The bloody Scottish history that inspired Game of Thrones' Red Wedding

Despite being an epic TV show featuring dragons, ice zombies and blood magic, and based on a series of fantasy novels, much of Game of Thrones' compelling fiction has its roots in actual history.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 31st May 2018, 4:31 pm
Updated Thursday, 31st May 2018, 4:36 pm
Much of Game of Thrones is based on actual history (Photo: HBO)
Much of Game of Thrones is based on actual history (Photo: HBO)

Book author George RR Martin is a keen student of the British Isles' bloody past, with everything from The Wars Of The Roses to Hadrian's Wall leaving their mark on the world of Westeros.

But one incident in particular owes a very clear debt to notorious historical events in Scotland.

The Red Wedding may have shocked you when it aired on TV five years ago. But it may shock you even further to learn it happened in real-life. Twice.

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The Black Dinner

In Game Of Thrones, as well as its source novels, young hero Robb Stark meets a violent, harrowing end when he, his mother and the majority of their supporters are massacred at a feast in 'honour' of a marriage to House Frey.

It's a tragic downfall for The Young Wolf. But a similar fate befell a real-life Scottish nobleman.

In 1440, the powerful Douglas clan were seen as a threat to stability by their rivals, and some of those close to the boy-king James II.

It is said that the teenage Earl, William Douglas, was invited to a dinner with King James, organised by Sir William Crichton and Alexander Livingston. At some point during the feast, a black bull's head - a symbol of death - was presented to William, and he and his brother were subsequently seized, taken from the hall and murdered.

Some historians dispute whether this actually happened as told, and suggest the details of the 'Black Dinner' are mere legend. But regardless, the Douglases were certainly arrested and executed in murky circumstances - resulting in their army besieging Edinburgh soon after.

There are some obvious similarities between this incident and that of The Red Wedding.

• William Douglas was just 16 - the same age as Robb Stark in the books.

• Both massacres were preceded by an omen: a bull or boar's head at the Black Dinner: the Lannister doom song Rains Of Castamere playing at The Red Wedding.

• Robb Stark's head was cut off and replaced with that of his wolf. The Douglases were beheaded, and the bull's head was supposedly presented beforehand.

James II was no Joffrey though - supposedly pleading for the Douglases' lives.

It is also worth noting that George RR Martin has always seen parallels between the North as a kingdom in his saga, and Scotland as a kingdom historically. This explains why a second historical parallel to The Red Wedding exists.

The Glencoe Massacre

In early 1692, allies of the newly installed King William III of England (and II of Scotland) were concerned that some of the more restless clans of Scotland were too slow to swear their fealty for the new monarch. And they feared rebellion could be on the cards.

In an act of calculating ruthlessness, William's supporter Captain Robert Campbell travelled to Glencoe with 120 soldiers, seeking hospitality from the MacDonald clan - believed to be one of the foremost among potential enemies to the crown.

Around 12 days into their stay, Campbell and his men attacked their unsuspecting hosts. Some of the MacDonalds were shot or stabbed to death outright. Dozens more reportedly escaped into the wilderness - only to die of exposure in the cold Winter wilderness.

The fact that the guests killed their hosts rather than the other way around is an obvious reversal of The Red Wedding. But in both cases, the sacred rules of hospitality were violated.

There are anecdotes that some of the soldiers tried to warn the MacDonalds. In the books, several Freys are sent away as they are considered too sympathetic to the Starks.

Campbell's orders were to slaughter the MacDonalds "root and branch". In Game of Thrones, the slaughter of the Starks is intended to be a similarly permanent solution to resistance to the crown.

To this day in Glencoe, signs and plaques semi-jokingly voice contempt for Campbells. A similar shady reputation now precedes the Freys in the Game of Thrones saga.

Worse than fiction

In a 2013 interview, George RR Martin explained how he drew inspiration from these cases for the raw violence and shock-value of The Red Wedding.

He suggested that it is the violation of hospitality in particular that makes them stick in the mind.

"No matter how much I make up," he said, "there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse."

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This article originally appeared on our sister site, iNews.