"MacBeth, King of Scotland, ruled a peaceful kingdom from 1040 to 1057." Considered by many historians as the last of the Gaelic kings of Scotland, MacBeth has become less of a historical figure and more a fictional character. At the hands of later chroniclers- mostly English- and ultimately by the pen of William Shakespeare, MacBeth changed into a despicable ruler, a far cry from the real person. MacBeth MacFindlaech was born in 1005 AD (1), the same year his grandfather (Malcolm II) became king. His father, Findlaech MacRuaridh, controlled the province of Moray as Mormaer (2). His mother Doada was the second daughter of Malcolm II. MacBeth, meaning "son of life" in Gaelic, was described by contemporary chroniclers as being a handsome man, "the liberal king ... fair, yellow hair and tall ... ruddy countenance." (3) At the age of seven MacBeth was sent away to be educated, a requirement for the children of important chieftains, under the tutelage of a Christian monk- as set by law. The term of study usually lasted about ten years. (4) In 1020, at age fifteen, his cousins Malcolm and Gillecomgain killed MacBeth's father. The reason escaped history, but it could have been that Findlaech MacRuaridh had established a warm relationship with the House of Atholl. As for MacBeth, not much is known about him at this time, it is possible he was far away in his studies. (5) MacBeth reappears once again in the chronicles around the year 1032 when elected Mormaer of Moray upon his cousin Gillecomgain's death. After being elected Mormaer he married Gillecomgain's widow, Gruoch (6) and adopted her son, Lulach. Gillecomgain died on a raid on his castle ordered by Malcolm II. MacBeth now became a candidate to the kingship. Scarcely two years later his candidacy was legitimized when Malcolm II, at the age of eighty, passed away of natural causes on November 25, 1034. One month later, on Christmas Day, Duncan MacCrinan, whom Malcolm had previously named his successor, was elected High King at the age of thirty-three. (7)
Duncan ruled for six uneasy years. His thirst for power coupled with incompetence in the battlefield resulted in troubled times for Scotland. An example of Duncan's incompetence that ultimately led to his down fall occurred in 1038 when the Earl of Northumbria attacked southern Scotland. The attack was arrested, but the chieftains prevailed on Duncan to counterattack. He also wanted to invade the Orkneys and bring them under his rule. Over everyone's objections he chose to do both. In 1040 he opened two fronts, sending his nephew Moddan to the Orkneys while himself leading a force south into England. (8) Duncan's cavalry attempted an assault on the fortified city of Durham and were nearly annihilated. The Northumbrians mounted a counteraction and routed the rest of his army. While fleeing north in disorder he met his nephew who told him about his defeat in the Orkneys. Gathering the remaining clans they advance north, Duncan by sea, Moddan by land. The result was defeat at the hand of the Mormaer of Orkney, Thorfinn Sigurdsson. Moddan died in the attack. On August 14, 1040 the king's army confronted the Mormaer's army. It is believed that MacBeth, as Mormaer of Moray, allied himself with Thorfinn (9). The Mormaers defeated the king, with Duncan falling in battle- contrary to the Shakespearan play where MacBeth murders the king. (10) Later that month MacBeth entered Scone, the Scottish capital, leading the victorious army. To the foremost citizens of the capital he presented himself as candidate to the throne.
MacBeth, at the age of thirty-five, was crowned High King of Scotland. The overthrow of Duncan was the overthrow of an unpopular king having intentions of expanding into England and the Orkney Kingdom. Contemporary chroniclers did not write favorably of Duncan, viewing him as a tyrant and oppressor. They believed that by choosing MacBeth, Scotland had changed to a better ruler- an opinion Shakespeare and later writers did not share. (11) For the most part MacBeth ruled a relatively peaceful and prosperous kingdom. (12) He and his wife Gruoch were particularly generous to the church, especially to the monastery of Loch Leven in Kinross. Credited with decreeing several good laws, MacBeth also enforced a traditional Celtic oath whereby his officers swore to defend women and orphans anywhere in the kingdom. Another law enacted under his reign allowed daughters the same rights of inheritance as sons. (13) The only domestic disruption during MacBeth's reign occurred in 1045.
Raising some of the southern clans, the Abbot of Dunkeld and Mormaer of Atholl met the king in battle near Dunkeld. After a brief engagement the rebels were defeated and the Mormaer killed in the action. (14) Scotland enjoyed nine years of peace giving MacBeth the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to Rome. There he met the pope and gave alms to the poor as befitting a head of state. (15) After his return from Rome the political problems of England began affecting his realm. In 1052 Normans fleeing the chaotic situation in England fled north and were welcome in MacBeth's court. By Celtic law and custom, all travelers were always given haven. However, this act of kindness incurred the resentment of powerful English lords. (16) About this time Duncan's son, Malcolm MacDuncan- age twenty-one, and living in the English court began making claims to the throne of Scotland. For the first time he found more than a passing interest among the nobles. (17) Two years later Malcolm MacDuncan had proved his case so successfully that support for his invasion plans finally resulted in action. Siward, Earl of Northumbria, took command of the invading army. In the late summer of 1054 Malcolm accompanied the Earl as they invaded the southern provinces of Scotland. Little resistance was encountered. Some historians believed MacBeth was setting a trap for the English as they moved deeper into Gaelic territory. (18) On the 27th of July, MacBeth's forces met the invaders in Dunsinnan, close to Scone between Perth and Dundee. By the end of the confrontation more Scots (approximately 3000) fell than invaders (approximately 1500). The English forces also included Danish troops. However, the outcome was indecisive. Siward retreated to England unable to overthrow MacBeth, loosing his son and nephew in the fight. Malcolm took control of Cumbria- the southernmost province in Scotland- becoming their king. Just before another incursion could be launched the ensuing year the Earl of Northumbria died. (19) The death of the Earl did little to prevent Malcolm and the English from attacking Scotland.
From 1054 to 1057 MacBeth was under constant assault from his southern neighbor. Malcolm did not gain any support from the Scottish clans which remained loyal to their king. However, by 1057 MacBeth had lost two supporters who could have put pressure on England to temper its support for Malcolm: Pope Leo IX and the Bishop of St. Andrew and Primate of Scotland Maelduin MacGille-Odrain. (20) Another loss, even more important, was that of Thorfinn, ruler of the Orkneys, who had been instrumental in dethroning Malcolm's father back in 1040. Some historians believe he either was too ill or perhaps had passed away. (21) The end came on August 15, 1057 when Malcolm MacDuncan's men killed MacBeth as he tried to make it to his province, Moray, with a contingent of bodyguards. His body was buried in the holy isle of Iona in a ceremony worthy of a lawful king of Scotland, contrary to Shakespeare's play. All previous lawful kings of Scotland were buried in this island. Years later when Malcolm's body was brought back to Scotland for burial he was interred at Dunfernline, thus becoming the first Scottish king to be denied interment in the holy isle. (22) A few days after MacBeth's death, his son Lulach was elected High King indicating most of the land still belonged to MacBeth's faction. Lulach ruled for seven months until slain by Malcolm's agents. Lulach was also buried in Iona. Finally, on April 25, 1058, Malcolm MacDuncan realized his dream of becoming High King of Scotland and ruling as Malcolm III. (23) With the death of MacBeth, the Celtic way began a steady decline. With Malcolm III on the throne, "fundamental changes in the institutions of the kingdom, in the customs; laws and even the church" took place. It is feasible to say that in MacBeth Scotland had its last Celtic ruler.
Notes: 1- The exact date is unknown 2- High Steward 3- MacBeth- pg. 13 4- Ibid- pg. 17 5- Ibid- pg. 38 6- Later to suffer the same faith as her husband when she became better known as Lady MacBeth. Pgs. 64-65 7- MacBeth- pgs. 38-40 8- Ibid- pgs. 43-58 9- Thorfinn was confirmed ruler of the Orkneys and given other territories after the crowning of MacBeth 10- MacBeth- pg. 56 11- Ibid- pg. 61 12- Ibid- pgs. 66-68 13- Ibid 14- Ibid 15- Ibid- pg. 74 16- Ibid- pg. 77 17- Ibid- pgs. 83-85 18- Ibid 19- Ibid- pgs. 83-90 20- Ibid- pg. 91 21- Ibid- pg. 99 22- Ibid- pgs. 93-94 23- Ibid- pg. 98 Further reading: Duncan, Archibald- Scotland, the making of a kingdom- Oliver & Boyd- Edinburgh, 1975 Shakespeare, William- Macbeth, ed. G. K. Hunter- Penguin Books, 1967