Glen Coe and the Laws of Hospitality

What duty has a host to a guest? And a guest to his host? Some cultures, including the Saxons and Angles of pre-Norman England, codified it into law. The Tanakh/Old Testament have stories and rules about hospitality and what if any protection a host provides to visitors, and their duties in turn. In a world where strangers were both suspect and needed (information, trade goods, short-term alliances), hospitality mattered. If certain archaeological clues are true, the guest/host rules go back thousands and thousands of years in some places. Like west-central Scotland.

Certain aspects of the Highland Clan culture mirrored cultures of the past as described by the Romans and earlier writers. Leadership centered on descent from a common male ancestor, who might or might not have been documented in surviving materials. Pedigree was more important than paperwork. At best, the chieftain and his brothers, uncles, and nephews had duties to the rest of the kindred, ensuring that no one starved and the the clan itself survived. By the 1600s, this had gotten pushed aside in many cases, especially as people not of the blood rented land from the clan. Trying to fit a cattle-raiding semi-tribal society into a modernizing feudal organization was going to be . . . awkward. Just ask the English and lowland Scots trying to make a living when the reivers came to call, and to collect any “stray” cattle and sheep.

House imitates landscape. The wall is made of turfs. This is the kind of home found in Glen Coe in the 1600s.

However, one of the iron-clad laws that appears early on in English documents and in Scottish tradition (predated the kingdoms of Scotland and the written law) was hospitality. A stranger arriving at a house or hall had the right to ask for shelter and food for the night. The Anglo-Saxon laws eventually codified it to three days. After that, the guest had to become a vassel of his host, unless other arrangements were made. The host protected the guest. The guest in turn defended his host, or at the very least stayed well clear of both sides if his host was attacked. Strangers had to announce themselves and to show that they came without ill intention. People living along a road could not attack a stranger simply because he was a traveling stranger. Strangers brought information, entertainment, and possibly trade goods and useful skills. They could also be a danger, a spy, or a thief or murderer. But hospitality was required.

So, Glencoe. It started with politics, and King William III not trusting the Scots chiefs and clans to stay loyal to the Protestant, Parliament-allied branch of the Stuart family. So in 1691 he demanded that all the clan chiefs swear and sign an oath of allegiance. Maclain MacDonald of the MacDonalds of Glencoe was late signing the documents. They had been moved from Fort William, not far from Glencoe as the raven flies, all the way to Inverary. In miles, this is not far. In Scotland, given the lack of roads, the winter weather, and the need to find the proper legal observers to witness the signing, it meant that Maclain signed after the deadline. King William decided to make an example of the MacDonalds of Gelencoe.

A unit of soldiers, some Campbells, part of the Earl of Argyle’s Regiment and commanded by Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, as well as other Scottish troops, visited the people of Glencoe starting on January 31, 1692. Per tradition, and because feeding and housing soldiers counted as paying your taxes, the Macdonalds fed and housed the 128 men and officers. It is thought, and generally agreed on by historians* that the troopers were not told why they were in the Glen of the Coe river. Late on February 12, the orders went out: kill everyone under age 70, men, women, children and burn their dwellings. Some troopers balked, others agreed, a few warned their hosts to flee into the heavy snow and bitter cold. The clan chief died, along with 37 others. More succumbed to the cold as they waded through snow to reach aid. Word spread.

The Campbells drew the ire of a lot of other people for their participation. Thus signs saying “No dogs and no Campbells allowed,” and the fact that to this day, there are some Scots who will not eat under the same roof as a Campbell. Not many, but memories last a very, very long time, especially when an ancient rule is broken so dramatically. The reaction to the Massacre at Glencoe was far more visceral than to things like battles, even Culloden. It still evokes a visceral reaction. The exhibit and video in the visitors’ center pounded that over and over: it wasn’t the number of deaths so much as the violation of hospitality that made the Glencoe Massacre so infamous.

A battle is a battle. People die in battle. That’s just how it goes, and everyone is aware of it, especially those who bitterly regret the need for a fight to determine a political result. But staying with people for almost two weeks, then killing women and children along with fighting-age men and burning their dwellings? That violated laws of conduct that echoed down thousands of years. King William III made a point, that was true. His troopers also gained the opprobrium of taboo breakers and murderers, an opprobrium that remains to this day, like a black blot on the record of Clan Campbell and of the Argyle Regiment (to a lesser extent).

Glencoe was eerie. Part of it is that because of its topography, the caldera catches weather. It will be sunny and calm to the north and south, while rain or show drench the glen. Part of it was probably my sensitivity to places soaked in strong emotion. I would not want to be there on my own on a February night, especially if there was a storm.

*Popular memory and history don’t always agree, although the distrust verging on hatred of Campbells in some parts of Scotland has faded. Mostly faded. But not entirely.


12 thoughts on “Glen Coe and the Laws of Hospitality

  1. Years ago, I had a medium weight tartan shirt. I was informed by a work colleague from Scotland that it was the Campbell tartan. I stopped wearing it to work.

    I recall, perhaps incorrectly, that somewhere in the Nero Wolfe canon Wolfe has discovered that Thomas More was tainted with the Glen Coe stain, and had so moved =Utopia= to one of his less favored bookshelves. Is there in fact a stain of Glen Coe on More, however indirect?

  2. An inn in Glen Coe (2019) had an engraves brass plague at their desk: “NO PEDDLERS OR CAMPBELLS”. The power balance in Scotland was Crown, Campbells and Lord of the Isles (Mac Donalds, with the fleet). The opportunity to make this a duality must have been irresistible.

    Same trip, visited the home of Clan Donald on Skye. In their genealogy section, they had a Macbeth sept in the clan. Jamie and Angus’ reaction to his MIL and the proscribed collar now become Familiar.

  3. “Southern hospitality” can be traced back to the English settlers who colonized the southern colonies.
    On the other hand…My parents bought a house built in 1904. While stripping the wallpaper in an upstairs bedroom, they found, written on the original paint, “Guests, like fish, begin to stink after the third day.”

  4. As good as a description of the Massacre at Glen Coe as I have seen and much better than the vast majority. What the heck was Robert Campbell thinking? The news of the massacre would not spread, a secret like that cannot be kept it will always get out.

    • The Crown assumed that word of the slaughter/execution for treason of an entire clan would spread, and thus cow the other lords into obedience (or at least not resisting as much). That it was a massacre that violated all the laws of hospitality, however, was NOT what was supposed to get out. That’s the sense I get from the materials at Glen Coe, and what I’ve read since then. The politics of that period in Scotland—as so often in Scotland—requires a score-card and a set of parallel timelines to keep everyone straight in my mind.

  5. There’s at least one Ancient Greek story about a ruler who gives “guest rights” to a traveler only to find out that the traveler carried a message to the ruler from the ruler’s overlord that he is to kill the traveler.

    The ruler is trapped between the laws of hospitality and the command of his overlord.

    Oh, he convinces the traveler to go out to battle a monster plaguing his people.

    By the way, the traveler won. 😀

    • Had to look up the story.

      The traveler was the hero Bellerophon and the monster was the Chimera.

  6. We visited Glen Coe in 1976, and it was a beautiful, eerie place. One can very well believe it is haunted. The thing that I remember most vividly is that the sound of waterfalls coming down from the higher levels across the glen could be heard very clearly where we stayed – a youth hostel, where we also heard a bagpiper playing as he walked along the bank of a little stream out in back. I’ve thought since then, that bagpipes were made to be heard out of doors.

    • Bagpipes were made to be heard over the din and chaos of a battlefield.

      Played well, the pipes are beautiful. Played badly… well, if there’s a musical instrument that sounds worse when played badly, I’ve never heard it and I never want to.

      On the original topic, there have been several songs written about the Massacre of Glencoe, of which Jim McLean’s “Glencoe” is one very good example. I defy anyone to listen to Alastair McDonald’s rendition of it without starting to complain about the dust in the air.

      They came in the night when the men were asleep
      That band of Argyles, through snow soft and deep
      Like murdering foxes, among helpless sheep
      They butchered the house o’ MacDonald

  7. Paul beat me to it. And when I was down in Campbelltown, back in the 80s, ‘strangely’ none of that is mentioned in ‘their’ family history… Funny that…

  8. Good grief, that is a king to make me go all head-choppy, or maybe even “put black powder under the guy’s occupied throne.”

    Not only did he commit an abject outrage, he did so against someone who’d sworn an oath to him, AND he had the gutlessness to not even do it himself.
    He had other folks do it.

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