Fact or Fiction? 5 of the Darkest Events in Scottish History

Scottish History

While watching earlier seasons of Game of Thrones, I couldn’t help but think about George RR Martin’s inspiration behind several events in the series, as well as the various cultures of Westeros.

The Northerners, one would imagine, are a rather stereotypical representation of people from the north of England; hardy, steadfast and humourless folk who tend to view southerners with a degree of suspicion.

Further north, the Free Folk appear to be the fantasy equivalent of Scottish tribes during the Roman era. Separated from ‘civilisation’ by a formidable 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 both of the aforementioned cultural groups take a large pinch of inspiration from Scots.

Scottish history is rich, vibrant and littered with colourful tales of bravery, deceit, violence and lust. It’s no surprise that George RR Martin drew inspiration from it. There are many tales from Scotland’s past that aren’t immortalised in fantasy fiction, however, but are every bit as brutal and harrowing.

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

The Black Dinner (1440)

Scottish History
Edinburgh Castle, Scotland.

Perhaps one of the most notable events in Scottish history, the Black Dinner ranks among the darkest; one 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. The newly ordained king, however, was still a child and throughout his formative years Scotland’s noblemen manoeuvred and backstabbed for a place at his ear.

During this period, Clan Douglas was one of the most powerful in Scotland. So much so that some believed them to be a threat to the crown. Archibald Douglas, 5th Earl of Douglas served as Regent during James’ early years.

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Following the death of Archibald Douglas, Scottish Chancellor William Crichton sought to break the perceived stranglehold of the powerful noble family.

Sir William Crichton is believed to have exerted much control over the young king through his position as Chancellor, and in 1440 invited 16 year old William Douglas, 6th Earl of Douglas to dinner at Edinburgh Castle. Accompanying the young, newly-appointed earl was his 10 year old brother, David.

The dinner is understood to have been a jovial affair by all accounts until the severed head of a black bull was placed upon the table – a symbolic gesture heralding the demise of Clan Douglas.

The young brothers were dragged from their seats, taken outside and swiftly executed despite the young James’ protests. This harrowing tale lays claim to the inspiration for Game of Thrones’ ‘Red Wedding’.

The Glencoe Massacre (1692)

Scottish History
‘After the Massacre of Glencoe’, by Peter Graham (1889).

Upon ascending the throne, William of Orange ordered highland chieftains to swear fealty to him before January 1st, 1692.

Despite hostile winter conditions, Chief MacIan of Clan MacDonald embarked on a journey 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 capture at the hands of Campbell soldiers and then further internment at Inveraray. Upon delivery of his oath, the Master of Stair in Edinburgh rejected it.

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 people.

Things appeared normal for 12 days while the guests accepted the hospitality of their hosts; dining, drinking and enjoying the festivities. However, in the early hours one night, Clan MacDonald’s guests awoke and began the vicious murder of their hosts. Within a short time, 38 lay dead, their bodies scattered around the village, in their homes and in the very beds they slept in.

Those who escaped were forced to contend with the unforgiving conditions of a Scottish highland winter, with many perishing in the surrounding hills.

The callous nature of this atrocity prompted outrage across the country and to this day remains one of the most disturbing events in Scottish history. George RR Martin is believed to have taken inspiration for the Red Wedding from this event, which also saw cultural hospitality traditions broken.

Iona Massacre (986AD)

Scottish History
Iona Abbey, Scotland.

On Christmas Eve in 986AD, 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 Norse incursions and plundering were commonplace, it is hardly surprising that the monastery was attacked – for many others across the British Isles had also fallen victim.

The attack on Iona bears resemblance to the famed sacking of Lindisfarne. 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 slain along with him.

This event shook Christendom to its core and marked an exodus of inhabitants from the monastery.

The Battle of Culloden (1746)

‘An incident in the rebellion of 1745’, by David Morier.

Scottish history is littered with bloody conflicts, but very few compare to the last major military engagement on British soil.

It is the quintessential showdown; Highland clansmen versus British Redcoats. This final battle of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion was nothing short of a massacre and all but ensured the end of the Jacobite dream.

On Culloden Moor, the two armies met. Historians estimate that the Jacobites were outnumbered by anywhere between 9000 to 6000, or 8000-7000.

Positioned on poor ground to accommodate their legendary ‘Highland Charge’, the Jacobites were thoroughly routed. Redcoat artillery decimated their lines and the indecision of Jacobite commanders meant that the charge was ordered too late.

The organised, disciplined ranks of royalist soldiers fired shot upon shot at the clansmen, many of whom became bogged down in the muddy stramash caused by artillery fire and poor weather. Casualty numbers vary with a supposed 50 deaths and over 200 injured for the Redcoat forces – compared to between 1500 to 2000 on the Jacobite side.

This was a decisive victory for the crown and a devastating blow to highland culture. Government retribution was swift and unwavering, with a merciless crackdown on Jacobitism and Highland traditions.

Thousands were subjected to brutal violence and were displaced from their homes. To this day, Culloden and the subsequent fallout marks a dark period in British history.

The Isle of Eigg Massacre (1577)

Loch Nan Uamh view towards the Isle of Eigg

Clans are a recurring feature when discussing dark events in Scottish history. Intense, ancient rivalries that fuelled violence and foul deeds on many an occasion.

The Eigg Massacre is no different.

A dispute between clans MacDonald and MacLeod erupted when MacLeod’s staying on the island are said to have become overbearing toward female inhabitants. This led to the son of MacLeod of Dunvegan being beaten, bound, and left for dead adrift in a boat.

Upon learning of the insult, members of Clan MacLeod sailed to Eigg to have their revenge. However, when they arrived on the small Hebridean island, not a soul was found.

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The people of the island had spotted the arriving force and taken refuge in a cave on the southern shore of the island, at the foot of the Sgurr. With the cave entrance cleverly disguised beneath foliage, they hid inside until the MacLeod’s decided to leave.

The inhabitants of Eigg were eventually discovered 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. It is here that the islanders 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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