problems its management caused to the kings of Scotland. Despite the expulsion of its line of rulers, Moray continued to be referred to in the early 13th century as a land separate to Scotia. Even when the realm of Scotland was recognised as stretching as far north as Caithness, Moray was still recognised as one of the chief northern provinces. The Gaelic notes in the Book of Deer dating from the mid 12th century offer a glimpse of the holding of land and the ordering of society in Moray.[1]

The actions of the crown's royal government during the century after 1130 seemed to create differences between the upland regions of the province and the coastal districts of the Laich of Moray, between the River Spey and Inverness. The crown's existing estates were concentrated in these coastal regions and between 1130 and 1230 the kings established sheriffdoms centred on Inverness, Nairn, Forres and Elgin, providing a framework for royal authority in the province.[1]

The extension of royal government was accompanied by the settlement of immigrants in the Laich of Moray. Lands were given to the crown's supporters, the most important of whom was Flemming Freskin, who was of Flemish – Norman descent. Freskin founded the 'de Moravia' or 'Moray family'. The senior line of de Moravias would later become Earls of Sutherland, chiefs of Clan Sutherland and another branch of the same family who took the name Murray became chiefs of Clan Murray and later Earls of Atholl.[1]

The final area of change in the province of Moray after 1130 was religion. There was a Bishop of Moray before 1130, however a Diocese of Moray with an established centre at Elgin Cathedral with a parochial structure was achieved only during the 13th century. Reformed religious houses were founded at Beauly, Pluscarden and Kinloss.[1]

While the changes that took place in the centuries following the 1130 defeat of the kings of Moray secured the Laich of Moray under the authority of the crown, the interior of the province from Lochalsh to Strathbogie remained a source of difficulty and threat. Attempts to revive the old earldom of Moray and challenge the king of Scotland found support in these areas. Leaders such as Wimund, the son of the Earl of Angus and the MacWilliam family were able to raise allies from the Gaelic uplands of Moray which led to warfare in the region from the 1140s to the 1220s. The kings normally left the defeat of these enemies to their aristocratic vassals. The interior of the province from the Great Glen to Strathbogie was divided between six or more families, the greatest of which, at this time was the Clan Comyn lords of Badenoch and Lochaber.[1]

1296 to 1346: Wars of Independence and creation of the earldom of Moray

Moray's importance as part of the kingdom of Scotland was demonstrated during the years of major warfare between 1296 and 1340. The province was relatively untouched by direct fighting and Royal-led English armies penetrated Moray on only three occasions in 1296, 1303 and 1335, and significant English occupation occurred only in 1296–97. This security meant that it was a vital refuge and recruitment ground for the Scottish guardians between 1297 and 1303, and provided Robert I of Scotland with a base and allies during his northern campaign against the Comyns and their allies in 1307–08. The province was forced to submit to Edward I of England in 1303 and Robert I of Scotland therefore clearly recognised the significance of Moray for the security of his realm. In 1312 Robert I re-established the earldom of Moray for his nephew, Thomas Randolph, 1st Earl of Moray. The new earldom included all of the old province and the crown lands of the Laich.[1]

Thomas's son John Randolph was killed in 1346, leaving no heir and the other noble families including the Comyns, Strathbogies and Morays had all disappeared from or left the province by between 1300 and 1350. With the absence of noble leaders, power fell to lesser figures who functioned in kin-based groups such as the Clan Donnachaidh of Atholl and the Chattan Confederation which centred on Badenoch. This drew in lords and men from outside of the province, from further south such as the Dunbars and Stewarts who staked claims to rule the province of Moray. In 1372 the earldom of Moray was divided between them with John Dunbar receiving the coastal districts and Alexander Stewart, favourite son of Robert II of Scotland being made lord of Badenoch in the uplands[1]

Other areas which were previously part of the kingdom of Moray were also made into earldoms separate from that of Moray, including Ross, Mar and Buchan.

Comparative Moravian and Scottish genealogies

This table is a comparison of the genealogies apparently used by the Kings of Muireb and of (southern) Alba. Both trace their descent to Erc of Dalriada. All three, incidentally, are called King of Alba in the manuscript.

Comparative Genealogies from the Genelaig Albanensium, dating to the early 11th century
Genealogy of Máel Snechtai Genealogy of Macbethad Genealogy of Máel Colum II
  • Máel Snechtai
  • Lulach
  • Gille Comgáin
  • Máel Brigte
  • Ruadrí
  • Domnall
  • Morggán
  • Cathamal
  • Ruadrí
  • Ailgelach
  • Ferchar
  • Feradach
  • Fergus
  • Nechtan
  • Colmán
  • Báetán
  • Echdach
  • Muiredach
  • Loarn (hence Cenél Loairn)
  • Ercc
  • Echdach Muinremuir
  • Macbethad
  • Findláech
  • Ruadrí
  • Domnall
  • Morggán
  • Cathamal


List of Mormaers

The following names and dates are based on people named in sources. All are Moravians named in sources either as King of Scotland or just Mormaer. The beginning and end dates are virtually always based on known death date, and assuming the next named successor actually did succeed, and succeeded immediately:

Kings/Mormaers of Moray
Findláech mac Ruaidrí before 1014–1020
Máel Coluim mac Máil Brigti 1020–1029
Gille Coemgáin mac Máil Brigti 1029–1032
Mac Bethad mac Findláich (?) 1032–1057 (?)
Lulach mac Gille Coemgáin (?) 1057–1058 (?)
Máel Snechtai mac Lulaich ? 1058-1078/1085
Óengus ?-1130
? William fitz Duncan 1130s–1147
Annexed to Kingdom of Scotland.

Earldom of Moray

See also


  1. Oxford Companion to Scottish History. pp. 428–430. Edited by Michael Lynch. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-923482-0.
  2. Anderson, Early Sources, Vol. I, p. 452
  3. Death of Gille Coemgáin, Annals of Ulster, s.a. 1032; Anderson, Early Sources, Vol. I, p. 571
  4. Genealogies from Rawlinson B 502


Primary sources

  • Anderson, Alan Orr, Early Sources of Scottish History: AD 500–1286, 2 Vols, (Edinburgh, 1922)
  • Anderson, Alan Orr, Scottish Annals from English Chroniclers: AD 500–1286, (London, 1908), republished, Marjorie Anderson (ed.) (Stamford, 1991)

Secondary sources

  • Anderson, Marjorie O., Kings and Kingship in Early Scotland, (Edinburgh, 1973)
  • Grant, Alexander, "The Province of Ross and the Kingdom of Alba" in E.J. Cowan and R.Andrew McDonald (eds.) Alba: Celtic Scotland in the Medieval Era, (Edinburgh, 2000)
  • Jackson, Kenneth (ed), The Gaelic Notes in the Book of Deer (The Osborn Bergin * Memorial Lecture 1970), (Cambridge (1972)
  • Hudson, Benjamin T., Kings of Celtic Scotland, (Westport, 1994)
  • Roberts, John L., Lost Kingdoms: Celtic Scotland in the Middle Ages, (Edinburgh, 1997)
  • Woolf, Alex, "Dun Nechtain, Fortriu and the Geography of the Picts", Scottish Historical Review 85(2006), 182–201.
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