Scotland's Bloody History
Scottish Heritage and Historical Stories

1057 – BIRNAM WOOD COMES TO HIGH DUNSINANE HILL

With such a small electoral college it would not be unexpected to find there was some corruption within the electoral process, but investigating it almost a thousand years later would be no easy task.

King Duncan of Dunkeld, elected in 1034, appears to have been a totally inappropriate leader. Expansionist to excess, we know he led disastrous excursions into England and instead of ruling his people he stole from them and rampaged around Scotland with a small army leaving death and destruction in his wake. King Duncan was not the venerable monarch described by Shakespeare

Scotland in those days was divided into many sub-kingdoms ruled by Mormaers, a little like the Earls of today. It would not be difficult to imagine the protests the Mormaers would have had from their people each time Duncan and his men came pillaging, raping and stealing anything they wanted.

One of these sub-kingdoms was known as Moray. Morayshire today is a relatively small county just east of Inverness, but in the eleventh century it stretched almost from Aberdeen in the east to the west coast of Scotland, a huge tract of land with a very powerful and effective leader. His name? Macbeth!

Petitioned by his people for something to be done about the awful king, when his spies told him Duncan and his force were heading north towards the Moray coast, Macbeth raised an army and positioned it on a heath near the modern city of Elgin.

We can only imagine Duncan’s amazement at meeting resistance for the first time. Perhaps Macbeth was hoping Duncan would see his army and go elsewhere for his sport, but whatever may have been his intentions, the bloodthirsty Duncan took one look at his enemy’s men and gave the order to charge.

Despite being the eleventh century they had some far superior concepts of warfare than we do today.

For instance the leaders used to fight their way to the front of the battle! What a great idea. Macbeth and Duncan in hand to hand combat 1040.

Try visualising Tony Blair and George Bush shoulder to shoulder in the Iraqi desert with swords and Saddam Hussein and Chemical Ali taking them on in hand to hand combat … I wonder if we would have invaded Iraq had those been the rules of engagement.

The battle near Elgin in 1040 was exceedingly bloody and both men were wounded, but Duncan’s wounds were mortal. His supporters carried him from the battlefield and he died a few days later.

Most early kings of Scotland are buried on the Isle of Iona on the west coast, but Duncan’s body does not appear to be located anywhere on the island. In Inverness, adjacent to a very busy roundabout near Raigmore Hospital, a headstone proclaims, “Behind this stone lies King Duncan 1040”.

This is a rather ignominious location beside a filling station. Earlier in the decade some building works were being carried out nearby and it was decided to check the condition of the King’s remains so that nothing of any great archaeological importance would be disturbed by any building.

However the excavation showed that there were no remains or artefacts under or behind the headstone at all.

Now there are two schools of thought regarding the grave. One suggests that there never were any remains and the headstone was just created as a Victorian commemoration for the King. The other proposes that the headstone was moved at some time in the past while the bones were left in their original location and are now lost forever.

A visitor once suggested to me that we should be making an effort to discover any descriptions of banquets held by Duncan. Perhaps he used to sit at the head of the table regularly shivering and complaining, “Ooh, someone went over my grave”. If so there should be little doubt that his remains now lie under the very busy road passing nearby and a search could be conducted there!

The mormaers would not have wanted Duncan’s young son Malcolm to become king and he fled with his uncle to England where he was welcomed into the court of Edward the Confessor.  The other brother, Donald Ban, fled to the Hebrides.

Macbeth recovered from his wounds and attended the next meeting of Mormaers where he was appointed as the new king in the year 1040AD. Thus began a golden period for Scotland.1040 - Macbeth meets the Viking warlord Thorfinn

Macbeth’s first action as monarch was to meet up with Thorfinn, the Viking warlord living in the north of Scotland, what we call Caithness and Sutherland today. The king avoided losing his head during this visit because Thorfinn had married Macbeth’s cousin and so this family relationship probably permitted an arranged meeting. Some historians say that the two men were already friends before Macbeth became king.

Once they got together after the coronation, they solidified their like for each other and the encounter resulted in Thorfinn swearing allegiance to Macbeth.

So this king, through diplomacy alone, had managed to bring the Viking north under Scots’ control. I wonder how many readers imagined they would read about diplomacy in the same sentence as Macbeth when they picked up this publication.

The two men decided to try to overcome the terrible lawlessness of the period by forming a very early police force. Bands of men, with the authority of the king, travelled Scotland, sorting out disputes between landowners, keeping the peace and, no doubt, passing down summary justice too. How fair or just all this would have been is debatable, but it was a step in the right direction.The time of Macbeth was a time of plenty for the ordinary people

Macbeth went on to socially reform Scotland, introducing pensions for widows and benefits for orphans. Chronicles of the time indicate he may even have had a rudimentary education policy and that the time of Macbeth was certainly a time of plenty for the ordinary people.

So secure on his throne was Macbeth, that he could afford to leave the country for at least six months to undertake a pilgrimage to Rome.

This would have necessitated travelling by ship from Scotland, through the straits of Gibraltar and to Rome via the Mediterranean. Travelling such a distance by land via England, across the English Channel and down through France to Italy in medieval times would have been a precarious and probably fatal journey.

The chroniclers tell us that while in Rome Macbeth cast coins to the poor in the streets. Hardly a very Scottish concept, but Macbeth had already brought great change to his country and its people, now you could say that he brought loose change to others!Macbeth casting coins to the poor during his pilgrimage to Rome

When he returned he decided to invade England.

Fed up with the English pricking the soft underbelly of Scotland just south of Glasgow and Edinburgh, Macbeth, with a substantial and well organised army, pushed the English border all of the way down to Yorkshire and Lancashire and held it there.

Under Macbeth, Scotland was larger than it has ever been, before or since! He reigned seventeen years, one of the longest and most successful reigns of those early kings who took the throne under the system of tanistry.

Devotees of Shakespeare may by now be wondering how the Bard got it all so badly wrong. It could not just be because he was English, surely?

William Shakespeare, if he was an individual, was reading the History of Scotland by Holinshed and discovered that this Macbeth had killed King Duncan and that Duncan’s heirs had fled for their lives, one of them to Edward the Confessor in England.

To understand how this led Shakespeare to write his play you have to realise that he was living under the reign of King James[1], who was believed to be a divine monarch – chosen by God to rule the country.

When he read what happened to Duncan and his sons you can imagine the Bard interpreting events as Macbeth murdering the king and then stealing the throne from the rightful heir. That was how the crown was passed down in England at the time of Shakespeare and, indeed is still passed down today.

Shakespeare assumed that Scotland had “a bloody usurper on its throne” and out came the feathered word processor! We are not told which version of MicroDown® it was running, but the result was one of his shortest and finest plays. Surely it has everything – murder, love, jealousy, greed, hate, the supernatural, battles and a brilliant twist in the tail.

The truth of the matter, of course, is that Shakespeare could never have understood the system of tanistry and so put two and two together and made five … but what a brilliant five!

Shakespeare read something else in Holinshed’s History which intrigued him.

Malcolm, the son of Duncan, had grown up in the care of Edward the Confessor. Tostig Godwinson, the brother of the later King Harold of England, saw advantage in assisting the young Scottish pretender gain the crown.

Malcolm, with an army of perhaps ten thousand English soldiers, arrived at Birnam Wood in Perthshire. Shakespeare also learned that Macbeth was camped nearby at Dunsinane with an elite bodyguard, maybe comprising a few hundred men. In his play he failed to mention the nationality and number of Malcolm’s army, nor does he tell us how few men Macbeth had.Malcolm's army carry Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill in 1057

Holinshed tells of Malcolm instructing his men to cut down the branches of the trees of Birnam Wood and use them as camouflage to creep up on Macbeth’s position. Extraordinarily this was the first known use of camouflage in a military manoeuvre anywhere in the world so, once again, like the telephone and television, the Scots invent something and the rest of the world copies it!

When Shakespeare read of the event he came up with the most brilliant idea for his play. He developed the weird sisters mentioned by Holinshed into three witches who prophesy that Macbeth shall never vanquished be until great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him. The king, of course, soliloquises that that cannot happen, for how can trees uproot themselves and cross an open space. The culmination of William Shakespeare’s play begins with those trees crossing that open space in the arms of Malcolm’s soldiers. English or not, we must credit Shakespeare with a stroke of sheer brilliance in his storytelling.

It really happened and, while Macbeth’s elite guard protected him from the worst of the battle, he was nevertheless wounded but escaped north to fight another day.MacDuff kills Macbeth at Lumphanen in Aberdeenshire

Eventually he was caught at Lumphanen near Aberdeen where he was killed in cold blood by MacDuff. Malcolm had his revenge for his father’s death, but would this give him the crown?

Under the system of tanistry the Mormaers met and elected Lulach[2] as the new king. Malcolm Canmore kills King Lulach of Scotland by his own handAn infuriated Malcolm, still with his English army despite the increasingly impatient support from England, charged around Scotland until he caught up with Lulach whom he killed by his own hand. Some democracy!

A further meeting of the Mormaers probably heard representations from Malcolm such as, “We must get the right man for the job this time … but if it is not me I’m going to kill him!”. Sadly there are no records to inform us of what actually transpired.

Whatever the truth of the matter, we do know that Malcolm was elected king and, like all good dictators, he contrived to change the rules. Malcolm was the last king to be elected under purist form of tanistry. In the future the kingdom would be passed down within the same family as it was in England. With this change the Scottish reigns extended, for when you think about it, what is the point in killing the king if all you are going to get is his son?

Malcolm became king in 1057. Macbeth had reigned a full and reforming seventeen years, yet this excellent early king had been consigned to the rubbish tip of history by an English playwright.

The play is called “The Tragedy Of Macbeth”, but the true tragedy of Macbeth is that, in 2005, there was no celebration of the life of this great king. 2005 was his millennium yet there were no street parties, no firework displays and not even a BBC documentary.

When I complained to the Scottish Tourist Board that there was to be no celebration of Macbeth’s millennium, the response was, “Macbeth, who’d want to celebrate him?”. As a nation, the Scots so often misunderstand their own heritage and fail to learn the facts about their great forebears.

For those of you with some European history in your backgrounds, can you remember what was to happen in England just nine years later? For that was to eventually change the face of Scotland too.

 

 



[1] King James of England was also James VI of Scotland.

[2] Lulach was Queen Gruoch’s son from a previous marriage. She later married Macbeth.

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