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Issue 11 - The Massacre of Glencoe

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 11
November 2003


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The Massacre of Glencoe


Truth often loses out to myth. Myth is more simple, and better at rousing the emotions. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692, when the Campbells treacherously fell upon the Macdonalds of Glencoe and slaughtered them, man, woman and child. But it wasn’t quite like that.

James II of England, and VII of Scotland, succeeded his brother Charles II as King in 1685. James was a committed Catholic and, as his second wife, had married Mary of Modena, a 14-year old Italian Catholic princess.

In an uncompromisingly Protestant England, he was immensely unpopular, and when the Queen gave birth to a son there was an upsurge of unrest among the Whig majority in the country who intensely disliked the prospect of a Catholic heir to the throne.

However, Mary, James’s eldest daughter by his first marriage, had been brought up as a Protestant, and when her father embarked upon a policy of religious toleration, she and her stoutly Protestant husband, William of Orange, were invited to invade Britain in what became known as The Glorious Revolution.

James fled to France with his wife and son, and William and Mary were jointly crowned to take his place.

Some Scots objected and rose up in rebellion, led by Graham of Claverhouse. He defeated a redcoat army at Killiecrankie, but was among the casualties. After that, discontent and a low grade war in the Highlands rumbled on, but the cause was without strong leadership.

William’s main purpose in accepting the throne had been to use British forces to help preserve his native Netherlands against the might of the French armies of Louis XIV.

With a potential second front – Highland rebels supported by French troops – he wanted the problem sorted out.

But Highland politics were not for the faint-hearted. The petty kingdoms of the chiefs clashed in a constantly shifting network of alliances, treachery, and violence, each in pursuit of personal power.

The Campbell Earl of Breadalbane persuaded the government to give him £12,000 with which he would bribe the chiefs into swearing an oath of submission to the government by 1st Jan 1692. Word eventually came through from ex-king James, in exile in France, that he would permit his supporters to make the pledge.

But McIan, the old chief of the MacDonalds of Glencoe, failed to meet the deadline. He certainly tried, but mistakenly travelled to Fort William instead of Inveraray to do so. When he eventually reached Inveraray the deadline had passed, and although his oath was forwarded to Edinburgh he had left himself vulnerable.

William’s Secretary for Scotland was Sir John Dalrymple, heir to Viscount Stair, an Ayrshire man with a deep hatred for Highland chiefs.

He was keen to prove his allegiance to the new regime and threw doubt on the loyalty of Breadalbane and the effectiveness of his policy. He reckoned terror was the best weapon and wished to destroy one of the rebellious clans, preferably the influential Macdonalds of Glengarry, and thus cow the rest.

McIan and his technical failure to swear the oath in was a good enough excuse. His clan was notorious for cattle theft and brigandage. Sir John prepared a warrant ordering their destruction.

The king signed and it was dispatched north to Colonel Hill who commanded the garrison at Inverlochy near Fort William. He described it as ‘a nasty durty thing.’

Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, a cousin and neighbour of Breadalbane was an ageing drunk and a gambler who had lost most of his lands. His powerful kinsman was tired of bailing him out and Glenlyon joined the army, obtaining a company in Argyll’s Regiment.

He and his men were posted to Glencoe, arriving there on February 1, 1692 and the soldiers spread themselves through the cottages in the glen and concentrated in keeping warm despite a heavy cover of snow.

Meanwhile redcoats marched to seal the passes and trap any of the Glencoe people who might escape the forthcoming slaughter.

On February 12th Glenlyon received instructions that at 5am the following morning he was ‘to putt all to the sword under 70’. If he disobeyed he might ‘expect to be dealt with as one not true to King nor countrie.’

Stories of warnings given by the soldiers to the local people survive but they were little heeded. A couple of Glenlyon’s officers refused to carry out the command and were sent to Glasgow for court martial.

Nonetheless well before dawn and in a blizzard the killing took place.

McIan was shot in the back in his night clothes. His wife was stripped naked and robbed of her rings. Firing there and in other cottages alerted many people who made their escape. Glenlyon was seen bayoneting some of the wounded with an expression of ‘frozen despair’ on his face.

The murders were carried out incompetently but 38 were known to have been killed.

It is surmised that the same number died of exposure as they tried to escape through the high passes that were not blocked.

The survivors were given shelter by the Stewarts of Appin and, so Macdonald tradition asserts, by the family of Campbell of Airds.

Treachery and the ruthless slaughter of one’s enemies was quite acceptable behaviour in Highland warfare.

What made the Massacre so wrong was that the redcoats had first accepted hospitality from their victims. Glenlyon went to Edinburgh where he found solace in brandy, expressing remorse to anyone who would hear his tale.

He was posted to Flanders to get him out of the way and died of drink in 1696.

But plenty of ears had been listening to him and down in London the government’s enemies saw an opportunity. A ferocious pamphlet campaign was run painting the Massacre in lurid detail and founding the myth that the Campbells connived to exterminate the Macdonalds.

An inquiry was held. Parliament tiptoed round the king’s involvement and condemned Dalrymple for exceeding his instructions. He resigned – but was granted an earldom within the decade. And the government learned that soldiers could do terrible things in the Highlands and virtually get away with it.

That lesson was put into practice following the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in 1746.