At five o’clock in the morning on the 13th of February 1692, as a blizzard howled down from the rugged peaks of the Aonach Eagach, redcoat soldiers from the Duke of Argyll’s regiment awoke, dressed and began an indiscriminate slaughter of their hosts, the MacDonalds of Glencoe
Up and down the glen shots rang out in the darkness; some where killed in their beds, others while fleeing from the carnage, while others still would be lost among the mountains and die of exposure. It was sudden, unexpected and swift. In the morning 38 men, women and children lay dead in the snow; among them the chief of the clan, Alasdair MacIain and his wife. The massacre bore all the hallmarks of a clan vendetta, part of the long standing feud between the MacDonalds and the Campbells. This is what the government wanted people to believe, this was the official line; but, the truth ran much deeper and the causes and blames reached to the highest offices in the land.
The Massacre of Glencoe came against the backdrop of civil war in the British Isles. Two rival dynasties vied for the throne in far off London; but the fighting, the repercussions and the bloodshed would be felt most in the heart of the Scottish Highlands. King James VII of Scotland and II of England was a poor king by any standard: hot-headed, naïve, politically callous and worst of all for many, an adherent to the Catholic faith. When in 1688 his wife gave birth to a son, assuring the Catholic succession he was ousted in a bloodless coup by the English establishment. Parliament then offered the English throne to his nephew (and son-in-law), William of Orange, the Stadholder of Holland. James fled to France and William landed and was proclaimed without resistance.
In Scotland the situation was more complicated. James was a Stuart, the native dynasty of Scotland and both he and his family enjoyed far more support here. The Scottish Parliament was split, but in 1689 it also agreed to exile James and invite William to be king of Scotland as well. Many, both inside the chamber and in the country at large were aghast. A rival faction emerged in Edinburgh and rode north to garner support for the Stuarts and take arms in rebellion against William. Taking their name from the Latin for James, Iacómus, they called themselves the ‘Jacobites’, and were led by the charismatic John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount of Dundee.
Claverhouse, immortalized as ‘Bonnie Dundee’, was a maverick genius who knew exactly how to get the best out of his men, and where to find those men – the Scottish Highlands. The Highland clans, with their chiefs, captains, loyalty and martial heritage were the perfect breeding-ground for the kind of militia Dundee needed; and they supported, for the most part, the exiled king.
On the 27th of July 1689, while defending the strategically important Blair Castle in Highland Perthshire, the Jacobites won a stunning victory over the Government forces at the Pass of Killiecrankie. However, as he rode out over a scene of unimaginable glory Claverhouse was shot from his horse, and died a few hours later. With the death of their leader the cause became rudderless and collapsed a fortnight later at the Battle of Dunkeld. Support for James went underground.
William of Orange’s main concern in life was fighting the French in the Low Countries, and the last thing he need was to spend money, time and soldiers keeping the peace in the Highlands. The new regime was determined to control the north and bring the clan chiefs to heel. The king turned to his Secretary of State for Scotland, John Dalrymple of Stair, to solve the ‘Highland problem’.
Dalrymple was typical of the Lowland gentry of the day, he hated the Highlanders, and wanted with a passion to destroy the clan system; and now the king was giving him freedom to realize these ambitions. He consulted a number of pro-government lairds in the Highlands, including the duplicitous and crafty Earl of Breadalbane, who basically told the Secretary that a show of strength was the only language the chiefs understood; and come down hard on one, and the rest will follow. Neither man could have foreseen just how much events would play into their hands.
The Government drafted an ‘Oath of Allegiance’ to William, and demanded that each Highland chief sign it, or expect the full force of the law to come thundering down upon their heads. A deadline was placed on the signing – 31st December 1691. Dalrymple did not expect every clan to sign, and indeed hoped not. The loyal chiefs signed straight away, but the Jacobites didn’t want to sign until their exiled king gave them permission to do so. Thus, a letter was sent to Paris where the Stuart court was living asking for that permission. If James was anything he was a dither. He hummed and hawed over the summer and through the autumn of 1691, with the deadline looming. Finally, he agreed that the chiefs could sign for their own safety, and a letter was dispatched. It arrived into Scotland on the 15th December, leaving a mere 16 days for the information to travel around the Highlands – in mid winter.
Alasdair MacIain, MacDonald of Glencoe received the news on the 30th, and he immediately saddled his horse and made his way to Fort William. He was taken in to see the Governor of the Fort, Colonel Hill. Sympathetic to the situation, Hill told Glencoe that he couldn’t take the oath as it had to be signed before the Sherriff of Argyll in Inveraray, over sixty miles away. However, he did provide the chief with a covering letter to explain the mistake. Despite being 70 years old, the MacDonald got back on his horse and rode for Inveraray. He arrived too late. The Sheriff, Campbell of Ardkinglas was gone for the New Year holiday and wouldn’t be back until the 5th of January. MacIain had no choice but to wait, and so bunked down in the town.
After much pleading Glencoe was able to persuade Ardkinglas to have him administer the oath on his return. The sheriff, like Hill was aware of the awkward position the chief was in, and along with the oath he also included a letter to explain why it had been taken late. Ardkinglas wished Glencoe well, and told him not to worry, everything would be alright. In fact it would be very far from alright.
The oath and letters arrived at the desk of the Sheriff substitute for Argyll in Edinburgh, Colin Campbell of Dressalach. Unfortunately for the people of Glencoe, Dressalach, who had cattle stolen by the MacDonalds on several occasions, hated them. He threw the papers in the fire and reported to Dalrymple that MacDonald of Glencoe had not signed the oath in time. He was overjoyed: MacDonald of Glencoe was a small clan, and would make the perfect example to the others.
Dalrymple began moving his chess pieces, and a conspiracy was woven: the Duke of Argyll’s regiment would be chosen, Argyll being the Campbell chief; and Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, a broken drunk since a MacDonald plundering a couple of years earlier was chosen to lead the detachment. The soldiers arrived into Glencoe at the beginning of February 1692 and Glenlyon asked the old chief if he could house the regiment as Fort William was full. He agreed and billeted the redcoats among the houses of his clans-people. For the next 11 days and nights the soldiers, many of them local, ate, slept, drank, gambled, danced and played with the people of Glencoe: it was a perfect example of Highland hospitality.
Then on the evening of the 12th Glenlyon, who until this point was unaware of his mission, received his orders: “Sir, you are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebels, the MacDonalds of Glencoe, and put all to the sword under seventy . . . the old fox and his cubs must not escape . . . leave none alive by the name ‘MacDonald’” the rest of the order was a thinly veiled threat that if Glenlyon did not carry the order through then it would be his head on the block. The Campbell may have been a broken man, but he was as much a Highlander as any around him and was sick to his stomach at the thought of breaking the code of Highland Hospitality. With the advantage of both trust and surprise he had to rise and kill his hosts. Bad as the massacre and all its treachery was, this was the worst part: it would be ‘murder under trust’; a most heinous of crimes, but Glenlyon had no choice.
At length, the order was passed up the narrow glen. The snow was now falling heavy, and icy winds swept over the village, but the men of the Argyll Regiment mustered and prepared for their awful task. At around five, Lt. Lindsay marched up to MacIain’s door. A servant awoke the chief to let him know that the soldiers were preparing to leave. MacIain instructed that a dram be taken to the young officer, while he dressed. Lindsay burst in and shot Glencoe in the back as he put on his kilt. The massacre had begun
Many of the soldiers wouldn’t betray those who’d given them shelter; others, Campbells included actually helped some to escape. But, enough was done. In the weeks that followed, errant chief after chief came forward to sign the oath to William; Stair’s plan couldn’t have possibly worked better. However, there was an outcry in both Edinburgh and London over what amounted to ethnic cleansing. Fingers were pointed in multiple directions: Stair, Breadalbane, Glenlyon and on and on. However, Stair had had the presence of mind to make sure the king himself had signed the order; and at the end of the day no-one was going to shake the throne for the want of 38 dead MacDonalds.
The Massacre of Glencoe was not the bloodiest, not the most treacherous act in the history of the Highlands; but, it was murder under trust that could not be forgiven. The bond of trust, even among enemies which had helped people survive in the wild Highlands was broken for good, it was the beginning of the end; and for that all were to blame.
This article was written by David McNicoll, owner of Vacation Scotland