Duncan Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Duncan Surname Meaning

The Scottish surname Duncan is derived from the Gaelic name Dunchad or Donnchad and before that the ancient Celtic name of Donncatus. The elements in the name are donn, meaning “brown,” and cath, “battle” or “warrior.” Dunchad’s origins were Celtic Irish and it started out as a first name.

Early recordings of the name were: Dunchad, the eleventh abbot of Iona, who died in 717; and Dunchad, the abbot of Dunkeld, who was killed in battle in 965. The name was born by two 11th century Scottish kings, including the Duncan who was slain by Macbeth in 1040.

Duncan Surname Resources on The Internet

Duncan Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Angus)
  • to Ireland (Ulster), America and Australia

Scotland.  The surnames Duncan and Robertson of clan Donnachaidh have similar origins, both being descended from ancient earls of Atholl and both taking their name from Donnachaidh Reamhar (Stout Duncan) who led the clan at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

“The most precious clan relic, the rock crystal charm stone of the clan, the Clach na Brataich or “ensign stone,” was unearthed when the chief’s standard pole was pulled from the ground while on the march to Bannockburn. It was carried by later chiefs when leading the clan into battle.”

The chief seat of the clan was Struan in what is now the county of Angus on the east coast of Scotland. Struan gave rise to both the Duncan and Robertson clans in the 15th century. In the early 16th century the Duncan chief was killed in a feud with the Earls of Atholl and a large part of the lands of the Duncan clan were lost. At Struan, however, the Duncans continued to treasure their Clach na Brataich.

Duncans were on both sides during the Jacobite rising of 1745. Alexander Duncan of Lundie, the provost of Dundee, supported the British Government side. His son Adam had joined the British navy and in time became the Commander of the Fleet in the North Sea. He gained a spectacular victory against the Dutch at Camperdown in 1797.

Edinburgh had the largest number of Duncan baptisms in the 18th century. But the 1891 census showed that more than half of the Duncans in Scotland were to be found in the three east coast counties of Aberdeen, Angus and Fife.

Ireland. Duncan in Ireland could either be Scots or Irish in origin. Scots Duncans would generally be found in Ulster. The Gaelic name O’Duinnchinn or “descendant of Donncheann” came from Sligo on the east coast of Ireland. It had a similar meaning, “brown chieftain,” as its Scottish counterpart and was anglicized as Duncan.

AmericaThe Rev. William Duncan, born in Perthshire in 1630, was said to have been a Covenanter killed for his refusal to take the Jacobite oath in the reign of Charles II. His grandson William emigrated to Virginia in the early 1700’s and settled in Culpeper county

Duncans coming to America were principally Scottish, but included some Irish. Thomas and Jane Duncan were residents of Cumberland County, Pennsylvania in the 1740’s. One of their sons Daniel moved to Kentucky in the 1790’s and settled in Bourbon county. His son Henry was a good friend of Henry Clay, the Great Commoner.

“When Healy came to Lexington to paint a portrait of Henry Clay, he made a replica of it for Mr. Clay’s warm personal friend, Henry T. Duncan, then living at Duncannon about four miles from Lexington.”

Henry Duncan also had his portrait done by Healy and this picture was handed down in his family. These Duncans were to remain prominent in Lexington civic life throughout the 19th century.

Other Duncans were also to be found in Kentucky at that time, including the descendants of Captain James Duncan who had followed Boone’s trail from Virginia to Kentucky in the late 1770’s. His forebears were thought to have been Irish, from Donegal. Scots-born George Duncan set out west to Illinois with his family in the 1830’s.

William Duncan from York county, Pennsylvania was a Brigadier General in the War of 1812. His grandson Joseph, a banker, moved west to San Francisco around 1870. Isadora Duncan, considered the founder of modern dance, was the most famous of his offspring. But his sons Augustin, an actor, and Raymond, a writer and artist, were also extremely talented.

The largest number of Duncans today in America are in Texas. Two prominent 20th century Duncans of Texas have been:

  • Herschel Duncan who founded the family-run Duncan Coffee Company in Houston in 1918. A nephew Charles Duncan became head of Coca Cola and served as US Secretary of Energy from 1979 to 1981.
  • and Dan Duncan, the founder and major shareholder of Enterprise Oil Products, one of the largest private companies in America. Dan Duncan was known for his passion for hunting.

Australia. Duncans coming to Australia have included:

  • John Duncan, a sea captain, and his wife Joan from Fife who came to South Australia in 1841.
  • John Duncan, a child convict who arrived in the early 1840’s and is believed to have been the forebear of the Duncan fishing family of Port Stephens, NSW.
  • and James and Agnes Duncan from Dundee who came to Sydney on the Anne Milne in 1842 and settled first in the Hunter Valley and later in Queensland.

Duncan Surname Miscellany

Dunchad/Duncan Origins.  Dunchad (later Duncan) was originally a forename and came with the Dalriadan Celtic Scotii (Scots) from Ireland who started to colonize the southwest corner of Scotland in the fourth century.

One of the Kings of Dalriada in this part of Scotland was Dunchad mac Conaing who co-ruled with Conall II in the seventh century.  Dunchad was the 11th abbot of Iona in the early eighth century.

“Dunchadh was born into the line of Conall Gulban.  He became a monk at Killochuir in SE Ulster and, from 710 until his death, ruled the abbey of Iona in Scotland.  His feast day is still celebrated in Ireland and he is their patron saint of sailors.”

However, it was not until after the unification of the Celtic Scots of Dalriada and the aboriginal Picts of northern Britain by Kenneth MacAlpine in the ninth century that we started to see the name significantly being used in other parts of Scotland. There was an early mention in the Scots Gaelic Book of Deer which was written in the 11th century by Christian monks of the Abbey of Deer in Aberdeenshire.

The first mentions of Dunchad or Donnachadh (Duncan) as a clan occurred during the time of Robert the Bruce and the Scottish Wars of Independence.

Duncan and Robertson Clans.  It is believed that Robertsons descend from the Duncans and from one particular ancestor – Robert Duncanson of Struan – around 1451.  At that time Duncan Grant of Dalvey was regarded as the chief of clan Donachie aka Donnachaidh (Duncan).

The 1934 edition of Clan Septs and Regiments of the Scottish Highlands made the following point:

“Instead of the Duncans, Donnachies. etc. appearing as septs of the Robertsons, the position should, properly speaking, be reversed.  As explained in notes on clan Robertson the progenitor of the clan Donnachie was Duncan, or Donnachadh Reamar; the appellation of Robertson having been derived from the name of the chief, Robert, who flourished during the reign of King James I.”

However, the Duncans – unlike the Robertsons – have no Chief. Laird John Duncan of Sketraw, of uncertain origins, has recently been seeking this title. 

Duncan Baptisms in Scotland.  Some 4,300 Duncan baptisms were registered in Scotland over the period 1730 to 1770.  The following places had more than fifty Duncan baptisms at that time.

Place Number
Edinburgh, Midlothian  188
Dundee, Angus    83
Perth, Perth    82
St. Andrews, Fife    73
Fetteresso, Kincardine    69
Lauchars, Fife    61
Keith, Banff    60
Cortachy, Angus    59
Leith, Midlothian    53
Dunrossness, Shetlands    52
Turiff, Aberdeen    50

Henry Duncan’s Portrait by Healy.  When Healy came to Lexington, Kentucky to paint a portrait of Henry Clay, he also painted one of Henry Duncan.  The latter had by this time acquired three thousand acres in the vicinity of Hutchinson where he carried on the breeding and training of thoroughbreds. He owned and bred Bourbon Belle, dam of the Great Hanover, also Hanover’s first three sons, Grand Parade, winner of the Epsom Derby, and Grey Eagle, celebrated in song and story.

At Henry Duncan’s death his portrait was inherited by his son Henry Duncan II.  He was a lawyer, captain, newspaper publisher, and mayor of Lexington.  From him it descended to the eldest of his ten children, George Brand Duncan, a graduate of West Point in 1886, who became one of the distinguished American commanding officers of the Army of France in World War I.  Then it was handed down to his son.

George Duncan and His Mill.  George Duncan was educated to be a doctor in Edinburgh, but gave up his profession in 1816 to seek his fortune in America. He first stayed in Pennsylvania but later headed west with his family to Illinois.  His son John recalled the journey.

“We traveled by wagon until we reached Pittsburgh where my father bought a flat boat 80 feet long and 17 feet wide.  We loaded all our property on the flat boat and started down the Ohio River.

We landed at Shawneetown where we sold our boat and started into Illinois by wagon driving our cattle. We traveled to Fairfield in Wayne county and then, after resting up for the winter, moved onto Fulton county.

Our journey was a dreadful one.  The mud was so deep in places that we were obliged to draw one wagon away with the team, then unhitch and take them back to the other wagons. So it made life very unpleasant.”

George found a spot on the Spoon river where there were rapids and this suggested to him the erection of a dam and flouring mills.  So came into being the family Duncan mill, completed in 1836.  This mill became famous for fifty miles around.

It was the bad fate of this widely popular mill to be burned in a fire in 1870. When rebuilt the great expense threw George’s son Thomas into bankruptcy and both mill and dam disappeared.  In the days of the mill’s prosperity, the spot had been Lewistown’s summer resort for fishing and bathing.

The Duncans in South Australia.  John Duncan, a sea captain from Fife, had come out to South Australia with his wife Joan in 1841 and engaged in sheep farming there. It took him some time to settle. He went back to Scotland once and made several voyages to India.  But he returned in 1854 and, when copper was discovered at Wallaroo, helped to develop the mines there. His farming and mining interests made Captain John very wealthy.

It was his son John who became a politician, representing Wallaroo district. He came to be widely respected for his sagacity and immense influence in farming matters, as well as in financial affairs.  He was knighted for his public services in 1913, but died in Adelaide later that year.

Grandson Walter, also knighted, had a long political and business career in South Australia.  It was said that he won both popularity and respect in that regard.  “With severely parted grey hair and eyes that twinkled behind heavy horn-rimmed glasses, he wore a spotted bow-tie and smoked a large-bowled pipe.”

Duncan Names

  • Adam Duncan was the British admiral who defeated the Dutch fleet off Camperdown in 1797.
  • John Duncan was a famous African explorer who sailed on the Niger expedition of 1842.
  • Isadora Duncan was a dancer considered by many to be the creator of modern dance.
  • Lindsay Duncan is a Scottish stage and TV actress.

Duncan Numbers Today

  • 40,000 in the UK (most numerous in Fife)
  • 48,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 32,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Duncan and Like Surnames

The Scottish Highlands were Gaelic-speaking and their clan names appeared first in Gaelic and only later in an English version.  Each clan controlled its own local territory and frequently fought with neighbors.  Many, however, took the clan name in order to receive clan protection.

The clan downfall came following the 1715 and 1745 uprisings with the Battle of Culloden when the clan culture was broken up and clan tartans banned (although they came back into fashion with Queen Victoria a hundred years later).  The Highland clearances, supplanting people for sheep, was a further blow and many Highlanders were forced into emigration, still speaking their native Gaelic, to Canada and then to Australia and New Zealand.

Here are some of the clan surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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