Stair meanwhile had made up his mind, and through his influence the certificate of MacIan having signed his allegiance was suppressed, and on the 11th of January, and afterwards on the 16th, instructions signed and countersigned by the King came forth in which the inhabitants of Glencoe were expressly exempted from the pardon given to the other clans, and extreme measures ordered against them. A letter was sent by Lord Stair to Colonel Hill commanding him to execute the purposes of the Government, but he showed such reluctance that the commission was given to one Colonel Hamilton instead, who had no scruples. He was ordered to take a detachment of 120 men, chiefly belonging to a clan regiment levied by Argyle, and consequently animated by bitter feudal animosity towards the Macdonalds.
Towards the close of January a company of armed Highlanders appear wending their way toward the opening of the Valley of Glencoe. The Macdonalds, fearing they have come for their arms, send them away to a place of concealment, and then came forth to meet the strangers. They find it is a party of Argyle's soldiers, commanded by Captain Campbell of Glenlyon, whose niece (a sister by the way of Rob Roy) is married to Alastair Macdonald, one of MacIan's sons. They ask if they have come as friends or foes. They reply, as friends, but as the garrison at Fort-William is crowded they had been sent to quarter themselves for a few days at Glencoe. They are received with open arms, feuds are forgotten, and for a fortnight all is harmony and even hilarity in the hamlet.
Loud in all the clustering cottages
Rose sounds of melody and voice of mirth;
The measured madness of the dance is there,
And the wild rapture of the feast of shells.
Warm hands are clasped to hands that firm reply,
And friendship glows and brightens into love.
Thus for a fortnight matters go on, when on the 1st of February orders are issued by Hamilton to his subordinate, Major Duncanson, fixing five o'clock next morning for the slaughter of all the Macdonalds under seventy, and enjoining the various detachments of men to be at their posts by that hour to secure the passes of the glen that not one of the doomed race might escape. Especial care was to be taken that the old fox and his cubs should not escape, and that (what cool but hellish words), "that the Government was not to be troubled with prisoners." These fell orders Duncanson handed on to Glenlyon, who gladly received and proceeded to carry them into execution with prompt and portentous fidelity.
With such injunctions in his pocket, Glenlyon proceeded to act the Judas part with consummate skill. He supped and played at cards, on the evening of the 12th, with John and Alexander Macdonald - two of his intended victims; and he and his lieutenant (Lindsay) accepted an invitation to dine with old MacIan for the next day. At five o'clock on the morning of the 13th Hamilton hoped to have secured all the eastern passes to prevent the escape of any fugitives, but, at all events, then must Glenlyon begin his work of death.
All now is silent over the devoted hamlet. All are sleeping with the exception of the two sons of MacIan, who had been led to entertain some suspicions that all was not right. They had observed that the sentinels had been doubled and the guard increased. Some of the soldiers too had been heard muttering their dislike to the treacherous task to which they had been commissioned. The Macdonalds, in alarm, came to Glenlyon's quarters a little after midnight, and found him preparing, along with his men, for immediate service. They asked him what was the meaning of all this, and he, with dauntless effrontery, replied that he and his men were intending an expedition against Glengarry, and added, "If anything had been intended do you think I would not have told Alastair here and my niece." The young men are only half satisfied, but return, although grumblingly, to their own dwellings.
Over the valley, meanwhile, a snowstorm has begun to fall, but does not come to its full height till farther on in the morning. The voice of the Cona is choked in ice. The great heights behind the Sinai of Scotland are silent, they have no thunders to forewarn, no lightnings to avenge. MacIan himself is sleeping the deep sleep of innocence and security. The fatigues and miseries of his journey to Fort-William and Inverary all forgotten. Is there no wail of ghost, no cry of spirit coronach, none of those earnest whispers which have been heard among the hills at dead of night, and piercing the darkness with prophecies of fate ? We know not, and had there been such warning sounds they had given their oracle in vain.
Suddenly, at five precisely, a knock is heard at MacIan's door. It is opened immediately, and the old man bustles up to dress himself, and to order refreshments for his visitors. Look at him as he stands at the threshold of his door, clad in nothing but his shirt, and his long grey hair, with looks of friendship and a cup of welcome trembling in his old hand; and see his wife has half risen behind him to salute the incomers. Without a moment's warning, without a preliminary word, he is shot dead and falls back into her arms. She is next assailed, stript naked, the gold rings, from her fingers torn off by the teeth of the soldiers, and then she is struck and trampled on till she is left for dead on the ground, and next day actually dies. All the clansmen and servants in the same house are massacred, all save one, an old domestic and a sennachie. He has been unable to sleep all night with melancholy thoughts, and falling into a deep sleep ere morning is roused by a horrible dream, leaves the hamlet, dashes through the door, dirks in vain striking at his shadow, and hands trying in vain to seize his plaid, he runs to the hut where the two brothers are lying and cries out, like screams of Banshie through the night, "Is it time for you to be sleeping while your father is murdered on his own hearth? "
They arise in haste, make for the mountains, and by their knowledge of the dark and devious paths through that horrible wilderness, are enabled to escape. From every house and hut there now rise shrieks, shouts, groans, and blasphemies, the roar of muskets, the cries of men, women, and children blended into one harmony of hell! The snow is now falling thick, and is darkening more the dark February morning. Led through the gloom, as if following the lurid eyes of some demoniac being, the soldiers find their way from house to house, from one cluster of cottages to another, rush in, seize their victims, drag them out, and shoot them dead. In Glenlyon's own quarters nine men, including his own landlord, are bound and shot, one of them with General Hill's passport in his pocket. A boy of twelve clings to Glenlyon's knees asking for mercy and offering to be his servant for life, when one Drummond stabbed him with his dirk as he was uttering a prayer by which even Glenlyon was affected. At Auchnain, a hamlet up the glen, Sergeant Barbour and his troops came upon a party of nine men sitting round a fire, and slew eight of them. The owner of the house in which Barbour had been quartered was not hurt, and requested to die in the open air. "For your bread which we have ate," said the Sergeant, "I will grant your request." He was taken out accordingly, but while the soldiers were presenting their muskets he threw his plaid over their faces, broke away and escaped up the valley.
Thirty-eight persons in all, including one or two women and a little boy, were put to death, but, besides, many who are supposed to have perished in the drifts. The murderers, after massacring the inmates, set the dwellings on fire; and how ghastly and lurid, especially to those who had escaped up the glen, perhaps as far as those mountains called the Three Sisters, bound to-day together by a band of virgin snow, must have seemed the effect of the flames flashing against the white of the hills, and which they knew were fed and fattened by the blood of their kindred! Many fled half naked into the storm, and through profound wreaths of snow, and over savage precipices, reached places of safety. The snow now avails more to save than to destroy since on account of it, Hamilton with his 400 men was too late to stop the eastern passes through which many made their escape. Had he come up in time every soul had perished. When he arrived at eleven there was not a Macdonald alive in the glen except one old man of eighty, whose worm-like writhings prove him still alive
One stab, one groan, and the tremendous deed
Of massacre is done, at which the heath
Which waves o'er all the Highland hills shall blush,
And torrents wail for ages, ghosts shall shriek,
Hell tremble through its dayless depths, and Heaven
Weep, and while weeping grasp its thunderbolts.
Beware Glenlyon's blood at you they're armed !
Beware the curse of God and of Glencoe !
The allusion in this last line is to a story told by Stewart of Garth in his "History of the Highland Regiments," and on which a ballad by a deceased poet, B. Symmons, an Irishman of great genius, was founded, and appeared originally in Blackwood's Magazine. There was a brave officer, Colonel Campbell of Glenlyon, the grandson of the ruffian who disgraced the Campbell name and human nature at Glencoe. A curse was supposed to rest upon the family, and the lands of Glenlyon departed rood by rood from his descendants. The grandson, however, was brought up by a pious mother, entered the army, and became a prosperous officer. He was pursuing his profession in Canada when a romantic circumstance occurred. A young man named Ronald Blair, a private of excellent character and true courage, was stationed as a sentinel on an outpost. He loved an Indian maid who came eve after eve to meet him at his post, steering up the St Lawrence her lonely canoe. One night as she left him a storm raged on the waters and exposed her and her bark to imminent jeopardy. She shrieked out her lover's name, and called for help.
The waves have swamped her little boat,
She sinks before his eye,
And he must keep his dangerous post,
And leave her there to die.
One moment's dreadful strife—love wins,
He plunges in the water,
The moon is out, his strokes are stout,
The swimmer's arm has caught her,
And back he bears with gasping heart
The forest's matchless daughter.
Meanwhile the picket pass and find his post deserted, and, of course, his life forfeited. He is condemned to die, and Colonel Campbell is appointed to superintend his execution. The circumstances transpire. A reprieve is sent by the commanding officer with secret orders, however, that the sentence be pushed on to all but the last, and not till the prisoner's prayers are over, and the death fillet bound, is the pardon to be produced.
The morrow came, the evening sun
Was sinking red and cold,
When Ronald Blair a league from camp
Was led erect and bold,
To die a soldier's death, while low
The funeral drum was rolled.
The musketeers advance to ask the signal when they are to shoot, Campbell tells them, "Reserve your fire till I produce this blue handkerchief." The prayer is said, the eyes are bound, the doomed soldier kneels. There is such a silence that a tear might have been heard falling to the ground. Campbell's heart beats high with joy and fear to think that by drawing out the pardon in his pocket he is to turn despair into delight. He keeps his hand a moment longer on the reprieve, and then draws it forth, but with it drew - O God, the handkerchief; the soldiers fire, Ronald Blair falls, and his Indian maid is found clasping his dead body to her breast and dying by his side, and the frenzied Colonel exclaims"The Curse of Heaven and of Glencoe is here."
The troops left the glen with a vast booty—900 kine, 200 ponies, and many sheep and goats. When they had departed the Macdonalds crept from their lurking places, went back to the spot, collected the scorched carcasses from among the ruins, and buried them there. It is said that the Bard of the Clan took his place on a rock opposite the scene of the massacre and poured out a lament over his slaughtered kinsmen and their desolate dwellings. The subject had been worthy of an Ossian. The scene there is now changed. A house or two only remains where smoked hundreds of happy hearths. The thistle and the wild myrtle shake their heads in the winds, and utter their low monody which mingles with, and is swelled by the voice of the Cona, all seeming to mourn over crime, and to pronounce for doom. Yet let our conclusion be that of the Judge of the earth Himself when he says vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord, and who mixes mercy with judgment, and makes the wrath of man to praise him in pardon as well as by punishment. Yet this stupendous crime was not to pass wholly unpunished. It was a considerable time ere its particulars and aggravations were fully known. Conceive such an atrocious massacre perpetrated now ! In less than seven days there would be a cry of vengeance from the Land's End to Caithness. Within a fortnight demands for the blood of the murderers would be coming in from every part of the British dominions. In a month the ringleaders would have been tried, condemned, and hanged, and even Mr Bruce, the late lenient Secretary of State, would not venture to reprieve one of them. It was different then. Not a word of it appeared in the meagre newspapers of that day. Floating rumours there were, but they were all, in many particular points, wide of the mark, and it was long ere the particulars condensed into the tragic and terrible tale which is certainly stranger than fiction. Very little interest was then felt in Highlands feuds, and as Macaulay truly says, "To the Londoner of those days Appin was what Caffrarra or Borneo is to us. He was not more moved by hearing that some Highland thieves had been surprised and killed, than we are by hearing that a band of Amakosah cattle-stealers had been cut off, or that a barkful of Malay pirates had been sunk." Gradually, however, the dark truth came out, and orbed itself into that blood-red unity of horror, which has since made the firmest nerves to tremble, and the stoutest knees to shake, which has haunted dreams, inspired poetry, created new and ghastly shapes of superstition, and which, even yet, as the solitary traveller is plodding his way amidst the shadows of an autumn evening, or under the shivering stars of a winter night, can drench the skin and curdle the blood. No wonder though the actors in the tragedy felt, in their dire experience afterwards, that the infatuation of crime dissolves the moment it is perpetrated; that Breadalbane sought the sons of the murdered MacIan to gain impunity for himself by signing a document declaring him guiltless; that Glencoe haunted the couch and clouded the countenance, and shortened the days of Glenlyon. Hamilton apparently felt no remorse, and his only regret was that any had escaped, and that a colossal crime had been truncated by some colossal blunders. He might have said like the Templar in the Talisman, when some one tells him to tremble, "I cannot if I would." And yet as God comes often to men without bell, so there might be some secret passage through which, on noiseless footsteps, remorse might reach even the sullen chamber of his hardened heart.
Many lessons might be derived from the whole story, none, after all, more obvious and none more useful than the old old story of the desperate wickedness of human nature when unpenetrated by brotherly and Christian feeling; and that he who has sounded the ocean, the grave, the deepest and the darkest mountain cavern has yet a deeper deep to fathom in the abyss of his own heart; and that the moral of the subject may be yet more briefly condensed in the one grand line which Shelley has borrowed from Burke:
"To fear ourselves and love all human kind."
Memorial at Glencoe
George Gilfillan (30 January 1813 – 13 August 1878)
was a Scottish author and poet.
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