To this day, if you walk into the Clachaig Inn a couple of miles from Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands, you’ll see a sign that states: “No hawkers or Campbells.” Even after three centuries, folks in this area of Scotland still remember what happened on a winter night in February 1692. For that reason, if your name is Campbell, you better tread lightly.
On that bitterly cold night long ago, members of Clan Campbell had taken refuge with the MacDonalds of Glencoe under the old highland custom of hospitality. This custom was designed so that travelers caught out in bad weather could take refuge with locals, whether they be friend or enemy. It was the obligation of the host to feed and care for the visitor until such time as the bad weather passed and the traveler could be on their way. The MacDonalds, enemies of the Campbells, had done exactly that – they had offered shelter for twelve days to the Campbell party due to some extremely difficult winter conditions.
Little did the MacDonalds know, but the Campbells had been sent to settle a score because the MacDonald Clan Chieftan was a little late signing an oath to the new monarchs William and Mary. This provided the perfect excuse for local rivalries to raise their ugly head under the guise of a “just” cause. As a result, during the height of a blizzard, the Campbells set about murdering as many MacDonalds as they could while they still slept. Thirty-eight men lay dead, bleeding in the snow the next morning, while an additional forty more, mainly women and children, died in the snows of the pass, trying to make their escape as their homes were burned.
Never again would the Campbell name be trusted in the Scottish Highlands. They had broken a sacred tradition when they violated the deeply held tradition of hospitality.
Even today, visiting Glencoe in the warm days of summer, a chill seems to go down your spine as the place has a mournful feel about it. Most likely you’ll encounter the sound of bagpipes if you pull over in one of the roadside parking areas. If you get lucky and the piper is good, take a few moments and find a spot to escape the crowds. Sit on a rock as the wind blows through the valley against your face and try to imagine what it must have been like that night long ago. I guarantee you’ll leave this place with a feeling you’ll never quite shake.
Ballad of Glencoe
They came in a blizzard, we offered them heat
A roof for their heads, dry shoes for their feet
We wined them and dined them, they ate of our meat
And they slept in the house of MacDonald.
O, cruel was the snow that sweeps Glencoe
And covers the grave o’ Donald
O, cruel was the foe that raped Glencoe
And murdered the house of MacDonald
2. They came from Fort William with murder in mind
The Campbell had orders King William had signed
“Put all to the sword” these words underlined
“And leave none alive called MacDonald”
3. They came in the night when the men were asleep
This band of Argyles, through snow soft and deep
Like murdering foxes amongst helpless sheep
They slaughtered the house of MacDonald
4. Some died in their beds at the hand of the foe
Some fled in the night and were lost in the snow
Some lived to accuse him who struck the first blow
But gone was the house of MacDonald
All pictures not marked are by the author.