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Did William of Orange sanction the Massacre of the MacDonalds at Glencoe?

Posted in Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Religion, Royalty, Scotland on Thursday, 28 June 2012

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This edited article about Glencoe originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 743 published on 10 April 1976.

Massacre of Glencoe, picture, image, illustration

The Massacre of Glencoe by Peter Jackson

There were nine of them gathered around the fire that bleak February morning, sipping drams of whisky to ward off the bitter cold, when suddenly the soldiers burst into the room. Some rushed through the door, others thrust their muskets through the windows, and a chill of fear gripped the unarmed nine as they stared in amazement at the intruders.

The soldiers were led by Sergeant Robert Barber, who had been a guest in the house for the past thirteen days; but that did not stop his men from firing their muskets until the room was filled with gunsmoke. Some fell dead at once, others, only wounded, pretended to be dead, while Barber grabbed his ex-host, MacDonald of Achnocone, and leered: “Are you still alive, then?”

“I am alive,” he replied, “and if I am to be killed, I would rather it were not beneath my own roof.”

“I have eaten your meat,” laughed Barber, “so I’ll do you the favour of killing you outside.”

So the soldiers prepared to shoot him as he stood against his own house, their muskets almost touching his body, but he was too quick for them, flinging his plaid over their heads and running into the darkness of the morning. Others – men, and women and children – were less lucky on that dreadful day in Glencoe, the infamous 13th February, 1692.

There have been far worse massacres in terms of numbers than the slaughter of the MacDonalds in Glencoe, but few evoked more horror down the centuries than this one, not least because the soldier-killers had been honoured guests of the MacDonalds until the very start of the slaughter. Highland hospitality meant that the guest was sacred even if he were an enemy, but the inhabitants of the glen could not know that the guests were more than enemies: they were butchers.

In the 1690s, and for many years after, the Highlanders were hated and feared by Lowlanders and English alike. They loved fighting and cattle-stealing and their system of clans and chiefs had no counterpart in the south, where they were regarded as barbarians or, at best, noble savages, and poverty-stricken ones at that.

Most of the Highlanders took it hard when King James II of England and VII of Scotland was ousted from his throne in 1688 by the Protestant William III, who had married James’s daughter Mary, and they became staunch “Jacobites” as followers of the exiled king were called.

William and his Secretary of State for Scotland, Sir John Dalrymple, longed to bring the proud Highlanders to heel. A fortress was built and called Fort William, and the Earl of Bredalbane of the Campbell clan, “cunning as a fox, slippery as an eel” we are told, was given a vast sum to bribe the chiefs into loyalty. Some took the money, but none became loyal.

So the Government ordered them all to swear an oath of allegiance to King William by 1st January 1692 or risk destruction and death.

To the disappointment of those who looked forward to a blood-bath, the exiled King James sensibly ordered his Highland supporters to swear allegiance to William, and by January 1st all except two of the chiefs had taken the oath, and one, MacDonell of Glengarry, was allowed extra time. The other, MacIan MacDonald of Glencoe, chief of a small branch of the MacDonald clan, was not. He and his 200-strong clan were chosen by William and Dalrymple to be an “example”, though it is still in dispute if the King wanted it to be quite so drastic as it was.

It must not be supposed that the MacDonalds of Glencoe were a bunch of pacifists. Even by Highland standards they were notably violent plunderers and cattle thieves, especially against their Campbell neighbours. Yet this was the Highland way at this period.

Old MacIan MacDonald tried to take the oath, but, having started late, was held up by the weather, by the absence of the right officials, and by the fact that his enemies saw his lateness as an ideal chance to strike. He finally took the oath on the 6th, but those enemies, backed by the authorities, were not deterred. The appalling Dalrymple considered it not enough to go for cattle and home. The “thieving tribe must be rooted out and cut off,” he ordered, adding “let it be secret and sudden.”

John Hill, the local commander at Fort William, was considered too soft, or honourable, for the job, and Colonel Livingstone, the Army chief in Scotland, wrote to Hill’s second-in-command, James Hamilton, ordering the destruction of Glencoe and telling him “do not trouble the government with prisoners.”

Into the lovely valley between the towering mountains marched a company of Campbells drawn from the Earl of Argyll’s Regiment of Foot, and led by Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, deeply in debt from drink and gambling, and an old enemy of the MacDonalds, who had ravaged his property in the past. Yet he was related to the chief, his niece having married one of MacIan’s sons, and besides, when Glenlyon came with his men and asked to be billeted in Glencoe, hospitality demanded that he should be allowed to stay. Why had they come? Fort William was full, had not the old chief heard? A great expedition was being planned to punish the Glengarry clan when the weather improved.

So the Redcoats and their unwelcome leader were made at home in Glencoe, the soldiers being quartered in the small cottages of the glen.

The men did not know why they were there until the last moment. Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, who must have known the secret earlier, received his orders on February 12th. Extra troops would be sent to cut off each end of the glen. Meanwhile, at 5 a.m. on the 13th, he was ordered to fall on the rebels and to kill all under seventy.

Glenlyon dined with the chief that last night, but he did not stay late.

Before the dawn, the chief was disturbed by soldiers entering his room, but generously offered them a warming drink, only to be shot dead. Across the glen, similar scenes were being enacted.

Yet the massacre was a failure. Only 38 at the most were killed, though a number of the survivors perished from exposure. The glen was ravaged from end to end, but its spirit remained unbroken and the sons of the old chief survived.

It was not surprising that for many years, indeed until modern times, the MacDonalds and the Campbells could not be friends. Glencoe had seen to that.

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