Arts

Curse of Glencoe tempts William Dalrymple

Travel writer is turning his attention to the family legacy

John Hamilton's dramatic 19th century painting The Massacre of Glencoe
from the Times Dec 24

 

There is an old Scots saying that goes: “There never was any trouble in Scotland, but that a Campbell or a Dalrymple was at the bottom of”. For the Dalrymple family, the “trouble” goes back to the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692, carried out on the orders of Sir John Dalrymple, the Master of Stair, and Secretary of State for Scotland. Ever since, it is said, a curse has hung over the family.

 

Now a literary descendant, William Dalrymple, the travel writer celebrated for his books on India, has decided to turn his attention to the family legacy — perhaps to nail the curse.

He is understandably hesitant about the project: “This is a longdistance plan, not anything settled but something in reserve if ever we move back to Scotland: the papers are all in Register House in Edinburgh and it would be lovely to spend a couple of years going through them. They are great, great stories — Glencoe, Bride of Lammermuir and so on. A younger Stair shot an older one, all apparently part of the curse of Glencoe.

“I am just reading a book on the Black Hole of Calcutta, where another of my Dalrymple forbears, Stair Dalrymple, met his end: it wasn’t just Scotland where Dalrymples were to be found at the bottom of trouble.”

It was in Scotland, however, that the dark tradition of the family was established. In the 17th century Sir James Dalrymple, raised to the peerage as Viscount Stair, became a celebrated writer on Scots law. He is still regarded as one of Scotland’s greatest lawyers.

But his political manoeuvrings made him many enemies. “The slippery Stair goes unstraight . . .” was among lampoons that circulated at the time. His wife Margaret was widely suspected of being a witch. Her daughter Janet, who may have been an epileptic, was the inspiration for Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor, and is said to have met a grisly end on her wedding night.

Then one of Sir James’s grandsons accidentally shot his brother with a pistol. Locals said that the Devil hung around the family. But it was Sir James’s son, John, who gave the name of Dalrymple its special notoriety when, in early 1692, he persuaded William III to authorise the massacre of an entire clan of MacDonalds in Glencoe. His letters, ordering the “mauling” of the clan, which he described as “a great work of charity”, have gone down in Scottish history as works of peculiar infamy.

For William Dalrymple the “Curse of Glencoe”, to which the family attributes many of the tragedies that have befallen it, is fascinating material. Taking it on would involve a break from India, where he has lived for more than 25 years. Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, his most recent book, was published last year.

“It is a strange time,” he said. “I like finishing a book but then it can be quite a difficult time working out what I am going to do next. Each book takes three to four years, it is the same length of time as doing a university degree. I do a lot of reading before selecting a subject. I like to have a project.”

Dalrymple lives in a wealthy suburb of Delhi with his wife Olivia Fraser, whose line drawings illustrate many of his works. His house, a mansion in British terms, set amid green lawns, is lined with familiar flowers such as chrysanthemums and marigolds, tended by gardeners.

“I would be sorry to leave all this but it may happen,” he said. “Up to now we have spent the school year in Delhi because our kids have been at school here. Now we have one child at boarding school in the UK. When we have two there the balance may start to shift. But we will see what happens.”

For 300 years the Dalrymples occupied Newhailes House near Edinburgh, now a National Trust for Scotland property, where visitors are regaled with many stories of the family’s extraordinary past.

Dalrymple is currently masterminding the fifth of the literary festivals he organises in Jaipur, the “red city”, which features along with Indian and American writers and Scots Alexander McCall Smith and Andrew O’Hagan.

Then at the end of January he is taking some of the characters inNine Lives on a tour of Pakistan to promote the book.

It seems that even this brings with it a whiff of Dalrymple trouble. Although most of the book avoids editorialising and allows the participants to tell their own stories, one section, The Red Fairy, appears critical of the Wahabbi strain of Islam, which he compares to the puritans of the Reformation.

Dalrymple admits that as a British author taking a bunch of Hindu dancers to Lahore, he does have some concerns over security. But then, as a Dalrymple, dealing with security worries goes with the name.