The Massacre of Glencoe (Scottish Gaelic: Murt Ghlinne Comhann) took place in Glen Coe in the Highlands of Scotland on 13 February 1692. An estimated 30 members and associates of Clan MacDonald of Glencoe were killed by government forces, allegedly for failing to pledge allegiance to the new monarchs, William III of Scotland and Mary II.
By May 1690, the Jacobite rising of 1689 was no longer a serious military threat but unrest continued in the remote Highlands; with William also engaged in the Nine Years War, the Scottish government was under pressure to end it. In March 1690, the Jacobite chiefs agreed to swear allegiance in return for cash payments, but continually delayed; despite finally committing themselves under the June 1691 Declaration of Achallader, they still had not done so by December.
Frustrated by this, the Secretary of State for Scotland, Lord Stair, decided to make an example to provide a warning of the consequences for further delay. Why the Glencoe MacDonalds were selected is still debated; it appears to have been a combination of internal clan politics, and a reputation for lawlessness that made them an easy target.
While the massacre was not unique in Scottish history, its brutality was shocking in the context of late 17th century Scottish society. It was a significant element in the persistence of Jacobitism in the Highlands, and remains a powerful symbol for a variety of reasons.
It has been argued the Highlands were generally more peaceful than often suggested, in part because chiefs could be fined for crimes committed by their clansmen. The exception was Lochaber, persistently identified as a refuge for cattle raiders and thieves by government officials, other chiefs and even Gaelic poets. Four clans from this area were named as particularly responsible; the Glencoe and Keppoch MacDonalds, the MacGregors and the Camerons.
Levies from all four served in the Independent Companies used to suppress the Conventicles in 1678-1680, and took part in the devastating Atholl raid that followed Argyll’s Rising in 1685. Primarily directed against areas in Cowal and Kintyre settled by Lowland migrants, it destabilised large parts of the central and southern Highlands, and the government of James II had to use military force to restore order. The Keppoch MacDonalds were outlawed first in 1688 for attacking government troops, then again in 1689 for supporting the Jacobites.
In March 1689, James landed in Ireland while John Graham, 1st Viscount Dundee recruited a small force for a supporting campaign in Scotland, which included the Camerons and Keppoch MacDonalds. Despite victory at the Battle of Killiecrankie on 27 July, Dundee was killed along with 600 Highlanders; the survivors spent the winter in Lochaber, before organised Jacobite resistance ended with defeat at Cromdale in May 1690.
However, a continuing low level Scottish insurgency used resources William needed for the Nine Years’ War. In addition, links between Irish and Scottish branches of the MacDonalds, as well as Scots and Irish Presbyterians, meant unrest in one country often spilled into the other. This made Lochaber and the clans who dominated it central to the overall government strategy of pacifying the Highlands.
Oath of Allegiance to William & Mary
After Killiecrankie, the Scottish government held a series of meetings with the Jacobite chiefs, offering terms that varied based on events in Ireland and Scotland. In March 1690, the Secretary of State, Lord Stair, offered a total of £12,000 for swearing allegiance to William. They agreed to do so in the June 1691 Declaration of Achallader, the Earl of Breadalbane signing for the government; in July, the Battle of Aughrim ended the War in Ireland and immediate prospects of a Restoration.
On 26 August, a Royal Proclamation offered a pardon to anyone taking the Oath prior to 01 January 1692, with severe reprisals for those who did not. Two days later, secret articles appeared, cancelling the agreement in the event of a Jacobite invasion and signed by all the attendees, including Breadalbane, who claimed they had been manufactured by Glengarry, the MacDonald chief. Stair’s letters increasingly focused on enforcement, reflecting his belief forged or not, none of the signatories intended to keep their word.
In early October, the chiefs asked James for permission to take the Oath unless he could mount an invasion before the deadline, a condition they knew to be impossible. His approval was sent on 12 December, and received by Glengarry on the 23rd, who did not share it until the 28th. One suggestion for the delay was an internal power struggle between Protestant elements of the MacDonald clan, like Glencoe, and the Catholic minority, led by Glengarry.
As a result, MacIain of Glencoe only left for Fort William on 30 December to take the Oath from the governor, Lieutenant Colonel John Hill. Since he was not authorised to accept it, Hill sent MacIain to Inverary with a letter for the local magistrate, Sir Colin Campbell confirming his arrival before the deadline. Sir Colin administered the Oath on 06 January, after which MacIain returned home. Glengarry did not swear until 4 February, with others doing so by proxy, but only MacIain was excluded from the indemnity issued by the Scottish Privy Council.
Stair’s letter of 02 December to Breadalbane shows the intention of making an example was taken well before the deadline for the Oath but as a much bigger operation; …the clan Donell must be rooted out and Lochiel. Leave the McLeans to Argyll… In January, he wrote three letters in quick succession to Sir Thomas Livingstone, military commander in Scotland; on 7th, the intention was to ….destroy entirely the country of Lochaber, Locheal’s lands, Kippochs, Glengarrie and Glenco…; on 9th …their chieftains all being papists, it is well the vengeance falls there; for my part, I regret the MacDonalds had not divided and…Kippoch and Glenco are safe. The last on 11 January states; …my lord Argile tells me Glenco hath not taken the oaths at which I rejoice….
Parliament passed a Decree of Forfeiture in 1690, depriving Glengarry of his lands, but he continued to hold Invergarry Castle, whose garrison included the senior Jacobite officers Alexander Cannon and Thomas Buchan. This suggests the Episcopalian Glencoe MacDonalds only replaced the Catholic Glengarry as the target on 11 January; MacIain’s son John MacDonald told the 1695 Commission the soldiers came to Glencoe from the north ‘…Glengarry’s house being reduced.’
After two years of negotiations, Stair was under pressure to ensure the deal stuck, while Argyll was competing for political influence with his kinsman Breadalbane, who also found it expedient to concur with the plan. Glengarry was pardoned and his lands returned, while maintaining his reputation at the Jacobite court by being the last to swear and ensuring Cannon and Buchan received safe conduct to France in March 1692. In summary, the Glencoe MacDonalds were a small clan with few friends and powerful enemies.
In late January 1692, two companies or approximately 120 men from the Earl of Argyll’s Regiment of Foot arrived in Glencoe from Invergarry. Their commander was Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, a local landowner whose niece was married to one of MacIain’s sons. Campbell carried orders for ‘free quarter’, an established alternative to paying taxes in what was a largely non-cash society. The Glencoe MacDonalds themselves were similarly billeted on the Campbells when serving with the Highland levies used to police Argyll in 1678.
Highland regiments were formed by first appointing Captains, each responsible for recruiting sixty men from his own estates. Muster rolls for the regiment from October 1691 show the vast majority came from areas in Argyll devastated by the 1685 and 1686 Atholl. On 12 February, Hill ordered Hamilton to take 400 men and block the northern exits from Glencoe at Kinlochleven. Meanwhile, another 400 men under Major Duncanson would join Glenlyon’s detachment and sweep northwards up the glen, killing anyone they found, removing property and burning houses.
On the evening of 12 February, Glenlyon received written orders from Duncanson carried by another Argyll officer, Captain Thomas Drummond; their tone shows doubts as to his ability or willingness to carry them out.
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.
As Captain of the Argylls’ Grenadier company, Drummond was senior to Glenlyon; his presence appears to have been to ensure the orders were enforced, since witnesses gave evidence he shot two people who asked Glenlyon for mercy.
MacIain was killed, but his two sons escaped and the 1695 Commission was given various figures for total deaths. The often quoted figure of 38 was based on hearsay evidence from Hamilton’s men, while the MacDonalds claimed ‘the number they knew to be slaine were about 25.’ Recent estimates put total deaths resulting from the Massacre as ‘around 30’, while claims others died of exposure have not been substantiated.
Casualties would have been higher, but, whether by accident or design, Hamilton and Duncanson arrived after the killings had finished. Duncanson was two hours late, only joining Glenlyon at the southern end at 7:00 am, after which they advanced up the glen burning houses and removing livestock. Hamilton was not in position at Kinlochleven until 11:00; his detachment included two lieutenants, Francis Farquhar and Gilbert Kennedy who often appear in anecdotes claiming they ‘broke their swords rather than carry out their orders.’ This differs from their testimony to the Commission and is unlikely, since they arrived hours after the killings, which were carried out at the opposite end of the glen.
In his letters of 30 January to Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton and Colonel Hill, Stair expresses concern the MacDonalds would escape if warned, and emphasises the need for secrecy. This correlates with evidence from James Campbell, one of Glenlyon’s company, stating they had no knowledge of the plan until the morning of 13 February.
In May, fears of a French invasion meant the Argylls were posted to Brentford in England, then Flanders. The regiment remained here until the Nine Years’ War ended in 1697; it was disbanded, and no action taken against those involved. Glenlyon died in Bruges in August 1696, Duncanson was killed in Spain in May 1705, Drummond survived to take part in another famous Scottish disaster of the period, the Darien Scheme.
The killings first came to public attention when a copy of Glenlyon’s orders was apparently left in an Edinburgh coffee house, then smuggled to France and published in the Paris Gazette of 12 April 1692. Despite criticism of the government, there was little sympathy for the MacDonalds; the military commander in Scotland, Viscount Teviot wrote that ‘it’s not that anyone thinks the thieving tribe did not deserve to be destroyed but that it should have been done by those quartered amongst them makes a great noise.’ The impetus behind an inquiry was political; as a former member of James’ administration, who then became a supporter of the new regime, Stair was unpopular with both sides.
In the debate that followed, Colonel Hill claimed most Highlanders were peaceful, and even in Lochaber, a single person may travell safley where he will witout harme. He argued lawlessness was deliberately encouraged by leaders like Glengarry, while ‘the midle sort of Gentrey and Commons….never got anything but hurt’ from it. The 1693 Highland Judicial Commission tried to encourage use of the law to resolve issues like cattle-theft, but it was undermined by the clan chiefs, as it reduced control over their tenants.
The Massacre was referenced in a 1695 pamphlet by Jacobite-activist Charles Leslie, entitled Gallienus Redivivus, or Murther will out, &c. Being a true Account of the De Witting of Glencoe, Gaffney. The focus was William’s alleged complicity in the 1672 death of Johan de Witt, with Glencoe and other crimes included as secondary charges.
A Commission was set up to determine whether there was a case to answer under ‘Slaughter under trust’, a 1587 law intended to reduce endemic feuding. It applied only to murder committed in ‘cold-blood’, for example when articles of surrender had been agreed, or hospitality accepted, and was subject to interpretation. It was first used in 1588 against Lachlan Maclean, whose objections to his mother’s second marriage led him to murder his new stepfather, John MacDonald, and 18 members of the wedding party. Other examples include James MacDonald, who locked his parents inside their house, then set fire to it in 1597, and the killing of prisoners following the 1647 Battle of Dunaverty.
As both a capital offence and treason, it was an awkward weapon with which to attack Stair, as William himself signed the orders and the intent was widely known in government circles. The Commission therefore focused on whether participants exceeded their orders, not their legality; it concluded Stair and Hamilton had a case to answer but left the decision to William. While Stair was dismissed as Secretary of State, he returned to government in 1700 and was made an earl by the last Stuart monarch, Queen Anne. An application by the survivors for compensation was ignored; they rebuilt their houses, and participated in the 1715 and 1745 Jacobite risings. An archaeological survey in 2019 showed Glencoe was occupied until the Highland Clearances of the mid-18th century.
Aftermath and Legacy
The brutality of the Massacre shocked Scottish society and became a Jacobite symbol of post-1688 oppression; in 1745, Prince Charles ordered Leslie’s pamphlet and the 1695 Parliamentary minutes reprinted in the Edinburgh Caledonian Mercury. It was referenced by Whig historian, Thomas Macaulay, in his 1859 History. He sought to exonerate William from every charge made by Leslie, including the Massacre, which he claimed was part of a Campbell-MacDonald clan feud.
Victorian Scotland developed values that were pro-Union and pro-Empire, while also being uniquely Scottish. Historical divisions meant this was largely expressed through a shared cultural identity, while the study of Scottish history itself virtually disappeared from universities. Glencoe became part of a focus on ‘the emotional trappings of the Scottish past…bonnie Scotland of the bens and glens and misty shieling, the Jacobites, Mary, Queen of Scots, tartan mania and the raising of historical statuary.’
After the study of Scottish history re-emerged in the 1950s, Leslie’s perspectives continued to shape views of William’s reign as particularly disastrous for Scotland. The massacre was only one in a series of incidents deemed as such, including the Darien scheme, the famine of the late 1690s, and the Union of 1707. It is still commemorated in an annual ceremony by the Clan Donald Society; initiated in 1930, this is held at the Upper Carnoch memorial, a tapering Celtic cross installed in 1883 at the eastern end of Glencoe village.
Its continuing emotional power was demonstrated in 1998, when a plaque was installed at a granite boulder south of Carnach. Originally known as the ‘Soldier’s Stone’, in the late 19th century, it was renamed Clach Eanruig, or ‘Henry’s Stone’; it is currently named the Henderson Stone, after the family reputed to be pipers to MacIain.
In Popular Culture
Glencoe was a popular topic with 19th-century poets, the best-known work being Sir Walter Scott’s “Massacre of Glencoe”. It was used as a subject by 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. Other poetic references include Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s “Glencoe” (1823), T.S. Eliot’s “Rannoch, by Glencoe” and “Two Poems from Glencoe” by Douglas Stewart.
Examples in literature include “The Masks of Purpose” by Eric Linklater, and the novels Fire Bringer by David Clement-Davies, Corrag (known as Witch Light in paperback) by Susan Fletcher and Lady of the Glen by Jennifer Roberson. William Croft Dickinson references Glencoe in his 1963 short story “The Return of the Native”. A Song of Ice and Fire author, George R.R. Martin, cites the Glencoe Massacre as one of two historical influences on the infamous “Red Wedding” in his 2000 book A Storm of Swords.
Recent Archaeological Work
In 2018, a team of archaeologists organised by the National Trust for Scotland began surveying several areas related to the massacre, with plans to produce detailed studies of their findings. Work in the summer of 2019 focused on the settlement of Achtriachtan, at the extreme end of the glen; home to an estimated 50 people, excavations show it was rebuilt after 1692 and still occupied in the mid-18th century. No artefacts relating to the Massacre have been found as yet.