The Massacre of Glencoe

Submitted by Owen McCafferty on Sun, 2009-07-05

William of Orange

The massacre of the MacDonald’s of Glencoe is one of the most notorious acts of infamy in Scottish history and is remembered even now with bitter distaste by many of that clan.

In 1691 all Highland Clan Chiefs were required to swear and sign an oath of loyalty to the new, protestant King William III by no later than 1 January 1692.

The penalties against those who failed to do so would be ferocious, and carried out with the full backing of the law. These would include the forfeiture of all lands, the destruction of their homes, the outlawing of their entire families and even murder at will.

Faced with such a convincing argument, the Clan chiefs, believing discretion to be the better part of valour, practically queued to sign the oath by the appointed time.

One who failed to do so was MacIain of Glencoe, the elderly head of a small branch of MacDonalds. His non-appearance, however, was not the deliberate and defiant act of a rebel, but the simple result of unfortunate circumstance. MacIain had set off in ample time to sign his allegiance, but, misinformed, had gone to the wrong place. He then faced a frightful, forty mile journey in mid-winter to Inveraray near the head of Loch Fyne, where he arrived and swore the oath around a day late.

Sir, You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebels, the M’Donalds, of Glencoe and putt all to the sword under seventy. You are to have special care that the old fox and his sons doe upon no account escape your hands. You are to secure all the avenues, that no man may escape. This you are to putt in execution at five o’clock in the morning 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 five, you are not to tarry for me, but to fall on. This is by the King’s special command, for the good 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 treated as not true to the king’s government, nor a man fitt to carry a commission in the king’s service. Expecting you will not faill in the fulfilling hereof as you love yourself, I subscribe these with my hand.

Master of the Stair (John Dalyrmple)

His lateness, though, provided just the excuse that certain parties in power were looking for to teach the unruly and lawless highlanders a lesson. Hey, a deadline’s a deadline.

The plan was devised by no less a person than the Secretary of State for Scotland, John Dalrymple of Stair, who, to cover his own ass no doubt, secured the King’s signature for it.

On the 1st February a division of troops from the Earl of Argyll’s regiment arrived in Glencoe under the command of Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon. The Campbells had been the hereditary enemies of the MacDonalds for centuries, but in spite of this the Highland tradition of refusing no visitor hospitality was upheld and the Campbell troops were invited into MacDonald homes where they were given food, drink and quarters.

For four days the Campbells enjoyed full MacDonald hospitality, while Captain Robert awaited his superiors’ orders.When those orders arrived, they left no room for doubt. He was instructed to butcher everyone, man, women and child, under the age of 70. There was to be no mercy for any amongst this “sept of thieves.”

On the evening of 5th February Captain Robert dined with MacIain and his wife. At first light the following morning his men fell upon the unsuspecting MacDonalds and slaughtered 38 of them, a less than satisfactory result in view of his explicit orders to spare none.


What makes Glencoe so chilling is that it was no inter-clan affair but a deliberate, government sponsored massacre, carried out by regular troops under proper military command, carrying out a national policy.

It is this complicity at the highest levels of government that makes Glencoe so notorious, and it is hard to drive through this wild, haunting place even today without the hairs standing up on the back of your neck.

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