By Warwick Cairns
I have a story to tell you.
It is a story of betrayal and murder, and also of unexpected kindness and even more unexpected redemption.
But if you’ll bear with me for – what, thirty seconds? I have an announcement to make, first.
A bit of admin to get out of the way, as it were.
Look: my book: the one I’ve been banging on about these past few months, goes by the name of In Praise of Savagery? That one. Well, it’s out now.
I say ‘sort of,’ because… those e-book thingies: Kindles, Sony Readers. Also computers, like people have at home. Well, it’s out now for those, although the actual paper book is still six months away.
But here’s the thing: for the month of November 2010 the ebook of In Praise of Savagery is absolutely free from the iTunes and Kindle stores. In the sense of costing nothing at all – so long as you get your order in before the end of the month.
There: that didn’t take too long, did it?
Now. My story.
In February 1692, a party of a hundred and twenty soldiers of the first and second companies of the Earl of Argyll’s Regiment of Foot marched out from Fort William on the shores of Loch Linnhe, through the bleak winter landscape, under the command of Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon. Snow on the mountainsides, and an icy wind blowing.
They crossed the water by boat at Ballachulish and then headed along the shores of Loch Leven for some sixteen miles, until they saw thin streams of smoke from spiralling upwards in the bleak winter sky from the stone-hut villages of the MacDonalds of Glencoe, which lay by the shore of the river Coe, beneath the mountainous ridge of Aonach Eagach, to the North, and, to the South, the twin peaks of Buachaille Etive Mor and Buachaille Etive Beag, the great and little shepherds of Etive.
They made their way to the house of the chief of that clan, whose name was MacIain, and there they were met by his sons, who came out to greet them.
The eldest son spoke out.
“Greetings, Robert Campbell” he said, holding up his hand towards them, “Do you come in war or in peace?”
“In peace,” said Campbell, “From Fort William.”
“What brings you here to our village?”
“Building-work,” said Campbell, “And the movement of men at the Fort.”
MacIain’s son inclined his head for Campbell to continue
“There have been new units admitted,” he said, “And the old barracks are full. The new barracks are not yet ready, and we have been sent to quarter in Glencoe with your people.”
“You are welcome here,” said MacIain’s son, though there was no love lost between the men. But Campbell had requested hospitality, and it was the custom in those parts that such requests could not be refused.
There had been much blood shed between the Campbells of Glenlyon and the MacDonalds of Glencoe over the years. Mostly it had been over questions of cattle theft and ownership of land and grazing rights. Not four years before, a party of Glencoe MacDonalds, together with their Glengarry cousins, had raided Robert Campbell’s lands and stolen his livestock, putting him into debt and necessitating, incidentally, his decision to join the army for the wage it offered; but at this time they found themselves on opposite sides of something much bigger – something that was, in all respects, a civil war over the throne of Scotland.
With the ascendancy of William of Orange, all the Highland chiefs were required to swear an oath of loyalty to the Crown; and it had been judged that MacIain had been unduly slow and reluctant in doing so, and his loyalty was considered suspect, if not downright false.
With this in mind, Captain Campbell was dispatched to Glencoe with a very particular and most secret set of orders.
The MacDonalds welcomed Campbell’s men into their homes as guests; and though Campbell himself was what he was, and who he was, and of the clan from which he came, he was also related to the MacDonald chief through marriage; and so he was given a bed in one of MacIain’s own houses.
The soldiers were fed, housed and entertained for some two weeks, until the night of the 12th. That night, Campbell spent the evening playing cards with his hosts, before wishing them goodnight and accepting an invitation to dine with them the following night.
But later, in the early hours of the following morning, a single shot rang out. It was a signal for which the soldiers had been waiting, dressed and armed; and upon the sound of it they turned upon their hosts, dragging them from their beds and slaughtering them in front of their homes.
In all, thirty-eight MacDonalds were killed by the soldiers. Another forty, mostly women and children, died of exposure in the snow after fleeing from their burning houses.
The number of deaths would have been higher still, were it not that the idea of killing one’s host – of murder under trust – was considered deeply shameful in Highland culture. No matter how much you might happen to loathe a man, and no matter that, if you were to come across him in other circumstances, you would happily slit his throat as soon as look at him, it was just not the done thing to kill him while a guest under his roof.
For this reason, not all of the soldiers were wholly enthusiastic about their task, nor were they wholly diligent in carrying it out.
Some found ways of warning their hosts beforehand, saying things like “If I were a sheep, I think I would head up to the hills tonight,” whilst giving their hosts the kind of meaningful looks that either persuaded them that they had lost their marbles altogether, or else that they had some urgent message of the utmost importance to impart. Two lieutenants, Francis Farquhar and Gilbert Kennedy, went so far as to break their swords rather than carry out their orders, and for this were subsequently imprisoned for their disobedience – though they were pardoned at a later date.
The ruins of MacIain’s house can still be seen to this day, in a wood not far from the present-day village of Glencoe, overgrown with heather and bracken.
More than three hundred years later, people in those parts still sing of the massacre in ballads:
Some died in their beds at the hand o’ the foe
Some fled in the night and were lost in the snow
Some lived tae accuse him wha’ struck the first blow
But gone was the house of MacDonald
And there is a story, also, of a soldier in Campbell’s regiment who was sent down to search beneath the bridge of the River Coe, where it was believed that a number of the MacDonalds might be hiding. Sure enough, he found a small group of women and children huddled down there; but rather than kill them all, he drew his sword and, taking hold of the arm of one among them, a young boy, he cut off the boy’s finger, smearing the blood along the length of his blade, before returning to his unit to report his ‘success’.
It is also told how many years later, as an old man, this same soldier passed through Glencoe once more on his way to conduct some business in Fort William. It was late and he was tired, and he stopped at the new inn in the rebuilt village, which is, as I say, a little way down from where the old one stood; and there he fell to drinking, and to thinking about had gone before and what he had taken part in; and feeling burdened by the shame and guilt of it, he told his story to the innkeeper. Now, this man listened carefully, all the way through, and when at last the old soldier reached the end of his story he said nothing. Instead, he simply held up his hand, to reveal his missing finger.
I do not know if this is true or not; but that is the story as I heard it.
Oh, and I meant to say, this is from In Praise of Savagery as well. Which, given that it’s a book about travels in Africa, may seem a little surprising. But there’s a reason for it, you see. And that reason is… well, you’ll have to download the book to find out.
Here is an advance sample chapter, in proof form, for you to get a taste of it:
Beat has followed Warwick Cairns through these columns on his journey to publication of his new book In Praise of Savagery: the true story of a journey into uncharted land inhabited by murderous tribal warriors and ruled over by a bloodthirsty sultan – and the man, the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who lived to tell the tale. And the story of Warwick’s journey, fifty years later, to a mud hut in Africa to visit him at the end of his life.
More about Warwick Cairns can be found here
and the official, Friday Project page, on Harper Collins site is here.