The Massacre of Glencoe – Alastair McDonald.

Diane, over breakfast, mentioned that there are still pubs and restaurants in Scotland, in the Highlands, where the sign No service to Campbells here or something along those lines, is there. Of course, in 2011, nobody is going to ask if your name is Campbell, but the story lingers. This was the first I heard about the Massacre of Glencoe. The story goes, roughly, like this:

Winter of 1692. The MacDonalds of Glen Coe had not pledged allegiance to the new king and queen, William and Mary. The events followed the Glorious Revolution of 1689: by royal decree, a group of men commanded by Robert Campbell massacred thirty-eight members of the McDonald clan, as a belated punishment for failing to pledge allegiance to William and Mary.

When compared to the many massacres throughout the history of Britain (or of any other part of Europe at the time), this massacre wouldn’t seem particularly large by numbers. So, why the song, the stories, the painful remembering? What makes the Massacre of Glencoe stand out among many other massacres, where thousands were killed, throughout the wars of religion in what is now Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Holland? What is remembered exactly in the signs against Campbells (more than three centuries after the slaughtering), in the ballad, in the stories of the MacDonalds?

The song enlightens us: apparently, two links stand out: the connection to England, and the treason to the law of hospitality. The ballad stresses the fact that the MacDonalds, in the harsh winter of Glencoe (those mountains!!! if I could be back in Glencoe now, I would be ready to walk there for days), gave food and drink and hospitality to the Campbells. The Campbells, in the middle of night, slaughtered viciously their hosts. They embuscaded the fleeing MacDonalds, they somehow did worse by betraying hospitality than by the slaughter itself, as it were.

Oh, cruel is the snow that sweeps Glencoe
And covers the grave o’ Donald;
Oh, cruel was the foe that raped Glencoe
And murdered the house of MacDonald.

They came in the blizzard, we offered them heat,
A roof for their heads, dry shoes for their feet;
We wined them and dined them, they ate of our meat,
And they slept in the house of MacDonald

They came from Fort William wi murder in mind;
The Campbell had orders King William had signed;
“Put all to the sword,” these words underlined,
“And leave none alive called MacDonald.”

They came in the night when the men were asleep,
This band of Argyles, through snow soft and deep;
Like murdering foxes amongst helpless sheep,
They slaughtered the house of MacDonald.

Some died in their beds at the hand o the foe;
Some fled in the night and were lost in the snow;
Some lived to accuse him wha struck the first blow,
But gone was the house of MacDonald.

That same evening, some people in the pub near Callander sang it. Beautifully. We followed, with the booklet, singing softly. Wondering if there were any MacDonalds or any Campbells in that crowd.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s