Jun. 17th, 2012

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After talking about the long-running feud between the Montgomeries and the Cuninghames, I thought it high time to introduce you to another, more celebrated case of needless bloodshed in the name of politics/religion/family rivalry, etcetera. 

It involves the notorious Campbell clan, and it's not entirely unrelated to yesterday's post, because while the Campbells are usually associated with highland Scotland, they aren't entirely absent in the lowlands.  In medieval times, the Sheriff of Ayr was traditionally a Campbell, and the Campbells seemed keen to extent their influence into the western parts of lowland Scotland.  The wife of Hugh Montgomerie, 1st Earl of Eglinton was descended from the Argyll Campbells, and it was under his leadership that the Montgomeries finally began to make their mark at the national level.  So in a way, we can see the feuding between the Montgomeries and the Cuninghames as having its roots (potentially) in a bit of Campbell power-brokering.  I think the Campbells were keen to have their own man in charge of law and order in North Ayrshire: Irvine was the capital of the west coast herring trade in the late fifteenth century, and the Campbells at this time were quite keen to make money from the herring fisheries around the Argyll sea lochs...

I digress.  When J and I did our recent tour of Glencoe, we went in search of not one but two monuments to men who had died violently in the aftermath of both the Massacre of Glencoe and the Battle of Culloden (which was, of course, the last battle fought on the British mainland).  Both the above are particularly miserable episodes in Scottish (and indeed British) history, and the aftershocks were also dreadful, albeit on a smaller scale, with the tale I'm relating today being perhaps one of the most infamous. It concerns James Stewart ('James of the Glen') who appears to have been the victim of a miscarriage of eighteenth century justice, and Colin Campbell of Glenure, brutally murdered as he travelled along a quiet road in Argyll.

It's the twenty-first century, but the monuments to these two men remain off the main tourist track.  There's a tourist trail called 'The Last Clansman Trail', with various sites marked on maps, and highlighted by the brown road signs used to denote places of interest, but when you ask the locals for further information - even in the tourist information centre - you're invariably rewarded with the kind of look you'd expect in a dodgy newsagents where porn magazines are shuffled about anonymously in brown paper bags so respectable folks can't see what's being bought.

Verdict: two hundred and sixty years later, it's still a sensitive subject.  Why, I wonder? 

Because in this simple world of black and white, where historically speaking Scots are seen as the goodies and English are seen as the baddies, our nation still can't cope with the fact that a lot of the atrocities carried out by government troops in the Highlands were actually carried out by Scots upon their fellow Scots.  In reality, there is no clear demarcation, of course: everything exists in shades of grey, with blame apportioned according to your point of view.

Even back in the late medieval period, there was a perceived division between the lowland Scots and the highland Scots.  A succession of Scots kings did their best to batter the Lords of the Isles into submission, and a couple of clans saw the writing on the wall and decided to throw their lot in with the lowlanders.  The Campbells were one of these clans, and for the next few centuries, they had a major role in the imposition of law and order throughout this 'lawless', and in the eyes of the Scots monarchy, 'uncivilised' region.

After Culloden, all sorts of draconian measures were introduced to keep the hapless clansmen and their families in order, ranging from the construction of military roads and the detailed mapping of the entire country to the total destruction of settlements in a gratuitous and uncompromising manner which these days would probably be described as ethnic cleansing.  Such practises may have been instigated at the behest of a British government, but they were often undertaken by Scots soldiers loyal to the Crown.

By 1752, these punitive measures were more financial than physical.  Since the Campbells were known to be loyal, senior members of this clan were invariably placed in positions of power in order to exercise government authority throughout the region.  One such official, drafted in to maintain order amongst and collect taxes from the local population, was Colin Campbell of Glenure, later given the epithet 'The Red Fox' by Robert Louis Stevenson. 

Even today, perceptions of this man vary.  A noticeboard at the scene of his death suggests that he tried very hard to be fair and just in his dealings with the clansmen, who were, after all, not that far removed from the rank and file members of his own clan.  Pressure was, however, put on him from above to impose harsher penalties on the locals, raising taxes to unacceptable levels and evicting tenants if they failed to pay up.  An alternative picture is painted in The Castle Stalker View cafe: here, Colin Campbell is described as a harsh, domineering member of the gentry, who rode roughshod over the clansmen and got his comeuppence as a result. 

The truth, as ever, is lost in the mists of time...

What remains undisputed is that on the 14th May 1752, at around five thirty in the afternoon, Colin Campbell was riding through Lettermore Wood in Appin, Argyll, when he was shot in the back by an unseen assailant.  Despite having his guts blown out, the unfortunate man survived long enough to warn his companions and urge them to flee.

A modest cairn marks the scene of his death, inscribed with a brass plate detailing the incident:-

It was a beautiful place to die, I suppose, but I'm sure that the last thing on Colin Campbell's mind as he breathed his last was the magnificent scenery:-

In the aftermath of the murder, a scapegoat was required.

One was duly found: James Stewart of Appin, aka 'James of the Glen'. 

Now, when you weigh up all the evidence, it seems highly unlikely that James of the Glen was the man who delivered the fatal shot. He may have had some suspicion that it was likely to take place, and he may even have assisted the murderer, but that seems to have been the sum total of his guilt.

Seamus Carney, who wrote an excellent and insightful book upon the subject (The Killing of The Red Fox: An Investigation Into The Appin Murder, Lochar Publishing, 1989), argues that the natural conclusion of judge and jury should have been an acquittal. Indeed, even then, the finger of suspicion seemed to fall more comfortably on the shoulders of an individual named Allan Breck (he of 'Kidnapped' fame) who was in the area at the time and who was a confirmed Jacobite who'd fought for Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden.  But the scale of this crime meant a result was required, at any cost, and it was James of the Glen who paid the price.

James of the Glen was destined to hang for the crime.  He protested his innocence till the end, and indeed, the whole business of the trial makes the result suspect, to say the least.  His response on hearing his sentence was as follows:-

'My Lords, I tamely submit to my hard sentence. I forgive the jury and witnesses who have sworn several things falsely against me, and I declare, before the great God and this auditory, that I had no previous knowledge of the murder of Colin Campbell of Glenure, and am as innocent of it as a child unborn. I am not afraid to die, but what grieves me is my character, that after ages should think me capable of such a horrid and barbaric murder.' (as quoted in Carney, 1989, p. 124).

James's fate was to climb thirty feet up a ladder to the gallows which was also destined to be his gibbet.  His body was left hanging in close proximity to the nearby road between Appin and Glencoe, a constant reminder to passers-by that the men in charge meant business and that any violence against their overlords would be brutally punished.  In case the family had any ideas about rescuing the corpse and giving it a decent Christian burial, fifteen soldiers were stationed there to prevent anyone interfering with it.

Three years later, the badly decaying corpse blew down in a gale.  It was promptly wired back together and hung back up again.  Over the next few years, odd bits of bone fell down.  These were quietly gathered up by relatives.  Eventually, Stewart's mortal remains were placed in the coffin of James's wife Margaret, who'd barely outlived her husband and buried in Keils churchyard: presumably, by this point, the authorities had more important things to worry about than the fate of James Stewart's corpse, so the collection of these fragments went unchallenged.

In our enlightened times, the injustice meted out upon James Stewart of Appin has been recognised, and the site of his hanging is now commorated by an imposing monument:-

It's an unhappy tale, but for all the anger we instinctively feel against the way in which James of the Glen was treated by both the establishment and the judicial system, we shouldn't forget the fate of Colin Campbell.  Who was, in his own way, just another man trying to get along in life, and who was as much a victim of circumstances as the unfortunate who found himself charged with his murder...


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