WE may as well begin by getting the quite well-known play by the great English bard out of the way. William Shakespeare’s ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ may be summarised as follows: political ambition, murder, guilt, paranoia, madness, tyranny, death. All seasoned with a newt’s eye of witchcraft. Oh, and there are woods that walk aboot.
All good knockabout stuff, and certainly it knocked the stuffing out of someone said to be “possibly the most universally known of Scottish monarchs” (Peter Beresford Ellis).
Shakespeare’s sources for the play have been much discussed and like, everything in medieval times, are shrouded in mince. The tome most often adduced is Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, a kind of 16th century Look and Learn book, but with pictures in black and white.
That said, the Chronicles (put together by five Englishmen and one Anglo-Irishman) depict – according to those who’ve read them – Macbeth as a decent ruler. It’s been said that Shakespeare transposed another tale therein, that of Donwald’s murder of Duffe, onto poor old Macbeth. Others say, nope, the Chronicle’s Macbeth section is based on Scottish historian Hector Boece’s Historia Gentis Scotorum, which traduced Macbeth in order to make the case for the Stuarts as rightful kings.
So who knows? I’ll be candid with you and confess that, in the few hours available to me, I haven’t read Holinshed’s Chronicle. But, if you’re thinking of what to get me for Christmas, please don’t make it that.
Meanwhile, this news just in: Shakespeare made it all up. Here, by contrast, we shall examine the historical facts, which are also largely made up.
Mac Bethad mac Findlaích (medieval Gaelic) or MacBheatha mac Fhionnlaigh (modern Gaelic) was born c. 1005, probably in Moray, as his dad was the Mormaer there. You murmur: “What’s a Mormaer?” A Mormaer was a big cheese, a bit like an earl but, you ken, Celtic. And Moray at the time was bigger than it is today, covering much of northern Scotland.
Around 1020, Macbeth’s Mormaer father, Findláich, was murdered, with the boy’s cousin Gille Coemgáin implicated in the killing. In a surprise development, Gille then became Mormaer. Not much is known about young Mac’s life after this, though he certainly didn’t have to sign on, as his maternal grandfather (according to – all together now – “some sources!”), King Malcolm II, appears to have taken him in. Certainly, the boys’s presence during a trip to see King Cnut indicates he wasn’t having to play the lute for a living.
In 1032, Gille Coemgáin and 50 of his followers were mysteriously killed after being trapped in a burning building and, as chance would have it, our man Macbeth then became Mormaer of Moray. He also married Gille’s widow, Gruoch, who happened to be the granddaughter of Kenneth III. Nice work.
When Duncan I succeeded Malcolm II as king of Scotland or Alba, whatever it was, Macbeth appears to have toed the line, though he probably felt he’d a claim to the throne himself.
Duncan, “the man of many sorrows”, doesn’t seem to have done much of note until 1039 when, following an attack by Northumbrians on Strathclyde, he led a retaliatory raid against Durham, and made a complete bags of it. Following the humiliating defeat, there must have been murmurings, not least from a Mormaer, because Duncan started looking over his shoulder – where he saw Macbeth and, accordingly, led a punitive expedition into Moray the following year.
That boy should have stayed in the hoose for, again, he got blootered – at Pitgaveny, near Elgin – and, this time, he didn’t personally survive. Macbeth was then crowned king of Albaland in the traditional manner at Moot or Boot Hill, Scone.
So, there was definitely a Duncan and definitely a Macbeth. And the former died, in battle with the latter. But note: in battle. And nobody has said Macbeth did it himself. Duncan just as likely went down in the general hullabaloo.
So, how did Macbeth go down in, er, Scotia? Pretty well, by all accounts. The Red King – “the red, tall, golden-haired one”, as an Irish verse history put it – appears to have ruled even-handedly, creating a stable society, and encouraging Christianity. In 1050, he was even able to go on a pilgrimage to Rome, leaving someone else to mind the shop for several months.
But, of course, the years were not without aggro. In 1045, the late Duncan’s father, Crinan, tried to oust Big Mac, but was defeated and killed at Dunkeld. In 1046, our man appears to have survived an attempt by Earl Siward of Northumbria, a crony of Crinan’s, to depose him. But, in 1054, Siward returned with a massive army and gave Macbeth a bloody nose at Dunsinane, near Scone.
The end came three years later, when forces loyal to Duncan’s son, Malcolm Canmore (later Malcolm III), defeated him at the Battle of Lumphanan, Aberdeenshire. Some sources say Macbeth was beheaded on the spot, others that he retired wounded, only to die some days later at Scone. He’s probably buried at Iona.
So, yeah, there was a lot of blood and snotters. It was brutal, but not as psychotic as in Shakespeare’s play. You have to factor in that Shakespeare was writing during the reign of James VI (of Scotland) and I (of England). Indeed, the mental monarch was patron of Shakespeare’s company of actors and, worse still, was obsessed with witches (hence newts’ eyeballs and frogs’ toes on blasted heaths). Then there was the Gunpowder Plot against him by anti-Scottish extremists, said to have influenced playwright Bill’s love of conspiracy for dramatic ends.
But was it fair of Will to be foul to Macbeth? It’s just a tale, after all, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. Well, it never does to speak ill of the dead. Hence, perhaps, why the place is cursed. Actors fear naming it, referring instead to “the Scottish play”. For there is ever a shadow lurking in the wings. And I believe that is a dagger which I see before it.