The Scottish and English have had some rocky times relationwise, however, nowhere epitomises the troubles between the countries as well as the valley of Glencoe. The inhabitants of Glencoe woke up on the morning of 13 February, 1692, with no idea that they were about to be caught up in one of the most infamous events in the history of Scotland.
To set the scene for the events about to occur, one needs to recall that many Scottish highlanders fought for James VII, who had fled to France to live in exile. In August 1691, in an effort to resolve conflicts and win Scottish loyalty, King William III proclaimed an amnesty to the highlanders who had fought for James VII, on the condition that they swore a new oath of allegiance before the end of the year. The penalty of those who would not comply was clear - death.
This created a Catch-22 situation for the Jacobite clans of the Highlands, as they had already sworn their alliance and loyalty to King James. In their code of behaviour, unless they were released from this allegiance, they would be unable to proceed with a new loyalty. History tells us that the decision to release the clans from their loyalty did not dispatch from King James until the 12th of December.
Most historians agree that that the MacDonald clan chief did not receive word of this release until the 29th of December. However, some theorise that MacDonald had pride at stake, and only when he feared for the safety of his clan did he decide to swear his allegiance to King William reluctantly and at the last minute.
What is known for certain is that MacDonald left Glencoe on the 30th of December and travelled to nearby Fort William, arriving early on the 31st. Unfortunately, the Governor of Fort William was unable to accept his oath, as the ruling made it clear that only a civil magistrate of the district could do so, which made it clear that MacDonald would be unable to meet the deadline on that day. He did leave Fort William to travel to Inveraray, with a letter addressed from the Governor to present to Sir Colin Campbell, the sheriff of Argyllshire, requesting he accept the late oath.
Despite various difficulties, such as deep snow in the mountains, being locked up for 24 hours, and Sir Colin Campbell's stubbornness and holiday schedule, it is clear that MacDonald was allowed to swear the oath of allegiance on the 6th of January.
There followed early in January some confusion as to who had and had not taken the oath, and the Scottish Secretary, Sir John Dalrymple, in Edinburgh, was well known for his contempt for the highland clans, and with the MacDonalds particularly. On the 11th of January, Dalrymple dispatched orders giving power to Sir Thomas Livingston, Commander-in-Chief of the King's forces in Scotland, to enforce the penalties to those who had not sworn allegiance. There is speculation as to whether or not Dalrymple knew that the MacDonalds had sworn allegiance, but it is clear that the sheriff's clerk, a Campbell, had scratched out MacDonalds' name off the official list. By this time, the MacDonalds had officially not sworn their loyalty.
Suggestions were made to the King that a quick and brutal strike against Glencoe would cause any other rebel clans to become obedient and slow to show disloyalty in the future. On the 16th of January, the fate of the MacDonalds was signed and sealed by the King. "If McIain of Glencoe, and that tribe, can be well separated from the rest, it will be a proper vindication of the public justice to extirpate that set of thieves."
Things Get Ugly
Upon receiving the King's instructions, plans were made to send two companies of Argyle's regiment to Glencoe, under false pretences. Upon arriving in Glencoe, after assuring the MacDonalds that their presence was solely to collect tax arrears in the area, the soldiers were welcomed into homes throughout the village free of charge. In fact, must is made of the fact that for twelve days, the soldiers were entertained and shown the highest highland hospitality during their stay.
Despite the kindness and hospitality shown to them, on the morning of the 13th of February, in line with orders received, the soldiers did suddenly and swiftly kill approximately 38 of the MacDonalds, including the chieftain.
Men who were not dragged from their beds and murdered had their houses torched. Women, children and the elderly, mostly in their bedclothes, were thrown from houses, and were seen making their way into the mountains in a snow storm that many recount as a blizzard. It is estimated that over 300 MacDonalds died from exposure and fatigue, but some of the MacDonalds lived to recount the tale.
What occurred the massacre was a massive public outcry of anger. Fingers were pointed in all directions, and even King William was making excuses, for fear that clans would attempt to reorganise against him. Ultimately, Dalrymple was blamed for the Glencoe massacre. Dalrymple and the military officials were never brought to trial, however, as it would have been made clear that they were following the King's orders. To this day, monuments to the atrocities that took place in Glencoe remain in the area (see related feature), and the atmosphere of the massacre can be felt throughout this beautiful glen.