The Glencoe Massacre - Was It What It Seemed to Be?


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Three hundreds years ago, a government inspired act of total savagery attempted to clear out all the clan people in Glencoe for all time. Soldiers were to kill the men in their beds, as they lay sleeping in the middle of the night.

The Massacre of Glencoe has gone down in history as one of the most appalling acts of genocide in the history of Britain.

In Scotland, murder has always been a dreadful crime But there is a worse crime in the Highlands, much worse. It is called Murder under Trust. That’s what it was. That’s why the Massacre of Glencoe has reverberated so strongly in history.

But, the truth is, despite the stories handed down it was not a massacre. Most of the Campbells got the people to safety.

It wasn’t a massacre. An atrocity, yes. An early attempt at ethnic cleansing, yes. Horrible, yes, an abomination of Highland hospitality yes, but a massacre no. A massacre means a mass killing and this was not that - although the government plotters intended it to be.

It was not a Clan fight and most of the Campbells wouldn’t do it. Oh, some of them did, but the clan was set up to take the blame.

The Government plotters originally planned to include many other clans, but only the Glencoe McDonalds provided the excuse.

King William signed the orders in England but later washed his hands of the whole thing and claimed to know nothing of it. That’s politics for you.

The facts

The atrocity occurred at 5.00am on February 13, 1692 when some of the 135 men in the Argyll regiment, who had been billeted for 11 days with McDonald families in the little Glencoe communities and receiving hospitality, turned on them after receiving orders to kill all the MacDonald men below the age of 70. The regiment were not all Campbells. Only a few were professional soldiers.

The Captain of the troop, Robert Campbell of Glenlyon who was 60, seems to have been deliberately chosen as a shambles of a man by all accounts, a drunkard, who had recently taken his army commission to help to clear his large gambling debts. He discovered his mission only the night before, when he was given his orders, by a Major Robert Duncanson. This major seems to be a key figure who kept well out of it himself. He had command of more troops who were billeted at what is today’s Ballachulish House.

More telling facts

The killings began with gunfire. That is a sure way of the soldiers warning everyone up the glen that trouble is about. That was clearly deliberate. Swords and daggers would have been far quieter and more effective and would have seen off half of the targets before the MacDonalds were roused. They were at close quarters, for goodness’ sake.

It is thought that there were about 200 McDonald men in Glencoe. The total population was a little bigger than it is to-day, but more spread out. Yet only 39 were killed. After a surprise attack before dawn, as they all lay sleeping in their beds, with soldiers outside, in their yards and they succeeded in killing only 39? If the soldiers killed three McDonalds each, then only 13 soldiers were needed to do the job. They probably just used the usual psychos and case-hardened non-commissioned officers to do it. The rest must have fired into the air.

These soldier lads couldn’t do it. Not in any way. The person who had cooked for them for the past ten days was like their own mother. They had laughs with the boys, who worked on the farm just as their own brothers worked. They eyed the girls, and vice versa. Then they are told suddenly to get out their swords and rifles and kill all the men – it can’t be done. And they did not do it. They made sure the families were warned. – the soldiers got the blame for it, just the same.

It was known that two of Glenlyon’s lieutenants refused to carry out the murders and broke their swords. They were later prosecuted and freed. Also, according to tradition, the family of Campbell of Airds at Castle Stalker helped many of the fugitives.

Glenlyon himself, the commander of the troops was moved to mercy on two occasions: but both young McDonald men were promptly murdered by Duncanson.

Another telling fact

Additional soldiers were sent to block off the passes out of the Glen. Escaping McDonalds would head naturally the other way towards Duror in Appin. That is where their long-standing friends were, the Stewarts. They knew that another military force was at Ballachulish, so they would not go along the coast. There is a poor escape route out to Glen Etive for the families living up the valley and this was blocked off. Some of the 39 were killed here at the top of the Glen. But incredibly, the easier Appin routes were not blocked at all. Come on, that was deliberate.

The tactical plan, the plan for the atrocity, was probably Duncansons. He selected Glenlyon to lead the attack probably because Glenlyon was related by marriage to Alasdair Mcdonald, MacIain’s younger son. This would help to lull the suspicions of the people of Glencoe. They arrived and claimed hospitality under the Highland code and said that the Fort William garrison was full.

We can be sure that Glenlyon had no prior knowledge of the task expected of him. Look at the threatening tone of the orders he received.

The event was planned by the government in London. There had been a civil war in Scotland, but the Highlanders had always been a law to themselves because of the remoteness and inaccessibility of the Region. The Clans did the bidding of their Chiefs, not the Crown. A new King, William, a Dutchman hated by the Highland Scots, with his wife and first cousin Mary, took over after all the disturbances of the English civil war. The main aim of the government was to pacify the whole country. This included the Highlands. The Act of Union between the two countries was still 15 years in the future.

The government decided to make all the Clan Chiefs vow an oath of loyalty by January 1st. The McDonald Chief, MacIain left it till late, then set out for Inverlochy, to-days Fort William, where he was told to go to Inverary to sign. He did so, but arrived six days after the deadline. All seemed well, but this was the excuse the government in London needed for teaching the Highlanders a lesson in treachery.

Afterwards, those responsible for organising the murders were pardoned by William. One became a colonel, another a knight, a third a peer, and a fourth an earl. Not surprising really, because William had personally signed the orders. All of this is well documented, from the subsequent Parliamentary Commission which later enquired into the crime. Dirty job politics, always has been, always will be.

This must be one of the most disgusting orders ever to be given to an army commander in British history. These are Glenlyon’s orders from Major Duncanson.

“You are hereby ordered to fall upon the Rebels, the MacDonalds of Glencoe, and put all to the sword under 70. You are to have especial 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 can 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’ll strive to be at you with a stronger party. If I do not come at five, you are not to tarry for me but fall on. Feb 12 1692.

It was an act of official policy, conceived by a Secretary of State for Scotland, Dalrymple, and executed by a Scottish commander-in-chief, approved by the King, and carried out by a regiment in the British Army. Indeed, the Argyll Regiment was deliberately chosen by Dalrymple because he knew how their involvement would be perceived. Under Scots law, “murder under trust” as this was, was a more heinous crime than ordinary murder.

In fact, it appears that the Secretary contemplated the total extirpation of the clans, for, in a letter to Sir Thomas Livingstone, commander of the forces in Scotland, dated January 7th. , he says, “You know in general that these troops posted at Inverness and Inverlochie, will be ordered to take in the house of Innergarie, and to destroy entirely the country of Lochaber, Lochiel's lands, Keppoch's, Glengarie's and Glencoe, " and he adds, “I assure you your power shall be full enough, and I hope the soldiers will not trouble the government with prisoners. "

John Winkler has had a lifetime in Marketing and journalism, was once the marketing correspondent for The London Times and with his wife owns a pretty 18 century cottage near Glencoe overlooking a sea loch.


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