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August 14th 1057

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The 'real' Macbeth dies

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a magnificent play, but as history it is nonsense. The characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth bear little resemblance to the real historical characters. Banquo as the founder of the Stewart line of kings had no existence in reality nor had Macduff who was credited with killing Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play.

The episode of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane was first mentioned by Andrew Wyntoun, some three hundred years after Macbeth’s death and is almost certainly historically inaccurate. Finally, Macbeth was not killed at Dunsinane but at Lumphanan, west of Aberdeen, three years after Macbeth’s first defeat at Dunsinane.

Macbeth was a Gaelic speaking king at a time when almost all of Scotland spoke Gaelic. At this time the high kings of Scotland were chosen by election rather than by primogeniture (the succession by the eldest son). The old Celtic system had the disadvantage that the succession could result in a power struggle but at least young children or the mentally or physically weak did not succeed to the throne.

When Malcolm 2nd died in 1034, his grandson Duncan 1st was elected High King of Scotland at Scone. He was not “the gracious King”  portrayed by Shakespeare. He was greedy, ambitious and incompetent.

At a time when military expertise was important, Duncan demonstrated his own shortcomings by fighting five wars in his reign of five years and losing all of them. At this time both the Orkneys and Caithness were occupied by Norse Jarls and the southern provinces of Scotland were threatened by the Danes in Northumbria. Duncan, for some reason, attempted to expand both in the north and south at the same time with disastrous results.

In 1040 he was killed in a battle with the forces of Thorfin, the Jarl of Orkney, very probably aided by Macbeth and his clansmen of Moray. Macbeth did not then seize power but was, as was the fashion at the time, elected King at Scone by a council of all the Scottish leaders.

Chroniclers of the period all agree that his reign was peaceful and prosperous. St Berchan the Irish Chronicler:

“The strong man was fair, yellow haired and tall
Very pleasant was that handsome youth to me
Brimful of food was Scotland, east and west
During the reign of the ruddy, brave king.” 

Others speak of grants of land made to the church at Loch Leven “with the utmost veneration and devotion.”  “For prayers and intercession, Macbeth son of Finback and Grouch daughter of Bode, King and Queen of the Scots, granted to Almighty God and to the Culdees of the Island of Loch Leven, Kirkness and its boundaries.” 

Yet others speak of him as “the liberal King.”  He ruled Scotland for seventeen years. The country was sufficiently peaceful and stable for him to make a pilgrimage to Rome with no troubles during his absence.

Meanwhile Duncan’s two sons, Malcolm and Donald Ban, had lived and grown up in England. In 1054 they persuaded the English court to help them to invade Scotland. Leading the force was Siward, Earl of Northumberland with a force of Anglo-Saxons and Danes.

The two armies met on July 27th probably at Dunsinane though possibly nearer to Dundee. The Scots suffered heavy casualties but the English forces, though technically the victors, were sufficiently weakened for Siward to withdraw to Northumberland without establishing Malcolm as king.

The next year a fresh force invaded Scotland but it was not until 1057, three years later, that Macbeth was finally defeated and killed at Lumphanan, west of Aberdeen. Even then Malcolm was unable to claim the Scottish throne. It would appear that once again he judged it politic to return south. Macbeth’s body was taken by his followers to Iona without hindrance where her was buried beside the other Scottish kings, one more indication both of his legitimacy according to Celtic law and of the fact that Scotland was not under the control of Malcolm.

Indeed, after Macbeth’s burial the chiefs met at Scone and elected Lulach, Macbeth’s step-son, as High King of Scotland. It was some seven months later that Lulach was “treacherously”  slain by Malcolm and he at last came into his own.

Dunsinane Hill in the Sidlaws still shows quite clearly the outlines of an earth fortress. It is well worth a visit.

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