Here and there – Macaulay on Glencoe, zealots, and superior orders


The Clan McDonald (or Macdonald) of Glencoe was a band of robbers.  Most Highlanders were.  The Campbells of Argyle hated them and they had ruthlessly preyed on a man named Breadalbane.  The British Crown offered money to all Highlanders to take an oath of allegiance by 31 December 1691.  Anyone who did not do so in time would be treated a traitor and outside the law.  Breadalbane was in charge of handling the money. The Highland chiefs dragged their feet but they came in.  The McDonald chief left it to the last day – but no one there could take his oath.  He finally got sworn six days later.  That the McDonald chief was outside the law was good news for the Campbells, Breadalbane and for the Scots Prime Minister, Sir John Dalrymple, known as the Master of Stair.  Dalrymple had hoped to strike at a number of clans. In a letter written in this expectation, he said ‘I hope the soldiers will not trouble the government with prisoners.’  Then he found out that McDonald had sworn his oath after the cut-off.  He resolved to strike at that clan.  Without saying that McDonald had taken the oath late, Dalrymple put an order before King William that said:

As for Mac Ian of Glencoe [the McDonald chief] and that tribe, if they can be well distinguished from the other Highlanders, it will be proper for the vindication of public justice to extirpate that set of thieves.

You can get an argument about what ‘extirpate’ might mean there – clean the glen out of these bandits by rooting them out (as the Scots  king swore to ‘root out’ heresies), or wipe  them out in the sense of killing all, including women and children?  A soldier killing a bandit might seek to rely on that order as a defence – but killing a woman or child?

The design of the Master of Stair was ‘to butcher the whole race of thieves, the whole damnable race.’  But the troops would not just march in and execute the condemned outlaws.  Dalrymple was afraid that most of them would escape. ‘Better not meddle with them than meddle to no purpose.  When the thing is resolved, let it be secret and sudden.’ Macbeth himself might have said that.  The troops accepted the hospitality of the clan at Glencoe for twelve days.  Then at five o’clock in the morning, the troops started to kill men, women and children.  But they used firearms, and three quarters of the clan escaped the fate of their chief.

Macaulay could understand the hatred of Argyle and Breadalbane for the McDonalds, but Dalrymple – ‘one of the first men of his time, a jurist, a statesman, a fine scholar, an eloquent orator’?

To what cause are we to ascribe so strange an antipathy?….The most probable conjecture is that he was actuated by an inordinate, an unscrupulous, a remorseless zeal for what seemed to him to be the interest of the State.  This explanation may startle those who have not considered how large a proportion of the blackest crimes recorded in history is to be ascribed to ill regulated public spirit.  We daily see men do for their party, for their sect, for their country, for their favourite schemes of political and social reform, what they would not do to enrich or avenge themselves.  A temptation addressed to our private cupidity or to our private animosity, whatever virtue we have takes the alarm.  But virtue itself may contribute to the fall of him who imagines that it is in his power, by violating some general rule of morality, to confer an important benefit on a church on a commonwealth, on mankind.  He silences the remonstrances of conscience, and hardens his heart against the most touching spectacles of misery, by repeating to himself that his intentions are pure, that his objects are noble, that he is doing a little evil for the sake of a great good.  By degrees he comes altogether to forget the turpitude of the means in the excellence of the end, and at length perpetrates without one internal twinge acts which would shock a buccaneer. There is no reason to believe that Dominic would, for the best archbishopric in Christendom, have incited ferocious marauders to plunder and slaughter a peaceful and industrious population, that Everard Digby would, for a dukedom, have blown a large assembly of people into the air, or that Robespierre would have murdered for hire one of the thousands whom he murdered from philanthropy.

This analysis is vital.  There we have a description of our greatest enemy – the zealot who has God or the people on his side; the quintessential Catholic terrorist, Guy Fawkes; Robespierre and the people of la patrie; Osama bin Laden and the religion of Islam – all responsible for some of ‘the blackest crimes recorded in history’, and all convinced of the blackest falsity mankind has been guilty of – that the ends justify the means.   

Dostoevsky put it this way.

One cannot live by rebellion, and I want to live.  Tell me straight out, I call on you –imagine me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears – would you agree to be the architect on such conditions?  Tell me the truth.

So the great Russian writer, in The Brothers Karamazov, foretold the misery that would flow over all of the Russias from the righteousness of Marx, Lenin and Stalin.

In the House of the Dead, Dostoevsky explained how we are corrupted by power.

Whoever has experienced the power, the unrestrained ability to humiliate another human being….automatically loses power over his own sensations.  Tyranny is a habit, it has its own organic life, it develops finally into a disease.  The habit can kill and coarsen the very best man to the level of a beast.  Blood and power intoxicate…The man and the citizen die with the tyrant forever; the return to human dignity, to repentance, to regeneration becomes almost impossible.

Those words are deathless because they are so true, but they have frightening ramifications for Donald Trump.

Shortly before citing those words, Paul Johnson referred to some equally relevant remarks of Joseph Conrad in Under Western Eyes in 1911:

In a real revolution, the best characters do not come to the front.  A violent revolution falls into the hands of narrow-minded fanatics and of tyrannical hypocrites at first.  Afterwards come the turn of all the pretentious intellectual failures of the time.  Such are the chiefs and the leaders.  You will notice that I have left out the mere rogues.  The scrupulous and the just, the noble humane and devoted natures, the unselfish and the intelligent may begin a revolution, but it passes away from them…..Hopes grotesquely betrayed, ideals caricatured – that is the definition of revolutionary success.

All that is so true of the French and Russian revolutions.  A Marxist historian applied this kind of learning to the Communist Party under Stalin: ‘The whole party became an organization of torturers and oppressors.  No one was innocent and all Communists were accomplices in the coercion of society.  Thus the party acquired a new species of moral unity, and embarked on a course from which there was no turning back.’  George Orwell saw all this.

The violence, the randomness, and the cruelty all come to be taken as part of life, and people become what we now call ‘desensitised’.  Commenting on the butchery that followed the fall of the Bastille, the French historian Taine reflected mordantly that some mockery is found in every triumph, and ‘beneath the butcher, the buffoon becomes apparent.’  The result is that the people become less civilised.  They are degraded.  You can get an argument over whether terror or ‘the Terror’ commenced on 14 July 1789, but there is no denying that bloody violence and lawless butchery erupted on that day and continued off and on until at least the time when Napoleon put a former break on hostilities with a whiff of grapeshot.  The nation itself was destabilised for the best part of a century.

To go back to Glencoe, who was to be answerable?  It was all hushed up for a while, but word got out, and there had to be a public inquiry.  It was full and fair, and its findings went to the Scots parliament, the Estates.  The commissioners of inquiry concluded that the slaughter at Glencoe was murder, and that the cause of that crime lay in the letters of Dalrymple, the Master of Stair.  They resolved with no dissenting voice that the order signed by King William did not authorise the slaughter at Glencoe. But the Estates let Dalrymple off with a censure, while they designated the officers in charge as murderers.

Macaulay says they were wrong on both counts.

Whoever can bring himself to look at the conduct of these men with judicial impartiality will probably be of opinion that they could not, without great detriment to the commonwealth, have been treated as assassins.  They had slain no one whom they had not been positively directed by their commanding officer to slay.  That subordination without which an army would be the worst of all rabbles would be at an end, if every soldier were to be held answerable for the justice of every order in obedience to which he pulls his trigger. The Case of Glencoe was doubtless an extreme case: but it cannot easily be distinguished in principle from cases which, in war, are of ordinary occurrence.  Very terrible military executions are sometimes indispensable.  Humanity itself may require them…..It is remarkable that no member of the Scottish Parliament proposed that any of the private men of Argyle’s regiment should be prosecuted for murder.  Absolute impunity was granted to everybody below the rank of serjeant.  Yet on what principle?  Surely, if military obedience was not a valid plea, every man who shot a McDonald on that horrible night was a murderer?

Should officers have resigned rather than carry out their orders?

In this case, disobedience was assuredly a moral duty: but it does not follow that obedience was a legal crime.

That sounds to me like common sense. What about the Scots Prime Minister, the Master of Stair?

Every argument which can be urged against punishing the soldier who executes the unjust and inhuman orders of his superior is an argument for punishing with the utmost rigour of the law the superior with whom the unjust and inhuman orders originate.  Where there can be no responsibility below, there should be double responsibility above. What the parliament of Scotland ought with one voice to have demanded was, not that a poor illiterate serjeant…should be hanged in the Grassmarket, but that the real murderer, the most politic, the most eloquent, the most powerful of Scottish statesmen, should be brought to a public trial and should, if found guilty, die the death of a felon….Unhappily the Estates, by extenuating the guilt of the chief offender, and, at the same time demanding that his humble agents should be treated with a severity beyond the law, made the stain which the massacre had left on the honour of the nation broader and deeper than before.

That analysis seems fair – even if it is distorted by the author’s need to be gentle with King William, one of his heroes, and the failure to mention in this context the hatred of the Campbells for their targets, the McDonalds.  You wonder how many of these killers were reluctant, and how many were actuated by what lawyers call ‘malice’. And it must take some acquired coldness to kill in cold blood members of a family you have lived, eaten, and slept with for so long, and some of whom were morally and legally incapable of committing any crime.

But people who say that the soldiers should have rebelled rather than comply with orders are postulating a very high moral standard, one that calls for immense courage, which may not be appreciated by the dependants of the soldier so called upon.

Very few people have the still strength or firm insight of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany after Hitler became the Chancellor.

We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learned the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and stopped us being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical.  Are we still of any use?  What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men.  Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?

It took a hero even to ask the question.  Moral giants like Lincoln, Bonhoeffer and Mandela come along once or twice a century.  The rest of us just hope that we don’t get called on to seek to emulate them.  If we do, and if we fail, as is most likely, then the judgment will belong not to us or the law, but to God.

This sordid affair was all Scottish.  The avengers took the view that the ends justified the means.  In doing so, they sank below the level of those whom they attacked.  It’s a lesson on how not now to respond to terrorism.  Lawyers have a saying that hard cases make bad law.  If you stretch or bend the law for a tricky or hard case, you make the law worse.  You debauch it.  That, too, is a lesson of the massacre at Glencoe.

3 thoughts on “Here and there – Macaulay on Glencoe, zealots, and superior orders

  1. Glencoe which my iPad refuses to spell was atavistic. My maternal ancestors were highland Douglas even worse in that they killed indiscriminately and changed allegiances without care and their Lairds were successively called Black not for their colour . My lot from near Inverness were no doubt serfs or the equivalent and successively kicked out That is of course irrelevant.The current romanticising of ancestry has reached the point where we have someone on television saying how proud she is of having a great grand farther who was a bushranger. McDonalds and Campbells ( which my iPad still won’t let me spell) still carry on about it . Thankfully they just do it on face book and in pubs. This happened more than 300 hundred years ago however elsewhere tribes are at war for similar reasons ,eg Sunni Shia ,and smaller tribal differences all over the place . All are under orders which is their justification. Now the US Presidentcy has descended to the horrible but ridiculous with Trump images beating up the press. But still supported by the Murdoch press. Where to next ?

    • 1. They were savages. Even Scott, who romanced them, showed them murdering prisoners in Rob Roy. 2. One of my clans, the McPhersons, had a sure sense of timing. They were a day late for the battle of Culloden. 3. The issue of superior orders is difficult. 4. I half expected a reproof for calling Guy Fawkes a Catholic terrorist. There were lots of them, being run out of France.

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