The massacre at Glen Coe

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 12:05 pm

Glen Coe, Scottish Highlands, visit ScotlandScotland’s Glen Coe is justifiably well known to walkers, geographers, geologists and nature-lovers as a place of beauty and interest. It also has a rich history of saints and Vikings. Yet, year after year, visitors from all over the world are drawn by a single event, the terrible massacre at Glen Coe that took place in the winter of 1692.

Glen Coe, scenery, National Trust for Scotland, visitor centreThe historical background to the massacre at Glen Coe begins with the Reformation, the profound religious, political and social revolution unleashed on 16th century England by Henry VIII, and which arrived in Scotland shortly afterwards.  The Stuart kings who ruled both countries from 1603 might be judged as religiously ambiguous, an issue which was only finally settled in 1688 when the Catholic King James II (VII in Scotland) was replaced with the joint monarchy of James’ impeccably Protestant nephew and son-in-law, William of Orange and his wife Mary, James’ daughter.  To those who ask how it is possible to have a joint monarchy, I say you can do anything you like if you call the shots.  In any event, this so-called Glorious Revolution was a further step toward a modern democratic state, established the basis of a constitutional monarchy and, because history tends to be written by the victors (usually the ones that call the shots), it is often portrayed as the Bloodless Revolution.  Unfortunately, it was far from bloodless, as subsequent events testify.  Many historians have also ignored the fact that the Glorious Revolution was technically an invasion and coup by a foreign ruler – but that’s a mere detail (and another story).

Inverigen, clachan, Glenlyon, massacre at GlencoeAmong those that cared in England and Wales, James’ departure met with broad, but by no means universal, approval.  In Scotland, which let us remember was an independent kingdom, the arrival of William and Mary was generally welcomed by interested Scottish Presbyterians, but not by Episcopalians, Catholics, or those sympathetic to the traditional Stuart monarchs – which included most Highlanders.  In Ireland, at that time ruled by England, support for the new regime was limited to English landowners and the Protestant minority. Supporters of the deposed King James were known as Jacobites, derived from the Latin version of James, Jacobus.  James did not entirely go quietly; he landed in Ireland with French support in 1689, gathered an army and, though he was decisively defeated by William at the Battle of the Boyne in July, it took another couple of years to finally end Jacobite resistance on the island.  Meanwhile in Scotland, a Jacobite force defeated a government army at the pass of Killiekrankie on 27th July 1689, only to be beaten in turn the following month at Dunkeld.  To add to the background of unrest and suspicion in Britain, William was preoccupied with a more serious, wider, struggle against France; the last thing he needed was the irritation of rebellion in his back garden.

Inverigen, clachan, Glenlyon, Glencoe massacreThe story of the lead up to the massacre at Glen Coe is a complicated one, mired in the politics and petty rivalries of the time and place; all we can do here is attempt to summarise. It is, though, worth highlighting what Alistair Moffat in his excellent book The Highland Clans describes as “the widening gulf between clan society and the rest of Scotland” in this period.  The Highlands were different, hierarchical, autocratic, proud, sometimes cruel: geographically and culturally removed from central government, clan chiefs often played by their own rules and traditions.  Moffat suggests that many Lowlanders considered Highlanders as “savages, sub-humans who spoke a barbarous language and lived in primitive conditions in a wild and uncivilised landscape.”

In August 1691, the Government offered a pardon to all Highland chiefs who had taken up arms against the new monarchs, provided they swore an oath of loyalty in front of a sheriff or deputy before 1st January 1692. With the exception of the Campbells, the allegiance of the western Scottish clans to William and Mary was questionable, to say the least.  The clan chiefs prevaricated, possibly in expectation of a French invasion; many contacted the exiled James VII to obtain his consent to be released from their oaths to him.  Eventually, this permission was granted and most – but not all – of the chiefs submitted.

Inverigen, Glen Coe, massacreAlasdair MacIan, chief of the Clan Donald of Glencoe, whether through ignorance, misinformation or mischievousness, delayed submitting until the very last minute. The old man finally set off into the winter for Inverlochy Castle sixteen miles away at Fort William and presented himself to the Governor, Colonel Hill, on 31st December. Hill explained that he could not accept MacIan’s submission, because it had to be administered by a civil magistrate. He gave the chief a letter for the sheriff-depute, Campbell of Ardkinglas, at Inveraray, more than 70 miles to the south, saying that he hoped the submission of Glencoe could be accepted in good faith.  It was 2nd January before MacIan arrived at Inveraray, only to find the sheriff-depute absent on holiday for the New Year.  The latter did not return until 5th January and was reluctant to administer the oath after the cut-off date. He finally did, on 6th January, warning MacIan that the matter would need to be referred to the Privy Council in Edinburgh and at the same time writing to Governor Hill, explaining what had happened and asking Hill to put the MacDonalds of Glencoe under his protection.

MacIan’s submission arrived in Edinburgh, but the case was never formally put before the Privy Council because it was decided that the submission was made after the prescribed date. Other chiefs had missed the deadline too – but the MacDonalds of Glencoe were singled out for special treatment; why isn’t clear. One possibility is that Highland troops were wanted for William’s war against the French, but someone felt an example should be made, as an encouragement.  The villain of the piece seems to have been Sir John Dalrymple, Secretary of State for Scotland, a Protestant Lowlander who had already sent word to the Commander in Chief in Scotland, Sir Thomas Livingstone, that troops would shortly be required to ravage the lands of recalcitrant chiefs. The final instructions he drew up for the King to sign concluded:

“If M’Kean of Glencoe and that tribe can be well separated from the rest it will be a popular vindication of the public justice to extirpate that sept of thieves.”

And the King duly signed the order, WR, William Rex. Dalrymple sent the orders out.  Livingstone, passing on Dalrymple’s words to Governor Hill’s 2IC, Lieut Col Hamilton, wrote:

“I desire you will begin with Glencoe and spare nothing which belongs to him, but do not trouble the Government with prisoners.”

In his letter to Hill, Dalrymple said, “Let it be secret and sudden”. He really didn’t want any survivors.

River Coe, Glen Coe, visit ScotlandOn 1st February, 120 men of the Argyll regiment arrived in Glen Coe, commanded by Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon.  The Earl of Argyll was head of clan Campbell, but this was indisputably a Government force under Government orders.  The MacDonalds thought they were safe and, accepting the explanation that the soldiers needed to be billeted with them whilst collecting taxes, welcomed them into their homes with traditional Highland hospitality. At that time, the MacDonalds of Glencoe numbered perhaps 150 people, living in a number of clachans, small settlements, up and down the glen.  For almost a fortnight, troops and clansmen lived together, sharing food and MacDonald generosity.  Glenlyon was even related to the wife of the chief’s younger son, Alexander, visited him regularly and, on the night of 12th February, played cards with Alexander and the chief’s oldest son, John.

That day, Glenlyon’s commanding officer, Major Duncanson, had written him the following order:

“You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebells, the McDonalds of Glenco, and put all to the sword under seventy. You are to have a speciall care that the old Fox and his sones doe upon no account escape your hands, you are to secure all the avenues that no man escape. This you are to putt in execution att fyve of the clock precisely; and by that time, or very shortly after it, I’ll strive to be att you with a stronger party: if I doe not come to you att fyve, you are not to tarry for me, but to fall on. This is by the King’s speciall command, for the good & safety of the Country, that these miscreants be cutt off root and branch. See that this be putt in execution without feud or favour, else you may expect to be dealt with as one not true to King nor Government, nor a man fitt to carry Commissione in the King’s service. Expecting you will not faill in the full-filling hereof, as you love your selfe, I subscribe these with my hand att Balicholis  Feb: 12, 1692.”

Accounts of what happened that night vary in detail, but it seems that, at the appointed time, a party of troops arrived at the chief’s house and shot him as he was getting out of bed. One account says that his wife was stripped and her assailants removed the rings from her fingers with their teeth. Glenlyon’s own troop tied up their hosts and shot them, one by one. Elsewhere, a musket volley was fired into a group of clansmen sitting round a fire.  Men, women and children were mercilessly butchered.  Their houses, stone and turf affairs with thatched roofs, were set ablaze, animals driven away and the bodies of the dead thrown onto a dunghill.  Those that escaped, and many did – including the old chief’s older sons – fled to the hillside into a snowstorm.  In all, the soldiers murdered 38 people and about 40 more died of exposure in the mountains.

Glencoe Folk Museum, massacre at Glen CoeThe Glen Coe massacre was, of course, a shocking, sickening, shameful, atrocity.  Though wary of judging past events by modern standards, Dalrymple, it seems to me, might have felt at home in the Schutzstaffel with Glenlyon’s soldiers performing the role of an Einsatzgruppe. Yet this action was bungled:  given the advantages of surprise and superior arms, how on earth was anyone allowed to survive? Why weren’t the orders carried out to the full? Why didn’t the troops act with greater stealth?  The suggestion is, in almost every version of the story, that individual soldiers not only deliberately disobeyed their orders, but also tried to warn their hosts what was about to happen.

massacre at Glen Coe, MemorialBe that as it may, it did happen.  And the worst thing about it, in the eyes of many contemporaries, was not simply the butchery – there had been bloodier events in the history of the Highlands than the massacre at Glen Coe – but the fact of murder under trust – the breach of hospitality which also broke an old Scots’ law.  In the end, though, no one was punished for this awful incident; in fact, many of the principle movers and shakers were subsequently promoted.

Glen Coe Massacre, Memorial , massacre at Glen Coe, inscrption, crossOften portrayed as the most heinous crime in a long-standing MacDonald-Campbell feud, down the years, the 13th February 1692 has become part of the Jacobite legend – which is probably where it belongs, though the choice of the Argyll regiment is interesting; a cynic might suggest this was intentional.  No doubt, too, that the Glen Coe massacre has been exploited by propagandists; but there are other reasons to visit this beautiful part of Scotland.

Glencoe Museum, massacre at Glen CoeThe whole area is excellent walking country, in which case get appropriately kitted and buy a map (OS Explorer 384). Lesser mortals could do worse than start at the National Trust for Scotland’s Glen Coe Visitor Centre, a little south of the village near a caravan site on the A82, from which you can learn more and do a gentle stroll. There’s another car park with walks over the River Coe up the Glen, in the direction of Tyndrum.  The small Glencoe Folk Museum in the village itself is really excellent – it has an eclectic collection which includes toys, domestic items and fascinating indigenous paraphernalia, as well as an exhibition about the infamous Glencoe massacre.  From the Folk Museum, you can walk along Upper Carnoch to the Glencoe Massacre Memorial.  Film buffs might recognise the local scenery from various movies, including the Harry Potter series, for Glen Coe is a famous film location.  And I’m sure someone is bursting to say, finally, that the massacre may have helped inspire the so-called ‘red wedding’ scene in Game of Thrones; but who needs fiction when you can read about the real thing?


25 thoughts on “The massacre at Glen Coe”

  1. I can’t believe that a post I missed while we were moving was about such a beautiful place and critical bit of history in Scotland!! I’d say you’ve done a good job of summarizing the history of that horrible event. All the politics, religion and competing rulers can be set aside in my mind given the ‘murder under trust’ that happened – breaking a sacred highland tradition between clans. It has certainly become one of the most significant symbols of oppression in Scottish history. Well done.

  2. Fascinating. But so depressing. When I read something like this, I despair that humans will ever evolve from the brutal tribalism that seems such a part of our DNA.

    1. I agree about the brutal tribalism, but we are getting better: the Glen Coe massacre, after all, happened more than 300 years ago in Western Europe, where state-sponsored murder is less likely now. There is hope!

  3. I’m taking some time this early Monday morning, to catch up with your blog postings…this one is dear to my heart because of the Scottish history. Sadly, I did not visit this site. My daughter and I were on a train and did travel through the area. Glencoe has been on my list for a while. I’ve printed out your post and tucking it away in my Alistair Moffat book, “The Highland Clans”… thanks so much for giving the account of the massacre.

  4. artandarchitecturemainly

    We often hear that the English considered the Scots as savages, sub-humans who spoke a barbarous language and lived in primitive conditions in a wild and uncivilised landscape. And remote from central government. But it particularly telling that the Lowlanders thought the same thing about their _own_ co-nationalists in the Highlands.

    No wonder the arrival of William and Mary was popular amongst Scottish Presbyterians, but not by Episcopalians, Catholics or Highlander Stuart supporters. And no wonder the ex-King James II chose to invade via Scotland. That is where his greatest support would be.

    1. Someone once said that the history of Scotland may be seen as centuries of struggle between Lowlanders and Highlanders – different societies. The Lowlanders often had much in common with their English neighbours. James actually attempted to recover his crown via Ireland.

  5. I had reason today to check back to comments left on a post of mine in 2014…and saw your note, and jerked in horror. How did I lose you in the blogging sphere. I had always loved reading your bits of history. Well, your new blog (I assume it is new) is re-connected to my Feedly feed…and you will be seeing me again. Loved this about Glen Coe.

  6. Excellent walking country and an excellent selection of whiskies in the Kings House Hotel are my abiding memories of Glen Coe. Somehow the finer points of the story eluded me back then, so it’s good to be got back up to speed with my Scottish history.

  7. Hi Mike – thank you for this … I hate to say it …but I’d no idea where the term ‘Jacobite’ had come from… well now I know. As Alexandra says above … very well written …

    William had a very long back garden! I know so little about Scottish history – every little gives me a little more understanding … and this helped a lot – cheers Hilary

  8. Blue Sky Scotland

    Interesting take on it. Early politics in Scotland ( and England) are often so complex it usually has to be simplified for later generations to understand. Good vs bad, Scots vs English etc. Scots in Kilts- English in chain mail when in reality they dressed much the same for battles ( kilts are rubbish at keeping out arrows and swords) often it was mixed armies of Scots with English in it or English with Scots and various other combinations. A bit like the modern percentages over Brexit and Trump. Tempting to speculate the stark division between the feudal clan system and the rest of lowland Scotland is similar to the left behind today vs the established order with many losing all faith in the political status quo and voting for maverick outsiders even if they are nutters.
    A classic scramble cuts across that cliff in the 2nd photo. One of the longest traverses in Scotland.

  9. I’m sure that my dean at Bible camp, when I was 8 years old, was a descendant of Duncanson. His name was Teasdale and I’ll bet he was from Killiecranky! Terrible and fascinating story. It would be nice to think we’re above all that sort of thing these post-enlightenment days, wouldn’t it. If only.

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