On the 13th February 1692 the people of Glencoe, Scotland experienced one of the worst episodes of state sponsored violence when 40 members of the MacDonald clan were massacred. The murders were carried out by Scottish Government soldiers who sought to punish subjects deemed to be disloyal to the new monarchs of William III and Mary II.
Many Highlanders felt betrayed as they believed that their “true” King was James II and they resented having to pledge allegiance to a King and Queen who did not represent them. This dissatisfaction was at the root of the Jacobite rebellion in 1689 when Highlanders fought to restore King James to the throne after he was deposed in the Glorious Revolution.
The battle in the Highlands brewed for over a year and cost many lives. The Scottish authorities were concerned that military resources were being wasted on this internecine conflict when they could be utilised for the Nine Years War in Flanders. The Jacobite clan chiefs were offered £12,000 to swear their allegiances but there was widespread confusion amongst them about how the money was to be distributed between the clans. The MacDonald clan were singled out by some of the others as troublemakers, and blamed for the delays in the entire process.
A military unit formed from the Earl of Argyll’s regiment was dispatched to Glencoe in late January 1692. The unit was composed of representatives from the Campbell clan, rivals to the MacDonalds. The Campbells had clashed for many years but that winter was especially harsh and the MacDonalds were magnanimous enough to offer them shelter for twelve days. However as dawn approached on that cold, inhospitable February morning the soldiers attacked the MacDonalds with swords. 38 clan members were killed outright others succumbed to the cold as they staggered out into the frozen mountains in their search for clemency.
The Glencoe massacre was a shocking event in British history and it has never been forgotten. The culture of the Highlanders is still perceived as separate from mainstream Scottish, and indeed British identity. It remains a strong thread in the struggle for a distinct and independent Scottish nation, which declares loyalty to its own ancient heritage.
These historical struggles have created a kind of folk memory, which has imbued literature and art. In David Clement-Davies allegorical novel “Fire Bringer” a family of deer are called upon by their chief stag Rannoch to reclaim their historical inheritance and land that was previously usurped by a rival tribe of deer. Rannoch is appointed clan leader as he was born with an oak leaf upon his forehead, a sign that he was destined to fulfil the prophecy.
The promise is indeed fulfilled, and the story of an oppressed but dignified species of animal searching for their ancestral home is incredibly powerful. It is redolent of Richard Adams` “Watership Down” , that stirring tale of rabbits seeking their original home. Both novels illustrate a strong desire for family and a shared moral and religious purpose, akin to Zionism. This natural yearning to return to an ancestral home is something that continues to reverberate all over the world.