Aka “Scotland, the Last Kingdom of the ancient Britons” and “The World of MacBeth mac Findlaich, King of Moray/Fortriu, King of Alba”.
Politics north of the Firths were dominated by two dynasties of “Pictish” origin. Since the so-called Pictii were actually Britons who retained their pre-Roman culture, the kingdom of Alba and later of Scots could well be called the largest, most successful, and longest lasting of the kingdoms of the Britons.
Now applied to the entirety of modern Scotland, in the Early Middle Ages the name “Alba” referred at first to the eastern portion of Scotland north of the Firths of Forth and of Clyde, then later to the whole of that territory.
The Gaelic (Irish) families who married into the Pictish kingdoms did not displace anyone at all, merely took over realms that already existed. The culture that came to dominate Alba was just as much of the Picts, or Briticunni, as it was of the Irish, even though the language came to be Irish, largely because of their very literate monks.
That a “British”, or Brythonic (to distinguish it from the modern state), kingdom was Irish-speaking is not far-fetched given that the Persian Empire founded by Cyrus the Great used Aramaic as its official language, or the fact that the Roman Empire after 610 CE used Greek.
Seen in this light, Alba’s absorption of the former Strathclyde under David I can be seen as the reunion of Brythonic peoples, even if both were predominantly Gaelic-speaking at the time. Scotland certainly had a Brythonic dynasty again after the enthronement of Robert II, whose family, the House of Stewart, had originated as stewards of Dol in Britanny, derived from Britannia Minor or “Little Britain”, in northwestern France.
The roots of the dynastic and geopolitical conflict fictionalized in Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Macbeth lie mostly in the Dark Ages, though they reach back to the years when the Roman Empire ruled and dominated most of the island of Great Britain.
During the Empire, and before, in Scotland north of the Firths of Clyde and Forth lived the Picts, a Celtic people who spoke an archaic form of the Brythonic language used in the island of Great Britain south of their region.
Groups of Picts also lived in and ruled sections of Ireland, just as a number of Irish dynasties and immigrants lived in Pictland and elsewhere on Great Britain. Their culture and language can be deduced from the Romans’ pejorative name for them, Briticunni, or “Little Britons”.
In time, southern and eastern Pictland coalesced into two major confederations, the Caledonii, based on the kingdom of Circinn in the east, and the southern Maeatae. The Maeatae, or Miathi, soon declined as the northern and western tribes coalesced into a confederation dominated by the Uertiones, later known as the kingdom of Fortiu. Until recently, a decade or so ago, Fortriu was thought to be equivalent to Strathearn, but professor Alex Woolf conclusively proved otherwise.
At the beginning of the 6th century, the Irish kingdom of Dal Riata in northwest Ireland began to colonize the southwest of Pictland, what is now known as Argyll, establishing several local minor kingdoms.
With the advent of the incursions and invasions by the Germanic invaders (Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians, Geats, and Franks) from the south, both Fortriu and Circinn reached out to the newcomers for allies, Fortriu to the Cenel Loairn and Circinn to the Cenel nGabhrain, the two foremost tribes of the Dal Riata and themselves rivals for primacy in Argyll.
Ironically, at this time yet another Irish dynasty, a branch of the Eoghanachta of Munster (in southwest Ireland) ruled Circinn.
In the south of modern Scotland below the Firths (Firth of Forth and Firth of Clyde), two Brythonic-speaking kingdoms dominated: Gododdin in the east and Strathclyde in the west. In 663, the Angles of Northumbria overran Gododdin entirely and swept into the southern part of the area of the Maeatae, establishing suzerainty over Circinn, Fife, and Strathearn (known as Fidach before the Gaels, or Irish, took over).
In 672 the “men of Fortriu” (‘Fir Fortrenn’), overthrew their ruler Drest and installed Bridei, son of Beli, king of Alt Clut, who had a claim to the throne of Fortriu by right of his mother.
Eight years later Bridei launched a years-long campaign to bring the entire north under his dominion, culminating in 685 with the Battle of Dun Necthan, which drove the Angles out of the south, as well as much of the former kingdom of Gododdin, these latter lands (still called by their Brythonic name, Lothian) falling to the king of Strathclyde.
Fortriu now dominated Scotland north of the Firths, with the exception of tiny Dal Riata in Argyll, and continued to do so for the next two centuries.
Bridei’s son-in-law, Talorcan, son of a Northumbrian prince who had fled for refuge after his own father was killed, succeeded him, and he in turn was succeeded in 696 by Bridei mac Dargart (‘mac’ means ‘son of’) of the Dal Riata tribe Cenel Comgaill, also a relative by marriage. Bridei’s brother, Nechtan mac Dargart, succeeded him at his death ten years later, only to retire to a monastery, perhaps not voluntarily, in favor of his nephew Drostan, son of the afore-mentioned Talorcan.
This set off a chain-of-events which ultimately resulted in Nechtan being returned to the throne by his general, Oengus mac Fergus, a scion of the Circinn branch of the Irish Eoghanachta dynasty of Munster, which by this time had been eclipsed in Circinn by a branch of the Cenel nGabhrain.
Three years later, Nechtan died and Oengus came to the throne. For the next century, his descendants, the Eoghanachta Mag Geirginn, ruled all the Picts, in addition to Dal Riata, which Oengus finally brought under his throne. It ended after a disastrous defeat in the north by the Norse Vikings destroyed the better part of the leadership and military pool of the kingdom in the year 839, resulting in political and social chaos.
Four years after that catastrophe, Kenneth I mac Ailpin of the Cenel nGabhrain, which now ruled Circinn and dominated the rest of the southern kingdoms, swept into the vacuum and established cosmos out of chaos, becoming King of Picts (“Rex Pictorum”). That title, formerly held by Oengus and his descendants, was used by Kenneth and his three successors before it was changed to King of Alba, the name of the Picts for their land, by Constantine II mac Aeda.
Upon recognition of his status as king over all the north in 843, Kenneth I mac Ailpin transformed his kingdom with its many sub-kingdoms into a more centralized version of itself. The lesser kings, what in contemporary Irish law would be called ri coicid (king of a province), became Mormaers, Gaelic for “Great Steward”, which were called Comes in Latin and later Earl in English.
With the accession of Malcolm I mac Donald in 943, a period of intense civil strife began that saw two branches of the Cenel nGabhrain struggling back and forth to rule Alba. His branch of the dynasty was known as Clann Aeda.
After the death of Malcolm I in 954, Indulf of the rival Clann Causantin became king.
Upon his death, Duff mac Malcolm of Clann Aeda gained the throne, and after he died in a civil war with the Clann Causantin, the latter gave Alba its next two kings, Cailean and Amlaigh.
Dubh’s younger brother became Kenneth II after another civil war placed Clann Aeda back in power in 977.
Clann Causantin triumphed again in 995 under Constantine III mac Cailean.
Kenneth III of Clann Aeda may have decided the final outcome between the two branches when he killed Constantine III in 997.
Unfortunately for Kenneth III, his first cousin Malcolm mac Kenneth (II) very much desired to become Malcolm II, and did so by killing him to take the throne in 1005. Malcolm’s twenty-nine year reign signaled the end of this chaotic cycle of assassinations, coups d’etat, and civil war every few years.
Malcolm II mac Kenneth of Alba, the name by which the southern kingdom is known in the various annals of the time (with Circinn itself now known as Oengus), sat on the throne of a kingdom very diminished in territory from Kenneth mac Ailpin’s.
One Norse magnate controlled both archipelagoes north of mainland Scotland, the Shetlands and the Orkneys, along with the far north of mainland Scotland itself, and another the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles (“the Isles” being the Hebrides west of the mainland), while the Danes now ruling Northumbria had regained Lothian, menacing his kingdom from the south, and meanwhile the now client-kingdom Strathclyde threatened revolt.
Furthermore, the restless Mormaerdom of Moray, sometimes still called Fortriu, rose up, its rulers calling themselves “Kings” rather than the subordinate title “Mormaer”.
In his waning years, Malcolm II encountered conflict with dynastic rivals regarding the succession, and wanted to ensure his grandson Duncan, son of his daughter Bethoc and Crinan of the Irish dynasty Cenel Connaill (called the Kindred of St.
Columba in Scotland) became king after him.
These rivals dynastic presented a problem particularly since his only son, Donald, had died fighting under Brian Boru, High King of Ireland (Latin title “Imperator Scotorum”, Emperor of the Irish), at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, along with two of his kingdom’s Mormaers, the heads of them all accompanying the bier of the fallen High King from the battlefield to be buried with his body at Armagh.
Although autonomous, Alba was at that time considered somewhat part of Greater Ireland, and was then known in Latin as “Scotia Minor” to Ireland’s “Scotia Major”.
Thus he bought off his nearest rival, Boite mac Kenneth (III), by making him Mormaer of Fife. However, in 1033 Boite’s son rebelled and Malcolm had him killed.
Moving from east to west meanwhile, the heads of the Cenel Loairn dynasty, who had married into the Eoghanchta who ruled Fortriu, or Moray, in its heyday, chafed at their reduced status. In 954, the Moravians, led by their mormaer, Cellach, rose to declare their independence. Malcolm II mac Donald, king of Alba, invaded Moray, killed Cellach, and was killed in turn.
Eventually one of their number, Findlaich mac Ruadri, eschewed the title of Mormaer for that of King. Findlaich may or may not have succeeded to the throne at Inverness by usurping the place of his brother Maelbride as ruler of Moray, but he most certainly found himself usurped, and dead, by his nephews in 1020.
Malcolm mac Maelbride ruled as King of Moray until being killed in 1029, probably against Malcolm II of Alba trying to bring Moray to heel; in the reports of his death in the Annals of Tigernach, he is called “ri alban”, or “King of Alba”.
Malcolm mac Maelbride’s brother Gillecomgan, who succeeded him, was described only as Mormaer of Moray. Gillecomgan burned to death along with fifty of his men in 1031, though none of the annals says who was responsible.
Of the two possibilities suggested by historians, Malcolm II and Macbeth mac Findlaich, the former bears more likelihood since Gillecomgan’s widow, Gruoch ni Boite (daughter of Boite, Mormaer of Fife and son of Kenneth III) subsequently married Macbeth, who later made, Lulach, her son with Gillecomgan, his successor.
Behind the scenes, Boite of Fife had arranged the marriage of his daughter Gruoch to both Gillecomgan and Macbeth. Gruoch, “Lady Macbeth” in Shakespeare, proved to be a formidable person in her own right, having her name alongside those of Boite and Macbethad in the records of an endowment for the Culdee (an ascetic Irish order) monastery at Loch Leven (it was then rare for women to be so noted).
In addition, Gruoch bitterly resented the death of her brother at Malcolm’s hands, as well as that of her first husband. Macbethad mac Findlaich of Moray, or Fortriu, reclaimed the title of King (he was never “Thane of Glamis”, which is in Oengus, on the opposite side of the country from Moray), even appearing alongside Malcolm II and Iehmarch, King of Mann, the Isles, and Galloway, in submission before Cnut the Great in 1031.
To bring Moray back into subordination, Malcolm II planned an invasion in 1034, but was instead murdered at Glamis before he could launch it.
As Malcolm II had planned, Duncan mac Crinan succeeded him to the throne of Alba, and without opposition. Part of that may have been the dynastic connections of his father Crinan, chief of the Cenel Connaill in Alba, Abbot of Dunkeld, Mormaer of Atholl (‘Ath Fodhla’ or ‘New Ireland’), Abthane of Dull, Kirkmichael, and Madderty, and Seneschal of the Isles.
The Cenel Connaill was one of the chief branches of the greater Ui Neill dynasty in Ireland, its heads ruling Tirconnell in northwestern Ireland from their seat at Derry. In his play, Shakespeare portrays Duncan as an old man, but in truth he was quite young when he became king.
In 1040, Duncan invaded Moray, dying in the attempt to subdue it at Bothganowan, near the later burgh of Elgin. After his death, his two sons, Malcolm, nicknamed Ceannmor (“Big Head”), and Donald, nicknamed Ban (“The Pale”), fled the kingdom, Malcolm to the Kingdom of England and Donald to the Norse Kingdom of Mann & the Isles ruled by a branch of the Ui Imhair, a group of related Norse-Gaelic dynasties who also ruled Dublin, Waterford, Limerick, Northumbria, and the Rhinns of Galloway and eventually spawned the Clann Somerled.
Thus, Macbeth mac Findlaich became King of Alba in addition to Moray.
Besides having the right of conquest, Macbeth’s mother was a daughter of Kenneth II; therefore he was also Malcolm II’s nephew.
Unlike his portrayal in the play, the records portray Macbeth’s reign as prosperous and largely peaceful. His success even enabled him to make a pilgrimage to Rome in 1050.
Crinan of Dunkeld, the Cenel Connaill Abbot of Iona, did challenge him in 1045, but lost the rising and his life the same year.
In 1052, Macbeth risked the ire of his southern neighbors in England by accepting Norman knights ousted by Godwin, Earl of Wessex, into his kingdom and giving them lands and titles. Two years later, Siward, Earl of Northumbria, invaded what is now the south of Scotland to restore one Malcolm as “king of the Cumbrians”, Cumbria being the Latin name for Strathclyde; this, perhaps, is the origin of the later story that Malcolm Ceannmor gained the throne with English assistance.
In 1057, Malcolm Ceannmor did return to Alba and defeat the armies of his rival, but did not to become King of Alba yet. Macbeth was mortally wounded at the Battle of Lumphanan and died in Scone a few days later, naming Lulach his heir. The following year Ceannmor made good on his desire, assassinating Lulach to become Malcolm III.
Malcolm III mac Duncan’s reign was one of the longest in Alba to date (save for Constantine II, who ruled for forty-three years), lasting until 1093, and is primarily noted in history for his second wife, St. Margaret, sister of the last proclaimed (but not crowned) King of England from the Cerdicingas dynasty, Edgar the Aetheling. The Cerdicingas were founded by Cerdic of the Gewissae (later Wessex) in the days of “King” Arthur in the early sixth century CE.
Of the major characters in The Tragedy of Macbeth, two are purely fictitious.
Banquo was the alleged ancestor whom the House of Stewart (Stuart) used to make themselves more “native”. Banquo was invented for the loosely-based on reality Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, published in 1577. The first of their ancestors in Scotland was Flaad fitz Alan, a Breton knight whose ancestors came to England with the Norman invasion, Fleance being an alternative form of the name in some records.
“Macduff” in the play is an anachronism; there was no one using that name at the time, and the “Earl” (Mormaer) of Fife the time, Boite, was an ally of Macbeth.
After Lulach’s death, his son Maelsnechtai succeeded him as King of Moray, dying in 1085. He was succeeded by his nephew, Oengus, who ruled until 1130, losing his life in an invasion of Alba in support of the pretender Malcolm, son of Alexander I. This Malcolm was usurped by David I (who unlike Malcolm Ceannmor did come with the support of the English) in 1124.
It was David I who promulgated the Leges inter Brettos et Scottos, or Laws of the Brets and Scots, during his reign; the laws remained intact until abolished by Edward I of England in 1305 after the end of the First War of Scottish Independence.
Oengus was the son of Maelsnechtai’s sister and Aethelred, or Aedh, son of Malcom III, last Abbot of Dunkeld and first Earl (or Mormaer) of Ross.
Oengus’ older brother Duff had predeceased their father, but his nephew, Duff’s son Constantine mac Duff, became the first Earl (rather than Mormaer) of Fife and was the first to use the patronymic “MacDuff”.
Constantine mac Dubh died childless and his brother Gillemichael mac Duff became the progenitor of the great Clan Duff.
With the beginning of Malcolm III’s rule, the Cenel Connaill ruled Scotland in relatively prosperous conditions for the next 252 years.
The MacWilliams of Moray, descended from William fitz Duncan, legitimate son of Duncan II and a daughter of Oengus of Moray, and the MacHeths of Ross, descended from the Aethelred/Aedh mentioned above who was the eldest son of Malcolm III, continued their struggle with the Cenel Connaill and the kingdom of Alba through the first third of the 13th century. The last male heir of the MacWilliams claimants died in 1229.
Anderson, Alan Orr, ed. Early Sources of Scottish History: AD 500-1286. (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1922).
Anderson, Alan Orr, ed. Scottish Annals from English Chroniclers: AD 500-1286. (London: D. N. Nutt, 1908).
Houston, R. A., and W. W. J. Knox, ed. The New Penguin History of Scotland: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day. (London: The Penguin Press, 2001).
Keay, John, and Julia Keay, ed. Collins Encyclopedia of Scotland. (London: Harpers Collins Publishers, 1994).
Moncrieffe of that Ilk, Sir Ian. The Highland Clans. (New York: Random House Publishing, 1984).
Woolf, Alex, "Dun Nechtain, Fortriu and the Geography of the Picts", Scottish Historical Review 85, pp. 182-201. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006).