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
The tour bus driver navigated the one-lane, two-way roads through Glencoe, Scotland while our guide Graham Bruce told us the story of the massacre. Then he played the folk song written by Jim McLean and published in 1963. The “Massacre of Glencoe” is often attributed to John McDermott or others who recorded the song, such as The Corries. And there are many earlier songs about this famous massacre in the Highlands, a story of “murder under trust.”
After the Glorious Revolution, King William of England offered the rebellious clans a pardon if they pledged allegiance to him before New Year’s Day 1692. All complied except Alasdair Maclain, the Chief of Glencoe. He had arrived at Fort William on December 31st but was instructed to make his oath to a magistrate some 70 miles away. After delays due to weather, detention, and waiting for the proper authorities, Maclain took the pledge on January 6th. He was assured that he and his people, the MacDonalds of Glencoe, would be safe. But his tardy pledge was the excuse the King and his advisers had hoped for, to punish one of the clans as an example.
In February, Captain Robert Campbell and his troops arrived at Glencoe. Under the code of hospitality, the MacDonalds offered them food, drink, and lodgings, protection against winter storms.
Cruel was the snow.
From Biblical times, the code of hospitality existed to protect travelers. The host was expected to provide for his guests and put aside all hostilities. Anyone who accepted this hospitality was expected to honor the host and also refrain from hostile actions against him or his household.
For 10 days, the MacDonalds wined, dined, and sheltered Campbell and his men. Though the Campbells and MacDonalds were related by marriage, there was bad blood between the clans due to the MacDonalds’ history of raiding and rustling on Campbell land. So when Robert Campbell received orders from his superior, signed by King William—“Put all to the sword” these words underlined, and leave none alive called MacDonald”—he was more than happy to comply. At 5 am the next day while all were still asleep, thirty-eight MacDonald men, women, and children, including Alasdair Mcclain and his wife, were killed. More people died of exposure after fleeing their burning homes.
Cruel was the snow.
This past weekend, Keith and I saw King Lear at the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriar’s Playhouse in Staunton. I remembered Lee J. Cobb in the title role in 1968 with Stacy Keach as the treacherous Edmund, and Keach as Lear in 2009 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in D.C. This time René Thornton, Jr. drew us into the aging king’s pride and gullibility then pain and fury after his two older daughters refused him and his men hospitality. In their greed for power, his daughters broke the code. Lear flew into a rage and fled out into a storm, wandering the heath and ranting in madness.
Cruel was the snow.
After the tour bus pulled into a scenic lookout in Glencoe, we disembarked. We braved the light rain, strong winds, and chill of late summer. There was an inquiry into the massacre, our guide Graham had said, but no one was brought to trial. But Robert Campbell died in drunken poverty and disgrace a year later.
In Shakespeare’s play, Lear and his three daughters—including the faithful Cordelia—all died, Edmund and many others, too.
The Blackfriar Company’s lead-in song before their production of King Lear was the UK band Tears for Fears’ 1985 hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” I thought of Glencoe and the lessons yet to be learned.
O, cruel was the snow.
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