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The "Real" Witches of Macbeth

The Weird Sisters in the Scottish play may have been based on real people.

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  • 'The Weird Sisters or The Three Witches' by Henry Fuseli, 1783.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

I was watching Men in Kilts to prepare for my visit to Scotland like any good nerd, when one expert mentioned something that sent me deep into the research wormhole: 

The Weird Sisters of Shakespeare’s Macbeth were real people. 

I had heard that Macbeth was a real person—albeit not really the power-hungry king we all know and love—and I knew that Duncan and MacDuff were historical figures, too, but at no time had I ever heard that the witches were real. I rewatched the segment several times, hoping I’d missed some clarifying details, but those were likely left on the cutting room floor. I was not to be discouraged. I went to the books that expert wrote. I owe most of the facts below to that impeccable folklore scholar, Leonard Low, and his book The Lowdown on Witches: True Stories of Scottish Witch Trials

Through old kirkyard records and letters of those who attended such trials, here are the facts he amassed:

Our story takes place in the tenth century, during the rule of Duff (or Duffus, son of Induff), King of Scots from 962-67 CE. Accounts say he was a great king. His own father had just died four years earlier while defending the Highlands against Viking invaders, and more of the same was in the offing.

But King Duff(us) took ill outside of the town of Forres (just a few miles outside of Inverness, for reference). The King was convinced that this sickness was the result of a bewitching.

Even though this was centuries before the Malleus Maleficarum (or “Hammer of Witches”) was authorized by Pope Innocent VIII, belief in fairies and the gray folk was very much present. So, the King ordered a search. What were they searching for? I’m not sure exactly—and I’m not sure they knew exactly. What we do know is that an estimated 4,000 witches were killed in Scotland during the 16th century—that’s much later than this story, of course, at the height of the witchcraft craze, but during the tenth century, the witch hunts were just ramping up. They didn’t have that handbook yet. My guess is that they cast a wide net.

Regardless of what they sought, records say that in the fields outside Forres, the king’s men found three women playing with a wax effigy of the king—melting him into the fire. The women were arrested for witchcraft and carried into Forres proper.

There was no trial.

The three women were executed brutally and publicly. At a time when torture was creative in the extreme, this story is especially heinous and incredibly well documented. Each of the women was led to a herring barrel, where she got inside. The barrels were shut with nails much too long for their purpose, which created basically an Iron Maiden inside the barrel. Then, the barrels were tipped on their sides and rolled down Cluny Hill. 

When the barrels stopped rolling, heather kindled the fire on the barrels, burning the shredded women inside. After the blazes subsided, a boulder was placed at each barrel to mark the location of their deaths. 

All of this is written down in kirk records and personal letters, but none of the sources ever mentions the witches’ names. As for what remains, one of the boulders rests half in Victoria Road, protected by an iron band, at the base of Forres police station. 

There’s talk that this boulder was once taken to be used in a nearby construction project and broken up for materials…until fever took the person who moved the boulder. They thought it cursed, so they returned it to its resting place, and the band now holds the three pieces together. That might be why, even when the wall and pavement were constructed much later, the stone was not disturbed.

Above it, in the retaining wall, there’s a stone marker to commemorate the murders of the Witches of Forres that reads, “From Cluny Hill, witches were rolled in stout barrels through which spikes were driven. Where the barrels stopped they were burned with their mangled contents. This stone marks the site of one such burning.”

The second of the three boulders rests in the corner of a beautiful garden across the street. And the third boulder disappeared.

Okay, you might be thinking: that is a very sad story, and let’s say that the historical record is indeed accurate. That’s very interesting. But how do we know that Shakespeare actually heard this story? That it wasn’t just independent invention by one of the greatest playwrights of all time? 

I have a (likely) answer! Dramatists will already know this, but playwrights (Shakespeare included) made their money by donations from patrons. The ticketed entries helped, but not much. That meant the writers sort of had to sing for their supper…because if your patron liked your play, they’d probably send you more money for the next one. 

Until her death in 1603, Shakespeare’s main sponsor was Queen Elizabeth I, and you can see how he stroked her ego with representations of powerful, fictional women characters in works like Twelfth Night, The Taming of the Shrew, or even the regal representation of Queen Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But in 1603, there was a new monarch, and he was Scottish: King James I of England, a.k.a. King James VI of Scotland. 

William Shakespeare visited Scotland (Aberdeen) in 1601 as a guest of King James VI… with a mind specifically to do re-con on his future audience. That’s where he heard the folklore we now associate with Macbeth, which he then dramatized not only to represent the Highlands, but also to illustrate how any potential usurpers would be out of their minds. Sounds like a good way to garner some clout. The play premiered in 1606, and King James loved it. Plus, it’s a damn good play.

If you’re interested this type of supernatural-crime-turned-true-crime, I fully recommend looking into Leonard Low’s books. You will not be disappointed. And, Leonard Low, if you’re reading this, can we be best friends?