Separating historical fact from fiction offers an opportunity to maximise interest in this ancient king of Alba, says Cameron Taylor.
IN THE famous William Shakespeare play, Macbeth is compelled by his devious wife to murder the king as he sleeps, only to be slain himself soon afterwards.
In truth, Macbeth had a legitimate claim to the throne and defeated King Duncan in battle at Pitgaveny, near Elgin, Moray. He then ruled Alba or Scotland very capably for 17 years with his wife Gruoch, about whose character little is in fact known.
Here in Moray Speyside, where Macbeth came from, we recognise that the real king was far from the cowardly, vainglorious caricature portrayed by the great playwright.
But rather than simply stating this to the world and leaving the stage, we are actively trying to interest people in the real Macbeth and encouraging them to visit this wonderful part of the country to learn more.
As with all things Shakespearean, global fascination with the play, written in 1606 (the First Folio edition was published in 1623), remains high.
The latest of countless variations, in the can and due for release next year, is a Hollywood version partly filmed in Scotland, directed by Justin Kurtzel and starring Michael Fassbender and Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard. It is bound to stimulate fresh interest.
What can we tell people from Wellington to Warsaw, Santiago to Sheffield, about the real Macbeth?
It is important to note that the province of Moray was much larger than the present county, and was a semi-independent part of Alba when Macbeth was born around 1005, a grandson of Malcolm II of Alba.
At the age of 15 Macbeth’s father Findláech, Mormaer or ruler of Moray, was killed by his nephews Malcolm and Gilla Comgáin. Macbeth later avenged his father’s murder and married Gilla’s wife Gruoch.
On Malcolm II’s death another of his grandsons, Duncan, was crowned king at Scone. But when it came to displays of martial prowess – vital to any monarch’s survival in the 11th century – King Duncan was weak.
Macbeth seized his opportunity in 1040 when Duncan, recently routed in battle at Durham, chose to attack him at Pitgaveny. Rather than murdering Duncan while he was asleep, Macbeth delivered a fatal blow on the battlefield.
Macbeth became king of Alba. He actually saw off Duncan’s son Malcolm Canmore at Dunsinane in 1054 but was killed by Malcolm at Lumphanan in Aberdeenshire three years later.
And what are the key Macbeth sites in Moray Speyside? There are many, and they include:
• Forres – the top of Cluny Hill in Grant Park is the likely site of a fortification that was possibly a principal residence for Macbeth. Nearby, Sueno’s Stone, a 21ft high Pictish carved stone, stood in Macbeth’s time
• Pitgaveny and Elgin – Pitgaveny was where Macbeth confronted Duncan and he is said to have died from his wounds at what would later become Elgin Cathedral, now ruined
• Brodie Castle – near here you can find Macbeth’s Hillock where folklore claims he and Banquo first encountered the three witches
Two further sites, which were in the old Moray of Macbeth’s day, were Cawdor Castle (made famous by Shakespeare’s play which – incorrectly – had Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor) and Auldearn where the Boath Doocot sits on top of a much earlier castle motte, perhaps the site where Macbeth burned his cousins Malcolm and Gilla Comgáin.
We are working on a trail of the sites and mobile phone and tablet apps to improve the visitor experience.
Further events, festivals and educational activities are being considered, perhaps with a view to a possible Real Macbeth storytelling or interpretive centre.
As part of the Year of Homecoming Scotland, Macbeth the Remix, complete with choirs, circus performers, large battle scenes, fire sculptures and video mapping, was performed every night at the inaugural Findhorn Bay Arts Festival in September. At the same event, a series of talks and tours about the historical figure behind Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth: the Red King, was also held.
Macbeth is a globally recognisable character, but very few people know that he was a real person who bears little resemblance to Shakespeare’s version.
We have a determination to try to use that cultural asset here in Moray Speyside to bring the real Macbeth story to a wider audience both by educating and entertaining.
• Cameron Taylor is tourism operations manager for Moray Economic Partnership member Moray Chamber of Commerce and co-author, with Alistair Murray, of the book On the Trail of the Real Macbeth, King of Alba.