Among the many tortuous events in the Highlands, the Glencoe Massacre stands out. It is notorious for the political skullduggery surrounding it and for its breach of the code of highland hospitality. The soldiers who massacred the MacDonalds had stayed with their victims for many days prior to the killings.
Captain Robert Campbell
Two companies of soldiers, from the Earl of Argyle’s Regiment,
had arrived at Glencoe on 1st February. They claimed that the Fort William garrison was full and asked for hospitality. They were under the command of Major Robert Duncanson and Captain Robert Campbell. The MacDonalds of Glencoe, since they had not paid their taxes, were compelled to billet troops. They housed and fed the soldiers for twelve days. On 12th February, Duncanson received orders to attack the clan the following morning and was to ensure that ‘”the old fox nor non of his Cubs gett away. The orders are that non be spared nor the government troubled with prisoners.” Two further companies bottle up the head of the glen and more troops would progress from Ballachulish at the other end. The soldiers attacked the clan in their beds at 5.00 am on 13th February. Thirty-eight people were killed immediately. including MacIain – the clan leader – as he tried to dress. But most of the clan managed to escape, including MacIain’s two sons and his grandson.
Escape into Blizzard
Duncanson’s Orders “Non be spared nor the government troubled with prisoners”
Nearly three hundred escaped aided by the fierce winter blizzard – some later to die from the cold and starvation. This fact severely annoyed the senior officers who arrived after the initial massacre. In military terms, the attack was botched, perhaps deliberately. It was rumoured that two officers resigned their commission rather than take part.
The Stewarts Deposed
The events of the “Revolution of 1688” – sometimes known as the “Glorious Revolution” had led to the succession of William of Orange in the United Kingdom. King James II of England and VII of Scotland, grandson of King James VI of Scotland, had been deposed. He went into exile in France. The Revolution was planned by a union of Parliamentarians – mostly the Whigs – and the Dutch stadtholder William III of Orange-Nassau (William of Orange). Although often labelled “bloodless”, there was fighting and loss of life in Ireland and Scotland. The Revolution was linked to the War of the Grand Alliance on mainland Europe against France, and, since William arrived with troops, purportedly with an invitation, it can be viewed as the last successful invasion of the United Kingdom. Inevitably, for this time, much of this concerned Protestantism and Catholicism.
A New Oath
King William III of Orange
After many skirmishes and battles over the years in Scotland, King William offered a pardon to all Highland clans who had fought against him or raided their neighbours; on the condition clan chiefs took an oath of allegiance before a recognised magistrate before 1 January 1692. Anyone failing to swear allegiance would suffer the full penalty of the law. Clan Chiefs had already sworn an Oath to James VII and were reluctant to swear a new vow without permission. So, Major Duncan Menzies was sent to France to obtain permission but James, preoccupied with his latest mistress, took an age to reply to the Major’s request. Menzies returned to Edinburgh with James’ permission on the 21st of December, leaving only 10 days for the oath to be taken.
MacIain’s Oath of Allegiance
Then, MacIain of Glencoe set out to take the Oath with Colonel Hill at Inverlochy, Fort William. He reached there on the 31st of December, but he had gone to the wrong place. He needed to take the oath with the Sheriff at Inveraray. Sheriff Campbell of Ardkinglass was still on New Year’s holiday when he got there. He finally signed the Oath on the 6th of January and returned to Glencoe. However, the Privy Council of the Scottish Parliament struck off his oath on the grounds that it was received 6 days too late. The MacDonalds of Glencoe were an ideal target: troublesome to their neighbours – known as the ‘Gallow’s Herd’ because of their thieving abilities – and Glencoe could be sealed geographically. So the late oath gave the government all the excuse they needed to punish the Macdonald clan and set an example.
The Privy Council issued a warrant, signed by the Earl of Stair, Secretary of State for Scotland, and countersigned by King William. This was delivered to Thomas Livingstone, Commander in Chief of the Army in Scotland on the 11th of January, 1693 to punish those rebels who had failed to take an Oath of Allegiance to King William. Livingstone then issued these orders to Colonel Hill to pursue the rebels, burn their homes and to take no prisoners. Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton – Hill’s assistant – and Major Robert Duncanson were chosen to plan the attack.
When news of the massacre reached London two weeks later, the work of the Irish journalist Charles Leslie turned the massacre into a political scandal. His pamphlet suggested a high level cover-up, which excited the interest of those opposed to the King and the Secretary of State. However, it was a further three years before there was any official reprimand. A Parliamentary Commission into the massacre was set up due to the strength of public opinion. Colonel Hill testified that he had delayed executing his orders as he thought it a nasty, dirty business. The commission’s report put the blame on the Earl of Stair for overstepping his orders and he was removed from government, though he was later reinstated. No-one was punished for the massacre.
The Campbell Myth
The presence of Captain Campbell and the involvement of Sheriff Campbell of Ardkinglass led to a belief that the Campbells had exacted revenge on the MacDonalds, but the two clans fought side by side in the subsequent Jacobite rebellions. The Earl of Argyle’s Regiment was a regular, red-coat unit of the British army and acted under clear orders. So the massacre being the result of a Campbell v MacDonald’s feud is likely to be a popular myth.
Curse of Scotland
Gravestones, Eilean Munde – Cemetery reputed to hold the remains of MacIain of Glencoe
In public terms, the attack was an own goal. It incited opinion against troops, officials and the King and provided a propaganda opportunity to those who opposed the state. The planned and deliberate attempt at genocide by the government makes Glencoe a byword for infamy and treachery to this day. Ever since then, the nine of diamonds has been called the “Curse of Scotland” That is because the card matches the nine lozenges on the coat of arms of the Earls of Stair – John Dalrymple – who was the Secretary of State for Scotland at the time.
Of course, the deposition of James and the fractious relationship between Clans, Crown and Government added fuel to much of what was to follow historically in the Jacobite cause.
Images © National Trust for Scotland, National Galleries of Scotland, National Records of Scotland | Licensor Scran