Massacre at Glencoe

Massacre at Glencoe

It is still one of the most shameful moments in Scotland's history - the awful day when Highlander turned on Highlander in a dreadful and unforgivable act of murder and treachery.

Many people still believe that the massacre which took place at Glencoe in 1692 occurred because the Campbells decided to settle old scores by butchering their great rivals the MacDonalds in cold blood.

Yet the truth is that the Campbells - ruthless and bloodthirsty though they undoubtedly were - were only the pawns in a sinister and evil game which was sanctioned by the king himself.

The massacre was meant to be an act of punishment against the lawless MacDonalds for their failure to accept the monarch's authority. But it turned into a bloodthirsty excuse for some of the most powerful people in Scotland to settle old scores against the rebellious Highland clans.

By 1691, William of Orange was firmly on the throne of both Scotland and England, with the last Stewart monarch, James VII and II, driven to exile in France.

However, William still had a problem. The traditionally unruly clans of the Highlands had sworn an oath of allegiance to James, and so could not be trusted. The king decided it was time for a showdown - and he was determined it was one he should win.

He decided to offer an amnesty to the clans who had gone into battle for James, provided they were prepared to swear an oath of allegiance to him before 1 January 1692. if they failed to meet the deadline, they would be liable for execution.

However, William realised that this oath would have no meaning unless James was prepared to release the clans from their fealty to him. So he asked the exiled former king to agree to this.

James finally accepted the offer - but by the time the ambassador got back to Edinburgh with his approval and word went out to the Highland chiefs, it was December 29 - just three days before the deadline.

The MacDonalds were one of the proudest of the Highland clans and had fiercely supported James' Jacobite cause, but their leader Alexander MacDonald, also known as McIain, realised he had no real choice but to take the oath.

Unfortunately, his attempts to do so turned into a comedy of errors. He set off for Fort William to swear his loyalty but when he arrived there just hours before the deadline on December 31, he found that the local governor, Colonel John Hill, wasn't empowered to receive it.

Hill told McIain that only the civil magistrate of the district could take the oath - and he was 74 miles away in Inveraray. McIain set off south immediately though deep snow but, unfortunately, was arrested by a group of Grenadiers on the way and locked up for 24 hours.

By the time he arrived at Inveraray, it was January 2. The sheriff, Sir Colin Campbell, didn't return to work until the 5th and initially refused to accept the oath as the deadline had passed, though he later relented.

McIain felt sure that the problem was over, and that his people were safe. What he didn't know, however, was that his troubles were only just beginning.

The certificate testifying that the MacDonalds had taken the oath was sent to Edinburgh to the Sheriff Clerk, who ironically was also called Colin Campbell. This Campbell, however, disliked both the MacDonalds and any form of irregular practice, and he saw an opportunity to get his own back.

Campbell scrubbed MacDonald's name off the certificate and passed it to the Scottish Secretary, Sir John Dalrymple, the Master of Stair. Dalrymple's hatred of the Highland clans was at least as intense as Campbell's, and he saw a golden opportunity for vengeance in the making.

Dalrymple quickly decided that the MacDonalds were to be made an example of. On January 7 he sent a letter to Sir Thomas Livingston, the Commander in Chief of the King's forces in Scotland, saying that he wanted action and adding darkly: "I hope the soldiers will not trouble the government with prisoners."

The order was passed to King William, who duly signed it. Two companies of Argyle's regiment totalling 120 men were ordered to proceed to Glencoe, where they were to await further orders.

The officer commanding them was another Campbell - Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, an alcoholic who had a particular grudge against the MacDonalds of Glencoe since two years before, they had left a trail of destruction as they passed through his estate on the way back from a battle.

When the troops arrived in the glen, they told the unsuspecting MacDonalds that they were there to collect tax arrears in the area, and they carried false papers to justify their cover story.

The clan reacted in true Highland tradition. Its members offered their hospitality, giving the troops free board and lodging in the villages scattered along the glen.

For 12 days, the troops stayed with the clan, enjoying their company. Glenlyon's own niece was married to one of the clan members, and he regularly visited the pair for a drink and a chat.

The order to attack, which came directly from Dalrymple through Livingston, was passed through to the regiment. Glenlyon's orders were both brutal and clear. They said: "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."

Glenlyon's deceit and treachery held to the last. The evening before the attack, he played cards with the sons of the chief, Alexander and John MacDonald, and accepted an invitation from McIain himself to dine with him the following day.

The assault took place as the orders stipulated at 5am on the morning of Saturday February 13th. Men, women and children were slaughtered as they lay in their beds.

The attack took almost all of the clan by surprise. McIain himself was shot twice as he clambered from his bed. He fell dead in front of his wife, who was stripped naked and thrown out of the house into a piercing snowstorm. She died of exposure the following day.

The solders were not content simply to kill as many of the MacDonalds as they could. They then set light to the houses, forcing those who had not been murdered to flee into the hills.

Their plan was simple, and it worked. In the bitter weather, those who escaped from the bullet and the sword could not survive in the outdoors for long. One by one, they died of tiredness and exposure in the mountains before they could reach the safety of shelter.

In total, 38 people were murdered in their homes, with an unknown additional number dying in the snow. Some 1500 cows and 500 horses are also thought to have perished.

As far as Dalrymple was concerned, the massacre was a job well done. Three weeks later, he described the slaughter as a "great work of charity" and said that his only regret was that any of the MacDonalds had got away.

However, it soon became clear that the Scottish Secretary's view was very much a minority one. All over the country, people reacted to news of the attack with horror and anger.

As fury mounted, the king realised a major blunder had been made. William tried to extricate himself from the mess by claiming that he had only signed the order because it was buried in a mass of other state papers and he hadn't read it.

Dalrymple couldn't get off the hook so easily. He was sacked from his post and a commission of enquiry was established to investigate the whole affair. He took the brunt of the blame for the affair, though he was never tried because his accusers knew he would cite the king's complicity in his defence.

Those who were involved in the whole shameful business tried to deflect public opinion by claiming that the attack was a straightforward clan feud between the Campbells and the MacDonalds.

To an extent, they were successful. To this day, many Scots believe it was simply a battle between two rival groups which got out of hand. Yet the real story of what happened in the wilds of Glencoe that dreadful February morning is much more sinister.

From then on, the MacDonalds and other clans harboured a grudge towards the king and those who carried out actions in his name. Their resentment would simmer until the Jacobite risings of the 18th century caused it to boil over in full-scale rebellion against the Crown.


Meanwhile...

  • 1691

The first directory of addresses is published in France

 Print  Email

SEARCH 30 WEBSITES FOR THE BEST PRICE FOR YOUR STAY
SEARCH 30 WEBSITES FOR THE BEST PRICE FOR YOUR STAY