From the heart of the Highlands to Scotland's west coast, history and mystery merge. Stephen Walsh and Amanda Williams unravel the route of Macbeth, while Andrew Marr braves a rugged, liquid landscape
We knew not to expect too much of the Elgin weather. As we drove past Cawdor Castle, just 10 miles up the road, the sky lit up electrically. So before you could say "when shall we three meet again" we were turning off, making our way through thunder, lightning and rain, in search of Macbeth.

Why start at Cawdor? Those whose familiarity with Shakespeare's play has endured beyond their hasty departure from the GCSE exam room will know that Macbeth, already Thane of Glamis, is rewarded by King Duncan with the thaneship of Cawdor after defeating the treacherous incumbent and his Norwegian allies. Since it is the witches - the Weird Sisters - who pass the word on that this bit of good fortune is at hand, we were ready for some spooky, Dark Age atmospherics

Disappointment followed. Even in the storm, Cawdor Castle had a mellow exterior set in lush gardens, with a maze and impeccable floral displays. It isn't even a battlemented wreck; it has pretty, stepping-stone gable- ends and a perfect set of storm-resistant sash windows. It is rather lovely, which was all well and good, but not exactly evocative of murderous happenings. Finding the interior similarly comfortable - plenty of pretty tapestry and furniture, but precious little in the dungeon department - we began to wonder whether we were in the right place.

In the gifte shoppe we searched in vain for Macbeth-y giftes. (Is this a dagger which I see before me? No, it's a genuine sheep's wool belly- button warmer.) A browse through the bookshop revealed that the place was selling itself on its Macbeth associations, but subtly: the castle, said the blurb, was "romantically linked by Shakespeare with Macbeth". A short trawl through the history books on the shelves revealed how romantically: the real King Macbeth's date of birth was about 1005; the castle came into being some 500 years later.

Oh well, we told ourselves, there's always tomorrow. (And tomorrow and tomorrow.) In the wind and the rain the heathland around Forres - the supposed location for the meeting with the witches, according to Act 1, Scene 3 - was more convincing. In the town itself we came across the ancient bit of glass-encased masonry called Sueno's Stone, and since in Act 1, Scene 1, Sueno is named as head Norwegian, we felt on track.

We headed down the A9 for a quick run round Scone Palace, ancient coronation place of the Scottish kings, before setting off up the A94 towards Forfar and Glamis.

The approach to Glamis was everything we wanted. Pine forests accumulating in the rolling Angus countryside; the mile-long road to Glamis Castle, with five-storey, turretted towers glimpsed precipitately in the distance ... Surely here was a place where dark deeds had been done. But again, the plot fell flat. Magnificent rooms, sure enough, and dramatic sights, but not the right drama. The only echo of Macbeth lay in a pair of weird sisters, Americans on a cultural-vultural bus-tour: "This is the most comfortable castle we've seen," they told us.

Just as comfortable as Cawdor, in other words, and just as fatally flawed in the contemporaneity department (400 years too late for Macbeth this time). With commendable honesty - or perhaps commercial sense - the castle tours focused on extant royals rather than historical ones, with photographs from the Queen Mother's childhood adorning the exhibition room.

Discouraged, we stopped the night in a horrible camping and caravanning club site in Scone; horrible because the site wardens, like youth hostel administrators of old, keep a moral rein on their customers' behaviour, and movement is verboten after 11pm. We defiantly burned the midnight oil, pouring the whisky and poring over the text. We resolved to give Shakespeare one more chance. Deciding that if our tour were to have a satisfactory denouement we would find it in Act V, we read through to the end. In spite of his dirty deeds, we recalled, Macbeth would be safe unless Birnam Wood - aka the English in camouflage, as it turns out - came to high Dunsinane Hill.

A search through the gazetteer found Dunsinnan, back in the direction of Forfar; the road didn't reach the hill there, but we struggled along a path, climbed a small mound and ticked it off.

Birnam, twinned with Dunkeld by BR, was easier to locate. We arrived there thinking only of glancing at a tree or two, calling it a day and pronouncing the journey a failure. But at Birnam we got answers as well as trees. In a shopping mall selling whisky marmalade, honey liqueurs and See You Jimmy hats, a three-quid sound-and-light show called the Macbeth Experience made sense of the whole murky saga.

The answer lay in the bits of our copy we'd skipped: the appendix with the sources of the play. As the Macbeth Experience explained, Shakespeare worked from a history book called Holinshed's Chronicles, and Holinshed's 15th-century version of the Scottish past made use of poetic licence on a scale even the Bard couldn't match. It was from Holinshed that Shakespeare received the false notion that King Macbeth was at Glamis and at Cawdor. Worse, he had also picked up the idea that Macbeth was bloody and barbarous, which provided the basis for centuries of popular distortion.

It was a bit humbling to be put in the picture by something as profoundly unliterary as the Macbeth Experience. After a tourist promo video for Perthshire - golf courses and battlements, mainly - we got the detailed gen. Macbeth, born in 1005, tried to take his rightful place as heir in a complicated succession pattern. Duncan, however saintly in Shakespeare's play, not only jumped the queue but was a bloody king, too; hence the fact that Macbeth killed him off. Macbeth then ruled for 17 years - which were peaceful enough for him to make a pilgrimage to Rome in 1050.

At the close of the exhibition Macbeth was put in a line of succession of Scottish heroes who have striven against the English. Macbeth himself, "the last great king of Scotland"; Robert the Bruce and "Braveheart" Wallace, scourges of various King Edwards; Bonnie Prince Charlie, doomed romantic, and the SNP. "We've had some complaints about the last one," said the girl who let us out. "But only from English visitors." It seemed a fair enough line of succession to our party, made up of one from each side of the border, and it was hard historical fact compared with our itinerary which, we realised, was based on a great deal of fantasy. Yet in following Shakespeare, at least we were in pretty high-class footsteps as far as invention was concerned.

Cawdor Castle (01667 4044615), off the A96 between Nairn and Inverness, is open daily 1 May-12 October, 10am-5.30pm; adults pounds 5, children pounds 2.70, concessions pounds 4. Glamis Castle (01307 840242), about 10 miles north of Dundee, is also open daily - until 6 October, 10am-5.30pm; adults pounds 5, children pounds 2.60, concessions pounds 3. The Macbeth Experience at Birnam (01738 787696) is open daily all year round, 9.30am-7pm (April-October, 9am-8pm); adults pounds 2, concessions pounds 1.50.

SCOTTISH DEPARTURES

Individual fares on ScotRail services are high (pounds 11.30 for the 34-mile stretch from Pitlochry to Aviemore, for example), so an unlimited travel deal is strongly recommended. Cheapest is the Festival Cities Rover, which allows you to travel between Glasgow, Edinburgh and Stirling, with extensions around Fife and to North Berwick. It is valid for any three days' travel in a week, and costs pounds 25.

The ScotRail Rover covers the entire network. The options are: pounds 62 for any four days out of eight; pounds 90 for eight consecutive days; pounds 118 for 12 days out of 15. Only slightly more expensive is the Freedom of Scotland Travelpass, which includes free use of Caledonian MacBrayne ferries. For eight consecutive days the cost is pounds 99, and longer periods are available. More details from National Rail Inquiries on 0345 484950.

Cycling through

The journey from Carlisle to Inverness is covered by two maps (7b and 7c) in the National Cycle Network series, published by Footprint and available from cycle stores or direct from Sustrans (0117-926 8893).

Cruise the Caledonian Canal

Join a voyage aboard Fingal of Caledonia, a 126-foot Thirties barge which will be traversing northern Scotland through the summer. The canal links Inverness to Fort William, and includes patches of open water such as Loch Ness. The voyage lasts six days, with options for hiking, cycling and canoeing. The price is in the range pounds 300 to pounds 400, including all meals, through Caledonian Discovery (01397 772167).

Walking across

Scotland's coast-to-coast footpath is the 212-mile Southern Upland Way, which traverses the south of the country from Portpatrick near Stranraer to Cockburnspath near Berwick. Details from the Ranger Service of Scottish Borders Council (01835 830281) for details of the eastern portion, or the Dumfries & Galloway Council on 01387261234.

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