Glencoe Massacre: Truth or Spin?
Written by: Stewart Borland
Published: 25th February 2015
Last Updated on
323 Years ago this month a soldier sat in a tavern in Edinburgh trying to drink himself to oblivion after carrying out an enforced order to kill his kinsmen. This man and the clan he belonged to has been blamed by history for the Glencoe Massacre.
The story of the Glencoe Massacre is one every British person knows. In primary schools children were taught that the MacDonalds of Glencoe were massacred by the Campbells, a neighbouring clan who had an ancient animosity towards the MacDonalds. But this is a tangled version of the truth based on circumstantial facts concocted for political expediency. Government members knew how to divide and conquer, setting off one clan against another so blame could be deflected, and the real instigators never brought to justice. Clan rivalry shares some of the blame, but only indirectly.
The story began three years after the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. The emerging united kingdom of England, Ireland and Scotland didn’t want a Catholic king, but King James II of England & VII of Scotland was becoming increasingly Catholic. When he insisted his son and heir be raised as a Catholic that was the last straw for a country who had fought for generations to overcome Papal authority. William of Orange (Charles I’s grandson) invaded Britain, James fled, and Parliament took James’s flight for abdication. James’s protestant daughter Mary, who was married to William of Orange, was invited to be co-regent with her husband.
Because James was a Stuart and of Scottish descent, he had great support among the Highland clans. This support was a potential problem for William of Orange, now William III. It could have caused another civil war. Some of the clans could see how things were going politically and decided to get behind the winning team. Some branches of the Campbells were of this mind. Others were fiercely dedicated to James II, and believed he would re-gain the crown with the help of France.
John Campbell, Earl of Breadalbane was an ambitious man. As a member of the Scottish Privy Council he could see that backing William III and the new regime was the sensible option. However, he hedged his bets, because the chances of James reclaiming the crown were not impossible either. You can see why they called him ‘slippery John’, one could never be sure which side he was on. In order to prove his allegiance to the new regime, Breadalbane offered to bring the Highland clan chiefs together to sign an oath pledging allegiance to William and Mary. It was going to take bribery. So the British Government entrusted a large sum of money to Breadalbane so he could give £12,000 to each clan chief who agreed to sign the oath.
On 30th June 1691 John Campbell organised a meeting at Achallader castle. At this meeting he proposed the oath to the clan chiefs. Alistair MacIain, the chief of the MacDonalds of Glencoe was also at the meeting. These MacDonalds were remants of an older clan who had fallen on hard times. In the past they were the Lords of the Isles and masters of a great deal of land and fortune. Now they were poor and had to resort to stealing cattle from their neighbours in order to survive. This irritated their neighbours, the Campbells. But they were not the only clan who resorted to looting more affluent neighbours. More importantly perhaps, MacIain, the clan chief was related by marriage to the Campbells. Breadalbane reminded MacIain that he owed him money for cattle. His share of £12,000 minus what he owed, left him so far out of pocket he would get nothing. This made him rather unhappy. Others were getting a raw deal out of it too. It is said that slippery John Campbell of Breadalbane never gave any of the money to the chiefs. They had another worry too: what if James II came back with an army to find his nobles had signed an oath with his enemy?
After some heated discussion Breadalbane proposed a second secret oath just between them: that if James II came back with the French army then the oath to William and Mary would be torn up and they would automatically back James again. This almost satisfied the chiefs, but they wanted permission to sign from the exiled James. William III had assured them there would be dire consequences for those who didn’t sign. They didn’t want any trouble from either side. So a letter was drafted and sent covertly to James in France, while the deadline for signing the oath marched towards them.
The deadline was 31st December 1691. The clan chiefs held out until they had received James’s reply before they signed anything. In those days rich Catholic France, backed by the Vatican, was a European superpower. If James could persuade the French King to help him then his return to power was a real possibility. This is why they waited. There really was no question of real allegiance to William and Mary, not while this hope existed. Meanwhile James was trying to muster an army. In September 1691 rumour came of an invasion from France. James, however, couldn’t get the support he needed from Louis XIV before the deadline, so he sent his permission to the clan chiefs to sign the oath. It was the 12th December when the letter was despatched from France. In those days letters took a long time to reach their destination. This hapless letter took even longer.
Enter John Dallrymple, the Secretary of State for Scotland. This career politician had worked for James II as Secretary of State. But when James was deposed he quickly switched allegiance to William and Mary. He was a lowlander, with a particular disliking of the Lochaber clans, including the MacDonalds of Glencoe. He found them savage and rebellious and in no way conducive to the modern British Union. He wanted to bring them to heel, and he was a ruthless man.
James’s letter to the clan chiefs was intercepted and read by government spies in London. The secret deal was exposed, and a furious Dallrymple wanted to make an example of the clans. The letter was resealed, leisurely, and sent on to Edinburgh. Meanwhile Dallrymple despatched 400 soldiers to Fort William, a new fortress built to protect William’s interests in the Highlands. These soldiers were on stand-by to punish any clan who didn’t make the deadline. James’s letter reached Edinburgh on 21st December, with 10 days to go til the deadline. But it still had to travel into the remote highlands in the middle of winter, and then the message had to be passed from valley to valley, clan to clan. As Dallrymple rubbed his hands in anticipation of bloodshed, the clan chiefs waited for their king’s permission.
Finally the letter reached Athol, from there messengers rode out to Glengarry. The clan chief at Glengarry detained the messengers, some say he wanted to embarrass the Cameron chief at Lochiel in the next valley by making him late for the signing. When it finally arrived at Lochiel and Keppoch, there were 24 hours left to get it to Rannoch Moor. From there word was passed on to Chief MacIain at Glencoe. But the deadline was upon him and there was no way he would make it to the signing at Inverary in the bad weather. So he lost no time in getting to Fort William instead.
Colonel John Hill was the governor at Fort William, and he received MacIain, but assured him he was not authorised to receive his oath of allegiance, and that he must at all speed get to Inveraray to Sir Colin Campbell, the man appointed to receive the signatures. However, he gave MacIain a letter of protection, saying he was satisfied MacIain had honoured the spirit of the oath, just not arrived at the right location. The letter urged Sir Colin to receive his oath in good faith.
MacIain trudged off again through the winter weather, taking 3 days to arrive in Inveraray. He and his men had to cross Campbell territory to get there. They were intercepted by Government soldiers who questioned him despite Colonel Hill’s letter of protection. Some historians believe they deliberately detained him to make him even later. When he got to Inveraray it was now the 2nd January, and Sir Colin had already left town for Hogmanay, and wouldn’t be back for 3 days. MacIain and his men waited it out at a tavern. This was Campbell territory and they were surrounded by Campbells. When Sir Colin returned he accepted MacIain’s explanation, and the letter from Colonel Hill, and allowed MacIain to add his signature to the oath. There was now MacIain’s signature, the letter from Colonel Hill, and a further letter from Sir Colin recommending that MacIain’s oath be accepted, agreeing with Colonel Hill that the spirit of his oath and his effort to make it had been genuine.
Heaving a sigh of relief MacIain and his men returned to Glencoe, satisfied they had done what was required and their safety would be assured. The package with the oath signatures, the letters, and other business was sent by dispatch to Edinburgh Privy Council. Colonel John Hill sent a letter to MacIain in Glencoe, as was the protocol, stating that clan MacDonald was now under the protection of the garrison at Fort William.
When the package of oaths was presented before the Privy Council in Edinburgh, among them was another letter from the sheriff asking whether Chief MacIain’s signature should be accepted or not. The clerks of the Privy Council, among whom were powerful Campbell lawyers, would first have put all the information into a presentable order to come before the Privy Council. Historians suspect that some corruption of the information may have taken place here, but this can’t be proved. Whatever was presented to the Privy Council caused them to declare that MacIain’s signature was unacceptable, an illegal late submission, and to order it be struck from the record.
Just five days after MacIain had signed the oath, Dallrymple received word that his name had been removed from the list due to a ‘technical fault’. Dallrymple was gleeful. He had found his example. He wrote: ‘just now my Lord Argyll tells me that Glencoe hath not taken the oath, at which I rejoice.’ Other clans had not taken the oath either, bad weather or refusal had prevented them. But Dallrymple singled out the MacDonald Clan. He went on to say ‘It’s an act of great charity to be exact in routing out that damnable sept, the worst in all the highlands.’ Quite why he hated the MacDonalds more than any other clan is not known. They may have been naturally rebellious and given to banditry, but they were certainly not the only clan with those qualities. Other rebellious clans, those who had engaged in the secret deal with Breadalbane, were more powerful, with better connections. The MacDonalds were insignificant enough to be made an example of without reprisals from other clans. Fate and circumstance had dealt an already unfortunate clan a nasty card.
Dallrymple urged the king to act, making particular reference to the MacDonald Clan. The commander-in-chief in London received the king’s final instructions which he sent back to Dallrymple in Edinburgh. Colonel Hill tried to postpone military action against the highlanders. He wanted to give them a chance to make their case. But he was overruled. Two of his officers, Major Duncanson and Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton planned the attack, acting directly on specific orders from Dallrymple. Dallrymple knew that MacIain and the MacDonalds were under the illusion of safety, and he used that knowledge to plan a covert action. It was also an illegal action, a form of treason known as ‘slaughter under trust’.
Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon was given the command of two companies of about 120 men in total. On 1st February 1692, ten days before the massacre, they were ordered to march into Glencoe and await further instructions. It is unlikely that Glenlyon knew at this point what he would be ordered to do next.
At 60 years old Robert Campbell of Glenlyon had never made it higher than captain. He was not a successful man. He was a heavy drinker and an inveterate gambler, a black sheep of the Campbell family. Historians have speculated that this man was chosen especially for the job because of certain weaknesses in his character, and because no one would care if he took the fall. An even more cynical reason presents itself: Glenlyon was related to MacIain. The betrayal would be all the more acute.
When the MacDonalds of Glencoe saw the redcoats marching over their valley it must have been quite a shock, however they were under the protection of Fort William garrison and had no reason to fear these soldiers. Instead at the company’s request to be billeted, they welcomed them into their homes and gave them food and drink. Glenlyon told the Chief they were collecting taxes from each clan, by order of Colonel Hill. He could even produce papers to that effect. This satisfied the MacDonalds. The captain, Glenlyon, was billeted in the Clan Chief’s own house. Glenlyon’s neice was married to MacIain’s youngest son, and Glenlyon also visited daily with his niece and her new family. The rest of the company were billeted in homes up and down the valley about 3 or 4 to a house. Unknown to Clan MacDonald fatal danger now lay within the heart of each home.
For ten days the soldiers stayed, ate and drank, played cards, gambled and sang songs. Some even shared female beds. They belonged to the same highland culture; in that culture it is understood if you invite a stranger into your home and break bread with them, they are no longer a stranger but a trusted friend. Mutual protection was assumed. This code was sacred to Highlanders. Ten days and nights, then, of friendship and community the hosts shared with these soldiers, and the soldiers shared with their hosts. It makes what happened next all the more appalling.
On the night before the massacre Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, who was dining with his host, Alistair MacIain and his family, received a dispatch from Major Duncanson, who was stationed outside the glen. The letter is now an infamous one. It said: by order of the king, at five o’clock the next morning every member of Clan MacDonald under seventy must be ‘put to the sword’, and on no account must the ‘old foxe and his sones’ escape the slaughter. If Glenlyon did not carry out this command he would be ‘dealt with as one not true to King nor government’ in other words he would be deemed guilty of treason. It is hard to imagine with what misgiving Glenlyon relayed this message secretly to the other soldiers billeted along the valley that night. But that was the command and it had to be carried out.
Major Duncanson told Captain Campbell he would join him, but he ordered him to start the action 2 hours before he was due to arrive on the scene. In the end bad weather forced him to arrive 6 hours later. A Campbell was to be the main instigator. Very few of the soldiers bore the Campbell name. Most were lowlanders. But the name Campbell had to stick to this crime one way or another.
Next morning on the 13th February 1692, in the dark of early morning, the massacre began. MacIain was slaughtered in his bed, but MacIain’s two eldest sons both managed to escape into the mountains. In total around 38 people were killed. All along the valley crofts were set on fire. It is not known exactly how many of the women and children who escaped later died of exposure. Estimates range between 40 and 300.
Some historians suggest the troops must have known before the orders came that they were there to commit an atrocity. Some historians suggest that although the soldiers carried out their orders, they deliberately did it badly, or simply couldn’t do it. According to one account some soldiers broke their swords rather than murder their kin. Of the 1000 or so people who lived in Glencoe, 38 ambushed is by no means a large number for a company of 120 armed men.
Before nightfall on the 13th February, some of the survivors ventured down from the mountains to bury their dead relatives. The clan chief and his close family were given their due burial in the MacDonald burial ground, the island of Eileen Munde on Loch Leven. Others were buried in and around the glen.
Dallrymple, when he heard the news that the massacre had not been complete, that two of the ‘old fox’s’ sons still lived, was furious. He wanted to prove to the king that he was the man to control the Highlanders. He ordered that the survivors be hunted down, sent to the plantations or killed. He wrote letters urging this, but it was never carried out. His vengeful, unrepentant attitude was not shared by others, who were horrified at what had happened.
After the event Glenlyon was seen in Edinburgh getting drunk and lamenting what he had done. The soldiers too began to speak of it, of the terrible thing they had been ordered to do. Journalists picked up on the information with interest. Somehow Glenlyon lost the written order to attack. It was picked up and sent to Paris. There it was published in the Paris Gazette and news spread across a shocked Europe of the atrocity. It was not going to just go away.
Meanwhile Breadalbane, that slippery Campbell Earl, was horrified by the news. He saw very well that the Campbells were being framed for the massacre, that he himself may well be blamed, and he wrote to the MacDonalds urging them to absolve him and his clan of any responsibility. Whatever differences existed between them would never have deserved nor resulted in a clan massacre. He received no reply from Glencoe.
King William was fighting battles in France, and, to his shame, ignored what was happening in Scotland. Dallrymple was never disciplined for the disreputable order. Colonel Hill too seemed unconcerned, despite recognising MacIain’s desire to make the oath. He wrote to the Lord Chancellor of Scotland telling him in a military report that he had ‘ruined Glencoe’, among other business. If he had misgivings he didn’t share them.
At this point Charles Leslie, Jacobite barrister, tabloid pamphleteer and political propagandist decided to seek the whole truth. He was thorough and precise, collecting documentary evidence, talking to the soldiers and recording eye-witness accounts. Parliament tried to dismiss his findings as a Jacobite conspiracy theory. Queen Mary, however, started asking questions. By 1693, with Charles Leslie stirring up the public and Queen Mary putting pressure on the government, King William was forced to hold an official enquiry. It was a cover-up, exonerating the King, and no one was satisfied with it. Questions continued to be raised in Parliament.
In 1695, the year following Queen Mary’s death, there was a second enquiry. This time the king was not allowed to look at the report before publication. The second enquiry went further. It concluded that an act of treason had been perpetrated on the people of Glencoe by their own government. But who would take the actual blame for this crime? In the first instance it decided a ‘mistake’ had been made not accepting MacIain’s oath.
The King was once again spared from blame. Dallrymple was deemed to have ‘wrongly interpreted’ the king’s wishes. He was dismissed from his post as secretary of State for Scotland. Later the 19th Century politican and historian, Thomas Macaulay, accused King William of a ‘great breach of duty’ in not disciplining Dallymple further. Not long after, through the revolving door of politics, Dallrymple was back in office. After William’s death in 1702, he played a key role in forming the single state of Great Britain.
Breadalbane, because of that secret oath with James, was charged with treason, though it was recognised he had been set up as a scapegoat. He was later released from prison, but his political career was damaged. He got involved in the Jacobite uprisings of 1715, but some accuse him of syphoning money from that cause into his own pocket.
The axe fell heaviest on Robert Campbell of Glenlyon and the other officers involved that day. They were found guilty of ‘slaughter under trust’, despite the fact they were following the orders of their superiors. Parliament recommended they stand trial. In the end no one did. Robert Campbell of Glenlyon died of alcoholism. He never recovered from the burden of following those orders. It was recommended to the king that Major Duncanson and Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton should also be made to answer questions. The king declined to act.
As for the MacDonalds, they returned to their glen, they re-built their houses and re-settled their families. John MacIain, eldest son of Alistair, became the 13th Clan Chief, building his home on the site of his father’s house. Three hundred years later opinion is still sharply divided on whether Clan Campbell should be held accountable for the murders. The truth is too complicated to unravel.