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A Journey into Scotland … Part 27

The Massacre at Glencoe

Glencoe will forever be known as the site of one of the most infamous events in British history; the massacre of the MacDonald clan on the 13th of February 1692. It’s an event  that everybody I encounter on my journey seems to have heard about and indeed know about. But, what people know and what actually happened seem to be two very different things.

In the popular version, as told to me on the banks of the River Coe by a fellow cyclist, the MacDonalds were slaughtered in their beds by the Campbells. It was clan rivalry, clan warfare if you like. The MacDonalds were the innocent party and the Campbells were the guilty.


The legend is borne out elsewhere. On the door of a Clachaig Inn remains the sign: “No Hawkers Or Campbells.” The passage of time has made it a gentle joke but it remains unfair to the Campbells and unfair to the facts.


According to Craig Hunter’s excellent documentary on the events, “…this remains one of the most over-simplified and misunderstood events in British history.”

My cycling storyteller spins me a version that has plenty of terrible deeds and is dotted with little bits of documented evidence. He tells me that the Macdonalds who didn’t die in their beds froze to death on the mountainsides. That the Campbells had been ordered to “put all to the sword under seventy.” The last part is true but it wasn’t the Campells who were ordered to do this but a company of soldiers of the British army. Their company leader happened to be a Robert Campbell of Glenlyon. He was the only Campbell there and he was, in the complex defence of those guilty of historic atrocities, carrying out orders. The orders had been sent by Major Robert Duncanson and Lieutenant-colonel James Hamilton. These in turn, were following orders issued by Colonel John Hill. John Hill was acting on direct instructions from the Secretary of State for Scotland John Dalrymple: the creepily titled Master of Stair. Stair was acting under instruction from King William III but had almost certainly exceeded the spirit if not the letter of those instructions. If looking for the real villain of Glencoe then it would be between these two with the weight of academic opinion falling most heavily on Dalrymple.

John Dalrymple

John Dalrymple The Earl of Stair

I’ll try to include all the relevant threads but there are an awful lot. What happened didn’t just happen. The effects of an awful lot of events in British and Scottish history arrived in Glencoe with the redcoats.

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 had seen King James II removed from the throne and sent into exile in the court of Louis XIV of France. He was replaced on the throne by his daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange. James had not been a popular king and history has not been kind to him but he did continue to command loyalty among Catholics and in the more northern parts of the kingdom. Those remaining loyal came to be known as Jacobites and they play an enormous part in the next fifty years of Scottish history.

Scotland and England were still two separate countries, though there were moves towards an act of union. These moves were a causal factor in the massacre. The crown of Scotland had been given to William in 1689 and, aware that most of the chiefs of the Highland clans had pledged loyalty to James, he demanded an oath of allegiance to himself and his wife. There was a strong feeling, not just in England, but in lowland Scotland as well, that the Gaelic speaking Highland clans were little short of thieves and savages and must be brought to heel. Some clans were stronger than others and were too formidable a threat to take on. A rising of all the clans was a possibility that the southern powers wished to avoid. What the powers that be could do with, was an excuse. An excuse to take on a weak and disorganised clan and hit it with such force as to be a lesson to all of the others.

Glencoe 1

They hadn’t particularly picked out the MacDonalds of Glencoe; many further twists were necessary before they became the clan to be hit with shock and awe, but they were partly chosen because they were unlikely to put up any great resistance.

A century or two earlier the MacDonalds had been the most powerful clan in Scotland. They were the Lords of the Isles and ruled over  a huge territory from Antrim in Northern Ireland to Dingwall in the north east of Scotland. Slowly the kings of Scotland, most notably James IV had reduced the power of the clan and rewarded the loyalty of other clans with land seized from the once powerful MacDonalds. From ruling half of Scotland and the Hebrides , the clan was now confined into the eight mile glen beside the banks of the River Coe. There were about a thousand of them.

In July 1691 King William had ordered that all clan leaders must swear an oath of allegiance. They  were given a deadline of January 1st 1692. Failure to sign would result in them facing “the utmost extremity of the law.” To soften the deal they were offered a share in £12,000 if they did sign.*

Some wonder why the clan chiefs didn’t sign straight away. They all signed in the end. The reasons are several. First it was very much a shame and honour society. Prestige could be gained by holding out. Second there was the counter oath organised by John Campbell of Breadalbane which had assured the chiefs that their oath to William would become void if James was able to launch an invasion and land on Scottish soil. Thirdly there was the great likelihood that this invasion would take place. Up until October of that year Louis XIV had ordered his army and navy to prepare to help restore James to the throne of England. Fourthly there was the hesitancy on the part of James to let the clansmen know his thoughts. He eventually advised them to sign William’s oath and this is linked with the fifth cause for delay. Communications between France and Scotland were slow. Even slower once the messengers had been captured by William’s men and made to sign an oath in turn. They didn’t reach Edinburgh until the 21st of December (only 10 days before the deadline) and were further deliberately delayed by the Glengarry clan. By the time word reached Glencoe, Alaistair McIain, the leader of the MacDonalds had only one day to make the four day journey to Inveraray to sign the oath.

William III

William III

At this point a complex tale develops a few extra complications. Knowing that he cannot reach Inveraray, he instead decides to walk to Inverlochy (soon to be re-named Fort William) to state his intentions to sign to Colonel Hill of the English army garrisoned there. Hill accepts his reasons for being late with signing the oath, writes a letter of safe passage and an explanation. **McIain is further delayed on his next march to Inveraray by Campbells who question his right to take a short cut across their land and imprison him for a further day. He reaches Inveraray to sign but the person who must over-see the signing isn’t there. He eventually signs the oath and everything seems well. On returning to Glencoe he receives written assurance that the clan is now under the protection of the Inverlochy garrison.

And that should have been the end of the story.

But it wasn’t.

In Edinburgh, Dalrymple decides that the late signing won’t be permitted and that the oath is struck from the record. McIain is declared a traitor and two companies of soldiers are sent to Glencoe. They arrive at the end of January 1682 with the intention, in the words of Professor Bruce Lenman of St Andrews University, “to make an example of (one of the clans) and to do it properly.” McIain is never made aware that his oath of allegiance hasn’t been accepted.

When the 200 soldiers arrived without warning in the glen, the MacDonalds were worried, but they were told that the soldiers were merely there en route to exact unpaid taxes from the Glengarry Clan, and were only wanting accommodation. This was provided and this is the fact that makes the massacre particularly atrocious in the eyes of many. The soldiers, under Robert Campbell, were well looked after, feasted and feted for an entire fortnight. In Edinburgh, Dalrymple wanted the MacDonalds dealt with and the chain of orders went from him, to Hill, to Duncanson and Hamilton and arrived in the hands of Robert Campbell late on the night of the 12th of February. The orders were brutal.

“You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebels, the MacDonalds of Glencoe and put all to the sword under seventy. You are to have special care that the old fox and his sons do upon no account escape your hands.”

During the night the orders were circulated throughout the glen and at 5 a.m. the slaughter began. This was “slaughter under trust”. Guns and swords were being used against those who had been host to the soldiery. Under Scottish law this was an act of treason against the people. No one ever stood trial for it. There were commission of inquiry but when the king’s involvement became obvious, the inquiries were not made public.

In many ways it was a botched massacre. There were two hundred armed soldiers with a further four hundred in reserve. Of the thousand MacDonalds in Glencoe that night, 38 were killed. A further 40 died escaping the bloodshed. It was supposed to rein in the rebellious Highland clan and to assert authority over that part of the kingdom. Like the Mee Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War, it was a  propaganda disaster. There were numerous causes of Glencoe. Glencoe itself became a major cause of battles and uprisings. All of history is a weave. Scottish history is as  rich and complex as the plaid tartans worn by the clansmen.

Glencoe 2

You feel the history as you ride through the glen. Glencoe is like a trap. Bordered on both sides by towering mountains and with escape at one end bounded by the sea and at the other by English and lowland soldiers, the mystery may be how the numbers of the dead weren’t higher.

The nickname, ‘the weeping glen’ comes from the many streams that make up the River Coe. The truth of what happened here makes it an apt one. The overwhelming beauty of the place only adds to the feeling of tragedy.


*Even this apparently simple fact is complicated. Alaistair McIain, the leader of the MacDonalds was told that any share in this money, that he should receive, would immediately be seized as fines for cattle he had stolen.

** Yes, it is the same Colonel Hill who later counter-signs the orders for the massacre.