Who was Gruoch? Queen Hereafter by Isabelle Schuler

In her debut novel, Queen Hereafter: A Novel of Lady Macbeth (Harper Perennial, October 2023), Isabelle Schuler creates a breathtaking story that centres around the historical character known to many from Shakespeare’s play.

How did you decide to write a novel based on Lady Macbeth?

As an actress, I had the privilege to play Lady Macbeth in a few different contexts, and in studying the text more deeply I was so compelled by her character – her ambition, her single-mindedness, her drive, but also her struggle against what is expected of a woman in her position. For such a towering presence she meets a very unsatisfying ending, so I’d always thought there was so much more to explore with her. When I first started looking into the idea of expanding her story and discovered everything that had happened to the ‘real’ lady Macbeth – Gruoch – I was captivated and my imagination was set alight.

The setting is early medieval Scotland. How much research was involved? How long was the writing process?

The research process took place across two different stages. Queen Hereafter began as a screenplay, so my first round of research focused on events, people, and places in early medieval Scotland. This involved combing through historical records like the Annals of Ulster and the Orkneyinga Saga to try and piece together as much of a picture as I could about what was happening at the time, especially given the ever-shifting dynamics of who was in power. What they ate, what they wore, how they traveled, the buildings they lived in, these were the questions I left to the imagination of the costumer designer, the production designer, and props master.

It was only when I shifted the medium from screenplay to novel did I realise that I would now have to fill those roles myself!

So I did another round of research. I read through thick textbooks tracing the Kingdom of the Picts from the 5th century to the 11th so that I could understand the dynamics at play when Gruoch was born, I visited museums to gaze at artifacts from archeological digs, and I scoured academic journals for articles written by Scottish historians so that I could piece together as vibrant a picture as I could of the kind of world Gruoch might have inhabited.

Once I had compiled about two years of research, I then wrote the first draft in eight weeks, the words bursting out of me as I was desperate to tell her story and share with the world what I had discovered. Then followed another year and a half of editing with my publishers, but that fevered two months in which I laid the whole story out holds a special place in my heart.

You quote extracts from Scots Gaelic. Did you interview Gaelic speakers for these?

I did! I used the wonder of social media to connect with Scots Gaelic speakers because I wanted it to be as authentic as possible. Irish Gaelic is sometimes confused for Scots Gaelic, but the two are very different and I wanted to make sure I got it right.

The novel does a great job of showing the progression of Gruoch’s girlish personality into the ruthlessness of Lady Macbeth. Her treatment of Donalda reveals callousness toward a former friend. Is any of this based on fact or is it a device to aid the progression of the story?

Sadly, the only things we are certain about in relation to Gruoch has far more to do with the men around her. We know her father was the son of a Scottish King. We know her first husband was a Mormaer of Moray. We know that she had a son named Lulach by her first marriage. We know that her husband was killed (many historians do presume it was MacBethad in retaliation for the murder of his own father, but this isn’t confirmed). We know that after her husband died she married MacBethad.

Everything else about her in the book is an exercise in imagination: What would it be like to be the daughter of a dethroned prince? What kind of environment would that create for a young girl? How might that shape her desire for security, for power? What would it be like to be caught up in a blood feud that has nothing to do with her? And how might those events shape and mold her into the character she would eventually become in Shakespeare’s play?

These were a few of the many questions that shaped Gruoch’s journey for me. I don’t think we’ve yet seen her full potential, only glimpses of who she is fast becoming.

author Isabelle Schuler

This may be too early to ask, but will there be a sequel showing the growing power of Gruoch and Macbethad, their accession to the throne, following Shakespeare’s telling of their story?

I’ve always believed there was more of Gruoch’s story left, and I am both daunted and thrilled by the prospect of trying to reconcile the historical account where MacBethad and Gruoch reign uncontested for a healthy seventeen years (including a pilgrimage to Rome!) and the play where man and wife are tyrants that are snuffed out as quickly as they burst to power.

The story of Gruoch and Macbethad is complex and can be read on different levels. Her betrothal to Duncan, his subsequent treachery, and then her final union with Macbethad turns Queen Hereafter into a love story. Given the bloody and violent background of medieval Scotland, was this a natural progression or simply needed closure?

While some may read Queen Hereafter as a love story, I see it more as one of survival. It’s the story of a girl who has been given an impossible legacy to live up to and her dogged pursuit to see her purpose fulfilled whatever sacrifices it takes. It’s certainly not a spoiler to say that the story ends with Gruoch married to MacBethad, and while many may read it as a triumphant ending, I like to point out that the final lines are MacBethad introducing Gruoch to the court as his wife – ‘may I present my wife, Lady MacBethad.’

Victorious as it might sound, in that final line she has lost both her voice and her name – Gruoch. She has been subsumed into someone else’s narrative. Yes, I would love for readers to experience the joyous intensity of their reunion, but these are two characters who knew each as children but know each other very little as adults, and I can easily envision things not panning out as Gruoch might hope.

How did you start writing? 

I have a degree in Journalism, so while I’m not a historian by training, I like to think that I’m putting my journalistic skills to use – I know what it is to research well, to make sure you’re going directly to the source, digging until you find the truth, exploring a story from every possible angle, and making sure there’s nothing you’ve left unturned that may prove useful. I think it’s really important to have as clear a picture as you can of the time you’re dealing so that from that well-informed place you can play and break the rules.

One of my favourite authors, Jessie Burton, has written an incredible piece called Historical Impressionism in which she perfectly articulates my heart: ‘The past is as much as story for me as today is, equally subjective to narrative bias, exclusion and embellishment. […] Impressionism is the nearest form of artistic style I can think of to describe how I turn the hard pallet of history into the more alluring bed of fiction.’

This, for me, is the glory of historical fiction, the ability to reach back in time and connect the stories of those who lived hundreds and hundreds of years ago to our own lives, our own vices and virtues, and our own desires. Because if there’s anything we can learn from Shakespeare’s play written four hundred years ago and from which my book first had its conception, is that we haven’t changed. Not really. Not at our core. Humans are as messy and wonderful and vile and glorious as they always have been.




In This Section

About our Articles

Our features are original articles from our print magazines (these will say where they were originally published) or original articles commissioned for this site. If you would like to contribute an article for the magazine and/or site, please contact us. While our articles are usually written by members, this is not obligatory. No features are paid for.