A New History of Scotland Part 4: MacBeth


by Stuart MacHardy

Gliog an seo gus an aiste seo leughadh sa Ghàidhlig
Click here tae read this airticle in Scots

It is  an old cliché that history is written by winners, though it would be truer to say that it is written by people paid by the winners.  In Scotland’s case such early history as we do have came for the pen of monks and priests, the only literate section of the populace.

One of the oddest aspects of history is that historians, paid to study, teach and write about the past, constantly behave as if with the arrival of literature, story disappeared.  Orally transmitted material if referred to at all are ‘just stories’ or ‘simply anecdotal.” People did not stop telling stories just because some other people could write their versions of reality down on paper.  Stories have never stopped being told and some of them may contain information that could help elucidate our past.

Another thing about story is that, despite the attitude of academics, they still affect our perceptions of history.  One example is MacBeth.  If you read national and local Scottish histories of the 18th and 19th centuries the story of MacBeth is always the same.  We are told that he was no more than a murderous  tyrant and that he eventually got his just desserts from Malcolm Canmore.  The fact is this is Shakespeare’s dramatic retelling of the story and is not intended as history.

Some of our older historians saw MacBeth as being as much a suitable candidate for the kingship as Duncan, and once on the throne he appears to have ruled for seventeen, mainly peaceful years.  So peaceful that MacBeth found time to go on a pilgrimage to Rome.  Some evidence even suggests that his wife, Gruoch, had originally been Duncan’s wife, and this suggests interesting possibilities regarding the role of females in Scottish ‘kingship’.

What matters here though is that educated people who wrote about Scottish history over a long period were quite happy to present a story based on a play written by a foreigner as the historical truth.  Now Shakespeare knew what he was doing and included witchcraft in the drama  to pique the king’s interest.  He knew well that James I and VI was obsessed with all things diabolical but also seems to have been aware of James’ hatred of all things ‘Celtic’.  Like most Scottish, and later British monarchs James hated the clan system with its adherence to its own rules of kinship and loyalty and its contempt for centralised law and order.  So the Bard of Avon created a great villain for the Scottish Play.

But why did people accept this as historical?  Simple.  They didn’t really know any better. Ever since 1707 Scottish history has been a particularly poor relation of that bastard discipline, British History.  British History is English History with a few sops to the Scots, Welsh and Irish, in that order.  And what we see in MacBeth is an example of a story being taken for the truth for generations.  Today we might see things clearer but this is not the only instance of distortion.

Just as history is written by winners so story can contain what contemporary people thought was important within their own communities.  It was through investigating stories related to a particular cateran – Highland cattle raider–  that I came across a considerable amount of information that shows the ’45 didn’t come to a complete stop after Culloden. In the years after that battle most of the Highlands, and considerable areas of Lowland Scotland were garrisoned by the British army.  There is specific written evidence showing this but it has never been published.  Why not?  Because it would go against the message that British history wants to tell-– that the Jacobite rebellion in 1745 was a sideshow, a last gasp adventure by a society in decline against the rising modern world.

Just as MacBeth was a malevolent psychopath and his wife worse.  And Malcolm Canmore, the virtuous heir to the throne who defeated MacBeth is generally presented as being close to the English.  Perhaps.  His saintly wife Margaret, was in fact a refugee from England, her brother having been unsuccessful in his bid for the English throne.

The sub text is that Malcolm was a modern forward-looking ‘chap’ while MacBeth  represented the old Scotland, long past its sell-by date.  Well here’s a thing.  When Malcolm died his eldest son did not take over the throne.  It was his brother Donald Bane who was in turn succeeded by his nephews, one after the other.  Primogeniture, the succession of the eldest son, it wasn’t, but something more like the old mores of tribal succession, still common to the tribes who composed the majority of Scotland’s population in the eleventh century, Highland and Lowland.

The thrust of British history is obvious.  The intention is to try and present Scotland as being as much like England as possible, thus reinforcing the idea that it is only natural for us to be linked. It does not seem to matter that our ancestors, until not very long before the Treaty of Union regularly looked to the south, not for guidance or ideas but to check there wasn’t another invasion on the way.

And since the Treaty of Union those who have been claimed as the defenders of Scottish national cultural identity, the Law, the Kirk and the Universities have been quite content to peddle such versions of events – the status quo has suited them.  And it is hardly accidental that so many of the leading figure in such institutions have been drawn form that other class, blessed by the Union, the lairds, whose forebears once were chiefs and knew well they were humans like the rest of their ain fowk.  And just as so much of our land has been stolen by the lairds* so our history has been deleted by the gatekeepers of Scotia Subjectus.

Hopefully, not for much longer.

* see Andy Wightman’s The Poor Had No Lawyers

Stuart McHardy is a writer and story-teller and is the author of A New History of the Picts, published by Luath Press in 2011.