Massacre of Glencoe, The
DESCRIPTION: Glencoe is wakened by cannon. "Naked mothers were shot with their babes as they ran, For the English had risen to murder the clan." Five hundred McDonalds are killed including Flora's Donald. She dies of grief. "The pride of Glencoe" are buried together.
EARLIEST DATE: before 1867 (broadside, Bodleian 2806 c.14(26))
KEYWORDS: battle burial death Scotland
Feb 13, 1692 - The Massacre of Glencoe
FOUND IN: Britain(Scotland(Aber))
REFERENCES (1 citation):
GreigDuncan1 115, "The Massacre of Glencoe" (2 texts, 1 tune)
Bodleian, 2806 c.14(26), "Flora and Donald" or "The Massacre of Glencoe" ("O dark lour'd the night on the wide distant heather"), J. Harkness (Preston), 1840-1866
Murray, Mu23-y1:082, "Flora and Donald" or "The Massacre of Glencoe," James Lindsay (Glasgow), 19C
NLScotland, L.C.Fol.178.A.2(021), "The Massacre of Glencoe," James Lindsay (Glasgow), c.1856
NOTES [3837 words]: GreigDuncan1: .".. 13 February 1692 ...."
When Maclain of Glencoe, a MacDonald clan subdivision, was late in swearing loyalty to the crown, William III's forces, augmented by the MacDonald enemy Campbells killed 38 in Glencoe and forced "countless others into the snow-topped Scottish mountains (where many died)." (source: "British Timeline: Massacre of Glencoe 1692" at the BBC site). - BS
The Massacre of Glencoe remains controversial to this day. The reason is the complicated set of circumstances which led to it. In some ways it was just another case of clan-on-clan warfare (Campbells versus MacDonalds), and by no means the most bloody. But it ended up with a taint of royal favoritism and injustice -- and a deserved reputation as a "brutal crime" (Willson, p. 467).
The story, according to Thomson, p. xv, began "with the violent death of a Campbell chief in 1296[. T]he feud then went on for about 450 years. There were numerous clashes and cullings inflicted by both sides, among which the incident at Glencoe in 1692 just happens to have been the best publicised."
It became known because King William III (William of Orange) approved it.
The problem was that William III, who had come to power by ousting James II, was shaky on the throne. (The "Glorious Revolution" which brought him to the throne had happened as recently as 1689; see the notes to songs such as "Lilliburlero" and "The Vicar of Bray.")
Scotland in particular was restive, and the Highlands most restive of all. "The Jacobite Rising of 1689 had left the Highlands in a turmoil. The government hurriedly built a new garrison fortress at Fort William, at the head of Loch Linnhe, and troops were deployed at several other strategic points. These were men King William urgently needed in Flanders, where he was embroiled in a war with France. How was the problem to be settled?" (Magnusson, pp. 522-523).
"It is probable that the government, and especially the Joint-Secretary, Dalrymple, hoped that the recalcitrance of the Highland chiefs would provide a pretext for a crusade against them" (Mackie, p. 251).
"In the spring and summer of 1691 there were signs of unrest among the clans of the north-west, who had hopes of a French invasion; and the government distributed several thousands of pounds of bribes to keep them quiet, at the same time ordering the suspected chiefs to take an oath of allegiance before the fixed date of New Year's Day 1692. In anticipation of widespread refusals 'letters of fire and sword' were drawn up in the long accustomed form, ordering wholesale ravaging and slaughter" (Clark, p. 269).
"The king's secretary of state in Scotland was now the lord advocate, Sir John Dalrymple, the Master of Stair. Dalrymple was an able and dedicated civil servant, totally committed to achieving the security and stability of the new regime. He saw the Highlands as a constant threat, and was convinced that the only way to establish law and order in Scotland was to make an example of one or another of the recalcitrant clans. He was also sure that few of the clan chiefs would submit to William voluntarily, and started drawing up grandiose plans for an exemplary punitive expedition" (Magnusson, p. 522).
"The time of year was carefully chosen. 'The winter time,' wrote Stair, 'is the only season in which we are sure the Highlanders cannot escape, and carry their wives, bairns, and cattle to the hills.... This is the proper time to maul them in the long dark nights" (MacLean, p. 143).
Not everyone views Stair's behavior in this light. Mitchison, p. 286, suggests that "Stair, in London, in the confidence of the King, wanted to see what negotiation would do. He took over Tarbat's scheme [of settling Highland quarrels by buying up disputed areas for the crown], but did not know or understand Highland issues -- he was impatient with the attitudes of the chiefs to William's sovereignty and did not appreciate their values and way of life.... To negotiate with the chiefs he rightly chose a Highlander who could go among them but unwisely chose a man whom nobody could ever begin to trust. The Earl of Breadalbane had never been known to do anything straightforwardly...."
(Tarbat's career was fascinating, incidentally -- he had gotten in trouble in the reign of Charles II, had wormed his way into favor with James II, but then managed to gain the trust of William III also; Prebble, p. 85. Talk about slick....)
Prebble, p. 87, describes what happened this way: "Joining in the clamour of voices and the prodigal expenditure of ink there came the Earl of Breadalbane, whom few men trusted but all credited with a umique knowlege of Highland robbers and murderers, being descended from a long line of them himself. He had no original proposal. He blandly took Tarbat's, with this difference -- he should treat with the chiefs, he should distribute the money among them. He had a plausible tongue, and he persuaded the King... to give him a commission 'to meet, treat and correspond with any of the Highlanders in order to reduce them to submission and obedience'. But if few men in the Lowlands could be found to trust the Earl of Breadalbane there were even fewer in the Highlands, and for the moment his commission was no more than paper in his pocket. He had not, in any case, been sent the money, and felt no obligation to move until he was."
The continued Jacobite threat (leading to the Battle of the Boyne) made William especially worried about Scotland. He wanted the place pacified, whatever it took. And the battle of the Haughs of Cromdale in 1690 (the real one, not the fictional story in the song of that name) inclined him to be forceful; Cromdale gave the government forces the initiative they had largely lost after Killiecrankie.
In practice, it hardly matters whether Stair preferred to use the carrot or the stick. He prepared both -- and in the end used both. "Tarbat's plan had miscarried because Stair was not the right man to carry it out, but the unity of the band of chiefs was gone" (Mitchison, p. 287). "By the end of the year it was clear that nearly all the clan chiefs were prepared to swear the required oath of allegiance" (Magnusson, p. 522). (It may not have been a sign that their allegiance to the Jacobite cause was waning; MacLean, p. 143, notes that "From his exile in France King James at the last moment authorized the chiefs to swear allegiance to his Dutch son-in-law.")
What happened next is somewhat unclear. What is certain is that the MacDonalds of Glencoe were not liked. Their chief "had fought at Killiecrankie and his men were reputed to be as troublesome as any in the Highlands" (Clark, p. 269). It sounds as if they raided Campbell lands on their way back from Killiecrankie, where of course they fought for the Stuarts (Prebble, pp. 71-72).
"The MacDonalds were thus still seen as semi-barbarian and the Glencoe branch of the family was particularly unpopular for its frequent raids on Glenlyon and Inverary" (Thomson, p. 83). "By the end of the sixteenth century it was agreed that the men of Glencoe were the most incorrigble and troublesome of the gallows herd, and had their land been as desirable and as accessible as Clan Gregor's they too might have come under the Crown's proscription" (Prebble, p. 45). The chief himself had already been imprisoned once, and was accused of executing some of his own men -- a severe crime by Highland standards (Prebble, p. 57). Plus, they had fought with Montrose on behalf of Charles I (Prebble, p. 48) -- though Prebble thinks this was because of the usual rivalry with the Campbells, not true loyalty to the Stuarts. And -- their chieftain was late to submit. (MacLean, p. 143, claims that he was one of only two chiefs -- the powerful MacDonell of Glengarry being the other -- not to take the oath on time.)
Thomson, pp. 84-85, takes a very low view of Alastair MacIain MacDonald, the twelfth chief of Glencoe. "He had spend some time acquiring polish in Paris.... The Glencoe MacDonalds had joined in virtually every raid southwards or eastwards since Alastair MacColla first mobilised the MacDonalds in 1645....
"Numerous mysteries still surround the massacre, not least with regard to the behavior of the 12th Chief.... [H]e had been accused of murdering some of his own men. He had been arrested in 1673 and imprisoned at Inveraray but then escaped." [Prebble, p. 58, says that no one knows how he pulled this off, but notes that it caused quite a stir.]
Thomson continues, "The other mystery about Alastair MacIain is why he made such a mess of his capitulation. He as an experienced campaigner and not a stupid man. Soon after the end of August 1691 he must have received the offer of pardon extended to all Highlanders by William of Orange as long as they reported to their local sheriff by 1 January of the following year. He knew that for him it meant a trip down to Inveraray, yet he left everything to he last minute and then reported to the wrong town, Fort William.... Then after a slow midwinter journey from Fort William to Inveraray he arrived too late and because it was the new year holiday had to wait another three days before being allowed to sign. Since the Sheriff, Colin Campbell of Ardkinglas, had been a heavy recent sufferer from Glencoe depredations it was not surprising that he made Glencoe sweat it out."
MacLean, p. 143, agrees that Glencoe's delay was "partly from dilatoriness and partly through the inclemency of the weather." Few other authorities are so willing to blame Glencoe. Clark, p. 269, says that he arrived late "by accident."
Magnusson, p. 523, declares, "By an extraordinary series of mishaps, Alasdair MacIain Macdonald of Glencoe had missed the deadline for taking the oath of binding loyalty to King William. He was one of the many chieftains who had waited for formal permission from 'the king across the water' to take the oath, which permission did not arrive in the Highlands until 28 December. With time running out fast, Macdonald set out at once and presented himself at the newly-built government fortress at Fort William on 31 December. But there he was told that the military commander could not accept the oath -- only the sheriff at Inverary could do that. Macdonald now had to make the freezing, ninety-five kilometre journey... carrying a helpful explanatory letter from the commander at Fort William. On the way he was stopped by a party of grenadiers who refused to accept the validity of the letter and held him for twenty-four hours. By the time he reached Inverary the deadline had passed.... His oath was forwarded to Edinburgh, but the government lawyers refused to accept responsibility for it."
"Some very underhanded dealings by the clerks of the Privy Council meant that the Council had not been officially informed that Glencoe had taken the oath; and Stair, who had been informed, stuck to it that all that mattered was that the time limit had been passed" (Mitchison, p. 287).
And so the government decided to use Glencoe as an example: they "were a much softer target [than the other chiefs who had not sworn], living in scattered huts at the foot of a glen which could easily be blocked at both ends. According to Dalrymple, they were also 'the only popish clan in the kingdom, and it will be popular to take severe course with them'; in fact, they were probably Episcopalian, if anything. But they were the ideal victims for a terrible and symbolic act of punishment to frighten everyone else into submission" (Magnusson, p. 523).
(The statement that the Glencoe sept was Episcopalian is probably based on the fact that they were part of the Highland Host of 1678 that tried to convert the Lowlands from Calvinism to episcopacy; Prebble, p. 59. However, a Catholic sept might well have supported episcopacy against Presbyterianisn; Prebble, p. 34, agrees with the claim that the MacDonalds were were Catholic.)
The glen was indeed a trap: "Running east to west along the northern border of Argyll, and eight miles in length, [the vale of Glencoe] is a deep scar left by the agony of Creation. It is an arm bent at the elbow, with sinews of quartz and muscles of granite. It is both fortress and trap, for the only natural entrances are at either end -- across Rannoch Moor in the east and by Loch Levenside in the west, and the high passes to the north and south lead ignorant men to higher hills only. Before the building of a road the Rannoch gate itself was frequently closed by winter snows and summer storms....
"Only the people of Glencoe, and the broken men of Clan Gregor who hid on its fringe, knew the paths across Rannoch.... The northern wall of the glen is a rippling, saw-toothed escarpment called Aonach Eagach, the Notched Ridge. It is three thousand feet and more in height, and unbroken except in the west where it twists sharply toward Loch Leven, dips, and rises again.... At the eastern end of Aonach Eagach is the only path to Glencoe from the north, a narrow, crooked path that climbs cautiously from the head of Loch Leven... It is rightly called The Devil's Staircase.... [O]pposite the Devil's Staircase [stands] Lairig Gartain, the green pass to Glen Etive in the south, and this too is no escape from or entrance to Glencoe..." (Prebble, pp. 19-20).
It was neither a large nor a productive territory, which never could field more than 150 swords, and so presumably never had more than about 500 people (Prebble, p. 27). The population seems to have been significantly less than that in 1689, even though the land was good (Prebble, p. 29). The glen did support about a thousand cattle, a major source of food for the winter (Prebble, pp. 30-31). There was no central keep or defensive fortification of any kind (Prebble, p. 28).
Little is known of the history of the MacDonalds of Glencoe. Although Alastair MacDonald was said to be the twelfth chief, we have no list; the number may be wrong (Prebble, p. 34). Indeed, Alastair is almost the only chief about whom we know anything: "He was born late in the third decade of the [seventeenth] century, with the red hair of his family, and he grew to an extraordinary height, six feet seven inches it was said. In his youth he went to Paris, where the sons of Highland chiefs were often sent to lacquer their splendid savagery and pride.... The death of his father brought him home in 1650" (Prebble, p. 34).
"[Alastair MacDonald] took a wife from among the Keppoch MacDonalds who, living to the north of Loch Leven, were the Glencoe men's constant companions in raiding and in war. By her he had two sons, John who would succeed him, and Alasdair Og, Alexander the Younger, a man of eager spirits and a hot temper. There was also at least one daughter, of whom little is known but her existance. John's wife was the daughter of the tacksman of Achtriachan, but Alasdair Og's came from outside the glen. She was Sarah Campbell, daughter of Campbell of Lochnell, great-granddaughter of a Breadalbane Campbell, and niece of the Glenlyon Campbell who would one day come to cut her husband's throat" (Prebble, p. 35).
How much William of Orange knew about the plan is uncertain; Clark, p. 269, says that Dalrymple "laid before the king an order for their extirpation. It is probable that the king did not read it: we know that he often signed papers so hurriedly that he did not know their contents." But whether he agreed with the idea or not, "his signature is still to be seen on the paper" (Clark, p. 269). The sept of Glencoe was to be destroyed.
"Hamilton [the commander of Fort William]... passed on the orders to Major Duncanson of the Earl of Argyll's regiment on 12 February 1692: '...pursuant to the commander in chief's orders for putting into execution the service against the rebels in Glencoe the orders are that none be spared'.
"That same day Duncanson wrote to Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon... 'You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebels, the MacDonalds of Glencoe and to put all to the sword under seventy. You are to have a special care that the old fox and his sons upon no account escape your hands. This you are to put in execution at 5 of the clock precisely.' Thus, like so many war crimes over the centuries, the guilt was spread thinly from top to bottom" (Thomson, p. 85. MacLean, p. 145, has a copy of the written order).
Campbell, being a Campbell, had a grudge against the MacDonalds anyway, and he was not the sort to show mercy: "Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, a kinsman of the Earl of Breadalbane... was sixty years old, an inveterate gambler, and in a notoriously hard-drinking age he drank harder than most" (Magnusson, p. 524).
The way the attack was carried out was particularly odious. The day before, "Robert Campbell actually dined with the head of the sept, who was totally unaware of the plot about to be murderously carried out" (Fry/Fry, p. 180). "Rather more than a hundred soldiers from Fort William, most of them highlanders of Argyll's regiment, were quartered on the valley. After living amicably with their hosts for more than a week they set about the work of massacre" (Clark, p. 269).
"[Campbell's] obedience [to the order for massacre] is even less remarkable when we remember that it was mainly the Glencoe MacDonalds who had caused his ruination by so many raids on his farms. They had also recently burned down the castle of Achallader, south of Glencoe, which belonged to his cousin, Campbell of Glenorchy. What is more surprising -- and this is the main reason why Robert Campbell's reputation has remained so black -- is that if he was aware of the purpose of his expedition to Glencoe for the ten days between arriving there and receiving his final orders, how could he bear to enjoy the MacDonalds' hospitality to hypocritically for all that time? This dishonesty was made even more objectionable by the fact that his own niece was married to one of Alastair MacIain's sons and was living in the glen" (Thomson, p. 86).
"At about five in the morning the next day the Campbells rose quietly and crept toward the homes of the Macdonalds, and in a few swift minutes slaughtered thirty-eight people, including two women and a child of six" (Fry/Fry, p. 180).
The only good news is that the massacre was not as complete as intended. "It was a botched affair -- the passes were to have been closed by Argyll's followers and by troops from Fort William, but many of the victims got through in spite of the bad weather that the high mountains bring down upon the narrow glen" (Mitchison, p. 287). "It was snowing hard, and additional contingents from Fort William and Ballachulish who were intended to block off the escape routes did not arrive in time.
"At five in the morning, two of Glenlyon's officers burst into the house of 'the old fox' at Carnoch and shot him as he was getting out of bed. The sound of gunfire there, and in another house at Achtriachtan, alerted the rest of the Macdonalds, who ran, half-naked, for the icy sanctuary of the hills. Both of Alasdair MacIain Macdonald's sons, and his baby grandson, escaped. Nevertheless, at least thirty-eight of the clan -- men, women, and children -- were systematically slaughtered; many others died in the raging snowstorm" (Magnusson, pp. 524-525).
"Parties of soldiers went from cottage to cottage, slaughtering the sleeping MacDonalds and setting light to their houses. MacIain himself was shot by one of his guests of the night before. A Campbell soldier gnawed the rings from Lady Glencoe's fingers with his teeth. A child of six, who clung, begging for mercy, to Glenlyon's knees, was promptly dispatched. As the massacre proceeded, snow began to fall. Some of the inhabitants of the glen were able to escape in the confusion. Others died in the snow" (MacLean, pp. 144-146).
"The final mystery about Glenlyon is that, given the fact that he did so totally deceive the unsuspecting MacDonalds... why did he not do a better job of exterminating them? ... He had not obeyed his orders very thoroughly; indeed, he had left people alive who could act as witnesses of the way he had behaved. And he managed to lose three of his own men as well... Of the roughly 150 men who took part in the massacre, under 10 per cent were Campbells, but these included the commanding officer, two junior officers and a corporal" (Thomson, p. 86).
"Such was the public outcry that the Scottish parliament was forced to react when it met in March 1693. A committee was appointed to look into the Massacre, but its report was not published and nothing was done. Two years later, as public revulsion showed no signs of abating, a royal commission was appointed to examine the chain of events leading up to the events at Glencoe. It published its report a month later, in June 1695. This time there was no cover-up: the Massacre had been an act of murder, and the government was condemned for having 'barbarously killed men under trust'. There had to be a scapegoat; the blame was laid squarely at the door of Dalrymple, who resigned his office as secretary of states, unrepentant but totally discredited" (Magnusson, p. 525).
"In due course, however, Stair was rewarded with an earldom, while Campbell of Glenlyon was promoted to colonel" (MacLean, p. 147).
"The earl of Breadalbane, who had acted with [Dalrymple/Stair], was charged with high treason, but never brought to trial. That was all that was done to punish the offenders" (Clark, p. 270).
William III "attempted to deny prior knowledge of the plot, but the documents showed otherwise and he was never trusted again in Scotland" (Fry/Fry, p. 180).
"In its immediate object terrorism succeeded, as it usually does. The resistant chiefs made their peace at once. Within a fortnight of the slaughter Colonel Hill had occupied Glengarry and Castle Eilean Donan, and was expecting the submission even of McNeill of Barra. But though the clans yielded to the threat of force the basic cause of discontent in the growth of Campbell power remained.
"William's government to the end of his reign rested on uncertain foundations. Jacobitism remained an open, or openable, question far longer in his northern kingdom than in England" (Mitchison, p. 288).
"The general execration of the deed helped to build up the British sense of justice and humanity. There were still to be scenes of cruelty in the Highlands as long as the Stuarts called their friends to arms; but never again were the worst methods of frontier warfare combined with the worst methods of secret police" (Clark, p. 270).
"Despite William's concessions, Scotland was never reconciled to his rule, and bitterness in England was greatly increased by a commercial failure in 1799" (Willson, p. 467).
It will be observed that the song bears almost no resemblance to the actual masssacre: The first shots were not fired by artillery, and the casualties in the song are exaggerated more than tenfold. You almost wonder if the song might not be about another clan-on-clan massacre. Except -- it blames it all on the English.... - RBW
Last updated in version 2.5
- Clark: G. N. Clark, The Later Stuarts 1660-1714, corrected edition, Oxford, 1944
- Fry/Fry: Peter and Fiona Somerset Fry, The History of Scotland, 1982 (I use the 1995 Barnes & Noble edition)
- MacLean: Fitzroy MacLean, A Concise History of Scotland, Beekman House, 1970
- Mackie: J. D. Mackie, A History of Scotland, Pelican, 1964
- Magnusson: Magnus Magnusson, Scotland: The Story of a Nation, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000
- Mitchison: Rosalind Mitchison, A History of Scotland, second edition, Methuen, 1982
- Prebble: John Prebble, Glencoe, Martin Secker & Warburg, 1966 (I use the 1968 Penguin edition)
- Thomson: Oliver Thomson, The Great Feud: The Campbells & The MacDonalds, revised edition, Sutton, 2001
- Willson: David Harris Willson, A History of England, Holt Rinehart Winston, 1967
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2018 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.