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Scottish History, Legends, and Kings

Scotland's rich history is closely linked with that of its southern neighbor, England, as well as its traditional ally, France. Its battles, heroes, and kings have caught the imaginations of scholars, writers, historians, and artists in Scotland and beyond.

Raphael Holinshed. Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande. London, 1577 (Detail).

The Auld Alliance

United by a common interest in curbing England's power, Scotland and France initiated a series of treaties from the 13th through 16th centuries. The agreements, known as "the Auld Alliance" produced offensive and defensive pacts, as well as several royal marriages. Eventually, religious devisions between Protestant Scotland and Catholic France, as well as regime changes, caused the alliance to crumble in the 1590s.


The Battle of Otterburn, fought in 1388 between the Scots and the English, inspired the traditional Scottish song, "The Battle of Otterburn." An account appears in Jean de Froissart's The Chronicles of Froissart. He describes the encouter as "a sore battle and well foughten." Froissart reports that when the English yielded, the Scots treated their prisoners with exemplary courtesy.


King James I of England and IV of Scotland united the crowns of the two kingdoms in 1603 and founded the Stuart dynasty. Like the Tudors, he was adept at manipulating lineage and descent to legitimize his claim. A royal genealogy shows James' descent from Banquo, the wrongly slain nobleman in Macbeth.

It is possible that in writing Macbeth Shakespeare was mainly intent upon appealing to the new interests brought about by James's kingship. It is likely that the playwright turned to Raphael Holinshed's history of Scotland for material. In Scottish history of the eleventh century, Shakespeare found a spectacle of violence—the slaughter of whole armies and of innocent families, the assassination of kings, the ambush of nobles by murderers, the brutal execution of rebels. Shakespeare's Macbeth supplied its audience with a sensational view of witches and supernatural apparitions and equally sensational accounts of bloody battles in which, for example, a rebel was "unseamed . . . from the nave [navel] to th' chops [jaws]."
James I. Miniature on vellum, ca.1620?

Pieter van der Heyden. Maria Jacobi Scotorum Regis filia, Scotorumque nunc Regina. Engraving, ca. 1556

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