Everything I know, or think I know, about Glencoe (apart from driving through it) I know from John Prebble’s work. The same is true of The Clearances and of Culloden. Shortbread-tin-and-tartan history likes to paint the perfidious English as the villains of the piece. It chooses to ignore the major part played by the Lowland Scots. It chooses to ignore the fact that McIan, the clan chief of the Glencoe Macdonalds was essentially a bandit and cattle thief whose depredations had driven Campbell of Glen Lyon to such straits of penury that he had to enlist in the army in order to make a living. So it was maybe no surprise that Caampbell was quite happy to lead the raid on the MacDonalds of Glencoe. ‘Massacre’ conjures up notions of annihilation. Thirty-seven** of the Clan MacDonald were killed. Decimation would be a more accurate word. But it was a cowardly and bloody business that violated all the unwritten laws of Highland hospitality. Prebble’s chapter on the night of the attack is rightly titled ‘murder under trust’. Popular Scots ‘history’ likes to simplify and sentimentalise, but nothing detracts from the horrible business of the murder of men, women and children in the snows of a winters night in a glen that is gothically brooding at the best of times.
What has always moved me, despite his murderous reputation, is the story of MacIan’s desperate attempt to stave off the outlawing of his people. Prebble recounts a terrible journey of three days and nights, through snow and blizzards, from Glencoe to Inverary in the heart of Campbell country, where he hoped to swear a loyal oath to King William and Queen Mary. The Sheriff, Sir Colin Campbell was away. Three days later, after the expiry of the deadline for the taking of the oath had passed, he returned and refused to take MacIan’s oath. And so the fate, one way or another, of the Glencoe MacDonalds was sealed. I think that MacIan’s journey is the story that has always affected me, simply because it’s the very stuff of broadsheets and ballads. It has a Shakespearean quality too. It has a tragic irony. I’ve tried for a long time to write something that would say how I feel about it all. Something that’s not sentimental, or pointlessly rhetorical. This is the best I’ve managed. Three hundred years is a long time, and history is a shifting business at best. But I wanted to write something for the ones we know nothing about at all.
** PS. Wikipedia tells me that the death toll in and around the various houses of the scattered settlements was actually 38. More important is the fact that I omitted to record that over forty others, mainly women and children, died of exposure in the following day or so. They were the ones I was thinking of.
A kind of history
[Glencoe has no melancholy except that which men
bring to it, remembering history : John Prebble]
MacIan of MacDonald of Glencoe
comes to Inverary; three bitter days
of blizzard at year’s ending;
three days from the Fords of Ballachulish,
the Narrows of Creran by Benderloch,
the Pass of Brander below Bheinn Cruachan;
by Loch Fyne and Glen Aray to the sea.
In sodden plaid, and blind with snow,
his oath denied, Macdonald of Glencoe is weeping.
History does not tell what for.
At the Falls of Glencoe lay-by, these days
the piper jingles coins in his bonnet;
skirls Flower of Scotland for the one in ten
hacked and harried in the reek
of each small house, and for the rest
shrinking into the snowy night of the Glen
where contour lines are packed like fingerprints
where there is a name for every burn,
for every corrie, ridge and bealach.
Valley of Slate and Churn. Corrie of Capture.
Ridge of Eagles
Sgurr na Fonnadh, Bheinn a Creachin, Achriachtan,
As though they staked their claim with a language
thistly with scratchy consonants.
When they fled through black snows
into a white dawn, half-dressed, unshod,
they melted into the screes
of high corries where they’d penned their rustled herds,
and everywhere they hid, they’d named and knew.
Who can tell where they went, after.
Who can say who they were.
Relevant books by John Prebble. Glencoe , Culloden . The Highland Clearances . All in Penguin Books
The next instalment of the great fogginzo’s cobweb will be on Sunday Feb 15th. A special treat, and a polished gem. Poems by Wendy Pratt. On no account miss it.