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Significant Scots
Malcolm III


MALCOLM III., OR CANMORE, KING OF SCOTLAND.—Few sovereigns in the obscure and barbarous periods of nations have been more fortunate in their chances of posthumous renown than Malcolm Canmore. He has had Buchanan for his historian, and Shakspeare for his eulogist. What the former learned of him from Fordun, and detailed with all the grace and majesty of the Roman language, the latter embodied in poetry, and such poetry as will endure till the end of time. Every age will feel as if Malcolm Canmore had lived but yesterday, and was worthy of every inquiry.

He was the son of Duncan, who succeeded to the throne of Scotland by the assassination of his grandfather, Malcolm II. This "gracious Duncan" of the great poet appears to have been a soft, easy king, and little fitted for the stormy people over whom he was called to rule. Still less does he appear to have been adapted to those difficult trials by which he was quickly beset, in the first instance, from the insurrection of Macdonald, one of the powerful thanes of Scotland, who called in the Islesmen to his aid; and afterwards, from the invasion of the Danes, who tried the barren shores of Scotland, after they had wasted to the uttermost the rich coasts of France and England. In both cases, however, he was delivered by the military prowess of his cousin, Macbeth, who not only quelled the revolt of the islanders, but drove the Danes to their shipping with great slaughter. To understand aright the importance of these military services of Macbeth, we should remember that the great question at issue in Scotland now was, what race should finally predominate in the country. So large a portion of what had been England during the heptarchy, had been won and incorporated into Scotland, that the Anglo-Saxon race bade fair to outnumber and surpass the Celtic; and the rebellion of Macdonald was nothing more, perhaps, than one of that long series of trials between the two peoples, in which the Celt finally succumbed. As for the Danish invasion, it might have ended either in a permanent settlement in Scotland, like that which had been effected by the Danes in Normandy, or a complete conquest, like that which they had achieved in England, while, in either case, Scotland would have been a sufferer.

After these dangerous conflicts had terminated, Duncan made his eldest son, Malcolm, Prince of Cumberland, by which he designated him heir to the Scottish throne. This appointment, however, was anything but pleasing to Macbeth. Here the reader will remember the predictions of the weird sisters, which form a very important fact in the strange history of the period. But Macbeth had enough to incite him in his ambitious career independently of witch or prophetess. By the Tanist law of succession, common to the Celts of Scotland as well as Ireland, Macbeth, who was the cousin-german of Duncan, should have succeeded to the government on the death of the latter, should his son be still a minor; but Duncan, by this movement in favour of young Malcolm, set aside the Tanist law, which had been the general rule of Scotland, and precluded Macbeth from all hope of being king. To be requited for his public services by exclusion from his inheritance, was too much for such an ambitious spirit, while the only chance of remedy was the possible death of Duncan, before Malcolm was old enough to be his father’s successor. We know how such a prospect has paved the way to a throne in every nation, whether barbarous or civilized. Duncan was assassinated. This foul deed of Macbeth, however, was not committed under trust, and in his own castle, as Shakspeare, for the purposes of poetry, has represented; but at Bothgowan (or the Smith’s Dwelling), near Elgin, by an ambuscade appointed for the deed. This event is said to have occurred A.D. 1039. Macbeth immediately placed upon his own head the crown which he had so violently snatched, while the two sons of Duncan fled, Malcolm, the elder, to Siward, Earl of Northumberland, his mother’s brother, and Donald, the younger, to his father’s kindred in the Hebrides.

The commencement of the reign of Macbeth, like that of many usurpers, was one of conciliation. He won over the powerful by donations of crown lands, and the common people by a vigorous administration of justice, through which their safety was secured and their industry encouraged. He also made several excellent laws; and if those attributed to him by Boece are to be relied on, they give a curious picture of the times, and the condition of Scotland. They begin with the rights of churchmen, in this manner: "He that is in orders shall not answer before a secular judge, but shall be remitted to his judge ordinary." Then comes the royal authority: "No man shall possess lands, rents, offices, or buildings, by any other authority than by the king’s license." Following the heels of lord or laird, that vice of Scotsmen during the feudal ages, found no favour in the eyes of Macbeth, for he thus enacted: "He that follows a man to the kirk or market shall be punished to the death, unless he lives by his industry whom he follows." But the most terrible of all is the following sharp statute: "Fools, minstrels, bards, and all other such idle people, unless they be specially licensed by the king, shall be compelled to seek some craft to win their living: if they refuse, they shall be yoked like horses in the plough and harrows." All this was well; but either fearing the nobles whose power he so vigorously curbed, or being naturally of a cruel disposition, Macbeth began to oppress them with such severity that revolts in favour of Malcolm, whom they regarded as the true heir, ensued, which, however, were easily suppressed. At last, after a reign of ten years, during which he daily became more unpopular, his cruel conduct to Macduff, Thane of Fife, procured his downfall. The latter fled to Northumberland, where young Malcolm was sheltered, and besought him to march against the tyrant, whose doom he represented as certain; but Malcolm, who had been previously tried in a similar manner by the emissaries of Macbeth, and who had learned to suspect such invitations, is said by our historians to have made those objections to Macduff’s appeal which Shakspeare has little more than versified in his immortal tragedy. Truth and patriotism finally prevailed over the doubts of Malcolm; and aided by an English force from Siward, the prince and thane entered Scotland, where they were joined by the vassals of Macduff, and a whole army of malcontents. Even yet, however, Macbeth was not without his supporters, so that the contest was protracted for a considerable period, Macbeth retiring for that purpose into the fastnesses of the north, and especially his strong castle of Dunsinane. At length, deserted by most of his followers, he intrenched himself in a fort built in an obscure valley at Lunfannan, in Aberdeenshire. Here Boece records, with his wonted gravity, all the marvels that accompanied the dying struggle of the tyrant as facts of unquestionable veracity. Leaving these, however, to histrionic representation, it is enough to state that Macbeth fell by the hand, it is generally supposed, of Macduff, who had personal injuries to revenge, and who, like a true Celt, was prompt enough to remember them. Instead of claiming from the grateful Malcolm what rewards he pleased in lands, titles, and pre-eminence, the thane of Fife contented himself with stipulating that himself and his successors, the lords of Fife, should have the right of placing the Scottish kings upon the throne at their coronation; that they should lead the van of the Scottish armies when the royal banner was displayed; and that if he or any of his kindred committed "slaughter of suddenty," the deed should be remitted for a pecuniary atonement. Malcolm’s next duty, immediately after his accession, was to replace those families that had been deprived of land or office through the injustice of Macbeth. It is also added, that he caused his nobles to assume surnames from the lands they possessed, and introduced new titles of honour among them, such as those of Earl, Baron, and Knight, by which they are henceforth distinguished in the histories of Scotland.

By these changes Malcolm Canmore became king of Scotland without a rival, for although Macbeth left a step-son, called Lulach (or the Fool), his opposition did not occasion much apprehension. A greater subject of anxiety was the consolidation of that strange disjointed kingdom over which he was called to rule, and here Canmore was met by difficulties such as few sovereigns have encountered. A single glance at the condition of the country will sufficiently explain the severe probation with which his great abilities were tried.

Scotland had originally consisted of the two states of Pictland and Albin, comprised within the limits of the Forth and the Clyde, while all beyond these rivers formed part of England. The troubles, however, of the latter country, at first from the wars of the heptarchy, and afterwards the Danish invasions, enabled the Scots to push the limits of their barren inheritance into the fertile districts of the south, and annex to their dominion the kingdom of Strathclyde, which comprised Clydesdale, Peebles-shire, Selkirkshire, and the upper parts of Roxburghshire. The conquest of this important territory was accomplished by Kenneth III., about one hundred years before the accession of Malcolm Canmore. In addition to this, the district of Cumbria had been ceded by Edmund I., the English king, in 946, to Malcolm I. of Scotland. Thus Malcolm Canmore succeeded to the kingdom when it was composed of the three states of Albin, Pictland, and Strathclyde. But besides these there was a fourth territory, called Lodonia or Lothian, which at one period appears to have formed part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, but had been partially conquered by the Picts in 685; and as it lay between the two countries, it had formed, from the above-mentioned period, a bone of contention between the English and the Scots until A.D. 1020, or about thirty-seven years before Malcolm Canmore’s accession, when it was finally ceded by Eadulf, Earl of Northumberland, to Malcolm II., the great-grandfather of Canmore.

Thus the sovereignty of Scotland at this time, barren though it was, consisted of four separate kingdoms, all the fruits of successive conquests, and as yet not fully incorporated, or even properly united; and each was at any time ready either to resume an independent national existence of its own, or commence a war of conquest or extirpation against the others. And for such an explosion there was abundance of fierce materials in the population by which the country was occupied. For there were first the Caledonians or Picts, the earliest occupants of the land, who had successfully resisted the Roman invaders; after these were the Scoti or Irish, from Ulster, who had entered Scotland about the middle of the third century; and lastly, the Saxons, of different race, language, and character from the others, who, though originally conquered by the Scots and Picts, already bade fair to become the conquerors of both in turn. But besides these there was a large infusion of a Danish population, not only from the annexation of Strathclyde, but the invasions of the Danes by sea, so that many of the northern islands, and a portion of the Scottish coast, were peopled by the immediate descendants of these enterprising rovers. Turning to another part of the kingdom, we find a still different people, called the "wild Scots of Galloway," who had emigrated from the opposite coast ol Ireland, and occupied Galloway and part of Ayrshire, along with the wildest of the Pictish population among whom they had thus won a footing. Here, then, we have a strange medley of Caledonians, Cymbrians, Celts, Anglo-Saxons, and Danes, men of different race and language, and of rival interests, all thrust into one sterile country, to contend not merely for empty glory, but absolute subsistence. And by whom was the scanty loaf to be finally won?— but the loaf had first to be created from a flinty soil, that had hitherto produced nothing but thistles; and of all these races, the Anglo-Saxon, by its skill, industry, and perseverance, showed itself the best adapted for the purpose. On the accession of Malcolm Canmore, it was evidently necessary that he should identify himself with some one of these rival parties; and had he followed a short-sighted or selfish policy, he would have placed himself at the head of the Celtic interest, not only as it was still predominant, but also as he was the lineal descendant and representative of Kenneth Macalpine, the founder of the Scoto-Irish dynasty. But he was the son of an Anglo-Saxon mother; he had resided in England for fifteen years; and he had been finally established in his rights chiefly by Anglo-Saxon auxiliaries, in spite of the Tanist law of succession, which had favoured the usurpation of Macbeth. Besides, his long stay in England must have convinced him of the superiority of the Anglo-Saxons in civilization, industry, and the arts of life, as well as aptitude for order and a settled government. He therefore adopted the chance of becoming a Saxon king, rather than the certainty of being a Celtic chief of chieftains; and the result showed the wisdom of his choice. He was thenceforth the Alfred of his country; and the Scots under his rule became a nation and a people, instead of a heap of tribes and chieftainries.

During the first nine years of Canmore’s reign, England was governed by Edward the Confessor, who was more intent on building churches than making conquests, and thus a friendly relationship was maintained between the two countries, which allowed the Scottish king to consolidate his dominions. On the death of the Confessor, and accession of Harold, the latter king was soon occupied with a civil war, at the head of which was his own brother, Tostig, whom he had made Earl of Northumberland. At this period, indeed, there was some danger of Malcolm being drawn into a dangerous war with England; for while there, he had formed an acquaintanceship with Tostig, whom, according to an old English chronicler, he loved as a brother, so that when the Northumbrian earl fled after his first unsuccessful attempt, he betook himself for shelter to the Scottish court, and endeavoured to stir up its king to an English invasion. But Malcolm had too much good sense, or too much right feeling, to be allured by such a tempting opportunity where two brothers were at deadly variance. Disappointed in Scotland, Tostig obtained an ally in Hardrada, king of Norway, with whom he invaded England; but in the battle of Stamford Bridge, their forces were completely defeated, and both king and earl were left among the slain.

Events soon followed that made the continuance of peace between the two kingdoms impossible. The veering of the same wind that had brought Hardrada from Norway, wafted William the Conqueror from Normandy to England; and Harold, weakened by the victory at Stamford Bridge, fell, with all the flower of his military array, at the terrible battle of Hastings. William was now king of England, and Scotland became not only a place of refuge to Saxon fugitives, but a mark for Norman ambition and revenge. Among those who thus fled to the Scottish court, was Edgar Atheling, nearest of kin to Edward the Confessor, and chief claimant to the throne of England, with his mother Agatha, widow of Edmund Ironside, and his sisters Margaret and Christina. On reaching Dunfermline, the royal seat of the Scottish king, they found many of the English nobles, who had preceded them, while from Malcolm they experienced that full hospitality which he had himself enjoyed in England. Of the two sisters of Edgar, Margaret, who was young and beautiful, captivated the heart of her royal host, and a marriage quickly followed. Seldom has a marriage union been fraught with such advantages to a nation as that of the king of Scotland with this descendant of the noble line of Alfred, for Margaret was not only gentle, affectionate, and pious, but learned and accomplished beyond the people of her new country, and anxious to introduce among them the civilization of England. Her labours in this way form a beautiful episode in the history of the period, and have been fully detailed by her biographer, Turgot, who was also her chaplain and confessor. Her first care was the improvement of her husband, whose vigorous mind she enlightened, and whose fierce spirit she soothed by the wisdom and gentleness of her counsels. The effect of this upon Malcolm was such, that though unable to read her missals and books of devotion, he was wont to kiss them in token of reverence, and he caused them to be richly bound, and ornamented with gold and jewels. On arriving in Scotland, Margaret, as a Christian according to the Romish Church, was grieved to find the Eastern form predominant, which she had been taught to regard as heresy, and not long after she became queen, she set herself in good earnest to discountenance and refute it—for hers was not a mind to comprehend the uses of persecution in achieving the conversion of misbelievers. She invited the Culdee clergy to a debate, in which the chief subject was the proper season for the celebration of Lent—the great theological question of the day between the Eastern and Western churches; and as she was unacquainted with the language of these Culdees, Malcolm, who spoke the Celtic as well as the Saxon tongue, attended as her interpreter. This strange controversy lasted three days, and on this occasion, says Turgot, "she seemed another St. Helena, out of the Scriptures convincing the Jews." The temporal concerns of her husband’s subjects were also taken into account, and she invited merchants from various countries, who now for the first time pursued their traffic in Scotland. Their wares chiefly consisted of ornaments and rich clothing, such as had never been seen there before; and when the people, at her persuasion, put them on, he informs us they might almost be believed to have become new beings, they appeared so gay and comely. Who does not see in this, the commencement of an industrial spirit—the first great step of a people from barbarism to civilization? Her influence was also shown in the royal household, the rude coarseness of which was exchanged for a numerous retinue, and orderly dignified ceremonial, so that when Malcolm appeared in public, it was with a train that commanded respect. Not only his attendants, but his banquets were distinguished by the same regal splendour, for Turgot informs us that Margaret caused him to be served at table from vessels of gold and silver plate; but suddenly checking himself, he adds, "at least they were gilt or silvered over."

From this pleasing picture we must now turn to the stormy career of Malcolm Canmore. The arrival of Edgar Atheling was followed by a fresh immigration of Saxons, and soon after of Normans, whom William had either disgusted by his tyranny or defrauded of their wages, while Malcolm, who needed such subjects, received them with welcome, and gave them broad lands; and from these refugees the chief nobility of Scotland were afterwards descended. The latter country became of course very closely connected with the struggles of the English against the Norman ascendency, while Malcolm by his marriage was bound to support the pretensions of his brother-in-law to the crown of England. But Edgar was no match for William, and, in an attempt that he made in Northumberland and Yorkshire with the aid of a Danish armament, he was so effectually defeated, that he was obliged a second time to flee to Scotland. How Malcolm, who was considered as the head of this coalition, failed to invade England when his aid was most expected, does not clearly appear, but he thereby escaped the evils of an ill-concerted and most disastrous enterprise. Two years after (in 1070) he crossed the border with an army, but found the northern counties so wasted by the previous war, that after a hasty incursion into Northumberland and Yorkshire, he was obliged to retreat. But brief as this inroad was, and unaccompanied with battle, it was not without its share of the horrors of war, for Malcolm commanded his soldiers to spare only the young men and women, who accordingly were carried into Scotland, and there sold as slaves. So great was the number of these unhappy captives, that according to Simeon of Durham, there was not a village, and scarcely even a hovel in Scotland without them. And yet those English who escaped the visitation, in many cases seem to have envied their fate, for such was the general desolation which their own Norman sovereign had inflicted, that they repaired in crowds to Scotland, and sold themselves into slavery, to avoid certain death from famine or the sword.

Had William the Conqueror not been otherwise occupied, a swift retaliation would have been certain; but from the dangerous revolts of the English, he found no leisure for the purpose till 1072, when he entered Scotland with such an army as the undisciplined forces of Malcolm were unable to meet. The whole of the Norman cavalry, in which William’s principal strength consisted, and every foot soldier that could be spared from garrison, were mustered for the purpose, while his advance on land was supported by a fleet that sailed along the coast. He marched as far as the Tay, the Scots giving way as he approached; but in their retreat they laid waste the country in the hope of driving him back by famine. In this way, Malcolm Canmore anticipated the wise plan of defence that was afterwards so successfully adopted by Bruce and Wallace. He also refused to deliver up those English and Norman nobles who had fled to him for protection. At last, William, finding "nothing of that which to him the better was"—nothing in the shape of booty or even of subsistence, was obliged to abandon his purposes of a complete conquest of Scotland, and content himself with terms of agreement. These, which were ratified between him and Malcolm at Abernethy, consisted in the latter giving hostages, and doing homage to William, as his liege lord. But for what was this homage rendered? Not for Scotland certainly, the greater part of which was still untouched, and which William would soon be obliged to leave from sheer hunger. It appears that this homage was merely for the lands of Cumberland and part of the Lothians, which Scotland had formerly held of the English crown, but which feudal acknowledgment Canmore had withheld, as not judging the Norman to be the lawful king of England. Now, however, he prudently yielded it, thus recognizing William as the English sovereign de facto at least, if not de jure; and with this concession the latter seems to have been satisfied, for he returned to England without any further attempt. And this homage, as is well known, implied neither inferiority nor degradation, for even the most powerful sovereigns were wont to give such acknowledgment, for the dukedoms or counties they might hold in other kingdoms. In this way, the kings of England themselves were vassals to the French crown for their possessions which they held in France. At the utmost, Malcolm did nothing more than abandon the claims of Edgar Atheling, which experience must have now taught him were scarcely worth defending. Edgar indeed was of the same opinion, for soon after he abandoned all his claims to the crown of England, and was contented to become the humble pensionary of the Norman conqueror.

A peace that lasted a few years between England and Scotland ensued, during which, although little is heard of Malcolm Canmore, it is evident from the progress of improvement in his kingdom, that he was by no means idle. Scotland was more and more becoming Anglo-Saxon instead of Celtic or Danish, while the plentiful immigrations that continued to flow from England filled up the half-peopled districts, enriched the barren soil with the agriculture of the south, and diffused the spirit of a higher civilization. The superiority of these exiles was quickly manifested in the fact, that they laid the foundations of those great families by whom Scotland was afterwards ruled, and by whom the wars of Scottish independence were so gallantly maintained. Malcolm, too, their wise and generous protector, was able to appreciate their worth, for he appears to have been as chivalrous as any man of the day, whether Norman or Saxon. Of this he on one occasion gave a signal proof. Having learned that one of his nobles had plotted to assassinate him, he concealed his knowledge of the design, and in the midst of a hunt led the traitor into the forest, beyond the reach of interruption. There dismounting, and drawing his sword, he warned the other that he was aware of his purpose, and invited him to settle the contest, man to man, in single combat, now that there was no one at hand to prevent or arrest him. Conquered by such unexpected magnanimity, the man fell at the feet of Malcolm, and implored forgiveness, which was readily granted. This generosity was not thrown away, for the noble was converted from an enemy and traitor into a faithful and affectionate servant.

Peace continued between England and Scotland during the rest of the Conqueror’s reign; but in that of William Rufus, the national rancour was revived. An invasion of England was the consequence, while Rufus was absent in Normandy; but the English nobility, who governed during his absence, offered such a stout resistance, that the invaders retreated. On the return of Rufus, he endeavoured to retaliate by a counter-invasion both by land and sea; but his ships were destroyed before they arrived off the Scottish coast, and the army on reaching a river called Scotte Uatra (supposed to be Scotswater), found Malcolm ready for the encounter. Here a battle was prevented by the interposition of mutual friends, and the discretion of the Scottish sovereign. "King Malcolm," thus the Saxon Chronicle states, "came to our king, and became his man, promising all such obedience as he formerly rendered to his father; and that he confirmed with an oath. And the king, William, promised him inland and in all things, whatever he formerly had under his father." In this way the storm was dissipated, and matters placed on their former footing; but thus they did not long continue. On returning from Scotland, Rufus was struck with the admirable position of Carlisle, and its fitness to be a frontier barrier against future invasions from Scotland; upon which he took possession of the district without ceremony, drove out its feudal lord, and proceeded to lay the foundations of a strong castle, and plant an English colony in the town and neighbourhood. It was now Malcolm’s turn to interpose. Independently of his kingdom being thus bridled, Carlisle and the whole of Cumberland had for a long period belonged to the elder son of the Scottish kings, and was one of the most valuable of their possessions on the English side of the Tweed. War was about to commence afresh, when Malcolm was invited to Gloucester, where the English king was holding his court, that the affair might be settled by negotiation; but thither he refused to go, until he had obtained hostages for his safe return—a sure proof that he was an independent king of Scotland, and not a mere vassal of the English crown. His claims were recognized, and the hostages granted; but on arriving at Gloucester, he was required to acknowledge the superiority of England by submitting to the decision of its barons assembled in court. It was an arrogant and unjust demand, and as such he treated it. He declared that the Scottish kings had never been accustomed to make satisfaction to the kings of England for injuries complained of, except on the frontiers of the two kingdoms, and by the judgment of the barons of both collectively; and after this refusal he hurried home, and prepared for instant war.

That war was not only brief, but most disastrous to Scotland. At the head of an army composed of different races not yet accustomed to act in concert, Malcolm crossed the border, and laid siege to Alnwick. While thus occupied, he was unexpectedly attacked by a strong English and Norman force, on November 13, 1093. His troops, taken by surprise, appear to have made a very short resistance, and Malcolm himself, while attempting to rally them, was slain in the confusion of the conflict. With him also perished his eldest son, Edward, who fell fighting by his side.

While an event so mournful to Scotland was occurring before the walls of Alnwick, another was about to take place within the castle of Edinburgh. There Queen Margaret, the beloved of the kingdom, lay dying. She had already received the viaticum, and was uttering her last prayer, before her eyes should be closed in death, when her son Edgar, who had escaped from the battle, entered the apartment, and stood before her. She hastily asked, "How fares it with the king and my Edward?" The youth could not speak. Eagerly perusing his face with her looks, "I know all," she exclaimed, "I know all; by this holy cross, and by your filial love, I adjure you to tell me the truth." He told her that husband and son had fallen. She raised her eyes to heaven, and said, "Praise and blessing be to thee, Almighty God, that thou hast enabled me to endure such bitter anguish in the hour of my departure, thereby purifying me, as I trust, from the corruption of my sins. And thou, Lord Jesus Christ, who, through the will of the Father, hast given life to the world by thy death, o deliver me!" Instantly after she was dead. To this a touching legend has been added. After being canonized by the church, her relics were to be removed from their grave to a more honourable tomb; but it was found impossible to lift the body until that of her husband had been removed also.

It is to be regretted that for the biography of such a man as Malcolm Canmore, the particulars are so few, so obscure, and, in several cases, so contradictory. His life, however, is chiefly to be read not in particular incidents, but in its great national results. If Bruce was the liberator, and Knox the reformer of Scotland, Canmore was its founder; and should a future age expand the few pillars upon the Calton Hill into a National Monument, these three illustrious men would undoubtedly be selected as the impersonations of Scottish character, and the sources of Scottish history.


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