Gruoch – The real Lady Macbeth

(public domain)

This is a guest article by Kate Braithwaite.

In 1606, or thereabouts, William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, also known as The Scottish Play, a tragic story of prophecy, murder and madness. In doing so, he created Lady Macbeth, the ambitious wife, inciting her husband to murder in order to attain a throne only to be driven to madness and suicide. The character is fictional, but Macbeth was a real Scottish King with a wife named Gruoch.

What do we know of her real life in 11th century Scotland and was she really the villain that Shakespeare so memorably made her?

Gruoch was a royal princess, related to King Malcolm II who ruled Scotland from 1005 to 1034. Her brother had a claim to Malcolm’s throne, but the King was determined that his grandson, Duncan, would succeed him. Gruoch’s date of birth is unknown, but she was married at some point in the 1020s, not to Macbeth, but to his cousin, Gillacomgain.

(public domain)

In the 11th century, Moray, an area in the north-east of Scotland was a Kingdom in its own right with its own King, Finlay, Macbeth’s father. But although Finlay was King, his older brother had had two sons, one of whom was Gillacomgain. Not long before Gruoch’s marriage took place, Gillacomgain and his brother murdered King Finlay, their uncle, and took the throne. Macbeth, younger than his cousins, had fled, most likely to Ireland.

Gruoch’s marriage to Gillacomgain was certainly strategic on the part of the powerful Moray family. Marriage to Gruoch tied them, through her royal connections, to the Scottish King. With the birth of Gruoch and Gillacomgain’s son, Lulach, the Moray’s held a potential future claimant to the Scottish throne.

But in 1030 Macbeth took his revenge. From exile, he sent a message to families in Moray unhappy with Gillacomgain’s leadership and returned to Moray to kill Gillacomgain and his men, perhaps during a feast. Any fans of Game of Thrones will easily imagine how the event may have played out. Shortly afterwards, Gruoch and Macbeth were married. For Macbeth, this move put an end to the blood feud in his family. He became step-father and protector of Lulach and could raise him as his own heir. Gruoch’s royal connections and lands also added to his own somewhat tenuous claim to the wider Scottish throne, still held by Malcolm II, who was by now an old man. Gruoch’s feelings about marrying her husband’s murderer are unknown, but a desire to protect her young son must have been a significant factor. Her family could not help her. Not long after Macbeth’s return, her brother was murdered, it is believed by Malcolm II, in order to clear the way for Duncan’s inheritance in 1034.

Macbeth’s personal involvement in the army that marched against Malcolm II in 1034 is unclear. What is known, however, is that Malcolm was killed in a battle at Glamis and Duncan succeeded with a far stronger claim to the throne than any Macbeth might have mustered. Although arguments were had, Duncan was invested as the King of Scotland at Scone Palace five days after Malcolm’s death. He was not a young man, but far from the old man in the famous play. Nor was he murdered by Macbeth when a guest in his castle, as Shakespeare’s story goes. Instead, it seems that Duncan marched with an army into Moray in 1040. This challenge to Macbeth’s rule could not be ignored. Battle was joined in Pitgaveny near Elgin, and Duncan lost his life, possibly at the hands of Macbeth himself.

Gruoch’s royal connections were important in bolstering Macbeth’s claim to be King of both Scotland and Moray. His own royal lineage was tenuous at best, and it may be that in a period of turbulence and uncertainty the nobility in Scotland chose strength over the rights of primogeniture by naming him King. Although history has since characterised Macbeth as a usurper, he was declared King by the people and he and Gruoch ruled for the next seventeen years. Duncan’s widow and sons fled – perhaps south to England or north to Orkney – leaving the field clear for Macbeth to rule.

Gruoch now had the pleasure of seeing her son, Lulach, become heir to both crowns of Moray and Scotland. Macbeth and Gruoch did not have any children of their own, but according to the limited records that remain about their reign, there is no sign of tension in the marriage. Macbeth’s reign brought a period of prosperity and stability to the joined Scottish and Moray lands. In 1050, Macbeth and Gruoch were confident enough to leave the country and undertake a lengthy pilgrimage to Rome, an undertaking that would have been unimaginable were they not secure on the throne.

Old age, the toil of battles against the English and a rising threat from Duncan’s son, Malcolm, returned from exile, caused Macbeth to abdicate his throne in Lulach’s favour in 1057. But Lulach was killed during a confrontation between his and Malcolm’s forces in March 1058. Lulach’s son was a child, but Macbeth took up arms again to defend his right to the throne. He fought in vain. Malcolm’s forces defeated Macbeth’s at Lumphanan’s in August 1058. No record exists about what happened to Gruoch, but Macbeth’s remains were laid to rest in the royal burying-ground in Iona, demonstrating that whatever has happened to his reputation since his death, his contemporaries appreciated his long and successful reign.

(public domain)

How did Gruoch become so transformed in Shakespeare’s play?

Shakespeare’s source was the second edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles, published in 1587. Written as a history, but often relying on legend rather than factual sources, Holinshed’s Chronicle tells various stories said to have inspired Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. There is the story of a tenth-century Scottish King, Duffe, who was murdered by one of his men, Donald, at the urging of Donald’s wife. And Holinshed’s story of the murder of Duncan by Macbeth, is very much the drama that Shakespeare sets out in his play. Of Macbeth’s wife part in Duncan’s death, Holinshed wrote:

“but speciallie his wife lay sore vpon him to attempt the thing, as she that was verie ambitious, burning in vnquenchable desire to beare the name of a quéene.”

(but especially his wife nagged him to attempt the thing as she was very ambitious and burning in unquenchable desire to bear the name of a queen)

Historical records today, however, do not support Holinshed’s version of 11th-century Scottish history. Embedded in the popular conscious as Lady Macbeth may now be, it is clear that Gruoch was a far different character: a survivor, a mother, a pilgrim and a loyal queen for nearly two decades.1


  1. Recommended reading:

    Non-fiction: Macbeth, a true story by Fiona Watson (Quercus, 2010)

    Fiction: King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett (Vintage, 1998)

About Moniek Bloks 2743 Articles
My name is Moniek and I am from the Netherlands. I began this website in 2013 because I wanted to share these women's amazing stories.

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