Saturday, August 29, 2009

Honest Fanatics & Criminal Lunatics: Sheriff MacPhaill on Dunavertie & the Kirk

In 1646, forces under the ultimate control of Archibald Campbell, 1st Marquis of Argyll, began to exact revenge on the allies of the Royalists in Scotland. A covenanter army led by Colin Campbell of Ardkinglass surrounded Lamonts at Ascog in June of that year. Sir James Lamont was brought to Ascog to persuade his clansman to surrender. After the fall of Ascog, the survivors were taken to Toward and then the kirkyard at Dunoon where thirty-five Lamont lairds were hanged in a single tree and some two hundred Lamont men, women, and children were fallen upon and murdered. Among the Campbell host was Reverend Colin MacLachlan, pastor of the kirk at Killin, who is believed to have enthusiastically urged on the Campbells in their bloody enterprise.

In Lamont and MacLachlan clan histories, or what is more accurately described as clan folklore, one "Sheriff MacPhaill" is claimed to have remarked subsequent to this massacre, "The difference between an honest fanatic and a criminal lunatic is difficult to define and of little difference to the victim." As it is used, the quotation conjures an image of a 17th century official stumbling across the aftermath of the carnage and remarking almost philosophically on the tragedy that befell the Lamonts. It would make for the final scene of a Hollywood film were made of these events with the sheriff and his men then mounting their horses or marching away after seeing to the disposition of the dead. A romantic image to be sure, but not one based in any reality.

Sheriff MacPhaill was a Scottish historian named James Robert Nicholson MacPhaill who lived from 1858 to 1933. He was the Sheriff of Sterling and edited a four volume set for the Scottish Historical Society called Highland Papers. It is in volume II at page 248 we find a piece entitled, "Documents Relating to the Massacre at Dunavertie".

Montrose's army was destroyed by David Leslie at Philliphaugh in September of 1645. Ardkinglass savaged the Lamonts in June of 1646. As the Marquis of Argyll slowly wrested control away from the remaining Royalists, Alasdair MacColla left a garrison of 500 men at Dunavertie Castle in May, 1647. Leslie laid seige to the castle and was able to secure its surrender under a promise of quarter for its defenders. Interestingly, promises of quarter had been used by Ardkinglass at Ascog and by Leslie himself at Philliphaugh. Much to what I would imagine to be the dismay of the prisoners, promises of quarter were frequently broken. Not that it should have been surprising, albeit somewhat disappointing, since the practice was not unheard of in the Royalist camp. Having thus surrendered, Leslie's men fell upon them and killed them to the man with the exception of one who was spared due to being a child.

MacPhaill's discussion tries to answer to two questions: Was there in fact a promise of quarter and who was responsible for the slaughter? He is able to make the argument there was in fact a promise of quarter made to the defenders of Dunavertie. As to who was responsible for the, he recognizes the Argyll probably influenced John Nevoy, a minister assigned to Leslie's command, who in turn talked Leslie into breaking his word. He also recognizes Leslie's cowardice in being unable to stand up to the representatives of the Kirk. Ultimately, however, it seems he places responsibility for this atrocity on James Nevoy and on the mindset of the leading faction of the Kirk at the time. Of James Nevoy, he writes:

A nephew of the Reverend Andrew Cant, and referred to withmuch appreciation in the Letters of Samuel Rutherford, Nevoy has most properly been held up to continuous execration. But though more notorious it does not follow that he was in reality worse than many of his neighbours, most of whom are fortunate in this, that their individual activities are not so clearly identified.Some exceptions, indeed, there are, such as the Reverend Colin Maclachlan, who took a leading part in the butchery of the Lamonts, and the Reverend David Dickson, whose ghoulish epinicion, ' the work goes bonnily on,' passed into a proverb. It must be remembered, too, that Nevoy was no obscure fanatic, but, like Dickson, one of the leaders of the Kirk (vide Professor Mitchell's General Assembly Commission Records, passim), and had been specially appointed by the Kirk to the Army. (Footnotes omitted.)

Continuing on page 253, MacPhaill continues with his description of the Kirk leadership:
The leaders of the Kirk at that time were, however, very different from the Knoxian Reformers. There were, of course, very many moderate men who cared more for the essentials of the Christian faith than for any special theological scheme or any particular form of Church government. But the theocratic theories of Andrew Melville and his associates had produced another and very unpleasant type. In the view of such men they and their followers were predestined from all eternity to be the Saints of God. All others were rebel's against the Almighty, and their extermination was the pleasant duty of the chosen people. Incidentally they claimed to have the power of the Keys and the right to make the lot of their opponents intolerable, not only in this life but also in that which is to come. Such a view of the universe, it is true, was not original—it was also wanting in perspective—and the scriptural language employed by its exponents sounds somewhat blasphemous to modern ears. It is not necessary to dispute their sincerity. But the difference between an honest fanatic and a criminal lunatic is difficult to define and is of little interest to the victim. (Footnotes omitted.)

One can only conclude the quote so often used in connection with the massacre of the Lamonts , and the participation in it by at least one MacLachlan, truly was made in the context of another atrocity nearly a full year later and then more generally in reference to the perspective held by those in power which led to acts of barbarism such as those at Dunoon and Dunavertie.

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