Before the High Kingship

Someone has come up with 1005 as a birth year for Macbeth, but I don’t honestly know what the source for that is–I didn’t find it in any of the primary sources I saw. I like it, though; it fits. This would make Macbeth a few years older than Thorfinn and a few years younger than Duncan, who some believe were his first cousins. It would also make him 35 when he came to power in 1040, a man in the prime of his life.

We know his father was Findlaech (Finlay), the Mormaer of Moray, and his grandfather was Ruadhri (Roary), who was ruler of Moray in his time. Findlaech owed allegiance to Malcolm II of Alba, due to Malcolm’s intervention in a disastrous campaign to wrest the province of Caithness back from the Norse in about 1007 (the date is unclear); hence the title of mormaer, which means “steward.” But who was his mother? Several centuries after his death, an account appeared that said Macbeth’s mother was a daughter of Malcolm II, and such would not be illogical–a marriage alliance to insure Findlaech’s loyalty fits the pattern of Malcolm II’s diplomacy, which included marrying one of his daughters to the leader of Atholl and, possibly, another to the Viking ruler of Caithness and Orkney, Sigurd the Stout. However, because of the late entry of this bit of information, some scholars feel it is not factual, but a revisionist attempt to make Macbeth a legitimate heir of Malcolm II, preserving the patrilineal succession.

In 1020, Findlaech was challenged for rule of Moray by his two nephews, Malcolm and Gillecomgain, and killed. Malcolm then became ruler in Findlaech’s place. If we accept the 1005 birthdate, Macbeth would have been 15 at the time, and quite possibly in fosterage somewhere outside of Inverness, the capital of Moray. It was the common practice of nobles to have their sons fostered from age 7 to age 17, the “age of choice.” This was the period of formal education for the future warriors and leaders.

Where might Macbeth have been fostered? Given accepted practices, he might have been stashed with one of Findlaech’s loyal supporters somewhere within Moray; or he may have been sent to the ruler of another mortuath (great tribe). He might even have been sent to the court of Malcolm II in Scone, to serve as a hostage for his father’s good behavior. Wherever he went, he would have learned to read and write in Latin, and possibly Greek, and trained with a musical instrument as well as the accepted weapons of war: sword, spear, cudgel, knife, and shield–but not archery. Celts in Ireland and Scotland considered arrows to be cowards’ weapons, for they did not require that a man face his enemy in personal combat.

Presumably, Macbeth returned to his home upon turning 17, there to gain practical experience both in the art of war and the management of his family’s assets: cattle, sheep, and grain. Shakespeare tells us his home was in Ross, and that’s possible–Ross was probably a district of Moray at the time, although it bordered Norse-held Caithness and may have answered to Thorfinn instead. Wherever his home was, when the summer campaigning began, most likely young Macbeth was off with his warband. He might have served in the warband of one of his relatives, or he might have led a warband himself, since he was a prince of the ruling house, the House of Loarn that once shared the High Kingship with the House of Gabhran.

In 1031, when Cnut called upon Malcolm II, two other persons are mentioned at the encounter, “Maelbaethe & Iehmarc.” They are represented as “other kings.” Most scholars are comfortable that Maelbaethe was the Macbeth who later became high king, even though he was apparently not ruler in Moray at that time. His status may have been elevated to make Cnut sovereign over three Scottish kings, or the court translator may have mistaken the word “prince” or “nobleman” in Gaelic for “king.” One scholar has ventured that Macbeth might, in fact, have been king in Moray after his cousin Malcolm (see two paragraphs down for Malcolm of Moray’s untimely death), and that the reference to Gillecomgain as Mormaer of Moray in 1032 means he was Mormaer to Macbeth, not to Malcolm II. That is not a widely-held opinion, but it is possible.

And who was Iehmarc, the other king present? Only recently it has been suggested that this was Echmarcach, who was King of the Isles at that time. The Isles are west of Scotland and were alternately (and often simultaneously) claimed by the Irish, the Scots, and the Norse.

In 1029, Malcolm of Moray died in a riding accident and was succeeded as mormaer by his brother Gillecomgain. Gillecomgain married Gruoch and they had a son, Lulach, born in 1031. But the following year, the annals report that Gillecomgain died in a fire with 50 of his men. Macbeth became ruler of Moray at that time–if he wasn’t already–and married the widow, quite possibly to seal the support of Gillecomgain’s followers. He now found himself connected by marriage alliance to the house of Kenneth mac Dubh (Duff), the “alternate” royal house of Alba.

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Next: The Killing of Duncan and Accession to the High Kingship

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