The Battle of Dunsinane: MacBeth Vs Malcolm Canmore


July 27th – Malcolm, the exiled son of King Duncan I, marshalled thousands of English and Danish warriors in Birnam Wood, in Perthshire, where he had come, supported by his kinsman Siward, Earl of Northumbria to defeat the king of Alba. Nearby, a few miles from them, MacBeth was holed up in his fortress of Dunsinane Hill, expecting to meet Malcolm in battle. This was to be the decisive fight that would see Malcolm take back the crown from the man who was said to have killed Duncan, his father. But although Malcolm’s troops slaughtered 3000 of MacBeth’s men, MacBeth was not done, and it was not for another 4 years before Malcolm would wear the crown of the whole of Alba, becoming Malcolm III.

Duncan 1
Duncan I

Following the death of his father, King Duncan l , in 1040  Malcolm fled to his kinsman, Siward, Earl of Northumbria. Malcolm’s mother, had been a relative of Siward’s and had died in childbirth.  Malcolm, who was to become known as Malcolm Canmore (meaning head of men, possibly interpreted wrongly later as big head) grew up at the English court of Edward the Confessor. It was there that he may have made friends with Tostig Godwinson, who was to become Siward’s successor in Northumbria in 1055, which may account for their closeness when Tostig later ruled  in the north. In 1054, Edward the Confessor agreed to assist Malcolm in his bid to regain the crown of Alba from MacBeth. Edward allowed Siward to march north into Scotland with thousands of English soldiers, reputed to be 10,000 strong, which, if true, was generous, considering the king was able to call on 14,000 men for the select fyrd. Edward was also said to have supplied a large number of his own huscarles.


MacBeth, had been Mormaer of Moray when he killed Malcolm’s father. Duncan and MacBeth had both been grandsons of King Malcolm ll. MAcBeth had killed Malcolm’s father in 1040, most likely during a battle, or after capturing him in pursuit. The reason for the hostility between the two men was said to have been something to do with Donald’s rather violent, unkingly, behaviour. Malcolm, Duncan’s grandfather, had been a somewhat cruel and ruthless man, and Duncan had gone the same way, subjecting his people to the rampaging of their lands, stealing  their property, and offering them death and destruction if they opposed him or his men. MacBeth’s tennants demanded that MacBeth do his duty and protect them. MAcBeth, having had enough, decided to put an end to this undesirable king’s doings. With the support of Thorfinn of Orkney, known as the Mighty, Duncan’s end came somewhere near Elgin or Forres. This led to the Bigheaded one fleeing to England, although his head might not have been that big then,  and MacBeth ruled sensibly and peaceably for 17 years over Scotland, or Alba, as it was then known.

Photo c/o Christopher Doyle and Tim Benfield of Regia Anglorum

Thorfinn of Orkney, also ruler of Caithness, and a cousin or half-brother of Duncan, had more reason to be hostile to MacBeth, but he too had been attacked, though unsuccesfully, by Duncan and swore allegiance to MacBeth. The two men joined forces to bring peace and order to the kingdom sending out small bands of men to oversee that justice was carried out. MacBeth is also credited with having brought social reforms to Alba, seeing to it that widows received a pension and orphans, benefits. Doesn’t sound like the ambitious cousin murdering, avaricious mad man of Shakespeare, does it? Marianus Scottus, the Irish chronicler, tells us that MacBeth went to Rome and gave coins to the homeless in the streets there. A very nice man indeed with a social conscience.

But what caused Shakespeare to portray MAcBeth as a monster? Tony Harmsworth  asks this question: with all these good deeds, how did Shakespeare get it so wrong?

“William Shakespeare, was reading the History of Scotland by Holinshed and was living under the rule of King James – you can imagine the Bard interpreting events as Macbeth murdering the king and then stealing the throne from the rightful heir.”

Therefore, it seems, it was a case of making the facts fit the political situation of the time as King James was obviously descended from Malcolm who would have been seen as the rightful heir valiantly returning the throne to the rightful king. The English of James court in Shakespeare’s time would not have understood the tanistry system of the Scotland of the eleventh century, meaning that the kings (as they were in Anglo-Saxon England) were elected and not followed by primogeny.

Harmsworth claims in his book, Scotland’s Bloody History, that when MacBeth returned from Rome c 1050/51, he pushed Alba’s borders with a substantial army all the way down to Yorkshire and Lancashire; however Harmsworth does not clarify his sources for this, and it is difficult to know the veracity of this information, especially when none of the Anglo-Saxon chronicles mention it. If there is any truth in this, it might have been one of the reasons why Edward allowed Siward to lead the fyrd, including many of his own personal warriors into Scotland to support Malcolm against MacBeth.

Known today as MacBeth, his name in Medieval Gaelic was Mac Bethad mac Findlaích. His father Findlaich was Mormaer of Moray, and was said to have been murdered by a usurping cousin, Gille Coemgáin in 1032. MacBeth cornered him and avenged his father by burning them in a hall. He then married Gruoch, the wife of  Gille Coemgáin and adopted her son Lulach. Gruoch was also of royal blood and so MacBeth could have had a claim on both his own and his wife’s lineage. He has been thought by some to have also been Thorfinn the Mighty. In fact Dorothy Dunnett, the famous historical fiction writer of the 70’s and 80’s writes about Thorfinn and MacBeth in her book, The King Hereafter, as being one and the same based on the fact that they are never mentioned together in the chronicles and a reference in the Orkneyinga saga to Thorfinn killing a Karl Hundason (man son of a dog), King of Scotland, thought to be Duncan.

Malcolm was in his mid twenties when he made his expedition into his old homeland with a large army of professional fighters at his back and his uncle Siward at his side. Growing up in the English courts, he would have learned to fight with numerous weapons and battle strategics. No doubt the doughty character of his uncle would come in use in his first taste of war.

The English army were said to have crossed the river Tweed, raiding, plundering as they went, a sure way to win hearts and minds, but that’s how it was done in those days. According to Hollingshed, whilst planning his strategy in Birnam Wood, Malcolm was hit with the idea of using branches of cut trees as camouflage to approach MacBeth’s position, camped nearby with an elite bodyguard. Harmsworth mentions that this is one of the earliest recorded use of camouflage in battle. This is where Shakespeare gets his lines: Dunsinane-Hill

It is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D (Worcester) that:

Siward travelled forth with a great raiding ship army, and raiding land-army, and fought against the Scots and put to flight the king, MacBeth, and killed all that was best there in the land…

The fact that they took ships as well, does suggest a large scale invasion. The battle that took place was also said to have been ‘hard-fought’ and the chronicle goes on to say:

…and led away from there such a great warbooty as no man had ever got before; but his [Siward] son Osbern and his sister’s son, Siward, and some of his huscarles and also the king’s, were killed on the Day of the Seven Sleepers.

The chronicle makes no mention of Malcolm or the purpose of the expedition, which seems to have been to restore Malcolm to his rightful birthright of king of the Scots. Florence of Worcester mentions that Siward, by the King’s orders (Edward the Confessor), made Malcolm king (Florence refers to him as the son of the king of the Cumbrians). Chronicle C, (Abingdon) like the D, mentions Earl Siward only, and fails to mention any ships. It mentions that much slaughter of the Scots was made there and also that many Danish and English died, indicating that both many men died on both sides and that the Danes were probably Siward’s men, being a Dane himself. What was wrong with the English monks that they failed to mention Malcolm’s achievements in this? There was definitely an economy among the monks in their establishment of facts when writing the chronicles in the 11thc! Would mentioning Malcolm’s name overshadow the doings of the English so badly, after all, he was but one Scotsman, and there were plenty of Anglo-Danes. One has to wonder at this seemingly jealousness that riddles the chronicles!

Interestingly, MacBeth had given succour to a couple of Anglo-Normans, Hugh and Osbern, who had been forced with their men, to flee the return of the exiled Godwinsons. It was said that they  reinforced MacBeth’s army at the Battle of Dunsinane. More recently I have found this information that was documented by Byrhtferth in the Northumbrian Chronicles:  A large Northumbrian fleet was led by Malcolm. They captured the city of Dundee and was joined by Scottish rebels on horse. They raided and pillaged (probably where the large amount of booty came from) marching out to the to Gowrie passing Scone and Edinburgh. Macbeth was faced with a huge invasion and would have been forced to ride the country to muster forces.  The  Battle of  Dunsinane occurred on the Seven Sleepers. There is little mention of how things went during the battle,  but Macbeth’s forces charged down from the hills at the Northumbrians but were put to flight. The annals of Ulster record as many as 3000 Scottish dead, 1500 English dead and all of Macbeth’s Normans were wiped out.

The Battle of Seven Sleepers put Canmore in firm control of the Lowlands, for the English this was enough, who made a separate peace with Macbeth and returned overloaded with booty back to London and Northumbria leaving Canmore with only his Scottish forces.

Dunsinane Hill is located near the village of Collace in Perthshire. It has the remains of two early forts and the highest point on the hill is 1020 feet. We do not know where MacBeth was camped, or whether he was in the fort – depending on what state the fort was in – but it seems that if Malcolm’s army were able to sneak up on them, then they were vulnerable so probably not surrounded by defences. It was said that MacBeth’s guard surrounded him and defended him as best they could but they were defeated 3000 – 1,500, but MacBeth eventually got away to safety and spent the next 3 years on the run. Among the English killed were many of Edward the Confessor’s huscarles creating a lot of jobs for any unemployed warriors.

Malcolm attended a meeting of the mormaers who elected MacBeth’s stepson Lulach as king – perhaps thinking that MacBeth was dead – or that it was time to move on – who knows? Malcolm, of course, was not happy about this, seeing as he had fought really hard to win. He still had a support from the English soldiers, so he chased Lulach, if the king was not to be him, then he would kill whoever it was. And Lulach was  caught and killed  by Malcolm, another victim in the long line of murdered Scots kings. As far as killing their kings went, the Scots seemed to be pretty good at it, perhaps better than the English.

Three years after Dunsinane, MacBeth was finally cornered and killed at Lumphanen and his 17 year reign came to an end. There has to be a moral to this story, that being: ‘you will get yours eventually’. And whatever happened, Malcolm was eventually crowned, not because it was his birthright, but because of the tanistry system that operated in Scotland at this time in which a male successor was elected from among the royal family including extended branches – much like the Anglo-Saxon aethelings. 


Primary Sources

AS Chronicle C (Abingdon)

AS Chronicle D (Worcester)

Florence of Worcester

The Northumbrian Chronicles

The Annals of Ulster

Secondary Sources

Stenton F 1998, Anglo Saxon England (2nd ed), Oxford University Press, Oxford.


Further Reading

Aitcheson N (1999)  MacBeth Man and Myth, Sutton Publishing Limited, Gloucestershire.