25 May 2012

Massacres: Glencoe 1692

In 1688, King James' II nephew and son-in-law, the Calvinist William of Orange took the throne, forcing Catholic James to flee to France. Many Highland clans openly swore their allegiance to their deposed ‘King Across the water’ and John Graham of Claverhouse, ‘Bonnie Dundee’ led an uprising in 1689 mainly drawn from the Highland clans. This failed, leaving Dundee dead and many Highlanders dispossessed and impoverished.

In August, 1691, King William III offered a pardon to the Highland clans if they took an oath of allegiance, after which all the chiefs would be restored to their estates. This agreement involved promises of money and land for the clans, but by the end of 1691, the terms had become threatening - the clans would sign the agreement by 1st January 1692, or be punished with the "utmost extremity of the law".

The MacDonalds of Glen Coe

From Loch Leven at its northern end to Rannoch Moor in the south, the Glencoe pass is flanked by rugged mountain scenery that suffers frequent arctic winters. The McDonalds had lived there since the early 14th Century when they supported King Robert the Bruce.

Alastair MacDonald, 12th Chief of Glencoe, known as MacIain, had joined Claverhouse in 1689. A huge man with flowing white hair, beard and moustache, he was well respected by his own clan, and feared by others. The MacIains were Reivers, famous for their raiding, pillaging and cattle rustling, and their main enemy was the neighbouring Campbell clan. After two successive Earls of Argyll had been executed and the Campbells weakened, the Glencoe MacDonalds took advantage and pillaged huge tracts of Campbell territory in the Atholl Raid of 1685.

Before they could take the oath of allegiance to King William, the Highland clans sent Ambassadors to France to obtain a release from their oath to King James.. This release was granted on December 12th 1691, though the messenger bringing it didn’t arrive in the Highlands until December 28th - leaving only three days until the deadline.

During the worst of a Highland winter, MacIain left for the newly-built Fort William and presented himself to Colonel John Hill, the Governor of Fort William, an experienced English officer who had fought with Cromwell. Hill told MacIain that only the civil magistrate of the district could administer the oath. Armed with a letter for Sir Colin Campbell, the sheriff of Argyllshire, MacIain, a man of sixty-one, had to walk the 74 mile journey in deep snow to Inverary, the stronghold of the Campbell clan.

Eager to get the task done, MacIain didn’t even stop to tell his family what was happening, though he passed within half a mile of his own house. He negotiated the Barcaldine Estate, where he was captured by Grenadiers under the command of Captain Thomas Drummond of the Earl of Argyll's regiment. Although only detained for a day, when he reached Inverary on 2nd January, he discovered that Sheriff, Sir Colin Campbell, had not yet returned from the New Year festivities, so MacIain had to cool his heels for another three days.


At first, Sir Colin declined at first to swear Glencoe, alleging that it would be of no use to take the oaths late. Glencoe importuned him with tears and then threatened to protest against the sheriff should he refuse to act, Sir Colin yielded, and on the 6th of January 1692, he administered the oath of allegiance to Alexander MacIain, Clan Chief, of the MacDonalds of Glencoe.

Sir Colin Campbell appears to have gone to some trouble to give assurances that MacIain's allegiance would be accepted and wrote to Colonel Hill at Fort William:

"I endeavoured to receive the great lost sheep, Glencoe, and he has undertaken to bring in all his friends and followers as the Privy Council shall order.  I am sending to Edinburgh that Glencoe, though he was mistaken in coming to you to take the oath of allegiance, might yet be welcome.  Take care that he and his followers do not suffer till the King and Council's pleasure be known."

Campbell sent to his sheriff-clerk in Edinburgh, another Colin Campbell, a certificate testifying that MacIain, amongst others, had taken the oath and asked the Privy Council to decide on whether they would accept the late signing.

In Edinburgh, Sheriff-Clerk Campbell, Secretary of State for Scotland, John Dalrymple, Master of Stair, and several Privy Councillors, were shown the certificate with MacIain’s signature and Hill’s letter. They were of the opinion the late signing could not be accepted without a warrant from the King, but instead of presenting the matter to the Privy Council, the Sherriff-Clerk Campbell scored MacIain’s name off the certificate.

On 11th of January, Dalrymple, a Lowlander and a Protestant who disliked Highlanders and especially the MacIain, saw this late swearing as his opportunity to destroy the MacDonalds.

He despatched instructions to Sir Thomas Livingston, the Commander-in-Chief of the King's forces in Scotland, to enforce the penalties upon all the rebel clans, the document signed at the beginning and the end by King William.

"You are hereby ordered and authorised to march our troops which are now posted at Inverlochy and Inverness and to act against these Highland rebels who have not taken the benefit of our indemnity, by fire and sword and all manner of hostility; to burn their houses, seize or destroy their goods or cattle, plenishings or clothes, and to cut off the men."

The King's orders allowed Livingston to show mercy and to take the chieftains as prisoners of war, provided they then take the oath but, as before, these orders were accompanied by Dalrymple's letter which reads,

"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."

On 16th January, further orders, again signed and countersigned by the King, were despatched by Dalrymple that included this clause:

"If MacIain of Glencoe, and that tribe, can be well separated from the rest, it will be a proper vindication of the public justice to extirpate that set of thieves."

Livingston then wrote to his deputy, Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton, instructing him to begin with MacIain of Glencoe, "spare nothing of what belongs to him..."  and then the chilling phrase, "not to trouble the Government with prisoners." 
Glencoe Pass
 Three commanders - two from the Campbell-dominated Argyll regiment and one from Fort William were ordered to proceed to Glen Coe by the beginning of February, with orders to remain and await further orders.

On approaching the Glen, they were met by John Macdonald, the elder son of the chief, at the head of about 20 men, who demanded Campbell’s reason for coming into a peaceful country with a military force; Glenlyon and two subalterns declared they came as friends, their sole object being to collect the arrears of cess and hearth-money, - a new tax laid on by the Scottish parliament in 1690. Lieutenant Lindsay produced the instructions signed by a now deeply troubled Colonel Hill, the Governor of Fort William.

Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, who was possibly chosen because his niece, Sarah, was married to MacIain’s younger son, Alexander, [Sandy], was put in charge of not only of his own company of infantrymen but the grenadiers, whose commander was Captain Thomas Drummond, the same man whom MacIain had encountered on his way to take the oath of allegiance, a man who would be absent until the eve of the attack.

Using the excuse the fort was full, Glenlyon arrived at Glencoe on 1 February 1692 and claimed hospitality from the MacDonalds. His men were quartered in the clan’s own houses, where they stayed for the next twelve days with Glenlyon making regular visits to Sarah, the sister of Rob Roy MacGregor, and young Sandy MacDonald for the traditional, ‘morning drink’.
Robert Campbell Glenlyon

On the 30th of January, in a letter to Sir Thomas Livingston, John Dalrymple wrote:

"I am glad Glencoe did not come within the time prescribed.  I hope what's done there may be done in earnest, since the rest of them are in no condition to draw together to help.  I think to plunder their cattle and burn their houses would only make them desperate men, who would live outside the law and rob their neighbours but I know you will agree that it will be a great advantage to the nation, when that thieving tribe is rooted out and cut off."

On Friday evening, 12th February, Glenlyon played cards with Sandy and his brother John MacDonald, having also accepted an invitation from MacIain to dine with him the following day.

At Dalrymple's insistence, Colonel Hill ordered Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton to execute the simultaneous assault on three villages at once, determined for 7 a.m. the following morning.  Hamilton was to take a party of Hill's regiment, and Major Robert Duncanson, now encamped a few miles away on the other side of Loch Leven, gave Glenlyon his orders.

"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 you are to put in execution at five of the clock precisely; and by that time, or very shortly after it, I'll strive to be at you with a stronger party.  If I do not come to you at five, you are not to tarry for me but to fall on.

Thus bringing the time of the assault to 5.00 and not 7.00, which put the half a mile of Loch Leven water between himself and the massacre.  He goes on to say,

"This is by the King's special command, for the good and safety of the country that these miscreants be cut off root and branch.  See that this be put 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 fit to carry Commission in the King's service. Expecting you will not fail in the fulfilling hereof, as you love yourself. I subscribe these with my hand at Ballachulish, February 12th, 1692.  - Robert Duncanson."

'Mort Ghlinne Comhann' [Murder of Glen Coe]

Massacre of Glencoe by James Hamilton
That night, a blizzard howled through Glen Coe, giving whiteout conditions and just before dawn, John MacDonald, the chief’s eldest son, was woken by voices outside his house. He dressed and went to Glenlyon's quarters at Inveriggan, where the whole detachment was preparing for action. John demanded an explanation, and was told by Glenlyon that the troops had orders to march against some of Glengarry's men and assured him they had no hostile intent toward the MacDonalds.  John accepted this reasoning, after all, hadn’t they all played cards together the night before, and wouldn’t Glenlyon have warned his niece and Sandy MacDonald?

Reassured, John returned home, but couldn't settle, and when an equally anxious servant told him that twenty troops approached the house with fixed bayonets on their muskets, John knew action was called for.

Giving instructions to waken his brother, Sandy, John fled to the hills and when the soldiers burst through the door moments later, the house was empty – Sandy and his family had also escaped, their tracks covered by the blizzard, pursuit would be futile. High in the hill above the village of Auchnaion, shots were heard by John, Sandy MacDonald, and their families.

At Inveriggan, Glenlyon had ordered that nine men who had been bound and gagged for the past few hours be taken outside and shot. MacDonald of Inveriggan, Glenlyon's host for the past fortnight, and a man with a letter of protection signed by Colonel Hill was one of these.

At MacIain’s house in Carnoch, Glenlyon's junior officer, Lieutenant Lindsay, arrived with a party of soldiers and apologised to a servant for calling so early; thus MacIain's murderers were invited into the house. Glencoe was shot twice as he was getting out of bed and fell lifeless in front of his wife, who was stripped naked and thrown out of the house.  One of the soldiers is said to have pulled the rings from her fingers with his teeth and then she was left in the snow and died the following day.
John Dalrymple, Master of Stair

At the laird's house in Auchnaion, Sergeant Barber, who had been quartered in the house, ordered a detail to attack. Five men were killed instantly and another three wounded.  Amongst those injured was MacDonald of Auchintriaten, who also had a letter of protection signed by Colonel Hill. As he was about to be finished off by Barber, he asked if he was to be murdered beneath the roof that they had shared for the past fortnight.  Barber agreed to kill him outside and ordered two soldiers to escort him. Once through the door, MacDonald threw his plaid over their faces and fled, surviving to recount the story.

Men were dragged from their beds and murdered, their houses torched, while women of all ages, some almost in a state of undress, the old and the frail, mothers carrying infants and some with young children climbed up the mountains in the blizzard, many to be overcome by exhaustion and die of exposure before they reached shelter.

Lieutenant-colonel Hamilton and his men, delayed by the blizzard, did not reach Glencoe until six hours after the main attack. By this time the MacDonalds were dead or fled, so they had nothing to do but set fire to the houses, collect the cattle and effects in the Glen which they took to Inverlochy and divided among the officers of the garrison. One man of seventy remained in the glen, was put to death on Hamilton’s orders.

When the sun rose the next morning, thirty nine men, women and children lay dead, though MacIain’s two sons escaped, possibly helped by the late arrival of an additional force of redcoats due to a blizzard, who should have blocked the entrance to the glen.

Three weeks later, on the 5th of March, Sir John Dalrymple, confessed that all he regretted, was that any of the MacDonalds got away.


Planned as a surprise attack three hours before dawn, the killings began with gunfire, thus warning those in the glen what was about to happen. Swords and daggers would have been quieter, and seen off half of the targets before the MacDonalds were roused.

The Argyll regiment was made up of about 135 soldiers, only a dozen or so of whom were Campbells. Of the upwards of two hundred McDonalds in Glencoe that night, only thirty eight men, women and children were killed. It seems almost certain that some of the Campbell soldiers, disgusted with their orders, alerted the families who had been their hosts, giving them time to escape and at least wrap up against the blizzard.

Two of Glenlyon’s lieutenants refused to carry out the murders and broke their swords – [Prebble suggests that they were Francis Farquhar and Gilbert Kennedy] both were later prosecuted but freed.

Government soldiers were sent to block off the passes out of the Glen, including the Devil's Staircase from Kinlochleven, but fleeing McDonalds were more likely to go the other way towards Duror in Appin, home of their long-allies, the Stewarts. The escape routes to Appin were not blocked at all.


When the story reached the London press, in his defence, King William said he had signed the execution order among a mass of other papers, without knowing its contents; though he had not only signed but countersigned every document.

It was not until April 1695 that the King finally appointed a commission to investigate the affair, which concluded the orders issued did not authorise a massacre, and that the affair was the result of a long-standing feud between the Campbell and the MacDonald clans.

Dalrymple was dismissed, and Glenlyon condemned by the commission and died in poverty at Bruge.

The monument to the fallen MacDonalds is situated in the Glencoe village, and MacIain was buried on the island of Eilean Munde, in Loch Leven. Signal Rock, where the order was given to begin the massacre stands just a few hundred yards west of the Clachaig Inn on the north bank of the River Coe.

King William formally pardoned John MacDonald, the 13th Chief of Glencoe, who rebuilt the family home at Carnoch while his brother, Alastair, fought in the Jacobite rebellion in 1715 alongside John Campbell, the son of Captain Campbell. The last stand of the men of Glencoe was at Culloden, after the defeat their houses were again burned and the Chief imprisoned.

The Campbells believed they were under "the curse of Glencoe", and split into factions, one of which supported the Jacobites and the other, the Protestant Hanovarians. At the battle of Sherriffmuir in 1715, McDonalds and some Campbells fought on the same side, which tends to contradict the story of eternal enmity between the two clans.

Under Scots law, this “Murder Under Trust” was a more heinous crime than ordinary murder, and since then, generations of Scots children have been taught ‘never trust a Campbell,’ To this day the old Clachaig Inn at Glencoe carries the sign on its door, 'No Hawkers or Campbells'.

Jimmy Powdrell Campbell
The Glencoe Massacre
What They Don't Tell You
Curse Of The Campbells