That people like holidays with a literary or historical theme has become an accepted truth in my household ever since I wrote a string of novels set all over 16th-century Europe. Every summer I get route inquiries from North American travelers seeking the precise location of their favorite scenes. Why, asked one jocular reader, "don't you get the town clerk of Blois (France) to put up a map of that roof race? It would save a lot of bother."
Never mind the town clerk of Blois. This, to save me a lot of bother, is an itinerary of Scotland based on the life of King Macbeth. Yes, that one.
The trouble about Macbeth (one of them) is that everyone knows Shakespeare's play, but not everyone knows what a dud historian he was.
Scottish schoolchildren spend months in English literature class learning to revere the Shakespeare version in which these two guys Macbeth and Banquo were captains of nice old King Duncan of Scotland. Urged on by his horrible wife, and by a group of witches who prophesy he will be king, Macbeth and wife stab King Duncan and put the blame on two grooms. A Lord Macduff, loyal to Duncan's two sons, flies for help to the English court.
Meanwhile Macbeth has Macduff's wife and children slaughtered, and also kills his former friend Banquo. Macbeth believes himself safe because of prophecies that he cannot be vanquished until "Birnam wood comes to Dunsinane," and that he cannot be killed by "man born of woman." But he is routed at Dunsinane by an army disguised in greenery; and Macduff, unnaturally born (caesarean section), is the man who kills him.
That's the English literature class. In the history class, they learn that the whole thing was rubbish. Macbeth was a decent chap who reigned from 1040 to 1057 without murdering anybody, so far as is known, but who has quite an exciting time in his own right.
In following Macbeth, therefore, you get two trails for the price of one. The first is Shakespeare, nonhistoric, scenic and quick: You can see the whole thing along one route between Inverness and Perth, which are 115 miles apart. It may confuse you, but I've also added in later legends.
The second is the real story as uncovered by professional historians using archeology and old charters and early histories and monkish records. Plus nearly five years of unpublished research of my own, which went into a novel on the subject called "King Hereafter." When the stuff is Dunnett -- and not university-based -- I'll tell you.
Off we go then, with Shakespeare-plus.
King Duncan wasn't murdered in Inverness as Shakespeare says -- he wasn't, indeed, murdered anywhere -- and there's no trace now of the early royal hall in the Auldcastle Road either, where Scottish kings used to stay, but don't miss Inverness itself, where the purest English in Britain is supposed to be spoken. Fine river, pleasant town, little theater, beautiful countryside of mountains and lochs, and the Loch Ness monster down the road instead of the witches.
The thanedom of Cawdor (nonexistent for 200 years) was promised Macbeth by the (nonexistent) witches, and the present Cawdor Castle (400 years after his time) is sometimes pointed out as the place where Duncan was murdered, too. It is still a splendid castle to visit -- lived in, full of treasures and with lovely grounds, and a few miles east of Inverness.
There were no witches involved with the real Macbeth, but the law of supply and demand has produced a Blasted Heath (four miles east of Nairn on the A96) with a Macbeth's hillock nearby.
Next stop: Forres. Macbeth didn't have a stone castle there either, but the knoll at the end of the High Street was where timber palaces would likely be. In fact, a century before Macbeth's time, one King Duff was knifed while sleeping in Forres by order of a traitorous captain urged on by his beastly wife, and the blame put on a couple of drugged servants.
And by the way, Dallas (the original Dallas) is just down the road. They watch J.R. as well.
Don't pass Elgin. The real King Duncan -- a rather silly young man, not an old one -- was supposed to be buried there, although both the town and the marvelous cathedral, now ruined, came later. One school of thought says Duncan was killed in battle at a gentle, wooded spot called Pitgaveny, just outside Elgin. I don't subscribe to it, but the owner of (private) Pitgaveny House, who has called his son Crinan (the same name as King Duncan's father), tolerates my eccentricity.
North of Brechin, the pretty valley of Glenesk is sometimes pointed out as the way Macbeth fled after his defeat at Dunsinane (he didn't die there) to where he made his last stance at Lumphanan, east of Aberdeen. Macbeth did die at Lumphanan, but three years after losing that battle. And -- sorry -- "Macbeth's cairn" at Lumphanan, which is supposed to mark his grave, actually is prehistoric. But you can get a drink at the Macbeth Arms.
The thanedom of Glamis (nonexistent in the 11th century) was another prize prophesied for Macbeth. There is a "Duncan's Hall" and a "King Malcolm's room" in Glamis castle, the childhood home of the present Queen Mother. Malcolm, who was Macbeth's grandfather, very likely had a timber hall somewhere about, but the castle wasn't his address. Like Cawdor, Glamis is officially open to the public and well worth visiting.
In Fife County, southeast of Perth, there is a place called Macduff's cave and a ruin near Wemyss (which means cave) called Macduff's Castle. The beautiful royal palace of Falkland, open to the public but still partly lived in, is on the site of an early castle of the Macduffs. Earlsferry is where traditionally the noble Macduff fled from King Macbeth's big stone castle at Dunsinane to get help from England.
The first known Macduff appeared in Scotland 40 years after Macbeth died, but Fife is a nice place, with pretty fishing villages and beaches and castles and golf. Incidentally, Macbeth never had a stone castle on Dunsinane either, though he might have had something run up in timber. The huge circle of concentric walls and ditches on top of Dunsinane Hill (not far from Perth) is a prehistoric hill fort, of which more anon. And there's a green mound in a farm at Cairnbeddie, three miles from Dunsinane, which is traditionally the site of a "castle" of Macbeth, but there's nothing to authenticate that either.
We've nearly wrapped up Shakespeare. Banquo didn't exist, which saves a number of side trips. Birnam, where the walking wood came from? It's a pretty little town in the hills 12 miles from Dunsinane and just south of Pitlochry, (where you can see plays in a modern theater and watch a salmon being hooked from the River Tay at intermission). The walking-wood story has been told of everyone from Alexander the Great to the man who invented camouflage nets, but it doesn't matter: The scenery here is gorgeous. And that's the point of the tour I've described, not the history.
But now comes Tour Two, the search for the real Macbeth, which stretches from the Orkney Islands to southern Scotland (and indeed to Rome, but not on this trip) and includes the Vikings and the biggest collection of original runes in the world. (Runes are a very early form of writing.)
Vindication of the history of "King Hereafter" doesn't belong here, but I will say that it is a genuine reconstruction and based on both published and unpublished research. And it begins with the premise that Macbeth was born with another name: that of Thorfinn, earl of Orkney. Thorfinn was (historically) grandson of the reigning king of Scotland, and so either half-brother or cousin of "old" king Duncan.
No recent historical research has been done on Macbeth, but plunging into four or five years of digging for "King Hereafter," I brought up what seems to be irrefutable evidence that Thorfinn and Macbeth, until now assumed to be half-brothers or cousins, are in fact the same man.
Whether or not you go along with that, don't miss the chance, if you possibly can, of visiting Orkney.
The Orkney Islands are seven miles off the north coast of Scotland. You can fly there, or cross by car-ferry, and you should carry in your pocket a paperback of the Orkneyinga Saga in modern English, because all that is known about Thorfinn is in the Icelandic sagas.
Both ways of getting there are spectacular. From the ship, you see the staggering red cliffs and the seals and the waterfalls. From above, you see how green and fertile the islands are, with white beaches and farms and villages. And when you land close to Kirkwall, the capital, you get a fine view of the huge cathedral of St. Magnus, intact, in use and built in 1137 to honor one of Thorfinn's grandsons.
Thorfinn's own cathedral is 20 miles northwest of Kirkwall, on a tidal island called the Brough of Birsay. Waiting on the sandy grass by your car for the tide to expose the linking causeway, you can see the archeologists from Durham University digging round the Viking longhouses on the green slope above the remains of the earl's hall, and the minute "cathedral" where a man -- probably Thorfinn himself -- was found buried under the nave. The islet is only half a mile across, and there are puffins on it as well as archeologists, and a little museum.
For the nonpurists, there is on the mainland just here a decorative ruined palace built in 1574 at Birsay for a later earl. But the church, they say, may overlay another hall of Thorfinn's. For the hungry nonpurists, there is a good meal to be had in the Barony Hotel at Boardhouse Loch nearby. And free fishing.
Thorfinn's great enemy was his beautiful nephew Rognvald. Westray, the island Rognvald occupied, can be reached by air and sea from Kirkwall. It's full of Viking graves and more archeologists. The amazing castle is 16th century.
Back to Kirkwall and the main island and the Standing Stones of Stenness, a huge and mysterious Bronze Age circle by the loch of that name. I plead guilty to setting an imaginary scene here between Thorfinn and Rognvald, followed by a pursuit that ends in a chambered stone cairn. The prototype was Maeshowe, a beehive of grass beside Stenness that you enter through a long underground tunnel and which houses the finest tomb of its kind in western Europe.
The walls of the grave niches are covered with runes, mostly drawn by 12th-century Norse crusaders who broke in hoping to find treasure (they got it, too). They also wrote a lot, I am told, about the particular charms of their girls back in Norway, but only the polite bits are translated for you. And when you've finished, there's a converted mill on a stream close at hand with home baking and a craft shop where you can buy toys and knitwear and sheepskin rugs if the Kirkwall shops haven't already lured you.
And since we're on the subject: Americans living in London buy Orkney cheeses and fresh lobsters to take back from a visit. The well-heeled buy hooded Orkney chairs, baby shawls you can pass through a wedding ring, silver jewelry and bridal cogies (a wooden vessel of huge capacity that is passed from mouth to mouth at a wedding). And Highland Park whiskey.
Earl Thorfinn had a foster father called Thorkel, whose home was at Sandwick, a few miles south of Kirkwall, on a delightful small beach. There are archeologists working there, too, but if you walk from there to the headland, you come to the Gloup, a great snoring chasm of water formed by the roof-collapse of a sea cave. If he likes the look of you or you seem especially interested, a boatman may take you into it and even (if you huddle low) past the point where the roof starts again and you are actually rowing underground.
For two scenes between Thorfinn and Thorkel I had to visit the Gloup and also the small, uninhabited island of Copinsay, which lies just off it. Besides spectacular cliffs and a lighthouse, the island has thousands and thousands of breeding sea birds (razorbills, fulmars, puffins, kittiwakes, guillemots), which are cared for by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. There are also wildflowers and seals, and in spring the grass is full of the nests of eider ducklings enjoying their downies.
And, by the way, if you pass the Gloup and walk on to the headland, you can climb a steep dizzy ridge and get to the ruins of the old Celtic monastery at Deerness, from which another easy path leads down to a splendid beach, with more flowers, birds and spectacular sea inlets on the way.
Last, for Thorfinn-seekers, is Orphir, the site of the great hall burned down by Rognvald, from which Thorfinn escaped with his wife in his arms. The foundations are still there in the turf running down to the sea a few miles from Kirkwall, beside the ruined apse of the church built by one of Thorfinn's grandsons.
The saga says Thorfinn and his highborn Norwegian wife escaped from Orkney by rowing across the Pentland Firth, which separates the islands from mainland Scotland, where Earl Thorfinn also ruled the whole of the north. There he had a hall, now vanished, on a hill above the little town of Thurso (there is a later ruined castle nearby) and other halls, known by their names only, dotted along the coast of mainland Scotland by the road that goes east and south toward Inverness.
Great sea fights took place in the Pentland Firth, which has its own whirlpool and contains some of the fiercest tidal races in the world.
Back to the mainland. Two sites not to be missed on the north coast: the savage cliff and sea scenery from the top of Dunnet Head (you can take your car most of the way up) and the adjoining two miles of pure sandy beach on which Thorfinn drew up his fleet, which was his great fighting arm, and also the way he sprinted about ruling most of Scotland. Try, too, to see the rock stacks at Duncansby Head, where you can lie with your binoculars and watch the birds down below.
There's a small shell beach at Sannick the children would like, and another at John o'Groat's. In the Castle of Mey, the Queen Mother's house in these parts, there is a big bowl of shells collected by the royal children. Indeed the country everywhere in the north is so open that kids can run wild (but wrap up against the wind).
Turn south now, toward Wick (there in Thorfinn's time, with a beautiful Caithness glass factory, which wasn't) and Freswick (a later ruined castle, but there are archeologists digging up Viking foundations all over the place). And down to the site of the battle in which King Duncan, Thorfinn's kinsman, was killed -- after which Thorfinn went on to conquer the whole country down to Fife and rule as king instead, returning to Orkney whenever he could. Dropping (says Dunnett, based on my research) the pagan name of Thorfinn, and taking instead the name Macbeth, which means Son of Life.
Where this battle took place is a matter for specialist argument, but I come down in favor of the peninsula of Tarbat Ness, which juts out of the east coast just before Inverness. You can drive out to view it from Inverness, or from the amazing Victorian spa town of Strathpeffer, or you can stay at the ex-Viking town of Dingwall, where Thorfinn had a hall on the mound. Some guidebooks tell you Macbeth Thorfinn was born here, which is not impossible?.
At the tip of the Tarbat Ness peninsula is the little fishing village of Portmahomack, named after St. Cormac, and nearby is the small town of Tain, birth and burial place of St. Duthac, abbot of Armagh, known in Macbeth's time by the jawbreaking name of Dubhdaleithe. You can visit the ruins of his 11th-century chapel and also the revered local distillery, home of Glenmorangie whiskey.
King Duncan received his fatal wound at a Gaelic place name, Bothgofnane, which translates as "smith's booth." The nearest candidate in this region is a spot called Boath, reached by a forest track into the hills between Alness and Loch Morie, where I elected to set this scene. There is no authentication for this site, but one would never regret having visited it.
And then to Inverness and to Elgin, as described above. These are attractive places, but the dramatic scenery comes south of Elgin, on the road that climbs over and through the Grampian mountains by the Cabrach, and will take you eventually to Aberdeen.
Go through Dufftown, another area of rewarding distilleries, including many of the greatest, like Glenfiddich. And if you take the Rhynie road, you will pass through Essie, the bleak small spot on the moorlands where Lulach, Macbeth's stepson, was killed less than a year after Macbeth himself, and by the same man, Duncan's son Malcolm.
From there, the Aberdeen road takes you near Monymusk, a green dell known in Macbeth's time and long before for its Celtic monastery, and with a small, fine 12th-century church still to see in the village. From here, a network of roads leading down to Royal Deeside passes Lumphanan, where Macbeth was slain by Malcolm, who took his throne and married his widow. Recent digging has proved conclusively that the well-preserved rings and mound of a peel tower at Lumphanan don't belong to Macbeth's time, but it is worth visiting for the strange, peaceful enclosed site among the hills.
Moving south down the east coast from Aberdeen, you pass Brechin, Forfar and Glamis, all connected with the kings of Alba, as Scotland was then called. Brechin, a bustling small town, has an enchanting church with an 11th-century round tower such as the Irish monks built. There's another in Abernethy, southeast of Perth, which you can climb for a wonderful view over the plain of the River Tay.
West of this and 13 miles south of Pitlochry is Dunkeld, a little riverside town among ravishing hills and rich forests with small 17th-century houses and a fine restored cathedral. There was an abbey founded here in 815 for Celtic monks scared away from Iona by the Vikings. They were still there in Macbeth's time. Indeed, to the great discomfort of succeeding historians, King Duncan's father Crinan was their abbot. He appeared to live cheerfully through the first part of Macbeth's reign, and died five years after his son, in battle.
What are left now are the places that were important to the new young King Macbeth when he came to the throne. Perth, 15 miles south of Dunkeld, is a beautiful city, but the royal site was originally to the north, in the junction of the Tay and the River Almond. And directly over the river was Old Scone where, in the grounds of Scone Palace (occupied but open to the public) is the Moot Hill, the famous spot where the monarchs of Alba were proclaimed king. And Dunsinane hill, overlooking the Tay, where Macbeth's great defeat took place, is only a few minutes away.
It's not a castle, but a great hill fort, built several hundred years B.C., with several rings of defenses. The climb to the top is over rough moorland, with small springs and gorse bushes. It is a supremely defensive site, with a breathtaking view of the Tay and of all the valley approaches. You can see Birnam from Dunsinane and vice versa. That the battle took place here is legend, but it is fact that Earl Siward of Northumbria, with Malcolm as an English puppet, inflicted a great defeat on Macbeth, which made him recoil to the north, so that three years later Malcolm was able to take an army to Lumphanan and kill him. Dunsinane is a place not to be forgotten.
The story is nearly done.
People go for many reasons to St. Andrews, not least because, as Kilrimund, it was the seat of the bishopric that existed in Macbeth's day. It is not far from there to Loch Leven, a national nature reserve and mecca of freshwater anglers. It is possible that Macbeth had some sort of timber residence on one of its two little islands, later linked with Mary, Queen of Scots. On the other was the priory of St. Serf's (today privately owned, but you can see the little stone building from the shore with, in winter, thousands of migrating pink-feet geese from Iceland all around it). Macbeth and his queen (who, since Macbeth is a first name, was never called Lady Macbeth) gave grants of land to the priory, and because of that we know his wife's name was Gruoch, or Groa in Scandinavian. There is a record, centuries old, of a Dame Gruoch's Well in Benarty Hill nearby, but I have never found it, and the name can't be contemporary.
All these places are in Fife. But by driving 30 miles from Perth south to Stirling, it is possible to cover the land route so familiar to invading armies, such as the one Macbeth faced at Dunsinane. The crossing of the River Forth was the aim of every invader, and it is no accident that so many of the decisive battles of Scottish history have been fought between Stirling and the River Carron. The hill of Dumyat, north of the Forth and six miles from Dunblane, is a short, stiff climb with an unforgettable view of all this historic area.
Stirling castle, high on its rock, is 15th century at the earliest, and even Edinburgh castle, also perched on its crag, can't claim anything earlier than a generation after Macbeth. But there would be early defenses on both hills, and what is there today is, in any case, worth going a very long way to see.
Then for a last, thoughtful farewell to the real king of a thousand years ago, go to the Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh. There they have in store the Monymusk Reliquary, the small silver box shaped like a house, made to hold some remembrance of the great 6th-century Celtic saint Columba.
By tradition, the Brecbennach gave victory to the clan of Columba himself if carried three times round the army before battle. The priests of Alba employed it in the same way.
Little good, one might think, did it do King Macbeth. But his name has lasted a thousand years linked with murder, ambition and tragedy because of the power of Shakespeare. And now, because there are new research tools at hand and ordinary people have become curious, he may begin to hold his proper place at last in the long dramatic tale of Scottish history.