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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: What Glencoe can teach us about national memory

The mythology of the Glencoe massacre endures to this day. It would take historians and spin doctors far greater than I to erase this

Image: Getty/The New European

I’m never quite sure if it is the geography or the history that so stirs the blood as we arrive in Glencoe. The landscape is among the most beautiful anywhere on the planet… vast foreboding mountain ranges, incredible colours, tinkling waterfalls, crystal clear lochs… You can see I would never make it as a travel writer, as these words don’t even begin to capture the awe that Glencoe inspires, but I hope you get the picture, and if you don’t, there are plenty of real pictures easily found online.

As for history, the massacre of the MacDonalds in 1692 by forces loyal to the government of King William is in large part what gave rise to the enduring reputation of the Campbells as somewhat brutal and duplicitous in the execution of our duties. There is a Glencoe pub, the Clachaig Inn, which has a sign outside that reads “No Campbells or hawkers”, which on a previous visit I took to be a joke, until the barman recognised me and said: “Can you not read?” He served us, but fair to say the hospitality meter was not at its usual high Scottish level.

It would take historians, and indeed spin doctors, far greater than I to seek to erase from the national memory the basic story of the Campbells betraying the MacDonalds and slaughtering them in their beds. Yet on Wikipedia – where historians and spin doctors often gather – you need to get through several sections of a long entry on the massacre before the name Campbell even appears. Dig deeper, and you’re into the mid-1800s, 150 years after the event, before the Campbell-MacDonald mythology is putting down firm roots, in part to absolve the former King William of blame. Far easier to say there was a feud between two rowdy clans than that the monarch and his minions may have been up to no good.

So monarchical spin doctors and post-truthery are not exactly new, while myth has long and often been more appealing than fact. Fans of the TV series Mad Men may recall that Pete Campbell’s daughter’s application to a top New York nursery school was rejected by a MacDonald who ran the place. The myth endures.

What, I know you’re wondering, has this got to do with Brexit? Surely I am not going to get through the first column of a new year without breaking the Brexomertà of the two main parties? Well no, I most certainly am not.

Once we were through Glencoe, it was a short drive to the Corran Ferry for the hop over to the Ardnamurchan peninsula, where we have spent a fair few New Year’s Eves, including this one.

Driving on to the ferry is the moment when we finally feel we can properly breathe the fresh air and tell ourselves that we are away. However, there was something of a delay getting on. A queue of cars – rare outside the height of the summer season – was waiting. We saw the ferry hove into view, a similar shape to the one we are used to, but smaller. Hence the queues. The ferry was shuttling back and forth, packing in as many cars as it could. But whereas the usual limit was 30 or so vehicles, this one was struggling to get on more than a dozen at a time.

Over the years I’ve got to know some of the people who work on the ferry, one of whom was able to explain the downsizing very simply. “Brexit.”

The regular service of the bigger ferry had shown up the need for a few new parts, and post-Brexit trading arrangements have complicated their purchase and delivery. A propellor part needed from Germany, which pre-Brexit would have arrived in no time, took nine months to arrive amid all the red tape. And so, for the time being, small ferry it is.

It is still worth the hassle, and the occasional wait as the ferry shuttles. But it is one more buggeration to add to the long list of Brexit buggerations flowing directly from the act of self-harm we inflicted on ourselves, with the help of crooks and charlatans, on June 23, 2016.

Every time we are up, we make a visit to Charles Kennedy’s grave, and I take my bagpipes to play the lament that was played at his funeral. It is one of the most beautiful burial grounds you will ever see, high on a hill near Clunes, looking down on Loch Lochy.

Charles died in 2015, pre-Brexit, not long after losing in an election in which both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer were elected as MPs for the first time. Heaven knows what he would make of all that has happened since his death, but politics is poorer without him.

You might imagine the Scottish Highlands would be full of pipers, and for sure you will find more there per head of population than in my usual stamping grounds of Hampstead and Highgate. However, as we saw in the new year at a small brewery, it turned out I was the only piper present. So Fergus from Ardgour Ales asked me to give a blast once Auld Lang Syne had been sung at midnight.

The event was outside, it was freezing unless you were right next to the fire pit and if there is one thing I know about my bagpipes, it is that they don’t much like the cold. Or, more accurately, they react temperamentally to temperature changes and you need a good 15 minutes tuning them up in the new circumstances to get them to behave. I didn’t have 15 minutes. First, because it was ten to midnight; and second, because an accordionist and a guitarist were already playing and me tuning up might drown them out.

So I walked a few minutes away where I wouldn’t be heard, tuned the pipes for a couple of minutes and headed back knowing this was not going to be the best performance of my life.

The pipes behaved well for the first tune, a speedy affair that had people clapping along, and even better for the second, one familiar to listeners of the New European podcast, namely Ode to Joy. I decided to quit while I was ahead and end it at that.

The trouble was, they wanted more, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Within minutes, the top notes of the jig Paddy’s Leather Breeches were squealing like piglets trapped on an electric fence and as I ended before the final tune was done, I tried to explain how the weather, not my playing, was to blame.

“You’d really think that Scotland’s national instrument would know how to deal with bad weather,” commented a woman who had been jigging away merrily even mid-piglet squeal. A fair point. However, I was able to tell her that the first historical sightings of what evolved into the Great Highland Bagpipe were in places that range variously from Turkey to Egypt. Perhaps it should be known as a warm-weather instrument.

So another glut of official government papers from the early Tony Blair years was released, among them a note on what I freely admit was possibly the worst idea I ever had – that Celtic should play Rangers in Belfast during the campaign to win support for the Good Friday Agreement, with Celtic wearing Rangers’ shirts, and vice versa.

Brainstorms are all well and good from time to time, but Glasgow’s great footballing rivals being thrown into that particular mix was a storm too far, which happily blew out almost instantly!

“Everyone is entitled to a bad day at the office now and then,” I told the amused/shocked journalists who called to ask me “Did you really…?”

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