Massacre of Glencoe

Massacre of Glencoe
Mort Ghlinne Comhann
Part of the first Jacobite uprising

Date13 February 1692
LocationGlen Coe, south of Fort William, Scotland
grid reference NN12675646[1]
Coordinates: 56°39′45″N 5°3′25″W / 56.66250°N 5.05694°W / 56.66250; -5.05694
Result MacDonalds massacred
Earl of Argyll's Regiment of Foot (Clan Campbell & Lowland Scots) Clan MacDonald of Glencoe
Commanders and leaders
Robert Campbell of Glenlyon Alasdair MacIain
120 Unknown
Casualties and losses
None 78
Location within Scotland

Early in the morning of 13 February 1692, in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution and the Jacobite uprising of 1689 led by John Graham of Claverhouse, a massacre took place in Glen Coe, in the Highlands of Scotland. This incident is referred to as the massacre of Glencoe, or in Scottish Gaelic Mort Ghlinne Comhann, or murder of Glen Coe. The massacre began simultaneously in three settlements along the glen—Invercoe, Inverrigan, and Achnacon—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 monarchs, William and Mary. Another forty women and children died of exposure after their homes were burned.


In 1688, William, Prince of Orange accepted an invitation to take the throne of England, glad to enlist English help in his wars with France. The Scottish Parliament was more cautious and requested letters from him and James VII (ousted as James II of England). James' response displeased the Scots, and persuaded them to accept William as their King. In response, John Graham, 1st Viscount of Dundee, led a force of Scottish Highlanders in Jacobite uprisings in an attempt to return the throne to James. Viscount 'Bonnie' Dundee was killed at the Battle of Killiecrankie, and the Jacobites were subsequently defeated by the Scottish Cameronian forces at the Battle of Dunkeld. On their way home from this battle the MacIains of Glencoe (a sept of Clan Donald), 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 showed he 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.

Oath of allegiance to William

Peter Graham – After the Massacre of Glencoe

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. He also threatened them with reprisals if they did not sign. The Highland chiefs sent word to James, now in exile in France, asking for his permission to take the 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, in difficult winter conditions, only a few weeks before the deadline. A few managed to comply promptly but others did not, including Alastair Maclain, 12th Chief of Glencoe, who waited until the last day before setting out to take the oath.

On 31 December 1691 MacIain travelled to Fort William to ask the governor, Colonel Hill, to administer the required oath, but Hill demurred on the grounds that he was not authorised to receive it. He instructed MacIain to proceed quickly to Inveraray to make his oath before Sir Colin Campbell, sheriff of Argyll. Hill gave Maclain a letter of protection and a letter to Sir Colin asking that he receive Maclain's oath since Maclain had come to him within the allotted time. Hill also reassured MacIain that no action would be taken against him without him having the opportunity to make his case before the King or the King's privy council.[2]

It took Maclain three days to reach Inveraray, partly due to winter weather, partly due to his being detained for a day at Barcaldine Castle by the 1st company of the Earl of Argyll's Regiment of Foot, at the command of Captain Drummond, as a ruse to delay him. On arrival at Inveraray, he then had to wait three days for the arrival of Sir Colin, who was spending the New Year with his family across the waters of Loch Fyne. Upon his return, Sir Colin reluctantly accepted Maclain's oath.

Maclain had satisfied the spirit of the oath, and was confident there would be no action against him or his people. However, he reckoned without the Secretary of State over Scotland and Lord Advocate, John Dalrymple, Master of Stair. Dalrymple was a Lowlander who disliked the Highlanders and thought their way of life was a hindrance to Scotland, which he thought would be better served in union with England.[3]

Copy of order to Capt. Campbell by Maj. Duncanson
You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebells, the McDonalds of Glenco, and put all to the sword under seventy. you are to have a speciall care that the old Fox and his sones 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 att 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 & safety 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 full-filling hereof, as you love your selfe, I subscribe these with my hand  att Balicholis  Feb: 12, 1692.
For their Majesties service
(signed) R. Duncanson
   To Capt.
Robert Campbell
of Glenlyon

According to Macaulay,[4] John Campbell, 1st Earl of Breadalbane and Holland, a senior member of the Campbell clan, saw an opportunity for revenge, not only for the many decades of raids into Campbells lands and sheep and cattle-rustling by MacDonalds, but also because Maclain had been late in taking the oath of allegiance. While in London, Breadalbane along with his cousin Archibald Campbell, 10th Earl of Argyll, (Mac Cailean Mor) found a willing accomplice in the form of the Master of Stair. The Master of Stair was disappointed in the fact that the Jacobite clan leaders had taken the oath of allegiance. He had been hoping that they would have declined, so as to give him the opportunity to execute a plan which he had already drawn up in December to break the clans. Maclain’s certificate was deemed to be irregular and the Master of Stair persuaded King William in London to sign an order to "extirpate" the MacDonalds of Glencoe. Stair persuaded King William that the order was designed to root out a den of thieves in the Valley of Glencoe. The order was then passed on to Sir Thomas Livingstone, commander of the forces in Scotland.

The massacre

In late January or early February 1692 the first and second companies of the Earl of Argyll's Regiment of Foot, which consisted of approximately 120 men under the command of Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, 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 they were there to collect the Cess tax, a property tax or assessment instituted by the Scots Parliament in 1690. The planning was meticulous enough for them to be able to produce legitimate orders to this effect from Colonel Hill, the man who had tried to help MacIain complete his oath in the first place, thus dispelling any suspicions the MacDonalds may have had. However, it was 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 the captain of the 1st company of the regiment, the Grenadiers, he was the ranking officer, yet did not take command. Drummond was bearing instructions (see inset) for Robert Campbell, from his superior officer, Major Duncanson. 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.

Alasdair 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. The first clansman to be killed was Duncan Rankin. He was shot down as he tried to escape by crossing the River Coe near the chief's house.[5] Elsewhere, various members of the two companies found ways of warning their hosts. Two lieutenants, Lt Francis Farquhar and Lt Gilbert Kennedy even 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 a 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.[6] The Glencoe massacre was a clear example of this, as shown by the results of the inquiry:

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.[7]

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 it 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 but, unlike Fountainhall, his refusal 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.[5]


Glencoe Massacre Memorial
Memorial inscription

The Glencoe massacre became a propaganda piece for Jacobite sympathies, which were to come to a head in the next generation in the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 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 was the subject of Eric Linklater's 1957 story "The Masks of Purpose", and David Clement-Davies's "Fire Bringer", in which the region is called the "Valley Of Weeping". The massacre is also the subject of Susan Fletcher's novel Corrag (2010) and Jennifer Roberson's "Lady of the Glen" (1996).

Due to the involvement of Argyll's regiment under Glenlyon's command, the massacre was regarded by many (who were schooled in the romantic 19th-century school of Scottish history) 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"[3] although it has been said that this is probably more for the amusement of tourists than from any lasting sense of revenge.[8]

In 1883 Macdonald of Aberdeen sculpted the Upper Carnoch memorial to the massacre, a tapering Celtic cross on a cairn which stands at the eastern end of Glencoe village,[9] which was formerly known as Carnoch. Each year, on 13 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 ceremony originated in 1930 when the late Miss Mary Rankin, Taigh a’phuirt, Glencoe, decided that a wreath should be laid annually on the monument. Miss Rankin, who supplied the wreath up to the time of her death in 1944, commissioned the late Mr. Angus MacDonald to lay it on her behalf. On Mr. MacDonald’s death in 1936, his second son Robert took over the duty, the wreath being supplied after Miss Rankin's death by Robert’s sister, Miss Annie MacDonald.[10]

General Stewart of Garth, in a footnote, relates that Charles Edward Stuart was anxious to save the house and property of Lord Stair at Kirkliston during the ’45 Rising. He proposed to march the Glencoe men some distance from the scene lest they take revenge on the part played by his grandfather when ordered by William III to extirpate their clan. But, when the proposal was communicated to the Glencoe men they declared that, if that were the case, they must return home. If they were considered so dishonourable as to take revenge on an innocent man, they were not fit to remain with honourable men, nor to support an honourable cause. It was not without much explanation, and great persuasion, that they were prevented from marching away the following morning.[11][12]

In fiction

The T. S. Eliot poem "Rannoch, by Glencoe" refers to the event, as does the modern ballad by Jim MacLean with the refrain: "Cruel is the snow that sweeps Glencoe and covers the graves o' Donald"[13]

In fiction, the Glencoe massacre, along with the murder of the Douglasses at the Black Dinner of 1440, inspired the events in the novel A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin known as "The Red Wedding", which has become one of the most memorable events of the book series.[14]

The Australian poet Douglas Stewart wrote "Two Poems from Glencoe", which include the verse: "In daylight golden and mild/After the night of Glencoe/They found the hand of a child/Lying upon the snow."[15]

The Mad Men episode "Time & Life" references the massacre when headmaster Bruce MacDonald in the year 1970 still holds a grudge against Pete Campbell.[16]

See also


  1. "Site Record for Glencoe, National Trust For Scotland Glencoe Visitor Centre". Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.. Location of NTS visitor centre.
  2. John Buchan, "The Massacre of Glencoe", Buchan & Enright Publishers Ltd., ISBN 0-907675-41-7. 1985, p. 59.
  3. 1 2 Anon. "The Massacre of Glen Coe". Scottish History: The making of the union. BBC. Retrieved 2009-08-14.
  4. Chapter 16, "The Revolution in Scotland", section D "The Massacre of Glencoe, 13th February 1692", The History of England, Thomas Babington Macaulay. quote "Meanwhile the Master of Stair was forming, in concert with Breadlabane and Argyll, a plan for the destruction of the people of Glencoe"
  5. 1 2 John Prebble, Glencoe: The Story of the Massacre, Secker & Warburg, Ltd, 1966; Penguin Books, ISBN 0-14-002897-8, 1972.
  6. John Prebble, Glencoe: The Story of the Massacre, Secker & Warburg, Ltd, 1966. p.185.
  7. Magnus Linklater, Massacre: The Story of Glencoe, HarperCollins, 1982, p.138.
  8. Smith, R. (18 November 2000). "Monarch of the glens". The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited. Retrieved 4 September 2009.
  9. "Site Record for Glencoe, Massacre Of Glencoe Memorial; Macdonald's Monument; Glencoe Massacre". Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. Retrieved 2013-11-04.. Memorial is at grid reference NN1050958793.
  10. The Oban Times, 22 Feb. 1958.
  11. Sketches of the Character, Manners, and Present State of the Highlanders of Scotland; with Details of the Military Service of the Highland Regiments. By Colonel David Stewart. (Vol. 1) Printed for Archibald Constable & Co. Edinburgh. (1822).
  12. History of the MacDonalds and Lords of the Isles; with Genealogies of the Principal Families of the Name. By Alexander MacKenzie, F.S.A., Scot., Editor of The Celtic Magazine;, etc. A. & W. MacKenzie. (1881).
  13. Jim MacLean (1963). "The Massacre of Glencoe". Text and melody. Retrieved 2008-09-06. Cruel was the foe that raped Glencoe and murdered the house of MacDonald
  14. Sky News (13 August 2014). "Game Of Thrones Writer Says Fans Correctly Guess Storylines" via YouTube.
  15. Stewart Douglas. Two Poems from Glencoe, at Australian Poetry Library. Accessed 5 October 2015

External links

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