Macbeth (Macbethad mac Findlaech of Moray) was King of Alba from August 1040 to August 1057. He was born C. 1005 in the reign of Malcolm II, King of Alba; his father Findlaech mac Ruaidri, Mormaer (great steward) of Moray, controlled territory around the Great Glen. His mother may have been Donada, daughter of Malcolm II, however the accuracy of the source (Boece) has been challenged.
Whatever William Shakespeare’s motive for writing his ‘Scottish play’ as he did, its continuing stage and film success means that his plot and historical characterisation are accepted by many as an accurate portrayal of the life of Macbeth. It is also almost certainly the case that Macbeth is recognised by some as a literary character and not a living person.
The original Birnie Kirk near Elgin may have been the site of Macbeth’s marraige
Annals of Ulster
The Annals of Ulster record that, “Findlaech son of Ruaidri, was King of Alba, a man killed by his own people.” The description of Findlaech as king has suggested to some historians that Moray was a separate kingdom to Alba or had ambition to challenge Malcolm II for the throne. The account of his death also recorded in the Annals of Tigernach, an Irish chronicle, goes further by reporting he was, “killed by the sons of his brother Mael Brigte.” Findlaech’s sons were Gilla Comgain and Malcolm, cousins of Macbeth. After Malcolm’s death around 1029, Gilla Comgain became Mormaer of Moray.
Throne of Alba
Macbeth, probably in a bid to enhance a future claim to the throne of Alba, took Gilla Comgain’s widow Gruoch as his own wife. She was the daughter of Boite who in turn was the son of Kenneth III who ruled Alba between c. 997 and 1005. Her young son Lulach mac Gilla Comgain became his stepson.
These important but rather tangled events strengthened Macbeth’s claim to the throne and poured further cold water on Shakespeare’s portrayal of him as a usurper.
Duncan’s death at Elgin Cathedral opened the way for Macbeth to become king
Only a little is known about Gruoch but enough to dismiss any direct comparison with the scheming and ambitious Lady Macbeth, a central character in the Shakespearean tragedy. Evidence that Macbeth made generous provision for the church comes from a record relating to the Céli Dé foundation of St Serf, a Culdee community, on an island in Loch Leven. Gruoch, named Regina Scotorum (Queen of Scots) is also associated with this grant; it’s an unusual event in this period of history.
A Celtic kingdom
At the time of Macbeth’s birth, the north of Britain included a number of diverse ethnic groups with the Vikings to the north and west and the Angles, Britons and others to the south. Macbeth’s domain was Alba, a Celtic kingdom which emerged from the struggles of Pictland and Dal Riata around 900 to form the heart of what we call Scotland today. The kingdom had fluid borders as power shifted between neighbouring dynasties. Ted Cowan, Professor of History at Glasgow University called the 11th century a period of transition.
There are a limited number of sources for the life of Macbeth: annals and poetry scribed in the 11th and 12th centuries, also the Icelandic sagas, most notably says Ted Cowan, the Orkneyinga Saga which sheds considerable light on the topic in question.” Thirdly, according to Cowan there are, “Accounts preserved by native Scottish medieval chroniclers and historians, the men responsible for transmitting the legend of Macbeth. You can also add to this meagre supply the fragmentary records of donations and land grants.”
John of Fordun
Certainly this third source would include John of Fordun (d. c.1384) who labels Macbeth a usurper, murderer and tyrant, it’s here that MacDuff, the fictional Thane of Fife first makes an appearance. Writing in his Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland Andrew Wyntoun (?1350-?1420) in the words of Taylor and Murray, On the Trail of the Real Macbeth “Moved the creative elaboration a stage further,” casting Macbeth as the son of the devil and murderer of Duncan.
Enter Hector Boece (1465-1536) a man accused of mixing historical fact with myth, his Scotorum Historiae which the National Library of Scotland describes as, “One of the cornerstones of early Scottish history.” It almost certainly provided the inspiration for Shakespeare’s character Banquo as the Thane of Lochaber and the portrayal of Lady Macbeth as a power hungry queen who persuaded her husband to murder King Duncan in his bed.
“The King of Scots, Macbeth, scattered silver like seed to the poor in Rome.”
Death of Malcolm II
The death of Malcolm II in 1034, a monarch described by Richard Oram as, “The master practitioner of single-minded ruthlessness,” brought his grandson Duncan, Macbeth’s cousin, to the throne.
Malcolm’s long reign, 1005-1034 was a time of territorial expansion for Alba, coupled with the business of political alliance, in particular with the Viking, Sigurd of Orkney. It is however his victory over the Northumbrians at the Battle of Carham, c. 1018 and his annexation of large swathes of territory south of the River Forth that helped to create the Scotland we know today. Historian Alex Woolf said, “Without Carham there would be no Scotland.”
It was expected that Duncan would flex his military muscles, his first target was Thorfinn and the Viking lands of Orkney. Whether Duncan overestimated his own abilities or underestimated Thorfinn’s is less important than the damage to his reputation that defeat caused. His attack on the Northumbrian town of Durham in early 1040 again brought heavy defeat and increasing unrest in Alba.
Duncan and Macbeth in battle
It was the need to restore order at home that brought Duncan and Macbeth together in battle at Pitgaveny near Elgin. The result, as they say is history and Duncan’s death brought Macbeth to the throne. In comparison the Bard of Avon painted a much rosier picture of Duncan, one of an older king, a noble much respected figure brutally murdered by Macbeth with the encouragement of the evil Lady Macbeth. However, returning to Gruoch’s reputation, Clancy and Crawford argue that it was, “not far from the truth to allow Macbeth’s wife close involvement in Donnchad’s [Duncan} demise, and thus give Shakespeare’s dramatic creation some credibility.”
The Scottish kirk was first mentioned in a Papal Bull in 1174, as a “special daughter” 125 years after Macbeth became the first recorded King of Alba to make a pilgrimage to the holy city of Rome. He travelled around the same time as his northern rival Earl Thorfinn of Orkney. Did they travel together? It seems unlikely. But did they travel at the same time to ensure that neither used the other’s absence to their advantage? Although there is no record of any such agreement the fact that Alba remained peaceful in the king’s absence meant such an arrangement was not beyond the bounds of possibility. Whatever the travel arrangements, Macbeth’s journey to the Eternal City does point to Alba as a relatively settled kingdom, one stable enough to function without its king for a time.
St Oran’s Chapel on Iona where Macbeth may have been buried
Pilgrimage to Rome
The only known contemporary source for the king’s pilgrimage to Rome was Irish monk Marianus Scotus who wrote the rather grandly titled, Chronicle of World History c. 1073. An entry notes, “The King of Scots, Macbeth, scattered silver like seed to the poor in Rome.”
In 1054 at Dunsinane Hill near Scone in modern Perthshire Macbeth was defeated by a force led by Siward of Northumbria and the exiled Malcolm, son of Duncan, a man with an eye on the throne and revenge for the death of his father. Macbeth’s defeat allowed Malcolm to annex the southern half of Alba.
Macbeth’s long reign was brought to a close by another defeat by Malcolm at the Battle of Lumphanan, a site which lies about 25 miles from modern Aberdeen. With victory and Macbeth’s death his stepson Lulach reigned for less than a year before Duncan’s son became Malcolm III (Canmore) King of Alba and reigned from 1058-1093.
Shakespeare of course told a different story, with Macbeth being killed by MacDuff, Thane of Fife, a fictional character who first appeared in the writing of the aforementioned John of Fordun.
Ted Cowan said of Macbeth “ One of his earliest obituaries described his time as the fertile seasons and this is the Celtic way of saying that there was good food and the people were happy, so Macbeth was quite a successful king. “Some of the ancient Highland clans looked to Macbeth as the last great Celtic ruler in Scotland.”
More information about Iona Abbey and Reilig Òdhrain (St Oran’s Graveyard) from Historic Environment Scotland