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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 3, Chapter 11 - Duncan and Macbeth


The times that immediately succeeded those of Malcolm the Second down to Malcolm the Third, better known as Malcolm Canmore, might be dismissed with but brief notice where it not for one circumstance to be immediately adverted to. The events that fill up the interval between the two Malcolms were, it is true, of a tragic character, and stirred deeply the passions of those who were the chief actors in them, but they were aside from the highway of Scottish history, and have left their mark upon neither the character nor the course of the nation. It was the wars of Malcolm II. that most largely contributed to fix the position which Scotland was to hold in time to come. At a great cost it was called to buy its nationality and independence. The effort welded its people together. They were not likely soon to forget Murtlach and Barry, and other red fields, nor value lightly what had cost them so dear, or, by yielding to the spirit of clanship, incur the risk of having to fight such terrible battles over again.

The contentions that broke out under the two reigns on which we are now entering were of a commonplace character, the fruit of an ignoble ambition, and they would by this day have been forgotten had it not changed that the immoral light of genius fell upon the, and invested them with a halo which, despite their inherent triviality, has given them a place in Scottish story from which they never can be dislodged. Shakespeare, as is well known, has borrowed materials from the transactions of these reigns which he has woven into one of the grandest dramas of the world’s literature. We enter, as it were, upon enchanted ground when wee come to this period of Scottish history. We are well aware of this, and know that the grandeurs and terrors amid which for some time our path lies are imaginary, and yet despite our every effort to dismiss the illusions that surround us, and see only the realities of the case, the creation of the poet stubbornly keeps its place before our eye as the true image and picture of the time.

More than one attempt has been made of late to unravel the vexed question of how Macbeth stood related to Duncan, and what claims he had, or whether he had any, on the throne. The problem, however, seems to defy elucidation, and after all attempts it remains, we are compelled to say, where it was. Neither Scottish chronicle n or Scandinavian saga—and both keys have been had recourse to—can unlock the mystery. Perhaps one would regret were the obscurity wholly dispelled. The gloom and darkness which overhang the stage, and through which the actors and their actions are contemplated, make them seem gigantic and awful, and fill the mind of the beholder with a vague and pleasurable terror which he would be unwilling to exchange, it may be, for the calm mood to which the prosaic narrative of the historian would recall him. Nevertheless, at the risk of disobliging or disenchanting our readers we must state the facts of the history so far as they are known.

Malcolm II., as we have seen, left no male heir. He had however, two daughters, one of whom he married to Crinan, the lay abbot of Dunkeld, one of the most powerful noblemen of the day in Scotland, and the other he espoused to Sigurd the Stout, the Norwegian earl of Orkney. Through these marriages Malcolm had two grandsons, Duncan and Thorfin. Duncan was the son of that daughter who was the wife of Crinan, Abbot of Dunkeld, and ultimately succeeded his grandfather on the throne. Thorfin was the son of Sigurd the Stout, and lost his father in the battle of Clantarf, when only five years old. So far the lineage of Dun can. It is only when we ask, who was Macbeth? That the perplexity begins. We have been furnished with two different tracings of the antecedents of Macbeth, and the course of events which led up to the murder of Duncan. The Scotch chroniclers follow one line: the Orkneyinga Saga adopts another: we prefer that of our own historians as being the more probable. According to them Kenneth III., the immediate predecessor of Malcolm II., had a granddaughter named Gruoch. This Gruoch had a son named Luach, whose claims to the throne under the old law of succession were about as good as those of Duncan, and might have made him a formidable competitor to Duncan but for his weakness of intellect. Gruoch’s first husband dying, she took for her second Macbeth, the mormaer of Ross and Moray. The nearness of Macbeth’s son-in-law to the throne gave some colour to Macbeth’s pretensions to it, the more so that he possessed in eminent degree the qualities for governing so signally lacking in Luach.

The Scottish throne of those days was no seat for an indolent man. Unhappily the "gracious" Duncan who now filled it was an easy, good-natured prince. He loved to take his kingly duties leisurely. While the northern robber pillaged and murdered with expeditious haste, Duncan punished with deliberate slowness. In no long time the Highlands were in a blaze, The easy-going king saw that he must bestir himself and stamp out the flame, otherwise it would spread to the other provinces of his kingdom, and the northern rebel would do what the Dane had not been able to effect. The rising was headed by a chieftain named MacDowal, who had drawn to his standard the western islanders and the more daring of the Irish by the hope of plunder, and the assurance of perfect impunity under a monarch "fitter," he said, "to reign over droning monks than over brave men." The king sent a troop to quell the insurrection, but the soldiers were cut in pieces, and their leader was taken and beheaded. It was not that Macbeth came to the front. He offered, were the command of the army given him, along with Banquo, thane of Lochaber speedily to crush the insurgents and restore the reign of law.

‘If Duncan knew the real character of the man he must have felt it equally difficult to accept or to decline his proffered help. Macbeth was possessed in eminent measure of those qualities which Duncan lacked. He was brave, energetic, of large capacity, of quick genius, to which he added a boundless ambition. Duncan had no choice except to put himself into the hands of Macbeth. He and Banquo were sent against the rebels. They smote them with discomfiture, and the land had quiet.

Macbeth could hardly feel other than contempt for the man who took his ease on the throne, while he left to himself the labour of governing the country. "Would that I were king," we hear the ambitious Macbeth say to himself, "the country should soon have rest." Perhaps he persuaded himself that the throne was rightfully his, on the principle of the fittest and not the nearest. On the point of fitness as between the two there could be but one opinion. Moreover, the thane of Ross was mated to a wife who spurred him on in his resolve to be king. Not that she was the demon which the dramatist has painted her, so far as history discloses the character of Lady Macbeth, but her mood was masculine, and she was not likely to be swayed by any tenderness of heart where her husband’s advancement was at stake.

As regards the precise way in which Macbeth removed Duncan and opened his own way to the throne, they have been various conjectures. Shakespeare makes Duncan perish by treachery in the castle of Glammis. Others say that he was waylaid and slain on the road to Forres. Macbeth, a brave man, was not likely to seek to compass by treachery what he could attain by open and bold means. We incline to what is now the general opinion, that the mormaer of Moray found a pretext for coming to an open rupture with King Duncan, and taking the field against him. A battle is said to have been fought betwixt them on the 15th of September 1040, at Bothgouanan, probably the modern Pitgaveny, near Elgin, in which Duncan, after a reign of five years, fell, and Macbeth took the throne.1

The Orkneyinga Saga gives a different version of the career and death of Duncan. It is in substance this. On the death of Malcolm II. a fierce war broke out betwixt the two cousins, Thorfin, earl of Orkney and Caithness, and Duncan, King of Scotland. Duncan demanded from Thorfin the cession of Caithness, as being part of the kingdom of Scotland, leaving him in possession of the sovereignty of Orkney. Thorfin refused to surrender Caithness, and Duncan prepared to wrest it from him by force of arms. Both sides raised great armies. There followed many sanguinary battles both on land and sea. The war drew at last into the province of Moray, and Macbeth, the mormaer of that province, became the leading general of King Duncan. In the end Duncan sustained a crushing defeat; and when Macbeth saw that Thorfin had conquered and would retain possession of all his authorities, he slew his sovereign, went over to the side of Thorfin, and divided the kingdom with him. So far the Orkneyinga Saga.2

It is out of these doubtful and slender facts that the mighty dramatist has constructed his tail of crime and horror and remorse. If history has gone but a very little way to assist h him in his work, the power of his genius is all the more conspicuous. The actors are commonplace, so too are their actions, but the touch of Shakespeare kindles these ordinary incidents into grandeur. It is like the rising of the sun on the snowy Alps: where before there stood a range of dull cold mountains, there is now a chain of blazing torches. The stupendous embodiment of ambition, of pride, of cruelty, and of iron will which is presented to us in the person of Lady Macbeth is not the Gruoch of history, it is the Gruoch of the poet’s creation. The remorse of Macbeth and its fearful workings are too a picture which Shakespeare only could have painted. How solemnly does he read to us in the horror-stricken man the lesson that the Nemesis of crime is within. It is not the ermined judge nor the black scaffold, it is CONSCIENCE that is the avenger; and the moment the act is done, the vulture begins to gnaw. It is himself whom the murderer has slain.

Not less is the genius of Shakespeare shown in finding a fitting scene for his awful tragedy. He has placed it just where such a drama was possible. It would have been out of place in France of Italy. In the actors in the drama there is a depth of passion, an undemonstrative but terrible force of purpose which are not within the capabilities of Frenchmen or Italians. Their constitutional frivolity and levity would have unfitted them for sustaining their parts with seemly decorum amid such grinders and horrors. They could not have helped letting it be seen that they were moved by only a mimic rage and despair. In the remorse of Macbeth there is not a little of the Puritan. Such a remorse was possible only in a land where something of the strength and tenderness, the brightness and the gloom of Puritanism as it was afterwards to be exhibited, had already found entrance. And as regards Lady Macbeth, she is the exaggerated expression of some of the less amiable qualities of the Scottish character—its doggedness, its self-resource and self-control—qualities which we meet with every day in humbler examples, but which, in the great instance before us, are shown in colossal size. The triumph of the poet is complete. This epoch in our country’s annals has made to disappear, and has put his own grand fiction in its room. And despite that we are perfectly conscious of the deception he practices upon us, we willingly yield ourselves to the spell of his genius, and would part with more regret with the fiction of the dramatist than with the facts of the historian. The three hangs on the moor of Forres, the lady or demon of Glammis Castle, the midnight horror in the royal bedchamber, the alarms and consternation which the morning brought with it, these never were, and yet they kept possession of history’s stage as if it were rightfully theirs.

Duncan has fallen, and Macbeth, the son of Finnlaec, has climbed over the royal corpse into the vacant seat. We expect to see the usurper become the tyrant; and if we credit Fordun, we are shut up to the conclusion that the slayer of the king was the oppressor of the people. But all the indications of authentic history point in another direction. The picture of Scotland under Macbeth, as seen in the obscure records of the time, is not that of an oppressed and distracted country; it is rather that of a land at peace, and in the quiet of good government, prosecuting its husbandry, extending its commerce, and adding yearly to its wealth. The reign of Macbeth lasted seventeen years, and of those ten or a dozen were years of exceptional prosperity. "Brimful," says St Berchan, sketching in one vivid phrase Scotland under Macbeth, "brimful was Alban, east and west." The new sovereign displayed excellent talents for governing. He was a man of penetration, and saw that the best means of making his subjects forget the iniquitous act by which he had become possessed of the throne was to use the power thus obtained for their good by the exercise of an upright and vigorous administration. Even a bad law is preferable to no law, that is, to absolute lawlessness; and tyranny is a less calamity than unrestrained licence. Macbeth acted on this maxim when he made justice be administered and law obeyed in all parts of his dominions and by all classes of his subjects. Scotland now steadied itself, and forgot the distractions of Duncan’s Reich in a ten years’ prosperity.

Nor was Macbeth unmindful of the Church. We read of "Macbeth, the son of Finnlaec, and Gruoch, daughter of Bode, granting the lands of Kirkness to the Culdees of Lochleven, from motives of piety and for the benefits of their prayers." And yet another gift, even, the lands of Balgyne to the same fraternity, "with veneration and devotion." The deed of gift is in the simplest form. It is made to "Almighty God, and the Culdees of Lochleven." It is to be noted that in this dedication there is no mention of Pope, or Apostle, or Bishop. Kirkness and the lands of Balgyne are given directly to the Culdees, who are described as "the servants of God," no other party having right or interest or property in the inheritances bequeathed.1

Nevertheless the Nemesis of the guilty act by which Macbeth had seized the power which he turned to so good account both for himself and for his subjects continued to dog his steps. It needed no "weird sister," like those who are said to have greeted Macbeth on the moor of Forres, to foretell in what way he should descend from the Lia-Fail, to which he had raised himself by the dagger. Meanwhile no one was in a position to oppose him. The sons of Duncan, Malcolm and Donald, were probably of tender years when their father was slain, and till they should be grown to manhood Macbeth might promise himself the quiet possession of the throne. When they saw that their father was dead and that his slayer was on the throne, the young princes fled from a land where their lives were no longer safe. Donald is said to have made good his escape into the western isles. Malcolm found refuge in England. Edward the Confessor was then on the throne of that kingdom, and having known what exile was, he gave all the more cordial and gracious a welcome to the young prince who sought his protection in his evil day. Years passed on: Malcolm grew to manhood: the time came for asserting his claim to his ancestral kingdom, and with it came the power of making it good. Siward, the powerful Earl of Northumberland, was a relation of Malcolm’s, the sister or the cousin of the Earl being Malcolm’s mother. Siward now resolved to assist his relative Malcolm to recover his paternal throne. The expedition undertaken for that purpose is obscurely hinted at in the Saxon Chronicle and in the Ulster Annals. We are told in the former that in the year 1054 Earl Siward went with a large army into Scotland, that he invaded it with both a land and a naval force, that he made great slaughter of the Scots, but that their king escaped. Siward only half accomplished his object in this expedition. He installed Malcolm in the provinces of Cumbria and the Lothians, but he failed to overthrow the usurper and give the throne to Malcolm. Meanwhile Siward died, and the matter rested for a few years, Malcolm reigning as King of Cumbria, and Macbeth occupying the Scottish throne.

From this time Macbeth himself seems to have prepared the way for his own downfall. The approach of the rightful prince and the forebodings which it filled the usurper brought back the memory of his crime, and appears to have wrought in him a morose and gloomy temper. He saw conspirators in the nobles of his court. His suspicions fell mainly on Banquo, the most powerful nobleman in his dominions, to whose posterity the prophecy of some witch, as tradition says, 4 had given the throne after Macbeth. He is said to have invited him to a banquet, and dismissed him from the royal table with every mark of kindness, although he had already given orders that assassins should waylay him on the road as he road homewards. Banquo murdered, Macbeth is said to have transferred his suspicions to Macduff, than of Fife, and after Banquo the next most powerful nobleman in Scotland. One day, when it happened that Macbeth and Macduff were together, the testy monarch growled out a threat which made Macduff feel that his destruction was resolved upon. The thane of Fife fled into England, but Macbeth, baulked of his prey, confiscated his estates. The nobles made haste to get away from the court, not knowing on whom the royal displeasure might next light. The affections of the people toward their monarch were cooled. These latter acts effaced from their memory the many good deeds of Macbeth’s better year. They saw the man who had formerly been swayed by justice now governed by passion. The friends of the late king who had feared to show themselves came forth and began to demand that the son of the murdered Duncan should be recalled and placed on his father’s throne.

Macduff, driven into England, would naturally open communications with Malcolm, who, these three years had been contentedly governing his kingdom of Cumbria. He would tell him that the Scots were tired of Macbeth, that they were ready to receive back the son of their former king, and he would urge him to take the field and strike for his paternal inheritance. Prince Malcolm resolved to do as the thane of Fife had counselled. Tostig, the new Earl of Northumberland, came to his help in this second attempt to recover the throne, and he soon found himself string enough to advance into Scotland, The national sentiment rallied in his support as soon as he appeared. The force h brought with him was recruited by daily deserters from the standard of Macbeth; and so overjoyed were the soldiers at these presages of victory, that, as Buchanan tells us, they placed green boughs in their helmets, more like an army returning in triumph than one advancing to battle. They found, however, that the campaign was not to be ended by a single blow. Their antagonist was brave, resolute, and was now grown desperate, and a good deal of hard fighting was required to drive him from the throne. Few trustworthy details of the campaign have come down to us. One thing is certain, it ended in the defeat of Macbeth. He was driven across the Mounth, and slain by Malcolm at Lumphanan in Mar on the 15th day of August 1057.5 The uproar of civil war was instantly drowned in the rejoicings of the Scottish nation around the Stone of Destiny, on which they now saw seated the scion of their ancient kings, and the crown, wrested from the usurper, transferred to the brow of its rightful owner. Malcolm Canmore was king.


FOOTNOTES

1The Chronicle of the Picts and Scots (p. 65), Tighernac under 1040, and the later chronicles all agree in this account of the death of Duncan and the usurpation of Macbeth.

2Dr W. F. Skene, in his Celtic Scotland (i. 400-403), gives at large the Orkneyinga Saga as the probable explanation of this obscure part of Scottish history. It is not safe to differ from so eminent a Celtic scholar and judicious historian, but Dr Skene himself accompanies the Saga with a caution to the effect that its authority is not absolute. He says, "Although its authority is not unexceptionable, and the events it records are not to be found elsewhere, the narrative still carries with it an air of truth, and it supplies a blank in the meagre records of the time which supplies a clue to their real character."

3Machbet filius Finlach contulit per suffragiis orationum et Gruoch filia Bodehe rex et regina Scotorum, Kyrkness Deo omnipotenti et Keledeis prefatae insulae Lochlevine cum suis finibus et terminis. The town of Kirkness and the lands of Balgyne here given Deo Omnipotenti et Keledeis are declared to be exempt from all military and civil imposts and burdens.—Chron. Of St Andrews, p. 114, 12. See Skene’s Celtic Scotland, .401.

4The apparition of the three witches on the moor of Forres, which gives such terror and grandeur to the tragedy of Shakespeare, is the invention of Boece. Winton says it was no more than a dream which Macbeth had. The truth probably is that Macbeth gave out that he had had such a dream to sway popular opinion in his favour.

5Marianus Scotus and Tighernac, both contemporary authorities, give this as the date of Macbeth’s defeat and death. The Ulster Annals add that he was slain "in battle, " and the later chroniclers "at Lumphana.