Few places in Highland folklore register such notoriety as the bloodstained name of Glencoe. The place has become a by-word for treachery. It was here in 1692 after having taken 12 days and nights of hospitality from their MacDonald hosts, that the English troops (largely Campbells) fell upon their hosts whilst they slept in the mid of night, putting all those under 70 to death. In total 38 perished but many more died from exposure fleeing into the wintery mountains. In truth the feud between the two clans went back a lot longer, and historically it had tended to be the MacDonalds who had the better of the argument. Perhaps its not too surprising that the Campbells ended up serving the English, and when looking for someone to do their bidding for them, the clan Campbell wouldn’t have taken that much persuading.

Looking west into Glencoe with the steeper sided mountains in the distance

Photo credit by Pxhere under CC by S.A 2.0

As with any good feud this one had a history. In 1688, William, Prince of Orange, accepted an invitation to take the throne of England, glad to enlist English help in his wars with Catholic France. The Scottish Parliament was more cautious and requested letters from him and James VII (ousted as James II of England). James’s response displeased the Scots, and persuaded them to accept William as their King. In response, John Graham, 1st Viscount of Dundee, led a force of Scottish Highlanders in Jacobite uprisings in an attempt to return the throne to James. In modern language this would be something of an insurrection. Despite his conclusive victory at Killiecrankie, Dundee was killed in the battle, and the rising in Scotland resulted in an inconclusive defeat by the Scottish Cameronian forces at the subsequent Battle of Dunkeld. On their way home from this battle the MacIains of Glencoe (a sept of Clan Donald), together with their Glengarry cousins, looted the lands of Robert Campbell of Glenlyon and stole his livestock, increasing his problems with gambling debts and forcing him to take an army commission to provide for his family. In his subsequent appeal for compensation, Campbell showed he clearly believed the Glengarry men to be the more culpable, making no mention of Glencoe.

This particular rising fell apart however in 1690 when it suffered two successive hammer blows. The Scottish Jacobites were heavily defeated at the Haughs of Cromdale on 1 May 1690, and James was defeated on 1 July 1690 at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland, the consequences of the latter live on today, albeit the battle is celebrated on the Gregorian calendar as the 12th.

On 27 August 1691, William offered all Highland clans a pardon for their part in the Jacobite Uprising, as long as they took an oath of allegiance before 1 January 1692 in front of a magistrate. He also threatened them with reprisals if they did not sign. The Highland chiefs sent word to James, now in exile in France, asking for his permission to take the oath. James dithered over his decision, convinced that he was close to returning to Britain to reclaim his throne. When it became apparent that this was not going to happen before the deadline, James sent orders back to Scotland authorising the chiefs to take the oath. This message reached its recipients in mid-December, in difficult winter conditions, only a few weeks before the deadline. A few managed to comply promptly but others did not, including Alastair MacIain, 12th Chief of Glencoe, who waited until the last day before setting out to take the oath. This procrastination set in train a chain of events that would lead to the massacre.

On 31 December 1691 MacIain travelled to nearby Fort William to ask the governor, Colonel Hill, to administer the required oath, but Hill demurred on the grounds that he was not authorised to receive it. He instructed MacIain to proceed quickly to Inveraray to make his oath before Sir Colin Campbell, sheriff of Argyll. Hill gave Maclain a letter of protection and a letter to Sir Colin asking that he receive Maclain’s oath since Maclain had come to him within the allotted time. Hill also reassured MacIain that no action would be taken against him without him having the opportunity to make his case before the King or the King’s privy council.

The ‘Three Sisters’ of Glencoe. In winter, they’re full of snow, and at night the temperature is well below freezing. Many would perish of exposure fleeing the onslaught

© photo by Michal Ziembicki licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 through Flickr
Terms of licence [CLICK].

It took MacIain three days to reach Inveraray, partly due to winter weather, partly due to his being detained for a day at Barcaldine Castle by the 1st company of the Earl of Argyll’s Regiment of Foot, at the command of Captain Drummond, as a ruse to delay him. On arrival at Inveraray, he then had to wait three days for the arrival of Sir Colin, who was spending the New Year with his family across the waters of Loch Fyne. Upon his return, Sir Colin reluctantly accepted MacIain’s oath.

MacIain had satisfied the spirit of the oath, and was confident there would be no action against him or his people. However, he reckoned without the Secretary of State over Scotland and Lord Advocate, John Dalrymple, Master of Stair. Dalrymple was a Lowlander who disliked the Highlanders and thought their way of life was a hindrance to Scotland, which he thought would be better served in union with England.

John Campbell, 1st Earl of Breadalbane and Holland, a senior member of the Campbell clan, saw an opportunity for revenge in the fact that MacIain had been late in taking the oath of allegiance.

In late January or early February 1692 the first and second companies of the Earl of Argyll’s Regiment of Foot, which consisted of approximately 120 men under the command of Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, were billeted on the MacDonalds in Glencoe, who received them in the hospitable tradition of the Highlands. Most of the regiment was recruited from the Argyll estates but only a minority actually bore the Campbell name. Others, including many of the officers, came from the Lowlands. At this stage, it is not clear that Campbell knew the nature of their mission — ostensibly they were there to collect taxes. The planning was meticulous enough for them to be able to produce legitimate orders to this effect from Colonel Hill — the man who had tried to help MacIain complete his oath in the first place — thus dispelling any suspicions the MacDonalds may have had. However, it was Colonel Hill who issued the orders to begin the massacre two weeks later.

On 12 February 1692, Captain Drummond arrived. Due to his role in ensuring MacIain was late in giving his oath having detained him on his passage to Invergarry, Drummond would not have been welcomed. As the captain of the 1st company of the regiment, the Grenadiers, he was the ranking officer, yet did not take command. He spent the evening playing cards with his unsuspecting victims and upon retiring, wished them goodnight and accepted an invitation to dine with MacIain, the chief, the following day. Drummond was bearing instructions for Robert Campbell, from his superior officer, Major Duncanson.

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 Kings 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 Kings 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.
For their Majesties service
(signed) R. Duncanson
To Capt.
Robert Campbell
of Glenlyon

A Victorian era continuity error? James Hamilton’s painting of sheltering MacDonalds looking into the glen below them as Campbell troops raze it. The red, Glencoe MacDonald tartan is to the right. You decide

Alasdair MacIain was killed while trying to rise from his bed by Lt Lindsay and Ensign Lundie but his sons escaped, as initially did his wife. The first clansman to be killed was Duncan Rankin. He was shot down as he tried to escape by crossing the River Coe near the chief’s house. Elsewhere, various members of the two companies found ways of warning their hosts. Two lieutenants, Lt Francis Farquhar and Lt Gilbert Kennedy even broke their swords rather than carry out their orders. They were arrested and imprisoned, but were exonerated, released and later gave evidence for the prosecution against their superior officers.

Signal Rock, t’was here that a beacon was lit to signal the commencement of the massacre

The lower-reaches of the River Coe, downstream from Loch Achtriochtan near Signal Rock.

© photo by Euan Nelson (Signal Rock)
© photo by Doug Lee (River Coe) licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 Terms of licence [CLICK].

In addition to the soldiers who were actually in Glencoe that night, two other detachments, each of four hundred men were, according to the plan, to have converged on the escape routes. Both were late in taking up their positions. It is possible that a snowstorm made arrival on-time quite difficult—especially for those approaching over the Devil’s Staircase from Kinlochleven; it is equally possible that they simply did not want to play any part in what they knew to be a heinous crime.

Glencoe today

The approach to the ‘glen of weeping’ comes over the bleak landscape of Rannoch Moor. The conical peak of Ben Etive guards the eastern entrance and clearly marks the point of arrival. You sweep past this rocky sentinel and begin the descent down into this narrowing steeped cleft. On your right is the ‘devils staircase’, and the left, the ‘three sisters’ and Loch Achtriochtan.

The glen can be moody and haunting. The mountain-sides start to close in around you, as you feel the presence of the ghosts that live here. Mists gather and lift. Cloud and light play tricks on your senses. There is an all pervading feeling of unblanched horror.

Glencoe can be particularly spooky and moody, especially if the clouds come down and the ghosts take their chance to walk again!

© photo under Pixabay License (Craig Hunter).
No attribution required. Commercial use

Eventually the glen opens out into the flat lands of Glencoe village and the western paps that guard this entrance. It is at the western end of the lower glen that the massacre took place, although some of the ruins of the original houses further up the glen are still visible


The ‘pap of Glencoe’ overlooks the village and river on the western exit

© photo by Paul Hermans licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
Terms of licence [CLICK].

We normally advise spending an hour in the visitors centre familiarising yourself with the story and landmarks. ‘Signal Rock’ is but a short walk from the building. After this we have the independence to explore for a few hours and allow you to feel the spectres from the past in this most beguilingly beautiful, but forever tarnished part of Scotland.

In popular culture today, the name Glencoe has become a byword for treachery, and sympathy is very much on the MacDonald side. Campbell is another name that has become synonymous with untrustworthy English collaboration, although it would be highly unlikely that anyone would hold it against you should you be called Campbell!

This trip is normally viable from Inverness, Gleneagles, Glasgow and Edinburgh. You’ll get about 2 hours on site