Massacre of Glencoe

The Massacre of Glencoe occurred in Glen Coe, Scotland, in the early morning of 13 February 1692, during the era of the "Glorious Revolution" and Jacobitism. The massacre began simultaneously in three settlements along the glen—Invercoe, Inverrigan, and Achacon—although the killing took place all over the glen as fleeing MacDonalds were pursued. Thirty-eight MacDonalds from the Clan MacDonald of Glencoe were killed by the guests who had accepted their hospitality, on the grounds that the MacDonalds had not been prompt in pledging allegiance to the new king, William of Orange. Another forty women and children died of exposure after their homes were burned.


In 1688, William, glad to enlist British help in his wars with France, accepted the invitation to take the throne of the Kingdom of England. The Scottish Parliament was more cautious and invited letters from him and James VII (ousted as James II of England). When the arrogant response from James persuaded the Scots to accept William, John Graham, 1st Viscount of Dundee, led Scottish Highlanders in Jacobite uprisings in an attempt to return the throne to King James. Dundee was killed at the Battle of Killiecrankie, and the rising in Scotland suffered inconclusive defeat at the Battle of Dunkeld. On their way home from this battle, the MacIains of Glencoe, a sept of Clan MacDonald, together with their Glengarry cousins, looted the lands of Robert Campbell of Glenlyon and stole his livestock, increasing his problems with gambling debts and forcing him to take an army commission to provide for his family. In his subsequent appeal for compensation, Campbell clearly believed the Glengarry men to be the more culpable, making no mention of Glencoe.

The Scottish Jacobites were heavily defeated at the Haughs of Cromdale on 1 May 1690, and James was defeated on 1 July 1690 at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland.

On 27 August 1691, William offered all Highland clans a pardon for their part in the Jacobite Uprising, as long as they took an oath of allegiance before 1 January 1692 in front of a magistrate; if they did not sign, they were threatened with reprisals. The Highland chiefs sent word to James, now in exile in France, asking for his permission to take this oath. James dithered over his decision, convinced that he was close to returning to Britain to reclaim his throne. When it became apparent that this was not going to happen before the deadline, James sent orders back to Scotland authorising the chiefs to take the oath. This message reached its recipients in mid-December, only a few weeks before the deadline in difficult winter conditions. A few managed to comply promptly, and some did not comply. Alastair MacIain, 12th Chief of Glencoe, waited until the last day before setting out to take the oath.

On 31 December 1691, he traveled to Fort William and asked Colonel Hill, the governor, to administer the required oath. Colonel Hill, however, demurred on the grounds that he was not authorized to receive the necessary oath. He instructed MacIain to proceed quickly to Inveraray to make his oath before Sir Colin Campbell, sheriff of Argyll. Colonel Hill gave MacIain a letter of protection and a letter to Sir Colin asking that he receive MacIain's oath since MacIain had come to Colonel Hill within the allotted time. Colonel Hill also reassured MacIain that no action would be taken against him without his having the opportunity to make his case before the king or the king's privy council.

It took MacIain three days to reach Inveraray, partly due to winter weather, partly due to his being detained for a day at Balcardine Castle by the 1st company of the Earl of Argyll's Regiment of Foot, at the command of Captain Drummond, ensuring his lateness. On arrival at Inveraray, he was forced to wait for three days for the arrival of Sir Colin who was absent, spending the New Year with his family across Loch Fyne. Upon his return, Sir Colin reluctantly accepted MacIain's oath.

While MacIain was satisfied that he had satisfied the spirit of the required oath, and therefore did not anticipate any action against himself or his people, some elements within the government saw an opportunity to use his failure to fulfill the letter of the requirement (by missing the deadline) to make an example of the MacDonalds and simultaneously eliminate some enemies at one stroke.

The massacre

A plot was set in motion which apparently involved John Dalrymple, Master of Stair and Lord Advocate, Sir Thomas Livingstone, commander of the forces in Scotland, and even King William, who signed and countersigned the orders.

In late January or early February 1692, the first and second companies of the Earl of Argyll's Regiment of Foot, around 120 men, under the command of Captain Robert Campbell were billeted on the MacDonalds in Glencoe, who received them in the hospitable tradition of the Highlands. Most of the regiment was recruited from the Argyll estates, but only a minority actually bore the Campbell name. Others, including many of the officers, came from the Lowlands. Captain Campbell was related by marriage to old MacIain himself and so it was natural that he should be billeted at the Chief's own house. Each morning for about two weeks, Captain Campbell visited the home of Alexander MacDonald, MacIain's youngest son, who was married to Campbell's niece, the sister of Rob Roy MacGregor. At this stage, it is not clear that Campbell knew the nature of their mission - ostensibly the purpose of collecting the Cess tax, instituted by the Scots Parliament in 1690. The planning was meticulous enough that they were able to produce legitimate orders to this effect from the very Colonel Hill who had tried to help MacIain complete his oath in the first place, thus dispelling any suspicion the MacDonalds might have felt, although it was also Colonel Hill who issued the orders to begin the massacre two weeks later.

On 12 February 1692, Captain Drummond arrived. Due to his role in ensuring MacIain was late in giving his oath, Drummond would not have been welcomed. As Drummond was captain of the grenadiers, the 1st company of the regiment, he was the ranking officer, yet did not take command. Drummond was bearing the following instructions for Robert Campbell, from his superior officer, a Major Duncanson.

You are hereby ordered to fall upon the Rebels, the McDonalds of Glenco, and putt all to the sword under seventy. you are to have a special care that the old Fox and his sons doe upon no account escape your hands, you are to secure all the avenues that no man escape. This you are to putt in execution at fyve of the clock precisely; and by that time, or very shortly after it, I'll strive to be att you with a stronger party: if I doe not come to you att fyve, you are not to tarry for me, but to fall on. This is by the Kings speciall command, for the good & safty of the Country, that these miscreants be cutt off root and branch. See that this be putt in execution without feud or favour, else you may expect to be dealt with as one not true to King nor Government, nor a man fitt to carry Commissione in the Kings service. Expecting you will not faill in the fullfilling hereof, as you love your selfe, I subscribe these with my hand  att Balicholis  Feb: 12, 1692

[signed] R. Duncanson

For their Majesties service
To Capt. Robert Campbell of Glenlyon

He spent the evening playing cards with his unsuspecting victims and upon retiring, wished them goodnight and accepted an invitation to dine with MacIain, the chief, the following day.

Alastair MacIain was killed while trying to rise from his bed by Lt Lindsay and Ensign Lundie but his sons escaped as initially did his wife. In all, 38 men were murdered either in their homes or as they tried to flee the glen. Another 40 women and children died of exposure after their homes were burned. Elsewhere, various members of the two companies found ways of warning their hosts. Some took insubordination further – two lieutenants, Lt Francis Farquhar and Lt Gilbert Kennedy broke their swords rather than carry out their orders. They were arrested and imprisoned, but were exonerated, released and later gave evidence for the prosecution against their superior officers.

In addition to the soldiers who were actually in Glencoe that night, two other detachments each of four hundred men were, according to the plan, to have converged on the escape routes. Both were late in taking up their positions. It is possible that the snowstorm made arrival on time quite difficult – especially for those approaching over the Devil's Staircase from Kinlochleven; it is equally possible that they simply did not want to play any part in what they knew to be a heinous crime.


Under Scots law there was a special category of murder known as "murder under trust" which was considered to be even more heinous than ordinary murder. The Glencoe massacre was a clear example of such.

Though the command of superior officers be very absolute, yet no command against the laws of nature is binding; so that a soldier, retaining his commission, ought to refuse to execute any barbarity, as if a soldier should be commanded to shoot a man passing by inoffensively, upon the street, no such command would exempt him from the punishment of murder.

The challenge to the inquiry which had been established was to apportion blame on those responsible for the massacre, and yet the orders which led to the massacre were signed by the King himself, who could not be seen to be responsible.

The scandal was further enhanced when the leading Scottish jurist Sir John Lauder, Lord Fountainhall was, in 1692, offered the post of Lord Advocate but declined it because the condition was attached that he should not prosecute the persons implicated in the Glencoe Massacre. Sir George Mackenzie, who had been Lord Advocate under King Charles II, also refused to concur in this partial application of the penal laws, and his refusal (unlike Fountainhall's) led to his temporary disgrace.

The conclusion of the commission was to exonerate the King and to place the blame for the massacre upon Secretary Dalrymple. The Scottish Parliament, after reviewing the commission report, declared the execution of the MacDonald men to have been murder and delegated the "committee for the security of the kingdom" to prepare an address to the king which included recommendations for the punishment of the perpetrators of the plot and compensation to be paid to the surviving MacDonalds. As far as is known, these recommendations were never acted upon except for the imprisonment of John Campbell Earl of Breadalbane for a few days in Edinburgh castle on a charge of high treason because he had been involved in secret talks with the Jacobite chiefs.


The Glencoe massacre became a propaganda piece for Jacobite sympathies which were to come to a head in the next generation in the Rising of 1745. In the Victorian era interest was revived and the massacre was romanticised in art and literature, such as Sir Walter Scott's "The Highland Widow". More recently Glencoe found mention in David Clement-Davies's "Fire Bringer," in which the region is called the "Valley Of Weeping."

Due to the involvement of Argyll's regiment under Glenlyon's command, the massacre was regarded not as a government action, but as a consequence of the ancient MacDonald - Campbell rivalry. Memory of this massacre has been kept alive by continued ill feeling between MacDonalds and Campbells — since the late 20th century the Clachaig Inn, a hotel and pub in Glencoe popular with climbers, has had a sign on its door saying "No Hawkers or Campbells".

Each year, on the 13th February, the Clan Donald Society of Edinburgh arranges an annual wreath laying ceremony at the memorial to the Massacre of Glencoe. Clansmen from Clan Donald, from across the world, attend the ceremony, along with local people. The memorial is situated in the village of Glencoe, about 200 meters (yards) from where the road through the village crosses the River Coe.

The Scottish Republican Socialist Movement, also run a commemoration on the Sunday closest to the anniversary. This is often attended by members of other groups including Siol nan Gaidheal, na Fir Dileas etc This has been running annually for several decades.

Ultimately, it has to be said that stories of ancient clan rivalries have only obscured the real horror of Glencoe. It was an act of official policy, conceived by a Secretary of State for Scotland, executed by a Scottish commander-in-chief, approved by the King, and carried out by a regiment in the British Army. Indeed, Dalrymple deliberately chose the Argyll Regiment because he knew how their involvement would be perceived. Lowlanders, like Dalrymple, had oft expressed hatred of Highland 'barbarians'. At Glencoe this hatred finally acquired a murderous form.

Two brothers escaped to Ireland and changed their name to McKern or MacKern. Descendants moved to Argentina and Australia when the potato famine struck around 1850. Australian descendants include the late actor Leo McKern .

The T.S. Eliot poem "Rannoch, by Glencoe" references the event, as does the modern ballad with the haunting refrain: "Cruel is the snow that sweeps Glencoe and covers the graves o' Donald...


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