Fact or Fiction: Five of Scotland’s Darkest Historical Events

Watching the Game of Thrones season finale, I couldn’t help but think about George R.R Martin’s inspiration behind several events in the series, as well as the cultural identities of certain people’s within it.

The Northerners, one would imagine, represent the people’s of the north of England. Hardy, steadfast folk who, despite dealing with southerners regularly, tend to resent them and view them with suspicion.

The Wildlings appear to be the fantasy equivalent of Scottish tribes during the Roman era. Separated from ‘civilisation’ by a formidable, near impenetrable wall that essentially marks the end of the known world; They’re tougher than coffin nails and have a penchant for violence and petty disputes.

As a Scotsman I would argue that this is a rather accurate description of our people throughout our history.

Scottish history is a rich, vibrant one that is littered with colourful tales of bravery, deceit, conflict and lust – It is no surprise that GRR Martin drew inspiration from it. There are, however, many tales that occurred during Scotland’s past that aren’t immortalised in fantasy fiction, but are every bit as brutal and harrowing to readers with even the strongest of stomachs.

Let’s explore some of of Scotland’s darkest historical events.

The Black Dinner, 1440.

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Perhaps one of the most notable events in Scottish history, the Black Dinner is one of Scotland’s darkest moments; Which involved the murder of two noblemen no older than 16.

Upon his father’s death, King James II ascended to the throne of Scotland, however the king was but a child, and throughout his formative years, Scotland’s noblemen continually maneuvered for a place at his ear.

Sensing a threat from the powerful Douglas family, Scottish Chancellor William Crichton invited the newly appointed 6th Earl of Douglas and his 10-year old brother David to dinner at Edinburgh Castle.

The dinner was going as well as one would expect from a table full of young men, until legend states that the severed head of a black bull was placed upon the table – A symbolic gesture signaling the death of the Black Douglas.

The young brothers were dragged from their seats, taken outside and quickly tried before being executed.

A harrowing tale that lays claim to the inspiration for Game of Thrones’ ‘Red Wedding’

The Glencoe Massacre, 1692.

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Upon ascending the throne, William of Orange demanded that all highland chieftains swear fealty to him before January 1st 1692. Despite the political and cultural complexities of the situation, as well as the hostile winter conditions, Chieftain MacIan of Clan MacDonald travelled to Fort William to swear his oath.

On the road there he was turned away by Colonel John Hill and told he must travel to Inveraray to swear his oath before a sheriff. This arduous 60-mile journey was marred by his captured at the hands of Campbell soldiers, and then a further internment at Inveraray.

Upon delivery of his oath the Master of Stair in Edinburgh rejected it. It so unfolds that this had all been orchestrated to initiate action against Clan MacDonald.

On the 2nd of February, 1692, a detachment of men led by Robert Campbell arrived in the snow covered Glencoe where they were welcomed with open arms by Chief MacIan and his clansfolk.

Relations were jovial, for 12 days they dined together, shared drinks and accepted the hospitality of their hosts. However in the early hours one night, Clan MacDonald’s guests awoke and began the vicious, systematic murder of their hosts. Within a short time 38 lay dead in their homes and around the village, with many more perishing in the bleak frozen wastes of the surrounding hills.

This event marked a surge in Jacobite support throughout Scotland, as not only had Highland hospitality codes been broken, but the sheer callousness of the atrocity shocked both Highland and Lowland folk alike.

Iona Massacre, 986AD.

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On Christmas Eve of 986, it is recorded in the Annals of Ulster that “Iona was plundered by Danes, and they killed the abbot and fifteen men of the seniors of the church”

In Middle-Age Britain, Iona Monastery was an important religious institution, founded by Saint Columba in 563 it held pride of place as a great religious centre. At the height of an age in which Viking invasions and plundering were commonplace, it is hardly surprising that the monastery was attacked for many others had been across the British Isles.

The attack on Iona bears resemblance to the famed sacking of Lindisfarne in that the monks present were brutally murdered and the material wealth of the compound stolen. The abbot was murdered where he stood, and 15 other senior clergymen are said to have been murdered along with him.

This event shook Christendom in the British Isles to its core and marked the exodus of inhabitants from the monastery, and it lay abandoned for some time. It had been plundered on several occasions in the previous century.

The Battle of Culloden, 1746.

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Scottish history is peppered with bloody conflict, but very few compare to the last military engagement on British soil.

It is the quintessential showdown; Highland clansmen versus British Redcoats – despite more Scots fighting for the crown than Edward Stuart. This final battle in the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion was nothing short of a massacre and all but ensured the death of highland culture.

On Culloden Moor, the two armies met, estimates claim that the Jacobites were outnumbered by anywhere between 9000 to 6000, or 8000-7000. On poor ground to accommodate their legendary ‘HIghland Charge’, the Jacobites were thoroughly routed. The Redcoat artillery decimated the lines of highlanders, and with indecision from the Jacobite commanders, the charge was ordered too late.

The organised, disciplined ranks of British soldiers fired shot upon shot at the helpless clansmen, bogged down in the muddy soup cause by artillery fire and poor weather.

Casualty numbers vary, however with a supposed 50 deaths and over 200 injured for the Redcoat forces, compared to between 1500-2000 on the Jacobite side, the outcome is nothing short of a massacre and decisive victory for the forces of the crown.

Government retribution was swift and unwavering, a large-scale crackdown on Jacobitism and Highland culture occurred, where traditions and practices were prohibited. Thousands fell victim to brutality and were displaced from their homes, and to this day Culloden and the subsequent fall out marks a dark period in British history.

The Isle of Eigg Massacre, 1577.

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Clans are a recurring fixture when discussing dark events in Scottish history. Intense, ancient rivalries that fuelled violence and foul deeds. The Eigg Massacre is no different.

A dispute between clans MacDonald and MacLeod erupted when it is said that members of the former staying on the island had become overbearing toward the female inhabitants. This had led to the son of MacLeod of Dunvegan being beaten, bound and left for dead adrift in a boat. Led by their chief, members of Clan MacLeod sailed to Eigg to have their revenge. When they arrived on the small Hebridean island however, not a soul was to be found.

The people of the island had seen the arriving force and taken refuge in a cave on the southern shore of the island, at the foot of the Sgurr. Cleverly disguised they hid themselves away until the men of clan MacLeod decided to leave.

Their subterfuge was foiled however when a member of clan MacDonald was seen observing their departure from the island. Returning to shore they followed his tracks to the mouth of the cave, and it is here that the MacDonald clansfolk met a gruesome end.

Wood and thatch from nearby crofts were gathered and piled at the entrance to the cave, once set alight the smoke suffocated the unfortunate souls taking shelter there. One family is said to have avoided the same fate by hiding in another cave on the island.

A heavy price paid for insult.

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