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.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

In Memory of Bruce

I first met Bruce in 1987.  After three days of hiking round the south coast of the Isle of Mull, me and my friend Charbel ('Charlie') Mattar finally reached the Isle of Iona.  Naturally, we hit the bar and politely enquired if there was anywhere we could pitch our tent.

We were told that if we walked up the road we would come to a house where a guy had let a couple of young women camp on his land a week or two before.  So off we went.  Found the house.  We were invited in.  The best the guy could suggest was that we put up our tent down on the beach - which we did, wandering onto the clean white sands and finding a little cove, where we camped for the next three nights, just a few feet away from the waves.

I couldn't help eyeing up the guy's bookcase while we were in his house.  It began to dawn on me that this chap wasn't really a local.  In fact, I got the distinct impression that he was rather interested in Birmingham - my home city.  So I put it to him.

Bruce was happy to admit that, yes, he was a Brummie really.  He had come up to the Isle of Iona many years before.  And he had just stayed there.

I made a mental note to the effect that "It doesn't matter where you go in the world, you'll always bump into somebody from Birmingham."

Fifteen years later, I returned to Iona with my better half, Kim, and we were married on the island.  We made four return trips over the next four years.  And on the first of those, I bumped into Bruce again.

I recognised him immediately.  And as soon as he found out that I was from Birmingham, we were back onto his favourite subject - the Outer Circle bus route, normally known as the Number 11.

Bruce had preserved a map-like memory of Birmingham.  Maybe that's what you do when you decide to live on a little Hebridean island with beautiful white beaches - you think about where you've come from.

We would stop outside his place to buy keepsakes of Iona marble, found and carved by Bruce himself (one I wear around my neck every day), and jars of heather honey from his bees.  Chickens roamed his yard freely.  In conversation, I discovered that he had built himself at least two houses on Iona - he sold one, so he built himself another.  And we talked about the island.

A friend of mine had given me a page from the Sunday Sport indicating where the best nudist beaches were in Britain.  One, apparently, was on the Isle of Iona.  I didn't believe it.  Didn't really believe that the Sunday Sport had even heard of Iona.  It was Bruce who explained to me that one of the loveliest beaches on the west side of the island was where the young seasonal staff from the hotels gathered at night to go skinny-dipping.  Impressed as I was that Bruce knew this, I was even more impressed that the Sunday Sport had got it right.  Definitely one of the best nudist beaches in the British Isles by far.

Bruce taught me a lot about Iona marble, and the geography of the island.  When we weren't talking about the Number 11 bus route.  We didn't see him when we popped over to Iona for a few hours in July 2010, although I kept an eye out for him.  I did, however, feel that he deserved a mention in the Acknowledgements for The King Arthur Conspiracy.  I'd known him for twenty years when I last saw him, and whenever we met we'd talk about two things: Birmingham and Iona.

Sadly, Bruce Wall passed away eighteen months ago.  I found out today.  He was 94.  Kim had been in touch with a woman - Bruce's daughter - who has refurbished his cottage in the middle of the island and is now looking at letting it out to holidaymakers.  The bees are still there, still making their heather honey, and they're still selling some of Bruce's polished stones by the garden gate.

He's buried in the Iona cemetery - with a good view of a tumbledown ruin, apparently, which he's no doubt thinking of rebuilding.  With any luck, we'll be up on Iona for our tenth wedding anniversary this year, so I'll look forward to saying Hi and telling him that the Number 11 bus is still running fine.  And I'll keep wearing my Iona marble pendant with its Celtic Cross, incised by Bruce.

And I think I should leave a copy of The King Arthur Conspiracy at Bruce's cottage.  After all, he gets a 'Thank You' in it.