The Massacre of Glencoe

by Charlene McGowan

The Massacre of Glencoe has been written about, sung about and romanticized. It did, in fact happen pretty much as the song portrays.

The independent chiefs had become over powerful, some say to the point of being barbaric. They would execute members of the clan whom they felt deserved this extreme penalty, and, most irritating to their settled neighbors, they lived only for cattle raiding and plunder. Clans MacDonald and Campbell were two of the most notorious cattle reivers (thieves) and they mostly were stealing from each other.

]]> Support our sponsors Towards the end of 1691, William III considered the best way to establish law and order would be to grant an amnesty and let bygones be bygones. However, a condition of this amnesty was that all the clan chieftains who had not previously done so must acknowledge allegiance by January 1 1692. For some reason, pride, or otherwise, MacDonald of Glencoe (MacIan) was one of the last to comply with the terms of the government. On December 31, 1691, MacIan made his way to Fort William and presented himself to Colonel Hill, the governor, asking him to administer the required oath of allegiance. The colonel declined saying that according to proclamation, the civil magistrate alone could administer the oath. MacIan pleaded with him as to the urgency of the matter and the fact that there was no magistrate he could reach before the expiration of the day. Hill persisted in asserting his power, but advised MacIan to proceed instantly to Inverary. He provided him with a letter to Sir Colin Campbell of Ardinglass, sheriff of Argyleshire begging him to receive MacIan as “a lost sheep” and to administer the necessary oaths. Hill also gave him a letter of protection and an assurance that no proceedings should be instituted against him under the proclamation till he should have an opportunity of laying his case before the King of the privy council.

MacIan left Fort William immediately and traveled through almost impassable mountains covered with snow. Campbell was absent when he got there and MacIan had to wait three days till his return, Sir Colin having been prevented from reaching Inverary sooner on account of the weather. Campbell, at first, declined to see MacIan as the time allowed for the proclamation had expired but MacIan threatened to protest against the sheriff should he refuse to act. Campbell yielded, administered the oath, and MacIan returned home believing himself free of danger.

At the beginning of February, a company of 120 men descended on Glencoe under the command of Captain Campbell of Glenlyon, who was related by marriage to MacIan. Under the pretext of friendship and to obtain suitable quarters where they could conveniently collect the arrears of “cess and hearth-money”, a new tax law laid by Scottish parliament in 1690, they received a hearty welcome.

Glenlyon and his troops were entertained by MacIan and his people for over a week. On the 12th of February, the order of “fire and sword” (to put everyone to death and burn everything) was handed down to Arglye’s regiment and they were ordered to proceed to Glencoe so as to reach the post by five o’clock the following morning. The instructions reached Glenlyon to “all upon the MacDonald’s precisely at five o’clock the following morning and put all the sword under 70 years of age”.

After dinner and a card game with the sons of the chieftain, Glenlyon wished them a goodnight and even accepted an invitation by MacIan to dine with him the following day. MacIan and his sons retired at their usual hour, but early in the morning, one of the sons hearing voices about his house, grew alarmed and, jumping out of bed, went to Glenlyon’s quarters to ascertain the cause of the unusual bustle which had interrupted is sleep. He found the soldiers all in motion and inquired of Glenlyon the object of these preparations. Glenlyon pretended that his purpose was to march against some of Glengarry’s men and explained if he had intended any harm to the clan, he would have provided for the safety of his niece and her husband.

Satisfied, young MacDonald retired to his house, but had not been long in bed when he was awakened by his servant informing him of the approach of a party of men towards the house. Seeing this company of 20 or so soldiers with muskets and fixed bayonets, he fled to a hill in the neighborhood where he was later joined by his brother who had escaped after being awakened by a servant.

The massacre commenced at five o’clock in the morning February 13 at three different places at once. Glenlyon undertook to butcher his own hospitable landlord and other inhabitants at Inverriggan. MacIan was shot while rising to receive what he thought were visitors and fell into the arms of his wife. The lady herself was stripped naked and treated so cruelly (the soldiers pulled her rings off with their teeth), that she died the next morning.

A third party fired upon nine men in a house sitting before a fire. One of these men had a protection in his pocket from Colonel Hill.

There were persons dragged from their beds and murdered in all parts of the glen. In all, only 38 persons out of 200 were slaughtered. They burned the houses and carried off the cattle, thus preventing the inhabitants from returning to the Glen. Those that had fled, including elderly matrons, women with child, and mothers with infants at their breasts, followed by children were left to try to find their way through the snow covered mountains, many perishing from cold, hunger and fatigue.

It all aroused a great outcry in Scotland, even in the Lowlands where Highlanders were scorned. The authorities realized that they had gone too far and Stair ( the King’s advisor) had to retire from the scene for a while, but he was never punished and eventually was promoted to the Earl of Stair. King William himself could not escape responsibility for he had given the orders of fire and sword on Stair’s advice. Nothing was ever done in the way of punishment to anyone involved in the incident. However the Earl of Breadalbane was found guilty of High treason and he spent a few days imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle. The entire incident was hushed up and is now a part of history that is regarded as a sad and unexplainable blunder. It however has made both those that were the perpetrators and the victims forever famous. Even today, after 306 years, in some parts of Scotland it is not wise to admit you might be a Campbell especially around Glencoe.

It was not so much the deed itself that brings about the continuing hatred, it was the way it was done. According to Scottish hospitality one did not wage war against the one that cared for you. If you had a grievance with your host, you left and then came back to fight with honor.


Charlene and her husband Anthony run a web site called Highland Moon, for those interested in Scotland, past and present.

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