Shakespeare has made MacBeth one of the best-known Scottish monarchs, although Shakespeare’s account of him is largely fanciful. This shouldn’t surprise us for Shakespeare was not an historian (as often believed) but a playwright – a writer of dramatic and comedic tales, often based around real historical figures. The name MacBeth conjures up pictures of three old crones dancing around a cauldron of Devil’s brew, and of Lady MacBeth, regal and ruthless, urging her reluctant spouse to murder the aged and saintly Duncan.
The Story of MacBeth is, historically if not artistically, much more interesting than Shakespeare’s myth. King Malcolm II, who died in 1034, was rather a splendid king (not to be confused with Canmore), and was noteworthy among other things because he helped complete the work of Kenneth MacAlpin. He added Strathclyde to his kingdom by peaceful succession, and by defeating the Angles of Lothian at Carham in 1018 he became their ruler (those who remained). If this decisive battle had been lost, the Angles might have become the dominant race in Lowland Scotland, and Scotland might have become “England” long before the days of William the Conqueror. The Highlands would have been even more isolated than they were with their Anglo-Scottish cousins, the Lowlander, and surely what we call Scotland today – or historically – would have been greatly different. As it was, Malcolm did defeat the Angles (or English, along with Saxons and Jutes), and not only established his kingdom more or less to the present Scottish border, but also had claims and aspirations in Northumbria (northern England) which were not abandoned till a century later, and which made it possible that Scotland might become a bigger country than England.
After Malcolm’s death he was succeeded, in accordance with the new rules of succession which he introduced, (primogeniture, which replaced tanistry) by a direct descendant, his grandson Duncan. Hitherto the succession had been collateral, passing from eldest brother to younger brothers, and then from eldest brother’s sons to younger brother’s sons, and so on. This led to confusion, for the only hard-and-fast rule was the succeeding king must belong to the Royal [I]derbfine[/I] (or family group), and be the son, grandson or great-grandson of a king. Since the time of Kenneth MacAlpin, no king had been immediately followed by a direct descendant. This was something new.
Accordingly, young Duncan’s position was insecure, and a rival claimant appeared in MacBeth, who was Mormaer (or earl) of Ross in his own right, and became Mormaer of Moray by Marriage. He was probably a nephew of Malcolm, which itself would make him a powerful rival under the old rule of succession, for he was a generation nearer the throne than Duncan; and his wife, Grouch nighean Bode, was herself a claimant who, had she not married MacBeth, might easily have rivaled him. As it was, two powerful interests were vested in MacBeth, and he supported also by the very powerful Viking-Scot, Thorfinn the Mighty, Earl of Caithness. MacBeth and Thorfinn defeated King Duncan at a battle near Elgin in 1040, Duncan was killed, and MacBeth became king.
How different is all this from our familiar Shakespearean drama! Duncan was not the white-haired dotard stabbed in his sleep, but a vigorous and hot-tempered young man killed in battle. In fact what little we know of Duncan he was not wise, or kind or a victim of a scheming warlord, MacBeth. He seems to have been somewhat the opposite and MacBeth was not a villain, but a genuine rival to the throne. He proved himself a strong king whose rule was beneficial to the country, and he was generous to the church, which was vital on those times. During his 17-year rule, his wife was no dark-eyed villainess of the stage, although she undoubtedly shared MacBeth’s interest in defeating Duncan, for under the old succession laws her son by her first marriage became a claimant to the throne.
MacBeth’s downfall was brought about by this very matter of succession. Duncan’s eldest son, Malcolm (soon to be Malcolm III), who is better known as Malcolm Canmore (Can-mor meaning big or large head), returned (from England) to seek what he regarded as his rightful heritage. With the encouragement of Edward the Confessor of England, and with the help of Northumbrian (English) troops under Siward of Northumbria, he defeated and killed MacBeth at Lumphanan, in Aberdeenshire, in 1057.
From this time on the succession was primogeniture, and the Scottish Crown was no longer ruled by Scots of Celtic descent, but instead of mixed Lowland, Angle and Saxon descent. The Scottish Crown would have the 'English party' involved to some extent for the next 600 years.
©Skye-Net, R. Gunn, 1995/2009