Scotland: Peeps at History - G. E. Mitton

Macbeth and the Witches

We are so much accustomed to looking upon Scotland as a whole that perhaps we may forget that it, like other countries, was originally split up into many divisions, and was rent and torn by internal fights. The very name Scotland was at first borrowed. Who were the Scots? They came from the neighboring island of Scotia, which we now call Ireland, and they brought the name with them.

In early English history we read of the descents of the Picts and Scots from the North, just as we hear of the ravages of the Danes and Norsemen from over the sea. These Picts and Scots together inhabited Caledonia, which was the ancient name of Scotland, but they were quite distinct races. It is supposed that the Picts were the ancestors of the Highlanders and the Scots of the Lowlanders. The Highlanders are those people who belong to the hill country, as the name implies. If you drew a slanting line across Scotland from northeast to southwest, running along the Grampians, you would pretty fairly divide Scotland into Highlands and Lowlands. This leaves the outermost part of Aberdeenshire, Kincardineshire, Forfarshire, and all Fifeshire, as well as the country south of the Forth, to the Lowlands, though, as a matter of fact, there is a good deal of hilly country in the extreme south-western corner. There is an old saying, "Forth bridles the wild Highlander," meaning that the River Forth formed an obstacle which kept in check the Highlanders when they would have descended into the Lowlands to rob their brethren; but, as a matter of fact, the Forth is only a very partial boundary, and a good deal of what is included in the Lowlands really lies farther north, beyond the mouth of the river.

It seems to have been only by chance that the whole country was called Scotland instead of Pictland, as it might easily have been.

There has been much discussion, and many books have been written, to prove where the Picts came from. Some hold that they were a Teutonic race, like the Germans, and others that they were Celts, like the Irish and Welsh. The language still found in all out-of-the-way parts of the Highlands is Gaelic, which is a Celtic tongue, and it is now generally believed that the Picts were Celts. So that we must think of Caledonia as inhabited in the Lowlands by the Scots—who came over in colonies from Ireland—and by another strong, warlike race, the Picts, farther north. But the Picts did not hold the whole of the North by any means, for the Danes and Scandinavians landed in numbers for many generations, and a great part of the North, and also the western islands, were owned by them. Consequently, the country was inhabited by many different races of men, under many different chiefs, all at war with one another. It was not until the Battle of Largs, much later, that the power of the Norsemen in Scotland was broken.

Caledonia was invaded by the Romans when they had established themselves in Britain, but, though they seem to have gone all over it, and have left abundant traces of their presence in camps and other relics, they really tried only to subdue it, so as to prevent the wild incursions of the Northmen into Britain, and not with the idea of establishing themselves there. There is a story, which may be true, that Pontius Pilate was born at Fortingall, not far from Perth. His father was a Roman ambassador, who was sent on a mission to one of the Scottish kings or chiefs, and it is fairly certain that he did come to Fortingall; thus it is possible that it was the birthplace of his son.

The Romans built two walls: one of turf and earth, across from the Firth of Clyde to the Firth of Forth, and the other—a splendid bit of masonry, much of which exists to this day—from the Solway to the Tyne. The boundaries between the two countries were then quite vague, and the power of some of the British kings ran up to the Forth; in fact, it was from a king of Northumbria, Edwin, that Edinburgh received its name, which means "Edwin's town," as he built the castle there in the seventh century; while Scottish kings claimed land on the western ride as far down as Carlisle until the Middle Ages.

The real history of Scotland begins with Kenneth Mai Alpine, who was at first King of the Scots, and afterwards became King of the Picts too, either by marriage or inheritance. His capital was at Forteviot, near Perth, a place which is a very small village nowadays, and he was the first of the kings to be crowned at Scone.

The Danes and Norsemen continued to descend upon the northern and eastern coasts of Scotland, and many succeeding kings spent all their time fighting them and driving them away.

So far this has been a short sketch of Scottish history, not, perhaps, very interesting; but now we come to a story which is so well known and has been told with so much detail that it might have happened a few years ago. We may not believe exactly all the details, perhaps, but we can believe the main outlines of the story, for it is founded on fact.

In the reign of a king named Duncan, there was a powerful Earl, or Thane, as he was then called, by name Macbeth. He lived in Elgin, which, as you know, is on the north of that great shoulder of Scotland which stretches out to the east. One day as Macbeth was returning home he met three weird, haggard old women. Now, in those days people believed in witches; so when they hailed him he stopped courteously, no doubt being afraid lest they might turn him into a rat, or something like that, if he disobeyed; but instead of that the first one called him Thane of Glamis, and the next Thane of Cawdor, and the third King of Scotland! If you ever visit Forres, which is not far from Elgin, you will have the very place on the road where this happened pointed out to you.

Macbeth's father was Thane of Glamis, and when he arrived home he heard the news that his father was dead, and that he had succeeded him. More curious still, after a short time a message came that the Thane of Cawdor had displeased the King, who had taken away his title and bestowed it on Macbeth. These things interested Macbeth and his wife, who was an ambitious woman, very deeply, and they began to wonder if the words of the third witch might not come true also. Lady Macbeth had been married before, and her son, Lulach, had claims to the throne of Scotland. The idea of royal power grew and grew in her, and she so worked on her husband that, at last, when the King came to them on a visit, Macbeth slew him as he slept, and managed to put the guilt of the crime on to his two guards. The King had two young sons, who fled: the elder, Malcolm, going into England to seek for help. Macbeth thereupon became King.

It is said that he was not happy, for he was haunted by his fearful crime—as well he might be. At length Macbeth went again to the witches, and asked their advice. They answered him that he might rest in peace, for the crown should never be taken from him until Birnam Wood advanced to the Hill of Dunsinane. The wood clothed the slopes of a hill about twelve miles distant from that of Dunsinane. Now, Macbeth had a castle at Dunsinane, which was one of his favorite residences; he had built it soon after he became King; now he fortified it to strengthen it, and made it one of his principal residences. He reigned for fourteen years, and all the time the young Prince Malcolm was growing up.

When Malcolm had reached an age at which he could act for himself, he got together an army by the help of the King of England, and advanced to Scotland, making his way to Dunsinane, accompanied by another Scottish Thane called Macduff. Though Macbeth's heart trembled when he heard this news—for "conscience doth make cowards of us all"—he put on a bold face, imagining that he should be safe forever, because it was surely impossible that a wood could advance to a hill.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - Scotland  by G. E. Mitton


However, one morning one of his sentries sent down a message that from his high tower he saw an extraordinary sight: it seemed as if a wood of green trees was advancing on the castle! Macbeth, we may imagine, did not lose much time in mounting to the castle keep, and there he saw what appeared to be as the man had said. Now, in truth, Malcolm, not wishing to let the garrison see what the numbers of his men were as he advanced across the valley, had ordered every man to cut down a branch of a tree and hold it aloft over his head, and so it seemed as if the whole wood was sweeping onward to the castle.

Macbeth's fear was so great that he lost all control of himself; his men, seeing him a coward, became cowards themselves, and the castle was easily taken. Some accounts say Macbeth was slain there and then; others, that he escaped and fled into Deeside, where he was caught and killed at Lumphanan. Wyntoun's chronicle gives this account:

"Over the Mounth they dialed him there

Intil the woods of Lumphanan,

This Macbeth then slew they there

In the wood of Lumphanan."

The whole story of Macbeth is told very graphically by Shakespeare in his play of that name.

Malcolm, who thus succeeded to the throne of his fathers, is numbered among the wisest of the Scottish Kings. He is generally known by his nickname of Malcolm Canmore, meaning Malcolm Greathead. He married Margaret, a sister of Edgar Atheling, the last of the Saxon Kings of England. Edgar had fled with his mother and sister before William the Conqueror. The little party of fugitives landed in the Firth, and were received by Malcolm, who fell in love with Margaret. She was in some ways even wiser than her husband, and so good that, after her death, she was known as St. Margaret. The bones of husband and wife lie together at Dunfermline.