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The Massacre at Glencoe - Part One

During 1690 and 1691 the Jacobites caused the government much trouble and anxiety by their ceaseless plotting to up an insurrection, in which they were to be assisted by supplies from France. Many men, professedly loyal to King William, gave, from various motives, their secret countenance to these attempts; and the Highlanders especially proved a galling and distracting thorn in the side of the government. As early as 1690, Lord Tarbet, (subsequently Earl of Cromarty,) proposed a scheme for the quieting of the Highlands, which Lord Breadalbane offered to carry into execution; but it was at the time abandoned. In 1691, however, negotiations were again renewed, and, as has been seen, Breadalbane was intrusted with a sum of money to distribute among the chiefs, or rather to buy up the claims which Argyle and other superiors had over their feudal vassals, and which was the real cause of the strife and dissatisfaction existing in the Highlands. The Secretary of state, Sir John Dalrymple, known as the Master of Stair, son of the Earl of Stair, appears latterly to have been at the bottom of the scheme, and was certainly most anxious that it should be successfully and speedily carried out, having at first apparently no thought of resorting to measures of cruel severity.

Not much appears to have resulted from the meeting which Breadalbane had with the chiefs at Achallader; indeed, he showed very little of an earnest desire for conciliation, as his threatening conduct induced Alexander Macdonald, or MacIan, of Glencoe, to leave the meeting abruptly for his own safety. Between Breadalbane, who was a Campbell, and Macdonald much bad blood appears to have existed; indeed, nothing but the bitterest hatred was cherished by the whole tribe of the Macdonalds to the Campbells, as the latter had from time to time, oftener by foul than by fair means, ousted the former from their once extensive possessions. The Macdonalds of Glencoe, especially, still considered the lands and property of the Campbells as their own, and without hesitation supplied their wants out of the numerous herds of the latter. It was some recent raid of this sort which roused the wrath of Breadalbane; and on poor Macdonald's head lighted all the blame and the punishment of the ineffectual negotiation. What became of the money has never been clearly ascertained; but much can be inferred from Breadalbane's answer when asked afterwards by Lord Nottingham to account for it, "The money is spent, the Highlands are quiet, and this is the only way of accounting among friends."

Like many of his contemporaries, Breadalbane attached himself openly to King William's government only because it was for the time the winning side; while at the same time he professed secretly to be attached to the interest of the exiled King James. He told the Highland chiefs that in urging them to enter into terms with the government, he had their own interests and those of King James at heart; for there being then "no other appearance of relief, he thought they could not do better than sue for a cessation, which would be a breathing to them, and give them time to represent their circumstances to King James." A contemporary characterises him as being "cunning as a fox; wise as a serpent; but as slippery as an eel. No government can trust him but where his own private interest is in view."

As the chiefs did not seem in any hurry to come to terms, a proclamation was issued, in August 1691, requiring them to take the oath of allegiance before the 1st. of January 1692, threatening all those who did not comply with "letters of fire and sword." This had the proper effect, as, one by one, the chiefs swore fealty to the government, Macdonald of Glencoe, from pride or some other reason, being the last to comply with the terms of the proclamation. the difficulty in getting the chiefs to come to terms. and thus allowing the government to pursue its other schemes without anxiety, seems at last to have irritated Sir John Dalrymple so much against them, that latterly he eagerly desired that some, and especially the various tribes of Macdonalds, might hold out beyond the time, in order that an example might be made of them by putting into execution the penalty attached to the non-fulfilment of the terms of the proclamation. In a letter to Breadalbane of Dec.2nd., he thinks "the clan Donald must be rooted out and Lochiel," and is doubtful whether the money, "had been better employed to settle the Highlands, or to ravage them." In another written on the following day he mentions with approval Breadalbane's "mauling scheme", artfully rousing the latter's indignation by speaking of the chiefs' ungratefulness to him, using at the same time the significant phrase delenda est Carthago. He and Breadalbane seemed however likely to be cheated of their vengeance, for even the obstinate and hated MacIan himself, after holding out to the very last day, hastened to fulfil the requirements of the proclamation, and thus place himself beyond the power of the strong arm of the law.

On the 31st. December, 1691, Glencoe made his way to Fort William, and presented himself to Colonel Hill the governor, asking him to administer the required oath of allegiance. The Colonel, however, declined to act, on the gerund, that according to the proclamation, the civil magistrate alone could administer them. Glencoe remonstrated with Hill on account of the exigency of the case, as there was not any magistrate whom he could reach before the expiration of that day, but Hill persisted in asserting that it was out of his power to act in the matter. He, however, advised Glencoe to proceed instantly to Inverary, giving him at the same time a letter to Sir Colin Campbell of Ardkinglass, sheriff of Argyleshire, begging him to receive Glencoe as "a lost sheep, " and to administer to him the necessary oaths. Hill also gave Glencoe a letter of protection , and an assurance that no proceedings should be instituted against him under the proclamation, till he should have an opportunity of laying his case before the king or the privy council.

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