Duncan Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Duncan 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

Duncan Resources on

Duncan Ancestry

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.

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.

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

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
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
    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


Duncan 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
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

The first mentions of Dunchad
or Donnachadh (Duncan) as a clan occurred during the time of Robert the
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
, also Hanover’s first
three sons, Grand Parade, winner of
the Epsom Derby, and Grey Eagle,
celebrated in song and story.

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
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
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

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
Illinois by wagon driving our cattle. We
traveled to Fairfield in Wayne county and then, after resting up for
winter, moved onto Fulton county.

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

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

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
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.

Select 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)


Select 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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