Dunsinane, or the Battle of Dundee

The decisive battle between Macbeth and Malcolm Canmore took place on the plains of Gowrie, west of Dundee, in July of 1054. Supported by his kinsman Siward of Northumbria, Malcolm brought both a fleet and an army of horse against the Scots. The fleet landed at Dundee and took possession of the town, including much booty from a couple of merchant ships that had just arrived. But how did the army of horse join up with the fleet? To reach the plains of Gowrie overland, they would have had to come up through Scottish-held parts of Mercia, past Edinburgh, through Fife, and across the Tay River. How did they manage that? In stealth, or with local support? We have no answer.

At any rate, the battle began at dawn on July 27, the Feast of the Seven Sleepers, with the Scots charging down from the hills to meet the Northumbrians on the plains. It was a costly campaign on both sides, but the Northumbrian annals award the victory to their Earl Siward, stating that Macbeth was “put to flight,” and Malcolm Canmore was made king.

How is it, then, that Macbeth is noted elsewhere as having reigned until his death in 1057? There are several possibilities. One is that Macbeth retreated to his territories in the north, ruling there while Malcolm Canmore held the south, king in fact if not in name. Another is that Canmore was made king, not of Alba, but of the client kingdom of Cumbria at this time, a position that could have been awarded him as part of a peace settlement at Dundee. Cumbria was used as a training ground for future high kings, and the position was tantamount to being named tanist, or successor. A third possibility is that the next three years were spent in continuing skirmishes and battles with each man claiming to hold the high kingship.

As for Dunsinane being the final battleground, no one can explain how that tradition got started. It is not mentioned in any of the primary sources I saw. Dunsinnan Hill is northeast of Scone in a line of hills that swings down to end above the plains of Gowrie. There are the remnants of an old hill fort there, much older than the 11th century and probably already in ruins by Macbeth’s day. Had Macbeth been in the north, and was he cutting through the hills to reach Canmore, stopping at Dunsinane? Did he withdraw from Dundee after the battle and take shelter in the old hill fort? We simply don’t know. I have an explanation along these lines which is pure fancy, but it doesn’t belong here. See A Tale of Clan Menzies elsewhere.

Three years after his defeat at Gowrie, Macbeth’s death is recorded at the hands of Malcolm Canmore outside the tiny village of Lumphanan in northeastern Scotland. This skirmish–for so it appears to have been–took place deep in Macbeth’s home territory, so either Malcolm Canmore had managed to lead a warband up the Strathmore and across the Grampian Mountains, or he had sailed up the coast and sent an expeditionary force inland. Some scholars say Macbeth was in retreat, perhaps going for reinforcements, when he was intercepted by Canmore’s men; others suggest Canmore was trying to cut off the southern provinces from the northern, and that a scouting party came across the king’s entourage quite by accident. There was a running battle, with Macbeth making a last stand outside Lumphanan. There he was killed, and his body was buried with the previous high kings on the Isle of Iona.

Macbeth’s step-son and nephew, Lulach mac Gillecomgain, appears next in the king lists, but it is likely that he was never actually in control of the southern provinces. He was killed by Malcolm Canmore after only a few months, quite possibly in an ambush. He was posthumously dubbed “Lulach the Foolish.”

It was the end of the Celtic style of high kingship in Scotland. Malcolm Canmore ruled in the English style, and although the kingship went to his brother Donalbane upon his death, it was subsequently passed back to Malcolm’s son and proceeded in patrilineal fashion from then on.

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