(Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh; this article appeared in Brewminate, 8/27; photo: Royal Opera; via Pam Green.)

Macbeth appears to have cleverly positioned Scotland between her more powerful neighbors yet he did not isolate Scotland either.

Introduction

Mac Bethad mac Findlaích, (died August 15, 1057), was King of Scots (also known as the King of Alba) from 1040 until his death. He is best known as the subject of William Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth and the many works it has inspired, although the play is historically inaccurate. Shakespeare’ Macbeth immortalized the Scottish king but as a dark, tormented character driven all but insane by his own foul deed, the crime of regicide. Separating the man from the myth is a challenge for any historian. What can be deduced is that he is much more likely to have slain Duncan, his half-brother and predecessor, in battle than to have murdered him. He may well be credited with forging Alba into a viable state, transforming what had been a loose clan confederacy into a nation where people recognized common ties and loyalties across the sparsely populated and often inaccessible hills and vales. As did later Scottish kings, Macbeth appears to have cleverly positioned Scotland between her more powerful neighbors yet he did not isolate Scotland either. He encouraged trade, improved the kingdom’s infrastructure, entered a political alliance with the Holy Roman Empire and strengthened the Church by negotiating a direct relationship with Rome.

This legacy, one that later kings would make their own, informs a tendency for Scotland to see herself as a secure and stable base from which people can participate in a global community. For much of its history, Scotland struggled with Scandinavia and England to assert her freedom and right of self-determination. Under Macbeth, Scotland was free but not inward looking—her face was set towards the world. Increasingly, her commercial agents would travel throughout Europe. This desire for self-governance alongside commitment to participation in a global economy continues to characterize Scottish identity. When more people see themselves as members of an inter-dependent world, with common responsibilities for the welfare of all, people will shift from selfishly thinking about their own interests, to considering everyone’s needs.

Origins and Family

Macbeth was the son of Findláech mac Ruaidrí, Mormaer of Moray. His mother is sometimes supposed to have been a daughter of the Scottish king Malcolm II (Máel Coluim mac Cináeda). This may be derived from Andrew of Wyntoun’s Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland which makes Macbeth’s mother a granddaughter, rather than a daughter, of Malcolm.[1] Macbeth was probably Duncan’s half-brother.

Macbeth’s paternal ancestry can be traced in the Irish genealogies contained in the Rawlinson B.502 manuscript:

Mac Bethad son of Findláech son of Ruadrí son of Domnall son of Morggán son of Cathamal son of Ruadrí son of Ailgelach son of Ferchar son of Fergus son of Nechtan son of Colmán son of Báetán son of Eochaid son of Muiredach son of Loarn son of Eirc son of Eochaid Muinremuir.[2]

This should be compared with the ancestry claimed for Malcolm II which traces back to Loarn’s brother Fergus Mór.[2] Several of Macbeth’s ancestors can tentatively be identified: Ailgelach son of Ferchar as Ainbcellach mac Ferchair and Ferchar son of Fergus (correctly, son of Feredach son of Fergus) as Ferchar Fota, while Muiredach son of Loarn mac Eirc, his son Eochaid and Eochaid’s son Báetán are given in the Senchus fer n-Alban.[3] So, while the descendants of King Kenneth MacAlpin (Cináed mac Ailpín) saw themselves as being descended from the Cenél nGabráin of Dál Riata, the northern kings of Moray traced their origins back to the rival Cenél Loairn.[4]

Macbeth’s father Findláech was killed about 1020 – one obituary calls him king of Alba – most probably by his successor as ruler of Moray, his nephew Máel Coluim mac Máil Brigte (Malcolm, son of Máel Brigte).[5] Máel Coluim died in 1029; although the circumstances are unknown, violence is not suggested; he is called king of Alba by the Annals of Tigernach.[6] However, king of Alba is by no means the most impressive title used by the Irish annals. Many deaths reported in the annals in the eleventh century are of rulers called Ard Rí Alban – High-King of Scotland. It is not entirely certain whether Máel Coluim was followed by his brother Gille Coemgáin or by Macbeth.

Gille Coemgáin’s death in 1032 was not reported by the Annals of Tigernach, but the Annals of Ulster record:

Gille Coemgáin son of Máel Brigte, mormaer of Moray, was burned together with fifty people.[7]

Some have supposed that Macbeth was the perpetrator. Others have noted the lack of information in the Annals, and the subsequent killings at the behest of King Malcolm II to suggest other answers.[8] Gille Coemgáin had been married to Gruoch, daughter of Boite mac Cináeda (“Boite son of Kenneth”), with whom he had a son, the future king Lulach.

It is not clear whether Gruoch’s father was a son of King Kenneth II (Cináed mac Maíl Coluim) (d. 1005) or of King Kenneth III (Cináed mac Duib)(d. 997), either is possible chronologically.[9] After Gille Coemgáin’s death, Macbeth married his widow, Gruoch, and took Lulach as his stepson. Gruoch’s brother, or nephew (his name is not recorded), was killed in 1033 by Malcolm II.[10]

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