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Clan MacDonald
The MacDonalds of Glen Coe

BADGE: Fraoch gorm (erica vulgaris) common heath.
Mort Ghlinne Comhann.

MacDonald of GlencoONE of the wildest and grandest of the glens of Scotland, and at the same time, by reason of its tragic memories, one of the best known, is that which runs westward from the south shore of Loch Leven into the heart of the highest mountains of Argyll. The stream which brawls through its lonely recesses remains famous in Ossianic poetry under the name of Cona, and high in the face of one of its mountain precipices is to be seen the opening of a cavern said by tradition to have been a retreat of the poet Ossian himself. In the twelfth century, along with the Isles and a vast extent of the western mainland of Scotland, Glencoe appears to have been a possession of the great Somerled, Lord of the Isles, from whom it seems to have passed, along with the northern mainland possessions of the great lordship, to his eldest son, Dugal, ancestor of the MacDougals of Lorne and Argyll. In the Wars of Succession at the beginning of the fourteenth century the two great houses descended from Somerled’s sons took opposite sides. While the MacDougals took the side of Baliol and Comyn, the MacDonalds, descended from Somerled’s second son, Reginald, took the side of Bruce, and Angus Og. Reginald’s great-grandson, having distinguished himself with his clan at Bannockburn, paved the way for his family’s rise again to the position of chief consequence in the West of Scotland. As an immediate reward, Angus Og is said to have obtained from Bruce’s grandson, King Robert II., the lands of Morvern, Ardnamurchan, and Lochaber, forfeited by the MacDougals for the part they had taken against Bruce. While Angus Og’s eldest son, John, succeeded as Lord of the Isles, a younger son, lain Fraoch, appears to have settled in Glencoe, to which he further secured the right by marrying a daughter of a certain Dugal MacEanreug. From lain Fraoch this sept of the MacDonalds took its common name of the Maclans of Glencoe, and from the fact that one of its chiefs after the fashion of those early times, was fostered by a family in Lochaber, it frequently received the appellation of Abarach. The race is not to be confused with that of Maclain of Ardnamurchan, which claimed descent from lain Sprangaech, a son, not of Angus Og, but of his father, Angus Mor.

While the heads of the great house of MacDonald, the four successive Lords of the Isles, themselves, by their successive marriages and revolts engaged in undertakings which again and again threatened the stability of the Scottish throne itself, the chieftains of the lesser tribes of the name, like Maclain of Glencoe and Maclain of Ardnamurchan, showed a disposition to engage in lawless warlike undertakings which were only less dangerous because indulged in on a smaller scale. In the days of James VI. Maclain of Ardnamurchan bade open defiance to the powers of law and order, and, breaking out into actual piracy, became a terror to much of the west coast of Scotland. The story is told of him that on his plundering excursions, which took him up the narrow waters of Loch Linnhe, he followed the device of painting one side of his galley white and the other black, so that those who noticed him sailing up the loch to plunder and burn should not recognise him and waylay him as he sailed down the loch again with his spoils on board.

Though the Maclans of Glencoe disavowed any connexion with these piratical expeditions of their kinsmen, it is to be feared their own record was not less open to question. As time went on, and the virile house of Campbell rose more and more into power at the expense of their older rivals the MacDonalds, these Maclans of Glencoe played their own part in that struggle of Montagues and Capulets. The struggle came to a height in the seventeenth century, when the Campbells at last felt themselves strong enough to deal their MacDonald rivals a knockout blow. In the time of the civil wars of Charles I., when that King’s general, the Marquess of Montrose, had been defeated at Philiphaugh, and the Marquess of Argyll, Chief of the Campbells, found himself at the head of the government of Scotland and in possession of despotic power, the latter seized the opportunity to send the armies of the Covenant to demolish the last strongholds of the MacDonalds and MacDougals, burning the forts of the latter at Gylen and Dunnollie near Oban, and massacring the garrison of three hundred MacDonalds in their Castle of Dunavertie at the south end of Kintyre.

In these events may be found the reason for the raids made by the MacDonalds of Glencoe during the half century which followed into the lands of their Campbell enemies which lay to the westward. For geographical reasons the lands which suffered most from these incursions were those of the younger branch of the Argyll family, the Campbells of Glenurchy, whose head in the days of Charles II. became Earl of Breadalbane and Holland. On one occasion, while a marriage feast was going on at Glenurchy’s stronghold of Finlarig on Loch Tay, word was suddenly brought that the MacDonalds were driving the cattle of the Campbells out of the glen, and the wedding guests almost instantly found themselves engaged in a bloody affray with the invaders. Again, on their way home from playing a victorious part under King James’s general, Viscount Dundee, at the battle of Killiecrankie, the MacDonalds of Glencoe seized the opportunity to sweep Glenlyon of its whole cattle and valuables, and left Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, Breadalbane’s henchman, absolutely a ruined man.

This feud and these events were the immediate reason for the occurrence which remains the most outstanding event in the history of the M’Ian MacDonalds, and is remembered in history as the Massacre of Glencoe. The importance which that massacre has assumed on the historic page is altogether out of proportion to the actual size of the occurrence and to the number of those who lost their lives on the occasion. As a matter of fact, only thirty-eight of the MacDonalds were actually slain, and, though others may have perished among the snowdrifts in the high glens through which they tried to escape, the total is far less than that of those who fell in scores of old clan onsets and surprises, and cannot of course be compared with other massacres of clans obnoxious to the Campbells, like those of the 300 MacDonalds at Dunaverty and the 200 Lamonts at Dunoon. The circumstances of the case have given an outstanding interest and notoriety to the Massacre of Glencoe—the treachery which was used, the individuals who were concerned, and the matchless mountain theatre in which the tragic drama was set. Not a little of the notoriety of the event is also owed to the fact that it has been singled out for special description by such masters of the literary art as Sir Walter Scott and Lord Macaulay.

The event is too well known to call for minute description here. The prime mover in the undertaking, as has already been suggested, was obviously Campbell of Glenurchy, Earl of Breadalbane, and he had a ready tool to his hand in the person of Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, who, as we have seen, had motives of his own for seeking reprisals on the MacDonalds. The days were over when it was safe for a Highland chief like Breadalbane to muster his clan openly and fall upon and destroy an obnoxious neighbour by force of arms on his own authority. Breadalbane was astute enough so to manage affairs that in the attack upon the MacDonalds of Glencoe he should be acting with Government authority and ostensibly in the interest of law and order. In the hands of the cunning old fox of Loch Tayside the other and higher individuals to whom a stigma is attached for their part in directing and authorising the massacre—King William II. and III. and Sir John Dalrymple first Earl of Stair—were little more than pawns in the game.

After the dispersal of Dundee’s forces following the fall of King James’s general at Killiecrankie, it was represented to King William’s Government as desirable that the chiefs of clans should be required to swear allegiance to the new Government, and it was arranged that if they laid down their arms and took the oath before 1st January, 1692, they should receive an indemnity for all previous offences. Breadalbane was the intermediary, and he took care to manage matters very astutely in his own interest. In the previous July, this noble had been trusted with the task of arranging matters with the Jacobite Highland Chiefs, and when they met him at his castle of Achalader, Glencoe, who was of a stately and venerable presence, and whose courage and sagacity gave him much influence with his neighbouring chieftains, is said to have taxed Breadalbane with the design of retaining for his own use part of the money which Government had placed in his hands for securing the good will of the chiefs. The Earl had retorted by charging Glencoe with the theft of cattle from his lands, and, in the altercation, old feuds were recalled and an evil spirit was excited which promised ill for the weaker party. Maclain was repeatedly heard to say that he feared mischief from no man so much as from Breadalbane. Breadalbane as a matter of fact seems to have taken pains to direct the special attention of the Master of Stair, as Secretary of State, to the MacDonalds of Glencoe as the most suitable clan of whom to make a terrifying example to the Highlands. In a letter of 3rd December, the Secretary intimated the intention of Government to destroy utterly some of the clans in order to terrify the others, and expressed the hope that the MacDonalds of Glencoe would afford the opportunity of action against them by refusing to take the oath.

Unfortunately Maclain was foolish enough to allow the days of grace almost to run out before taking the oath. Then, when he went to do so at Fort William, he was startled to find that Colonel Hill, the Governor there, not being a civil officer, had no power to accept it. It was necessary to go to Inveraray and take the oath there before the Sheriff of Argyll. The roads were almost impassable with snowdrifts, and, though the unhappy chieftain put forth his best efforts, the first of January was past before he reached Inveraray. The Sheriff was Sir Colin Campbell of Ardkinglas. In the circumstances, seeing that Glencoe had really tendered the oath in time, though to the wrong officer, he administered the oath and informed the Privy Council of the special circumstances. Maclain returned home believing that all was right, but as a matter of fact his doom was sealed. Already in advance a warrant had been procured from King William for military execution against him. The Sheriff’s letter was never produced before the Privy Council, and the certificate of Maclain’s having taken the oath was blotted out from the record. It seems probable that the fact of the Chief’s submission was never brought to the King’s knowledge.

Events then moved relentlessly forward. Before the end of January a detachment of Argyll’s regiment under Campbell of Glenlyon entered Glencoe. On Maclain’s sons with a body of clansmen meeting them and demanding their errand, Glenlyon replied that they came as friends to take quarters in the glen in order to relieve the overcrowded garrison at Fort William. They were accordingly hospitably received, and entertained for fifteen days by the unsuspecting chief and his people. On 12th December the order came to put to the sword every MacDonald in the glen under 70 years of age, to close all avenues of escape, and to take a special care that "the old fox and his cubs" should be put to death.

As if to fill the cup of treachery Glenlyon continued to enjoy the hospitality of the unsuspecting clansmen. He took his morning draught as usual that day at the house of one of the sons of the chief, Alastair MacDonald, who was married to his niece. He and two of his officers accepted an invitation to dine next day with Maclain himself; and he sat late that night in his own quarters playing cards with the chief’s sons. He even reassured these young men, who had come to him alarmed at finding the sentries doubled and the soldiers preparing their arms, by telling them he was about to set out against some of Glengarry’s men, and he ended "If anything evil had been intended would I not have told Alastair and my niece."

At four o’clock in the morning a single shot rang out, and the bloody work began. Lindsay, one of the officers who had promised to dine with the chief, came with a party to Maclain’s door and knocked for admittance, and as Glencoe was getting out of bed and giving orders for refreshments to be provided for his visitors, they shot him dead. His aged wife was then stripped and ill-treated, the savage soldiery even tearing the gold rings from her fingers with their teeth, so that she died next day.

While this was being done the chief’s two sons were roused from bed by an old domestic, who bade then fly for their lives. "Is it a time to sleep," he said, "when your father is murdered on his own hearth?" As they came out the shrieks and musket shots on every hand confirmed the warning, and, taking to flight, the young men, by their perfect knowledge of the spot, managed to escape by the southern exit from the glen. Their example was followed by most of the other inhabitants, and as Major Duncanson, Glenlyon’s superior officer, had been hindered by the snows from closing the outlets of Glencoe, most of them escaped. Many scenes of blood, however, were brutally enacted. A certain Captain Drummond in particular distinguished himself by his brutality, ordering a young lad of twenty who had been spared by the soldiers to be instantly shot, and himself with his dirk stabbing a boy of six as he clung to Glenlyon’s knees, begging for mercy. At one house a party of soldiers fired on a group of nine MacDonalds sitting round their morning fire and killed four of them. The owner of the house, who was unhurt, asked to be allowed to die in the open air. Barbe, the sergeant in command of the party, answered, "For your bread which I have eaten I will grant the request," and MacDonald was allowed to come out. He was, however, an active man, and as the soldiers were taking aim he threw his plaid over their faces and vanished.

The clan then numbered about two hundred fighting men. Of these more than 160 escaped, and, with their wives and children, made their way through the deep snows for twelve miles to a place of safety. But their homes were utterly burned, and their means of subsistence, some twelve hundred head of cattle and horses, and a large number of sheep and goats, were driven off to Fort William for the use of the garrison.

It was three years before enquiry was made by Government into the dastardly business. The report of the Royal Commission then appointed fixed the whole blame upon the Master of Stair. Though his sole punishment seemed to be that he was driven for a time from public life, it was said when he died in 1707 that his end had come by his own hand. In the tradition of the Highlands the massacre was thought to have entailed a curse upon the house of Glenlyon. In a later campaign the head of that house was in command of a firing party appointed to carry out the execution of a soldier. It was arranged that the proceedings should be carried up to the firing point, and that only then the man should be reprieved. The signal for the soldiers to fire was to be the waving of a white handkerchief by Glenlyon. When the moment arrived the officer put his hand into his pocket to produce the reprieve, but unluckily brought the handkerchief with it. This was taken for the concerted signal, the soldiers fired and the man fell dead. At that Glenlyon is said to have struck his brow with his hand, exclaiming, "The curse of God and Glenlyon is here. I am an unfortunate ruined man !" and he forthwith retired from the service.

Incidents of the massacre are told even yet in the neighbourhood. Towards the middle of the eighteenth century it is said an old soldier arrived at the inn at Port Appin, and by the other guests was regarded with lowering looks. Something he said excited their suspicion, and he was asked if he had ever been in the neighbourhood before. He admitted that he had, and on being pressed confessed he had been one of the soldiers who took part in the massacre of Glencoe. Dirks were drawn and blood seemed likely to be shed, when he told his tale. In the dark of the fateful morning, he said, he had been following his officer along the hillside, when a woman was seen behind a boulder a little way off, trying to hide a child. The officer bade him see to it, and kill the child if it happened to be a boy. It was a boy, but before the mother’s tears and prayers he had not the heart to obey his order. At the same time he was bound to show blood on his sword, and as a dog passed at the moment he plunged his weapon through it. A few minutes later, on his officer asking him whether he had slain the child, he held up his reddened blade and exclaimed, "Ask that!" As the soldier told the story the innkeeper’s face had grown white. "If you were that redcoat I was that boy," he cried, "and there will be a place for you at the fireside of the Inn of Appin as long as you live."

Another romantic sequel of the Massacre is narrated by Sir Walter Scott. When, during the Rising of 1745 the Highland army was approaching Edinburgh it was feared that the Glencoe men might seek to revenge themselves by, burning the house of Newliston, seat of Lord Stair, whose ancestor had been the chief mover in that crime, and it was arranged that a guard should be posted to protect the place. MacDonald of Glencoe heard of the resolution, and, deeming his honour involved, demanded that the guard should be supplied by the men of his own clan. The Prince agreed, and so it came about that "the MacDonalds guarded from the slightest injury the house of the cruel and crafty statesman who had devised and directed the massacre of their ancestors."

By reason of its memories and its magnificence, Glencoe is visited by thousands of pilgrims every year, and in many a spot above the sunny little clachan of Invercoe are still to be seen the ruins of the houses associated with the tragedy of that terrible February morning in 1692. In the early part of last century, however, the lands were left by Ewan MacDonald, the chief of the time, to his daughter, and towards the end of the century, Glencoe was acquired by the great Canadian statesman who took from it part of his title as Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal.

Septs of Clan MacDonald of Glencoe: Henderson, Johnson, Kean, Keene, MacHenry, MacIan, MacKean.

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