Macbeth of Scotland

Macbeth and the witches by Henry Fuseli (Johann Heinrich Füssli) (1741-1825)
Macbeth and the witches by Henry Fuseli (Johann Heinrich Füssli) (1741-1825)

Mac Bethad mac Findláich, known in English as Macbeth c. 10051057 was king of Scots (or of Alba) from 1040 until his death. He is best known as the subject of William Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth and the many works it has inspired, although the play itself is of limited historical accuracy.

Origins and family

Mac Bethad was the son of Findláech mac Ruaidrí, mormaer of Moray. His mother is sometimes supposed to have been a daughter of Máel Coluim mac Cináeda. This may be derived from Andrew of Wyntoun's Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland which makes Mac Bethad's mother a grand-daughter, rather than a daughter, of Máel Coluim. [1]

Mac Bethad's paternal ancestry can be traced in the Irish genealogies contained in the Rawlinson B.502 manuscript:

Mac Bethad son of Findláech son of Ruadrí son of Domnall son of Morggán son of Cathamal son of Ruadrí son of Ailgelach son of Ferchar son of Fergus son of Nechtan son of Colmán son of Báetán son of Eochaid son of Muiredach son of Loarn son of Ercc son of Eochaid Muinremuir.[2]

This should be compared with the ancestry claimed for Máel Coluim mac Cináeda which traces back to Loarn's brother Fergus Mór.[3] Several of Mac Bethad's ancestors can tentatively be identified: Ailgelach son of Ferchar as Ainbcellach mac Ferchair and Ferchar son of Fergus (correctly, son of Feredach son of Fergus) as Ferchar Fota, while Muiredach son of Loarn mac Eirc, his son Eochaid and Eochaid's son Báetán are given in the Senchus fer n-Alban. So, while the descendants of Cináed mac Ailpín saw themselves as coming off the Cenél nGabráin of Dál Riata, the northern kings of Moray traced their origins back to the rival Cenél Loairn.[4]

Mac Bethad's father Findláech was killed c. 1020 - one obit calls him king of Alba - most probably by his successor, his brother Máel Brigte's son Máel Coluim.[5] Máel Coluim died in 1029, the circumstances are unknown, but violence is not suggested; he is called king of Alba by the Annals of Tigernach.[6] However, it should be noted that king of Alba is by no means the most impressive title used by the Irish annals. Many deaths reported in Irish annals in the 11th century are of rulers called Ard Rí Alban - High-King of Scotland. It is not entirely certain whether Máel Coluim was followed by his brother Gille Coemgáin or by Macbeth.

Gille Coemgáin's death in 1032 was not reported by Tigernach, but the Annals of Ulster record:

Gille Coemgáin son of Máel Brigte, mormaer of Moray, was burned together with fifty people.[7]

Some have supposed that Mac Bethad was the perpetrator.[8] Others have noted the lack of information in the Annals, and the subsequent killings at the behest of Máel Coluim mac Cináeda to suggest other answers.[9] Gille Coemgáin had been married to Gruoch, daughter of Boite mac Cináeda, with whom he had a son, the future king Lulach.

It is not clear whether Gruoch's father was a son of Cináed mac Duib (d. 1005) or of Cináed mac Maíl Coluim (d. 997), either is possible chronologically.[10] After Gille Coemgáin's death, Mac Bethad married his widow and took Lulach as his step-son. Gruoch's brother, or nephew, his name is not recorded, was killed in 1033 by Máel Coluim mac Cináeda.[11]

Mormaer and dux

When Canute the Great came north in 1031 to accept the submission of Máel Coluim mac Cináeda, Macbeth too submitted to him:

... Malcolm, king of the Scots, submitted to him, and became his man, with two other kings, Mac Bethad and Iehmarc ...[12]

Some have seen this as a sign of Mac Bethad's power, others have seen his presence, together with Iehmarc, who may be Echmarcach mac Ragnaill, as proof that Máel Coluim mac Cináeda was overlord of Moray and of the Kingdom of the Isles.[13] Whatever the true state of affairs in the early 1030s, and it seems more probable that Mac Bethad was subject to the king of Alba, Máel Coluim died at Glamis, on 25 November 1034. The Prophecy of Berchan is apparently alone in near contemporary sources in reporting a violent death, calling it a kinslaying.[14] Tigernan's chronicle says only:

Máel Coluim son of Cináed, king of Alba, the honour of western Europe, died.[15]

Máel Coluim's grandson, Donnchad mac Crínáin, was acclaimed as king of Alba on 30 November 1034, apparently without opposition. Donnchad appears to have been tánaise ríg, the king in waiting, so that far from being an abandonment of tanistry, his kingship was a vindication of the practice. Previous successions had involved strife between various rígdomna - men of royal blood.[16] Far from being the aged King Duncan of Shakespeare's play, the real Donnchad was a young man in 1034, and even at his death in 1040 his youthfulness is remarked upon.[17]

Perhaps due to his youth, Donnchad's early reign was unremarkable. His later reign, in line with his description as "the man of many sorrows" in the Prophecy of Berchán, was not successful. In 1039, Strathclyde was attacked by the Northumbrians, and a retaliatory raid led by Donnchad against Durham in 1040 turned into a disaster. Later in 1040, Donnchad led an army into Moray, where he was killed by Mac Bethad on 15 August, at Pitgaveny near Elgin.[18]

High-King of Alba

On Donnchad's death, Mac Bethad became king. No resistance is known at this time, but it would be entirely normal if his reign were not universally accepted. In 1045, Donnchad's father Crínán was killed in a battle between two Scots armies.[19]

John of Fordun wrote that Donnchad's wife fled Scotland, taking her children, including the future kings Máel Coluim III and Domnall III with her. Based on the author's beliefs as to whom Donnchad married, various places of exile, Northumbria and Orkney among them, have been proposed. However, the simplest solution is that offered long ago by E. William Robertson: the safest place for Donnchad's widow and her children would be with her or Donnchad's kin and supporters in Atholl.[20]

After the defeat of Crínán, Mac Bethad was evidently unchallenged. Marianus Scotus tells how the king made a pilgrimage to Rome in 1050, where, Marianus says, he gave money to the poor as if it were seed.

In 1052, he found himself involved indirectly in the strife in the Kingdom of England between Godwin, Earl of Wessex and Edward the Confessor when he received a number of Norman exiles from England in his court, perhaps becoming the first king of Scots to introduce feudalism to Scotland. In 1054, Edward's Earl of Northumbria, Siward, led a very large invasion of Scotland. The campaign led to a bloody battle in which the Annals of Ulster report 3000 Scots and 1500 English dead, which can be taken as meaning very many on both sides, and one of Siward's sons and a son-in-law were among the dead. The result of the invasion was that Máel Coluim - not Máel Coluim (III) mac Donnchada - "son of the king of the Cumbrians" was restored to his throne, i.e. as ruler of kingdom of Strathclyde.[21] It may be that events of 1054 are responsible for the idea, which appears in Shakespeare's play, that Máel Coluim III was put in power by the English.

Mac Bethad certainly survived the English invasion, for he was defeated and mortally wounded by Máel Coluim mac Donnchada in battle at Lumphanan, on the north side of the Mounth in 1057, dying at Scone, sixty miles to the south, some days later.[22] His successor, his stepson Lulach mac Gille Coemgáin, was installed as king soon thereafter.

Unlike later writers, no near contemporary source remarks on Mac Bethad as a tyrant. The Duan Albanach, which survives in a form dating to the reign of Máel Coluim (III) mac Donnchada calls him "Mac Bethad the renowned". The Prophecy of Berchán, a verse history which purports to be a prophecy, describes him as "the generous king of Fortriu", and says:

The red, tall, golden-haired one, he will be pleasant to me among them; Scotland will be brimful west and east during the reign of the furious red one.[23]

Life to legend

Pratchett's Wyrd Sisters is based loosely on Macbeth
Pratchett's Wyrd Sisters is based loosely on Macbeth

Mac Bethad's life, like that of Donnchad, had progressed far towards legend by the end of the 14th century, when John of Fordun and Andrew of Wyntoun wrote their histories. Hector Boece, Walter Bower and George Buchanan all contributed to the legend.

The influence of William Shakespeare's Macbeth towers over mere histories, and has made the name of Macbeth infamous. Even his wife has gained some fame along the way, lending her Shakespeare-given title to a short story by Nikolai Leskov and the opera by Dmitri Shostakovich entitled Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The historical content of Shakespeare's play, unlikely to have greatly concerned him, is drawn from Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, which draws on Hector Boece's 1527 Scotorum Historiae which flattered the antecedents of Boece's patron, king James V of Scotland.

In modern times, Dorothy Dunnett's novel King Hereafter aims to portray a historical Macbeth, but with a singular twist--Thorfinn and Mac Bethad are taken to be one and the same (Thorfinn is his birth name and Macbeth is his baptismal name). John Cargill Thompson's play Macbeth Speaks 1997, a reworking of his earlier Macbeth Speaks, is a monologue delivered by Macbeth. A character named Macbeth also appears in the animated series Gargoyles.


  1. ^ Hudson, Propehcy of Berchán, pp. 224–225 discusses the question and the reliability of Wyntoun's chronicle.
  2. ^ Rawlinson B. 502 ¶1698 Genelach Ríg n-Alban.
  3. ^ Rawlinson B. 502 ¶1696 Genelach Ríg n-Alban.
  4. ^ Duncan, Kingship of the Scots, p. 32; Sellar, "Moray".
  5. ^ Annals of Tigernach 1020.8; Annals of Ulster 1020.6.
  6. ^ Annals of Tigernach 1029.5; Annals of Ulster 1029.7.
  7. ^ Annals of Ulster 1032.2.
  8. ^ Sellar, "Moray".
  9. ^ Duncan, Kingship of the Scots, p. 32.
  10. ^ See Duncan, Kingship of the Scots, p. 345; Lynch, Oxford Companion, p. 680; Wolfe, "Macbeth".
  11. ^ Annals of Ulster 1033.7. The victim is reported as M. m. Boite m. Cináedha, which is variously read as "the son of the son of Boite ..." or as "M. son of Boite ...".
  12. ^ Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Ms. E, 1031.
  13. ^ Compare Duncan, Kingship of the Scots, pp. 29–30 with Hudson, Prophecy of Berchán, pp. 222–223.
  14. ^ Hudson, Prophecy of Berchán, p. 223; Duncan, Kingship of the Scots, p. 33.
  15. ^ Annals of Tigernach 1034.1
  16. ^ Donnchad as tánaise ríg, the chosen heir, see Duncan, The Kingship of the Scots, pp. 33ndash;34; Hudson, Prophecy of Berchán,pp. 223–224, where it is accepted that Donnchad was king of Strathclyde. For tanistry, etc., in Ireland, see Ó Cróinín, Early Medieval Ireland, 63–71. Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, pp. 35–39, offers a different perspective.
  17. ^ Annals of Tigernach 1040.1.
  18. ^ Hudson, Prophecy of Berchán, p.223–224; Duncan, The Kingship of the Scots, pp.33–34.
  19. ^ Annals of Tigernach 1045.10; Annals of Ulster 1045.6.
  20. ^ Robertson, Scotland under her Early Kings, p. 122. Hudson, Prophecy of Berchán, p. 224, refers to Earl Siward as Máel Coluim mac Donnchada's "patron"; Duncan, The Kingship of the Scots, pp. 40–42 favours Orkney; Woolf offers no opinion. Northumbria is evidently a misapprehension, further than that cannot be said with certainty.
  21. ^ Florence of Worcester, 1052; Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Ms. D, 1054; Annals of Ulster 1054.6; and discussed by Duncan, The Kingship of the Scots, pp. 38–41.
  22. ^ The exact dates are uncertain, Woolf gives 15 August, Hudson 14 August and Duncan, following John of Fordun, gives 5 December; Annals of Tigernach 1058.5; Annals of Ulster 1058.6.
  23. ^ Hudson, Prophecy of Berchán, p. 91, stanzas 193 and 194.


Primary sources

  • CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts at University College Cork including:
    • Genealogies from Rawlinson B.502 (no translation available)
    • Gaelic notes from the Book of Deer (with translation)
    • The Annals of Ulster (translation)
    • The Annals of Tigernach (translation in progress)
    • The Chronicon Scotorum reproduces a considerable part of the Annals of Tigernach and is available in translation.
  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Mss. D and E, various editions including an XML version by Tony Jebson.
  • The Chronicle of the Kings of Alba
  • The Chronicon ex chronicis attributed to Florence of Worcester.

Secondary sources

  • Barrell, A.D.M., Medieval Scotland. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000. ISBN 0-521-58602-X
  • Barrow, G.W.S., Kingship and Unity: Scotland 1000–1306. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, (corrected edn) 1989. ISBN 0-7486-0104-X
  • Byrne, Francis John, Irish Kings and High-Kings. Batsford, London, 1973. ISBN 0-7134-5882-8
  • Duncan, A.A.M., The Kingship of the Scots 842–1292: Succession and Independence. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2002. ISBN 0-7486-1626-8
  • Hudson, Benjamin T., The Prophecy of Berchán: Irish and Scottish High-Kings of the Early Middle Ages. Greenwood, London, 1996.
  • Ó Cróinín, Dáibhí, Early Medieval Ireland: 400–1200. Longman, London, 1995. ISBN 0-582-01565-0
  • Sellar, W.D.H., "Moray: to 1130" in Michael Lynch (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Scottish History. Oxford UP, Oxford, 2001. ISBN 0-19-211696-7
  • Smyth, Alfred P., Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland AD 80–1000. Edinburgh UP, Edinburgh, 1984. ISBN 0-7486-0100-7
  • Taylor, A.B., "Karl Hundason: King of Scots" in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, LXXI (1937), pp. 334–340.
  • Woolf, Alex, "Macbeth" in Lynch (2001).

Further reading

  • Aitchison, N. B., Macbeth : man and myth. Sutton, Sutton, 1999.
  • Crawford, Barbara, Scandinavian Scotland. Leicester University Press, Leicester, 1987.
  • Hudson, Benjamin T., Kings of Celtic Scotland. Greenwood, London, 1994.
  • McDonald, R. Andrew, Outlaws of medieval Scotland: Challenges to the Canmore kings, 1058–1266. Tuckwell, East Linton, 2003.
Preceded by:
Donnchad I
King of Scots
Succeeded by:
Preceded by:
Gille Coemgáin
Mormaer of Moray
Monarchs of Scotland (Alba)
Traditional Kings of Picts: (Legendary Kings) | Drest of the 100 Battles | Talorc I | Nechtan I | Drest II | Galan | Drest III | Drest IV | Gartnait I | Cailtram | Talorc II | Drest V | Galam Cennalath | Bruide I | Gartnait II | Nechtan II | Cinioch | Gartnait III | Bruide II | Talorc III | Talorgan I | Gartnait IV | Drest VI | Bruide III | Taran | Bruide IV | Nechtan IV | Drest VII | Alpín I | Óengus I | Bruide V | Cináed II | Alpín II | Talorgan II | Drest VIII | Conall | Caustantín | Óengus II | Drest IX | Eogán | Ferat | Bruide VI | Cináed II | Bruide VII | Drest X
Traditional Kings of Scots: Cináed I | Domnall I | Causantín I | Áed | Eochaid | Giric | Domnall II | Causantín II | Máel Coluim I | Idulb | Dub | Cuilén | Cináed II | Amlaíb | Cináed II | Causantín III | Cináed III | Máel Coluim II | Donnchad I | Mac Bethad | Lulach | Máel Coluim III | Domnall III Bán | Donnchad II | Domnall III Bán | Edgar | Alexander I | David I | Máel Coluim IV | William I | Alexander II | Alexander III | First Interregnum | John | Second Interregnum | Robert I | David II | Edward | David II | Robert II | Robert III | James I | James II | James III | James IV | James V | Mary I | James VI* | Charles I* | The Covenanters | The Protectorate | Charles II* | James VII* | Mary II* | William II* | Anne*
* Also Monarch of Ireland and England

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