Glencoe and the End of the Highland War

Published in History Today
  • Glencoe and the End of the Highland War
    Paul Hopkins. vi + 543 pp. (John Donald, 1986)
The butchery in the early hours of the morning of February 13th, 1692, known to history as the Massacre of Glencoe, has attracted if anything more than its fair share of writing. At the time it was an absolute gift to Jacobite propagandists and since then it has attracted literary skill and historical scholarship from Macaulay to John Buchan. In recent years John Prebble, among others, has written a book on the topic. Paul Hopkins spends a fair amount of time setting Prebble right, though he has the grace to admit that Prebble's book is no mere pot-boiler. It is in fact marred by a wholly unnecessary obsession with an irrelevant theory of racial genocide, but it contains a lot of solid scholarship, as was evident when Prebble had much the better of a characteristically bad-tempered exchange with Dr W. Ferguson of the University of Edinburgh. What then does Hopkins offer that is sufficiently fresh and different to justify this very big book?

The first thing that must be said is that this volume is not just another reworking of the events which led to the atrocity against the Macdonalds or MacIains of Glencoe, starting with the march of units of Argyll's Regiment under Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, and finishing with that ghastly February morning. Massacre buffs should be warned that their favourite topic occupies only one out of twelve chapters in this long book. What Hopkins is really writing about is Highland history in the late seventeenth century, from 1660 to about 17130. His wholly convincing argument is that the Massacre of Glencoe has become incomprehensible by being separated from the web of events in which it was basically one minor item. Above all it must be seen as a consequence of the Highland War of 1689-91, which was a direct consequence of the overthrow of James VII and II at the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England. One of the snags about this book is that whereas many young scholars promise in their titles more than they deliver in their text, Hopkins is rather reluctant to admit just how sweeping is the scope of his enterprise.
 
Be it said at once that his technical scholarship is awesome. He has dug deep into the extensive surviving manuscript records of the prominent figures in his story, and especially into the Breadalbane and Atholl manuscripts. The idea that there are virtually no sources for seventeenth-century Highland history is just nonsense. Furthermore, Hopkins recognises that the Highland chiefs were very much part of a wider Scottish political community whose manoeuvrings he analyses with such knowing erudition that he can even correct Dr Pat Riley, the greatest living authority on these matters. Some of the conclusions reached in this book are in fact very significant for general historians of the period.

First, there is a devastating exposition of the workings of the regime of James VII in his ancestral kingdom of Scotland. Like many paranoid men of the political far right, James saw himself as a strong man, firm in his policies and fast in his friendships. The reality was a shambles in which court intrigue took the place of a rational political process, and in which the monarch's sectarian obsessions were shamelessly manipulated by a rascally collection of converts and pseudo- converts. Besides, James could never sort out clashes between his passion for social hierarchy and his passion for Catholicism, leading to what Hopkins describes as 'clockwork illogicality' in his decisions in such cases. One would have thought that almost any alternative regime could not fail to be an improvement, but the reign of William and Mary in Scotland can by no means be assumed to have passed even that easy test.

Hopkins is impressive in detailed argument to the effect that every Jacobite rising is different, and all had the capacity to develop in several different ways, depending on the early fortunes of war. He sees his Highland chiefs as every bit the equals of their Lowland opposite numbers in deviousness, opportunism, and humbug. They had been scrapping on and off since the Restoration, and there were few fixed friendships or feuds amongst them: everything depended on circumstances. Not all MacDonalds, for example, were pleased when MacDonald of Glengarry started swanning around with his Restoration peerage as Lord MacDonell and Aros.

Libraries will have to buy this book for the sake of its major conclusions. Among them is the importance of the civil and international warfare of the period for the decisions which set up the eventual atrocity. Hopkins sees Breadalbane as a reasonable wheeler-dealer between a provocatively weak government and a set of glibly stupid chiefs determined to maintain a posture of ambiguity to the last possible moment, if not beyond, because it flattered their egos and bolstered their images, several of which badly needed bolstering in view of the long record of shifty unreliability which lay behind them.
 
Breadalbane's efforts were sabotaged by rival politicians for selfish reasons, while the chiefs do not seem to have had the wit to grasp what they were pulling down on their heads. The Williamite government was, not unreasonably, convinced that the war in the Highlands was likely to continue into 1692. Since there was always a finite chance of French intervention, it was essential to stamp hard and quickly on the embers of resistance. Preparations were being made for a campaign against the loudest-mouthed Jacobite loyalist – Glengarry. At the last minute Glengarry came to terms, and then the vindictiveness of Sir John Dalrymple exploited the indifference of King William to turn, by a very late decision indeed, a campaign against Glengarry into an atrocity in Glencoe. Certainly local tradition in Glencoe says that the troops were received so cheerfully because everyone assumed that they were on their way to attack the egregious Glengarry.

Would that one could say that as well as being very important this book is readable. Interesting in parts, it is in fact soporific overall, as I can testify from successive nights falling asleep over it. The trouble is that it is a young man's book, obsessed with detail. There are over 200 footnotes to some chapters, A good editor would have made Hopkins cut a third of his text and half his notes. He apparently delivers a good lecture, so there is hope for him, but at present he is open to the sort of sally with which Alexander Pope annihilated the prodigiously learned Dr Bentley:
Great Aristarchus, whose unwearied pains Made Horace dull, and humbled Milton's strains.
  • Bruce Lenman is author of The Jacobite Clans of the Great Glen 1650-1784 (Methuen, 1984).

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