The real Macbeth


Macbeth in a painting by George Cattermole (1800-68).

With a new movie version of Shakespeare’s play due for UK release next month, it’s worthwhile to dust off the medieval history behind all the drama and tragedy.

The real Macbeth (Macbethad mac Findlaích) was a lord of Moray who became a prominent figure in Scottish politics in the middle decades of the eleventh century. His ambition gained him the kingship of the Scots in 1040, a position he held until his death in 1057 – except for a brief hiatus when he was deposed by a rival. His life ended in a battle against Malcolm Canmore (Máel Coluim mac Donnchadha) who went on to depose Macbeth’s stepson Lulach in the following year. Malcolm then ruled the Scots until his own death at the battle of Alnwick in 1093.

A useful list of historical information relating to Macbeth has recently been placed online at Buzzfeed, courtesy of Marian Toledo Candelaria. Marian is a PhD student at the University of Guelph in Canada and an assistant editor at the International Review of Scottish Studies. The subject of her doctoral thesis is Malcolm Canmore, so she is very well-placed to give us the lowdown on one of his greatest foes.

Click the link below…

Marian Toledo Candelaria: Top 10 historical misconceptions about Macbeth

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For more insights into this turbulent period in Scottish history, take a look at Marian’s blog. Marian can also be followed on Twitter at @malcolmcanmore

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Macbeth and his wife Gruoch (Lady Macbeth) are discussed in an older blogpost here at Senchus.

My interest in Macbeth stems mainly from his involvement in the last phase of the kingdom of Strathclyde. I’ve written about this at my other blog Heart of the Kingdom under the title ‘A Govanite on the Scottish throne’. The same topic formed the subject of an article in the magazine History Scotland and is also covered in Chapter 9 of my book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age.

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A Roman reference to Pictish tattoos


Flavius Stilicho, with his wife and son, portrayed on an ivory carving of c.395 AD, now in Monza Cathedral, Italy. (photograph from L’art Byzantin, 1932)

At the end of the fourth century AD, the western half of the Roman Empire was in serious decline. Barbarian invasions by Vandals, Goths and other Germanic peoples were a constant drain on imperial resources. Internal revolts likewise removed any hope of stability or recovery. The emperor Honorius, whose reign spanned the years 384 to 423, was barely able to cling onto power. He relied heavily on the support of his father-in-law and former guardian, Flavius Stilicho, a highly respected general who was himself of Vandal ancestry.

A prominent figure at the imperial court was the poet Claudian (Claudius Claudianus) who was close to both Honorius and Stilicho. He composed panegyric poetry in praise of both men, boosting their reputations while denigrating those of their political opponents. In modern parlance we would probably call him a spin doctor. In one poem, composed in May or June of 402, Claudian refers to a great gathering of Roman troops by Stilicho, who was preparing for a battle against Gothic invaders in Italy. Among the assembled forces was a unit that had seen service in Britain:

‘there came the legion, shield of the frontier Britons,
check of the grim Scot,
whose men had watched the life leave the tattoos on the dying Pict.’

Contemporary sources imply that there were many clashes between Romans and Picts, from the late third century to the beginning of the fifth. Several legions were part of the permanent garrison of Britain during this period and would have seen action on the northern frontier. Also, other legions came and went, usually to bolster the garrison in times of crisis or to participate in one-off campaigns. The identity of the legion mentioned by Claudian is therefore unknown.

But what makes these lines of verse especially fascinating is the reference to Pictish tattoos.

The precise meaning of the name ‘Picts’ (Latin: Picti) is uncertain. It seems to be connected with pictures of some kind and is usually translated by modern historians as ‘The Painted Ones’. The likeliest explanation is that it refers to a particular custom practiced by certain groups of people in northern Britain. Tattooing is probably the custom in question.

Pricking an inked design on the skin, as opposed to daubing or painting, had evidently been common practice in pre-Roman Britain, before the stamp of Mediterranean culture made it unfashionable. It may have been maintained thereafter among native communities living outside the Empire, in the untamed northern lands beyond the Forth-Clyde isthmus. Further south, in the Romanised part of Britain, tattoos probably came to be regarded as old-fashioned and uncouth, a form of body ornamentation favoured by hairy savages who lurked beyond the reach of civilisation.

Pictish warrior

A Pictish warrior, from Cassell’s Illustrated History of England.

At some point, probably in the third century, soldiers in the frontier forts along Hadrian’s Wall coined the term Picti. This may have originated as a derogatory term for any group of suspicious-looking natives prowling on the far side of the Wall, whether they had tattoos or not. The name caught on, finding its way from army slang into highbrow literature. It eventually narrowed to describe the inhabitants of what are now northern and eastern Scotland. By c.600 AD, and for reasons unknown, these people were using Picti as a collective name for themselves. Despite its origins in the vocabulary of their ancient enemies, they presumably regarded it as a convenient label in their quest to establish a new ‘national’ identity. Whether any seventh-century Picts still tattooed their bodies is, however, a matter of debate. I’m inclined to think some of them probably did.

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Notes and references

Here is the original Latin text from Claudian’s poem:

venit et extremis legio praetenta Britannis,
quae Scotto dat frena truci ferroque notatas
perlegit exanimes Picto moriente figuras

*ferroque notatas….figuras —> literally ‘iron-marked figures’

In another poem, Claudian seems to credit Stilicho with a victory over the Picts. There is no mention of such a campaign in other sources, so it might be an example of political ‘spin’. It is unlikely that Stilicho ever visited Britain. He was mainly concerned with Italy and the eastern Mediterranean.

I discussed Stilicho’s alleged Pictish campaign in an article published 20 years ago:
Tim Clarkson, ‘Stilicho, Claudian and the Picts’ Pictish Arts Society Journal, 6 (Autumn 1994), 27-30

My views were largely based on an earlier study:
Molly Miller, ‘Stilicho’s Pictish War’ Britannia, 6 (1975), 141-5
(Miller is probably better known to readers of this blog for her articles on the North British kingdoms of the sixth century)

The Scots mentioned by Claudian were as likely to have hailed from Ireland as from the ancestral Scottish homelands in Argyll. The Latin word Scotti seems to have been another ethnic term from the repertoire of Roman army slang. It was probably applied to any group of raiders who spoke Gaelic. I touched on this topic in an older blogpost on Scottish origins.

For a detailed analysis of Claudian’s poetry, see Alan Cameron’s Claudian: Poetry and Propaganda at the Court of Honorius (Oxford, 1970).

Chapter 3 of my book The Picts: a History includes a short discussion of Pictish tattooing. There I note that the seventh-century writer Isidore of Seville specifically states that the Picts were so named because they used needles to imprint designs on their skin.

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The River Add from the summit of Dunadd (Photo © T Clarkson)

Many readers of this blog will be familiar with the hillfort of Dunadd. Some of you will have walked up the stony path to the famous carved footprint on the summit. It’s an enthralling place, with great views from the top and a rich aura of history all around. I’ve been there a couple of times, though my last visit was at least ten years ago.

Today I’m writing about Dunadd because I’ve recently been reminded of why it’s one of my favourite Dark Age sites. The reminder came in an article by Jo Woolf, over at her website The Hazel Tree. Jo’s reports on her visits to historic places always capture the essence and atmosphere, and her article on Dunadd is no exception. It’s worth checking out for the photographs too, which give a virtual tour of the hill and the surrounding landscape.

Jo refers to Dunadd’s importance as a place of ritual where early Scottish kings were inaugurated. She writes about the footprint, which would have played a central role in the royal ceremonies, noting that the original carving lies protected beneath a modern replica. She also mentions the carved image of a boar, which is often identified as Pictish. In AD 736, as Jo observes, an army of Picts attacked Dunadd during a major war with the Scots. At that time, the main territory of the Scots was Dál Riata, a region comprising much of Argyll and the Isles. The later kingdom of Scotland lay a couple of hundred years in the future.


The Pictish army in 736 was led by Óengus, the mightiest warlord in northern Britain. His main enemies in Dál Riata belonged to a royal family known as Cenél Loairn (‘Descendants of Loarn’) whose name still survives in the district of Lorn around the town of Oban. This family was at the height of its power in the early eighth century and probably used Dunadd as a major stronghold. The fortress was no doubt a key target for Óengus, whose attack upon it was noted by contemporary annalists. The record in question, written in Latin, is preserved in the Annals of Ulster:

Oengus m. Fergusso, rex Pictorum, vastavit regiones Dail Riatai & obtenuit Dun At & combussit Creic & duos filios Selbaich catenis alligauit, .i. Donngal & Feradach; & paulo post Brudeus m. Oengusa filii Fergusso obiit.
[‘Óengus son of Fergus, king of the Picts, laid waste the territory of Dál Riata and seized Dunadd and burned Creic and bound in chains two sons of Selbach, i.e. Dungal and Feradach; and shortly afterwards Brude son of Óengus son of Fergus died.’]

Not only was the fall of Dunadd a massive setback for Cenél Loairn, the capture of Selbach’s sons deprived the family of two prominent military leaders. Óengus pressed home his advantage and, within a few years, had imposed his authority throughout Dál Riata, establishing a Pictish overlordship in the heartland of the Scots. This was not the end of the story: archaeological evidence suggests that Dunadd remained in use, at least into the early 800s. By then, however, the presence of Viking raiders in the western seaways was already putting pressure on the Scots, prompting some of their leading families to migrate eastward into Pictish territory. In such circumstances, Dunadd is unlikely to have retained its status as a crowning-place of kings.

Click the link below to go to Jo Woolf’s blogpost.

Dunadd: behold the king!

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Remembering Aethelflaed

Aethelflaed of Mercia

Aethelflaed of Mercia with her young nephew Athelstan (a modern sculpture at Tamworth Castle).

Today is the 1097th anniversary of the death of my favourite individual from the Dark Ages.

I refer, of course, to the Anglo-Saxon princess Aethelflaed, the Lady of the Mercians. She was the daughter of Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, and sister to his successor Edward the Elder.

Aethelflaed married Aethelred, the ruler of Mercia in the western midlands of England, and joined him in a programme of fortress-building that strengthened his people’s defences against Viking raids. After Aethelred died in 911, his widow became sole ruler and – unusually for a woman in those times – a commander of armies in the field. She led military campaigns in person and achieved several major victories. Working in tandem with her brother Edward, she not only held off the Viking menace but won back a number of conquered territories in eastern England.

As part of her wider anti-Viking strategy, she formed a three-way alliance with the kings of Alba and Strathclyde. This northern and Scottish dimension is one of the reasons why I have long been fascinated by her career. Another reason is her connection with Mercia, my homeland, which she governed and protected during a time of great peril and uncertainty.

She died on 12 June 918, at the ancient Mercian settlement of Tamworth.

I’ve mentioned Aethelflaed here at Senchus quite a few times and, six years ago, devoted a blogpost to her. Last year I wrote about her again, at one of my other blogs. Here are the links to those posts…
‘The Lady of the Mercians’ [Senchus blog, 2009]
‘Aethelflaed’ [Strathclyde blog, 2014]

Her alliance with the Scots and Strathclyde Britons is described in a medieval text known as The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland. The passage in question gives an idea of the high regard in which she was held by contemporaries in lands far beyond the borders of Mercia. The relevant passage, with an English translation, can be seen in my blogpost on the Fragmentary Annals.

I also recommend Susan Abernethy’s article ‘Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia’ and Ed Watson’s ‘Aethelflaed: the making of a county town’.

I discuss Aethelflaed and her relations with the northern kings in my book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age (on pages 58-63).

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Finding the McCains

Scottish medieval warrior

Medieval sculpture of a warrior from Argyll (illustrated in R.C. Graham’s The Carved Stones of Islay, 1885).

The new science of genetic genealogy is now widely used in ancestry research. Although I know very little about the scientific side, I am aware that people sometimes buy my book The Picts after discovering a genetic link to the ancient Pictish areas of Scotland. They want to learn the history behind their family’s ‘Pictish DNA’.

In the past couple of years, I’ve had a number of interesting email conversations with genealogists who use DNA data in their research. One of these is Barry McCain, a writer and historian based in Mississippi. In addition to tracing his own family’s roots, Barry is involved in a genetic study relating to a district of mid-Argyll. Tradition has long held that the medieval origins of Clan McCain lie in the west of Scotland among the old Gaelic warrior-kindreds and the DNA data appears to support this.

Barry runs several genealogy/history websites and has recently produced a book called Finding the McCains in which he traces his ancestors’ migrations from Scotland to Ireland and thence to North America. More than just the story of one kindred, the book shows how to use genetic testing and primary sources to gain an understanding of historical Scottish families.

Here’s an extract from a description of the book:
“The search for the McCains became a mystery story with clues, false turns, many adventures, and then ultimate success through Y chromosome DNA testing. In 2008 the McCains were reunited with their family that remained in Ireland, after 289 years of separation. The author drew from his many experiences of his forty years of travel to Ireland and the UK to present a biography of this well-known Canadian and American family. His book is part memoir, part history, and explores the relationship between Diaspora and homeland. Finding the McCains is also an excellent genetic genealogy how-to guide for people of Irish and Scottish ancestry.”

The link below takes you to a page for the book at the Clan McCain blog:
Barry R. McCain – Finding the McCains: a Scots Irish Odyssey

Three more websites associated with Barry’s genealogical research:
Clan McCain
Mid-Argyll Kinship Group
The Scots-Irish

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Druim Alban: the Spine of Alba

Druim Alban

The Scottish Highlands (black square shows the area described in this blogpost). Original topographic map by Equestenebrarum via Wikimedia Commons.

During the late ninth and early tenth centuries, the Picts and Scots united to become a single, Gaelic-speaking people whose principal rulers were the descendants of Cináed mac Ailpín. The union or merger led to the formation of a ‘Picto-Scottish’ kingdom called Alba which took its name from an older Gaelic term formerly applied to the whole island of Britain. Sometime before c.900, this term seems to have narrowed to define a particular region in the far north of Britain, hence its adoption as a name for the new realm of the mac Ailpín kings. It is possible that Alba had long been in use among the Gaelic-speaking Scots as a synonym for ‘Pictland’, or that the name also encompassed Dál Riata – their own homeland in Argyll.


Before their union, the Picts and Scots had been separated by a geographical feature known as the ‘Ridge of Alba’ or ‘Ridge of Britain’. In medieval texts these names appear respectively as Druim Alban (Gaelic) and dorsum Britanniae (Latin). Our earliest references to the ridge occur in Vita Columbae, the ‘Life of Columba’, written on Iona by Abbot Adomnán at the end of the seventh century. Adomnán mentions the ridge five times, telling us that it divided the Picts and Scots ‘inter quos utrosque dorsi montes brittannici disterminant’ (‘between which peoples the mountains of the Ridge of Britain are the boundary’). He clearly had a specific feature in mind – a recognisable natural frontier in a mountainous area – but neither he nor any later writer gave enough detail to enable us to identify the feature on a modern map.

Some historians think we should translate druim and dorsum not as ‘ridge’ but as ‘spine’, and also that we should apply this term in a more general way. Rather than imagining a specific upland feature, they suggest that the ‘Spine of Alba’ might simply be the entire range of hills and mountains between Pictland and Dál Riata. Against this argument we may note that the range in question is not a continuous line or barrier, being punctuated by various glens and passes. Nor does it run north-south, a direction we might expect of a border between the Pictish east and the Gaelic west. For these reasons, it is hard to see why Adomnán and his contemporaries would regard such an unconnected line of hills as a druim or dorsum.

Another possibility is that the Ridge or Spine was a name given to just one section of this upland range, an idea examined in recent years by Philip Dunshea of the University of Cambridge. In an article published in Scottish Historical Review in 2013, Dr Dunshea highlighted the watershed between Glen Lochy and the village of Tyndrum as a likely location for Druim Alban or dorsum Britanniae. The rivers running west off this watershed flow into the Firth of Lorn, while those running east join the mighty Tay. Moreover, the watershed itself marks the boundary between the old counties of Argyllshire and Perthshire. Dr Dunshea further noted that the name ‘Tyndrum’ comes from the Gaelic tigh an droma, ‘house of the ridge, and that a lost placename in the vicinity is Carndroma, ‘cairn of the ridge’. He suggested that the remains of this cairn might lie beneath a grass-covered mound near the A85 highway, close to the county boundary.

Druim Alban

Tyndrum and Glen Lochy. The grey line is the Argyllshire-Perthshire boundary.

A third possibility is that the names Druim Alban and dorsum Britanniae referred, quite literally, to a feature that did indeed resemble a backbone. I first encountered this idea fifteen years ago in an article in the Pictish Arts Society Journal. The authors – David Dorren and Nina Henry – had noticed something unusual as they stood on top of Beinn Bheag, a hill slightly north-west of Tyndrum:

‘From its summit, looking south across Glen Lochy to the Ben Lui range, one sees a remarkable sight. Running straight up the hillside above Lochan na Bi and continuing in a straight line over the top of Meall Odhar is a ridge, resembling a massive field dyke superimposed on the hillside. It has a low cover of vegetation, except for a central strip on the top of the ridge, where the bare rock is exposed, forming a rocky line of approximately constant width. The rock is quartz-veined schist, which gives it a whitish appearance, so that it stands out prominently against the hillside.’ [Dorren & Henry 2000, 42-3]

The feature to which they referred can be seen in the following images:

Druim Alban

The ridge from Beinn Bheag looking south across Glen Lochy and the Lochan na Bi.
(© David Dorren 1999)

Druim Alban

View south from Beinn Bheag showing the north section of the ridge (foreground) and the more prominent section across Glen Lochy and Lochan na Bi.
(© David Dorren 1999)

Dorren and Henry also noticed that the ridge reappeared on the north side of Glen Lochy, where the white quartz is hidden under grass. This section is followed by the old county boundary (now the boundary between the Argyll and Stirling council areas). The section on the south side of the glen climbs the hillside above Lochan na Bi before curving over the top where it is known as Drochaid an Droma, ‘The Bridge of the Ridge’. Here, the rocks have a segmented appearance, just like the vertebrae of a backbone. Glen Lochy lay on one of the main routes between Dál Riata and Pictland and was perhaps crossed here by an ancient frontier which later became a county boundary. In their article, Dorren and Henry suggested that this frontier may have been marked by the quartz ridge running across the glen, and that the ridge might be the Druim Alban and dorsum Britanniae of the medieval texts.

I’ll end this blogpost with three images of the Drochaid an Droma. David Dorren – who took these photographs – tells me that when sunlight strikes the ridge, illuminating the rocks, the white quartz gleams in a stunning display.

Drochaid an Droma

The top of the ridge south of the Lochan na Bi – the Drochaid an Droma.
(© David Dorren 1999)

Drochaid an Droma

The Drochaid an Droma.
(© David Dorren 1999)

Drochaid an Droma

The Drochaid an Droma from the west. Glen Lochy to the left.
(© David Dorren 1999)

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Notes & references

I am very grateful to Dr David Dorren for granting permission to reproduce his photographs.

J.D. Dorren and N. Henry, ‘Identification of Druim Alban’ Pictish Arts Society Journal (no.15, 2000), 42-8.

Philip M. Dunshea, ‘Druim Alban, Dorsum Britanniae – the Spine of Britain’ Scottish Historical Review 92 (2013), 275-289.

Philip M. Dunshea, In search of Carn Droma: exploring the boundaries between Picts and Gaels. [published at the blog of the ASNC Department, University of Cambridge)

Dr Dunshea’s investigation of the possible site of Carn Droma can also be seen in a site report at the West of Scotland Archaeology Service.

Adomnán’s ‘Life of Columba’ mentions Dorsum Britanniae in Book I (chapter 34), Book II (chapters 31, 42 & 46) and Book III (chapter 14).

See also the Annals of Ulster, under the year 717:
Expulsio familie Ie trans Dorsum Brittanie a Nectano rege.
‘Expulsion of the community of Iona beyond the Ridge of Britain by king Nechtan.’
[Nechtan, king of the Picts, expelled the Columban monks from his kingdom during a programme of ecclesiastical reforms.]

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Additional notes [22 February 2015]

Since uploading this blogpost, I have received more information from David Dorren about the article in the Pictish Arts Society Journal (cited above). David is happy to send a copy of the article to anyone who is interested. He can be contacted at A copy was also deposited at the National Library of Scotland and is on file there.

The quartz ridge can be seen on satellite images, and David has kindly provided the following links (via Bing Maps) –
1. Overall view (best viewed full-screen, from which you can zoom in or out and move around)
2. Close up of the area of the Drochaid an Droma

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Additional notes [4 March 2015]

I’ve had further discussion with David Dorren on a number of points relating to Druim Alban. David has drawn my attention to a couple of points that I feel are worth adding to this blogpost. Both relate to place-names previously mentioned above.

1. Carndroma/Carndrome/Carn Druim
In their article in the Pictish Arts Society Journal, David and Nina suggested that Carndroma or Carn Druim is probably the Drochaid an Droma rather than a specific cairn. In this instance, Gaelic carn would refer to a cairn-like natural feature, a description that certainly fits the rugged appearance of the Drochaid.

2. Tyndrum
Also in the same article is the suggestion that Tyndrum, the ‘house of the ridge’, perhaps takes its name from the linear feature of which the Drochaid an Droma is the most spectacular part. This might be the case even if the feature in question is not the Druim Alban of ancient lore. Tyndrum is about 1½ miles from the Drochaid and does not itself sit on a ridge, but was presumably named from such a feature in the local landscape.

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Picts, Gaels and Scots

Picts Gaels & Scots
Sally Foster’s book Picts, Gaels and Scots will already be familiar to many of you. It’s an essential resource for anyone who has a keen interest in early medieval Scotland. I have a copy of the first edition (1996) but merely borrowed rather than bought the second (2004). I’ve now got the third edition, published last year by Birlinn of Edinburgh.

Sally Foster is a renowned archaeologist who formerly worked as an ancient monuments inspector for Historic Scotland. She now works in academia and is currently at the University of Stirling as a lecturer on heritage and conservation, having previously lectured in the archaeology departments at Glasgow and Aberdeen.

Picts, Gaels and Scots is an archaeological and historical survey of Scotland in the Early Historic period (fifth to tenth centuries AD). The emphasis is on material culture – artefacts and sites – but a range of other topics are also covered: economy, religion, warfare, kingship and literacy. By drawing on the latest research, Dr Foster brings us up to date with the current state of knowledge on the Picts and their neighbours. Accompanying her text are drawings, photographs and maps, with a plate section of colour illustrations. The bibliography at the end of the book is a good indicator of how much new research has been undertaken since the 2004 edition. The ensuing years have witnessed some major re-thinking by historians on a number of important issues – such as the location of the Pictish kingdom of Fortriu – as well as new interpretations of archaeological data. What therefore emerges from this latest edition is a clearer picture of what was happening in the northern parts of Britain in the first millennium AD.

The author’s foreword is an informative and enlightening essay in its own right, a detailed summary of the advances in scholarship that have been made in the past 10 years. It can be read online at the Birlinn blog via the link below.

Sally Foster: Foreword to the 2014 edition of Picts, Gaels and Scots.

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