The Massacre of Glencoe
Created | Updated May 12, 2004
At the end of the 17th Century, Scotland was divided. One side supported the Royalist cause and King William III of England1, while the other was busy planning an insurrection. Plans to quieten the Highlands were hatched in 1690 by the Earl of Cromarty with the support of Lord Breadalbane. Although these plans were abandoned, the intention to subdue the Highlanders remained until 1691, when sums of money were offered to the chiefs as a bribe. This tactic was largely unsuccessful.
Breadalbane, originally from the clan Argyll Campbell, was a lifelong enemy of the clan Glencoe MacDonald. Both these clans accused each other of stealing land which they believed they were entitled to. Breadalbane proclaimed to support William (the stronger, more successful side) while secretly professing to support the exiled King James II. He tried to persuade the Highland clans to join him in their support, giving them time to prepare their support to King James. However, the chiefs were reluctant, and stronger measures were taken. One by one, the chiefs complied with the threats of 'letters of fire and sword' and swore allegiance to the government. MacDonald was the last of these chiefs to agree.
... the clan Donald must be rooted out.
Because of this delayed deliberation, it was decided, by Sir John Dalrymple, that an example would be made of the MacDonalds. On 31 December, 1691, MacDonald attempted to sign the oath of allegiance, but with his fate already decreed, it was already too late.
120 men, under the command of a Captain Campbell of Glenlyon, made their way to Glencoe, under the pretence of collecting tax in arrears. They persuaded MacDonald to give them shelter, producing military documents as proof. Glenlyon's niece was also married to Alexander MacDonald, which gave further vindication to the nature of their visit.
On the 12 February a dispatch was made, ordering the immediate death of the MacDonalds. Early in the morning (around five), the soldiers made their move. No MacDonald was intended to survive. However, a few escaped into the hills upon the discovery of Glenlyon's treachery to his host.
All men under the age of 70 were supposed to be killed, but due to the adverse weather and the added advantage of being forewarned of the carnage taking place on the other side of the hill, 200 men managed to escape the massacre. Women and children were thrown out of their homes to find shelter elsewhere.
The massacre of Glencoe reflected badly against the reigning King, William III, as it appeared to have been a decision resulting from his command. It was decided, three years after the incident that it had nothing to do with the King and the matter quietened. In the meantime, the MacDonalds were almost destroyed, returning to their homes poverty-stricken. Due to the clan's conduct in the aftermath, the King chose to recompense the surviving family members.