By Elena (Lane) Deamant
The history of the Highlands is full of tales about clan rivalries, ancient battles, and rugged wilderness. It is a place both rapidly in motion, embodied by its swooping herons and streams that flow down its mountainsides, and at a stand-still, as its past has been carefully preserved and memorialized.1 Whether this depiction of the Highlands is a fair one has been the subject of much debate. From academia to the heritage industry to local communities, many have a vested interest in how the Highlands are presented to the nation and the world. Tourist groups visit battlefields like Culloden, learning about valiant Highlanders embroiled in a desperate fight. Glencoe is another popular historical and natural site and is the location this article will focus on.
An infamous massacre took place in Glencoe in 1692, perpetrated by an army made up of members of the Campbell clan against their enemies, the MacDonalds who lived in the valley – but underneath the surface, there is a complex weaving of different threads that contributed to the terrible events, from politics to discrimination to the duty to obey orders. Amongst the Highland’s many museums, forts, castles and other memorial sites, in display cases, on plaques and statues, in literature and on the screens, stories are constantly swirling, told and re-told. Questions remain: Who chooses what stories are shared? Who tells the stories? What is left out?
Glencoe, a famous location in Scotland. Source: Wikimedia Commons, licensed for reuse (CC BY-SA 3.0).
For some historians and geographers, this mythological mist the Highlands have been wrapped in poses an obstacle to the work of uncovering the truth, laid out by facts and data.2 Others argue that Highland history should be written, explored, and constructed by those who are “inside” its culture.3 What this perspective emphasizes is the value of cultural sources: oral history, memories, songs, stories, and more.4 Both types of sources provide valid evidence and both are used here to build a narrative of how the massacre came to be, and what steps were taken by whom to try and stop it.
From the Scots’ early encounters with the Empire in the 13th century as a military threat to English northerly advancement, a reputation for violence has followed the Highlands. Scottish writers have lamented how Highland history seems to have been “reduced to an unbroken tale of violence.”5 Those to the south viewed “barbarism” as the normal state of affairs in Scotland, tempered only by the institutions of the British government.6 18th century quasi-anthropological accounts from influential writer Samuel Johnson speak of clans, or “petty nations,” as emerging “naturally” from the geographic divides created by mountain ridges, forming enemy relationships between such “warlike people.”7 Only a few anecdotes support this claim, including the long-standing rivalry between the MacDonalds and the Campbells, but Johnson uses shocking stories of their feud to capture the fascination of his readers and make generalizations about clan life as a whole.
17th and 18th century descriptions of Highlanders by the Scottish government in Edinburgh included: “void of all religion and humanity” and “given… over to all kinds of barbarity.”8 This harsh language made Highlanders out to be less than human, and fueled England as well as some Lowlanders in their attempts to wipe Highland society off the map. One of the most insidious of such attempts was the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692, where 37 members of the clan MacDonald were slaughtered by soldiers who had been deceptively stationed for two weeks prior inside the MacDonalds’ homes.9 The MacDonalds were targeted due to their delay in making an oath in support of the English king. More than 100 conscripted soldiers, mostly Campbells with allegiance to the English, were involved in the attack, but two soldiers notably refused to carry out the orders and were sent to prison. There are also numerous stories coming out of Glencoe that tell of other soldiers who warned their hosts of the impending attack, allowing some to escape. Such stories resonate with both timeless and modern topics, from questions of how to heal or even forgive in the aftermath of betrayal and devastation, to conscientious objection and the responsibility of soldiers to protect civilians.
In the prelude to the Massacre, Jacobite forces in the Highlands (who wanted the Catholic Stuarts returned to the throne, as opposed to the Protestant King William III) posed a major threat to the English, especially after 1688-89 when the Jacobite opposition began in earnest.10 England stationed active troops in Scotland, and the Scottish Parliament also raised its own regiments of men for the sole purpose of fighting the Jacobites. The British state had in fact been expanding its reach into the Highlands throughout the 17th century, sending its navies up the western coast and implementing laws that controlled important aspects of Highland life, including education, religion, and the carrying of arms.11 In March 1690, the government offered the Jacobite-aligned Highland clans clemency and a total of £12,000 if they made an oath of allegiance to William.12 The deadline for submission (under threat of severe punishment) was declared to be 1 January 1692.13 Clans initially delayed their oath-taking, angering Scottish and English politicians. For example, John Dalrymple, the Earl who later devised the orders for the Glencoe Massacre, spoke of making an “example” of the clans for their “obstinacy,” in his words.14
King William III of England (also known as William of Orange). Source: Wikimedia Commons, licensed for reuse (CC BY 4.0).
As the end of December, 1691 grew nearer, almost all Highland chiefs submitted, in large part because James (deposed King of Scotland and namesake of his Jacobite followers who wanted to put him back on the throne) gave his permission for clans to pledge allegiance to William.15 One of the clans that delayed submission was the MacDonalds of Glencoe, headed by the well-known Alasdair MacDonald (called MacIain). The MacDonalds were held with particular contempt by Lowlanders, including John Dalrymple, who considered the clan to be a “mere sept of thieves,” referring to their reputation for stealing cattle.16 The exact reasons why MacIain waited is not clear, but likely possibilities include waiting for precedence by other clan chiefs and late receipt of James’s permission.17 MacIain set off to Inverlochy to make his pledge on 31st December, 1691, and met Colonel Hill, governor of Fort William.18 Unfortunately, Hill was not empowered to take the pledge, and MacIain was told he needed to go to the magistrate in Inveraray.19 Traveling through a dense winter storm, MacIain managed to make it there by 6 January, 1692 (five days after the deadline expired), where he was allowed to take the oath.20 He returned home under the impression his clan was safe – but his oath was subsequently rejected by the English authorities.21 However, letters from officials around this time suggest that submission may never have been enough to protect the MacDonalds, and the delay may have served merely as an excuse for the attack. On 7 January, before the official list of those who gave their oaths on time was even released, Dalrymple declared that he wanted to see the “deluded devils” in ‘Lochaber, Appin and Glencoe destroyed.’22 On 23 January, officer Thomas Livingston wrote, “I understand that the Laird of Glenco (sic), coming after the prefixed time, was not admitted to take the oath, which is very good news here, being that at the Court it’s wished he had not taken it…”23
Glencoe in the winter. Source: Adriann F. on Flickr. Licensed for reuse (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
A military plan was thus constructed: three companies would converge on Glencoe, two to stay in the village and one in Ballachulish, slightly further away to the west.24 The troops were made up of conscripted men from the Campbell clan, primarily from the Argyll area, as the clan was supportive of the British government.25 They arrived on 1 February, 1692, and showed MacIain their orders, which mandated that soldiers be billeted in people’s homes so they could ostensibly collect taxes in the area.26 Under the norms of Highland hospitality, the people of Glencoe welcomed their guests, providing them not only with shelter but food, drink, and entertainment.27 Despite the Campbells having been ‘ancient’ enemies with their hosts, the MacDonalds were gracious, avoiding any songs or stories that might have invoked clan loyalty and the Campbells reciprocated with genuine enthusiasm.28 The soldiers were kept in the dark about their mission’s true nature for much of this time. By some accounts, it was only on the night itself, 13 February, in the midst of a blizzard, that the orders were revealed.29 The exact wording of the command is well-preserved in a letter from a major to the leader of the troops, Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon (see picture below). The full text is included here to demonstrate the exacting nature of the orders, and the threat that soldiers faced if they did not obey:
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… 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.30
The infamous Glencoe orders. Source: Wikimedia Commons, licensed for reuse (CC BY-SA 3.0).
Thus, at five in the morning, soldiers were to turn on their hosts while they slept, sparing women and the old, making an especially strong effort to kill the chief MacIain and his family (‘the old Fox and his [sons]’).31 Failure to do so would constitute treason against the King. For the soldiers stationed inside Glencoe, the command was disseminated discreetly through whispers in order to prevent being overheard.32 There is one soldier (potentially an officer) recorded as having fled Glencoe upon hearing his orders, named Robert Stewart. He went east and was given protection by a Duke.33
Resistance: Warnings and Escape
Contrary to official reports, there are accounts suggesting that soldiers had knowledge of the attack beforehand, or at the very least had their suspicions.34 The timing of when soldiers were given their orders matters, because it affected what opportunities soldiers had, if any, to challenge the orders or warn their hosts. There is a widely repeated tale wherein the afternoon before the Massacre, a Campbell soldier was standing in a field, watching a shinty match next to a child from the Henderson clan that also lived in Glencoe, when the soldier looked the child in the eyes and hit the stone, declaring, “Great stone of the glen! Great is your right to be here. But if you knew what will happen this night, you would be up and away.”35 According to multiple accounts, the child proceeded to pass the message along to MacIain’s son, Alasdair and his wife, who told some others in the village as well.36, 37 Alasdair and his wife are said to have had a sleepless night after that, keeping watch on the soldiers, and they did indeed escape with their lives.38, 39 The stone, now called the Henderson Stone, is a landmark in the Glencoe area and it resides below the granite Celtic cross-shaped Massacre memorial.40
The Henderson Stone and a view of the Glencoe valley. Source: Jason Henderson, via Wikimedia Commons, licensed for reuse (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Similarly, a soldier is said to have been in his host’s home around the fire the evening before, and he patted the family’s dog, saying, “Grey dog, if I were you I would make my bed in the heather tonight.”41 The family took the warning and escaped.42 A similar version of the story entails villagers hearing the same message about the grey dog and fleeing to a cave, where soldiers come upon them.43 Instead of killing them, one soldier kills the dog and brings his bloody sword back to deceive his superiors.43 In a further variation, a soldier, sent by his commander to kill a crying baby, hears the mother singing to her child.44 He recognizes the song as one that he had heard his own wife singing to their baby back home, and cannot bring himself to kill them. Instead, he gives them his food and leaves them. On his way back, he comes across a wolf and kills it, to show his commander the blood on his sword.45
There is another story that Hugh McKenzie, piper for the regiment, stood on the very same Henderson Stone at dusk and played a lament called Women of the Glen, which the people in the valley would have known to be foreboding.46 This account has been challenged on the basis that if the piper had played without being ordered to, he would likely have been punished and that punishment would have gone on record.47 Recollections of bagpipes being played may have come from later in the day, after the Massacre was over, to mark the somber affair.48
The veracity of the stories about soldiers warning villagers gains strength in light of the ‘incomplete’ nature of the Massacre – out of hundreds of villagers, 33-34 men and 4 women were killed outright, although many more died as they fled into the mountains in a freezing winter storm.49, 50 Still, given that there were 120 soldiers inside Glencoe, more direct killings might be expected. As one author puts it, “The private soldiers, left to themselves, had not done very well. Their warnings had not fallen on deaf ears.”51 It has been noted that the most deaths occurred in homes that were occupied by officers, compared to those occupied by soldiers – this implies that numerous soldiers, when away from the oversight of the officers, either warned their hosts or allowed them to escape.52
These stories carry underlying messages of hope about the humanity of the soldiers and an unwillingness to believe that such destruction could have taken place without any resistance from the perpetrators. It appears that the stories originated in Glencoe itself, meaning these sentiments of good-will came from those who were the victims of violence in the first place.53 The fact that these stories have persisted throughout time speaks perhaps of the continued solidarity or ties amongst Highlanders, and the value placed on those connections above a soldier’s duty.54 The Massacre also resounded strongly with those seeking independence from Britain, and news of the attack bolstered Jacobites in their fight against William III.55
The clearest instance of what today might be called conscientious objection came from two officers stationed in Ballachulish, whose regiment arrived several hours after the soldiers in Glencoe began the Massacre at 5am. When they got to Glencoe and saw the destruction, and that their job would be to find and kill the survivors who remained there (a few elderly people and children), two men refused to participate. It is said that their refusal was dramatic, involving them actually breaking their swords in protest.56 One historian claims that the soldiers’ commander killed an 80-year-old man in front of them, which is what sparked their disgust.57 The most well-documented fact is that these two were arrested and imprisoned in Glasgow for several months.58, 59, 60, 61 Their names are listed as Francis Farquhar and Gilbert Kennedy; they may have been Lieutenants.62, 63 Following the Massacre, there was strong public backlash and a subsequent inquiry in 1695, in which Farquhar and Kennedy testified about the events and the actions of their superiors.64
The question of guilt and blame arose quickly as politicians and the public analysed what happened. An anonymous contemporary author who had spoken with soldiers involved in the event characterized their feelings as this: “All the blame be on such as gave the Orders; we are free, being bound to obey our Officers.”65 The inquiry seemed to agree, since it focused entirely on the commanding officers, their orders, and the letters they sent to document this.66 Ultimately, although the Scottish Parliament declared the Massacre to be an act of murder, the officers were acquitted because the initial orders had come from the royal Court and were seen as being out of their hands.67 Throughout time, courts and governments around the world have continued to debate soldiers’ ability to claim “superior orders” as a defense for committing atrocities against unarmed civilians. Regardless, the Glencoe Massacre of 1692 demonstrates that there is a long-established historical precedent for those who have opposed violence, supported and memorialized by Scotland’s folk traditions and oral history.
1. Womack, P. (1984). Improvement and Romance: The Scottish Highlands in British Writing after the Forty-Five. Ph.D. thesis, University of Edinburgh. p.13.
2. Ibid., p.2.
3. Hunter, J. (2014). On the Other Side of Sorrow: Nature and People in the Scottish Highlands. Edinburgh: Birlinn. p.76.
4. Ibid., p.77.
5. Womack, (1984), p.271.
7. Johnson, S. (1775). A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. Dublin. Pp.39-40.
8. Hunter, (2014), p.79.
9. Wallenfeldt, J. (2021). Massacre of Glencoe: Scottish History  [online]. Encyclopedia Britannica. [Accessed 24 September 2021] https://www.britannica.com/event/Massacre-of-Glencoe
10. Hopkins, P. (1998). Glencoe and the End of the Highland War. Edinburgh: John Donald. p.487.
11. Devine, T. M. (1994). Clanship to Crofters’ War The Social Transformation of the Scottish Highlands. New York: St. Martin’s Press. Pp.11-13.
12. P. M. (1813). Conduct of King William III. Respecting the Massacre at Glencoe. The Belfast Monthly Magazine. 11(65), pp.447-448.
15. Hopkins, (1998), p.505.
16. Hunter, (2014), p.80.
17. Hopkins, (1998).
18. Anon. (1692). A Letter from a Gentleman in Scotland to His Friend at London, who Desir’d a Particular Account of the Business in Glenco. In: Leslie, C. (1695), Gallienus Redivivus, or, Murther Will Out &c. Being a True Account of the de-Witting of Glencoe. Edinburgh: Gaffney &c. P.2.
21. Hopkins, (1998), p.522.
22. Ibid., p.514.
23. Ibid., p.523.
24. Ibid., p.524.
25. Hopkins, (1998).
26. Ibid., p.525.
27. Prebble, J. and Brockway, H. (1996). Glencoe: the Story of the Massacre. London: Folio Society, 1996. p.231.
28. Buchan, J. (1933). The Massacre of Glencoe. London: P. Davies. p.122
29. Prebble, (1996), p.231.
30. National Library of Scotland, (n.d.). Order for the Massacre of Glencoe [online]. [Accessed 24 September 2021] https://www.nls.uk/exhibitions/jacobites/william-and-mary/glencoe-massacre/
32. Prebble, (1996), p.231.
36. Buchan, (1933), pp.126-127.
37. MacDonald, D. (1965). Slaughter Under Trust, Glencoe 1692. London: R. Hale. p.100.
38. Anon., (1692).
39. Buchan, (1933), p.127.
40. Discover Glencoe, (n.d.). The Massacre of Glencoe [online]. [Accessed 24 September 2021] https://discoverglencoe.scot/key-information/history/about-glencoe/glencoe-massacre/
43. Shaw, J. (2007). The Blue Mountains and Other Gaelic Stories from Cape Breton. McGill: Queen’s Press. p.181.
44. MacDonald, (1965), p.140.
46. Discover Glencoe, (n.d.).
47. MacDonald, (1965), p.106.
49. Ibid., p.100.
50. Hopkins, (1998), p.532.
51. MacDonald, (1965), p.106.
52. Ibid., p.100.
53. Prebble, (1996), p.231.
54. Discover Glencoe, (n.d.).
55. National Trust for Scotland, (n.d.). Glencoe [online]. [Accessed 24 September 2021] https://www.nts.org.uk/visit/places/glencoe/the-glencoe-massacre
56. Prebble, (1996).
57. MacDonald, (1965), p.105.
58. Buchan, (1933), p.111.
59. Anon., (1692), p.8.
60. Hopkins, (1998), p.529.
61. MacDonald, (1965), p.105.
62. Ibid., p.105.
63. Buchan, (1933), p.112.
64. MacDonald, (1965), p.105.
65. Anon., (1692), p.8.
66. Leslie, C. (1695), Gallienus Redivivus, or, Murther Will Out &c. Being a True Account of the de-Witting of Glencoe. Edinburgh: Gaffney &c. P.11