Some Scottish Red Weddings

The theme of sacrosanct hospitality being murderously abused looms large in Scottish history and legend. Content note: murder; spousal abuse.


NB this post also contains spoilers for the A Song of Ice and Fire novel A Storm of Swords, and Game of Thrones episode 3.9 “The Rains of Castamere”.


In one of the most famous and shocking scenes in George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire and the TV adaptation Game of Thrones, Walder Frey, Lord of the Twins, has his liege lord Robb Stark and many of the latter’s family and followers murdered at the wedding of his daughter to Robb’s uncle, to avenge Robb’s reneging on his own engagement to the girl. Martin’s historical inspirations are mostly English, drawn from the Wars of the Roses: indeed, Robb Stark’s broken engagement is clearly based on that of Edward IV, who abandoned his promises to Princess Bona of Savoy to marry Elizabeth Woodville. However, the two events he cited as inspirations for the Red Wedding both came from Scottish history. (Not to be confused, incidentally, with the Wedding district in Berlin, which earned the nickname “Red Wedding” as a Communist party stronghold in the 1920s; nor with Ernst Busch’s 1945 song of the same name, a love letter to the district and its Communist heritage.) The events were the Black Dinner of 1440, and the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692.


In 1440, fear of the growing power of Clan Douglas led the two chief rivals for control of the boy king James II – Sir Alexander Livingston, Justiciar of Scotland and Keeper of Stirling Castle, and Sir William Crichton, Lord Chancellor and Keeper of Edinburgh Castle – to put aside their differences and conspire together. Crichton invited the sixteen-year-old Earl of Douglas and his brother David to dine with the King at Edinburgh Castle; when they sat down to eat, a bull’s head – an ancient symbol of death – was served, following which they were seized, subjected to a farcical show trial, and beheaded as traitors. The influence on Martin is obvious, from the colour-themed name to the ominous symbolism foreshadowing the attack (in his novel, the song “The Rains of Castamere” takes on the role of the bull’s head).


Probably no Scot needs reminded of what happened in 1692. Following the usurpation of William of Orange, Highland chiefs were commanded to swear loyalty to the new regime; many, torn between their allegiance to the exiled James VII and the desire to keep their positions (and their lives), wrote to King James in France to ask his permission. Among these was Alasdair MacIain, chieftain of a small sept of Clan Donald in Glencoe. His letters had been intercepted by William’s spymaster the Earl of Stair, and the return of James’ reply was delayed; between this and bad weather, he missed the deadline – but did swear the oath, and thought himself safe. But he had technically failed in his duty; he was known to have written to the former King; he was, like James, a Catholic; and Stair had already determined to make a bloody example in the Highlands – he did not particularly care where. He therefore colluded with the MacDonalds’ old enemy the Earl of Argyll to arrange the destruction of the sept.


What shocked public opinion, however, was that the soldiers of Argyll’s Regiment who carried out the massacre had been welcomed into the MacDonalds’ houses as guests, before turning on their hosts in the night, butchering twenty-eight on the spot and driving many more out to die of cold upon the hillsides. The infamy of that betrayal has echoed through Scottish song and story ever since.


These are not, however, Scotland’s only, or even closest, parallels to Martin’s Red Wedding. The earliest such is the tale of the Treason of Scone, mentioned in the eleventh century, but with the earliest surviving record coming from Gerald of Wales in the twelfth. This tells how Kenneth MacAlpin, the famed uniter of the Pictish and Dalriadic Scottish kingdoms, murdered his Pictish rivals at a banquet in 843. When the Picts were drunk, the story went, the Scots pulled out bolts which caused their specially designed benches to collapse, and pitch them into a hidden trench lined with blades; survivors were then finished off before they could climb out, leaving nobody but Kenneth to claim the throne.


This story was used to explain the ascendancy of the smaller Dalriadic kingdom over its larger neighbour, and the eventual disappearance of Pictish language and culture. In fact, however, the two kingdoms had been slowly merging for decades; Kenneth himself was more Pictish than Gaelic. He certainly had to be decisive and ruthless to seize power in the vacuum that was left by the death of King Eóganan in 839, but there is no evidence of this massacre, which may in fact be copied from the Welsh legend of the Night of the Long Knives. That story tells how the invading Saxons and Jutes in the fifth century gained advantage over the Britons after a war was waged against them by Vortimer, son of the British King Vortigern. After Vortimer’s death, the Jutish leader Hengest used his friendship with the prince’s pro-Saxon father to arrange a peace talk with British nobles: but the Jutes brought long knives (seaxes) concealed in their boots, and at a prearranged signal slaughtered the Britons, taking Vortigern prisoner. Vortigern here parallels Robb Stark’s uncle Edmure Tully. Each man is married to the daughter of the traitor, and is preserved alive but powerless in his father-in-law’s keeping while the followers of his more dynamic younger relative are slaughtered. (The term “Night of the Long Knives” became a commonplace reference to any sudden and unexpected purge of a political grouping, most famously the mass arrest and extrajudicial murder of the S.A. by Hitler in 1934, and Harold Macmillan’s sacking of a third of the U.K. Cabinet in 1962.)


Our old friend Hector Boece, who would go on to record his own lurid version of the Treason of Scone, probably had that, the Long Knives, and the Black Dinner, as well as rebellions faced by James III in the 1480s, in mind when he wrote in 1527 about the treachery of the legendary King Durstus. Durstus is supposed to have been a King of the ancient Scots, whose tyranny – and his abuse and eventual dismissal of his virtuous wife Agasia – led to a confederation of chiefs declaring war against his pestilential advisers (while carefully maintaining that the King himself was not their enemy). Sooner than fight, he feigned repentance and summoned the leaders of the rebellion to a banquet – where he locked the doors and had them slaughtered, ignoring the pleas of their wives, who tried to offer themselves to the blades in their husbands’ place. Unlike Hengest and Kenneth, however, he did not profit long by this act: for the wives went back to the surviving chiefs and raised a new army, and Durstus was soon defeated and killed.


What all of these stories are missing, however, is a wedding. Vortigern had married Hengest’s daughter Rowena before war broke out, and Durstus took no new wife after divorcing Agasia. But in 1588, a wedding as red as Edmure Tully’s took place at Torloisk House on Mull.


King James VI, attempting to bring order to the Highlands, had recently compelled the MacLeans of Duart and the Clan Iain MacDonalds of Ardnamurchan to end their long feud; and the MacDonald chief, John MacIain, thought to cement the peace by marriage. He had previously been a suitor to Janet Campbell, dowager of Duart and mother to Lachlan Mór MacLean; and he thought this an excellent opportunity to renew his wooing. However, Lachlan Mór held MacIain responsible for the death of his uncle, John Dubh MacLean: and he certainly did not welcome him as a stepfather, royal command or none. His reason for casting blame on MacIain is obscure: Angus MacDonald, Lord of Islay, was the slayer of John Dubh: but the outcome is quite certain. After the couple had been put to bed, just like Edmure Tully and his bride, a drunken MacDonald – according to the MacLean account – taunted the hosts that his lord had only married the older woman for her money; a MacLean retorted that drunkards always spoke the truth, and stabbed the mocker to the heart. This was the signal for a massacre of the MacDonald guests. When Lachlan Mór, who was not in the hall when the killings began, was told what was happening, he shrugged and remarked: “If the fox rushes upon the hounds, he must expect to be worried.” He certainly showed no surprise. MacIain himself was hauled from his bridal bed, and would have been slain at his new stepson’s feet had the lady not gone down on her knees to beg her son for her husband’s life.


Eighteen MacDonalds died at Torloisk: not quite so many as at Glencoe a century later, but in its time this massacre was considered quite as shocking, and for the same reason. Guest-right had been violated; feud and reiving were accepted parts of Highland culture, but murder under trust was entirely different, and considered monstrous. Lachlan Mór, however, was too powerful to punish, especially when his enemy Islay was also guilty of a long list of crimes; and King James, after imprisoning them both for a time, had to be content with imposing heavy fines.


I do not know if George R. R. Martin has ever heard of the Torloisk massacre. Unlike Glencoe, it never got a chapter in Tales of a Grandfather or entered the repertoire of folk singers. But it is one of many dark chapters in Scottish history that seem to echo in his work.

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