Macbeth – Reality, Myths and Locations

Posted by True Highlands in Kit and Caboodle | 2 comments

Macbeth is, without a doubt, one of the most famous plays of all time. Shakespeare’s tale of madness, ambition and bloody vengeance is one of his most enduring works, a classic that has appeal across generations and well beyond the borders of Scotland.


It’s a common text to learn in schools and even those without a specialist knowledge will likely be familiar with its most famous lines and characters. Although the events that take place in the play are purely inventions of Shakespeare, the characters that appear and the locations mentioned are not. It’s worth taking a moment to try and untangle fact from fiction before making your pilgrimage north to visit any of the places mentioned in the text, or locations where any of the screen versions were filmed.

The Real Macbeth

The real Macbeth was a medieval monarch who reigned over large parts of Morayshire in the early 11th century.  Contemporary accounts of his life are thin on the ground, but he is nonetheless recorded as being a complex character, capable of both wreaking terrible retribution on his cousin (burning him and his retainers alive in their house) and distributing alms to the poor on a pilgrimage to Rome. The real Macbeth’s reign lasted for 17 years – a remarkable feat for this era, that is testament to his strength and competence as a leader. One of the most concrete links to the real Macbeth story concerns the manner and location of his death. After battling the invading army of Earl Siward of Northumbria near the site of Dunsinane hill fort, Macbeth retreated across the foothills of the Grampian mountains and crossed the Cairn o’ Mount. He reached Lumphanan where his forces were caught and he was pulled from his horse and dragged to a stone where his head was cut off. Local legend records the decapitation stone as standing near the present day farm of Cairnbeathie. It is also believed he was temporarily buried under stones a mile or so away, now known as Macbeth’s cairn.

Although not much remains of the hill fort, Dunsinane hill is still very much worth a visit. It’s a peaceful atmospheric spot, where you can survey the surrounding landscape and imagine yourself back in time. Think of speculative history rather than spoon fed facts. Likewise the Cairn o’ Mount is still accessible today, the pass is still fairly bleak and makes for a great cycle with little signs of the modern world for most of its length.

Dunsinane hill

The Original Play

It is believed that the play was written in 1606 and loosely based on the North Berwick Witch trials of 1590, and the popular history of the British Isles known as Holinshed’s Chronicles. In the play Macbeth makes Duncan Thane of Cawdor, although Cawdor Castle was not built in its present form till much later it is still an important stop for anyone in the area. The town is a lovely historical place to amble around in and there is a lot for kids to see at the castle.


The Birnam Oak is thought to the sole surviving tree of the great forest that once straddled the banks and hillsides of the River Tay. This forest is referred to in the play as the famous Birnam Wood, which camouflaged an advancing army as per the witches’ prophecy. It is believed that Shakespeare got inspiration for this section of The Scottish Play during a visit here arranged after King James VI sent a request for entertainers to Elizabeth 1.

birnam oak

A short distance from Brodie Castle lies an unassuming grassy mound known locally as Macbeth’s hillock. This is said to be the “blasted heath” where Macbeth encounters the three witches whose prophecies set him down the path that will eventually lead to his destruction. Witches, prophecy and treason were known to be obsessions of King James VI of Scotland and it is believed that their inclusion in the tale of Macbeth was originally for a special royal performance at Hampton Court.

macbeths hillock

On the big screen

Over the years there have been dozens of portrayals of Macbeth on the stage and big screen. It’s a common rite of passage for actors to try and prove themselves by tackling one of the most iconic roles ever written and in the past such luminaries as Marlon Brando, Orson Wells, Laurence Olivier, and Ian Mckellen have played the main character. In recent years however one stands out and that is Michael Fassbender’s 2015 version. This is remarkable, not only for the central performance but for the locations used for filming. Although the director did not feature any of the historical or mythological sites mentioned above, much of the filming took place on the Isle of Skye and the spectacular sights you see on the big screen are remarkable easy to visit if you know where to find them.


The Quiraing makes for the moody backdrop to the scene where Macbeth’s army are returning home post-battle and also can be seen as Lady Macbeth journeys back to her village. The stark and otherworldly landscapes have for years drawn sci-fi filmmakers here but the powerful, imposing cliffs are never more strikingly presented than in this historical tale.

The Old Man of Storr is a towering feature that casts its eye over the surrounding bleakness. Eerie and almost savage in its domination over its countryside it makes for a brilliantly atmospheric scene where Macbeth rides towards the battlefield. It’s almost like a character in the film, a higher power watching over proceedings.


Sligachan Glen is the unique location where Lady Macduff and her children meet their untimely end. Spectral and enchanting in all weathers the eerie mountain top mists perfectly capture the menace in Shakespeare’s original text.

The dark and foreboding Cuillin Ridge brilliantly sets the scene for one of the most dramatic moments in the film, the pivotal moment where Banquo is slain. On a bright summers day the mountains and nearby fairy pools are warm and inviting, as portrayed on screen they project brutality and menace. Go see for yourself but if there is one thing to remember, don’t believe everything you see on the screen, you are more likely to need sun cream than your sword.

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Comments (2)
  1. Christine Smith says:

    Anyone interested in Macbeth should take the time to read the the historical novel’The King Hereafter’ by the late Scots author Dorothy Dunnett.

  2. Fiona McConnachie says:

    Thank you for this article, it’s just fascinating. I studied Macbeth at school (who didn’t!)but as an Australian I found it difficult to visualise the scenery. I mean, a “blasted heath” here is a bloody desert or a definition applied to coastal areas. So to see it “properly” or as near as possible is just great. Again… thank you.

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