Highlights of Scotland

The Massacre of Glencoe

From The Highlands and Islands of Scotland by Angus and Patricia MacDonald (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1991, ISBN 0-297-83213-1; p. 87):

The land [of Glencoe] is amongst the least fertile in the Highlands and perhaps for that reason the MacDonalds of Glencoe 'were by nature reivers and cattle lifters'. Many clans, not least the neighbouring Campbells, had scores to settle with them, and the opportunity was taken when by the 'special command' of King William a Campbell regiment was ordered to 'fall upon the rebels, the MacDonalds of Glencoe and put all to the sword under seventy'.

The 'Massacre of Glencoe' occurred in the early morning of 13 February 1692. Thirty-eight persons of a small branch of the MacDonald clan, including two women, two children and the old chief, were murdered by a small party of soldiers from a Campbell regiment which had been quartered in their midst. The justification for the inhuman act, one of the foulest of the Jacobite period, was the failure of the chief, in confusing circumstances, to take the oath of allegiance to William of Orange by the prescribed date. It was intended as a warning to other recalcitrant chiefs but they were hardly likely to be intimidated by this kind of deed: to the Highlander perhaps the most serious crime involved was the violation of the sacred tradition of hospitality.

The 38 persons mentioned died during the massacre, out of about 150 who were there. The rest, together with some 200 people more fled into the snow-covered hills, where about 40 died of cold and starvation.

The oath of allegiance to King William, necessary for a general amnesty, had to be signed before 1 January 1692, and the MacDonalds of Glencoe had - like other Highlanders - reluctantly decided to sign. Due to bad weather and 'confusing circumstances' on his way the chief of the MacDonalds was six days late signing the oath. The Minister of Scotland, the Master of Stair, used this as an 'excuse' to set an example, helped with that by the arch-enemies of the MacDonalds, the Campbells.

This act of the black treachery, carried out on the helpless MacDonalds by members under Robert Campbell of Clan Campbell, is immortalized in a song written by J. McLean and sung by various artists, often preceded by a brief introduction. On Alastair McDonald's The Songs Of Scotland (1993), for instance, the narrator says that the Campbells were ordered

to fall upon the rebels, the MacDonalds of Glencoe, and to put all to the sword under seventy. You're to have a special care that the old fox MacIan and his sons to upon no account escape your hands. This is by the King's special command for the good and the safety of the country. See that this is put in execution.
Here are the lyrics of Alastair McDonald's version.

See also this page on the "Ballad of Glencoe", which has some related links.

Moira Kerr wrote a very good song entitled The Glen of Weeping about Glencoe and I give you the lyrics on a separate page.

From Scottish Landscapes with photos by Colin Baxter (Lomond Books, Edinburgh, 1995, ISBN 0-948661-59-3; page 23):

      Even Glencoe was wooded and fertile once. And lived-in. Although much has changed there, so much has not. In particular, it remains, of all Scotland's landscapes, the most potent progenitor of myth and misconception, a landscape in wolf's clothing; who hasn't looked at the place on a grey-black day of curtaining rains and pronounced it the vilest place on earth? And with a hundred inches of rain a year it offers no shartage of opportunities for you to curse it.
      'The Glen of Weeping' is now a fanciful and discredited translation of the name Glencoe, but research has only taught what the name does not mean and scholars still search for a definition. For all that, the landscape still weeps, and rain imparts a curious tension about this glen's close-gathered walls. There is too, the old salt-eyed stain of the Massacre of the Macdonald clan in 1692, which it seems must forever darken the name Campbell. For all the atrocities in the repertoire of man's inhumanities to man long forgotten before and since, the Massacre of Glencoe still offends - not just Macdonalds, but millions of neatrals the world over. Facts merely confuse. It was just one more outrage in an era which thrived on outrage. As a massacre it was a desperate botch - 38 died and 300 escaped. Many still contend, its notoriety lingers because the principle of Highland hospitality was abused. Or perhaps it is the very nature of the Glencoe landscape, both intimidating and introverting, acting as a brooding preservative, a conducive arena for the conjuring of old bloodsheds.

More about the background of the Massacre of Glencoe can be found at: http://www.electricscotland.com/history/glencoe/,
and in the book Glencoe written by John Prebble (Pinguin Books, ISBN 0-14-002897-8).

Extract from "The Secret Diary of Ardian Mole aged 13 3/4" by Sue Townsend:

Tuesday August 25th
The massacre of Glencoe took place on February 13th, 1692. On February 14th, John Hill wrote to the Earl of Tweeddale, 'I have ruined Glencoe'.
      He was dead right, there is nothing there. Glasgow tomorrow.

Back to the picture page Glen Coe -- part 1

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last modified: 26 April 2008