A Filth guide to Clan war
The casual brutality in Scottish history beggars belief, and it's remarkable how much of it has become institutionalised, fetishised and even romanticised. People all over the world investigating their distant Scottish ancestors can access websites detailing their tartans and letting them know which rival clans they're entitled to butcher. There's no equivalent in England- partly due to the fact that there was no real clan structure, but mostly due to the fact that there was far more unity and centralisation of power under the crown.
In Scotland, the situation was very different. What is now considered to be the Scottish Royal Family only really controlled the kingdom of Alba, the lowlands areas. In the Highlands of the north, the Vikings were in control until 1156 when Somerled established himself as King of the Isles. Somerled's line controlled the Highlands until 1266, and for 300 years after when they were relegated to mere "Lords of the Isles" they were still effectively autonomous and damned rebellious with it. Scotland was one nation in name only.
In the Highlands, clans made sense. Powerful families stuck together, and took lesser vassal clans into their service. Problems arose when disputes over land or cattle kicked off- in such a harsh environment survival was sometimes only possible by rustling cattle or occupying farmland- and in a clan society the resulting feuds could simmer for centuries. The most well-known is the MacDonald v Campbell feud, and I still see bickering between people with these names. As you're about to see, that was just the tip of the iceberg. Allow me to present my personal favourite top 5 bloody clan slaughters....
5- Clan Gunn v Clan Keith 1340- 1480.
One of the less celebrated clan wars, but it proved to be one of the longest-running. It's lacking in fame probably because neither of the clans involved were among the bling-bling Highland glitterati. The bloodshed kicked off in 1340 when Dugald Keith spotted Helen Gunn, "The Beauty of Braemore", and tried a spot of traditional Highland sexual harrassment. After being told to bugger off in no uncertain terms, Dugald returned on the eve of Helen's wedding to Alexander Gunn and attacked the wedding party- there were deaths on both sides. Helen Gunn was abducted, imprisoned and raped in Keith castle, where she committed suicide by jumping from the battlements.
140 years of guerilla warfare, raids and rustling followed. Finally the two clans agreed to settle the feud in a ritualised trial of combat at the standing stones of Mannistanes Hill. Here the Keith champion Caidh Mor ("The Big Keith") felled 5 Gunn warriors with his Claymore, before one of the wounded Gunns on the ground hamstrung him with a dirk. The Keiths conceded defeat to the Gunns and the feud was settled.
4- Clan McGregor v Clan Colquhoun 1525- 1603
This feud has been subject to serious revisionism, and as usual it manages to demonise the apparently unconnected Campbell clan, the favourite scapegoats of the clan wars. The "official" history is that the dastardly lickspittle Campbells manipulated a fued between the Colquhouns and the daring McGregors in 1602, in order to get the McGregors outlawed, leaving their lands free for seizure.
This is a load of old cobblers. The McGregors (particularly Rob Roy) are among the most celebrated of clans, and certainly one of the oldest- tracing their line back to Kenneth MacAlpin, the first king of Scotland. However they were also notorious for their hair-trigger tempers, outrageous acts of theft and rustling. The expression "blackmail" is a McGregor invention- they charged neighbouring clans "black meal" payments to ensure that their cattle wouldn't mysteriously vanish. These people were not the wronged heroes of later myths.
Trouble had been brewing since at least 1525 due to repeated McGregor raids on Colquhoun cattle, but it really kicked off in 1602. On a cold winter's night, two McGregors asked for shelter at a Colquhoun settlement but were turned away. They stole a sheep to eat, and the next morning they were seized and executed. The McGregors promptly went apeshit.
(At this point I must introduce a vital point of clan etiquette. The real problem was not the executions- which were entirely within the bounds of the law- but the fact that they were refused hospitality. Hospitality is a major sticking point in Highland relations, as you'll see in later sections.)
On the 7th December 1602 the McGregors launched a major raid on the Colquhouns, killing two men and stealing 300 head of cattle plus at least twice that number of sheep and horses. The Colquhouns (under the advice of the Campbells) appealed to King James (now king of England and Scotland) who outlawed the McGregors entirely- every man woman and child could be killed with impunity. However when the clans first clashed in battle, the Colquhouns were routed, losing 80 men and hundreds more cattle.
What followed was not so much clan war as an extraordinary guerilla war headed by Rob Roy McGregor, who lead the King's troops, the Campbells and the Colquohouns a merry dance for years, stealing hundreds of cattle. The feud with the Colquohouns fizzled out, only to be replaced by....
3- Clan MacGregor v Clan Campbell (1369- 1745)
Make no mistake- these two clans really hated each other. While the MacGregors were very much part of the Highland establishment, the Campbells habitually sided with the Scottish kings. Coupled with the fact that they were neighbours (to say nothing of the cattle-stealing habits of the MacGregors) this placed them at each other's throats for centuries.
The hostilities really commenced in 1369 when King David II granted Glenorchy (the ancient seat of the MacGregors), as part of his revenge against supporters of John, Lord of the Isles. Over the next 150 years the MacGregors were frequently goaded to violence by Campbell provocation, while the Campbells used the law in retaliation, stripping away McGregor lands.
In 1603, after the McGregors were outlawed, the Earl of Argyll (head of the Campbells) offered safe passge into exile for the MacGregors of Glenstrae, but turned them over to their execution- another breach of Highland hospitality.
From then on the MacGregors took every opportunity to oppose the Campbells. In the late 17th century, Rob Roy MacGregor robbed them blind, and the clans fought each other at each Jacobite uprising. It ended, as all Highland autonomy did, at Cullodden in 1745. As ever, it was the Campbells who got the victory while the MacGregors won the popularity contest.
2- Clan Campbell v Clan MacDonald (1344- 1745)
The most famous of the clan feuds tends to be represented as a straight clash of the imperialist running dog Campbells in the thrall of the Evil English Empire persecuting the noble MacDonald Highlanders. Predictably, the true story is a lot murkier. Ultimately it boils down to a straight power struggle between two ruthlessly ambitious clans, with religious bigotry thrown in for good measure.
The MacDonalds were the royalty of the Highlands. They were the descendants of the great Somerled, and were the Kings/Lords of the Isles, controlling huge tracts of the Highlands and Western Isles with many vassal clans. Although the Campbells were certainly an old clan (dating back to the 13th century) they were not of particularly glamorous descent. However they had one strong point in their favour- an unerring ability to back the winning side. For over 300 years they built their territory in the former MacDonald ground of Argyll through supporting the Scottish royal family in disputes against the Lords of the Isles and other Highland troublemakers. Typically they used the law against their opponents, but there was no doubting their ruthless streak- several small clans were annihilated by the Campbells and even powerful clans like the MacGregors were beaten back by them.
Despite taking place between two such headstrong clans, the Campbell/MacDonald feud was low on battles and slaughter- it was a a centuries-long simmering grudge match with the MacDonalds gradually being penned in. The situation grew worse in the religious intolerance of the 17th century, as the Protestant Campbells used their good standing with King William of England to bolster their power. The MacDonald, being Catholic supporters of the deposed King James II and his Jacobite descendants, were always going to be in danger. The **** finally hit the fan in 1692.
MacIain (head of the MacDonalds of Glencoe) had finally taken the oath of allegiance to William II under duress, but had done so a week after the deadline. This gave the English forces (and their Campbell allies) a valid excuse to persecute them. In January 1692, a force of 120 Argyll soldiers under Campbell leadership were stationed with the Glencoe MacDonalds for two weeks- a peaceful fortnight with no hint of trouble. However on 12th February, the soldiers were ordered to kill all MacDonalds under the age of seventy- and a massacre followed.
This was the infamous Glencoe massacre. Oddly enough it was nothing special by Highland standards- 38 men, women and children were murdered, whilst others died in the snow. It's infamy was again due to the fact that it was a breach of hospitality- it ws considered acceptable to butcher hundreds of unarmed adults and children as long as you weren't sneaky about it. It backfired badly too- the disgusted Highland clans promptly started rallying around the Jacobite cause.
The MacDonald/Campbell feud was formalised in the Jacobite uprisings, and (like many other feuds) ended with the crushing of the Highlands in the aftermath of Cullodden.
1- Clan MacDonald v Clan MacLeod (1375- 1602)
Though it's less celebrated than other feuds, this was the bloodiest and most horrific by far. Unlike the Campbell feuds, this one took place far away from the Lowlands and so attracted less attention (much as today's slaughter in the Congo slipped off the radar).
As has already been covered, the MacDonalds ruled the Western Isles. The MacLeods had a royal decent too, however- they trace their descent from the Norse Kings of Man. As a result, they were by no means cowed by the MacDonalds and had a bit of an axe to grind from the start. The MacLeod clan's stronghold was the Isle of Skye, with other settlements on other Western Isles (particularly in the Outer Hebrides). Being an unbelievable bunch of headcases (even by Highland standards) the MacLeods really deserve a "Historical Filth" of their own- one day it'll be done
In 1375 the MacDonalds invaded Skye, and a major battle took place at Sligachan where the MacLeods were defeated. The MacDonalds seized large estates on Skye, and for the next 100 years the MacLeods were a vassal clan. This suited the MacDonalds well as the MacLeods were noted for their battle skills, and in the great battle of Harlaw in 1411, the army of Donald MacDonald was partially commanded by "Fierce Iain" MacLeod, possibly the most berzerk clan chief ever seen (He died a few years later when he became so enraged during a wrestling bout that all his old battle scars opened up simultaneously, causing him to bleed to death).
It went badly wrong for the MacDonalds in 1480 when their clan was torn apart by an internal power struggle. This was settled at the Battle of Bloody Bay on the wild Ardnamurchan peninsula when the MacLeods backed the deposed Lord of the Isles against his own bastard son, Black Angus MacDonald. The MacLeods were beaten, losing their Laird William in the process. For the next ten years this placed the MacLeods at war with the dominant MacDonald faction.
Black Angus MacDonald was murdered by an Irish harper in 1490, and the faction the MacLeods had backed returned to power. However by this point the MacLeods were no longer willing to become good servants of the MacDonalds again, and started backing oppenents of their former masters in a number of feuds. It probably didn't help that the MacLeod Laird Alasdair had been left hunchbacked by a blow from a MacDonald battleaxe in a raid on Skye following Bloody Bay. During open rebellion in 1493, Alasdair captured the MacDonald's Skye stronghold of Duntulm, and from then on the conflict became increasingly bloody.
Unlike most feuds, this one was open war. The MacLeods were warriors, not bandits like the MacGregors, and the feud contained several major battles such as at Glendale in 1530. In 1577 the conflict took an even darker turn. A raiding party of MacLeods raped some MacDonald women on the Isle of Eigg but were captured before they could escape. They were castrated and sent back to Skye. The enraged MacLeods stormed Eigg the next year, herded every single MacDonald man, woman and child into a cave and lit fires at the entrance. 395 MacDonalds died- the worst massacre in the history of the Clan Wars.
Two years later the MacDonalds of Uist stormed Skye. A large raiding party attacked the town of Trumpan, herded the resident MacLeods into the church and burned it. It proved a Pyrrhic victory because the alarm was raised at the MacLeod stronghold of Dunvegan, and while the MacDonald boats were still stranded by the tide they were attacked. In the ensuing "Battle of the spoiled ****" the MacDonalds were wiped out, though it did provide one moment of black comedy when a particularly irate MacLeod continued to fight and kill MacDonalds on his stumps after having both his legs hacked off.
The last act of the feud took place after a failed attempt at diplomacy. Margaret MacLeod, sister of the MacLeod Laird, was betrothed to Donald Gorm Mor MacDonald, but no wedding took place. Instead she was sent back to the MacLeods with only one eye, riding a one-eyed horse with a one-eyed groom and a one-eyed dog. This calculated insult provoked the "War of the One Eyed Woman" of 1602. In the last battle between the clans, the MacLeods were routed and the clans settled the feud.