Glencoe is a breathtakingly beautiful glen in the highlands of Scotland. On 13 February, 1692, however, it was the scene of a brutal massacre, when almost 40 members of the MacDonald clan were brutally slain, and many more fled to die later of exposure. The involvement of the Campbell family in the massacre has led to long-standing enmity between the two clans, which continues to this day. Inter-familial rivalry is not the whole story behind the tragedy, however, and anti-Jacobite feeling at the time was perhaps a more important factor.
In 1689, James II of England (James VII of Scotland) was deposed by William III, and Jacobite sympathisers were keen to restore James to the throne. William, of course, wished to ensure loyalty to himself, and demanded that all clan chiefs swore allegiance to him before 1 January, 1692.
John Campbell, first earl of Breadalbane, acted as a representative of the government, and had negotiated a deal with the Jacobite chiefs in June, 1691, whereby they would be granted indemnity from prosecution in return for swearing the oath. Sir John Dalrymple, the Secretary of State for Scotland, had other ideas, however. He had been involved in James' administration, and felt anxious to prove himself loyal to William. Even before 1 January, he suggested the MacDonalds should be targeted. Furthermore, Alasdair MacDonald of Glengarry had failed to tell other chiefs that James had permitted the swearing of the oath. Alasdair MacIain, chief of the Glencoe MacDonald's, first headed for Fort William to swear the oath on 31 December, but there was no magistrate there to take it, and he did not arrive at Inveraray and swear the oath until 6 January. Dalrymple exploited this, and William signed the order authorising the slaughter.
Soldiers of the Argyll Regiment, led by Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, arrived at Glencoe on 1 February. The MacDonalds played hosts to the men for 12 days, before at 5am on 13 February, the soldiers suddenly attacked them. This was two hours before more soldiers would arrive from Fort William, suggesting Glenlyon was perhaps being lined up as a scapegoat. MacIain and maybe 40 clan-members were killed - men, women, and children were shot, stabbed, and clubbed to death.
Seven prisoners were lined up and shot, then bayonetted by Campbell. Another officer shot a 13-year-old boy, and the chief MacIain was shot in the back as he pulled on his trousers. His wife was stripped and turned out into the cold. This was a cold, callous attack.
In the aftermath
As word spread of the bloodbath, demands grew for an inquiry. In July, 1695, the Scottish parliament blamed Dalrymple for the tragedy, and he was dismissed from his post. Jacobite feelings were aroused by the massacre, but the highlands would feel the might of military oppression again in 1746, after Culloden.
The Oxford Companion to Scottish History, ed. Michael Lynch, Oxford University Press, 2001
Chronicle of Britain, Chronicle Communications Ltd, 1992
Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc, 1994-2000