True Tale
of Macbeth

as recorded in the contemporary
Irish and Norwegian annales

first printed in
Chamber's Edinburgh Journal
for the year 1844.

The marvellous genius of Shakspeare may be said to have made Macbeth, for without that illustration, of what interest or value would have been the name of a semi-barbarian Scottish monarch of the eleventh century? But it has also destroyed him, for it has fixed the misrepresentations of his character on such a basis, that nothing can ever annul them: Macbeth must be the moral of murder and usurpation in his rank unto all time. Nevertheless, our curiosity is interested to know who and what this man really was, and perhaps all the more so, that our poetical conception of him is so different from the reality. It chances that on this point some new historical light has of late been thrown, which may be presumed to give an additional interest to the subject; we shall therefore, without any apology or further remark, proceed to give a brief account of the Macbeth of fact.

The true history of this period is for the first time related in Mr. William Skene's work on "The Highlanders of Scotland" (2 vols. Murray, 1836), being compiled mainly from the Irish and Norwegian annalists. It is surprising how much it differs from the meagre and semi-fabulous accounts which descended, becoming more fabulous as they went along, from our early native historians to Hollinshed, who finally gave the full-blown tissue of marvels to Shakspeare. It appears that, in the year 1034, the Scottish monarchy came to a sort of pause on the overthrow and slaughter of a King Malcolm by a powerful Norwegian chief or Earl of Orkney named Thorfinn. By this great warrior the northern and eastern parts of Scotland were subdued, as far as the Firth of Tay, but leaving, apparently, certain districts still under their native chiefs. And this division of the country by a Norwegian sway lasted thirty years, though it is a fact hitherto totally unknown amongst us. The rest of the people of Scotland raised up a monarch in the person of Duncan, whose mother was a daughter of the deceased Malcolm, his father being Crinan, nominally Abbot of Dunkeld, but in reality a powerful chief in the district of Athole. To pursue Mr.Skene's intelligent narration: "In personal character Duncan was far from being well-fitted for the difficult situation in which he was placed, but being the only chief of the northern Picts who remained unsubdued by the Norwegians, he was the most likely person to preserve the rest of Scotland from their grasp; and during the whole of his reign, he appears to have been unmolested by Thorfinn in his circumscribed dominions. The Scots having thus enjoyed, during Duncan's reign, six years of repose, began to consider their strenth sufficiently recruited to attempt the recovery of the extensive territories in the north which Thorfinn had conquered. Taking advantage, accordingly, of the temporary absence of Thorfinn, who was engaged with the greater part of his Norwegian force in an English expedition, Duncan advanced towards the north of Scotland, and succeeded in penetrating as far as the district of Moray, without encountering apparently any resistance. The Gaelic inhabitants of the north, however, who preferred remaining under the Norwegian yoke rather than submit to a chief of their own race whose title to the throne they could not admit, opposed his farther progress, and Macbeth, the maormor of Moray, attacked him near Elgin, defeated his army, and slew the king himself. Macbeth immediately took advantage of this success, and, assisted by the Norwegian force which still remained in the country, he overran the whole of Scotland, and speedily made himself master of all that had remained unconquered by the Norwegians. The sons of Duncan were obliged to fly; the eldest took refuge at the court of England, while the second fled from the vengeance of Macbeth to the Hebrides, and surrendered to Thorfinn himself. Macbeth, with the sanction, probably, of the Earl of Orkney, assumed the title of king of Scotland, which he claimed in right of his cousin Malcolm, and, notwithstanding all the efforts of the Scots, he maintained possession of the crown for a period of eighteen years.

Although Macbeth was a native chief, and one of the Gaelic maormors of the north, yet his conquest can only be considered with regard to its effects as a Norwegian conquest. He had previously been tributary to that people, and it was by their assistance principally that he became king of Scotland; so that at this period we may consider the whole country as having been virtually under the dominion of the Norwegians; Thorfinn himself ruling over the northern districts, while with his concurrence Macbeth reigned in the southern half.

During the reign of Macbeth, the adherents of the Atholl family made two several attempts to recover possession of the throne, but they were both equally unsuccessful. The first occurred in the year 1045, when Crinan, the father of Duncan, attacked Macbeth at the head of all the adherents of the family in Scotland. Crinan's defeat was total, and the slaughter very great; for in the concise words of the Irish annalist, "In that battle was slain Crinan, Abbot of Dunkeld, and many with him; namely nine times twenty heroes." This defeat seems for the time to have completely extinguished Duncans's party in Scotland, and it was not till nine years afterwards that the second attempt was made. Malcolm, Duncan's eldest son, who had taken refuge in England, obtained from the English king the assistance of a Saxon army, under the command of Siward, the Earl of Northumberland; but although Siward succeeded in wresting Lothian from Macbeth, and in placing Malcolm as king over it, he was unable to obtain any further advantage, and Macbeth still retained the kingdom of Scotland proper, while Malcolm ruled as king over Lothian, until, four years afterwards, a more favourable opportunity occurred for renewing the enterprise. The son of the king of Norway, in the course of one of the numerous piratical expeditions which were still undertaken by the Norwegians, had arrived at the Orkneys, and on finding the great state of power to which Thorfinn had raised himself, he proposed that they should join in undertaking an expedition having no less an object than the subjugation of the kingdom of England. To this proposal the enterprising Earl of Orkney at once acceded, and the two sea-kings departed for the south with the whole Norwegian force which they could collect. It was not destined, however, that they should even land on the English coast, for their fleet appears to have been dispersed and almost totally destroyed in a tempest; such was probably at least the calamity which befell the expedition, as the words of the Irish annalist, who alone records the event, are simply, "But God was against them in that affair."

It appears that the king of England (Edward the Confessor) had no sooner become aware of the discomfiture of the threatened invasion of his territories, than he sent an English army into Scotland for the purpose of overthrowing the power of the Norwegians in that country, and of establishing Malcolm Kenmore on his father's throne; and in the absence of the Norwegians, the Saxon army was too powerful for the Gaelic force of Macbeth to withstand. The English accordingly made themselves masters of the south of Scotland, and drove Macbeth as far north as Lumphanan, where he was overtaken and slain in battle. Upon the death of Macbeth, Lulach, the son of his cousin Gillcomgain, succeeded him; but after maintaining a struggle with Malcolm for the short space of three months, he was also defeated and slain at Esse, in Strathbogie. In consequence of this defeat, Malcolm Kenmore obtained, by the assistance of the English, quiet possession of the throne of Scotland, which his own power and talents enabled him to preserve during the remainder of his life. He was prevented, apparently by the return of Thorfinn, from attempting to recover any part of the northern districts which the Norwegian earl had subjugated, and consequently his territories consisted only of those southern districts which Macbeth had acquired by the defeat of his father Duncan.

From the accession of Malcolm Kenmore to the death of Thorfinn, which took place six years after, the state of Scotland remained unaltered, and the country exhibited the remarkable spectacle of a Gaelic population, one-half of which obeyed the rule of a Norwegian earl, while the other half was subdued by a prince of their own race at the head of a Saxon army.

This narrative puts the idea of murder and usurpation entirely out of the question. Duncan was only an adventurer himself, slain in battle by another, who, it now appears, had pretensions to the throne according to the Celtic mode of succession, by which the ablest collateral relative of the deceased king was always selected, passing over all hereditary claimants. Macbeth, as we learn from George Chalmers, who investigated his history with great diligence, was by birth maormor, or chief of Cromarty and Ross, and by marriage enjoyed the same dignity over the more important region of Moray, which is described by Mr. Skene as almost a kingdom itself, extending from sea to sea. His wife Gruoch, the widow of the former maormor of Moray, and whose progeny actually succeeded in that character, was granddaughter of a former king of the Scots who had been slain by Duncan's grandfather. Macbeth was a sort of pacha or hereditary sheriff; but, it will be observed, in a district over which Duncan only aimed at establishing a government, so that he never was, properly speaking a subject of that monarch. He is rather to be considered as the representative of an opposite interest in the country, that of the northern Highlanders and the Norwegians; and his warfare with the gracious Duncan seems therefore to have been as fair as any warfare of that age ever was.


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