Massacre of Glencoe

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Panoramic view westward along the glen

The Massacre of Glencoe occurred in Glen Coe, Scotland early in the morning on February 13, 1692, during the era of the Glorious Revolution and Jacobitism. The massacre began simultaneously in three settlements along the glen—Invercoe, Inverrigan and Achacon, although the killing took place all over the glen as fleeing MacDonalds were pursued. Thirty-eight MacDonalds were killed by the guests who had accepted their hospitality, on the grounds that the MacDonalds had not been prompt in pledging allegiance to the new king, Willem III of Orange. Another forty women and children died of exposure after their homes were burned. The massacre is still remembered as a government-sponsored atrocity. What was particularly reprehensible at the time was the breach of the Highland rule of hospitality that was involved; it was "murder under trust." The massacre is remembered as a tragic but also iconic moment in the history of Scotland, a lesson in what happens when social mores are betrayed.


In 1688 William, glad to enlist British help in his wars with France, accepted the invitation to take the throne of the Kingdom of England. The Scottish parliament was more cautious and invited letters from him and James VII (ousted as James II of England). When the arrogant response from James persuaded the Scots to accept William, John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, led Scottish Highlanders in Jacobite uprisings in an attempt to return the throne to King James.

Dundee was killed at the Battle of Killiecrankie, and the rising in Scotland suffered inconclusive defeat at the Battle of Dunkeld. On their way home from this battle, the MacIains of Glencoe, a sept of Clan MacDonald, together with their Glengarry cousins, looted the lands of Robert Campbell of Glenlyon and stole his livestock, increasing his problems with gambling debts and forcing him to take an army commission to provide for his family. In his subsequent appeal for compensation, Campbell clearly believed the Glengarry men to be the more culpable, making no mention of Glencoe.

The Scottish Jacobites were heavily defeated at the Haughs of Cromdale on May 1, 1690, and James was defeated on July 1 at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland. On August 27, 1691, William offered all Highland clans a pardon for their part in the Jacobite Uprising, as long as they took an oath of allegiance before January 1, 1692, in front of a magistrate. If they did not sign, they were threatened with reprisals.

The Highland chiefs sent word to James, now in exile in France, asking for his permission to take this oath. James dithered over his decision, convinced that he was close to returning to Britain to reclaim his throne. When it became apparent that this was not going to happen before the deadline, James sent orders back to Scotland authorizing the chiefs to take the oath. This message reached its recipients in mid-December, only a few weeks before the deadline in difficult winter conditions. A few managed to comply promptly and some did not comply, but Alastair MacIain, 12th Chief of Glencoe, waited until the last day before setting out to take the oath.

On December 31, 1691, he traveled to Fort William and asked Colonel Hill, the governor, to administer the required oath. Hill, however, demurred on the grounds that he was not authorized to receive the necessary oath. He instructed MacIain to proceed quickly to Inveraray to make his oath before Sir Colin Campbell, sheriff of Argyll. Colonel Hill gave MacIain a letter of protection and a letter to Campbell asking that he receive MacIain's oath since MacIain had come to Hill within the allotted time. Hill also reassured MacIain that no action would be taken against him without his having the opportunity to make his case before the king or the king's privy council.

It took MacIain three days to reach Inverary, partly due to winter weather, partly due to him being detained for a day at Balcardine Castle by the first company of the Earl of Argyll's Regiment of Foot, at the command of Captain Drummond, ensuring his lateness. On arrival at Inverary, he was forced to wait for three days for the arrival of Campbell, who was absent. Upon his return, Campbell reluctantly accepted MacIain's oath.

While MacIain was satisfied that he had satisfied the spirit of the required oath and therefore did not anticipate any action against himself or his people, some elements within the government saw an opportunity to use his failure to fulfill the letter of the requirement (by missing the deadline) to at one stroke make an example of the MacDonalds and simultaneously eliminate some enemies.

The massacre

A plot was set in motion which apparently involved John Dalrymple, Master of Stair and Lord Advocate, Sir Thomas Livingstone, commander of the forces in Scotland, and even King William, who signed and countersigned the orders.

In late January or early February 1692, the first and second companies of the Earl of Argyll's Regiment of Foot, around 120 men, under the command of Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon were billeted on the MacDonalds in Glencoe, who received them in the hospitable tradition of the Highlands. Most of the regiment was recruited from the Argyll estates, but only a minority actually bore the Campbell name. Others, including many of the officers, came from the Lowlands. Captain Campbell was related by marriage to old MacIain himself and so it was natural that he should be billeted at the Chief's own house.

Each morning for about two weeks, Captain Campbell visited the home of Alexander MacDonald, MacIain's youngest son, who was married to Campbell's niece, the sister of Rob Roy MacGregor. At this stage, it is not clear that Campbell knew the nature of their mission—ostensibly the purpose of collecting the Cess tax, instituted by the Scots Parliament in 1690. The planning was meticulous enough that they were able to produce legitimate orders to this effect from the very Colonel Hill who had tried to help MacIain complete his oath in the first place, thus dispelling any suspicion the Macdonalds might have felt, although it was also Colonel Hill who issued the orders to begin the massacre two weeks later.

On February 12, Captain Drummond arrived. Due to his role in ensuring MacIain was late in giving his oath, Drummond would not have been welcomed. As Drummond was captain of the grenadiers, the 1st company of the regiment, he was the ranking officer, yet did not take command. Drummond was bearing the following instructions for Robert Campbell, from his superior officer, a Major Duncanson.

Feb. 12, 1692


You are hereby ordered to fall upon the Rebels, the MacDonalds of Glencoe, and put all to the sword under 70. You are to have especial 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 can escape: this you are to put in Execution at five a Clock in the Morning 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 at five, you are not to tarry for me but fall on. This is by the King’s Special command, for the good and safety of the country, that these miscreants may be cut off root and branch. See that this be put in execution without Feud or Favor, else you may expect to be treated as not true to the King or 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 subscribed these with my hand.

Signed Robert Duncanson
For Their Majesties Service

To Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon

He spent the evening playing cards with his unsuspecting victims and upon retiring, wished them goodnight and accepted an invitation to dine with MacIain, the chief, the following day.

Alastair MacIain was killed while trying to rise from his bed by Lt. Lindsay Ensign Lundie, but his sons escaped as initially did his wife. In all, 38 men were murdered either in their homes or as they tried to flee the glen. Another 40 women and children died of exposure after their homes were burned. Elsewhere, various members of the two companies found ways of warning their hosts. Some took insubordination further—two lieutenants, Lt. Francis Farquhar and Lt. Gilbert Kennedy broke their swords rather than carry out their orders. They were arrested and imprisoned, but were exonerated, released and later gave evidence for the prosecution against their superior officers.

In addition to the soldiers who were actually in Glencoe that night, two other detachments each of four hundred men were, according to the plan, to have converged on the escape routes. Both were late in taking up their positions. It is possible that the snowstorm made arrival on time quite difficult—especially for those approaching over the Devil's Staircase from Kinlochleven; it is equally possible that they simply did not want to play any part in what they knew to be a heinous crime.

Facsimile of orders given to Capt. Robert Campbell by Major Duncanson


Under Scots law there was a special category of murder known as "murder under trust" which was considered to be even more heinous than ordinary murder. The Glencoe massacre was a clear example of such, and the results of the inquiry into it draws parallels with the Nuremburg Trials:

Though the command of superior officers be very absolute, yet no command against the laws of nature is binding; so that a soldier, retaining his commission, ought to refuse to execute any barbarity, as if a soldier should be commanded to shoot a man passing by inoffensively, upon the street, no such command would exempt him from the punishment of murder.

The challenge to the inquiry that had been established was to apportion blame on those responsible for the massacre, and yet the king himself, who could not be seen to be responsible, signed the orders that led to the massacre. By 1695, the Argyll Regiment had surrendered to the French in Flanders, putting Campbell, Drummond and Duncanson beyond the reach of Scots law. The conclusion of the commission was to exonerate the king and to place the blame for the massacre upon Secretary Dalrymple.

The Scottish Parliament, after reviewing the commission report, declared the execution of the MacDonald men to have been murder and delegated the "committee for the security of the kingdom" to prepare an address to the king which included recommendations for the punishment of the perpetrators of the plot and compensation to be paid to the surviving MacDonalds. As far as is known, these recommendations were never acted upon except for the imprisonment of John Campbell Earl of Breadalbane for a few days in Edinburgh castle on a charge of high treason because he had been involved in secret talks with the Jacobite chiefs.


The Glencoe massacre became a propaganda piece for Jacobite sympathies, which were to come to a head in the next generation in the Rising of 1745. In the Victorian era interest was revived and the massacre was romanticized in art and literature, such as Sir Walter Scott's The Highland Widow. Due to the involvement of Argyll's regiment under Glenlyon's command, the massacre was regarded not as a government action, but as a consequence of the ancient MacDonald - Campbell rivalry.

Memory of this massacre has been kept alive by continued ill feeling between MacDonalds and Campbells—since the late twentieth century the Clachaig Inn, a hotel and pub in Glencoe popular with climbers, has had a sign on its door saying "No Hawkers or Campbells".

Each year, on February 13, the Clan Donald Society of Edinburgh arranges an annual wreath laying ceremony at the memorial to the Massacre of Glencoe. Clansmen from Clan Donald, from across the world, attend the ceremony, along with local people. The memorial is situated in the village of Glencoe, approximately 200 yards from where the road through the village crosses the River Coe.

Ultimately, it has to be said that stories of ancient clan rivalries have only obscured the real horror of Glencoe. It was an act of official policy, conceived by a secretary of state for Scotland, executed by a Scottish commander-in-chief, approved by the king, and carried out by a regiment in the British Army. Indeed, the Argyll Regiment was deliberately chosen by Dalrymple because he knew how their involvement would be perceived. Lowlanders, like Dalrymple, had oft expressed hatred of Highland “barbarians.” At Glencoe, this hatred finally acquired a murderous form.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Buchan, John. The Massacre at Glencoe. Staplehurst: Spellmount Publishers Ltd. New edition, 1999. ISBN 1862270627
  • MacInnes, Malcolm. The massacre of Glencoe: An account of the tragedy of 13th February, 1692. Paisley: Alexander Gardner, 1922.
  • Starsmeare, David. Massacre at Glencoe: The Great Betrayal. Glasgow: Blackie, 1975. ISBN 021689848X

External links

All links retrieved November 7, 2022.


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