Duncan


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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. 


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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.

America.   The 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 1700ís 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.  
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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.

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

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Barry Dickinson Innes O'Reilly Townsend
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Boone Edgar Knight Phelan Watkins
Brady Emerson Lawrence Quigley Waugh
Branson Everett Leary Quirk West
Brooks Faulkner Levine Regan Whelan
Buck Fettiplace Levy Reilly Whitney
Burke Ford Lloyd Rhodes Wolfe
Bush Goldberg McIntosh Sharp Woodward
Carr Goodman McLaren Sheehan Yates
Carson Gordon McMillan Sinclair York

For other surnames check the select surname page where there are to be found the history and genealogy of more than 800 common and notable surnames in the English-speaking world.