Massacre of Glencoe

Massacre of Glencoe
Winter at Loch Achtriochtan in Glencoe | Credit: © Neil Ritchie, editor

In the early hours of the 13th February 1692, 120 Scots Army soldiers of the Earl of Argyll’s Regiment of Foot from Fort William, carry out the Massacre of Glencoe. The troops had been billeted with the MacDonalds of Glencoe since early February and were under the command of Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon. They carry out the orders that were written by Major Robert Duncanson of Argyll’s Regiment the day before:

“You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebells, the McDonalds of Glenco, and put all to the sword under seventy. you are to have a speciall care that the old Fox and his sones doe upon no account escape your hands, you are to secure all the avenues that no man escape. This you are to putt in execution att fyve of the clock precisely; and by that time, or very shortly after it, I’ll strive to be att you with a stronger party: if I doe not come to you att fyve, you are not to tarry for me, but to fall on. This is by the Kings speciall command, for the good & safety of the Country, that these miscreants be cutt off root and branch. 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. Expecting you will not faill in the full-filling hereof, as you love your selfe, I subscribe these with my hand att Balicholis Feb: 12, 1692.
For their Majesties service”

The Glencoe MacDonalds were a Jacobite clan, supporting the deposed King James VII/II, and the ‘Massacre’ was ordered by Sir John Dalrymple, Secretary of State of Scotland, as punishment for the MacDonald’s chief, MacIain, not swearing the oath of loyalty to the new king, William of Orange, before the deadline of 31st December 1691. This was due to the fact that MacIain, leaving it to the last minute, had traveled to Fort William instead of Inveraray to swear the oath.

Dalrymple was keen to impress King William and show that he was the man that could effectively deal with the troublesome highlands.

When MacIain arrived at Fort William on the 31st, the governor, an old Cromwellian and friend of the Glencoe MacDonalds, Colonel John Hill, explained that he could not administer the oath and that only the appointed magistrate in Inveraray, Sir Colin Campbell, could do so. Hill wrote a letter for MacIain to give to the magistrate, explaining that he had come in time, only to the wrong place.

Sir Colin Campbell administered the oath on 6th of January. Campbell wrote back to Colonel Hill:

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.

The orders for dealing with the MacDonalds were passed to Sir Thomas Livingstone, the commander-in-chief of the Scots Army, and then on to Colonel John Hill at Fort William. The Englishman Colonel Hill was deeply troubled by the orders and it appears that he was bypassed at some stage. His subordinates, Lieutenant-Colonel James Hamilton and Major Robert Duncanson, do not appear to have had the same reservations.

Dalrymple 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.

“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.

When Glenlyon and his men had marched into Glencoe some two weeks before, they had very little idea of what they would be ordered to do. Glenlyon’s own estates neighboured the MacDonald lands and they had been ravaged by MacDonald clansmen in the past, however, there did not appear to be any open animosity between Glenlyon and MacIain. Glenlyon’s niece had married a MacDonald and was living in the Glen at the time. The order to carry out the killings would have come as a terrible shock to Glenlyon and most of his troops.

“You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebells, the McDonalds of Glenco, and put all to the sword under seventy”

Some accounts say the massacre began with Glenlyon’s men firing their muskets, possibly in the hope that the noise would alert their hosts, giving many time to escape. There are reports that some of the soldiers got a number of people to safety, with others shouting warnings, however, 38 MacDonald men were killed by the troops and dozens of more MacDonalds, including women and children, would later perish in the freezing blizzard conditions sweeping the Glen after they had fled, their houses having been set on fire. MacIain was getting out of bed to investigate the noise outside when he was shot twice and fell dead on the spot. His two sons, John and Alexander were able to escape.

According to the plan, another detachment of soldiers from Fort William, commanded by Major Robert Duncanson, was to move into the Glen from Ballachulish, with a second detachment under Lieutenant-Colonel James Hamilton moving in from Kinlochleven, via what later became known as the ‘Devils Staircase’.

Some accounts say the massacre began with Glenlyon’s men firing their muskets, possibly in the hope that the noise would alert their hosts, giving many time to escape.

Major Duncanson stated in his orders that he would be there to assist Glenlyon shortly after 5 o’clock in the morning, however, he failed to show up until 7 o’clock. Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton’s detachment did not enter the Glen until around 11 o’clock. Perhaps the delay was on purpose and the orders designed as a false reassurance to Glenlyon that he wasn’t going to be acting on his own. The delay could also have been due to the weather conditions. The total number of soldiers involved would have numbered over 900.

Massacre of Glencoe
At Altnafeadh, near to where the ‘Devils Staircase’ descends into Glencoe | Credit: © Neil Ritchie, editor

Since the soldiers had committed the massacre as guests of the MacDonalds, the Massacre of Glencoe was a clear example of Murder under Trust, or ‘Slaughter under Trust’ in Scots Law.

The Campbells have long been vilified for their role in the massacre, however, regimental rolls show that Campbells made up only a small number in the detachment sent to Glencoe and the Campbells in neighbouring lands gave shelter to the surviving MacDonalds.

Although the Massacre of Glencoe has often been incorrectly portrayed as a massacre carried out by Clan Campbell, it, like many myths in Scottish history, is not entirely without foundation.

After settling their differences the MacDonalds of Glencoe and the Campbells of Glenlyon fought beside each other at the Battle of Sheriffmuir, during the 1715 Jacobite Rising.

Planned and ordered by the Secretary of State of Scotland and carried out by elements of the Scots Army, the Massacre of Glencoe was not a clan feud, it was state policy from Edinburgh.

Notes: It was not the scale but rather the manner and the treachery in which the massacre was carried out that makes it so infamous. Despite the reputation the event has retained, contemporaries seem to have viewed it less seriously. The MacDonalds of Glencoe and the Campbells of Glenlyon fought together on the Jacobite side during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715. The claim that it was simply a Campbell-MacDonald feud appears in the mid-19th century when many were keen to absolve the government and King William from any blame.

Politics in this period were complex and a simplified version is quite often presented for easier – and often incorrect – understanding.

The ‘Devils Staircase’ was given its name by soldiers involved in the construction of Major William Caulfeild’s military road from Kinlochleven to Glencoe in 1752. So-called because of the difficulties of carrying the materials up the steep stretch of the road.


Further Reading:

Glencoe and the End of the Highland War, (1998), Paul Hopkins, John Donald Publishers Ltd

Managing the Early-Modern Periphery: Highland Policy and the Highland Judicial Commission, c.1692-c.1705, Allan Kennedy, The Scottish Historical Review, Volume XCVI, No. 242, April 2017, pages 32–60



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