Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The four hundred year rebellion

This month I attended the 327th anniversary of the massacre of Glencoe in my role as Finlaggan Pursuivant – herald to the Macdonald clan chiefs.

On February 13th 1692 Thirty or more Macdonalds of Glencoe were killed by government troops (mainly Campbells – the Argyll clan’s military effort was by this stage largely formalised along regimental lines within the army).

Laying a wreath at gloomy Glencoe, 327 later

The massacre is as famous as it is controversial. Historians still argue about the exact sequence of events, who ordered what, who was to blame, and what the historical significance of it all was.
What’s for sure is that it was not a stand alone incident. Glencoe came at the mid point of an extraordinary hundred year period in which the Highland clans payed a central role in the civil wars that defined modern Britain.

In 1645 Montrose was appointed ‘Captain General’ by Charles II and deployed a largely Highland and Highland/Irish army in support of the royalist side in the Civil War. The Stuarts called on the same support on numerous occasions until the final Jacobite defeat at Culloden in 1746.

So one way of looking at this is that it is the same long conflict flaring up over the century. It is striking that a similar group of clans joined each flare-up every time. They came for the most part from the central mainland west coast – the Macdonalds of Clanranald, Keppoch, Glengarry and Glencoe, with Camerons, Stewarts of Appin and others were a common denominator.

What motivated them?

The usual answer is loyalty to the Stuart cause. But, while clan leaders did use the rightness of the Stuart claim as justification, this is far from the whole story.

After all, the same group of clans had spent the previous three hundred years fighting the Stuarts. As recently as the 1620’s the Captain of Clanranald was writing to the Pope offering to lead a Catholic crusade against the Stuart government in Scotland. Indeed, the Clanranald Macdonalds lead a series of conflcicts against the Stuart monarchy throughout the 1500’s, and before that were a leading component of the Lordship of the Isles which struggled against Stuart mastery of Scotland for much of the middle ages. In practice, these Macdonalds were in more or less permanent ‘rebellion’ for four hundred years.

Clanranald and the others seem on the face of it to have pursued an obtuse strategy of persistent folly: Oppose the Stuarts when they are winning and then, as soon as the tide turns, join them to stay on the losing side (the Campbells, of course, did the opposite).

The answer to this paradox is perhaps that it was nothing to do with the Stuarts. It was nothing much to do with religion or culture either (although Clanranald was – and still is – Catholic, most allied clans were not).

Instead, the common thread that runs through all these conflicts, from the Lords of the Isles to Bonnie Prince Charlie – is hostility to whoever was running Scotland. These clans saw themselves as separate and somehow distinct politically from the Scottish (or British) state. It is hard to define this attitude exactly in the modern era of the nation state. The western clans did not necessarily claim a separate nationhood or statehood for themselves in the modern sense. But they reserved to right to pursue their own interests by force if necessary.

Tom Miers
For a memorable holiday exploring Scotland's heritage and culture, check out the Clans and Castles website

The Glencoe parade starts to assemble

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