​No Campbells allowed: Massacre at Glencoe

Painting of the Glencoe Massacre
On 13 February in 1692, one of the most brutal acts of British political violence took place in the Scottish Highlands.

The Glencoe Massacre saw more than 30 members of the MacDonald clan, including women and children, slaughtered in their beds by Government troops who had been sharing their homes for almost two weeks. 

This horrific event was carried out despite the clan's agreement to pledge loyalty to King William and the British Government, and was ordered by a minister who was advancing his own political aims. 

The Jacobite Rising of 1689, which saw supporters of the deposed king James II rebel against the British government had been put down, and King William III had turned his attention to France. 

Small scale fighting and unlawfulness in the Scottish Highlands was a distraction to the king’s ambitions, so the Highland Clans were ordered to pledge their allegiance by the 1st of January 1692 or face the "utmost extremity of the law."

Some clans were bound by oath to support James II and asked him to release them from their commitment. His agreement was given on 12 December, but the news didn't reach the Highlands until 28 December, just days before the Government's deadline. 

Alistair Maclain, chief of the MacDonald clan, headed to Fort William to give his oath, but was told to continue on to Inverary, 60 miles away, to offer his pledge to the magistrate there. He arrived on 6 January and pleaded for his late oath to be accepted. He left for home believing all was well. 

However, the Secretary of State for Scotland, Lord Stair, decided to make an example of the MacDonalds and refused to accept their loyalty, ordering that the clan should be "cut off, root and branch."

The MacDonald clan was not the only one to miss the deadline, so why were they picked out for punishment? 

Lord Stair was a Lowlander and a supporter of Scotland's union with England, so he despised the Highlander way of life, and he had a particular dislike of the MacDonald Clan who were viewed as lawless rule breakers. 

By treating the MacDonalds so brutally, he was trying to break the independent spirit of all Highlanders. 

A regiment of around 120 soldiers, led by Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, from the rival Campbell Clan, arrived in Glencoe and demanded ‘free quarter’, as a punishment for the clan not paying taxes.

This arrangement continued for 12 days, with the soldiers unlikely to have known the true reason they were staying in the homes of Clan MacDonald. 

In the early morning of 13 February, with a blizzard howling around them, Captain Campbell brought together his men out gave out his orders. 

In groups of 20, they descended on the settlements to shoot, bayonet and bludgeon the people to death.

By the end of their slaughter 38 people had been killed, including the clan chief Alistair Maclain. Many more had fled for their lives, leaving behind the brutality of the soldiers to face the bitter cold in the surrounding hills. 

When news of the massacre got out Scotland was outraged, and the anger helped fuel persistent rebellions over the next 50 years by the Jacobites. 

The Scottish Parliament declared the massacre an act of murder and Lord Stair resigned, but avoided any further punishment. 

The Campbell's were condemned for their part in massacre and to this day there are signs in Glencoe with the message, 'No Campbells Allowed'.

Want to know more: Scottish history expert Barry Hilton leads our tour the Jacobite Risings, which includes a visit to Glencoe to uncover the fate of the MacDonald Clan. 


Picture credit: After the Massacre of Glencoe by Peter Graham, from the National Gallery of Victoria and in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons