I drove to Lochgilphead this morning, and found myself listening to Melvin Bragg on the radio talking to historians about the dreadful murders of 38 members of Clan MacDonald in Glencoe in 1692. 40 0thers died through exposure to the cold and snow, after their houses burnt, and families were forced to flee into the winter hills.
You can listen again here.
It was a strange experience- driving through a Scottish landscape that would have looked very familiar to the 17th Century protagonists, only such a short distance from their bit of Argyll. With snow on the hills, just like then…
Here is a test then- think about what you know of the story of Glencoe. We all sort of know the story right?
It has become part of our inherited folklore in Scotland. Fed by the glorious splendour of the Glencoe landscape, and stoked up by the 19th Century ‘discovery’ of the noble Highlander, victimised and harried from house and home by the English. It is a story celebrated in a thousand songs, and lamented in poetry and prose. It marks for us a bloody landmark on road towards the victimisation and subjugation of Scotland by her powerful southern neighbour.
Except, the story, as ever is far more complicated.
First, the context. Those were bloody times- characterised by feuding, cattle raiding and convenient murders. Vengeful memories were long, and power struggles gave opportunities to those who rose to the top of the tree, which were grasped enthusiastically. Massacres were far from rare events. Glencoe was not even a particularly big one. In my home town of Dunoon, for example, in 1646 over 100 men women and children of Clan Lamont were killed in the church yard after a bloody skirmish with the Campbells, as revenge for murderous rampages by Sir James Lamont . Events like these are lost to our collective memory. I have never even heard it discussed in Dunoon.
Next- the major players.
King William was the imported Dutch King of England and Scotland who signed the order to send the troops to Glencoe. His major motivation was ongoing European politics, and his war with France. He was a Protestant, and fought and won a war against Jacobite troops in Ireland, routing his rival for the crown at the Battle of the Boyne. His great fear was that France would get a foothold in Scotland in support of the Jacobite cause (as they had begun to do in Ireland) and so he was concerned to make peace with the wild Highlanders- who were after all overwhelmingly protestant (although of an Episcopalean tradition, rather than the lowland Presbyterian form of faith.)
William appointed a man to sort out the Highlands for him…
John Dalrymple was a Scot, and was appointed as William’s trouble shooting secretary of state for Scotland. It seems he was not the obvious choice, as he was an Episcopalean, and so unlikely to be acceptable to most of the power mongers of Scotland. He it was who negotiation and bribed his way to deals with most of the Highland chiefs, in order that they should pledge their allegiance to William. It was also his idea to send the troops to Glencoe, and his orders that led to the deaths of the MacDonalds. He survived the subsequent enquiry into the massacre, because he remained useful to William.
Then there were the men who carried out the murders- those who so scandalised others by killing the people who had offered them Highland hospitality, on the pretext of billeting soldiers in lieu of unpaid taxes. These were Scottish soldiers, led by Scottish officers, most notably-
Robert Campbell of Glenlyon. Drinking man, gambler, turned soldier after a cattle raid by the Campbells of Glencoe bankrupted him. A man with a grudge, and a chance to have revenge. Captain in charge of the force sent into Glencoe in 1692.
Died in poverty in Bruges in 1696 after fighting in William’s European wars.
So what is the point of all this history? I think it is interesting, as it is part of the subsoil hereabouts.
I am also interested in the mythology- what one of the contributors to Melvin Bragg’s programme called the ‘Highland Heritage myth.’ How we make history suit our ends, and in turn become shaped by this history. Scottish anti-English sentiments are deep seated, and there is no doubt there are many real grievances passed down over the centuries.
But honesty and truth is important still, I think.
Particularly when the alternative becomes a breeding ground for prejudice and division…