King Mac Bethad mac Findlaích might have burned to death his first liege lord (Gille Coemgáin) and beheaded his second (King Duncan I), but as medieval Scottish leaders went, he was no more vicious or ruthless than the average. Nevertheless, by the time William Shakespeare had finished turning Mac Bethad into Macbeth, his reputation was destroyed forever.
Not to mention the hit his poor Queen Gruoch ingen Boite has taken. Yes, she married Mac Bethad after the burning of her first husband Gille, but there wasn’t a hint of seduction or madness in her history—certainly nothing as gruesomely femme fatale as Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth.
From Shakespeare to Mel Gibson, Scottish history has been twisted, turned, and flat-out invented to serve the purposes of short-term propaganda. Shakespeare in particular was an expert at coddling the ego and aspirations of his sovereign. He produced the tragedy Macbeth sometime after 1605, just as the Scottish King James I was ascending the English throne. As a Catholic Scotsman in a country full of angry English Protestants, James needed all the help he could get.
The truth is that the standard for most kings of Scotland ranged from brutally incompetent to dismally ineffectual—and it wasn’t entirely their fault. The clan system was always the true locus of power in what was already a geographically ungovernable country. A king was lucky to rule more than half of the country, much less die in his bed.
So… In Scotland, you never know where history ebbs and legend flows, but one accounting has it that Mac Bethad met his end on 15 August, 1057, at the Peel of Lumphanan west of Aberdeen in the Eastern Lowlands. Duncan I’s vengeful son, the future King Malcolm III, drove Mac Bethad’s army off the fortification and then beheaded him on what is now called Macbeth’s Stone (underneath the tree in the top photo).
Or so the story goes…