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Gaelic Territories

MacBeth: The True History of the Man and His Times

by Mick Baker, 2 June 2007

Part 2: MacBeth

MacBeth returned to rule for seven more years!

In 1052, when the English king, Edward the Confessor, was expelling his Norman retainers, two of them fled north to seek sanctuary at the court of MacBeth. Pious in the way that Fulk Nerra was pious, more acquainted with the world beyond the Tweed than any of his predecessors, MacBeth found himself assailed from within and without.

Duncan's father Crinan, lay abbot of Dunkeld, attacked MacBeth from within - resulting in Crinan's defeat and death in 1045 - and Siward of Northumbria attacked him from without, momentarily defeating the king in 1046.

A temporary setback

MacBeth was perhaps only expelled from Lothian, which he soon recovered. He is mentioned prominently in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in its account of Siward's invasion, to which the closely contemporary evidence of Florent of Worcester can add no more than accounts of MacBeth's generosity and hospitality, one of which is confirmed by the Irish chronicler, Marianus Scotus.

In July 1054 a second Northumbrian expedition again succeeded in expelling MacBeth from part of his kingdom (again perhaps Lothian and possibly Strathclyde), and set up as king Malcolm III, Duncan's elder son. In 1057 MacBeth was defeated and killed at Lumphanon and a year later his stepson, Lulach, to whom some had rallied, was slain at Essie by Malcolm III.

MacBeth's success can be seen as a native, or Gaelic, reaction against the new southern ways, and it is significant of the prevailing distrust of those ways that he was able to rule for such a lengthy and uninterrupted period of time. He was generally acknowledged as a worthy ruler and his reign was generally characterised by peace and tranquillity.

Many contemporary sources record the reign of MacBeth as a time of great abundance. The Chronicle of Melrose states:

MacBeth became king of Scotland for seventeen years; and in his reign there were fruitful seasons...

In addition, Wyntoun's Cronykil, drawing upon earlier sources, says:

Part 1: Duncan
Part 2: MacBeth

...seventeen winters as king in Scotland... all his time was of great plenty, abounding both on land and sea.

There is also consistent evidence from a range of sources to indicate MacBeth having been particularly remembered for his remarkable personal generosity.

He was especially magnanimous to the church:

MacBeth, son of Finlach, and Gruoch, daughter of Bodhe, king and queen of Scots, granted Kyrkenes to Almighty God and to the culdees of the island of Lochleven for prayers and intercessions...

Register of the priory of St Andrew's

It was only intervention from England which ultimately brought about his downfall. MacBeth represented the old ways and, like almost all the macAlpin kings before him, he was buried on Iona; which fact alone recognises the legitimacy of his kingship, whereas Malcolm III and his English wife, Margaret, when they died in 1093, were buried at Dunfermline.

There was a brief return to Gaelic ways when the 'incorrigible old Celt' Donald Bane, Malcolm's younger brother, came to the throne. He was the last Scottish king to be buried on Iona.

MacBeth was the last true Celto-Gaelic king of Scotland. His stepson, Lulach, only reigned for some seven months before he was slain by Duncan's son, by means of treachery.


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1033 Duncan mac Crinan, grandson of Malcolm II, marries Sybil, daughter of Siward the Stout, earl of Northumbria.
1034 The death of Malcolm II. The accession of Duncan I, known to the Vikings - according to one theory - as 'Karl Hundisson'.

Duncan ('Karl') demands tribute for Caithness from Earl Thorfinn the Mighty. This is refused, which act provokes war. 'Karl' installs his nephew Muddan as chieftain in Caithness and suffers the first of several defeats. Muddan is killed in Thurso. 'Karl' is defeated in a naval battle off Deerness on Orkney.
1035 Duncan ('Karl') is defeated in a second naval Battle at Tarbat Ness.
1038 Duncan is defeated by Eadulf of Bamburgh, a rival of Siward.
1039 Duncan and Siward lay siege to Durham. Duncan is again defeated with heavy losses.
1040 Duncan, in a vain attempt to restore his prestige, engages on a royal progress through the land of Moray, where MacBeth is mormaer (sub-king). This proves to be a grave error of judgement as the men of Moray, under MacBeth, probably aided by Thorfinn, rise up and kill Duncan at Pitgaveny. Thorfinn, and MacBeth partition the kingdom. MacBeth attains the royal title, ruling well for seventeen years, whilst Thorfinn takes nine earldoms.
1045 MacBeth defeats and kills Crinan of Dunkeld, Duncan's father.
1046 Siward succeeds in momentarily expelling MacBeth from Lothian, and briefly installing Duncan's brother Maldred on the Scottish throne. MacBeth swiftly recovers his lost lands.
1050 MacBeth and Thorfinn both embark upon a pilgrimage to Rome.
1054 Siward and Malcolm Ceann Mor set off on a campaign to defeat MacBeth. They defeat him at Dunsinnen wresting Lothian and possibly Strathclyde from him, but fail to depose him. Ceann Mor is set up as King Malcolm III - at least of Cumbria (Strathclyde).
1055 Siward of Northumbria dies at York.
1057 Malcolm Ceann Mor defeats and kills MacBeth at Lumphanon.
1058 Lulach, MacBeth's stepson, becomes king. He reigns for just seven months before being slain by Malcolm (Ceann Mor). Accession of Malcolm III.


Part 1: Duncan
Part 2: MacBeth


Primary Sources

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Annals of Ulster

Annals of Tigernach

Chronicle of Melrose

Cronykil of Andrew of Wyntoun

Florent of Worcester

Marianus Scotus

Orkneyinga Saga

Prophecy of Berchan

Register of Priory of St Andrews

Symeon's History of the Church of Durham

Secondary Sources

Bingham, Caroline - Kings and Queens of Scotland

Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain c.500-c.1050

Dickinson, William Croft - A New History of Scotland Vol 1 - From the Earliest Times to 1603

Donaldson, Gordon - A Northern Commonwealth

Donaldson, Gordon - Scottish Historical Documents

Donaldson, Gordon - Scottish Kings

Duncan, A A M - Scotland - The Making of the Kingdom Vol 1

Ellis, Peter Beresford - Macbeth - High King of Scotland 1040-1057

Higham, N J - Northumbria AD 350-1100

Macbeth on the Internet

Marsden, John - Alba of the Ravens, Scotland's Kings and Queens

Shakespeare, William - Macbeth



Images © Caliban Films/Playboy Productions. Text copyright © Mick Baker. An original feature for the History Files.