Shakespeare and MacBeth Connection

‘This Castle hath a pleasant seat; the air Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself Unto our gentle senses’: William Shakespeare

Visitors often ask about the link between Macbeth, Cawdor and Shakespeare. This is a complicated web. A pithy, but not the most helpful explanation was given by the 5th Earl Cawdor: “I wish the Bard had never written his damned play!

The History

Macbeth was born about 1005. His mother was Donada, second daughter of King Malcolm II of Scotland, and his father was Findlay, chieftain of Moray. Macbeth married Gruoch, a widowed grand-daughter of King Kenneth III. Gruoch’s brother and her first husband died at the hands of Malcolm’s followers, headed by another grandson and his successor, King Duncan I.

Avenging his wife and disputing the throne, Macbeth brought Duncan’s rule to an abrupt end in August 1040. Mortally wounded at Pitgaveny, Duncan died at Elgin Castle in Moray. Macbeth was crowned High King of Scots at Scone outside Perth, with his Queen.

The Historians

The skilled recorders of early Scottish history were the monks. Andrew of Wyntoun, a canon of St Andrews in Fife, completed his Cronykil in 1406, setting down facts in sequence, and embroidering them with old fables and older myths.

Spinning a tale about Macbeth who is asleep, dreaming of three weird sisters, who in turn murmur about his destiny: the Thane of Cromarty, the Thane of Moray, and lastly the King.
A later historian, Hector Boethius (or Boyis, a Dundee family) published his Chronicle in 1527. Drawing on Wyntoun’s story of Macbeth, but adding a change with the predicted titles to the Thane of Glamis and the Thane of ‘Cawder’.

Boethius changed several other aspects of Wyntoun’s story and invented the character of Banquo, Thane of Lochaber. Extending the royal Stuart line back to the nebulous personage of King Arthur – to please King James V. The romantic, raffish Stuarts actually emanated from prosaic Brittany in France.

The Scottish Play

Bard in the Botanics performance of Macbeth at Cawdor Castle – August 2016

William Shakespeare wrote the final version of The Tragedie of Macbeth during the spring of 1606. Holinshed’s narrative of witches, prophesy, treason, execution and murder were topics that fascinated King James VI of Scotland (and by then James I of England) to the point of obsession. Shakespeare didn’t miss this opportunity, putting the finishing touches to the script. Completing it in time for a special royal performance at Hampton Court that same summer. Entertaining the King and his brother-in-law, Christian IV, King of Denmark. Although often associated with Cawdor Castle, the murder of Duncan takes place in Inverness Castle.


The truth is, Cawdor Castle was not built until the late 14th century, making it impossible for King Duncan to have lost any blood or indeed Lady Macbeth much sleep in this particular house.

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