ISSN 1357-4442 Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 49, November 1999




Lost facts behind the story of Macbeth

The archaeology of 11th century Scotland is almost entirely undiscovered, writes Nick Aitchison

Macbeth, immortalised in Shakespeare's compelling tragedy of ambition, betrayal and the supernatural, may be one of Scotland's most famous kings. The myth of Macbeth has universal appeal. The historical Macbeth (1040-57), however, is less well known, largely because of the scarcity of reliable source material.

Historians have traditionally been dependent on a combination of contemporary Anglo-Saxon and Irish sources, Scottish king lists that survive only as much later copies and, in particular, the medieval Scottish chronicles which provided the inspiration for Shakespeare's Macbeth. All these sources present problems of interpretation and/or reliability.

Nevertheless, Macbeth emerges from the shadows as a remarkable character in several respects. The known facts about his life are, briefly, these: he belonged to the hereditary aristocracy of Moray, an extensive and turbulent northern province centred around Inverness, Elgin and Forres, and separated from the rest of Scotland by the Grampian Mountains. His father was mormaer (`great steward') of Moray but was murdered by Macbeth's cousins. Macbeth later seized the province, probably by burning his cousin and his cousin's warband to death, and took his cousin's wife as his own. Macbeth also belonged to the Scottish royal kin group through his mother and was probably a grandson of Malcolm II, with whom he was closely associated; Macbeth was present at the meeting between Malcolm and Cnut, King of England and Denmark, in 1031.

Macbeth was by no means exceptional in seizing the kingship by killing his predecessor, the hapless Duncan (1034-40). But Macbeth does stand out by then holding on to the Scottish kingship for 17 years. He defeated an uprising led by Duncan's father, the (lay) abbot of Dunkeld, in 1045 and his grip on power was sufficiently strong for him to make the pilgrimage to Rome - a demonstration of royal piety made popular by Cnut - involving an absence of up to a year. Macbeth made an opulent entrance to the Eternal City by scattering silver to the poor, according to the chronicler Marianus Scotus.

Macbeth was defeated by a combined Scottish and Northumbrian army led by Malcolm, Duncan's eldest son, and Siward, Earl of Northumbria, in 1054. Medieval chronicles place the encounter at Dunsinane but it is recorded in contemporary sources only as the `Battle of the Seven Sleepers', after the festival on which it occured (27 July). Macbeth survived, but his grip on the kingship was probably broken. Although the end of his reign is conventionally dated to 1057, Macbeth's final years probably saw his power limited to Moray. Macbeth was killed by Malcolm's forces at Lumphanan, near the southern limit of this territory, in 1057. His foster son, Lulach, held on to Moray for another four months before he, too, was killed by Malcolm.

Macbeth's reign straddles the midpoint of a turbulent but formative century in Scottish history. The Scots' victory at Carham in 1018 wrested Lothian and the Borders from Northumbrian control and established the Anglo-Scottish border at the River Tweed, where it remains to this day. Although the Northern and Western Isles and Caithness were settled by the Vikings, the extent of the kingdom of Scotia or Alba, as it was known in Gaelic, was similar to that of modern Scotland. This was the zenith of the Gaelic language in Scotland, its use extending into the Borders as place-names attest.

Scottish society during this period was emphatically hierarchical. Kings were selected alternately from different royal kin groups, which frequently resulted in dynastic instability and aspiring kings killing their predecessors. The accession of Duncan, a grandson of Malcolm II, marked a change in the pattern of royal succession and the adoption of primogeniture, descent through the direct line. This resulted in further instability and led to Macbeth killing Duncan for the kingship.

Below the king were two levels of lordship. Mormaers were often cadet members of the royal kin group and were powerful territorial magnates, ruling over extensive provinces, such as Moray. Thanes were royal officials, who administered a royal estate or thanage, collecting the dues and tribute that the king and his entourage then lived off as they travelled around the kingdom. The title of mormaer was replaced by that of earl during the 12th century while thanages gave way to sheriff-doms, although some survived into the 17th century. Below them were probably several levels of both free commoners and unfree or semi-free serfs and bonded peasants, although these social strata are scarcely represented in the historical record.

If the documentary sources for 11th century Scotland are so limited, can the archaeological record help to fill the gap and enhance our understanding of Macbeth's Scotland? The reality is disappointing. Little is known about the archaeology of 11th century Scotland. The absence of indigenous and scarcity of imported artefacts that are closely datable, such as coins and pottery, make it difficult to identify sites or phases of occupation belonging to this period. Exchange was non-monetary and - a few imported Anglo-Saxon examples aside - coins start to appear only in the following century.

This is not to suggest that Scotland was a cultural backwater, simply that its material culture differed from that of Anglo-Saxon England and was more similar to that of the Irish, with whom the Scots enjoyed close cultural and linguistic ties. The lack of evidence may partly reflect the preponderant use of organic materials in this period - such as wood for utensils - and the destruction caused by later wars. Scotland's known waterlogged sites, where organic materials survive, all seem to date to other periods.

The lack of evidence may also reflect the shortage of excavations on sites of the right period. Scotland's towns largely began in the 12th century and it is not always clear where the settlements of the previous century should be sought. Excavations at the known royal site of Forteviot in Perthshire during the early 1980s proved inconclusive.

The most impressive surviving monuments of this age, however, remain under-rated. The splendid ecclesiastical round towers of Irish type at Abernethy in Perthshire, and Brechin in Angus - possibly fortified bell towers - are poorly studied and imprecisely dated to anything from the 10th to the 12th century. This is part of a perceptual problem. Eleventh century Scotland has a low visibility in comparison to other periods, falling into a `no-man's-land' between the more fashionable early medieval period (Picts and Vikings) and the Scottish kingdom of the high Middle Ages (Braveheart and all the rest).

With few exceptions, notably Stephen Driscoll's research at Glasgow University on lordship and landholding in Strathearn in Perthshire, archaeologists have failed to address this period and the far-reaching changes it saw within Scottish society. Because so little material evidence can be firmly consigned to the period, it is hardly surprising that kings and battles should dominate our perception of it.

Macbeth presents an excellent opportunity for channelling widespread public awareness and interest into the archaeology of 11th century Scotland. Some sites are obvious candidates for investigation. Dunsinane, closely associated with Macbeth in myth and drama, is an impressive Perthshire hillfort about eight miles northeast of Perth, probably of the late Bronze Age or Iron Age. Nevertheless, the Scottish regnal lists place Kenneth II (971-95) at Dunsinane, indicating that it may have been refortified and/or reoccupied only 50 years or so before Macbeth's reign. Dr Driscoll's work concluded that hillforts were generally abandoned as high-status settlement sites by the end of the 1st millennium but there may have been exceptions.

Macbeth is associated with other sites. The Prophecy of Berchán, an 11th century verse history of Scottish and Irish kings, predicts a bloody death for Macbeth at Scone, the inauguration place of the Scottish kings. The mound on which the Scottish kings were inaugurated still survives. But 18th and 19th century folklore associations with prehistoric monuments around Dunsinane and nearby Meigle - probably the site of an early medieval monastery - are probably mythological in nature and reflect increased antiquarian interest in Macbeth at that time.

The period between about 1790-1860 saw numerous excavations on Dunsinane. Although poorly conducted and published, these excavations attest to an imaginative and proactive approach to the study of Macbeth which has yet to be equalled. It would be naive to assume that archaeology could provide physical evidence of Macbeth himself. But the potential of archaeology to enhance our understanding of places with which Macbeth was associated and illuminate the age in which he lived is considerable.

Dr Nick Aitchison is the author of Macbeth: Man and Myth, published by Sutton last month at £20.00 (ISBN 0-7509-1891-8)


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