Very interesting and instructive, though very sad it is to chronicle certain undeniable and not unfrequent facts in the history of human nature, outbursts, as Carlyle calls them, of the feral nature, that element which man holds in common with the brutes, and which, when it breaks forth in him, assumes, by contrast, a more hideous and savage character than in them, even as fire seems more terrible in a civilized city than amidst a howling wilderness; among palaces and bowers than among heathery moorlands or masses of foliage, and even as the madness of a man is more fearful than that of a beast. It is recorded of Bishop Butler that one day walking in his garden along with his Chaplain immersed in silent thought, he suddenly paused and turning round asked him if he thought that nations might go mad as well as individuals. What reply the Chaplain gave we are not informed; but fifty years after the French Revolution with its thunder-throat answered the Bishop's question. Nay it had been answered on a less scale before by Sicilian Vespers , Massacres of Bartholomew, and the Massacre of Glencoe, and has been answered since, apart from France, in Jamaica, India, and elsewhere. God has made of one blood all nations that dwell on the face of the earth. Yet alas, that blood when possessed by the spirit of wrath, of revenge, of fierce patriotism, or of profound religious zeal, and heated sevenfold, becomes an element only inferior in intensity to what we can conceive of the passions of hell, such as Dante has painted in his Ugolino in the Inferno, gnawing his enemy's skull for evermore; such as Michael Angelo has sculptured on the roof of the Sistine Chapel, in eyes burning with everlasting fury, and fists knotted to discharge blows, the least of which were death, but which hang there arrested as if for ever on the walls, and such as Milton has represented in Moloch's unappeaseable malignity, and in Satan's inexorable hate.
It is to one of these frightful outcomes of human ferocity, an event with which even after a period of 200 years that all Scotland, and especially all the Highlands, rings from side to side, and which unborn generations shall shudder at, that we propose to turn the attention of the readers of the Celtic Magazine. We do so partly, no doubt, from the extreme interest of the subject, and partly also, because important lessons of humanity, of forgiveness, of hatred at wrong and oppression, of the benefits of civilization, of the gratitude we feel for the extinction of clan quarrels and feuds, and the thousand other irregularities and inhumanities which once defaced the grandest of landscapes, and marred a noble and a manly race of men; because such lessons may be, if not formally drawn, yet may pervade and penetrate the whole story as with a living moral.
The occasion of the Massacre of Glencoe was as follows: - Although the Lowlands, since the date of the Revolution, were now quiet, it was far different with the Highlands. There, indeed, the wind was down, but still the sea ran high. The Highlanders were at that time very poor, very discontented, and very pugnacious. To subdue them seemed a long and difficult process. To allow them to exterminate one another, and re-enact on a much larger scale, the policy of the battle between the clans on the North Inch of Perth seemed as unwise as it was cruel. There was a third course proposed and determined on, that of buying them up, bribing them in short, applying that golden spur which has, in all ages, made the laziest horse to go, and the most restive to be obedient. The Government of King William resolved to apply to this purpose a sum variously estimated at £12,000 and £20,000. This sum was committed to John, Earl of Breadalbane, the head of a powerful branch of the great Clan Campbell. He was one of the most unprincipled men of that day; had turned his coat, and would have turned his skin had it been possible and worth while; and is described by a contemporary as "Grave as a Spaniard, cunning as a fox, wiry as a serpent, and slippery as an eel." He was the worst of persons to have the charge of pacifying the Highlands committed to him, being distrusted by both parties, and hated by the Jacobites with a deadly hatred. Nevertheless the negotiations went on, although slowly. Breadalbane lived at Kilchurn Castle, which, now a fine old ruin, stands on the verge of the magnificent Loch Awe, looks up to the gigantic Ben Cruachan, and which Wordsworth has glorified in one of his finest minor poems. To that romantic castle, now silent in its age, but then resounding with the music and revelry of the clans, were to be seen some of the leading Jacobite chieftains crossing the mighty mountains to the northwest, and holding conferences with the crafty head of the Campbells; and on the 30th of January 1690 a large assembly met at Achallaster in Glenorchy, to arrange matters between the Earl and the Highlanders, but in vain. There was mutual distrust. The chiefs were willing to come to terms, but they suspected that Breadalbane meant to deceive them and to keep a portion of the cash in his own Sporran. He, on the other hand - ill-doers being usually ill-dreaders - thought that they were playing a double game. More than a year passed in fruitless negotiations, and the autumn of 1691 saw the matter unsettled. At last Lord Stair and the other advisers of the King resolved to try the effect of threats as well as bribes; and in August they issued a proclamation promising an indemnity to every rebel who should swear the oath of allegiance in the presence of a Civil Magistrate before the 1st January 1692, and threatening with dire penalties, letters of fire and sword, as they were called, all who delayed beyond that day. The proclamation was drawn up by Stair in conjunction with Breadalbane. He had wished to form a Highland Regiment in favour of Government, and to get, if possible, all the Highland chiefs to transfer their allegiance from King James to the New Dynasty. This he found very difficult. The chiefs were fond enough of the money, but fonder at heart of the Stewarts. Many of them, including the Macdonalds stood out for more favourable terms. The negotiations were broken off, and the fatal proclamation was issued. Stair's letters show to a certainty that he and King William's Government cherished the hope that the chiefs would not submit at all, or at least that they would hold on beyond the prescribed time. Like Hyder Ali, as described by Burke, he had determined, in the gloomy recesses of a mind capacious of such things, to make the broad Highlands a monument of his vengeance.
William of Orange
The great object, let it be remembered, of the Government was to get the troops employed in the Highlands disengaged and free for service in other places. To serve this purpose they were willing to pay a certain sum, but if this proved ineffectual they were still more willing to inflict summary punishment on the principal offenders. Hence Stair had collected troops at Inverlochy, had resolved to take advantage of the winter when the passes would be probably stopped with snow, and when the Highlanders, not expecting the attack, would be likely to fall an easy prey. And thus, not like an injured and infuriated Hyder Ali, but like a tiger on the edge of his jungle, did this inhuman lawyer lie eagerly biding his time. Hear his own language illustrating a character whom Macaulay elaborately defends. "If the rest are willing, as crows do, to pull down Glengarry's nest so as the King be not hindered from drawing four regiments from Scotland, in that case the destroying him and his clan will be to the full as acceptable as his coming in." What a fiend in the form of one pretending to worship equity and distribute justice !
It is generally thought that the chiefs got information of the designs of their enemies, probably by communication from King James. At all events, in the end of the year to the profound mortification of Stair, the principal of them, Lochiel, Glengarry, Clanranald, Keppoch, and others came forward and took the oath of allegiance, all save one, MacIan, or Macdonald of Glencoe. Stair, as chief after chief took the oath, had been more and more chagrined and desirous that some one or other of the clans should refuse and become the victim of his vengeance. And one such tribe did at last fall into his vindictive and quivering jaws. It was the tribe of the Macdonalds, inhabiting, as a munition of rocks, the Valley of Glencoe.
A romanticised Victorian-era illustration of a MacDonald of Glencoe clansman
by R. R. McIan from The Clans of the Scottish Highlands published in 1845.
Glencoe is well known to the lovers of the picturesque as one of the very grandest scenes in Scotland. We have seen some of the sublimest scenes in Switzerland and in Norway, but none of them, not Chamouni nor the Romsdale Valley have obliterated the memory or lessened the admiration of that awful glen which we have often thought of as a softened Sinai - a smaller but scarcely gentler similitude of the Mount that might be touched. There are, of course, many diversities. Through the valley of Glencoe winds a stream called the Cona - a name of perfect music, soft as Italian, and which seems the very echo of the pathetic and perpetual wail of a lonely river. No such stream laves the foot of Sinai's savage hill. Then there lies below one of the boldest hills of the pass, a lovely little sheet of water, being the Cona dispread into a small lake looking up with childlike, trustful, untrembling, eye to the lowering summits above, and here and there a fine verdure creeps up the precipices and green pastures, and still waters encompass hills on which Aaron might have waited for death, or Moses ascended to meet God. But the mural aspect of many of the precipices, the rounded shape of some of the mountains contrasted with the sharp razor-like ridges of others, the deep and horrid clefts and ravines which yawn here and there, the extent, dreariness, solitude, and grandeur of the mountain range above - the summits you see, but scarcely see behind their nearer brethren, as though retiring like proud and lonely spirits into their own inaccessible hermitages, the appearance of convulsion and tearing in pieces and rending in twain, and unappeasable unreconciliation which insulates as it were, and lifts on end the whole region are those of Horeb, as we have seen it in picture or in dream, and the beholder might, on a cloudy and dark day, or on an evening which has set all the hills on fire, become awestruck and silent, as if waiting for another Avatar of the Ancient One on the thundersplit and shaggy peaks. In other moods, and when seen from a distance while sailing from Fort-William, its mountains have suggested the image of the last survivors of the giants on the eve of their defeat by Jove, collected together into one grim knot of mortal defiance with grim-scathed faces, and brows riven by lightning, retorting hatred and scorn on their triumphant foes. And when you plunge into its recesses and see far up among its cliffy rocks spots of snow unmelted amid the blaze of June, the cataracts, which after rain, descend from its sides in thousands; its solitary and gloomy aspect which the sunshine of summer is not entirely able to remove, and which assumes a darker hue and deepens into dread sublimity, when the thunder cloud stoops his wing over the valley, and the lightning runs among the quaking rocks, you feel inclined to call Glencoe, in comparison with the other glens of Scotland, the "Only One," the secluded, self-involved, solemn, silent valley. Green covers the lower parts of the hills, but it seems the green of the grave, its sounds are in league with silence, its light is the ally of darkness. The feeling, however, finally produced is not so much terror as pensiveness, and if the valley be, as it has been called, the valley of the Shadow of Death, it is death without his sting - the everlasting slumber there; but the ghastliness and the horror fled. Yet at times there passes over the mind as you pass this lonely valley, the recollection of what occurred 200 years ago, and a whisper seems to pierce your ear, "Here ! blood basely shed by treachery stained the spotless snow. These austere cliffs, where now soars and screams the eagle, once listened to the shriek of murdered men, women, and children; and on this spot where peaceful tourists now walk admiring the unparalleled grandeur, and feeling the spirit of the very solitary place bathing them in quiet reverie and dream-like bliss was transacted a scene of cruelty and cold-blooded murder which all ages shall arise and call accursed !"
As the clime is, so the heart of man. The Macdonalds were worthy of their savage scenery, and more savage weather. True children of the mist were they, strong, fearless, living principally on plunder, at feud with the adjacent Campbells to which clan Breadalbane belonged, and often had the blood of the race of Dermid smoked on their swords. MacIan, their chieftain, was a noble specimen of the Highland character. He was a man of distinguished courage and sagacity, of a venerable and majestic appearance, was stately in bearing, and moved among his neighbouring chieftains like a demigod. He had fought at Killiecrankie and was a marked man by Government. He had had a meeting with Breadalbane on the subject of the proclamation and their mutual differences, but they had come to a rupture, and MacIan went away with the impression that Breadalbane would do him an injury if he could. And yet, with a strange inconsistency amounting almost to infatuation, he delayed taking the oath, and thereby securing his own safety, till the appointed period was nearly expired. In vain is the net set in the sight of any bird. But Stair had set the net before the eyes of Macdonald, and had openly expressed a hope that he would fall into it, and still the old man lingered.
A few days, however, before the first of January, Colonel Hill is sitting in his room at Fort-William when some strangers claim an audience. There enter several Highlanders, all clad in the Macdonald tartan - one towering in stature over the rest, and of a dignified bearing - all armed, but all in an attitude of submission. They are MacIan and the leaders of his tribe, who have come at the eleventh hour to swear the oath of allegiance to King William. The Colonel, a scholar and a gentlemen, is glad and yet grieved to see them; for, alas ! being a military and not a civil officer, he has no power to receive their oaths. He tells them so, and the old chieftain at first remonstrates, and at last, in his agony, weeps perhaps his first tears since infancy, like the waters of the Cona, breaking over the channels of their rocky bed ! The tears of a brave patriarch are the most affecting of all tears; and Colonel Hill, moved to the heart, writes out a letter to Sir Colin Campbell, Sheriff of Argyleshire, requesting him, although legally too late, to stretch a point and receive the submission of the chief; and with this letter in his Sporranmollach, away he hied in haste from Fort-William to Inverary. The road lay within a mile of his dwelling, but such was his speed that he did not even turn aside to salute his family. The roads were horrible; the very elements seemed to have joined in the conspiracy against the doomed Macdonalds; a heavy snow-storm had fallen, and in spite of all the efforts he could make, he reached Inverary too late - the first of January was past. Worse still, he found the Sheriff absent, and had to wait three days for his return. He told him his story, and he being a sensible and a humane man, after a little hesitation, moved by the old man's tears, and the letter of Colonel Hill, consented to administer to him the oath, and sent off at the same time a message to the Privy Council relating the facts of the case, and explaining all the reasons of his conduct. He also wrote to Colonel Hill, requesting him to take care that his soldiers should not molest the Macdonalds till the pleasure of the Privy Council in the matter was made known.
The Massacre of Glencoe by Peter Jackson