Scotland: Peeps at History - G. E. Mitton

The Clans

There are still some people in England who imagine that every Scot wears a kilt in his native land, and who know no difference between Highlanders and Lowlanders. Others, more ignorant still, would happily buy tartan of any color in Princes Street, Edinburgh, and have it made up into a dress or coat without regard to the fact that they may be wearing a Stuart or a Maclean tartan, without having a drop of Stuart or Maclean blood in their veins. The Scots laugh at these ignorant people, and wonder that after so many years of union their fellow-subjects should know so little about them.

In the early chapters of this book there is something about the difference between Highlander and Lowlander. The Highlander is the man of the hill-country; in manners, race, and everything else he is different from the Lowlander—the man of the plains, who is really a Scot: his forefathers, called Scots, having come over from Ireland.

If you could see a Highland chief in full dress now you would look upon one of the most magnificently clad men in Europe, for he wears a costume which, for decorative effect, manliness, and dignity, is far finer than even the robes of a king. From his flat bonnet, with the eagle's feather (and only chiefs may wear the eagle's feather), to his strong shoes, called "brogues," with buckles for the house, or made of calf-skin for outdoor wear, he is every inch a chieftain. The most conspicuous parts of his dress are the plaid of his clan tartan, thrown across his shoulder and fastened by a buckle, the short velvet jacket, the sporran or pouch, with a flowing fringe of goat's-hair, and the pleated kilt. How did such a peculiar costume come into existence?

It seems that in the old days the usual dress was a yellow shirt, with a plaid over it, which fell to the knees, and was pleated below the waist and caught round by a belt, leaving the knees bare as now. Some costumes of this sort appear on very early sculptures: indeed, even on a cross of the ninth century, called the Dupplin Cross, there are several figures dressed like this. It is evident that such a dress would be very convenient. The plaid or large wool shawl would be most useful as a wrap in a country where a man had to plunge through a damp and clinging mist high up on a hillside, and he could carry it over his shoulder when the sun shone out or he descended into the valley. Again, if he were out all night he had only to wrap himself completely in his plaid, and he need fear no cold. Then the kilt, too, of stout material, swinging above the knee, was far better than trousers, which would be liable to be torn or frayed by the heather through which the Highlander must often plunge knee-deep; his stout brogues protected the feet from injury by their durableness and toughness; so the dress was first worn, and it gradually changed until it became more as we see it.

In the old days of warfare and bloodshed, when raids were frequent, and the weak went to the wall, it is evident that any man who had a large family of growing sons to follow him and fight for him was in better case than one who had none; further than this, his brothers and his brothers' sons, being near of kin, were ready to take his side against a stranger. Therefore those of one family tended to live together for security's sake, and as time went on, and the household grew larger and larger, there were many degrees in it, richer and poorer, and there were different sorts of duties performed by all. In Scotland the idea of kinship is very strong, and cousins are counted to many generations; so at length all the men of one family name, such as Macgregor or Mackenzie, banded themselves together into one clan, though many of them had not the least idea how they were connected with their chief, if, indeed, they were at all.

From a very early date Scotland has been famous for its wool, and the women of the clans wove this into plaids and stuffs for their menkind. It was natural that in one clan patterns and colors should tend to become alike. It was, of course, also an advantage, in days when no one could see a stranger without instantly being on his guard, that men should be able to recognize those of their own clan at sight by the manner of their dress; and so it gradually came to pass that certain clans kept to certain patterns, which became known as their clan tartan.

However, it is only of comparatively recent times that the clan tartans can be traced—in fact, only about the seventeenth century or so—and though they may have been in use before that time, there is no record of it. The poorer people in early days generally wore brown.

The history of one clan, the Macgregors, is particularly interesting. The Clan Macgregor was descended from the third son of Alpine, King of Scotland, and they were sometimes called the Clan Alpine. They held large estates in Argyllshire and Perthshire, and their proud and haughty ways made them feared and hated by all their neighbors. The Highlanders were looked upon as being outside the rights assured to more peaceable citizens, and the Earl of Argyll and Breadalbane, who went up to Court, managed to obtain a grant from the Government, conferring on himself a great part of these lands. For many years before this the Macgregors had been oppressed and exasperated by the powerful nobles who wanted full sway in their districts, and now a warrant was issued advising all the other clans to pursue the Macgregors with fire and sword, and to refuse them food and shelter.

In 1603 an incident occurred which led to a fierce fight. Two of the Macgregors, getting lost, called at a house, and asked for food; as this was refused, they seized a sheep, and supped off it, offering payment. However. Sir Humphry Colquhoun, Laird of Luss on Loch Lomond, had them seized and executed. Thereupon their clan arose, and to the strength of 300 or 400 marched down to Luss. Sir Humphry Colquhoun called together his clansmen, and when he met the Macgregors in Glenfruin a fierce fight ensued. Glenfruin means Glen of Weeping, and it is curious that a place so named should have been the scene for a fight causing so much weeping.

There was a Macgregor called by the nickname of the Great Mouse-coloured Man. He was tutor to some youths from Glasgow, who happened to be present while the fight went on. Hearing his young charges shouting against his clansmen, in the frenzy of his excitement he slew them all, and the very stone on which this cowardly deed was done is pointed out to this day. The Macgregors got the best of the fight, as, though they were fewer in number, the horses of the Colquhouns got bogged, and were at their mercy. Subsequently the widows of the slain men of the Colquhoun tribe went to Court, mounted upon white horses and carrying their husbands' bloody shirts, to plead for vengeance from King James VI., who was at Stirling.

Vengeance they had, for by an Act of Privy Council the name of Macgregor was wiped out, and all who were Macgregors were commanded to call themselves by other names under dire penalties. Their chief was seized and hanged; the hated clan were forbidden to carry any weapons, so that they were at the mercy of their foes.

Rob Roy, the great cattle-raider, was of this clan, and his story is told in the book of that name by Sir Walter Scott. It should be read by everyone interested in Scotland. In "The Lady of the Lake" Scott also refers to the Macgregors, and makes their war-song include this verse:

"Proudly our pibroch has thrilled in Glenfruin,

And Bannacha's groans to our slogan replied;

Glen Luss and Rossdhu, they arc smoking in ruin,

And the best of Loch Lomond lie dead on her side."

Even the woeful tale of Glenfruin is nothing to the story of Glencoe. Glenfruin was at all events a fight; Glencoe was a massacre, and is one of the most terrific tragedies in the whole of Scottish history.

Right across Scotland in a slanting direction runs the Caledonian Canal, made chiefly out of a chain of lochs, as already mentioned; it is roughly parallel to the line of the Grampians, but farther northward. At one end is Fort William, beneath the shadow of mighty Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Great Britain (4,406 feet). Not very far south, near Loch Leven, a long narrow arm of the sea, is Glencoe, lying sheltered between high hills. The lower part of the valley is fertile and pleasant, but higher up the cliffs rise in great frowning precipices the home of the eagle; the stone crags stand out in jutting promontories, and there is something wildly desolate and unspeakably grand in this deep-hewn glen.

It was nearing the end of the year 1691, and King William III was on the throne of England and Scotland. In his name a decree had lately been issued that all the Highland clans, who had been creating disturbances and giving trouble, should be pardoned, if they would come in and take the oath of allegiance to the King before January 1 in the coming year. In the fastnesses of Glencoe lived the Macdonalds, a fine and manly race, given no doubt to wildness and independence, and sometimes a thorn in the side of their neighbours, but nevertheless, possessing many good qualities.

[Glencoe Massacre] from Peeps at History - Scotland  by G. E. Mitton


It was much discussed between the old laird and his two sons, John and Alexander, as to whether the clan ought to take the oath of allegiance, and finally they had decided that they must do so. Their enemies were too numerous to defy. If they refused this submission their clan would be harried like mad dogs, as the unfortunate Macgregors had been. Therefore, through the days were short and stormy , and Macdonald of Glencoe was an old man, he started off one day for Fort William, and on arrival there asked to see Colonel Hill, the Governor. The Colonel told him that only a Sheriff could administer the oath, and he himself had no power; the nearest Sheriff was Sir Colin Campbell of Ardkinglass, at Inveraray on Loch Fyne, several days' journey south, as journeys went then. As old Macdonald had left this distasteful deed to the last minute, and it was now well on in December, he began to be afraid he should not be in time; but Colonel Hill told him it would be all right, he himself would speak for him, and he gave him a safe-conduct until he should reach Inveraray. The old man therefore returned south, and did not even stop to visit his home, though he passed the end of Loch Leven, which was only a few hours distant from it. Wild storms arose, snow fell, and on that exposed western coast the full force of the storm was felt. The party went, doubtless, by Loch Etive and the Pass of Brander, but the snow made the hills almost impassable; for twenty-four hours they were at a complete stand-still, and, when they had rounded Loch Awe and descended on Inveraray, Macdonald found to his dismay that the Sheriff was not there, and could not get in for another three days owing to the storm. It was even then past the date fixed, but still it seemed that an explanation of the delay might be accepted.

When Sir Colin Campbell arrived he took this view, so he administered the oath, and sent up the old man's submission with an explanation to head-quarters, telling him it would be all right. Greatly relieved, Macdonald returned to his home in the glen.

A short time after the chief's return, greatly to the alarm of the Macdonalds, a party of soldiers was seen arriving; the Highlanders immediately buried or hid their arms, which they had been forbidden under the terms of the oath of allegiance to use. Their fear, however, diminished when they found that the leader in command of the company was Captain Robert Campbell, of Glenlyon, whose own niece was married to Alexander Macdonald. It was the custom in those days, when so many of the Highlanders bore the same name, to speak of those who owned land by their territorial designations, as they are called, meaning their landed property, and the same custom is still carried out to this day. Thus Captain Campbell, in the account of the massacre, is always spoken of as Glenlyon. On his arrival he explained that he had only come for a peaceable purpose, and asked the Macdonalds' hospitality; and for nearly a fortnight, from February 1 onwards, the soldiers stayed in Glencoe, and were well treated, for one of the virtues of the Highlander is his hospitality. The leaders, Glenlyon and Drummond and Lindsay, played cards with the chief and his sons in the long dark evenings, and all were on the most friendly terms.

Never a thought of treachery did the old chief harbor; indeed, he was now an accepted subject of the King, and so could not dread His Majesty's troops. But his sons were not so easily satisfied; from one thing and another they began to suspect something, and at length on the night of February 13 they watched the soldiers, overheard some talk which alarmed them, and stayed up all night. In the early morning there was a sudden attack on the unsuspecting clansmen, and the soldiers who had lived on their generosity fell upon the helpless unarmed people, and butchered them like sheep. The old chief was slain in his bed, and the ruffians dragged the rings from his wife's fingers with their teeth. The women and children, screaming, fled to the hills, and many of the men, including Macdonald's two sons, got away. That the butchery was not more complete was not the fault of the soldiers; they had expected reinforcements in the shape of a strong body of men, who were to block the mouth of the glen and cut off fugitives, but as this party was delayed by the snow many of the wretched Macdonalds escaped. The brutal order had been to exterminate all under seventy, and to see that "the old fox" Macdonald and his sons did not escape. The soldiers went even beyond their orders, killing many over seventy, and they murdered children. One little lad clung screaming to Glenlyon's legs, promising to serve him all his life if he would save him; the Captain was inclined to do so, but the stony-hearted Drummond dispatched the child with his dagger. Only thirty-eight of the clan were killed in all, but how many more women, with babies in their arms, young children, and weak old people, perished of want and hunger in the snow-covered hills is not known. The troops, having desolated the valley, burnt the huts and collected the spoil, drove off the sheep and cattle, and retired from the scene of the blackest treachery ever recorded in the annals of a civilized country.

It had all been arranged by the enemies of Macdonald; his submission had been suppressed, misrepresentations had been made, and the extermination of his people had been planned by those who were jealous of him.