Glen Coe Massacre 13th Feb 1692

Glen Coe, Scottish highlands, Buachaille Etive Mor mountain.

The MacDonalds and the Campbells 

The two Highland clans at the centre of the Glencoe Massacre had a history of feuding. Their lineages are interwoven, with both clans having long histories linked to Robert the Bruce and the fight for independence. As they each grew more powerful, they wrestled for dominance and titles, often raiding each other’s land when the opportunity arose, stealing cattle. They both also had opposing political views, with the MacDonalds supporting the deposed King James. 

And although it’s the Campbells who are most associated with the massacre of the MacDonalds, it was less an issue of clan rivalry than it was a plot by the government to bring Highland clans into line behind King William. 

The Oath of Allegiance 

Despite the first Jacobite risings mostly resulting in defeat for the Highlanders, William III wanted to pacify any clans sworn to James and his claim to the throne, including the Glencoe MacDonalds. William demanded that all the clans sign an oath of allegiance to him, initially with the promise of giving them money and land. 

Any clan signing the oath before 1 January 1692 would be pardoned, while anyone who refused would be punished as traitors.  

One of the problems for the clans was that they were already felt bound by an oath to James, and he only gave his consent to this request from William in mid-December. News only reached the MacDonalds on 28 December: they had three days to meet the deadline. The chief of the Glencoe MacDonalds, Maclain, set out to Fort William, but there was no-one there who could take his oath, and he had to go to Inveraray, 60 miles away. He arrived late, but was eventually allowed to take the oath on 6 January – he believed it had been accepted and his clan was safe. But the decision to make an example of them had already been made. Glencoe’s fate was sealed. It’s known that Lord Dalrymple and others in the government disliked the Highlanders, and the MacDonalds in particular, so some might argue that this was their intention all along. 

The Massacre 

Two companies totalling around 120 men, from the Earl of Argyll’s regiment, but led by Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, arrived in Glencoe in late January. They were ‘quartered’ by the MacDonalds, meaning they were given bed and board, for almost two weeks. Although hospitality like this was traditional in the Highlands, in reality the villagers had little choice.  

Then, on the evening of 12 February 1692, Glenlyon and the other officers received orders to destroy the MacDonald clan: 


“‘You are hereby ordered to fall upon the Rebells, the McDonalds of Glenco, and putt all to the sword under Seventy.’” 

At 5am the following morning, Glenlyon’s men were given the signal and attacked.  

The first man killed was Maclain, before the attackers went up and down the glen killing anyone under the age of 70, including women and children. It seems likely that some of the soldiers alerted the families, giving some of them a chance to escape.  

However, 38 men, women and children were killed in the attack, and many more died of exposure, evading the onslaught, but succumbing to the harsh weather/freezing winter conditions in the mountains. 

The Aftermath 

When news of the massacre eventually reached the wider public, having first been published in France, a Scottish Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry determined that the killings were ‘murder under trust’. At the time, when hospitality was a cornerstone of the Highlanders’ way of life, this was a shocking and terrible crime. 

The Glencoe Massacre did damage William III’s reputation, although he was absolved of any wrongdoing. But many of the instigators of the crime, like Lord Dalrymple, avoided any real repercussions. Much of the blame was laid at the feet of Clan Campbell, when in fact only a dozen or so Campbells were involved.

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