Anybody who reads Scottish history will come across mention of the Massacre at Glencoe, an incident involving the English government of William of Orange and a small sept of Clan MacDonald who dwelled in the valley of Glencoe. Delayed by snowstorms, red tape, fractious English soldiers, and a recalcitrant royal magistrate, the Laird of the clan was a few days late signing his oath of allegiance to the Dutchman who’d taken over England’s throne.
On Friday, February 13, 1692, at precisely 5 a.m., per orders, royalist soldiers of Clan Campbell who’d been billeted among the MacDonalds for more than two weeks, rose up and literally murdered their hosts in their beds. Anybody below the age of seventy was shot or put to the sword—women, children, and even men who’d surrendered and were bound hand and foot. In all, 38 of the sept’s 150 souls were killed, and more perished in the days that followed.
Sir John Dalrymple, who’d engineered this show of force to quell loyalty to the deposed Catholic (Jacobite) line of the royal succession, was astonished at the outrage the incident provoked. Highland reaction railed against the murder of defenseless infants and elderly, but equal contumely was aimed at the Campbell soldiers who’d violated the tenants of Highland hospitality.
Even today, the Scottish Highlands are among the least populous areas of any developed country, and in centuries past, the area was even more sparsely inhabited. Consider as well that parts of the Highlands enjoy a sub-artic climate, and until the mid-1700s, had few roads. The plight of a traveler who lacked substantial means could be perilous, and even a traveler with means would have found few who had a use for currency, or extra provisions to sell.
The tradition thus developed that once a host had agreed to grant hospitality to a guest, the welfare of the guest became the host’s responsibility, a pledge of chivalric proportions that transcended both law and clan loyalties.
Clan lore includes numerous examples of the binding nature of the hospitable obligation. One story has it that around the year 1600, the Laird of Clan MacGregor of Glenstrae, offered hospitality to a young man who claimed to be fleeing for his life.
In fact the young man, son of the Clan Lamont chief, had just slain MacGregor’s heir in a quarrel. Though MacGregor soon learned of his guest’s perfidy, he ensured Lamont was given safe conduct off MacGregor land, and warned him that retribution would be sought when Lamont was safely back in his territory.
Even vengeance for his son was not sufficient justification for MacGregor to violate the tenants of Highland hospitality. When MacGregor himself was fleeing for his life years later, the Laird of Clan Lamont extended hospitality to him, and he grew old and died a peaceable death among the Lamonts.
So the next time you offer to let a buddy crash on your couch for the night, or lend your spare bedroom to a friend who’s between apartments, be grateful the hospitality you extend need not be of the Highland variety, but only a simple exercise in friendly generosity.