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    Scottish History: The Glencoe Massacre

    By Rhona Steel
    More by Rhona

    A Site of Human Tragedy

    Glen Coe is a truly atmospheric valley to walk, cycle or drive. It is also the site of a renowned but commonly misunderstood human tragedy. Romanticised during the 19th century as a clan feud between the Campbells and the MacDonalds, the real story behind the Glencoe Massacre is much darker. It has often been described as state-sponsored slaughter in pursuit of political ambition.

    The Events of the Glencoe Massacre

    Who Ordered the Massacre at Glen Coe

    Copy of the Order for the Glencoe Massacre

    A copy of the order for the Glencoe Massacre, 1692.

    Pictured is a copy of the order that reached the regiment on the eve of the massacre. It was signed by Major Robert Duncanson on the eve of the massacre at Ballachulish, to the west of the Glen.

    The original army order is supposed to have stated that all men under 70 be slain, however, the Secretary of State at the time, John Dalrymple, had influence and changed the wording to ‘extirpate’, or kill, all. It is said that King William III approved all orders, and by the time it reached the soldiers, the command was to wipe out all the MacDonalds of Glencoe under the age of 70, ensuring none escape, especially not the clan MacDonald chief, MacIain, and his sons.

    It is believed that Campbell of Glenlyon was drinking and playing cards with the chief’s sons when the order arrived. He excused himself, and each officer was in turn, withdrawn from their host’s home to be given the command for the following morning. The time of 5am was set to coordinate with supporting troops from the north and south, blocking escape routes and assisting in the massacre.

    In the aftermath, there were tales of attempts to warn the MacDonalds that night, of a Campbell piper playing a lament and of a soldier warning a dog to sleep away from the house in the heather. Possibly, some soldiers risked their own lives to alert their hosts. They may also have known that two officers from the regiments in Fort William had already been sent to Glasgow for court-martial after refusing to have anything to do with the command.

    When Was the Glencoe Massacre

    The turf house replica of a 17 th century dwelling at the National Trust for Scotland's museum in Glencoe, looking east into the valley

    The turf house replica of a 17th-century dwelling at the National Trust for Scotland‘s museum in Glencoe, looking east into the valley. Photo Credit: Roddy Steel

    The Glencoe Massacre occurred at 5am on the 13th of February, 1692. The most commonly accepted account is that the Scottish army massacred 38 men, women and children of the clan MacDonald of Glencoe. A further 40 died of exposure attempting to flee the Glen in the snow.

    Soldiers from the Earl of Argyll regiment had been billeted with the MacDonalds, ostensibly as a way of gathering unpaid tax, a common practice at the time. The 120 quartered (or hosted) soldiers would have been welcomed into the clan’s homes as the hospitality culture dictated.

    Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon was in charge of the regiment, though Captain Thomas Drummond was the only officer in the regiment to know of the real reason for their presence in the Glen when they moved in a couple of weeks before. The rest of the command only knew their orders the night before the massacre.

    What Happened at the Glencoe Massacre

    The massacre took place in the townships (groups of small farms or crofts) the length of the Glen. The 120 troops under the command of Campbell of Glenlyon split into smaller bands.

    The Massacre Itself

    It is said that the clan chief MacIain was shot in the head whilst dressing, with his wife brutally attacked and probably raped before she fled into the hills to later perish in the snow. Another account tells of the heartless killings of a toddler and an old man and also of a man being nearly clubbed to death before fire was set to the house he had crawled into to escape.

    Snow hampered the arrival of the supporting forces and their plan to block escape from the Glen to the north and southeast. Thus the remaining MacDonalds could flee, although some would later die of exposure. Many, including the clan chief’s sons, escaped into Stuart country in Appin, while others hid in Coire Gabhail or the Lost Valley.

    Coire Gabhail or the Lost Valley approach through a ravine.

    Coire Gabhail or the Lost Valley approach through a ravine. Imagine this steep ascent covered in ice and snow as desperate people fled the valley. Photo Credit: Roddy Steel

    After the Massacre

    When the troops eventually arrived from Fort William by way of the Devil’s Staircase, the massacre was done, and the bodies buried. MacIain was buried at the clan’s ancestral burial ground on the island of Eilean Munde in Loch Leven.

    Although some 200 families lived in Glen Coe, nothing remains of the dwellings of the day. Some of the MacDonalds returned to the Glen, but during the 18th and 19th centuries, people were removed from the Glen as part of the Highland Clearances. Stones from abandoned buildings would have been taken to build new structures over the years, like walls and enclosures for sheep.

    Situated to the northeast of Loch Achtriachtan, in the township of Achtriachtan, the buildings have been recently excavated by the National Trust for Scotland, and they have also uncovered evidence of crop cultivation.

    Coire Gabhail or the Lost Valley from the air looking north to Glencoe.

    Coire Gabhail or the Lost Valley from the air looking north to Glencoe. Some open grazing, now the reserve of deer. Photo Credit: Roddy Steel

    Why Were the MacDonalds of Glencoe Killed

    The river Coe and Aonach Eagach or ‘notched ridge’ – an exposed ridge scramble.

    The river Coe and Aonach Eagach or ‘notched ridge’ – an exposed ridge scramble. Photo Credit: Roddy Steel

    There are three main reasons behind the massacre.

    Jacobite Rebellions

    The first rebellion dates back to the Glorious Revolution in 1688, when William and Mary took the crown from James VII of Scotland and II of England and Ireland. Although a ‘glorious’ and peaceful rebellion in England, in Scotland a counter rebellion was organised by John Graham, viscount of Dundee, who was loyal to the then exiled James, or Jacobus in Latin. This gave the term Jacobite or supporters of James. The battle took place at Killicrankie and the Jacobites won, although it was a bloody battle on both sides, and the viscount was killed.

    A further Jacobite uprising was, therefore a considerable threat the throne. A garrison to enforce law and order in the Highlands was established at Inverlochy, which was renamed Fort William, after the king. However, with the proximity of the army base to Glen Coe, the MacDonalds were unlikely to mount any sort of rebellion.


    Secondly, the MacDonalds were an easy target to be made an example of. The MacDonalds of Glencoe were a sept or subgroup of the MacDonald clan. They had a dark reputation spanning decades for being unruly and lawless. Rustling contributed to their earnings, and reputedly stolen cattle were taken to the Lost Valley where they were easily protected from reprisals from other clans. Lowlanders were also prejudiced against the Highland Gaelic-speaking clans, seeing them as uncivilised barbarians.

    James VII is the last Catholic king to rule, and many of his Jacobite supporters from across the kingdom were both Catholic and Episcopalian. Presbyterianism was the main religion of both monarchs and church governance at that time. It is thought that the MacDonalds of Glencoe were Episcopalian or possibly Catholic, therefore a threat to governance.

    The Oath of Allegiance

    The third reason was the oath of allegiance to William and Mary, the new monarchs. It is said that this was demanded of all subjects; however, in a bid to get the Highland clans on their side, chiefs had been invited to sign by the 1st of January 1692 and take a share of £12,000. Those who did not sign would be punished. In all accounts, there were many delays in circulating the oath. For example, William III was in Flanders, and it took time for his approval to arrive.

    It is believed that, like many clan chiefs, MacIain waited until he was released from his previous oath to James VII. This only arrived in December 1691, a few weeks before the deadline for the oath. Once MacIain heard he was free to swear allegiance to William III, he made his way to Fort William. However, no sheriffs were there, and the nearest officer able to sanction his allegiance was south in Inveraray, where he duly went. His signature missed the deadline by a couple of days.

    Impacts of the Massacre

    Bidean nam Bian, the impressive mountain range in Glen Coe. The northern ridges are known as the three sisters of Glen Coe.

    Bidean nam Bian, the impressive mountain range in Glen Coe. The northern ridges are known as the three sisters of Glen Coe.

    The Immediate Consequences

    The first rumours of the massacre exaggerated the Campbells’ involvement, calling it a clan feud. However, when the Argyll regiment passed through Edinburgh some weeks later on their way to Flanders, they spoke of the massacre and copies of the orders were leaked or mislaid. The order was published in Paris, and the story was distributed in Scotland in pamphlets.

    People were outraged at the army turning on their hosts and killing women, children and the elderly. At a government inquest held in 1695, attempts were made to apportion blame, though no one was ever held truly accountable. The massacre was called ‘murder under trust’ after the abuse of hospitality. Commonly, the finger points to the then Secretary of State, John Dalrymple, who was forced to resign, although he later enjoyed prestige as Master of Stair to Queen Anne in 1703.

    Allegedly, following the massacre, word spread of a feud between the Campbells and the MacDonalds. Various Campbells were involved, such as Captain Campbell of Glenlyon. The regiment was made up of men from Argyll, so there was a strong likelihood that there were many Campbells amongst the 120 soldiers. However, there were others involved in the affair, including Drummond, Hill, Duncanson and Dalrymple, not to mention King William. Public outrage forced an enquiry, which barely got to the root of the matter.

    The plan badly backfired if the government aimed to gather support for William III. Public opinion swung against him following the massacre, and he remained unpopular for several reasons, like the 9-year war in Flanders, which involved Scottish troops, a failing economy and the ill-fated Darion Scheme.

    The Long-Term

    The massacre is a human tragedy. The story has inspired many songwriters and poets. In the 19th century, the myth of the clan feud between the Campbells and the MacDonalds was revived and remains widespread to this day. Many Highland Gatherings in the New World perpetuate the myth by retelling the story as a clan feud, encouraging a hatred of the rival clan Campbell.

    The Witch of Glencoe and the Legend of the Broadsword

    A kayaker on Loch Leven with the Pap of Glencoe in the background.

    A kayaker on Loch Leven with the Pap of Glencoe in the background.

    Legend has it that a woman called Corrag had the second sight and foretold of the massacre. However, her prophecy was not able to stop events. When she woke on the morning of the massacre to find all her clan murdered or fleeing, she is supposed to have taken up MacIain’s broadsword and cast it into Loch Leven with the words

    “So long as this sword lays undisturbed by man, no man from this Glen will die by the sword again.”

    During the first world war, a fisherman on Loch Leven is supposed to have pulled up a sword handle in his nets. A few weeks later, the Battle of the Somme claimed thousands of lives, including many MacDonalds. Reminded of the prophecy, he was forced to throw the handle back in the loch to protect the clan.

    Visit Glen Coe With Wilderness Scotland

    Meet the Author: Rhona Steel

    “Variety and people are big motivators for me, so I have worked in health care, education and most recently agriculture. In the 90s, I went to work in Europe but missed the diverse landscape and proximity to the sea. One of my best decisions was to return to live in the Highlands.”

    View profileMore by Rhona

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