Game of Clans

Posted by True Highlands in Kit and Caboodle | 0 comments

It’s brilliant to see Game of Thrones back on TV next month. Its over the top narrative of warring monarchs, torture, slaughter and treachery makes for compulsive viewing. If you thought the series a tad excessive then read on. You may be surprised to find that, (dragons aside), Scottish history was a huge influence on the series and tales of medieval clan shenanigans are often way more theatrical than anything fictional portrayed on screen.

One of the key moments early on in the series is known as ‘The Red Wedding’. A shocking and unexpected betrayal, but certainly not unique in terms of Scottish history. This pivotal scene was clearly influenced by an incident known as ‘The Black Dinner’. While the burning of churches (often with people inside), killing of prisoners and slaughter of innocents were all considered pretty much an acceptable part of clan conflict, the tradition of hospitality and of guests being given protection, was one that, if broken, would damn any offender to eternal hell. It was partly because of this unwritten rule that the powerful 6th Earl of Douglas and his younger brother would have felt safe accepting an invitation to banquet at Edinburgh Castle from King James II. The two were rivals but the intention, it seemed, was to broker some form of accord. It is recorded that the King and the Earl spent the evening drinking and making merry until, in a piece of theatrics too outlandish even for television, a black bull’s head was unceremoniously dumped on the dining table. It was at this point that the Earl knew his time was up as, in medieval Scotland, this was a potent symbol of death. It was also a signal to the King’s men. The guests were seized, an impromptu trail conducted on the spot, followed by immediate execution. The Earl was 16 years old at the time, the king only 10.

As mentioned earlier, the slaughter of ones enemies was a not uncommon occurrence in these times. The slaughter of ones allies, not so much. In an utterly bizarre form of trail by combat, that is exactly what took place at North Inch in Perth in 1396. Clan Chattan were a conglomerate of MacKintoshes, MacPhersons and Davidsons, and were at odds with Clan Cameron over who had the right to enter battle on the King’s right flank, a position usually reserved for his most loyal of supporters. To settle the issue, it was somehow decided that a fight to the death would be the most logical course of action. Far from disapproving of such foolishness, King Robert III was in fact in attendance along with a host of foreign dignitaries. It has been argued that this was little more than a public relations exercise on behalf of the King, his popularity being at an all-time low due to the immoral antics of his brother Alexander Stewart, the infamous “Wolf of Badenoch.”  It certainly was a spectacle, after being roused by clan pipers, 30 of the best warriors from each side gathered in a specially constructed arena and duly hacked each other to bits. As per the pre-arranged rules each man had 3 arrows and no armour or shields were used. It is recorded that Clan Chattan were the victors as two were left alive at the end of the melee with the last remaining Cameron fleeing for his life across the river. Life was cheap back in the day, the honour of your clan being far more important in the grand scheme of things.

The MacLeods of Skye and the Macdonalds of Uist had an incredible long running and bloody feud, that spanned generations, and has enough intrigue for a mini-series all by itself. Place names often bear testament to past atrocities, three of my favourite landmarks that take their names from this bitter and brutal saga are as follows.

The Massacre Cave on Eigg, was where the entire population of the island were to hide from a raiding party of MacLeods, hell bent on revenge for some previous slight. Discovered by chance, fires were built at the entrance which ensured the suffocation of all the 400 people inside. The cave can still be visited today but the remains of the unfortunate islanders, which were visible for hundreds of years after the event, are now long gone.

Perhaps with memories of this in mind the MacDonalds launched a revenge attack on a MacLeod lands in Trumpan on Skye. Arriving to find the locals in church, the doors were barricaded and the building set on fire. A lone escapee managed to raise the alarm, as MacLeod reinforcements arrived the low tide prevented the raiders from launching their vessels to retreat. They were trapped on the shoreline and butchered. There were so many dead, the bodies were lined up beside a wall which was collapsed on top of them, the incident henceforth being known as ‘The Battle of the Spoiled Dyke’.

This charmingly named skirmish does not however win the award for the most imaginative moniker, that would come a few years later with ‘The War of the One Eyed Lady’. In an attempt to bring peace to the warring clans an agreement was reached. Margaret MacLeod, sister of the MacLeod laird and Donald Gorm Mor MacDonald were handfasted, a custom that was not unusual at the time. The agreement was that after a year and a day they would be officially married on condition that she bore him an heir. After the allotted time an heir had not been forthcoming and Margaret had lost the sight in one eye. The utterly bonkers, and obviously provocative response from Clan MacDonald, was to tie her backwards on a one eyed horse and have a one eyed servant accompanied by a one eyed dog lead her back to her people. The subsequent bloodbath at Coire na Creiche (The Corrie of the Foray) near the fairy pools on Skye was said to have turned the waters red. The unrelenting carnage eventually forced the government to intervene in 1601 and this was to be the last major clan battle to take place.

If I had to choose just one slaughter as a favourite to finish off this list it, would have to be the battle of Gamrie which took place on the Banffshire coast in 1004. A Danish party were ashore doing what Vikings tended to do, causing absolute mayhem. The coastline in these parts is steep and rocky and when the unexpected arrival of Scottish re-enforcements forced the invaders to retreat. They found themselves cut off from their ships, trapped between the sea and a series of rocky outcrops. The locals first decimated the Viking horde by rolling massive boulders down the steep slopes, crushing many to death before descending en mass to extract bloody vengeance. The corpses were unceremoniously tossed into nearby hollows which are still known today as the ‘bleedy pots’, or bloody pits. During this slaughter three Danish chiefs were identified and their heads chopped off. These were then put on display in the nearby St. Johns church where they would remain for hundreds of years. Right up into the 19th century the skulls of these unfortunate raiders could be seen built into cavities behind the pulpit – this is what gave the church it’s somewhat enticing title ‘The Kirk of Skulls’. The remains of the church are still able to be visited, no skulls remain however.

So when you settle down to watch the Game of Thrones – it’s maybe not so farfetched…… (dragons aside..)

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