Tracing Shakespeare’s Macbeth in Scotland

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<i> Golbus is a free-lance writer living in Chicago</i>

The search for the reconciliation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with history’s dissimilarities is an absorbing adventure. History records his life, citing contradictory facts and events. The inconsistencies do not imply confrontation to the Macbeth of Shakespeare; they merely confirm his greatness as a playwright.

The Shakespearean narrative is easily traced through the northeastern Highlands on Route A96. This major highway originates in Inverness, but it is no accident that the 40 miles of A96 flanking the east coast of Moray Firth from Inverness to Elgin covers the first part of Macbeth’s life.

He was born in Dingwall, 14 miles northwest of Inverness on Route A855. It is a busy community today at the head of Cromarty Firth; in Macbeth’s time (mid-11th Century) it was a debarkation point for raiding Norsemen.


But it is the aura of grim portent pervading the stretch from Inverness to Elgin that forms ideal stage settings for the moods of the drama and the theatrics of its beginning.

Still Enriched by Myths

Macbeth and Banquo are startled by the sudden materialization of the three weird sisters while on their way to King Duncan’s castle at Forres. This “blasted heath” of the witches is at Macbeth’s Hill, about six miles west of Forres past Brodie Castle and 26 miles northwest of Inverness on Route A96.

The pleasant town of Forres is still enriched by its myths. While any evidence of Duncan’s 11th-Century castle has long disappeared, the site is marked by a monument of another age. There is also an elaborate sculpted obelisk, Sueno’s Stone, whose date and meaning are obscure.

But it is Shakespeare’s association of Forres with Macbeth and the witches that forges a sense of place to this quiet town. It’s quite easy to walk along High Street and vividly imagine the dire prophesies of the weird sisters as they shrill to Macbeth: “Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!”

While some contend that Duncan was murdered by Macbeth at Cawdor Castle, others disagree with equal conviction. Some knowledgeable historians, however, speculate that the Thanes of Cawdor sprang from Macbeth’s younger brother. And there is evidence of a much earlier Old Castle a mile northeast of the present one.

The present Cawdor Castle is 16 miles south of Forres, its severe fortified walls rising in sharp contrast to the brilliant colors of its gardens. While Macbeth’s presence in Cawdor may be in question, it is possible to conceive the savage times of his age within these walls.


Exquisite Drawing Room

The ground floor of the tower with its hidden dungeon may have been a prison room or a torture chamber. A 600-year-old Hawthorne tree forces itself from the stone floor.

The exquisite drawing room and its paintings trace the Cawdor ancestry. In an elegant bedroom, walls are hung with Flemish tapestries depicting biblical scenes.

A small yellow sitting room and the handsome dining room with paneled tapestries of Cervantes’ Don Quixote certainly do not reflect Macbeth’s era. But neither does Macbeth’s reputed castle at Inverness.

Macbeth’s 11th-Century stronghold where Shakespeare indicates that Duncan was murdered is not the Inverness Castle of today. This early 19th-Century redstone structure houses government offices.

Local historians place Macbeth’s original castle just east of the present one. It is not surprising, however, that countless critics deny that Macbeth killed Duncan at Inverness.

Despite the ambiguities, Inverness is a lovely Victorian-style city astride the outlet to Loch Ness. As capital of the Highlands, it has played a significant part in the history of Scotland.


Because Inverness is so irrevocably bound to the life of Macbeth, both dramatically and historically, that legendary figure enjoys a predominant place in the city’s heart. Still another hero is Prince Charles Edward Stuart.

History often refers to the prince as Bonnie Prince Charlie. It was this pretender to the Stuart line who lost the Battle of Culloden to the British in 1746, the last land battle in Britain. Weeks before the battle, the Young Pretender stayed at Culloden House, one mile from the battlefield and six miles east of Inverness.

Culloden House is the property of Ian and Marjory Mackenzie and represents one of the finest inns in Scotland. Ian Mackenzie, hotelier cum Scottish historian, has a sense of humor that is as dry as kindling. He is an authority on the Battle of Culloden and knowledgeable about the life of Macbeth.

“Shakespeare did a hatchet job on Macbeth,” Mackenzie said. “Actually, Macbeth killed Duncan properly in battle and the story of Macbeth and his wife, Lady Gruoch, has been hopelessly twisted. Macbeth was not a murderer but a king who fell victim to his turbulent country, not to his ambition.

“Lady Gruoch was a widowed noblewoman who fled for safety to Macbeth because she was pursued by Duncan. That Duncan, y’know, was a scoundrel and a disaster for Scotland. And it wasn’t the witches who prophesied the Birnam Wood to Dunsinane story, really--it was Macbeth’s mother!”

Shakespeare’s apparition told Macbeth he would never be vanquished until Great Birnam Wood came against him at High Dunsinane Hill. Birnam Wood today is part of the community of Dunkeld.


This delightful town is beautifully situated in the valley of the Tay River, 100 miles southeast of Inverness on Route A9 15 miles north of Perth.

An early 9th-Century Celtic cathedral and an 8th-Century abbey are the ruins around which the town is formed. Cathedral Street is an attractive restoration of Old Dunkeld in the 17th Century with its tiny multicolored homes.

Hint of Rain

The morning of our visit was overcast, with a hint of rain in the air. Worn stone steps led from the tollhouse of the 19th-Century bridge to the clay path known as the Terrace Walk.

“Just walk a mile or so down the path along the river until you come to the white marker,” said the young woman at the desk of the Dunkeld House Hotel, “and there you’ll have it.”

It was a very long mile or so. Then the small carved white marker rose out of the mist. I had a momentary flash of recognition--and everything else was blotted from consciousness. Everything, that is, except the realization that this group of trees was part of the Shakespearean Birnam Wood.

I heard a persistent tapping against hardwood somewhere in Great Birnam Wood. The fine mist became an unassertive rain and the River Tay raced on its swollen way. The massive gnarled tree was existent here, not fictional, and Shakespeare endowed this tree with dramatic life as well--as he had done with High Dunsinane Hill.


Dunsinane is identified on the southwest heights of the Sidlaw Hills, 12 miles southeast of Birnam and parallel to Route A94, seven miles northeast of Perth.

There are ancient ruins on the hills and most historians and villagers acknowledge that a great battle was fought in the area centuries ago. It is also the nearness of Glamis Castle, 17 miles up A94, that many assume confirms the link to Macbeth.

When first viewed from the distant perspective of its grand tree-lined approach, Glamis Castle appears to be a melange of spires, turrets and towers. It also surrounds countless palatial chambers whose magnificence is suitable to royalty.

Accident at Lodge

England’s present Queen Mother was the youngest of four sisters whose father was the hereditary Earl of Strathmore and Glamis. Princess Margaret was born there.

Much is made of Malcolm II, grandfather of Macbeth, and the room where he died in 1034 following an accident at the hunting lodge. Finally, Duncan’s Hall is yet another alleged scene of Duncan’s murder by Macbeth. But Mary Love, a resident historian of Glamis Castle, denies this.

“Shakespeare distorted history because he was presenting the play in London before King James I (formerly James VI of Scotland),” she said, “and took his sources from Raphael Holinshed, a poor historian indeed. Further, Macbeth killed Duncan in face-to-face combat at the Battle of Bothgowan on the outskirts of Elgin in 1040. He served as a great king until Malcolm III, Duncan’s son, killed him at Lumphanan in 1057.”


Lumphanan is on the little road A980 that begins at Banchory, west of Aberdeen and 14 miles northwest of Stonehaven on the seacoast. It’s merely a hamlet, isolated in northeastern Scotland with its few hundred citizens and the small Mac Beth Arms Hotel catering to B&B; guests with “bar meals” and “small functions.” So reads the card of Philip Murray, proprietor.

Murray leaves no room for conjecture. Malcolm III attacked Macbeth in his fort at the Peel Ring just north of Lumphanan, and killed him on Aug. 15, 1057, he said. Most historians share Murray’s conviction. He also insists that Macbeth is buried on a farm three-quarters of a mile off A980.

“While there are doubters,” he said, “Macbeth lies buried beneath that stone cairn under the copse of trees.”

The Peel Ring is not the stone invulnerability of Cawdor. Thick turf blankets the muted outlines of the fort, its moat and its walls. It is barely 20 feet high. This was Macbeth’s last stand and nine centuries before, men died here by the sword and ax.

I found Macbeth’s burial cairn on a steep rise on Stuart Esson’s farm, its stones crusted with green moss, inches thick. The trees soared over the cairn in a gesture of monumentality that defied contradiction.

Macbeth had been found.

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Accommodations (doubles, rate per night): Perth, Royal George Hotel, in town, $75; Atholl Palace Hotel, $110; Inverness, Culloden House, six miles east, unusual, historic, luxurious, $200; Elgin, Mansion House, $50; Lumphanan, Mac Beth Arms, quaint B&B;, $20; Stonehaven, Commodore Hotel $50; Dunkeld, Dunkeld House Hotel, $30, Edinburgh, The George Hotel, luxurious, $160.


Using Perth as a starting point and driving clockwise (Perth, Inverness, Elgin, Lumphanan, Stonehaven, Glamis, Perth), or counter clockwise, it is possible to cover most of the Northeast Highlands in a rental car. Then take Scotrail from Inverness to Edinburgh (about four hours).

For more information, contact the British Tourist Authority, 350 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles 90071, (213) 628-3525.