Massacre of Glencoe

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Massacre of Glencoe
Mort Ghlinne Comhann
Part of the first Jacobite uprising
West Highland Way 2005 Coe.jpg
Date 13 February 1692
Location Glen 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
Massacre of Glencoe is located in Scotland
Massacre of Glencoe
Location within Scotland

Early on 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.


Glencoe, Edwardian painting of the site of the 1692 massacre

In March 1689, James VII landed in Ireland to attempt the reconquest of his kingdoms; after he was formally deposed as King of Scotland on 11th April by the Scottish Convention, his former military commander John Graham, Viscount Dundee, raised a force of Highlanders augmented by 300 Irish troops to run a parallel campaign in Scotland. Despite victory at Killiecrankie on 27th July, Dundee was killed, while his troops took heavy casualties and were subsequently defeated at the Battle of Dunkeld in August; the dispersal of their remnants at Cromdale on 1st May 1690 ended Jacobite resistance in Scotland, although fighting continued in Ireland until October 1691.

In Europe, William III was heavily engaged in the Nine Years' War, the latest of the conflicts launched by Louis XIV that ran from 1667 to 1714; though ultimately unsuccessful, James' war in Ireland had been a significant drain on his resources. Many of the clan chiefs were Jacobite loyalists, Highlanders and Lowlanders came from different worlds (a feeling still evident in 1745) [2] and fought on different sides throughout the Civil Wars and after (from 1678-80, Highland levies were used to enforce suppression of the Conventicles in South-West Scotland).[3] Finally, unrest in one country often impacted the other due to clan connections (especially among the Irish and Scottish branches of the MacDonalds) and links between Scottish Presbyterian settlers of the Ulster Plantation and their compatriots. This made the prevention of further unrest in Scotland a major objective for the Earl of Stair, William's Scottish Secretary of State.

The Oath of Allegiance to William[edit]

Peter Graham – After the Massacre of Glencoe

The Scottish Government held a series of negotiations with the Jacobite chiefs between July 1689 and August 1691, the terms varying based on each party's assessment of their relative strength at any given time (a function of the war in Ireland, as well as Scotland) and marked by mutual mistrust.

After Killiecrankie, the Government offered the rebels peace terms which they rejected on 17th August 1689, just before the Jacobite defeat at Dunkeld; in March 1690, £12,000 was authorized to pay the chiefs for their surrender, before the dispersal of the last significant Jacobite forces at Cromarty in May weakened their position once more. On 30th June 1691, the Earl of Breadalbane (justly known as 'Slippery John') signed the Declaration of Achallader with the Jacobite chiefs which agreed an armistice until 1st October; the Williamite victory shortly thereafter in July at the Battle of Aughrim effectively ended the war in Ireland and any prospect of an imminent Jacobite restoration.

On 27th August 1691, a Royal Proclamation offered a general pardon in return for swearing an Oath of Allegiance to William before 1 January 1692 in front of a magistrate, with severe reprisals threatened for those who did not. [4] The chiefs sent emissaries to James in France, asking for permission to take the Oath or alternatively, 'surrender' unless he could supply reinforcements before the expiry of the deadline, which they knew to be impossible. [5] Accordingly, James sent orders back to Scotland authorising them to take the oath, the message reaching its recipients in mid-December, in difficult winter conditions; the majority managed to comply promptly but Alastair MacIain, 12th Chief of Glencoe, waited until the last day before setting out to take the oath.

MacIain travelled to Fort William to ask the governor, Lt Colonel John Hill to administer the required oath, but Hill refused since he was not a magistrate authorised to receive it. Instead, he advised MacIain to take the oath before Sir Colin Campbell in Inverary and gave him a letter asking Sir Colin to receive his oath since Maclain had come to him within the allotted time, while assuring him no action would be taken without the opportunity to make his case before the King or the King's privy council (although it's doubtful Hill had the authority to make that commitment).[6] It took MacIain three days to reach Inveraray, where he waited another three days for Sir Colin to return from spending the New Year with his family. Sir Colin accepted MacIain's oath on 6th January, after which MacIain returned home, confident there would be no action against him or his people.

These are the bare facts but neither the weather or poor communications can be blamed for what happened next; all the other chiefs were held to have complied with the deadline, including Glengarry, who signed on 4th February and several others who did so by proxy. The Glencoe McDonalds were clearly targeted, although the exact motives are complex; Stair's letters reflect his frustration caused by endless arguments on how to divide the £12,000 among the recipients, allied with the conviction that since none of them would keep their word anyway, the money was better spent on more military installations like Fort William. [7] That was understandable; in August, government spies discovered secret articles allegedly added to the Declaration of Achallader by Breadalbane, agreeing the Oath would be null and void if James regained his throne,[8] which may have led Stair to decide he needed to make an example. [9] Breadalbane claimed the document was a forgery but had to prove his loyalty; it is suggested the selection of MacIain was due to personal animosity, in particular arguments over MacIain's share of the £12,000, which Breadalbane claimed should be paid to him for damage done to his property by the Glencoe McDonalds. [10] They were an easy target due to their small size and reputation for raiding their neighbours, including but not limited to their traditional Campbell enemies; one of MacIain's sons and several others had been arrested in July for robbing soldiers from Fort William [11]

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

The massacre[edit]

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.[12] 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.[13] 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.[14]

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.[12]


Glencoe Massacre Memorial
Memorial inscription

The most interesting question about Glencoe is why it remains so well known; it was certainly a savage and vicious crime but not unusual in the context of clan warfare. For example, the MacDonald and MacLoed feud of 1577/78 is alleged to have started with the castration of a group of MacLoeds for raping MacDonald women, their response being to herd nearly 400 MacDonalds into a cave and set fire to it, ending with another mass murder at the Battle of the Spoiling Dyke. The argument it was the breach of hospitality which made it so memorable is again hard to sustain; while less common, there were plenty of similar incidents (the story of Gordon of Achruach being one of the better known).[15] The Glencoe MacDonalds themselves seem to have taken it in their stride; they simply rebuilt their houses and continued raiding their neighbours. As with many of the clans, the real agent of their destruction were the Highland Clearances.

The truth of the affair is complicated by the romanticization of Highland culture in general; the process started in 1760 with James MacPherson's Ossian forgeries, was immortalized in the works of Sir Walter Scott and led to such improbable events as George IV, the Duke of Cumberland's great-nephew, appearing in official portraits wearing Highland dress of his own design. Victorian Scotland built on this by developing values that were pro-Union but also emphasized Scotland as a nation within a nation; Burns Suppers, tartans as an expression of Scottish identity, adopting the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie as romantic symbols for a largely Protestant nation - all date to the mid-19th century. [16]

More recently, the rise of modern Scottish Nationalism has led to a wider debate on the nature of Scottish identity, particularly its relation to what poet and Nationalist Hugh MacDiarmid termed historic Scottish cultural values; agreeing what those are remains an open question. Glencoe is also used for more overtly political purposes; for example, the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement holds an annual event where it is positioned as an colonialist action of the London government and while the SRSM is a tiny group, sectarian divides within modern Scottish politics mean that is not an uncommon view.

The main source for Glencoe was Jacobite propagandist Charles Leslie an Episcopalian priest who moved to London in 1690 and from then until his death in 1721, produced a steady stream of Jacobite articles, mostly on theological questions. [17] He is now remembered primarily for a virulent attack on William III published in 1695; [18] while this focused on William's alleged complicity in the 1672 death of Dutch Republican leader Johan de Witt, it also implies his connection to other crimes, one being Glencoe. Macaulay used it in his History; [19] his aim was to exonerate William by demolishing all the accusations, including Glencoe which he argued was simply part of the Campbell/MacDonald feud. This view remains common today; the Clachaig Inn, a hotel and pub in Glencoe has a sign saying "No Hawkers or Campbells" although this is more for the amusement of tourists than any lasting sense of revenge.

The Massacre itself only became more widely known in late Victorian times; a memorial was set up on the site in 1883 and Peter Graham produced his painting 'After the Massacre' in 1889, which itself was part of a series known as Jacobite Romanticism. The Celtic Magazine of 1881 [20] repeated an anecdote from General David Stewart's 1823 account of the Highland regiments (which were criticized for their Jacobite bias). [21] The story goes that when the Jacobite army was approaching Edinburgh in 1745, Charles Stuart set a guard on the the house of Newliston, owned by the descendant of Lord Stair, to prevent the Glencoe men revenging themselves by burning the house and that when their chief heard this, he demanded as a matter of honour the guard be supplied by his own men. While this reflects well on both the Prince and the MacDonalds, there is no historical evidence for it either in contemporary accounts [22] or more recent works. [23]

The Upper Carnoch memorial to the massacre, designed by MacDonald of Aberdeen, is a tapering Celtic cross on a cairn which stands at the eastern end of Glencoe village,[24] 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; this originated in 1930 when a Miss Mary Rankin, Taigh a’phuirt, Glencoe, decided that a wreath should be laid annually on the monument, a ceremony continued by her family [25] and still conducted today when members of Clan Donald from around the world attend the ceremony, along with local people.

In fiction[edit]

Glencoe was a popular topic with 19th century poets; the best known work is Sir Walter Scott's Massacre of Glencoe but there are other versions include Thomas Campbell and George Gilfillan, whose main claim to modern literary fame is his sponsorship of William McGonagall, allegedly the worst poet in British history.

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"[26]

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."[27]

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).

The Mad Men episode "Time & Life" references the massacre when headmaster Bruce MacDonald in the year 1970 still holds a grudge against Pete Campbell.[28]

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. Here Robb Stark is murdered along with thousands of his men by his treacherous host and vassal Walder Frey, aided by another of Robb's vassals Roose Bolton, the true architect being Tywin Lannister.[29] As with the Massacre, breaking of guest right is the issue that gains the Freys the enmity of most of the Seven Kingdoms but as Tywin Lannister points out, if you're going to kill someone, why does it matter how.

See also[edit]


  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. ^ Jacobites: A New History of the '45 Rebellion by Jacqueline Riding 2016
  3. ^ The History of Scotland Volume 3 Andrew Lang P284-286
  4. ^ Papers Illustrative of the Political Condition of the Highlands of Scotland, 1689-1706; John Gordon 2016
  5. ^ The Jacobites: Britain and Europe, 1688-1788; Daniel Szechi 1994 P45
  6. ^ John Buchan, "The Massacre of Glencoe", Buchan & Enright Publishers Ltd., ISBN 0-907675-41-7. 1985, p. 59.
  7. ^ Correspondence of Lord Stair; Papers Illustrative of the Political Condition of the Highlands of Scotland, 1689-1706; John Gordon 2016
  8. ^ Papers Illustrative of the Political Condition of the Highlands of Scotland, 1689-1706, Section 22; Private Articles ed John Gordon 2016
  9. ^ History of England, Volume 9; George Lillie Craik & Charles MacFarlane P45-47
  10. ^ The Jacobite Clans of the Great Glen, 1650-1784 Bruce Lenman 1984 P48 ibid
  11. ^ Papers Illustrative of the Political Condition of the Highlands of Scotland, 1689-1706; John Gordon 2016
  12. ^ a b John Prebble, Glencoe: The Story of the Massacre, Secker & Warburg, Ltd, 1966; Penguin Books, ISBN 0-14-002897-8, 1972.
  13. ^ John Prebble, Glencoe: The Story of the Massacre, Secker & Warburg, Ltd, 1966. p.185.
  14. ^ Magnus Linklater, Massacre: The Story of Glencoe, HarperCollins, 1982, p.138.
  15. ^ The Gordon Women; the Complete McAuslan by George MacDonald Fraser
  16. ^ Victorian Values in Scotland and England; RJ Morris, Proceedings of the British Academy 78 1992 P37-39
  17. ^ Charles Leslie & Theological Politics in Post Revolutionary England; William Frank, B.A., Thesis for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy McMaster University February 1983
  18. ^ Gallienus Redivivus, or Murther will out, &c. Being a true Account of the De Witting of Glencoe, Gaffney,’ Edinburgh, 1695
  19. ^ Macaulay, History of England, iv. 213 n., 8 Volume
  20. ^ The Celtic Magazine: A Monthly Periodical Devoted to the Literature, History, Antiquities, Folk Lore, Traditions, and the Social and Material Interests of the Celt at Home and Abroad; by Alexander 1806-1881 MacGregor (Author), Alexander MacKenzie (Author
  21. ^ Sketches of the character, manners, and present state of the Highlanders of Scotland - With details of the military service of the Highland regiments - Vol. III David Stewart 1823
  22. ^ A History of the Rebellion 1745-46; Robert Chambers 1827 P
  23. ^ Jacobites: A New History of the '45 Rebellion Jacqueline Riding 2015
  24. ^ "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.
  25. ^ The Oban Times, 22 Feb. 1958.
  26. ^ 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 
  27. ^ Stewart Douglas. Two Poems from Glencoe, at Australian Poetry Library. Accessed 5 October 2015
  28. ^ Thomas, Leah. "Is Pete Campbell's Ancient Feud Real On 'Mad Men'? The Show Took An Interesting Historical Turn". Retrieved 2017-05-24. 
  29. ^ Sky News (13 August 2014). "Game Of Thrones Writer Says Fans Correctly Guess Storylines" – via YouTube. 

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