Who was Donald Bane?

Donald Bane of Scotland, by George Jamieson, Source: Wikipedia

For most of us, our first contact with Donald Bane (or Donalbane) comes with the play Macbeth. After poor King Duncan was killed in his bed, his heirs feared assassination and fled the scene; Prince Malcolm slipped away to England and Donald Bane went to Ireland.  And this is the last we see of Donald Bane in the play. Who was he and what happened to him?

There seems to be no historic trail from the death of his father until 1093, when he usurped the throne of Scotland.  It is said that in 1060 he became Mormaer of Gowrie (modern Perthshire), yet it is assumed he lived in the Western Isles and possibly Ireland.  I’ve found reference to his exile there but no explanation, so we are left to fill in the blanks. What we do know is that he aligned himself with the pro-Gaelic party in Scotland, which was in opposition to Malcolm and Margaret’s attempt to suppress the Celtic Church in favor of Catholicism.

It wasn’t until 1093 that Donald Bane made his move. Somehow he knew about Malcolm’s last campaign into Northumbria, because we find that in the King’s absence he laid siege to Edinburgh castle. He knew that Queen Margaret was in residence with her younger sons, and intended to acquire them as hostages. If you’ve ever been to Edinburgh, you know that the castle is perched high on a rugged cliff, so his army would have encamped on the other side.

source: Wikipedia

Assuming the cliff was impassible was his big mistake. As depicted in my novel, HEIR TO A PROPHECY, the ailing Margaret died within minutes of hearing that the king and her eldest son had been slain. Her surviving sons and servants devised a litter and lowered the queen’s body all the way down the cliff, protected by a mysterious white mist.  They ferried Margaret across the river to Dunfermline so she could get a proper burial.

That didn’t stop Donald Bane. According to the ancient tanist system of Scottish inheritance, the younger brother of a king could inherit the throne before the son if matters were so arranged. Donald was the younger brother of Malcolm III, and was duly elected to the empty throne. However, he only reigned initially for six months, until Malcolm’s first son Duncan (by his wife Ingeborg) invaded with an army backed by King William Rufus of England.

Alas for Duncan, his reign only lasted six months. Donald Bane joined forces with Duncan’s half-brother Edmund (son of Margaret) and killed the hapless king, reigning jointly with Edmund in his stead. Donald oversaw the north (Scotia) and Edmund ruled the south (Lothian).  This lasted for three years.

But William Rufus did not condone an anti-Norman king on the Scottish throne. Edgar, probably the second son of Malcolm and Margaret, had taken refuge in the English court, and Rufus sent him north with an army to dethrone Donald Bane in 1097. The victor was crowned and known as Edgar the Peaceable (because of his submission to William Rufus). Apparently the remorseful Edmund was forgiven and later became a monk, thus removing himself from the succession.

Donald Bane was not so lucky.  Edgar threw him into prison at Rescobie in Angus and had his eyes put out for good measure.  Donald died within two years, and was eventually buried at Iona, the last of  his line to rest with the Celtic kings of Scotland.

Excerpt from “Thou Shalt ‘Get Kings”

This excerpt from my novel is about the Christmas attack made by Harold Godwineson on the Welsh palace of Gruffydd ap Llewelyn in 1062, who was mysteriously warned at the last minute and barely managed to escape by sea:

     Ealdgyth took Walter’s vague warning seriously.  Sensing that they had little time, she hurried back to the feast hall.  She slipped into the room unnoticed, and hurried to her husband.
     Gruffydd was emptying a large goblet when his wife bent over his shoulder.
     “Oh, there you are,” he said, grabbing her around the waist.  “And why did you desert me, without a by-your-leave?”  Smiling, he pulled her onto his lap.
     Ealdgyth allowed the frivolity, because it would bring her closer to his ear.  “My husband,” she whispered, “we are in grave danger.”
     “Eh?”  He pulled back, looking at her face.  “What is it you say?”
     “Tonight I received a warning to leave this place.  I think we should heed a message given by such a source.”
     Gruffydd shook the muddle from his head.  “Stop, woman, with your riddles.  Speak plainly.  Who has given you this warning?”
     “Nesta’s son.”
     “Pah.  The bastard seeks a reward.”
     “Will you stop it?  Can’t you see, he came to save his mother?   He didn’t know she was dead.”
     “So why would he warn us?”
     “I followed him.”  Ealdgyth looked around, half-expecting the doors to burst open.  “For once in your life, give the boy credit.  He is already gone; he wouldn’t take a reward from your hands.”
     “Wife, I think this is foolish, but I can’t afford to take any chances.  Let me up.”
     Sobered by Ealdgyth’s words, Gruffydd stood; the room immediately quieted.
     “The festivities are over,” the Prince announced.  Hearing groans of disappointment, he became angry.  “You will do as I say!   We have been given a warning: there is a threat to our safety this night.  We can either stand and fight, or flee.  But since we are ill prepared to fight, I suggest you leave this place.  We don’t know the extent of the danger.  Gather your families and go.  Now.”
     Motioning for some of his favorites to follow, the Prince gave orders to ready the boats.
     It took very little time to load the boats, always ready docked below the archway of the palace.  Gruffydd didn’t take the strange warning too seriously; though nervous enough to suspect treachery at every turn, he little expected to be attacked during the most sacred holy festival.  But he trusted his wife’s good sense and intuition, which had helped him in the past.  And she was so certain that something was amiss.
     They launched the little vessels, making their way to the mouth of the Clwyd and into the sea.  The cold wind blasted into their faces, and Gruffydd silently agreed with the grumbling of those who regretted leaving the warmth of the feast hall.
     “This is colder than a witch’s teat,” one man mumbled, pulling a blanket around his shoulders.  The boat pitched, nearly throwing him overboard.  “Damn it, man!” he shouted at the rowers.  “Can’t you control this thing any better?”
     “They’re doing the best they can,” the man’s wife retorted. “The poor men are no more sober than you are, never expecting to be dragged away from their drinks in the middle of the night.”
     “Aye, and for what?” someone else shouted over the wind.  “Are we to be startled into flight at the least rumor of trouble?”
     That was enough to get a reaction from Gruffydd.  He turned angrily.  “If I say as much, you will jump into the river on my command!”  He was about to add more but he hesitated, confused.  No one was looking at him; rather, they were staring over his shoulder.  He turned back, following their gaze.
     At first, Gruffydd could only distinguish a reddish glare on the shore – the kind of glow that meant only one thing.  He watched, frozen like the rest of them, while the glare turned into distinct flames.  He listened as the silence of his friends gave way to cries of horror.
     Perhaps, amongst them all, Gruffydd’s mute grief was the most bitter.  He watched his splendid palace burn, and saw the last beacons of violence light the sky from the remainder of his precious fleet.  They were still close enough to hear the screams of his peasants, murdered in their homes.
     Gruffydd sat motionless in the stern of his boat, his mind’s eye seeing Harold pacing disappointedly back and forth before his pillaging troops.  He, Gruffydd ap Llewelyn ap Seisylt, had been outsmarted by this cursed Saxon.  He had barely escaped, thanks to the timely warning from his bastard grandson.
     But the Earl was having his revenge.  The Prince of Wales would never see his beloved Rhuddlan again.

Macbeth & Thorfinn of Orkney

Macbeth fighting Malcolm III 19th cent. drawing by F.Wentworth

The relationship between Macbeth and Thorfinn Sigurdsson, Earl of Orkney is more than accidental.  Thorfinn – known to  historians as The Black – was grandson of King Malcolm II and may have been raised in Malcolm’s household.  However, he quickly became enemies with Malcolm’s heir Duncan I, who tried to claim the earldom of Caithness on his accession to the throne.  Thorfinn bitterly contested Duncan’s claims, and met him in battle at least twice, defeating the King’s forces both times.

Macbeth had a claim to the throne through his wife Grouch, and it is thought that Thorfinn and Macbeth became allies against Duncan.  Shortly after the King’s second defeat at Torfness, it is written that Duncan met Macbeth in battle at Pitgaveny on Aug. 15, 1040 and was killed on the battlefield.   This is a far cry from being murdered in his bed!

It is possible that after Duncan’s death, Thorfinn and Macbeth managed Scotland jointly, for it is said that at the height of his power, Thorfinn ruled 9 northern earldoms.  Historians have written that Macbeth and Thorfinn went to Rome on Pilgrimage together.  Some actually believe they were the same person, although I think this is a stretch.  Nonetheless, you can read a lively story to this effect in Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter.

It’s possible that Earl Thorfinn Raven-feeder  came to Macbeth’s aid during the battle of Dunsinane.  He is said to have sailed up the Tay in support of Macbeth, and probably aided the King’s escape from the battle, leaving Malcolm III victor on the field.  I write about this at length in my upcoming book, Heir to a Prophecy.

Were the Three Weird Sisters witches?

The Three Weird Sisters were the central theme to Macbeth, and yet reams of scholarly material have been written in an effort to determine their exact role.  Many believe that they were witches, especially considering the 16th century beliefs and witch hunts rampant under King James.  Did they cast a spell on Macbeth, or were they merely foretelling the future in the first act of the play?

It’s easy to take them at face value, considering Shakespeare’s use of spells and words commonly associated with witchcraft at the time.  If you want to get down to the “meat” of  the play (i.e. Macbeth’s murder of King Duncan), one can accept the Weird Sisters as witches and move on… no problem.  But this doesn’t explain their motivations: why would the witches wreak such havoc in the first place?  Just to stir things up, so to speak?

Another point of view is to associate the Weird Sisters with the fates.  The word weird has its origins in the Saxon word wyrd meaning fate, or personal destiny.  Some attribute the first modern use of the word to Shakespeare.

More to the point of my manuscript, the word wyrd  translates to Urðr  in Norse, namely one of the Norns of Scandinavian mythology who controlled the destiny of mankind.   The Norns are said to appear at the beside of a newborn and shape the child’s future.

It is possible that Shakespeare intended to portray the weird sisters as the Norns, shaping the destiny of the royal Stuart line which culminated in King James I, Shakespeare’s patron.  James is said to have claimed descent from Banquo.  Hence, their prediction “Thou Shalt ‘Get Kings, thou Thou be None”, the inspiration for HEIR TO A PROPHECY.

Finding Macbeth’s Dunsinane

Dunsinane Hill
A big hill but where are Macbeth’s Castle ruins?

Many years ago I embarked on that elusive journey to find the locations for my book-in-progress, HEIR TO A PROPHECY. I thought Dunsinane would be easy; after all, I only needed to find Birnam Wood, right? Well, imagine my surprise to find two Dunsinane sites…or was it Dunsinnan? There were two locations on the Geological Survey map, both within shouting distance of Perth. So I dutifully visited both hills, expecting – or rather hoping – to find something resembling castle ruins.

Much to my surprise, I found nothing that I could even vaguely recognize as a stone foundation, wall, or any evidence of historic habitation. Where was Macbeth’s castle? I could only assume that Shakespeare loved the sound of the word Dunsinane and really, did it matter if Macbeth built a castle there or not? Yielding to common sense, I located a likely site, Kinfauns castle located on a cliff overlooking the Tay; the current tower was built in the early 19th century as Lord Grey’s architectural folly, but it is thought to be on the site of a medieval stronghold. Good enough for me!

Imagine my relief, after the fact, to discover mention in the book I was reading, BLOODFEUD by Richard Fletcher: “As commander-in-chief of a combined land and sea force…he (Siward) invaded Scotland and defeated Macbeth in a hard-fought battle. (Its site is not known: Dunsinane, properly Dunsinnan, is a later improvisation).” Whew.

I was much more gratified to find the foundations of Malcolm III’s tower at Dunfermline hill, which still stand proudly with a sign and a recognizable footprint…all of three feet high. At least I was on the right track; only 1000 years later, traces of a well-built castle should be identifiable.


Where’s the Source

When researching historical fiction, we can feel comfortable knowing we are treading in the footsteps of another, who may have followed in the footsteps of still another, many generations removed. Such is the case in Macbeth, knowing that the great bard often used Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, who in turn relied on Hector Boece for his history, written in the early 16th century. But who did Hector Boece use for his source material?

Since King Macbeth of Scotland lived in the mid-eleventh century, there were five hundred years’ worth of chronicles and histories scattered here and there. Of course, not all chroniclers told the same story, so the author is given a choice which tale to follow. What freedom!

It is said that while writing I Claudius, Robert Graves used Suetonius as his source, often referred to as the Gossip of Rome. Not everyone believed that Livia had such an impressive list of poison victims, but it sure made for a great story! And in the end, I suppose, this is what makes historical fiction so much fun. You get hooked by the story then go find other sources for confirmation.