by Stuart MacHardy

Gliog an seo gus an aiste seo leughadh sa Ghàidhlig
Click here tae read this airticle in Scots

It is  an old cliché that history is written by winners, though it would be truer to say that it is written by people paid by the winners.  In Scotland’s case such early history as we do have came for the pen of monks and priests, the only literate section of the populace.

One of the oddest aspects of history is that historians, paid to study, teach and write about the past, constantly behave as if with the arrival of literature, story disappeared.  Orally transmitted material if referred to at all are ‘just stories’ or ‘simply anecdotal.” People did not stop telling stories just because some other people could write their versions of reality down on paper.  Stories have never stopped being told and some of them may contain information that could help elucidate our past.

Another thing about story is that, despite the attitude of academics, they still affect our perceptions of history.  One example is MacBeth.  If you read national and local Scottish histories of the 18th and 19th centuries the story of MacBeth is always the same.  We are told that he was no more than a murderous  tyrant and that he eventually got his just desserts from Malcolm Canmore.  The fact is this is Shakespeare’s dramatic retelling of the story and is not intended as history.

Some of our older historians saw MacBeth as being as much a suitable candidate for the kingship as Duncan, and once on the throne he appears to have ruled for seventeen, mainly peaceful years.  So peaceful that MacBeth found time to go on a pilgrimage to Rome.  Some evidence even suggests that his wife, Gruoch, had originally been Duncan’s wife, and this suggests interesting possibilities regarding the role of females in Scottish ‘kingship’.

What matters here though is that educated people who wrote about Scottish history over a long period were quite happy to present a story based on a play written by a foreigner as the historical truth.  Now Shakespeare knew what he was doing and included witchcraft in the drama  to pique the king’s interest.  He knew well that James I and VI was obsessed with all things diabolical but also seems to have been aware of James’ hatred of all things ‘Celtic’.  Like most Scottish, and later British monarchs James hated the clan system with its adherence to its own rules of kinship and loyalty and its contempt for centralised law and order.  So the Bard of Avon created a great villain for the Scottish Play.

But why did people accept this as historical?  Simple.  They didn’t really know any better. Ever since 1707 Scottish history has been a particularly poor relation of that bastard discipline, British History.  British History is English History with a few sops to the Scots, Welsh and Irish, in that order.  And what we see in MacBeth is an example of a story being taken for the truth for generations.  Today we might see things clearer but this is not the only instance of distortion.

Just as history is written by winners so story can contain what contemporary people thought was important within their own communities.  It was through investigating stories related to a particular cateran – Highland cattle raider–  that I came across a considerable amount of information that shows the ’45 didn’t come to a complete stop after Culloden. In the years after that battle most of the Highlands, and considerable areas of Lowland Scotland were garrisoned by the British army.  There is specific written evidence showing this but it has never been published.  Why not?  Because it would go against the message that British history wants to tell-– that the Jacobite rebellion in 1745 was a sideshow, a last gasp adventure by a society in decline against the rising modern world.

Just as MacBeth was a malevolent psychopath and his wife worse.  And Malcolm Canmore, the virtuous heir to the throne who defeated MacBeth is generally presented as being close to the English.  Perhaps.  His saintly wife Margaret, was in fact a refugee from England, her brother having been unsuccessful in his bid for the English throne.

The sub text is that Malcolm was a modern forward-looking ‘chap’ while MacBeth  represented the old Scotland, long past its sell-by date.  Well here’s a thing.  When Malcolm died his eldest son did not take over the throne.  It was his brother Donald Bane who was in turn succeeded by his nephews, one after the other.  Primogeniture, the succession of the eldest son, it wasn’t, but something more like the old mores of tribal succession, still common to the tribes who composed the majority of Scotland’s population in the eleventh century, Highland and Lowland.

The thrust of British history is obvious.  The intention is to try and present Scotland as being as much like England as possible, thus reinforcing the idea that it is only natural for us to be linked. It does not seem to matter that our ancestors, until not very long before the Treaty of Union regularly looked to the south, not for guidance or ideas but to check there wasn’t another invasion on the way.

And since the Treaty of Union those who have been claimed as the defenders of Scottish national cultural identity, the Law, the Kirk and the Universities have been quite content to peddle such versions of events – the status quo has suited them.  And it is hardly accidental that so many of the leading figure in such institutions have been drawn form that other class, blessed by the Union, the lairds, whose forebears once were chiefs and knew well they were humans like the rest of their ain fowk.  And just as so much of our land has been stolen by the lairds* so our history has been deleted by the gatekeepers of Scotia Subjectus.

Hopefully, not for much longer.

* see Andy Wightman’s The Poor Had No Lawyers

Stuart McHardy is a writer and story-teller and is the author of A New History of the Picts, published by Luath Press in 2011. 


2011-09-25 10:49

To be fair to Shakespeare, his version of the MacBeth story was based on the “history” written by Hector Boece, a Scottish academic.
2011-09-25 10:59

Hi Stuart,

Excellent article. Though no historian, it always seemed to me unlikely that pre-Roman Scots were the “savages” depicted by conventional historians, given the volume of stone-built relics they left together with the fabulous Celtic jewellery which has been uncovered. It was only recently that I became aware of a similar view beginning to take hold amongst historians

For me the seeds were set by prof. Thom (not a historian) discovering in the 1970’s that the stone circles were in fact lunar observatories, which although primitive in construction, displayed a considerable finesse in the predicting of the phases of the moon, and the sophistication of the mathematics required to achieve this.

However, I think “British” historians have always considered that civilisation started with the arrival of the Romans – and where were they dominant?, and where was their capital? Oh yes, let me see – was it in England?

Savages indeed!

2011-09-25 14:49

Stone circles are also focus points for telluric energy, which occurs naturally, and are connected to ley lines.
There’s a guy in Crieff who has an interesting book on the subject and he has mapped many of them. The main ‘stations’ are St.Kilda, Edinburgh Castle rock and Giants Causeway in Ireland. Many other and minor circuits abound in Scotland. Apparently the ancient ‘coffin roads’ followed these lines.
2011-09-25 21:30

Agreed and many churches were built over these points. Those who build Maes Howe and Skarra brae cannot be called savages.

As an engineer I find it difficult at times to fully accept the ancient myths.

However it would be foolish to dismiss any ancient race in any country as backward based upon “modern measures”.
Edna Caine
2011-09-25 21:49

Early society was highly matriarchal.

I have it on very good authority (The Great Zorg, eternal ruler of the Known Universe) that the stone circles of Orkney, Shetland, Na h’Eileanan Siar and Tir nan Og (now sadly lost to us) were constructed on the orders of these matriarchs.

This was because there were few trees where they could hing oot the washing.

Back on topic, anybody like MacBeth who could rule peacefully for 17 years back then must have been good at something. Shakespeare is a truly great literary artist, perhaps the greatest playwright ever, but would anyone ever regard, say, King Lear as accurate history?
2011-09-27 09:53

There are holes drilled through a lot of the stones to allow the washing lines to be attached.

2011-09-25 11:25

What you have to remember about Shakespeare is that he was a very “topical,” writer. Macbeth was his big “kiss arse” play to suck up to King James, and gain royal patronage in the new order of things after Elizabeth of England died. Hence the scene with Banquo where his descendants lead to the Stewarts, and their legitimate claim to the throne.

I also thought the Scottish throne came through the female line, and it was an “elective” monarchy. The chosen king being “Ard Righ,” the high king. That’s why Duncan got the chop, when he named his son as his successor. Now that’s what I’ve always believed over the years, but hey, I could well be wrong. 🙂
2011-09-25 11:26

I think that the people who erected the stones at Callanish were related in some way to the people who erected the stones at Carnac in Brittany before the Pyramids were built.…/…
2011-09-25 14:23

Great stuff as always Stuart,keep up the good work! We’re getting there! Slainte! Iain
J Wil
2011-09-25 15:16

Scots have been so deprived of Scottish history that being told it now is like being transported into a foreign country.
2011-09-25 15:47

I’m sorry, but this article is making out that Shakespeare’s Macbeth was deliberately used to somehow brainwash Scots into believing it was in fact true history.

Anyone who has studied Shakespeare’s work in depth will know that the play is one of his shortest, and that some elements are there to please the King. The play, and a few others, has it’s sources in the Holinshed Chronicles (history, maps and chronological information about England, Ireland and Scotland).

it seems that just about anything that may appear to negative to Scots is now being used as an argument for independence. Most people know Macbeth is a play, few in fact are aware that Macbeth was a real person but that was almost a thousand years ago and has no relevance to current events.

Let me guess: Shakespeare’s works will be banned when Scotland is independent?
Robert Louis
2011-09-25 18:55


“Let me guess: Shakespeare’s works will be banned when Scotland is independent?”

Ach, dinnae be daft nfs.
2011-09-25 21:36


Unlike holywood who have re-written entire events. Even well documented recent history – enigma m/c capture / The war in Burma etc

The American movie industry has done more damage in 50 years than any book by Shakespeare!
2011-09-26 11:06


Sit down with a long cold drink and relax, please.

2011-09-25 19:46

Another excellent piece Stuart, I enjoyed your book on the Picts absolutely wonderful, please write more.
2011-09-27 09:15

There were power struggles for centuries between the north Picts around Moray and south Picts around Perthshire, this continued well after the founding of Scotland. It was not until 1229 or 1230 the king of Scotland finally destroyed the threat from Moray: things could well have worked out differently, as the ascension of Macbeth – a Moray man – shows.
2011-09-27 09:24

The Lord of the Isles, essentially kings in their own right, persisted in considering themselves independent of Scotland until the 15th century too – there was even an alliance with the King of England in 1492 with the aim of conquering Scotland. Events in England prevented it amounting to anything, and it ultimately brought the Lordship to an end.
2011-09-27 09:25

Blanco – Do you have sources for what you’re claiming here? Thanks!
2011-09-27 10:28

The King of Scots (David) effectively destroyed the Kingdom of Moray in 1130, so he may just be out by a century. I don’t think the region posed the same level, or kind, of threat to the Kingdom of Scotland after that (although there was still trouble, mostly within Moray, until about the mid 13th C).
2011-09-27 12:18

For which bit? In medieaval times the MacHeths and MacWilliams and their predecessors were a thorn in the side of the Scottish monarchs.

In earlier times it is harder to know exactly what was going on, but I have inferred (perhaps that is taking too many liberties?) from the descriptions of the king of Picts as being sometimes in what we now call Moray, sometimes in what we now call Perthshire, that power was exercised over the whole of Pictland sometimes from north of the Mounth, sometimes from south of it.

If you let me know which period you are looking for references from I will try and dig them out.
2011-09-27 13:19

The Pictish kingdom of Fortriu, often just called Pictland and the northern (and usually main) Pictish kingdom, roughly covered the same area as the later kingdom of Moray.

2011-09-27 11:22

Lots of interesting medaeval maps on
Got it off facebook, but cant find the donor to thank for this!
2011-09-27 11:27

You really can’t beat the National Library of Scotland’s collection of maps:
2011-09-27 14:39

Thanks mate, I’ll draw their attention to that in the right (well, almost!) area!

2011-09-27 14:03

I think the main thrust of this article is: that basically Shakespeare or not, our history has been distorted through an Anglo-Brit perspective for too long. So that we are left with short-hand distorted myths which are ultimately sel-abasing e.g.The Picts were savage and not worth conquering by the Romans; Bonnie Prince Charlie was weak and a cross-dressing drunk;Mary Queen of Scots was a fickle feckless wumman; the clan system and gaelic was a discrete, irrelevant and remote part of Scotland’s culture etc.Recently, I stumbled across a Victorian roll of captured Jacobites from the ’45. The document referred to the fact that the vast majority of the captured men did not have ‘highland’ ‘mac’ surnames and did not appear to originate from traditional clan areas. Indeed most came from the East (Dundee) all the way up to the North East, with the Doric and Mearns areas being predominant. There were several hundred of these Lowland names and addresses. Something which surprised me, as I’d swallowed the John Prebble (pro-Scottish, but Highland-centric to be fair) version that the vast majority of the Jacobites were highland Gaelic speakers. This evidence made my previous belief questionable. Possibly the rebellion was not as localised as I’d been led to believe. There are many other researches such as Stuart McHardy’s which are shedding light on our suppressed history, and I welcome this latest publication.
2011-09-27 22:49

These guys were the most committed Jacobites Lochside. Episcopalianism was then still strong from Angus northwards. The folk were less pressured to rise at the will of a chief whether they agreed or no. Many in the Jacobite Highlands were forced, desertion to attend to affairs at home being a constant problem in the ’45.
That said, their cause, the restoration of the Stuarts with all the reactionary baggage of absolute monarchy was, like the Vendee in Revolutionary France or the Confederacy in America, a lousy one. The Scottish Insurrection of the 1820’s, was a much more progressive, if doomed affair.
The ’45 was the last gasp of the feudal system in Britain, it’s supporters deserved a better cause.
J Wil
2011-09-30 00:13

Brewer got his comeuppance last night with the three history academics dissing his warblings. I hope the ‘Scottish’ Labour party was watching the programme.
ituna semea
2011-09-30 19:51

Sorry only one of them was a history academic, Alan Riach is a Professor of Scottish Literature, and A l Kennedy is a novelist and sometime comedienne.

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