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Massacre of Glencoe

Updated on December 3, 2012
Glencoe, Scotland
Glencoe, Scotland

The Massacre of Glencoe, as it became known as, is possibly the most infamous incident in a bloody and violent Scottish history. It took place in Glencoe early one snowy morning on the 13th of February 1692.

The MacIan’s, a small sect of the mighty clan MacDonald, had offered hospitality to a group of 120 soldiers under the command of a Captain Robert Campbell, who had asked for board and lodgings for his men during the worst of the Scottish winter weather, claiming the Fort William barracks were full up.

Campbell’s army was made up of many ordinary Argyllshire men who were not members of the Clan Campbell. Campbell himself was a waster and analcoholic, who had lost his estates and property to the MacDonalds in an earlier raid. He had had to join the army to pay off some of his debts, despite being 60 years old. His niece was married to a son of MacIan and he was possibly trusted and offered hospitality because of this.

copy of the original order to carry out the massacre, signed by William of Orange
copy of the original order to carry out the massacre, signed by William of Orange

After being entertained, fed, and watered for 10 days, Campbell received a written order from his superior officer, Major Robert Duncanson, signed by the King, to slay all of the MacIan’s at 5am in the morn of that fateful day, with the promise of another battalion of the King’s army arriving shortly after to seal off all possible escape routes.

Thirty eight men, women and children were slaughtered, with hundreds more fleeing for their lives in the dark and freezing cold of an early winter’s morning, during a raging blizzard. It is estimated up to a hundred died of exposure in the nearby mountains and hills.

Alistair MacIan’s (elderly) wife was reportedly stripped naked and had her rings forcibly removed by soldiers biting her fingers off. She died less than a day later of her injuries.

Amazingly two sons and a grandchild of Alistair MacIan survived.

The promised troops never arrived, or arrived late, leaving the exit routes clear.

It is quite probable that most of the troops refused to kill their hosts, and helped them escape. In fact the first killings of that fateful morn were by gunshot. What better way to arouse the sleeping MacDonalds and give them precious moments to escape?

Map of scotland, showing the mountainous and flatter areas
Map of scotland, showing the mountainous and flatter areas

The History Behind the Massacre of Glencoe

Geographically, Scotland is divided into two parts by the Highland Boundary Fault which cuts a swathe from Helensburgh in the South West to Stonehaven the North East. To the north of the Fault Line lies rocky mountainous areas, and to the South more flat and fertile land.

Politically and religiously the divide was as great, with Catholic Jacobites to the North and Calvinistic Protestants to the South.

The English-speaking Lowlanders in the South fought with the English against many of the Gaelic-speaking northerners, known as Highlanders.

The Highlanders supported the Catholic Jacobites, the last of whom, King James VII of Scotland and James II of England, had been forced to flee after King William of Orange, a Dutchman, took over the English throne at the invite of the English Parliament. King James II had passed a Law stating that entering a Protestant Presbyterian Church would be punishable by death, and the Lowlanders with the help of the English overthrew him.

Scotland had a separate monarchy up until the Union of the Crowns in 1603.

Just for comparison purposes, the current English Queen, Elizabeth II, is also Elizabeth I of Scotland.

Glencoe Scotland:
Glencoe, Ballachulish, Argyll PH49 4, UK

get directions

memorial stone
memorial stone

William of Orange then demanded that all Highland Clans sign a decree of loyalty to him. He made this demand at the end of August 1691, and said all had to be signed by the 1st of January, 1692. However, many clans who had previously signed allegiance to King James VII, waited until written word came from him in exile to release them of their contract. This paper finally arrived on the 16th Of December.

On the 31st December, Alistair MacIan set out for Fort William to sign this decree as he had been instructed, only to find out when he arrived there that he had instead to go to Inverary, 70 miles away in the opposite direction from whence he had come. There is some suggestion that he was deliberately fed the wrong instruction to delay him.

On his way to Inverary, he was further delayed by Campbell troops who held him under house arrest for a day or two. By the time he reached Inverary he was already two days late, and it was to find that the sheriff wasn’t there and it was a further 3 days before he returned to accept the signature and stamp it. However, he was assured his clan would be safe despite the lateness in signing.

King William’s personal advisor, John Dalrymple, had different ideas, as he had a personal grudge against MacIan, partly because his clan was the most verocious of the cattle-thievery that went on, and partly because of his past allegiance to the Catholic King James VII, and it was he who dreamt up the plan to put the Campbell army there to befriend the MacIans, and he who persuaded King William to sign the warrant that would lead to the execution of the MacDonalds of Glencoe.

It must be remembered in those days that the Highlanders were wild men, who lived by the land, and fought each other and stole cattle from each other on a regular basis, and this had been their way of life for centuries.

The Lowlanders, on the other hand, were more industrious and peaceful.

History tells us of many times when the Kings troops ventured into the Highland territory and wiped out complete clans, missing nobody, quite openly, with their advanced weaponry. The Highlanders were just like the men in the film Braveheart, utterly fearless even in the face of overwhelming odds, and a force to be reckoned with, with their claymores (two-handed long swords).

The Glencoe Massacre was different.

There was murder, and there was murder under trust. To accept hospitality, and then turn and kill your hosts without prior warning was expressly forbidden under Scots Law, and a later Scottish enquiry found the massacre to be completely illegal, although no-one ever faced trial for their part in it. Dalrymple was forced to resign from the government, with a healthy pension, but was later re-instated and eventually awarded an Earldom (the Earl of Stair). He was instrumental in bringing about theAct of Union in 1707 which united the people of Scotland and England under the one government and one flag.

The whole affair was swept under the carpet as if it never happened. But the people of Scotland, Highlander and Lowlander alike, never forgot, and never forgave those who should have been held responsible.

Words of the song "Glencoe"


Oh cruel as the snow that sweeps Glencoe,

and covers the graves o' Donald (Donnell),

Oh cruel was the foe that raped Glencoe,

and murdered the house of MacDonald.

They came in a blizzard, we offered them heat,

a roof for their heads, dry shoes for their feet,

we wined them and dined them, they ate all our meat,

and they slept in the house of MacDonald.

Repeat Chorus ----

They came from fort William, with murder in mind,

the Campbell had orders, King William had signed,

put all to the sword, these words underlined,

leave no one alive called MacDonald.

Repeat Chorus ----

They came in the night, while our men were asleep,

this band of Argylls, through snow soft and deep,

like murdering foxes, among helpless sheep,

they slaughtered the house of MacDonald.

Repeat Chorus ----

Some died in their beds, at the hands of the foe,

some fled in the night, and were lost in the snow,

some lived to accuse him, who struck the first blow,

but gone was the house of MacDonald.

Oh cruel as the snow that sweeps Glencoe,

and covers the graves o' Donald,

Oh cruel was the foe that raped Glencoe,

and murdered the house of MacDonald,

and murdered the house of MacDonald.

Words: J. McLean


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