The Future of History

Monday, 13 February 2012

The Murder of Glen Coe

Belatedly, I've been reminded that today - 13 February 2012 - is an anniversary.  In the early hours of 13 February 1692, soldiers from the Earl of Argyll's Regiment of Foot turned on their hosts, the MacDonalds of Glencoe, and killed 38 of them.  The remaining MacDonalds fled into the snowswept mountains, where a further 40 women and children died of exposure, the government troops having burned down their homes.

One of the first to die was the "old Fox", Alastair MacIain, twelfth Chief of Glencoe.  The massacre had been prompted by his failure to swear an Oath of Allegiance to the Crown in time.  The deadline for taking the oath was 1 January 1692.  In late December 1691, MacIain made his way to the garrison of Fort William, where he was told that he would have to travel down the coast to Inverary in order to take the oath.  Thanks to a combination of bad weather and a detachment of the Earl of Argyll's soldiers, which held him prisoner for 24 hours at Barcaldine Castle on the shore of Loch Creran, MacIain MacDonald arrived too late to swear the Oath of Allegiance.

What happened next was down to a combination of Lowland hatred of the Highlands and inter-clan rivalry.  The troops which were billeted on MacDonald's tribesmen were led by Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon.  Glenlyon's kinsmen had plotted with the government to extirpate the MacDonalds of Glencoe as an act of revenge for centuries of cattle-raids and other tribal misdemeanours.  The troops lived with the MacDonalds for two weeks or so before the order came to massacre the clansmen, and one of the most notorious and horrific acts in the bloody history of the Highlands was perpetrated.  It is remembered to this day as the Glencoe Massacre, but in Gaelic it is Mort Ghlinne Comhann - the 'Murder of Glen Coe'.

Back in my teens I spent several summers at Barcaldine Castle in Argyll, where I was variously a waiter, an entertainer, a tour-guide, a calligrapher and a guest.  Taking visitors round the 'Black Castle', as it was known locally, I would show them the little closet, between the Great Hall and the Laird's Parlour, where MacIain was held captive.  He is supposed to have been a tall man, MacIain.  The tiny closet must have been very uncomfortable.  But then, he was held just long enough to make sure that he wouldn't reach Inverary Castle in time.  And so Barcaldine Castle briefly enters history as the place where the Campbells of Breadalbane ensured that their ancestral enemies, the MacDonalds of Glencoe, were "cut off root and branch".

I have fond memories of the Castle, and fond memories too of its laird, Campbell-Godley, who taught me a great deal about acting and even more about hospitality.  He also made me an honorary Campbell, so that when I married Kim on the Isle of Iona I felt entitled to write to the Duke of Argyll, asking for the chief's permission to wear the Campbell of Breadalbane plaid.  Unfortunately, that meant aligning myself with the historical villains who caused the deaths of so many men, women and children in Glencoe, 320 years ago.

On the other hand, the Campbells are a cadet branch of the older Clan Arthur, and so I am proud to be a member of the clann which ultimately traces its ancestry back to Arthur.  The Campbells, however, were canny enough to realise that the Church did not like hearing about Arthur, and so they altered their genealogy slightly, preferring to name the legendary Irish hero Diarmuid as the founder of their line.  This sort of flexibility allowed the Campbells to stay on the right side of the Church and the government, with the result that they grew to become one of the dominant powers in Scotland while other tribes - including the MacArthurs - suffered the inevitable fall from grace.  Not popular, then, the Campbells, but survivors for sure.

They didn't make the same noble mistakes as Arthur and his people.  Oh no; they kept in with the Church.  And if that meant becoming hitmen for a distant government, well, that's the way the cookie crumbles.  That was how some of Arthur's descendants achieved power and influence - by betraying their neighbours, and occasionally slaying them, as they did in Glencoe on 13 February 1692.


  1. A few years ago I looked at an ad for B & B at Barcaldine. The "historical background" said it had not been lived in by a Campbell for decades - mebbe even hundreds of years. Yes it was, I thought, Campbell Godley! I worked there one summer, cooking and guiding, and it was an unforgettable experience. We had a visit from the actor Ronald Fraser, who came down to the kitchen to chat and distract me while I was getting dinner! Thanks for the memories.

    1. PS I'm not Fizz, just using his computer!

    2. Great to hear from you, Fizz-not-Fizz!! Barcaldine looks great, these days, but it's certainly not the same as it was. What days those were, when Campbell Godley was there! It's always a delight and a pleasure to hear from someone else who encountered the inimitable, unforgettable Campbell. So, very nice to make your acquaintance! All the best, Simon