The Massacre of Glencoe, or Murt Ghlinne Comhann (the Murder of Glencoe), was one of the most brutal events in Scottish history. In the early hours of the morning on 13th February 1692, soldiers who had - for almost a fortnight - shared the MacDonald's homes, tables and company, turned on their hosts in an unprecedented act of treachery. The massacre is often depicted as a simple case of clan rivalry between the MacDonalds and the neighbouring Campbells, but the truth is a bit more complicated than that…
When telling the story of the Massacre of Glencoe of 1692, it is necessary to begin a few years earlier in order to understand the political, cultural and religious environment that led to such a tragic event.
After his succession to the throne in 1685, King James VII of Scotland/II of England quickly made himself unpopular with the Protestant majority by attempting to re-establish Catholicism as the official faith of the British Isles. When he produced a Catholic heir in 1688, several high-ranking members of Parliament invited the King’s oldest daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange to claim the throne. The Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689 followed; James fled to France, and William and Mary were proclaimed joint sovereigns.
However, James and his Stuart heirs still had supporters, particularly in the Highlands of Scotland, where there remained significant Catholic and Episcopalian strongholds. His supporters were known as Jacobites after the Latin for James: Jacobus. They rebelled against the new sovereigns and struck a resounding blow against Government troops at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689, but lack of supplies and the death of their leader Viscount Dundee meant that the movement was fairly limited.
What this rebellion demonstrated, though, was growing unrest over the changes that had been occurring in Scotland – and particularly in the Highlands – over the last hundred years. There had always been clan feuds over land, cattle, religion etc, but the divisions now ran deeper. Simplistically, this came down to Protestant vs Catholic; the new monarchy vs the Stuart dynasty; an Anglo-Scottish Union vs Scottish Independence; English law vs the old clan systems…the deposition of King James VII and the changes this meant for the country brought a lot of this to a head.
In August 1691, King William III offered a pardon to Jacobites who had taken part in the uprising provided their clans swear an oath of allegiance to the new monarchy before the 1st January 1692. This offer originally came with the promise of money but was ultimately a threat: pledge your allegiance or be punished by “the utmost extremity of the law”. With government soldiers now strategically positioned in a new fortress at Inverlochy (Fort William) and continuing to attack Jacobite strongholds, the clans needed the protection that the King’s amnesty offered - despite their continued loyalty to the Stuarts. King James agreed, and sent word from France that the clans were released from their pledge to him.
This news reached the MacDonalds of Glencoe on 29th December 1691, and their Chief MacIain immediately set off for Fort William to deliver his oath. On arrival, he was told that nobody there could legally accept his oath, and he was redirected to Inveraray – around 70 miles south through mountains and blizzards to the heart of Campbell land (Clan Donald's historic rivals). MacIain finally arrived in Inveraray on the 2nd January, only to find that Sir Colin Campbell, the Sheriff of Argyllshire, had not yet returned from his Hogmanay celebrations. 3 days later, Campbell returned and was initially reluctant to receive MacIain’s oath as the deadline had passed. However, he finally relented and the clan chief returned home, confident that he and his clan now had the protection of King William III.
However, many of those in power in the Scottish Government were deeply suspicious of the Highland Clans, seeing them as lawless savages who needed to be brought under the control of English law. In Edinburgh, Sir John Dalrymple, Secretary of State for Scotland, was thrilled that MacIain had missed the deadline, and declined the late-delivered oath:
“Only just now, my Lord Argyle tells me that MacDonald of Glencoe has not taken the oath, at which I rejoice. It is a great work of charity to be exact in rooting out that damnable sept, the worst of the Highlands."
Plans to crush the clan system and bring the Highlands to heel had been brewing for a while, but Dalrymple now had his excuse to act. He devised a plan to wipe out the MacDonalds of Glencoe as a warning to other clans that dissent would not be tolerated, and also as a way of striking a direct blow against Clan Donald.
Why target the MacDonalds particularly? Clan Donald was a huge force within the Highland Clan system and still held influence over other clans despite their forfeiture of the Lordship of the Isles 200 years before. They were Catholic, there were many Jacobites among their number, and they adhered strongly to the old clan systems. A victory against the MacDonalds was a victory over everything Dalrymple hated about the Highlands. The MacDonalds of Glencoe were only a small part of Clan Donald, and were not particularly well liked by neighbouring clans due to their tendencies towards raiding and cattle rustling. Their isolated location also made them vulnerable to attack, and the nature of the Glen meant that there were few escape routes.
On the 1st February 1692, 120 government soldiers of Argyll's Regiment of Foot under the command of Robert Campbell of Glenlyon arrived in Glencoe with papers stating they were collecting arrears of tax from the local area and were to be billeted in the homes of the MacDonalds. Incidentally, Glenlyon had been a victim of one of the MacDonalds’ raids just a few years previously. The fact that the regiment chosen to carry out the attack was led by a Campbell was unlikely to have been a coincidence. As previously mentioned, there was already a traditional rivalry between the two clans: the Campbells had always aligned themselves with the crown, which put them in the position of enforcing and upholding royal law, often putting them at odds with other clans. In addition, the Campbells adopted a strong Protestant identity during the reformation of the 1500s, which again brought them into conflict with the staunchly Catholic MacDonalds. Because of Glenlyon's involvement, the Massacre is often wrongly remembered as another instance of clan-on-clan, "tit-for-tat" violence as part of this ongoing feud; it should be noted, however, that there were only around 13 Campbells in the regiment.
Once there, the soldiers were told to await further orders. The MacDonalds – seeing this as a further test of their loyalty to the crown - welcomed the soldiers into their homes, giving them lodgings throughout the glen for nearly 2 weeks, feeding them from their own scant winter supplies and sharing drinks with them. There are even stories of ceilidhs, shinty games and romances.
Then, on the evening on the 12th February, Glenlyon received his true orders, to be carried out in the early hours of the following morning:
"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 a special care that the old fox and his sons do upon no account escape your hands. You are to secure all the avenues that no man escape"
This order came signed by the King, and assured Campbell that he could "expect to be dealt with as one not true to King nor government" if he didn't obey. Another two regiments were positioned nearby in Ballachulish and Kinlochleven to cut off possible escape routes out of the Glen.
The Massacre began simultaneously in three settlements - Invercoe, Inverigan and Achnacon - though the killing took place all over the glen as fleeing MacDonalds were pursued. Men were dragged from their beds and murdered, houses were torched, and women, children and the very elderly were cast out into the snow, where many died from exposure. 38 MacDonalds were murdered outright – including MacIain, shot in the back as he rose from his bed - and countless more perished in the mountains.
MacIain’s two sons – John and Alexander – managed to lead a group of survivors across the slopes of Meall Mor and out to Appin where they were given shelter by the Stewarts. Others were able to conceal themselves in Coire Gabhail (the 'corrie of capture', also known as the Hidden or Lost Valley) and some escaped down Glen Etive.
How did so many MacDonalds escape? It is likely that the soldiers, after befriending their hosts and sharing their homes, were unable to carry out their orders. There are many stories passed down of whispered warnings in the night, of soldiers deliberately allowing the villagers to escape or firing over the heads of men they'd been ordered to hunt down. Two men in the detachment at Kinlochleven broke their swords rather than march on Glencoe, and Robert Campbell himself is said to have assisted in the escape of two young men.
Massacre Diorama in the Museum
As news of the Massacre began to spread, so too did public outcry. In the immediate aftermath, the Jacobites produced pamphlets and used them to raise awareness as far away as London. Survivors and soldiers began to tell their stories, and it is claimed that Glenlyon leaked the letter he received ordering the attack. All of this eventually secured an inquiry into the Massacre in 1695.
The commission found the Massacre to be murder. It is unclear whether or not King William III knew the true extent of the orders that he put his name to, but either way he was able to escape blame, claiming that the “repercussions” he ordered were interpreted over-zealously. John Dalrymple – the real mastermind behind the Massacre – was forced to resign, but was later reinstated at a higher post and played a significant role in negotiating the Acts of Union in 1707 (though he died before this came to fruition). Robert Campbell remained in the Army and was sent overseas to fight in Flanders as part of the Nine Years War. He died in poverty in Bruges in 1696 – some say of shame. You can read more about him in our previous post, here.
The massacre was intended to break the clans and act as an example to anyone who dared stand against the new king and government but it actually had the opposite effect, strengthening Highland conviction that Scotland was not equal to England under the new monarchy, uniting the Jacobite clans against the government, and making further uprisings inevitable.