Friday, December 21, 2012

Of Scotland, Glencoe and the Reformers

by Shawn Lamb

Have you ever run across a story that just had to be told? That is what happened to me when my husband and I visited Edinburgh, Scotland. History buff that I am, I loved touring England, Wales and Scotland, and took every opportunity to find historical gems to bring home.  One such find, was an intriguing non-fiction book by John Prebble titled "Glencoe". I bought it and tucked it away in my suitcase. 

Not until I returned home to the U.S., did I read it and became hooked!  The story of Glencoe gnawed at me, needing to be told and wouldn’t let me go until I set down to write. Yet not fictionalized in any trivial way, but told as it happened to those involved, the the good and bad of the entire incident.

I expanded my research to discover a rich, yet complex series of circumstances leading up to Glencoe. Most know the time period called the "Highland Clearances" ended in the fateful battle of Culloden in 1745. However, not many realize Glencoe sparked the revolt.

For centuries Scotland and England clashed, with the Civil War being a great turning point. This factor played a part in the events leading to Glencoe. One of the most powerful clans at time –Clan Campbell, rose to political prominence, and used its influence to execute personal vendettas. Some of these revenge-laced initiatives came in response to robber raids or acts during the Civil War committed against the clan.

Robber raids were a common practice in the Highlands, sort of a training exercise for the real act of war. They mostly involved stealing livestock, and could result in injury and death, but that was something to avoid. The MacDonalds of Glencoe were part of raiding group called “The Gallows Herd”. MacIain, the Glencoe chief, also participated in the Civil War as a young man. Needless to say, the Campbells didn’t think very highly of the MacDonalds of Glencoe.

Whereas governmental politics and clan rivalry played a part in shaping events in the Highlands, so did the Scottish Reformers. Second only to John Knox was a man named Alexander Henderson. He played such a crucial role in establishing the National Covenant and Reforming the Church of Scotland that a statue of him stands in Stirling.

Why do I bring up Alexander Henderson? Because relatives of his lived in Glencoe. Known for their large stature and physical strength, these Hendersons were the hereditary pipers and bodyguards of the MacDonald chief. The MacDonalds were predominately Catholic and among the Jacobites, those clans remaining loyal to King James VI after being deposed by William of Orange.

Imagine being related to one of the most power Reformers in Scotland while living and serving the chief of a Catholic Clan? Add to that fact, the Kirk and Church of Scotland commissioned Protestant missionaries from England and sons of clan chiefs educated in universities to win over the Jacobites.  There are records of missionaries in around Glencoe since the Civil War. A seed for conflict perhaps? Yes and no.

The code of clan life went beyond religious affiliations, beyond personal and clan feuds. In such a hostile and unforgiving environment as the Highlands, survival ruled. Story after story in Scottish lore tells of the unbiased acts of hospitality giving no thought to blood feuds or allegiances when sanctuary is sought and granted. In my book, I use the telling of the story involving my husband’s own clan – Lamont, to help illustrate this point. It is perhaps the most horrendous aspect of what happened at Glencoe, which some call murder under trust.

All these complexities figure into the events leading up to the fateful February night. The story practically told itself, with little fictionalizing from me. With the publication of Glencoe, the gnawing I felt is now satisfied, but the echoes of what happened there, are still heard today.


  1. James VII, surely, if you're using Scottish numbering for him? [i.e. James II of Great Britain, who was deposed by William of Orange] - James VI of Scotland was James I of England, and son of Mary Queen of Scots.

  2. First, that's wonderful that you got the opportunity to take such a tour and second, that's fascinating that you were so gripped by a historical event that you were able to write its story. Sounds like it was already an exciting time in history and worthy of a story.

    Thanks for sharing!


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