This month – the deaths of Duncan and Macbeth

You know how I love history? Well I love literature too! So I’ve combined my interest in both in the following article. Did you know Macbeth and his cousin died in the same month, albeit several years apart? There’s also a lot of other interesting facts about the two. Read on…



What he hath lost noble Macbeth hath won

It’s hard to imagine that when you look around the rolling farmland and lush fields of Pitgaveny that this was once the scene of one of history’s most notorious killings.

But 975 years ago, on August 14, 1040, the infamous Macbeth took on his cousin Duncan and the rest as they say is history.

Pitgaveny near Elgin is as rural as you can get with the local Estate Farm providing a lovely setting for the annual family Spring open day. There you can ride tractors, take part in archery or buy produce from local businesses, including from Macbeth Butchers.

With the only danger being the persistent Highland midge, it’s hard to believe that this was the scene of a death that centuries later was immortalised by Shakespeare.

It was late summer when the then King of Scotland, Duncan, rode north to sort out his erstwhile cousin Macbeth, Mormaer of Moray, for some wrongdoing that has since been lost to history. Confident in his own abilities, he was going to teach Macbeth a lesson he would never forget.

Unfortunately for Duncan, the opposite turned out to be true.

Their armies met at Pitgaveny – then known as Bothnagowan – and a bloody battle ensured. For all Duncan’s confidence, it was not going to be his day. Slain in battle, probably by Macbeth himself, he not only lost his life but his crown too…instead of it going to his son, the title of King of Scotland was snatched by Macbeth for himself.

But who were Duncan and Macbeth and what are their real stories?

Laurence Olivier as Macbeth.

Laurence Olivier as Macbeth.

Well, Shakespeare would have it that Macbeth kills Duncan in his sleep at Birnam Hill in Perthshire in 1040 and later dies himself at Dunsinane. Written nearly 600 years after the true events, Shakespeare took a bit of liberty with the accuracy of the story.

In fact, Duncan’s story begins around 1001 when he was born to Crinan, Abbot of Dunkeld and Bethoc, daughter of Malcolm II.

Born into a tumultuous time in Scottish history, Duncan would have grown up during a period of great violence and unrest in the country. The clans had been fighting each other for centuries and the country was under almost constant attack from Viking raids.

There were four kingdoms in Scotland at that time: Moray in the north, Strathclyde in the west, the Norse-Gael kingdom of the western coasts and Hebrides, and south-east Scotland which was ruled by the Earls of Bernicia (formerly south-eastern Scotland and north-eastern England) and Northumbria.

To strengthen his own position, Malcolm II – who didn’t have any sons – married off his three daughters to important dynasties across Scotland. Bethoc (mother of Duncan) married Crinan, Thane of the Isles, head of the House of Atholl and Abbot of Dunkeld. Donada (mother of Macbeth) married Finlay, Earl of Moray, Thane of Ross and Cromarty. His youngest Olith married Sigurth, the Earl of Orkney.

With the north secured and with the help of King Owen (Owen the Bald) of Strathclyde, in 1018 Malcolm rode south-east and took on the Earls of Bernicia at the battle of Carham near the river Tweed. He won, securing the area for himself making him the most powerful man in Scotland.

Later that same year, King Owen died without issue and Duncan was named rightful heir because of his marriage to Sybil (also known as Sibylla, Sibyl or Suthen) who is thought to have been related to the Strathclyde royal family. The couple went on to have three sons, including the future Malcolm III and Donald III.

Duncan’s life seems to have been relatively uneventful until 1034, at the age of 33 when he ascended the throne of Scotland following the death of his grandfather, Malcolm II.

There appears to have been no opposition to his claim and everything went smoothly at first. Problems only developed later when he proved himself not to be the effective king everyone hoped he would be.

Nicknamed An t-Ilgarach, “the Diseased” or “the Sick”, he seems to have ruled peacefully until 1038 when he led a disastrous campaign into Northumbria where he besieged Durham. However, the English army was too much for him and he was forced to retreat home to Scotland with his tail between his legs.

Unlike Shakespeare’s depiction of Duncan as a good and wise king, the real king was useless as a leader and two years later he was forced to ride north to Moray – stronghold of Macbeth – on that fateful and deadly expedition to punish his cousin.

No-one knows the reason for the falling out, but Duncan lost and was later buried on the Isle of Iona.

O valiant cousin! worthy gentleman!

Macbeth was four years younger than Duncan and related to him through his mother, Donada who was the sister of Duncan’s mother, Bethoc. They shared a maternal grandfather, Malcolm II.

Although Shakespeare claimed Macbeth had no legitimate entitlement to the throne of Scotland, in reality he had a strong claim. Not only was he the grandson of Malcolm II, but he was also directly descended from the great king Kenneth MacAlpin.

Now Macbeth’s rise to power is an interesting, if bloody, one. In 1020, his father Finlay MacRory was murdered by his nephews Malcolm and Gillecomgan. The reasons are lost in the mists of time, but it was probably to get control of the Moray area.

Malcolm then ruled as Mormaer of Moray – effectively a king or earl – from 1020 to 1029 when he died. He was succeeded by his brother Gillecomgan who died three years later, horrifically burned to death with 50 of his men. It is not known who carried out this atrocity, but Macbeth is certainly in the running along with his grandfather Malcolm II.

Lady Macbeth.

Lady Macbeth.

On Gillecomgan’s untimely death, Macbeth then took on the position of Mormaer of Moray. He married Gillecomgan’s widow, Gruoch, two years later, naming her son by Gillecomgan, Lulach, as his successor. They had no children of their own.

Eight years later, following Duncan’s death, Macbeth was crowned King of Scotland and reigned successfully for 17 years from his fortified castle at Dunsinane near Perth.

But all was not all was peaceful. Macbeth had to fight hard to retain his crown. In 1045, Crinan, Duncan’s father, rose up against him and was killed in battle at Dunkeld. The Earl of Northumbria also led an invasion in 1054.

Macbeth finally met his end in August, 1057 when he fought the future Malcolm III (Duncan’s son) and his army at Lumphanan in Aberdeenshire. It is believed he was fatally wounded and is thought to have died at Scone, some 60 miles away, a few days later.

Malcolm was finally crowned King of Scotland in 1058.


William Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare.


The play

Macbeth – or the Scottish play – is thought to have been written by William Shakespeare between 1599 and 1606. Most likely he wrote it after 1603 when James VI of Scotland became James I of Scotland and England. James was a patron of Shakespeare’s acting company and this could have been a way of the playwright currying favour with his king.

In the theatre, the play is believed to be cursed and is only referred to as ‘the Scottish play’. The story goes that Shakespeare is thought to have used real spells during the three witches’ scene angering local witches who cursed future productions. To say its name in a theatre is said to doom the production to failure and put the cast in danger.

It is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy and the first actor thought to have played Macbeth may have been Richard Burbage, the star of Shakespeare’s company, The King’s Men.



In case you don’t already live in this wonderful country, here are some links to find out more about Duncan and Macbeth’s Scotland@

See Dunkeld:

See Elgin:

And Dunsinane:

Find out more about historical Moray (pronounced Murray):

Visit the holy isle of Iona:

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macbeth is named Thane of Cawdor. On August 30, Cawdor Castle is the venue of The Chamberlain’s Men version of the bard’s Twelfth Night. For more information go to:




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