The Massacre at Glencoe

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

At the heart of Celtic beliefs is the sacred notion of hospitality. In Shakespeare’s Scottish Play,(I am not really superstitious but why take chances!) the protagonist ponders the breach of hospitality he is considering: He’s here in double trust:/First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,/Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,/Who should against his murderer shut the door,/Not bear the knife myself.

“The reigns of mythic kings were judged on their hospitality (or lack thereof). Once, when Bres, a warrior of the Fomorian people — the “bad guys” of Celtic myth — became king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, he quickly became renowned for his parsimony. Bards complained that visitors to his house could count on leaving with no smell of beer on their breath! Finally, a bard named Cairbre was fed up enough to write a satire about the ungenerous king—the first satire ever composed in Ireland. Its effect was blistering—literally—as it caused sores to burst forth on Bres’ face, blemishing him and making him unfit to rule.

Celtic hospitality is not just a matter of folklore and legend. One time I was in Banbridge, Co. Down, and couldn’t find lodging; I mentioned this to the owner of a pub and he spent the next half hour driving me around until I found a room for the night. An even better tale comes from a former student of mine, who had a flat tire once while traveling in rural Ireland. Stopping in front of a farmhouse and hoping to use the phone, he met the farmer who insisted on fixing the tire himself—and then the farmer’s wife invited my student and his family in for dinner. And of course, talk of payment was quickly squelched. “No need for that,” the farmer said simply.” (from a post by Carl McColman)

But we now travel back in time to the circumstances of the massacre. On the 13th of February, 1692, following the Jacobite uprising an estimated thirty-eight members and associates of Clan MacDonald of Glencoe were killed by government forces billeted with them on the grounds that they had not been prompt enough in pledging allegiance to the new monarchs, William of Orange and his queen, Mary.

Others are alleged to have died of exposure- estimates ranging from forty to one hundred. Many people think that this is a traditional song, including John McDermott, whose version I first heard, in the mid-1990s, on his double-platinum disc Danny Boy. Like so many mistaken claims made for songs being from the anonymous folk tradition, this song has, in fact, a known writer, Jim McClean, who wrote this moving ballad in 1963. I have performed this song at clubs in western Sydney over the years. Who knows when the virus will allow such gatherings to go ahead?

The Massacre at Glencoe

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