Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 2

Soon after the Scots and Picts had become one people, as I told you before, there was a king of Scotland called Duncan, a very good old man. He had two sons; one was called Malcolm, and the other Donaldbane. But King Duncan was too old to lead out his army to battle, and his sons were too young to help him.

At this time Scotland, and indeed France and England, and all the other countries of Europe, were much harassed by the Danes. These were a very fierce, warlike people, who sailed from one place to another, and landed their armies on the coast, burning and destroying every thing wherever they came. They were heathens, and did not believe in the Bible, but thought of nothing but battle and slaughter, and making plunder. When they came to countries where the inhabitants were cowardly, they took possession of the land, as I told you the Saxons took possession of Britain. At other times, they landed with soldiers, took what spoil they could find, burned the houses, and then got on board, hoisted sails, and away again. They did so much mischief, that people put up prayers to God in the churches, to deliver them from the rage of the Danes.

Now, it happened in King Duncan’s time, that a great fleet of these Danes came to Scotland and landed their men in Fife, and threatened to take possession of that province. So a numerous Scottish army was levied to go to fight against them. The King, as I told you, was too old to command his army, and his sons were too young. He therefore sent out one of his near relations, who was called Macbeth; he was son of Finel, who was Thane, as it was called, of Glamis. The governors of provinces were at that time, in Scotland, called Thanes; they were afterwards termed Earls. This Macbeth, who was a brave soldier, put himself at the head of the Scottish army, and marched against the Danes. And he carried with him a relation of his own, called Banquo, who was Thane of Lochaber and was also a very brave man. So there was a great battle fought between the Danes and the Scots; and Macbeth and Banquo, the Scottish generals, defeated the Danes, and drove them back to their ships, leaving a great many of their soldiers both killed and wounded. Then Macbeth and his army marched back to a town in the North or Scotland, called Forres, rejoicing on account of their victory.

Now there lived at this time three old women in the town of Forres, whom people looked upon as witches, and supposed they could tell what was to come to pass. Nobody would believe such folly now-a-days, except low and ignorant creatures, such as those who consult gipsies in order to have their fortunes told; but in those early times the people wore much more ignorant, and even great men, like Macbeth, believed that such persons as these witches of Forres could tell what was to come to pass afterwards, and listened to the nonsense they told them, as if the old women had really been prophetesses. The old women saw that they were respected and feared, so that they were tempted to impose upon people, by pretending to tell what was to happen to them; and they got presents for doing so.

So the three old women went and stood by the wayside, in a great moor or heath near Forres, and waited till Macbeth came up. And then, stepping before him as he was marching at the head of his soldiers, the first woman said, “All hail, Macbeth — hail to thee, Thane of Glamis.” The second said, “All hail, Macbeth — hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor.” Then the third, wishing to pay him a higher compliment than the other two, said, “All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be King of Scotland.” Macbeth was very much surprised to hear them give him these titles; and while he was wondering what they could mean, Banquo stepped forward, and asked them whether they had nothing to tell about him as well as about Macbeth. And they said that he should not be so great as Macbeth, but that, though he himself should never be a king, yet his children should succeed to the throne of Scotland, and be kings for a great number of years.

Before Macbeth was recovered from his surprise, there came a messenger to tell him that his father was dead, so that he was become Thane of Glamis by inheritance. And there came a second messenger, from the King, to thank Macbeth for the great victory over the Danes, and tell him that the Thane of Cawdor had rebelled against the King, and that the King had taken his office from him, and had sent to make Macbeth Thane of Cawdor as well as of Glamis. Thus the two first old women seemed to be right in giving him those two titles. I dare say they knew something of the death of Macbeth’s father, and that the government of Cawdor was intended for Macbeth, though he had not heard of it. However, Macbeth, seeing a part of their words come to be true, began to think how he was to bring the rest to pass, and make himself King, as well as Thane of Glamis and Cawdor. Now Macbeth had a wife, who was a very ambitious, wicked woman, and when she found out that her husband thought of raising himself up to be King of Scotland, she encouraged him in his wicked purpose, by all the means in her power, and persuaded him that the only way to get possession of the crown was to kill the good old King, Duncan. Macbeth was very unwilling to commit so great a crime, for he knew what a good sovereign Duncan had been; and he recollected that he was his relation, and had been always very kind to him, and had intrusted him with the command of his army, and had bestowed on him the government or Thanedom of Cawdor. But his wife continued telling him what a foolish, cowardly thing it was in him not to take the opportunity of making himself King, when it was in his power to gain what the witches promised him. So the wicked advice of his wife, and the prophecy of these wretched old women, at last brought Macbeth to think of murdering his King and his friend. The way in which he accomplished his crime, made it still more abominable. Macbeth invited Duncan to come to visit him at a great castle near Inverness; and the good King, who had no suspicions of his kinsman, accepted the invitation very willingly. Macbeth and his lady received the King and all his retinue with much appearance of joy, and made a great feast, as a subject would do to make his King welcome. About the middle of the night, the King desired to go to his apartment, and Macbeth conducted him to a fine room, which had been prepared for him. Now, it was the custom, in those barbarous times, that wherever the King slept, two armed men slept in the same chamber, in order to defend his person in case he should be attacked by any one during the night. But the wicked Lady Macbeth had made these two watchmen drink a great deal of wine, and had besides put some drugs into the liquor; so that when they went to the King’s apartment they both fell asleep, and slept so soundly that nothing could awaken them.

Then the cruel Macbeth came into King Duncan’s bedroom about two in the morning. It was a terrible stormy night; but the noise of the wind and of the thunder did not awaken the King, for he was old, and weary with his journey; neither could it awaken the two sentinels, who were stupified with the liquor and the drugs they had swallowed. They all slept soundly. So Macbeth having come into the room, and stepped gently over the floor, he took the two dirks which belonged to the sentinels, and stabbed poor old King Duncan to the heart, and that so effectually, that he died without giving even a groan. Then Macbeth put the bloody daggers into the hands of the sentinels, and daubed their faces over with blood, that it might appear as if they had committed the murder. Macbeth was, however, greatly frightened at what he had done, but his wife made him wash his hands and go to bed.

Early in the morning, the nobles and gentlemen who attended on the King assembled in the great hall of the castle, and there they began to talk of what a dreadful storm it had been the night before. But Macbeth could scarcely understand what they said, for he was thinking on something much worse and more frightful than the storm, and was wondering what would be said when they heard of the murder. They waited for some time, but finding the King did not come from his apartment, one of the noblemen went to see whether he was well or not. But when he came into the room, he found poor King Duncan lying stiff, and cold, and bloody, and the two sentinels both fast asleep, with their dirks or daggers covered with blood. As soon as the Scottish nobles saw this terrible sight, they were greatly astonished and enraged; and Macbeth made believe as if he were more enraged than any of them, and, drawing his sword, before any one could prevent him, he killed the two attendants of the King who slept in the bedchamber, pretending to think they had been guilty of murdering King Duncan.

When Malcolm and Donaldbane, the two sons of the good King, saw their father slain in this strange manner within Macbeth’s castle, they became afraid that they might be put to death likewise, and fled away out of Scotland; for, notwithstanding all the excuses which he could make, they still believed that Macbeth had killed their father. Donaldbane fled into some distant islands, but Malcolm, the eldest son of Duncan, went to the Court of England, where he begged for assistance from the English King, to place him on the throne of Scotland as his father’s successor. In the mean time, Macbeth took possession of the kingdom of Scotland, and thus all his wicked wishes seemed to be fulfilled. But he was not happy. He began to reflect how wicked he had been in killing his friend and benefactor, and how some other person, as ambitious as he was himself might do the same thing to him. He remembered, too, that the old women had said, that the children of Banquo should succeed to the throne after his death, and therefore he concluded that Banquo might be tempted to conspire against him, as all had himself done against King Duncan. The wicked always think other people are as bad as themselves. In order to prevent this supposed danger, Macbeth hired ruffians to watch in a wood, where Banquo and his son Fleance sometimes used to walk in the evening, with instructions to attack them, and kill both father and son. The villains did as they were ordered by Macbeth; but while they were killing Banquo, the boy Fleance made his escape from their wicked hands, and fled from Scotland into Wales. And it is said that long afterwards, his children came to possess the Scottish crown.

Macbeth was not the more happy that he had slain his brave friend and cousin, Banquo. He knew that men began to suspect the wicked deeds which he had done, and he was constantly afraid that some one would put him to death as he had done his old sovereign, or that Malcolm would obtain assistance from the King of England, and come to make war against him, and take from him the Scottish kingdom. So, in this great perplexity of mind, he thought he would go to the old women, whose words had first put into his mind the desire of becoming a king. It is to be supposed that he offered them presents, and that they were cunning enough to study how to give him some answer, which should make him continue in the belief that they could prophesy what was to happen in future times. So they answered to him that he should not be conquered, or lose the crown of Scotland, until a great forest, called Birnam Wood, should come to attack a strong castle situated on a high hill called Dunsinane, in which castle Macbeth commonly resided. Now, the hill of Dunsinane is upon the one side of a great valley, and the forest of Birnam is upon the other. There are twelve miles’ distance betwixt them; and besides that, Macbeth thought it was impossible that the trees could ever come to the assault of the castle. He therefore resolved to fortify his castle on the Hill of Dunsinane very strongly, as being a place in which he would always be sure to be safe. For this purpose he caused all his great nobility and Thanes to send in stones, and wood, and other things wanted in building, and to drag them with oxen up to the top of the steep hill where he was building the castle.

Now, among other nobles who were obliged to send oxen, and horses, and materials to this laborious work, was one called Macduff, the Thane of Fife. Macbeth was afraid of this Thane, for he was very powerful, and was accounted both brave and wise; and Macbeth thought he would most probably join with Prince Malcolm, if ever he should come from England with an army. The King, therefore had a private hatred against the Thane of Fife, which he kept concealed from all men, until he should have some opportunity of putting him to death, as he had done Duncan and Banquo. Macduff, on his part, kept upon his guard and went to the King’s court as seldom as he could, thinking himself never safe unless while in his own castle of Kennoway, which is on the coast of Fife, near to the mouth of the Frith of Forth.

It happened, however, that the King had summoned several of his nobles, and Macduff, the Thane of Fife, amongst others, to attend him at his new castle of Dunsinane; and they were all obliged to come — none dared stay behind. Now, the King was to give the nobles a great entertainment, and preparations were made for it. In the mean time, Macbeth rode out with a few attendants, to see the oxen drag the wood and the stones up the hill, for enlarging and strengthening the castle. So they saw most of the oxen trudging up the hill with great difficulty (for the ascent is very steep), and the burthens were heavy, and the weather was extremely hot. At length Macbeth saw a pair of oxen so tired that they could go no farther up the hill, but fell down under their load. Then the King was very angry, and demanded to know who it was among his Thanes that had sent oxen so weak and so unfit for labour, when he had so much work for them to do. Some one replied that the oxen belonged to Macduff, the Thane of Fife. “Then,” said the King, in great anger, “since the Thane of Fife sends such worthless cattle as these to do my labour, I will put his own neck into the yoke, and make him drag the burdens himself.”

There was a friend of Macduff who heard these angry expressions of the King, and hastened to communicate them to the Thane of Fife, who was walking in the hall of the King’s castle while dinner was preparing. The instant that Macduff heard what the King had said, he knew he had no time to lose in making his escape; for whenever Macbeth threatened to do mischief to any one, he was sure to keep his word.

So Macduff snatched up from the table a loaf of bread, called for his horses and his servants, and was galloping back to his own province of Fife, before Macbeth and the rest of the nobility were returned to the castle. The first question which the King asked was, what had become of Macduff? and being informed that he had fled from Dunsinane, he ordered a body of his guards to attend him, and mounted on horseback himself to pursue the Thane, with the purpose of putting him to death.

Macduff, in the mean time, fled as fast as horses’ feet could carry him; but he was so ill provided with money for his expenses, that, when he came to the great ferry over the river Tay, he had nothing to give to the boatmen who took him across, excepting the loaf of bread which he had taken from the King’s table. The place was called, for a long time afterwards, the Ferry of the Loaf. When Macduff got into his province of Fife, which is on the other side of the Tay, he rode on faster than before, towards his own castle of Kennoway, which, as I told you, stands close by the seaside; and when he reached it, the King and his guards were not far behind him. Macduff ordered his wife to shut the gates of the castle, draw up the drawbridge, and on no account to permit the King of any of his soldiers to enter. In the mean time, he went to the small harbour belonging to the castle, and caused a ship which was lying there to be fitted out for sea in all haste, and got on board himself, in order to escape from Macbeth.

In the mean time, Macbeth summoned the lady to surrender the castle, and to deliver up her husband. But Lady Macduff, who was a wise and a brave woman, made many excuses and delays, until she knew that her husband was safely on board the ship, and had sailed from the harbour. Then she spoke boldly from the wall of the castle to the King, who was standing before the gate still demanding entrance, with many threats of what he would do if Macduff was not given up to him. “Do you see,” she said, “yon white sail upon the sea? Yonder goes Macduff to the Court of England. You will never see him again, till he comes back with young Prince Malcolm, to pull you down from the throne, and to put you to death. You will never be able to put your yoke, as you threatened, on the Thane of Fife’s neck.” Some say that Macbeth was so much incensed at this bold answer, that he and his guards attacked the castle and took it, killing the brave lady and all whom they found there. But others say, and I believe more truly, that the King, seeing that the fortress of Kennoway was very strong, and that Macduff had escaped from him, and was embarked for England, departed back to Dunsinane without attempting to take the castle. The ruins are still to be seen, and are called the Thane’s Castle.

There reigned at that time in England a very good King, called Edward the Confessor. I told you that Prince Malcolm, the son of Duncan, was at his court, soliciting assistance to recover the Scottish throne. The arrival of Macduff greatly aided the success of his petition; for the English King knew that Macduff was a brave and a wise man. As he assured Edward that the Scots were tired of the cruel Macbeth, and would join Prince Malcolm if he were to return to his country at the head of an army, the King ordered a great warrior, called Siward, Earl of Northumberland, to enter Scotland with a large force [A.D. lO54 ], and assist Prince Malcolm in the recovery of his father’s crown.

Then it happened just as Macduff had said; for the Scottish Thanes and nobles would not fight for Macbeth, but joined Prince Malcolm and Macduff against him; so that at length he shut himself up in his castle of Dunsinane, where he thought himself safe, according to the old women’s prophecy, until Birnam Wood should come against him. He boasted of this to his followers, and encouraged them to make a valiant defence, assuring them of certain victory. At this time Malcolm and Macduff were come as far as Birnam Wood, and lay encamped there with their army. The next morning, when they were to march across the broad valley to attack the castle of Dunsinane, Macduff advised that every soldier should cut down a bough of a tree and carry it in his hand, that the enemy might not be able to see how many men were coming against them.

Now, the sentinel who stood on Macbeth’s castlewall, when he saw all these branches, which the soldiers of Prince Malcolm carried, ran to the King, and informed him that the wood of Birnam was moving towards the castle of Dunsinane. The King at first called him a liar, and threatened to put him to death; but when he looked from the walls himself, and saw the appearance of a forest approaching from Birnam, he knew the hour of his destruction was come. His followers, too, began to be disheartened and to fly from the castle, seeing their master had lost all hopes.

Macbeth, however, recollected his own bravery, and sallied desperately out at the head of the few followers who remained faithful to him. He was killed, after a furious resistance, fighting hand to hand with Macduff in the thick of the battle. Prince Malcolm mounted the throne of Scotland, and reigned long and prosperously. He rewarded Macduff by declaring that his descendants should lead the vanguard of the Scottish army in battle, and place the crown on the King’s head at the ceremony of coronation. King Malcolm also created the thanes of Scotland earls, after the title of dignity adopted in the court of England.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00