The Massacre of Glencoe Researched and written by Jimmy Powdrell Campbell

“You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebels, the MacDonalds of Glencoe, and put all to the sword under seventy.   You are to have a special care that the old fox and his sons do upon no account escape your hands.  You are to secure all the avenues that no man escape.”

There is no valley in Scotland which nature has endowed with more majesty, more savage beauty than Glencoe.  The mountains rise in stupendous masses all around forming an amphitheatre, vast in extent and preserving a stillness and an awesome solemnity.

But that stillness, that solemnity which impresses itself upon every traveller can never, with any certainty, be attributed solely to the desolate appearance of the glen.  It’s not hard to imagine that it emanates, rather, from something much more intangible. Three hundred years ago, in the early hours of a cold February morning, the snow covered valley of Glencoe was stained with the blood of the unsuspecting MacDonalds,  executed by order of the Sovereign.

At the end of August 1691, King William III had published a proclamation, offering an amnesty to the highlanders who had fought for James VII (&II of England),  conditional upon their swearing an oath of allegiance before the 1st of January, and on penalty of military execution after that date.

The taking of such an oath must have seemed, to someone not particularly troubled by a sense of honour, a simple task to which there could be no impediment other than obstinacy but, to the Highlanders, there was more than just the distasteful matter of their submission to the Crown.  The Jacobite clans had already sworn an oath of allegiance to King James, now in exile in France.  A further oath to King William could clearly have no meaning unless James could be persuaded to release them from the first.

Ambassadors were sent to await the exiled King’s decision, a decision which was not forthcoming until the 12th of December, 19 days before the amnesty was due to expire.  It would take nine of these for the ambassador to journey back to Edinburgh and then several days more before messengers could reach the first of the chieftains.  It was no earlier than the 29th of December when Alexander MacDonald, traditionally known as MacIain, clan chief of the MacDonalds of Glencoe received word that King James had considered the safety of the clans and that they were all discharged of their allegiance to him.  In common with other chiefs who had supported the Jacobite cause, MacDonald, perhaps with as much relief as reluctance, resolved to accept the amnesty and swear his allegiance to King William.

Throughout his life, this Godfather-like figure had earned and been accorded the utmost respect from his people.  To be forced to swear allegiance to King William was a wound to his pride and much has been made of the fact that MacDonald left the taking of the oath until the last possible minute but the facts tell a different story.

On the morning of the 30th of December he set off for the newly built Fort William at Inverlochy, arriving in the small hours of the 31st, the last day allowed by the proclamation.  He presented himself to Colonel John Hill, the Governor of Fort William, and asked him to administer the oath of allegiance.  The ruling, however, was quite clear… only the civil magistrate of the district could administer the oath.  In spite of MacDonald’s protest that no magistrate could have been reached before the day was out, Hill had no choice but to advise MacDonald to undertake, instantly, the 74 mile journey to Inverary.  He gave him a letter to present to Sir Colin Campbell, the sheriff of Argyllshire requesting Sir Colin to administer the oath and suggesting that “a lost sheep” might be welcome at any time.

The chieftain left Fort William immediately.  His journey took him through mountains almost impassable at that time of year, the country being covered with a deep snow yet, in his anxiety to reach Inverary, he made as much speed as possible, not even stopping to tell his family what was happening, though he passed within half a mile of his own house.

About half-way to his destination, passing through Barcaldine Estate, he was seized by a group of Grenadiers under the command of Captain Thomas Drummond of Argyll’s regiment.  He had, of course, in his possession, the letter from Colonel Hill proving the urgency of his business.  This was enough to persuade Drummond to lock him up for 24 hours, thereby ensuring that he could not possibly complete the journey in time.

He eventually arrived at Inverary on the 2nd, only to be told that Sir Colin Campbell had not yet returned from the New Year’s festivities.  He had to wait a further 3 days to meet the sheriff and then, as the time allowed under the proclamation had clearly expired, Sir Colin, at first, refused to administer the oath.  In the end, however, persuaded of the gravity of MacDonald’s situation, the sheriff relented and, on the 6th of January 1692, the oath of allegiance was administered to MacIain – Alexander MacDonald, Clan Chief, of the MacDonalds of Glencoe.  MacDonald then returned home, confident that, having done his utmost to comply with the injunction, he and his people were free from danger.

For all the bad blood which existed between the Campbell and the MacDonald clans, Sir Colin Campbell appears to have been anxious to see that no action be taken against Glencoe for the transgression which seemed, after all, to amount to no more than a technicality.

In his reply to Colonel Hill’s letter, he writes,

I endeavoured to receive the great lost sheep, Glencoe, and he has undertaken to bring in all his friends and followers as the Privy Council shall order.  I am sending to Edinburgh that Glencoe, though he was mistaken in coming to you to take the oath of allegiance, might yet be welcome.  Take care that he and his followers do not suffer till the King and Council’s pleasure be known.

He then sent, to his sheriff-clerk in Edinburgh, another Colin Campbell, the letter which he had received from Colonel Hill, together with a certificate testifying that MacDonald, amongst others, had taken the oath.  He asked the sheriff-clerk to lay the documents before the Privy Council and to report back with the Council’s decision regarding MacDonald’s oath.  Sheriff-clerk Campbell, however, like many of his profession, had an abhorrence of all things irregular, and like many of his name, an equal abhorrence of all things MacDonald.

Some furtive discussions now took place, involving other lawyers, clerks to the Council and certain Privy Councillors, in an unofficial capacity.  As a result of these discussions, it fell upon Campbell to eliminate a possibility which had occurred to them all… that the Privy Council might just let MacDonald off the hook.  If the question of Glencoe’s tardy oath, with all its legal implications and political ramifications had taken up much of their time, the solution, once decided, was quick… The sheriff-clerk simply scored MacDonald’s name off the certificate.

The rich and colourful yet frequently violent history of the Highlands of Scotland owes much to both the Campbells and the MacDonalds, and the number of enemies that the Glencoe Clan had made was, to them, a matter of pride rather than regret but that this official should take so much upon himself is hardly explained by his traditional enmity towards the MacDonalds.  He defaced the certificate in the sure and certain knowledge that he was pleasing his superiors and in particular, the subtle and ruthless personage of the Scottish Secretary, Sir John Dalrymple, Master of Stair.

Dalrymple’s contempt for the highlanders, and the MacDonalds in particular, is a matter of record.  The hatred which all but consumed this powerful player in Scottish politics can be glimpsed in his letter of the 7th January to Sir Thomas Livingston, the Commander-in-Chief of the King’s forces in Scotland,

you know, in general, that these troops posted at Inverness and Inverlochie will be ordered to take in the house of Invergarry, and to destroy entirely the country of Lochaber, Lochiel’s lands, Keppoch’s, Glengarie’s, Appin and Glencoe.  I assure you your power shall be full enough, and I hope the soldiers will not trouble the Government with prisoners.

There followed a brief period of confusion as to who had and had not taken the oath but on the 11th of January, Dalrymple despatched a set of instructions empowering Livingston to enforce the penalties of the proclamation upon all the so-called rebel clans, the document being signed both at the beginning and the end by the King.

You are hereby ordered and authorised to march our troops which are now posted at Inverlochy and Inverness and to act against these Highland rebels who have not taken the benefit of our indemnity, by fire and sword and all manner of hostility; to burn their houses, seize or destroy their goods or cattle, plenishings or clothes, and to cut off the men.

The King’s orders also allowed Livingston to show mercy and to take the chieftains as prisoners of war, provided they then take the oath but, as before, these orders were accompanied by Dalrymple’s letter which reads,

Only just now, my Lord Argyle tells me that MacDonald of Glencoe has not taken the oath, at which I rejoice.  It is a great work of charity to be exact in rooting out that damnable sept, the worst of the Highlands.

Now, with the official confirmation that MacDonald had not sworn, the extensive military exercise, previously planned, was no longer necessary.  A quick, brutal, punitive strike against Glencoe would suffice to bring the other rebel clans to heel and the bulk of King William’s forces could be released for more important duties on the Continent.

Further orders bearing the date of the 16th of January, again signed and countersigned by the King were despatched by Dalrymple.  The fourth clause sealed the fate of Glencoe and his people.

If MacIain of Glencoe, and that tribe, can be well separated from the rest, it will be a proper vindication of the public justice to extirpate that set of thieves.

Immediately on receipt of his instructions, Livingston wrote not to Colonel Hill but to his deputy, Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton, who, unlike his superior, could be relied upon “not to reason why.”  In this letter, he points out that this would be a good occasion for Hamilton to show that his garrison served for some use.  The instructions were clear:  he should begin with MacIain of Glencoe, spare nothing of what belongs to him… and then, a familiar phrase, “not to trouble the Government with prisoners.

In preparation to carrying out the massacre, two companies of Argyle’s regiment, a total of about 120 men, under the command of Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, were ordered to proceed to Glencoe by the beginning of February, and under pretext, to remain there and await further orders.
Glenlyon had a well-justified personal grudge against the  MacDonalds of Glencoe who, less than two years since, returning from battle, had left a wake of destruction as they passed through his estate.  It may be mere coincidence that Campbell of Glenlyon was chosen for this task but the fact that this enemy of the MacDonalds also had a niece who was married to MacDonald’s younger son was certainly no disadvantage to Dalrymple’s strategy.

It’s also interesting that Campbell was in charge not only of his own company of infantrymen but also the battalion’s finest and most trusted troops, the grenadiers.  Their own captain would be absent until the eve of the massacre and with very good reason:  he was the same Captain Thomas Drummond whom Glencoe had encountered on his way to take the oath of allegiance.

In order to persuade the MacDonalds that this military force presented no threat to them, an explanation was contrived to the effect that their sole purpose in being in Glencoe was to collect arrears of taxes in the surrounding area and that they sought convenient quarters to enable them to perform that duty.  They had, in their possession, proof of this bogus assignment:  papers, signed by a now deeply troubled Colonel Hill, the Governor of Fort William.  They also gave their word that they came as friends and that no harm would be done to the person or properties of the chief and his tenants.  They and their men were made welcome by the MacDonald families and given free lodgings in the villages throughout the glen.  For twelve days, they were entertained by Glencoe, his family and his people.  Indeed, almost every day, Glenlyon visited his niece, Sarah, and young Sandy MacDonald, enjoying, in the traditions of Highland hospitality, a regular drink in their company.

It is remarkable that this Government who sought to bind the Highland clans by their honour in an oath of allegiance, should choose to resolve their own difficulties by unprecedented dishonour and treachery but Dalrymple’s plot amounted to no more, and no less.

The true circumstances of MacDonald’s transgression had soon been swept under the carpet and a general enthusiasm to make an example of the MacDonalds had gathered an unseemly momentum.  Dalrymple maintained his pressure on the military, inciting them to the carnage.  On the 30th of January, in a letter to Sir Thomas Livingston,  he wrote,

I am glad Glencoe did not come within the time prescribed.  I hope what’s done there may be done in earnest, since the rest of them are in no condition to draw together to help.  I think to plunder their cattle and burn their houses would only make them desperate men, who would live outside the law and rob their neighbours but I know you will agree that it will be a great advantage to the nation, when that thieving tribe is rooted out and cut off.

On the same day, in a letter to Colonel Hill, he says,
when it comes the time to deal with Glencoe, let it be secret and sudden.  It is better not to meddle with them at all, if it cannot be done to purpose, and better to cut off that nest of robbers who have fallen foul of the law, now, when we have both the power and the opportunity.  When the full force of the King’s Justice is seen to come down upon them, that example will be as conspicuous and useful as is his clemency to others.
“I understand the weather is so bad that you will be unable to move for some time but I know you will be in action as soon as possible, for these false people will not hesitate to attack you if they come to suspect you might be a threat to them.

Finally, on the 12th of February, at Dalrymple’s absolute insistence, Colonel Hill, gave the order to Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton, to execute the instructions already in his possession.

A simultaneous assault on key locations in Glencoe was determined for 7 a.m. the following morning.  To one location, Hamilton was to take a party of Hill’s regiment.  Several posts were assigned to a detachment of Argyll’s regiment under the command of Major Robert Duncanson, now encamped in readiness only a few miles from Glencoe on the other side of Loch Leven, and at his quarters in the very midst of the MacDonalds, Captain Campbell of Glenlyon was finally instructed as to the true object of his mission. The orders came from Duncanson and, in the first three sentences, the full horror of Glenlyon’s task was made brutally clear.

You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebels, the MacDonalds of Glencoe, and put all to the sword under seventy.   You are to have a special care that the old fox and his sons do upon no account escape your hands.  You are to secure all the avenues that no man escape.

[And then, in the next line, …. a deliberate error…]

This you are to put in execution at five of the clock precisely; and by that time, or very shortly after it, I’ll strive to be at you with a stronger party.  If I do not come to you at five, you are not to tarry for me but to fall on.

[By a simple matter of bringing the time of the assault forward by two hours, Duncanson effectively puts half a mile of Loch Leven water between himself and the massacre.  He concludes with all the authority and threat that might be expected of him.]

This is by the King’s special command, for the good and safety of the country that these miscreants be cut off root and branch.  See that this be put 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 fit to carry Commission in the King’s service. Expecting you will not fail in the fulfilling hereof, as you love yourself. I subscribe these with my hand at Ballachulish, February 12th, 1692.

Robert Duncanson.

As Campbell of Glenlyon considered his orders, two officers under Hamilton’s command to the north were being held under close arrest for putting conscience before duty and refusing to march on Glencoe.

It is to the eternal shame of Glenlyon and, to an extent, every man who bears the name Campbell, that, after almost a fortnight of living  under the same roof as the MacDonalds, and of sharing their table, while the drink, the wit and the conversation flowed ever more freely, he did not follow the same course as these two officers who broke their swords and “damn the consequences.”

That evening, Campbell of Glenlyon carried out the final spurious gesture of friendship by playing cards with John and Alexander MacDonald, the sons of the chieftain.  He had also accepted an invitation from MacIain himself to dine with him the following day.

In the early hours of Saturday the 13th of February, while the rest of the valley slept, Campbell’s men were making ready for the assault.  Stealth was central to the success of whole operation yet it was soldiers calling to him from outside his window which woke John MacDonald, the elder son of the chief.

Before he could make any sense of the incident, they were gone, the shouts now muffled and fading in the heavy snow.  It was impossible to tell…. had it been a prank or had the soldiers been trying to warn him of something?  Whatever their intent, there was military activity afoot and, at such an hour, it at least warranted investigation.  He got dressed and made his way to Glenlyon’s quarters at the village of Inveriggan but he was unprepared for the scene which confronted him on his arrival.  The whole detachment was present and preparations for an imminent action were well under way.

If MacDonald’s alarm caused him to hold back for a moment, the appearance of the senior officer, the now familiar figure of Campbell of Glenlyon, who, only hours ago, had been his adversary over the card table,  must have restored his confidence.  He asked, outright, for an explanation.
Glenlyon confided that the troops had orders to march against some of Glengarry’s men and assured him that there was no hostile intention towards the MacDonalds.  Indeed, it was foolish to think otherwise for if, God forbid,  he was contemplating any action against Glencoe, would he not have told Sandy and his own niece?

The explanation could not have been more simple, nor the argument more plausible.  It may have left MacDonald perplexed, his instinct telling him one thing, his reason insisting upon another, but he returned to his home and his bed.

He was prevented from sleeping by his old servant who was finding the story hard to accept.  Something, he felt, just didn’t ring true.  …and where was MacDonald of Inveriggan?  Why was he not up and about?  Was it not strange that with all this going on over there that not one of the MacDonalds had stirred?  It was indeed strange but John MacDonald was satisfied that Glenlyon had spoken the truth…  then again, if the old man insisted upon keeping vigil, he saw no reason to stop him.

Within minutes, the servant was back in the room.  There were troops approaching the house.  Even before the man had finished speaking, MacDonald was out of bed and at the door, shouting back instructions to waken his brother, Sandy.  The troops weren’t far off.  He made their number to be about twenty.  They carried muskets with fixed bayonets.

Moments later, the soldiers had the house surrounded.  The door was thrown open and they burst in.  They searched every room, though it had been obvious from the start – the family had gone and, their tracks being covered by the blizzard, pursuit would be futile.  This, however, was possibly the last time that the bitter wind and driving snow would be a friend to the MacDonalds of Glencoe.
The massacre commenced at five o’ clock in three villages at once.  At his quarters at Inveriggan, Campbell of Glenlyon ordered that nine men who had been bound and gagged for the past few hours be dealt with.  They were taken outside and shot, one by one.  MacDonald of Inveriggan, Glenlyon’s own host for the past fortnight, was one of these.  This man had in his possession a letter of protection signed by Colonel Hill.

High in the hill above the village of Auchnaion, the shots were heard by John and Sandy MacDonald, their families and their servants, but the real extent of the butchery at Inveriggan could not be imagined.  Captain Thomas Drummond was there and making his presence felt.  Glenlyon had been reluctant to take the life of a young man of about twenty years of age, but he was challenged by Drummond who was not a man to allow compassion, to interfere with his duty.  Why, in view of the orders, was this man still alive?  Before Glenlyon could venture an answer, the young man was shot dead.   Drummond also ran his dagger through the body of a 12 year old boy who had grasped Campbell by the legs, offering to go anywhere with him if he would spare his life.

The cruelty at Inveriggan included the slaughter of a woman and her five year old son, but instances of an equal barbarity were to be found elsewhere that morning.  At Carnoch, the pretence of friendship was carried as far as the chieftain’s door when Glenlyon’s junior officer, Lieutenant Lindsay, arrived with a party of soldiers.   After making their apologies to the servant for calling so early, MacIain’s murderers were actually invited into the house.

Glencoe was shot twice as he was getting out of  bed and fell lifeless in front of his wife.  One ball entered the back of his head, the other penetrated his body.  His wife was stripped naked and thrown out of the house.  One of the soldiers is said to have pulled the rings from her fingers with his teeth and then she was left to lie in the snow.  She died the following day.

At the laird’s house in the village of Auchnaion, a group of nine men were gathered round the fire.  They had been wakened in the early hours when the soldiers who were staying with them were first drawn out of the houses.  A detail under the command of Sergeant Barber who had been quartered in that very house put an end to their discussion.  Five of the men were killed instantly and another three were wounded.  MacDonald of Auchintriaten, who died there in his brother’s house,  had, in his pocket, a letter of protection signed by Colonel Hill.  Three men escaped by the back of the house but Auchintriaten’s brother remained, motionless, on the floor.  Barber was about to finish him off when the MacDonald asked if he was to be killed under the roof that they had shared for the past fortnight.  The sergeant conceded the point.  Since he’d been eating MacDonald’s meat, he would do him the favour of killing him outside.  Two soldiers escorted him out but, once through the door, MacDonald threw his plaid over their faces and he, too, escaped and lived to recount the story.
Some told of soldiers who deliberately allowed men to slip away or who fired over the heads of the men they had been ordered to pursue but the few pathetic accounts of an escape from the slaughter are eclipsed by the catalogue of utter misery and agony inflicted in the name of righteousness and justice.

Throughout the glen, men were dragged from their beds and murdered.  The soldiers torched the houses as they went, and a scene of the most heart rending description ensued.  Ejected from their burning homes, women of all ages, some almost in a state of nudity, the old and the frail, mothers carrying infants and some with helpless children clinging to them, were to be seen all wending their way into the mountains in a piercing snow storm.  One by one, they were overcome by fatigue and exposure and, before any shelter could be reached, many of them perished miserably in the snow.

Three weeks later, on the 5th of March, the architect of this so-called “great work of charity”, the Scottish Secretary, Sir John Dalrymple, confessed that all he regretted was that any of the MacDonalds got away.

Fortunately for society, most of Dalrymple’s peers were not his equal.  In every quarter, even at court, the account of the massacre was received with horror and indignation.  It is said that the anger of the nation rose to such a pitch that had the exiled monarch appeared at the head of a few thousand men, he would probably have succeeded in regaining his crown.

The ministry and even King William grew alarmed and, to pacify the people, he dismissed Dalrymple from his councils and appointed a commission of enquiry to investigate the affair.  In his defence, the King explained that he had signed the execution order among a mass of other papers, without knowing its contents.  The commissioners, however, seem to have taken the view that, since the orders were both signed and countersigned by His Majesty, the public would not readily accept that as credible.  The explanation which they put forward was even less credible, but deliberately so.  In barefaced defiance of the intellect of every reasonable person, they claimed that there was nothing in the King’s instructions to warrant the slaughter.  The effect was that public outrage was replaced by utter bewilderment.  At some point, the fiction was then ventured that the massacre was merely the result of a long standing feud between the Campbell and the MacDonald clans. This finally deflected the attention away from the dishonour and the barbarity of the military exercise as a subject of public concern and all was well, once again.  The whole affair would soon be forgotten by all but the Jacobites.  Although the commission blamed Dalrymple for the atrocity, neither he nor any of the other participants were ever brought to trial, for the obvious reason that they would have cited, in their defence, the King’s orders to extirpate the clan.

The myth of the “Campbells & MacDonalds” falls far short of the truth but, like all mythology,  it is not without foundation.  During the previous year, the Government’s hopes to secure a peace in the Highlands had centred on the diplomatic efforts of Sir John Campbell, the Earl of Breadalbane.  As early as June 1691, the MacDonalds might have agreed to end hostilities but Breadalbane undermined his own skills as a negotiator by introducing a personal grievance which really boiled down to a matter of some stolen cows, and the opportunity was lost.  Having failed to get satisfaction from Glencoe over the business of the cattle, his mind may have turned to revenge and there is evidence to support the belief that it was he who first suggested to Dalrymple that the MacDonalds of Glencoe be singled out as an example of the King’s justice.  Three months after the massacre, Breadalbane, ever the negotiator, had no qualms about contacting Glencoe’s sons and offering to use his influence to have reparations awarded to them if they would declare, publicly, that he had no part in it.

We tend to think on government propaganda as being a modern device but here is a story, more than three hundred years old, and, even now, the fiction of the Campbells and the MacDonalds is remembered; Glencoe, if the government’s apologists were to be believed, was some sort of clan feud which descended into a dishonourable butchery. And they are widely believed! It’s now become a sort of romantic curiosity for the tourist trade. I might as well declare an interest at this point. Being a Campbell, by name, and a Jacobite by nature, descended from a long line of recusants (interesting how many people don’t even know what that means) and Jacobites, this story strikes a chord. Decent, ordinary people in 1692 would have found it a lot easier to believe the story of the Campbells and the MacDonalds than to come to terms with the fact that their King sanctioned and the Scottish Secretary planned one of the most dishonourable massacres in history. Nothing changes.

It is probable that the massacre of Glencoe was conceived in a Campbell mind, made possible through Campbell complicity, and achieved by a Campbell’s dishonour, but behind it was a driving force and a guiding hand which belonged to the Scottish Secretary, Sir John Dalrymple, Master of Stair.  Ten years later, that same hand would be helping, in no small measure, to guide Scotland towards the Union of the Parliaments, but that’s another story.

©Scotland Talking 1992

A copy of a Scottish Records Office publication, providing references to some of the sources of documentary evidence used in preparation of the foregoing account, has been uploaded in image form (i.e. I haven’t yet had time to transcribe it).  The images have been compressed as much as possible (50kb & 120kb).  

  • An audio cassette of this story was produced in 1992 by “Scotland Talking” and the preceding account of the massacre is essentially a copy of the script for that production.
  • Narrated by actor James Bryce, one of Scotland’s top story-tellers, the Massacre of Glencoe was researched and written by Jimmy Powdrell Campbell.

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