IN THE front room of his cottage, his face lit by the fire, his eyes lit with memory, sits Alistair MacDonald, a retired shepherd, and one of the last MacDonalds of Glencoe. A sombre clock ticks. Alistair is a strong-featured, bearded man of 74, and on the wall behind his chair there is an old print showing a bonneted Highlander, one of his ancestors, perhaps – some 300 of whom are at rest in the thin soil of Eilean Munde, the ancient burial isle of the clan, out in Loch Leven.
Alistair’s aunt Christina, born in this very room, was, in 1972, the last MacDonald to be buried on Eilean Munde. “My family have never come from anywhere else but Glencoe,” he says. His ancestors would have lived and died in the glen at the time of the infamous massacre of 1692, when 38 members of the MacDonald clan (regarded as enemies of the state) were killed by government troops. He is proud of his name and his family’s unceasing association with this land. “Nowadays there are very few people like myself who belong here.”
Alistair has Parkinson’s disease and was not well enough to walk up the street of the village to attend the commemoration of the massacre, which takes place each year on February 13. His wife, Ros, with whom he runs the Glencoe Heritage Trust, has not missed it these 37 years. As a child she was told by aunts that her ancestor, Duncan Rankin, was the first to be killed – shot down, it is said – as he crossed the River Coe, his corpse carried by the current into Loch Leven; perhaps then we can understand the quiet vehemence in Ros MacDonald’s voice as she insists, “it was murder under trust”.
The massacre of Glencoe is, to most of us in Scotland, merely another chapter in the country’s often bloody history. Our grasp of its detail and significance is sketchy at best, and so it feels in many ways more like a piece of romantic folklore than a factual event – the stuff of sad songs and sobbed toasts in strong whisky. Yet to some local people and to those others who find profound meaning and identity in their name, MacDonald, the killings remain a wound that has never quite healed. Church warden George Grant tells me he is descended from a ten-year-old boy who survived the massacre. The prevailing feelings in the village seems to be horror and pride – horror at the killings, pride that so many lived, returned and rebuilt. Others mourn the massacre as the beginning of a process by which the old Highland and Gaelic culture began to die off; the commemoration is, therefore, an odd mixture of elegy and eulogy, a celebration of a way of life and a lament for its passing. Either way, emotions run high. “We feel it in our guts,” is how one MacDonald puts it to me.
Driving north to Glencoe is not merely a physical experience. It can bring about a change in mood, especially in poor weather, from anticipation to melancholy. Rannoch Moor is almost featureless in the snow, wide miles of wild nothing, broken only by a herd of deer drinking from the icy waters of Loch Ba.
After the moor, the glen itself feels especially dramatic, as if the land had suddenly sprung up all around and was frozen in the act of pouncing on whichever lone traveller was fool enough to try to pass this way. The great ridge of Aonach Eagach is a brute slab of mute snow and rock, white and black against a pearl sky. You couldn’t call it beautiful exactly. It is too powerful and uncaring for that. Horrible to think that it was into this landscape, in this weather, that the survivors of the massacre fled, women and children dying in the storm, perhaps able to see far below the seductive glow of their burning homes. Glencoe village is properly called Carnoch and is known to locals as such. The annual commemoration of the massacre has been held every February since 1935 when a local crofter began to lay a wreath at the memorial.
At a little before 11am, they begin to gather in St Mary’s for the requiem mass, coming in from the dreichness, all capes and kilts, clan badges and caps, eagle feathers dripping with sleet. A couple of years ago, two would-be worshippers turned up with broadswords strapped to their backs, and were asked to please leave them outside.
It is a beautiful little Victorian church, with granite walls and steep red rafters. This whole area is a hotbed of Episcopalianism going back centuries. The chalice used for communion at St John’s in nearby Ballachulish, the so-called Appin Chalice, is believed to have been used by the Jacobites at Culloden.
In St Mary’s, the heating is on but you wouldn’t know it. Breath clouds in front of faces as the congregation sing, Oh God, Our Help In Ages Past, a hymn which dates from not many years after the massacre. The Reverend Adrian Fallows, resplendent in his purple vestments, speaks of those murdered in the glen and those who lived to return. “Some of you can remember them as ancestors,” he says, “and would not be here if they did not survive.” A few people are in tears, heads bowed, shoulders shaking. In quiet moments, there is birdsong.
At noon, the churchgoers and others who did not attend the service, gather by the Coe Bridge. The water beneath the old stone arch is pale and fast. Overhanging branches are draped in lichen. There are about 40 to 50 people standing in the sleet, more than were put to the sword all those years ago, few of them from the village. One local man says he can’t be bothered with the memorial ceremony as it attracts too many “toffs and Tory devils”. He should perhaps have gone to the rally two days before, organised by the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement, at which a copy of King William III’s orders that the MacDonalds should be killed was burned.
Led by a piper playing The Green Hills Of Tyrol, we process the short distance up to the memorial. Some of the marchers are carrying banners, large bright flags rich in MacDonald symbolism – a galley, an eagle, a cross clenched in a mailed fist. Two cousins – Malcolm MacDonald, a 64-year-old farmer from Wester Ross and Jamie MacDonald, 11, from Spean Bridge – walk side by side, the elder telling the younger the story of Glencoe, how the troops stayed with the clan for a fortnight, sleeping in their homes and enjoying their food and drink, before rising before dawn one morning and slaughtering them in their beds. This is how the story has been told for hundreds of years, from outraged mouth to outraged ear. What seems to upset Highlanders, even now, is not the act of murder itself – common enough in a savage century – but the ignoble, sneaking breach of hospitality. “Oh, it’s still very, very deeply felt,” says Malcolm. “It’s very sad, very moving. There’s a tear in your eye even after 300 years.”
Everyone has their own reasons for coming. I ask one man, a vulpine fellow in tartan trews and a belted raincoat, why he is here. “Well,” he says, “I’m a McGregor, but the Campbells were a common enemy.” The troops who slaughtered the folk at Glencoe were led by a Captain Robert Campbell, and some MacDonalds still bear a grudge. In one local pub there is a brass sign, No Hawkers or Campbells, which the landlord insists is tongue in cheek.
Forrest Lee Piver, an elegant, soft-mannered gentleman of 72, is here in his capacity as High Commissioner of the Clan Donald USA – an organisation to which some 4,000 families belong. He has made the trip from North Carolina in the company of his daughter Harper, who says she grew up hearing more about Glencoe than Gettysburg. The Pivers are descendants of MacDonalds, via the McEacherns, who left Islay for America just in time for the revolution. He is here to lay a wreath. “It is a great honour,” he says. “We have a lot of Glencoe MacDonalds in our clan, and we go over and over that battle, especially when we are camped near the Campbells at our Highland games.”
Shivering in the cold, dressed in a kilt and woolly jumper, is 45-year-old Pòl MacDhòmhnaill, from Walsall in the West Midlands. He arrived late last night and slept out in the forest. Woken in the small hours by snow on his face, he then had a terrifying experience, feeling as though he was in fear of his life, and then weeping uncontrollably. This happened at around 5am, the time of the massacre, and he regards it as a spiritual experience. He can also predict, he mentions, when particular cats are going to die.
The massacre memorial is a Celtic cross soaring slender from a granite rock through which arcs a lightning bolt of quartz. We gather round this in the sleet. Psalm 121 – “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills...” – is read in Gaelic. The great mountain Bidean nam Bian looms over us, shroud-like, ghastly in its whiteness. “Cruel is the snow,” the mourners sing, “that sweeps Glencoe and covers the grave o’ Donald.” That year, 1692, feels close in this moment. Close and cold and sad, sad as the crags around us.
In his home, down the road in Carnoch, Alistair MacDonald lifts his eyes from the fire. His feelings are simple: “We forgive. But we don’t forget.”