August 15


I am writing this on August 15th, which is Macbeth's day, though I rather wish I had started yesterday, for reasons that will shortly become apparent.

Everyone knows the story of Macbeth - the monster who murdered Old King Duncan in his bed, slaughtered his way to despotic power, and died at the hands of Macduff on the steps of Dunsinane Castle after the Battle of Burnham Wood. The "facts" are surprisingly different.

August 14th is the date of Duncan's death, in 1040, but in battle, not in bed. He had become king of Scotland at the age of 19 when his grandfather, Malcolm II, died in 1034. He led an army into Northumbria in 1039, but was driven ignominiously back. Then he turned his attention north, into Macbeth's territory, to prevent the only lawful challenge to his right to rule, though Macbeth had not actually issued such a challenge. Macbeth - which should be written MacBeth - called for help from his cousin the Earl of Orkney, and together they defeated Duncan near Forres. Duncan died in battle. He was just 26 years old.

As to MacBeth himself, he was the Mormaer of Moray, not the Thane of Cawdor. August 15th was his death-day, but not at Dunsinane, and not at the hands of MacDuff. Seventeen years had passed since the Battle of Forres. Accounts of his kingship suggest he was widely respected for his strong leadership and wisdom, that he ruled successfully and peacefully from his castle at Dunsinnan (Dunsinane is another of Shakespeare's errors - pronounce it like a Bible-belt American: done sinnin') north of Perth, and that the realm of Scotland was so secure the king was able to go on pilgrimage to Rome in 1050. But Malcolm, Duncan's surviving son who had been taken to safety in Northumbria after his father's death, was determined that he would be king of Scotland. In 1054, supported by Earl Siward, he marched to stake his claim, defeating MacBeth at the Battle of Dunsinnan - but not killing him. MacBeth remained king, and restored Malcolm's lands. But Malcolm was not satisfied. In 1057 he raised another army, and attacked MacBeth again, this time at Lumphanan in Aberdeenshire. It was here, on August 15th, that MacBeth was defeated and killed, leaving Malcolm as king.

So why did Shakespeare get it so badly wrong? He wrote the play for King James I, just after his coronation. James was also king of Scotland and wanted a version of his ancestry that fitted his picture of how history should look. And why all those witches? In 1597 James wrote a treatise on the subject, entitled "Daemonologie"; he was obsessed by witches to the point that he personally carried out their torture. Who could resist then, including them in a dramatic work of fiction?

Amber pages

Almost as if he did it deliberately, to make a statement about his Scots identity, its true history, its great culture, Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet Scott, Scottish novelist, playwright, poet and historian, born today in 1771 (those who like to claim that he "invented the historical novel", obviously haven't read either Homer or the Bible)

Thomas de Quincey, English opium-eater, born today in 1785 (those who like to claim that he "invented addiction literature" obviously haven't read either Homer or the Bible)

T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, British soldier and writer, the man who was originally sent to work with the Arabs by General Allenby as a "Trojan Horse", who repeated the achievement of Moses and Joshua by crossing the Nefud desert in the cause of war, who named his memoirs "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom" as a quote from the Biblical Book of Proverbs, and ... born today in 1888

Robert Bolt, playwright, born today in 1924, studied both Divinity and Classics at Manchester Grammar School, and - ah but I do love these coincidences - amongst his greatest achievements (see July 6), the script for David Lean's biopic of... Lawrence of Arabia

And elsewhere in the Celtic world, but in its Welsh rather than its Scottish heritage, Taliesen, architect Frank Lloyd Wright's home in Spring Green, Wisconsin, burned to the ground, today in 1914, by a madman named Julian Carlton. A full account of the tale, and a rather surprising connection with the Communist Czar Joseph Stalin (who abolished all religions and banned several very good translations of Homer), will be readable very soon when my "Travels In Familiar Lands" is published.

And nothing to do with any of the above, though no doubt there was at least one "child of God" present, and of course the guitar is the modern evolution of the ancient lyre that would have been used to accompany both David's Psalms and Homer's ballads; today in 1969, the Woodstock Music Festival began, at Max Yasgur's Dairy Farm. Click here for a very young Joni Mitchell performing the song that she wrote to celebrate the event - piano version too (is the piano not simply a Celtic Harp laid flat, and then beaten rather than plucked?), where usually she does it with the "lyre".

Additional Thought Just For Today: I cdnuolt blveiee that I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd what I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the human mind, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mtaetr in what oerdr eht ltteres in a word are, the olny iproamtnt thing is that the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can still raed it whotuit a pboerlm. This is bcuseae the human mind deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the word as a wlohe. Azanmig, huh! Yaeh, and I awlyas tghuhot slpelnig was ipmornatt! And if you raelly can’t raed this, you may be dyslexic.

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