If I were to ask you who Lady Macbeth was, I don’t imagine it would take you very long to answer. She was the wife of MacBeth, you’d say. You’d name her a murderess, no doubt, tell me of plots and regicide. Perhaps you would even recite her most famous lines :
But if I were to ask you who Gruoch ingen Boite was, the chances are you would tell me you have no idea. They were, in fact, one and the same person. Approximately.
After King James VI became King of England in 1603, Shakespeare penned the play MacBeth in his honour, basing many of it’s characters on historical figures, including that of Lady MacBeth. Yet, in the name of theatrical entertainment, his play was more embellishment than fact, throwing in witchcraft, spurious ancestors and even a completely different fate for both the titular Lord and Lady.
In truth MacBeth and his wife, Gruoch certainly led lives both less scandalous and possibly more interesting than their fictionalised counterparts. Gruoch was Queen of Scots in her own right alongside her King, and together they reigned for 17 long and largely peaceful years (1040 – 1057 AD), respective to their tumultuous times.
A great grand-daughter of King Kenneth III, she was first married to Gille Coemgáin mac Maíl Brigti, the Earl of Moray. With him she had the only child of hers that history remembers, Lulach, who later became King of Scots after MacBeth’s death.
It was indeed a very turbulent time in Scottish History, and Gruoch’s first husband is said to have killed MacBeth’s father. MacBeth took his revenge, serving it cold a dozen years after his father’s death, having Gille Coemegáin killed with 50 of his men.
It may not have been the best bedrock on which build a successful marriage, but in reality Gruoch outlived her husband and wielded power and influence alongside him as Queen. In the only document that survives baring her name, she gave land to the Culdees, an aesthetic order of monks. Their reign together was peaceful enough for Macbeth to undertake a pilgrimage to Rome, and it was rich enough that he “scattered silver like seeds” to the poor.
Gruoch outlived her husband, although the date of her death remains unknown.
Only fragments remain of Queen Gruoch’s life, but those fragments hint at a woman of some strength of character who thrived in a difficult world. It also seems her reign was peaceful and prosperous, belying the image of a poor, frigid northern kingdom with little to offer history that we have been led to believe . Shakespeare’s account of her life has usurped an important female figure from Scotland’s history. This is why I have begun this little series with her rather than other, better known figures.
It is said that women are less engaged than men in our constitutional debate. I’ve heard it said, even, that the “Braveheart” nature of Scottish Nationalism dissuades women from engaging, as if Scottish History were somehow the province of men alone. I hope that you can see in Gruoch’s story the glimmers of truth that this is not the case. Over these last months of the Referendum campaign I hope to outline the lives of many other fascinating and compelling women in Scottish History, from Isabel of Mar, through Flora MacDonald to Kay Matheson, as well as many others, just to highlight how much women have shaped our Nation in the past.
Written with many thanks to David R Ross and his book, Women of Scotland.