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Raymond Campbell Paterson
Glencoe - Myth & Reality

The Massacre of Glencoe is one of the most talked about and least understood episodes in Scottish history. For many it is wrongly perceived as just one more savage episode in an age-old blood feud between the Campbells and Macdonalds. This, it has to be stressed, is not just popular prejudice. The authors of one of the standard works on the reign of William and Mary claim that the crime was the work of the Campbells of Glenlyon, the most bitter enemies of the people of Glencoe, and that hardly any Macdonalds escaped the carnage. (1) If serious historians can get away with this kind of ill-informed nonsense, what hope do ordinary mortals have?

In a sense, the 1692 Massacre is the one event in Highland history that continues to be viewed through a fog of Lowland prejudice, perhaps conveniently so. The true horror of Glencoe is, however, obscured by stories of clan rivalry. Here, on British soil, a small community was selected for extermination, by order of a British king acting on the advice of a Secretary of State for Scotland and implemented by a Scottish commander-in-chief, both Lowlanders. The task was then delegated to a regiment in the British Army. There was nothing new in the murderous intent behind this scheme: both James V and James VI had actively considered the wholesale murder and transportation of some of the more troublesome clans. There is, however, one crucial difference: at Glencoe theory became practice. Why, we have to ask, should this have been so?

To begin with, we have to understand the motives of William of Orange. He was a single-minded man with one chief objective: the defence of his beloved Holland against the imperial ambitions of King Louis XIV of France. For this task he always needed soldiers, and the United Kingdom was ideally placed to supply these. If he knew little of England, he knew even less about Scotland, and almost nothing about the Highlands. The Jacobite clans, who remained in arms even after their defeat at Dunkeld in 1689, were little more than an inconvenient obstacle in the way of his continental ambitions. A cold and distant figure, he looked for quick solutions to complex problems. Men could only expect to enjoy power under him insofar as they served this simple aim. He selected and dropped ministers as the occasion suited him. This atmosphere created a kind of Darwinian contest over the survival of the fittest; and by the summer of 1691 the fittest was Sir John Dalrymple, the Master of Stair and Secretary of State for Scotland.

Dalrymple was one of those amoral figures of whom the modern world is only too well aware. Cynical, self-assured and ambitious, and a man of no great conviction himself, he was impatient of it in others. He had a cold, rational mind, intolerant of all political and religious enthusiasm, serving James and then William with equal ease, and without any trouble of conscience. Above all, he served himself. If William was unwilling to commit the resources and time to winning a peace in the Highlands, then the obvious solution was to buy one from the impecunious and debt-ridden chiefs. This proposal would have to be put to them by one who understood both their language and their mentality. Stair chose for this delicate task John Campbell of Glenorchy, first Earl of Breadalbane, fated to be one of the most maligned and misunderstood men in Scottish history.

Breadalbane, sometimes known in Gaelic as Iain Glas- Grey John- was a survivor. He had lived through some very dangerous times, witnessing the destruction of his cousins the Marquis and the ninth Earl of Argyll. This created a lasting impression on his mind. Both men had made the mistake of openly embracing religious and political principles. Breadalbane, in contrast, would always take a pragmatic view, not committing himself too far one way or the other. Above all, he would do or say nothing that would endanger his own interests. He was said to be untrustworthy because he was self-seeking; but who at that time was not? He had his own ambitions to head Clan Campbell and, as time would show, he was not really committed to the Revolution Settlement. He had briefly toyed with the idea of joining the Jacobites, in the end remaining safely on the fence. By the summer of 1691 it was perfectly clear that the Jacobite cause was lost. Breadalbane then set out to avoid further bloodshed and, by happy coincidence, advance his own career. He was, like Stair, a schemer, a man often too clever for his own good. Unlike Stair, he was not noticeably cruel or vindictive. It was his misfortune that the peace he achieved was systematically and deliberately undermined, thus setting the scene for the tragedy of 1692.

It was not, of course, only great men who were motivated by self-interest. The summer of 1690 had seen the arrival back in Lochaber of John Hill, the old Cromwellian commander of the fort at Inverlochy, brought there by General Hugh Mackay, who had been given the task of constructing a new stronghold at the foot of the Great Glen. Using the foundations of Inverlochy, the new Fort William rose in less than a fortnight. Hill was the obvious choice as governor, for he knew the local clans and had worked reasonably well with them in the past. But he was now a man advanced in years, short of money and with grown up dependants. His posting to Fort William offered his only chance of advancement. Although not lacking in scruples, like so many of his contemporaries, he ultimately danced to a distant tune. Hill has been better handled by posterity than he deserves, for it was his ambition and lack of real moral courage that was to be one of the factors in the destruction of Glencoe.

In June 1691 many of the rebel chiefs, including Angus Macdonell of Glengarry, one of the most obdurate, met Breadalbane at the ruined castle of Achallader. Glengarry’s presence was something of a surprise. Earlier in the year he had been greatly encouraged when the fortress of Mons in the Low Countries had fallen to Louis XIV, breathing new life into the flagging Jacobite cause. He promptly set about strengthening his own castle at Invergarry, fully intending to carry on the war. His presence at Achallader was, it would seem, to stiffen the resolve of his less committed colleagues. He was certainly determined to undermine any proposal that Breadalbane had to make, using all means necessary, not excluding deliberate deception. In this he was to act as a beacon for others, including Alasdair Maciain, the 12th chief of Glencoe.

The Achallader negotiations turned not on principle but on cash. Leading the discussion, Ewan Cameron of Locheil asked for £20 000 on behalf of himself and his fellow chiefs, but Breadalbane beat him down to £12 000, the figure authorised by King William. In discussing the individual amounts, Breadalbane abruptly told Maciain that his share would be set against some cows he had stolen the previous December. The two men quarrelled and Maciain departed, later telling his sons that he feared mischief from no man as much as Breadalbane. In the light of later developments, this incident has been given far too much weight. Maciain was not important enough to affect the outcome of the negotiations. Far from bearing a grudge, Breadalbane not only obtained £150 for Macian to buy out the Earl of Argyll’s feudal superiority over Glencoe, but also had him pardoned for a murder.

On the last day of June a truce was agreed, to last until the end of October, with even Glengarry in apparent agreement. During this time messengers were to be sent to consult with the exiled James in France. The Treaty of Achallader was little more than a breathing space, allowing more time to reach a final settlement. It was certainly far less than most, including Stair and the king, had hoped for; but this does not detract from the simple fact that William now had a peace, however temporary, throughout the whole kingdom for the first time since he appeared in 1688 to topple James from the throne. Patience, care and diplomacy might have achieved even more. But no sooner was the treaty signed than it was sabotaged.

Breadalbane, pleased with his success, left the Highlands heading for William’s camp in Flanders. Soon after he left an unholy alliance began to form among his enemies. Too many people had far too much to lose: Colonel Hill, whose own attempts to secure a peace had come to nothing; Glengarry, for whom Achallader was a political failure, and John Murray, the Marquis of Atholl, faced with a serious loss of influence and resentful of both Breadalbane and Stair. It was rumoured that Achallader had been supplemented by a number of secret articles, including one to the effect that if any of the terms were denied Breadalbane would come out in support of the Jacobites with a thousand men. Copies of these articles were soon circulated, although the original was never found. For those with the intelligence enough to see it was obvious, even at the time, that the secret agreement was a clumsy forgery. Why would an astute political operator like Breadalbane have placed a loaded gun in the hands of men many of whom he knew to be his enemies? Why, moreover, if he was prepared to commit himself to the Jacobite cause, with all the dangers this would bring for him, would he do so with only part of his available forces? Even Glengarry, who used the articles against Breadalbane, had enough sense to see through this obvious weakness and changed his own copy of the articles to read ‘all his men.’

The attitude of Glengarry is something of a puzzle. His own role have led some to conclude that he was the author of the forgery, while others have questioned his motives in revealing them. After all, the support of Breadalbane would have been of considerable help to the cause of King James, as John Drummond, the writer of the early eighteenth century Memoirs of Locheil recognized. Drummond accepts the truth of the secret articles,

…yet Glengarry cannot be justifyed in makeing use of them in the manner he afterwards did, seeing he was of the party in whose favour they were made; and that being always present, they were spoke in confidence and secrecy, which ought to have putt a seale upon his lips, and not used as tools to bring ruine upon the speaker.

In this affair Glengarry was simply acting as a useful conduit for other, more influential figures. In September the Marquis of Atholl, who stood to lose many of his feudal superiorities, met Glengarry and falsely alleged that Breadalbane was plotting to cheat him out of part of the money promised at Achallader. Seemingly asking for no proof, he promptly changed sides and agreed to confirm that the secret clauses were genuine. All of this suggests that if Atholl did not write the articles himself, they were almost certainly written on his behalf.

John Hill, always worried by his own petty prestige, was quick to convey news of the articles to the Privy Council, without pausing to inquire too far into their provenance. Although William refused to accept their authenticity, there is little doubt that Breadalbane’s influence was weakening, Dalrymple had looked for quick results; faced with the intrigues of his enemies and the obduracy of the Highland chiefs, this became a more remote possibility. Rather than sacrifice his own political career he was quite prepared to sacrifice the lives of others. Before waiting for the conclusion of the Achallader truce, William issued a Proclamation of Indemnity, pardoning all rebels who submitted by 1 January 1692. Those who did not would be ‘answerable at their highest peril.’

From this point forward Dalrymple became increasingly impatient in his view of the Highlanders, especially as Breadalbane’s continuing attempts at negotiation were coming to nothing. Before the end of the year, in a more vengeful frame of mind, he was beginning to look for a target. In October he remarked that providence might intend the destruction of Clan Donald for being papists, and rebuked Breadalbane for interceding on behalf of the Macdonalds when, as a Campbell, he ought to hate them. But Grey John was far too pragmatic to be motivated by old vendettas. Despite all he held to his scheme for peace. In late November he argued that the rebels should be pardoned, even if they came in at the last minute. Dalrymple, however, was now looking to make use of far less scrupulous people.

In the autumn of 1691 one James Hamilton was appointed as Hill’s depute at Fort William and lieutenant colonel of his regiment. Considering that Hamilton was set to be one of the minor architects of the Glencoe Massacre, and most likely the author of some of its most despicable features, very little is known about him. He was certainly a man whom Dalrymple, distrustful of Hill, could make use of. To the obvious alarm of the governor, Dalrymple took to corresponding with Hamilton directly, revealing, in December, a new and murderous direction to his thoughts:

It may be shortly wee may have use of your garrison, for the winter time is the only season in which wee are sure the Highlanders cannot escape us, nor carry their wives, bairnes, and cattle to the mountaines. The Clan Donald is generally popish…And I well know that neither he [Glengarry], Keppoch, Appine, Locheil nor some other Chieftaines can well sleep, being within a good nights march of your garrison.

He wrote again a few days later confirming that an attack on the Macdonalds would be popular because they were Catholics. Stair, as we have said, was largely indifferent over religious affiliation, and was most certainly not a bigot; he was thinking here as a politician. At this time attacks on Catholics were always popular among Protestants; if these Catholics were also Highland savages, so much the better.

As 1 January approached many chiefs at last began to awaken to the danger they were in. There had been hopes of French intervention almost up to the last minute. This came to nothing. When James’ dispensation finally arrived, allowing the chiefs to look to their own safety, some took prompt action. Coll Macdonald of Keppoch travelled all the way up the Great Glen to take the oath of loyalty at Inverness. Glengarry, too, made some overtures to Hill at Fort William. Clearly feeling responsible for Alasdair of Glencoe, who had tended to follow his lead, he hoped to have him included within a blanket submission. The Macdonalds of Clanranald and Sleat, far from Fort William, allowed the January deadline to come and pass.

The story of Maciain’s anxious, last-minute trip to Fort William and then Inveraray is too well known to require repetition. In the end he was allowed to pledge his loyalty to King William, although he exceeded the deadline by several days. He the returned to Glencoe in apparent safety, while his fate was decided far from the Highlands at William’s camp in Flanders.

Dalrymple was looking to make an example. Troops had already been concentrated at Inverness as well as Fort William, with orders to proceed against Keppoch, Glengarry, Locheil, Appin and Glencoe. The Master expressed the hope that the soldiers ‘would not trouble the government with prisoners.’ However, given the scale of the task, and the forces available, punitive action is likely to have been no more devastating than previous commissions of fire and sword. Frightfulness demanded a much smaller, more vulnerable target. By early January, Dalrymple was aware that some of the rebels had submitted, and expressed his sorrow that Keppoch and Glencoe, whom he seems to have singled out as his particular targets, were now safe. As he sat at his desk writing to Sir Thomas Livingston, the Scottish commander-in-chief, on the evening of 11 January, the Earl of Argyll came into his presence with some news that caused a rapid change of gear – ‘Just now, my Lord Argyle tells me that Glenco hath not taken the oathes, at which I rejoice. It’s a great work of charity to be exact in rooting out that damnable sept, the worst in all the Highlands.’

The Master had his prey. It was to be the Macdonalds of Glencoe, not because they were the most culpable, but because they were the most vulnerable. Not only were they the smallest branch of Clan Donald, but also the narrow valley in which they made their home was a trap rather than a fortress.

Over what remained of January 1692 the scheme for a wholesale massacre took shape and direction. One of the oddest features is the letter Dalrymple wrote to Hill on 16 January, saying that Argyll and Breadalbane had promised that the Glencoe people would have no retreat into their bounds. But we know from Breadalbane’s letters after the massacre that he had no inside knowledge of what was intended, and neither man gave any instructions that the passes into their lands should be blocked. At most, Breadalbane appears to have suggested a general campaign against the rebels. However, this false lead has been slavishly pursued by generations of historians. John Buchan says that Iain Glas was poised, waiting to strike, even though he was not even in Scotland at the time of the massacre. Another author, clearly puzzled by the lack of action by the Campbell chiefs, suggests that they neglected their ‘orders.’ (2) Argyll, it is further suggested, may have positioned his forces to the south of Rannoch Moor, to what purpose is not at all clear. No evidence is sited for this contention.

It was Dalrymple who chose the Earl of Argyll’s Regiment of Foot for the task ahead. This might in itself be enough to suggest that the Campbell chief, who was the regiment’s senior officer, had some prior knowledge of what was intended. At this time, however, the post of colonel was often an honorary one, and Argyll, although he raised the regiment from among his own tenants, never exercised actual command or took part in any field operations. The men of Argyll’s, it also has to be stressed, were regular soldiers and not a clan militia. Moreover, we know from near contemporary muster rolls that very few of them actually bore the Campbell name.

One of the most interesting aspects of the whole affair is that it managed to combine malevolence and incompetence in roughly equal measures. In his correspondence with Breadalbane, Dalrymple had himself highlighted the traditional rivalries between the Campbells and Macdonalds. Now, it seems, he was attempting to make use of this, perhaps as part of a deliberate plan to explain away the outcome. But the regiment failed to live up to his expectations. It is almost certain that if Highland-hating Lowlanders like the Cameronians had been used, the result would have been much more dreadful. The ordinary soldiers of the Argyll Regiment were Gaels, and, as events came to show, had little real enthusiasm for their murderous orders.

By far the worst feature of the whole sordid business was, of course, that two companies of the Argyll Regiment were billeted with the people of Glencoe thirteen days prior to the massacre. We have no way of proving who was responsible for this particular feature of the plan, but it is most likely to have been Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton. If so, it was probably conceived in consultation with Major Robert Duncanson of Argyll’s, who had brought the regiment from Inveraray to Fort William. The man selected to lead the advance party to Glencoe was Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, related by marriage, as Duncanson would have known, to Alasdair Macdonald, Maciain’s younger son. This alone would help to lull the suspicions of the people of Glencoe. Above all, Dalrymple had said the whole business should be secret and sudden. Here is the key to the whole mode of operation: a direct attack would only alert the surrounding clans. Best, then, if murder came dressed as a friend.

What is to be made of Robert Campbell? At once tragic and pathetic, he was, in a sense, to be another victim of Glencoe. It is difficult to feel any real sympathy for him. Although he was not by nature cruel or murderous, he was capable of a cruel and murderous act. What is worse-it seems fairly certain from observations of him after the massacre-is that his conscience was not salved by the fact that he was acting under orders, the bankrupt retreat of all moral cowards. The misfortune that followed him all of his life was largely of his own making. Years of heavy drinking and excessive gambling had brought him close to ruin, forcing him, at the age of sixty, to take a captain’s commission in the Argyll Regiment. It is clear that, lugubrious and impecunious as he was, he was not entirely devoid of charm. His kinsman, Breadalbane, for whom he was a constant source of worry and embarrassment, saw him as an object of compassion when he was in his company. No sooner was he out of sight, however, than he wished he had never been born. Breadalbane had opposed Glenlyon’s enrolment in the Argyll regiment, and when he later found out that he had been involved in the massacre he observed that an ill and unusual fate had followed the man all the days of his life. Glenlyon was never more than an instrument in the hands of men far more ruthless than himself.

On 1 February 1692 he took two companies of Argyll’s to Glencoe. Once there they were given quarters in the little communities scattered along the valley. That Glenlyon had no prior knowledge of the task expected of him is revealed by the threatening tone of the orders he received from Duncanson, camped a few miles away with the rest of the regiment at Ballachulish, late on Friday 12 February.

You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebels the Macdonalds of Glenco, and put all to the sword under 70. You are to have special care, that the old fox and his sons do upon no account escape your hands; you are to secure all the avenues, that no man escape. This you are to put in execution at five a clock in the morning precisely, and by that time or very shortly after it, I’lle strive to be with you with a stronger party; if I do not come at five, you are not to tarry for me, but to fall on. This is by the King’s SPECIAL COMMAND for the good and safety of the country, that these miscreants may be cutt off, root and branch. See that this be put in execution without feud or favour, else you may be expected to be treated as not true to the King or government, nor a man fit to carry commission in the King’s service. Expecting that you will not fail in fulfilling hereby, as you love yourself.

These instructions appear to have been brought to Glenlyon by Captain Thomas Drummond, yet another Lowlander. His company was one of the two already stationed in Glencoe, and he was senior to Robert Campbell. Interestingly, he did not take command, and was presumably sent to stiffen Glenlyon’s resolve. Considerable care was being taken to ensure that he carried the whole burden. Duncanson did not appear at five, or even shortly after. It was not until seven o’ clock, two hours later, that he began his march along the shores of Loch Leven to the mouth of Glencoe, by which time the whole ghastly business was largely over, as he knew it would be. Even Hamilton, advancing from Fort William with Hill’s regiment to block off the eastern exit from Glencoe, did not appear until late in the day, although this was perhaps owing less to design than delays caused by bad weather.

Glenlyon acted on cue; but from beginning to end he botched the whole affair. The southern passes were not blocked, allowing most of the people to escape. Similarly, the killings began with gunfire, alerting people up and down the valley. Maciain was one of the first to die, butchered by a party led by two Lowland officers, Lieutenant Lindsay and Ensign Lundie. In all some thirty-eight people were murdered, men mostly, but also some women and children. Most fled across the snowbound passes, including John and Alasdair, the fox’s cubs. Strong Macdonald tradition suggests that the Campbell soldiers warned many in good time. Again, according to tradition, the family of Campbell of Airds at Castle Stalker helped many of the fugitives. Glenlyon was moved to mercy on two occasions: but both young men were promptly murdered by Drummond. The stock was rounded up and driven off, after which a terrible silence descended on Glencoe. Robert Campbell left, pursued by his own personal demons. In Edinburgh he was seen drunkenly defending his actions. Later, after the regiment moved to England on its way to Flanders, it was reported that Maciain of Glencoe hung about him day and night, and could be seen in his face.

True to form, Hill immediately claimed credit for the massacre, saying that he had ruined Glencoe. However, after the search for scapegoats began, he was just as quick to distance himself, making the usual defence that he was only obeying orders. Dalrymple was only ever to express regret that the matter had been so badly handled. William cared little for the growing mood of outrage. He is likely to have judged the effects of the massacre not by the impact it had on Scottish public opinion, but how effective it had been in ending Highland resistance to his rule. And, as a piece of political terrorism, it enjoyed quick success. Before long, Clanranald, Sleat and other chiefs were hastening to submit. The only senior figure to express any real sense of outrage was Breadalbane, who described the crime as ‘barbarous, illegal, imprudent’; and he did not keep these views to himself. In March he wrote to his legal agent in Edinburgh saying, ‘I have in great mens company expresst my publict dissent and disapproving of it as neither legal nor honourable…’ Later that month he was to write that what had happened had undermined all his attempts to secure peace in the Highlands. Yet after the king had been forced to agree that a Commission of Inquiry be set up a few years later, Breadalbane was to find himself singled out as one of the chief targets.

Guided by James Johnston, the new joint Secretary of State for Scotland, the 1695 Commission was never a serious attempt to discover the truth. Its aim, rather, was to exonerate the king. In the search for scapegoats, Dalrymple was the obvious choice, and stood condemned by his plentiful and public correspondence. He lost office, one of Johnston’s aims, but suffered no other penalty. Breadalbane, too, was singled out, although there was absolutely no evidence against him. He was, however, arrested and imprisoned for a time because of the uncertainty surrounding the Achallader negotiations in 1691. The first suggestion that the crime was a clan massacre instigated by Breadalbane was made in a letter from Johnston to William, although both men were very well aware of the true facts. Parliament agreed that it had been ‘murder under trust’ and asked William to send home Robert Campbell and the Lowland officers for trial. But no trials were ever held.

Robert Campbell never returned to Scotland. After a long illness, he died in Bruges in August 1696, debt ridden to the last, and was buried in an unmarked grave. One can only hope that his tortured soul had, in the end, found peace.


  1. Henri and Barbara von der Zee, William and Mary, 1988 p. 352

  2. John Buchan, The Massacre of Glencoe, 1933 p. 107; Donald J Macdonald, Slaughter Under Trust, 1965 p. 112

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