The Real Macbeth

When the hurly-burly’s done,
when the battle’s lost and won…

–Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act I: Sc 1: Line 3

Macbeth was a real guy. King of Scotland. Lived in a Castle near Inverness. Defeated Duncan and succeeded by Malcolm. Many things that Shakespeare used in his play were factually accurate. However, most of the characterizations of king Macbeth were historical gaffes.

Those of us who had to read Macbeth in high school, who had to diagram Shakespeare’s five act opening-climax-denouement cycle and to write papers about how Macbeth’s tragic flaw, his obsession with ambition, led to his downfall, were given the wrong impression. Macbeth the real King of Scotland (1040-1057), was not a murdering madman, but a far more complex, elusive, and interesting person whose true ambition may have been to unite Scotland.

Cawdor Castle
Cawdor Castle, formerly home to Macbeth, currently home to the Campbell’s.
Photo by kajmeister.

Who Was Macbeth and What Was Scotland, Anyway?

When I boarded the ship last month for our trip abroad to the British Isles, I was already deep into reading a book about Macbeth, weeks before I walked the circular stone steps of Cawdor Castle. Scottish author Dorothy Dunnett spent a decade researching the historical figure to create this epic masterpiece, King Hereafter.  The result is a meticulous origin story that knits together disparate English and Norse histories while also factoring in and accounting for the prophecies from Shakespeare’s witches. It’s worth noting that her “argument” about who Macbeth was disagrees with some details listed in Wikipedia, although once I started digging, many of the historical sources disagree with each other. Beware anyone who cavalierly says “so-and-so” was a nickname for Macbeth or his wife’s real name was “thus-and-such.” Since I haven’t done ten years of research, I’m sticking with Dunnett.

Story of Macbeth
King Hereafter, a historical novel about Macbeth

First, it’s important to know that the island called Great Britain today was, in the 11th century, a bundle of hornet’s nests. England was a patchwork quilt which excluded Wales and only barely stretched beyond the Thames. The land was constantly ruled by kings who originated from Norway and Denmark, i.e. Viking stock. What William the Conqueror “conquered” was a mass of factions and fighting families who weren’t united at all, and since William was related to a previous king, you could argue that he didn’t conquer anything.

Meanwhile, Scotland as a concept in 1040 was even more fluid. Depending on the year and the historical document, the country had a different name and included different territory. Scotland of Macbeth’s time was called—by the Scots or Gaels or Picts, take your pick of how you want to label them as a people—Alba, that red strip in the middle of the map.

Scotland, the patchwork quilt. Map from

Alba in 1005, the year of Macbeth’s birth, was a very small slice of today’s Scotland, though some maps merge Alba with Strathclyde, the green bit. Strathclyde is the part that would include both Glasgow and Edinburgh of today. Alba/Strathclyde didn’t include either the blue highlands or rugged yellow sections in the north, Moray or Caithness. (Caithness is roughly on the same latitude as southern Alaska). Nor did Alba include the brown bits to the south, Northumbria and Cumbria, which were part of England although ruled by Earls who fancied themselves rather independent and contenders for the crown of both “countries.” Overall, Malcolm II, king of Scotland/Alba in 1005, wasn’t king of much.

Aside from agreeing on how small Alba was, records seem to converge on other facts about Macbeth and his peers, many conveniently excluded by Shakespeare. Macbeth’s mother was the daughter of Malcolm II, which would make Macbeth a grandson, potentially in line to the Scottish throne. Duncan was also a grandson of Malcolm II through another daughter, and apparently was Malcolm II’s choice as heir, a cousin of Macbeth but not necessarily elder.

Macbeth’s father, Findlaech, was Mormaer (leader) of the large blue territory, Moray. Findlaech was murdered by family–his nephew Gillacomghain who wanted to become Mormaer. When Macbeth avenged his father’s death, he married cousin Gillacomghain’s widow, arguabley in order to strengthen his claim to Moray. His wife, called Ingijborg or Gruoch or Groa but not just Lady Macbeth, also had ties back to a Norwegian ruling family.

Those northern territories, Caithness and Orkney, were ruled by a guy named Thorfinn, who was raised both Viking and Christian. Thorfinn also happened to be a grandson of Malcolm II, through yet another daughter, another relative of Macbeth and Duncan. Malcolm II had a lot of daughters.

More facts: Duncan was not an old man killed at night in a castle. He was a young man, killed by Macbeth when he tried to take the territory of Moray away from him. After defeating Duncan in battle Macbeth, arguably next in line for succession, became King of Alba/Scotland. He then ruled for seventeen years in stability, because the kingdom was peaceful enough to let him take a pilgrimage to Rome. Duncan’s son, Malcolm III, went into exile after his father lost in battle, but returned twenty years later with his own army and killed Macbeth in a battle, one where Alba was also attacked by Northumbria and Norway. Lot of angry hornets. After that, Malcolm III married Macbeth’s widow, so she was married twice to men who killed her husband.

The Many Tongued Voice of History

This King Macbeth does not sound like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, one of the most reviled lead characters in literature. Was Shakespeare lying? The issue lies in positioning the play Macbeth as a history rather than as a tragedy where Shakespeare conveniently slapped on some historical names. Some scholars argue that Shakespeare deliberately distorted Macbeth’s character because his patron James I was descended from Malcolm III, the victor, but the answer is probably simpler. Shakespeare had a juicy story to tell, a moral story, about what happens when ambition convinces you (and your family) to commit heinous acts. Given so many successful remakes of the story–from Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood to the Mafia-themed Men of Respect, with John Turturro–the story was a good one which would stand on its own. Macbeth was just a handy name and Scotland a useful setting.

But author Dunnett takes on the task of both resolving historical discrepancies and using Shakespeare’s story as backdrop. Without reviewing all the “porridge” where researchers disagree, suffice it to say that there’s disagreement about names, parentage, battle sites, and so on. Dunnett’s solution is to unite two separate figures–two of Malcolm II’s grandsons–into the same person. She makes Thorfinn and Macbeth the same person, one born the Norse leader of the north and ruler of the season, the other the heir to Moray, baptized with a Christian name that means “son of life” (Mac+beth). Thorfinn/Macbeth marries the Norwegian Groa, whose stepson Lulach then remains heir to Moray. Author Dunnett then gives young Lulach second sight, and he’s the one who prophecies that Macbeth will be king of Alba and soon the woods will be marching.

… Lulach is the many-tongued voice of History, which you can’t trust either. … here, in the gap between the real events and the Shakespeare play, is a classic example of how and why history comes to be distorted…

Dorothy Dunnett, FAQs about King Hereafter

Lulach, who was a real person dubbed “the foolish,” represents the Wise Fool in this story, the one who remembers the future, to everyone’s dismay. Historical accounts from the time period are limited and rely on conflicting sagas from multiple cultures. Who is to say that a seer wasn’t also part of the deal? And who is to say whether the prophecies came from a three-year-old child savant or three weird sisters?

Macbeth portrait
Portrait of Macbeth by Dutch artist, Jacob de Wet II~1673

Macbeth made a pilgrimage to Rome. Thorfinn, who had the nicknames Thorfinn the Mighty and Thorfin the Skull-splitter, also went to Rome. Why not, as Dunnett does, just assume it’s the same guy? There were at least three languages: Gaelic, Norse, and Old English, as well as two religions, all fighting for dominance. Why not argue that one person, Thorfinn/Macbeth, wanted to merge the cultures that conflicted in his very name? He might have been savvy enough to know that the church could create the common infrastructure that could cross territorial boundaries.

There was a King of Alba went to Rome… an Irish monk called Marianus Scotus (born 1028) sat in a monastery at Fulda in Germany and recorded it: 1050 – Rex Scottiae Macbethad Romae argentum pauperibus seminando distribuit.

Dorothy Dunnett, FAQ about King Hereafter

Macbeth of Moray had limited resources. Thorfinn of Orkney had a fleet of ships and was a superlative Viking trader, with ties to Norway, Ireland, and Denmark. If, as the monk wrote in Latin above, Macbeth distributed gold to the poor, where did it come from, if not from some other source, like trading?

Or chance. Or the three ladies at the spring of Urd, if you like.

Macbeth/Thorfinn in King Hereafter

The Witches and Fate: Remembering the Future

Shakespeare’s play has been described as a story of fate, one where Macbeth struggles against the prophecies like a fly caught in a web. He and lady wife commit heinous acts in order to fulfill the predictions they like, then shed more blood trying to avoid the ones they don’t. It doesn’t work; the woods rise up anyway, and Macbeth’s line does not last.

The Norse culture, however, treated fate differently from the Christian notion of free will. The Norse stories spoke of three Norns–weird sisters–at the Well of Urd, at the base the Tree of Life. Whether they control the future, or merely know it, is debatable, but once they remember your future to you, there is no struggling.

Shakespeare describes them as ugly and conocting weird portions, knowing full well that witches in his day were burned at the stake. He doesn’t want them sympathetic. Yet the truths they speak still come to pass, despite Macbeth’s attempt to control his destiny. Calling them hags may have been Shakespeare’s sop to the church, but he grants them power in the story, perhaps reflecting the respect even 17th century audiences had for the fates. In the novel, Thorfinn/Macbeth carries that same respect for his stepson’s prophecies as he does for the armies which surround his territory. You could call it the fates or you could call it the reality of having no heirs.

I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself–

Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act 1: Sc 7: Line 25
Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle, the citadel of Scotland for centuries. Photo by kajmeister.

Macbeth/Thorfinn’s Real Ambition: Creating a Country

The historical Thorfinn had two sons, who went on to jointly rule Orkney. Macbeth had only his stepson, Lulach, who was placed on the Scottish throne but one year later also killed by cousin Malcolm III. Macbeth and his Norwegian wife Groa had no heirs, so if he did lust after being king of whatever Alba was, he would know that the rule would likely die with him.

It’s hard to understand then why someone would commit murders if they knew their position was temporary. Shakespeare makes his case that absolute power does corrupt absolutely, but even Mafia Dons like Don Corleone grab all that power for their families to hold after they’re gone. Dunnett’s Macbeth is far more practical. He wants stability in the north and becomes king because he must repel Duncan’s attack. Then, after keeping peace for nearly two decades, he has to find off challengers from land and sea, as the three strong claws of Norway, Denmark, and England snap at him and at each other. Knowing that he will be succeeded at some point as King of Scotland, his goal is to join the four colors of the map together, to bring the north of Caithness, Orkney, and Moray together with Alba and Strathclyde.

The Scotland that Malcolm III “inherits” is thus the one Macbeth has created. While Shakespeare turns the king into an object lesson of actions to avoid, Dunnett’s king is one who gathers the country under his wing, folding those five different lands into a fan, for future kings to hold fast. It’s a very different type of ambition. The real tragedy is that future generations don’t give Macbeth the credit.

Time is all it needs. Time to make the joins firm. The north, the northwest, and Moray fixed firmly and easily to Alba. And Cumbria and Strathclyde restored the way my grandfather had it, whether under nominal rule from England or not. Three languages, I know. Three cultures, I know. But it can be done.

Macbeth/Thorfinn in King Hereafter

3 Replies to “The Real Macbeth”

  1. Great blog! I love Scots history, although I am more partial to the Bruce than MacBeth. I will have to dig my copy of King Hereafter out of the boxes of books waiting to be read.

    1. Thanks. I will say King Hereafter is quite chockfull of words. It took six months, but it did pay off.

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