Dunnett Newsletter – 4th September 2003

Greetings from post-Festival Edinburgh where the heatwave seems to have finished at last. While never quite reaching the heights of temperature experienced further south or in Europe we were certainly sweltering in unaccustomed heat for the last few weeks.

I had planned to send this newsletter a week or so ago before the start of the King Hereafter read on the Game of Kings newsgroup for reasons that will become obvious later, but I’ve been down with a virus and sinus infection which seems to going around just now so things got delayed.

This time around we have amongst other things the new address of my Dunnett website, news of an exhibition here in Edinburgh featuring Dorothy’s work, and an unearthed article by her on Macbeth.


First the website – as I suggested earlier I’ve moved the site to new webspace with more room, taking advantage of spare space alongside my new business site. The address is now


I’ve added a link to it from the old Dunnett homepage on my personal site and will leave the old pages around until the search engines have spidered and indexed the new site, after which they’ll be removed to avoid diluting the search engine positioning.
Only a couple of additions to the site recently as I’ve been very busy setting up my web design business. A picture of Cortachy Castle, which unfortunately isn’t open to the public, has been added to the North Scotland section of the Places to Visit section. Secondly since the Game of Kings members have been reintroducing themselves and there are a number of new subscribers to the newsletter who weren’t around when I was first involved, I thought I’d join in and give an explanation of my own background, so I’ve added part of the text of my contribution to the commemorative book that Dorothy was given at E2000.

Writers Museum exhibition

Starting on 27th September there will be a small exhibition of Dorothy’s work at the Writers Museum in Lady Stair’s Close just off the High St in Edinburgh. Running until June 2004 it will feature items that the family donated to the museum including the Unicorn Chain and the Silver Apple.

An Article by Dorothy on Macbeth

I recently made a “discovery” of an old series called The Sunday Mail Story of Scotland, which was published in 1988 in 52 weekly parts. At that time the Sunday Mail was what might be called a “quality tabloid” and often contained interesting articles about the country, but I had no recollection of this series. The copies I’ve seen have been 32 page semi-glossy magazines priced at £1.

A look at the editorial board is revealing – there were three members:
Gordon Donaldson, the Historiographer Royal for Scotland and a prolific author.
Archie Duncan, who at the time had held the Chair of Scottish History and Literature at Glasgow University for 26 years.
And our own Dorothy Dunnett.

Contributors included Prof. Ian B Cowan of the Dept of History at Glasgow University, and G.W.S. Barrow, Chair of Scottish History and Palaeography at Edinburgh University.

Part 4 contains an article by Dorothy called The Real Macbeth, and although it is aimed at a general audience and makes no reference to her own theories regarding Thorfinn it makes interesting reading, particularly for any of you who haven’t yet read King Hereafter or are taking part in the Game of Kings group read.
I’ve made enquiries in an attempt to get permission to reproduce the article but the company that is quoted as the copyright holder in the magazine – The British Magazine Publishing Company – was part of the old Robert Maxwell group which collapsed after his death and is no longer in existence. If anyone knows if their assets have been transferred to another company then I’d be happy to hear from you so I can follow it up and perhaps include the article on the website.
In the meantime I feel that it is unlikely that any objection would be made to quoting an article written by the subject of this newsletter so I have included it below. However please do not include this in any archives until the situation is clarified.
The Real Macbeth by Dorothy Dunnett

Who was the real Macbeth? A power-crazy, murderous, yet weak man, as depicted by Shakespeare in his dramatisation, or a strong and able king, who ruled wisely and in peace for 17 years?

Ask most non-Scots to name a Scots king and they will eventually remember this fellow Macbeth, who murdered a kindly old man for his crown, egged on by his shrew of a wife who then went crazy and killed herself .

It is small wonder that this story has all but smothered the true one. Since Shakespeare wrote his famous play (more than 500 years after the real Macbeth ruled) brilliant actors from Burbage to Barrymore, Garrick to Gielgud have persuaded thousands in a range of accents from American to conscientiously-drilled urban Glasgow that this was indeed a slice of actual Scottish history.

Actresses such as Sarah Bernhardt, Vivien Leigh, Diana Rigg and Judi Dench have brought their own ardour, ferocity and intensity to the role of Lady Macbeth on the stage.

This has all come into being because of Shakespeare’s play, not because of Macbeth himself. But because of the play, the real life of Macbeth has been obscured. The evil portrayed in the play has even come to represent a threat to those who act in it. Macbeth has long been considered an unlucky work with injury, fire and trouble falling in its wake. It is never named in the acting profession but referred to obliquely as ‘the Scottish Play’. When the superstition first arose is not known but some like to believe, even today, that the witches’ song still has the power of working evil. Investigation shows, none the less, that the witches’ song is an invention and that the true tale of Macbeth has nothing to do with witches or witchcraft at all.

The real Macbeth, who died in 1057, was not regarded as a villain in the bald monkish records that survive from his time. So far as one can tell, the legends surrounding his reign began between four and five hundred years after his death.

While Macbeth lived, his name as a warrior-prince must have carried some weight among the other rulers of the countries within reach of Alba, his Scotland. Because of its situation between Scandinavia, England, Ireland and the continent, Alba was a place of strategic importance. In Macbeth, it seemed to find a capable and imaginative king who held the throne in disturbed times for 17 years and was able, indeed, to leave his shores for a very long time without fear of upheavals behind him – something Edward the Confessor was never able to do.

In fact, Macbeth went to Rome – an event about which Shakespeare knew nothing. We know the date – 1050 – from the chronicle of an Irish monk writing in Germany; and we know that Macbeth was free with his gold when he got there, scattering his alms ‘like seed’ (as indeed was the custom in a ceremonial entry). He may have visited Rome as a pilgrim. His reasons were more likely to do with the benefits a Roman association might offer a country backward in development, which had hitherto relied on the care and protection of the Celtic pastoral Church.

Macbeth and his kingdom stood at the hub of a power struggle in which the Norse and the Danes, the Holy Roman Emperor and the Saxons of England, the Normans and Flemings and the Celts of Brittany, Cornwall, Wales and Ireland all played a part, with the pope in Rome courting them all. None of this could be guessed from the enclosed claustrophobic world Shakespeare created, for which he gutted a recent and unreliable history, ‘the Chronicle of England, Scotland and Ireland’, published in 1577 by Raphael Holinshead enhancing and twisting it, telescoping battles and years.

What did Shakespeare change? For a start King Duncan was not an old and wise man, even according to Holinshead. He was likely in fact to have been in his mid 30s or younger when he met his death on campaign, having spent the previous months in the disastrous attempt to capture the city of Durham in England. His grandfather had failed in this acquisition, and so did he. What drew him to travel from Durham to his death in North Scotland is not recorded, although it is most likely that his army went with him. Holinshead simply says that Macbeth, with the support of Banquo and others, slew Duncan at Inverness or another place which has never been fully identified. Shakespeare picked Inverness for the deathblow, but he was almost certainly wrong. John of Fordun, writing about 1385, says that Duncan was mortally wounded at Bothgofnane and was taken to Elgin, where he died. Bothgofnane – meaning ‘hut of the blacksmith’ in Gaelic – could be a number of places.

Macbeth’s wife is not linked with this killing. It was Shakespeare who introduced her as spur and fellow conspirator, and invented a murder that copied the killing of Duff an earlier King he had noticed in Holinshead.

King Duff, history stays, made his name at the castle of Forres. The killing was arranged by his host the captain, urged on by the lady, his host’s wife. Befuddled with drink, the royal chamberlains were blamed for it afterwards.

All this Shakespeare transferred to Macbeth’s time. Then he wrote a new role for Macbeth’s wife, his imagination fired by another reference in Holinshead. According to this, Macbeth’s wife ‘lay sore upon him’ to attempt to usurp the kingdom, ‘as she was very ambitious running in unquenchable desire to bear the name of a queen’. In fact, Holinshead lifted the reference himself from romantic history written about 50 years earlier by Hector Boece, who seems to have invented the lady’s fit of ambition, since previous writers say nothing of it.

Alas for Shakespeare, Macbeth’s wife appears to have been a loyal and blameless lady. From a previous marriage, she brought him a stepson, Lulach, who Macbeth seems to have cherished, and who was crowned king after Macbeth, before being killed in his turn. Nor was she ever called Lady Macbeth. Macbeth, meaning ‘Son of Life’ or ‘of the Elect’ is not a surname. The king’s wife would have been addressed as the lady Gruoch in Gaelic. The name is recorded in Fife where she and her husband are said to have gifted land to the Celtic monks of St Serf’s island, loch Leven.

And what about the witches? Holinshead had already written about three women ‘in strange and wild apparel’, who promised Macbeth the thanedoms of Cawdor and Glamis as well as the throne, and who informed Banquo that his heirs, and not Macbeth’s, would rule Scotland. The prophecies, according to Holinshead, drove Macbeth to think of taking the throne, and later to kill his friend Banquo. Developing this Shakespeare turned the women into the ‘secret black and midnight hags’ of the kind King James I, his patron, had written about in his volume ‘Daemonologie’ And so were created the chanting chrones with the cauldron who have become attached to the tale of Macbeth, adding to its superstitious horror and poignancy.

The earliest known Scottish history of Macbeth’s reign say nothing of witches. They only enter the story in a popular chronicle, ‘The Orygnale Cronykil of Scotland’. Written by Andrew of Wyntoun, Prior of St Serf’s, some 350 years after, this mentions ‘weird sisters’ who offer Macbeth the crown but quite different honours. Hence the present castles of Glamis and Cawdor have no connection at all with this part of Macbeth’s story – indeed, there were no stone castles in mid-11th century Scotland, only halls and fortifications of wood. Nor can the ‘blasted heath’ and the ‘witches stone’ beside Forres be anything but inventions provoked by the legend.

If there were no prophecies, and no evil Lady Macbeth, why did Macbeth killed Duncan and Banquo, if not to seize the throne and prevent Banquo from founding the royal line?

To begin with, Macbeth did not kill Banquo because Banquo did not exist. The invention of Banquo began, not with Shakespeare, but with Hector Boece, who produced Banquo and his son Fleance from nowhere. By linking Fleance with Wales and the ancestors of the Stewarts, Boece managed to eliminate the Stewarts connection with the Archbishop of Dol in Brittany – a tender point at the time when relations between the kings of France and Scotland were bad.

The creation of Banquo served another purpose. It disguised the fact that the line founded by Duncan sprang from an unorthodox marriage. Crinian, father of Duncan, was not only abbott of Dunkeld but very probably connected with the minting of money. It was even possible that he and Bethoc, Duncan’s mother, had had several partners in marriage. By the time Boece was writing, a much-married clergyman, who was also a professional moneyer, was the last person a king would want to claim as a forbear. (Indeed, so worried by this was one later historian, that he took the risk of proclaiming that Duncan’s son Malcolm was a bastard).

In Macbeth’s time, none of this would have mattered. Several hundred years later, however, both churches and Kings lived according to different standards. By the time of the Stewarts, no one wanted to remember that once, kingdoms had to be ruled by men who were war-leaders, and thrones fell to the strongest and most worthy, and not automatically to the first-born. In Macbeth’s time, when England was overturned by the Danes and later the Normans, bastardy had no importance at all in the choice of the royal succession, and order of birth hardly mattered. Many of the monarchs in Alba seem to have allotted a good deal of time to fighting and killing unwanted successors and rivals. If Duncan, as a weak king, challenged Macbeth on Macbeth’s own homeland and lost, the outcome was probably good for the kingdom. Only, by NOT killing his nephew Malcolm, Macbeth put his own future at risk. Duncan’s son fled to the English court, to be reared as combined hostage and puppet-king and to become, in time, the excuse for an English invasion.

That invasion, under Earl Siward of Northumbria, is the climax of the play, and again Shakespeare takes liberties with his source. According to Holinshead, Macbeth was defeated in battle at Dunsinane (in fact, a prehistoric hill fort on the Tay, seven miles north east of Perth), but fled to Lumphanan in north-eastern Scotland. There (says Holinshead) he was finally slain by the Scots lord Macduff, whose family Macbeth had caused to be murdered. It suited Shakespeare instead to have Macbeth beheaded at Dunsinane by the vengeful Macduff, thus bringing to fruition two other mysterious prophecies; that Macbeth would never die until Birnham Wood moved the 12 miles south-east to Dunsinane, or until he was faced by a man ‘never born of a woman’.

What was the truth? Holinshead and Shakespeare both got it wrong. There was no such lord as Macduff. In fact, Macbeth was killed three years after the battle at Dunsinane by Malcolm.

Contemporary writers thought of the battle of Dunsinane as being entirely the business of Earl Siward, backed by the English king Edward. Independent records (and the earliest historians) admit that Malcolm eventually slew King Macbeth, but later historians were more coy, and introduced the fictitious Macduff.

Both prophecies date from the chronicle written by Wyntoun, who probably got the idea from early Celtic and classical legends. It is more than lightly that the battle did take place at Dunsinane, a hill of some military importance, although there is no sign that it ever bore a stone castle.

It is known however that Earl Siward at once marched south to York, where he was to die the following year. In Macbeth moved back to his own land in the north east and lived for a further three years, until Malcolm raised a party in turn to kill him and his stepson.

There is still much to find out about Macbeth. Holinshead and others attribute to him the institution of an enlightened code of new laws. They may be right, but Macbeth’s Scotland was a place without towns or proper markets or roads. His administration was clearly good for its time, but it needed later Norman-trained rulers and the help of the Church to develop what he had started.

Shakespeare wrote his great play, and analysis of what he wrote will occupy scholars for ever. For good or ill the character of Macbeth has been firmly established throughout the world.


Scots Magazine article about Alastair Dunnett

The August issue of the Scots Magazine – a popular if slightly old-fashioned monthly magazine which has been going since 1739 and is produced by the same Dundee-based company which produces the Sunday Post as well as the legendary Dandy and Beano childrens comics – included an article about Sir Alastair Dunnett in their Great Scot series. Written by Rennie McOwan, well known as an outdoors writer and once employed by Alastair as a sub-editor on The Scotsman, it’s a five page tribute to “a man of total integrity”. While anyone who’s been fortunate enough to read Among Friends will know the story well, it’s a useful reminder to the wider Scottish-interest readership of the massive contribution he made to his native land.

News of mini-gatherings

Sydney, Australia – Jan 2004
A group of readers in Sydney are organising a one day event.
The Mini Gathering will be held in the Meeting Room at The Australian
Society of Genealogists, 24 Kent Street, The Rocks, Sydney on Saturday 17
January 2004 from 9.00 am to 4.00 pm.

Anyone interested in attending should contact Michael Sedin who will have full details available during September. His email address is msedin@exhibitorservices.com.au

Oxford Day – Sept 27th 2003

Anyone wanting to attend should get in touch with Olive Millward (omillward@aol.com) as soon as possible.

DDRA and Whispering Gallery

First of all can I appeal to people not to write to the Whispering Gallery editor Val Bierman except on editorial business – if you have any DDRA-related questions then you can contact me or any other member of the committee and we’ll be glad to help. If you do have letters, articles or photographs for inclusion in the magazine then Val will be very happy to hear from you – though preferably not immediately before a deadline! – but general DDRA business or enquiries about books or CDs are really not something she has time to deal with. Editing and laying out the magazine and arranging its printing and dispatch takes quite enough of her time!

Can I also make an appeal for anyone who is a member and whose subscription is about to (or has recently) expire(d), to renew their membership. At the last committee meeting I agreed to take on the membership database and have been looking at the membership profile while reorganising the data. We are totally dependent on continued subscriptions for the existence of the DDRA and at the moment the membership is dropping. From now on I hope to send reminders by email to those who are net connected, but in fact the majority of the current membership is not. If you haven’t been a member please consider taking out a subscription – overseas readers can do so using the PayPal option which Simon Hedges offers on his own site at www.simonhedges.com (I mistakenly gave a .co.uk address for him last time so please check that your bookmarks are correct).

Can I also ask the organisers of the various Dunnett days, weekends, and “spits” to consider advertising DDRA membership, and if at all possible to send reports on your activities for publication. The more people know about them the more chance of new attendees, so it benefits everyone.

It may be that if numbers continue to drop we will need to look closely at how the DDRA is set up and what its future role and direction will be. Most of our time up to now has been spent in setting it up and organising the Spring AGMs and mini-gatherings, but we need to try and give it a long-term future. It is after all only in its third year and that period has tragically seen Dorothy’s death. Naturally there will be some fall-off in interest with no new books to look forward to and some of the long-time Whispering Gallery readership heading towards old age, but if we hope to see the books remain in print so that new generations of readers discover the wonders that we have enjoyed then we need to keep the DDRA going in the same way that other associations do, such as the Neil Gunn Society or the John Buchan one.

I’d like to hear your views on this and so would the rest of the committee. How would you like to see it develop and what would make you consider joining? While debate could be conducted on the discussion groups not everyone has the time to follow those and sometimes enthusiasm takes over from considered analysis in such a forum, so I would prefer if ideas were sent to me by email and I’ll analyse them and discuss them with the committee. I won’t even begin to promise that I’ll reply to all of them as I know from experience that there will probably be a lot, but I will promise that they will be read and considered. Remember though that we have to consider everyone – for instance a wholly internet-based solution would disenfranchise a great many loyal WG readers – and it has to be financially viable in a way that will accord with our charitable status and aims. It also has to be practical with a volunteer workforce.
**Please use the subject line “DDRA Future” when emailing me on this subject to make it easier to sort the messages**

Lymond Poetry and Renaissance Band CDs

Last time I mentioned that I had signed copies of the Lymond Poetry available and in the following weeks was kept busy sending out lots of that and the Renaissance Band music CD. Unfortunately my mother-in-law’s health deteriorated while I was in the middle of this and she died not long after that. Between helping my wife cope with that and trying to get my business set up, things got pretty complicated and when I ran out of copies for a while I may have missed out on replying to two or three people who had enquired about them. (The advent of the Blaster virus which took down one of my ISPs for two days and the Sobig.F worm which flooded my mailbox and overloaded the other ISP didn’t help either!) If anyone was missing a reply from me please accept my apologies and if you still want a copy please get in touch again. I’m currently out of the CD but hope to have more copies shortly now that the band are finished with Festival appearances – but have plenty of the Poetry left if anyone wants one.

What’s in a Name

A little bit of trivia. One of the discussion groups were recently talking about names and whether they were still in use. That one revolved around Gelis but how about Khairredin? Well there is a BBC Scotland news and sports reporter working at the moment who is called Keredine Issidnissan. I’d heard his name spoken a few times (the shortened version sounds like Kirdy Nissan) and hadn’t made the association until I saw it written down and the connection clicked. I’ve seen it in collections of moslem names when I was researching for a page for Theresa Breslin’s book “Name Games”, but I wonder how common the name is in the moslem community these days?

A Question

I was recently talking to Jenny Renton, editor of Scottish Book Collector magazine – there’s a good chance that I’ll be writing an article for her about Dorothy – and we got to wondering about the likely interest for the mag overseas. It’s a literary magazine with a rather broader scope than its title suggests and knowing that there are a number of Scotophiles amongst you who may have connections to others of similar bent I’d be interested to hear if such a publication, either in paper or e-letter form, would find favour in your area.

A Late Entry about Viking Longboats

Just as I finished off this newsletter there was a TV programme shown on Channel 5 about the Vikings. Having just been reading the sea-battle scene in KH I was interested to hear that Viking longboats have been rebuilt and investigated at Roskilde sailing museum in Denmark. They were very light and flexible due to the clinker style of construction (overlapping boards) and the split rather than sawn timber used as the spine of the ship. Because of this they tended to aquaplane on top of the water rather than plough through it and could travel at up to 16 knots – a very respectable figure even today.

It was also mentioned that their sails were controlled closely by criss-crossing lines held by the crew, enabling them to get the best trim, and were made of a surprising material – wool. Apparently you can sail higher into the wind because of its elasticity but you would normally expect it to be unsuitable due to becoming waterlogged. However the wool they used was from an ancient breed of sheep called Spelsow (spelling may be wrong). These sheep had a double coat, the outer one of which was naturally water repellent. The two yarns were separated and then woven together on a special vertical loom which gave a denser cloth that was waterproof.

Finally a bit of shameless self-advertising – my new business site is now online at
If you know anyone who wants a website built please send ’em my way!

Best wishes to you all



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