It’s February 13th and the day rings a bell in Scotland, especially in Glencoe, a death bell…
I will never forget my first impressions of the mountains of Glencoe. The view is breathtaking and the atmosphere strange. There is something unique in Glencoe which I can’t explain but when we stopped there for the first time, a few years ago, I knew that we would come back again and again and that’s what we’ve done, year after year, each time pitching our little tent at Invercoe, on the grassy banks of the beautiful loch Leven. We were there, at the end of last September. A violent storm broke in the night and there was frost on our tent in the morning. I shuddered at the thought of what had happened there on that 13 February 1692…
Oh, cruel is the snow that sweeps Glen Coe
And covers the grave o’ Donald
Oh, cruel was the foe that raped Glen Coe
And murdered the house of MacDonald
They came in a blizzard, we offered them heat
A roof for their heads, dry shoes for their feet
We wined them and dined them, they ate of our meat
And they slept in the house of MacDonald
They came from Fort William with murder in mind
The Campbell had orders King William had signed
“Put all to the sword”- these words underlined
“And leave none alive called MacDonald”
They came in the night when the men were asleep
This band of Argyles, through snow soft and deep
Like murdering foxes amongst helpless sheep
They slaughtered the house of MacDonald
Some died in their beds at the hand of the foe
Some fled in the night and were lost in the snow
Some lived to accuse him who struck the first blow
But gone was the house of MacDonald
(Words and music Jim Mclean, Publisher Duart Music 1963)
The 13 th of February is a day of remembrance in Glencoe and it has been so since the fateful day of 13 February 1692 when something so horrible happened in the village of Glencoe that after more than three centuries the event is still vivid in the memories, especially in those of the MacDonalds of Glencoe, whose ancestors fell the victims of a machiavelic plan and were murdered at the small hours of an icy winter day by a troup of soldiers who had been their hosts for several days…
Early in the morning of 13 February 1692, in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution and the Jacobite uprising of 1689 led by John Graham of Claverhouse, a massacre took place in Glen Coe, in the Highlands of Scotland. This incident is referred to as the Massacre of Glencoe, or in Scottish Gaelic Mort Ghlinne Comhann (murder of Glen Coe). The massacre began simultaneously in three settlements along the glen—Invercoe, Inverrigan, and Achnacon—although the killing took place all over the glen as fleeing MacDonalds were pursued. Thirty-eight MacDonalds from the Clan MacDonald of Glencoe were killed by the guests who had accepted their hospitality, on the grounds that the MacDonalds had not been prompt in pledging allegiance to the new monarchs, William and Mary. Another forty women and children died of exposure after their homes were burned.
You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebels,
the McDonalds of Glenco,
and put all to the sword under seventy.
you are to have a speciall care that the old Fox and his sons
doe upon no account escape your hands,
you are to secure all the avenues that no man escape.
This you are to putt in execution
att fyve of the clock precisely;
and by that time,
or very shortly after it, I’ll strive to be att you
with a stronger party: if I doe not come to you
att fyve, you are not to tarry for me, but to fall on.
This is by the Kings speciall command,
for the good & safety of the Country,
that these miscreants be cutt off root and branch.
See that this be putt in execution without feud or favour,
else you may expect to be dealt with as one not true to King nor Government,
nor a man fitt to carry Commissione in the Kings service.
Expecting you will not faill in the full-
filling hereof, as you love your selfe,
I subscribe these with my hand
att Balicholis Feb: 12, 1692
(signed) R. Duncanson
For their Majesties service
To Capt. Robert Campbell of Glenlyon
I have a number of books about Glencoe in my library but among them The Ghosts of Glencoe is one of my favourites. Mollie Hunter’s very lively style is second to none to give a human dimension to the evanescent ghosts of history and to help us rebuild the scenes of long past events…
I particularly like the portrait of MacIan, the Chief of the Macdonalds of Glencoe who is introduced at the very beginning of the first chapter of the book which takes place in Fort William . We see the old Chief through the eyes of Ensign Robert Stewart, an officer and a very important witness of these sad events (‘The character of Ensign Robert Stewart in this book is based on a story current for many years among the survivors of the Massacre of Glencoe and their descendants, and the book itself sticks closely to the actual facts of the Massacre” writes the author in a note).
There was a high wind sweeping the ramparts of Fort William on that night of 29th December when I was officer of the watch at the Spur Gate entrance to the Fort. It was the first truly strong gale of that winter of 1691, and so loudly did it howl around the guard-house where I sat writing my hourly report that the noise of it cut me off from all sound at the Spur Gate itself.
I did not hear the sentry crying ‘Qui vive?’, therefore, and neither did I hear the clash of sword against bayonet which followed on his challenge. My firs knowledge of the trouble at the gate came when the door of the officers’ duty-room was burst rudely open and the figure of a man appeared on the threshold – a figure of such fantastic appearance as to make me rise in amazement from my desk.
The man was tall – immensely so, and massively built in proportion to his height. He stood over the six and a half foot mark, and the Highland Chief’s insignia of three eagle feathers flaring from his bonnet made him seem even taller. A doublet of bull’hs hide studded with silver encased his great chest.Tall boots of untanned leather and tight-fitting trews of red Macdonald tartan clothed his lower half. From a silver brooch on one shoulder hung a scarf of the same red tartan, and topping all this was a face as craggy and weathered as ancient rock with long grey moustachios drooping down on either side of a grim mouth and a grey forked beard jutting from his chin.
He was in his sixties, I judged – a man old enough to be my grandfather. Yet the dark eyes glaring at me above a hawk’s beak of a nose were as fierce as those of any young warrior, and as those fierce eyes met mine he brought one huge hand smacking down on the hilt of the broadsword swinging at his hip.
‘Is it yourself,’ he roared, ‘that told the sentry fellow to bar me from entering the Fort?’
(Mollie Hunter The Ghosts of Glencoe chapter I ‘Highland garrison’ )
The old Chief had come to Fort William to swear the oath of allegiance to King William the Third before the required date of 1st January, 1692… as Colonel Hill who was in charge of the Fort at the time could not receive the oath he sent him to Inveraray…
Inverary lies more than sixty miles away along a winding track that hughs the jagged western coastline of Scotland for part of its length then plunges inland through steep mountain passes. The blizzard now blowing would be cutting cruelly across the exposed coastal section of the track and blocking the mountain passes with the snow it carried and so, if I was right in my surmise, MacIan of Glencoe was in dire trouble that wild December night.
(Mollie Hunter The Ghosts of Glencoe chapter I ‘Highland garrison’ )
Now, we know the tragic end of the story…
Glencoe is probably the best known glen in all the Highlands of Scotland, not alone for its scenic grandeur though that is unsurpassed in almost any country, but also for its fame as the scene of one of the saddest events in Scottish history.
(Slaughter Under Trust – Glencoe 1692 - Donald J. MacDonald)
Hospitality is a sacred value in Scotland and the sadly famous massacre was no less than a case of ‘slaughter under trust’ as Donald J MacDonald underlines it on the title of his book…
Here and there a ruined house testifies to what happened in Glencoe…
Not far from the Visitor Centre a forest path leads to the ruins of Inverrigan House. It was built at the end of the 19th century on the site of an earlier house where nine of the MacDonald clan had been slain. Nine Scots pine trees have been planted around the ruins, to remember the victims. Can we live on such a place, I wonder…
John Prebble, one of my favourite writers, loved Glencoe and he often came from his faraway Saskatchewan in Canada to walk its mountains. He loved the place so much that one of his dying wishes was to have his ashes dispersed along the slopes of Glencoe mountains… Glencoe and The Highland Clearances are his most famous books about Scottish history.
Here’s the burial islands of the Clan MacDonald, on Loch Leven as we can see them from the little marina of Ballachulish, near Glencoe.
And two other books from my library about the Massacre of Glencoe.
MacIan and his gillies on the road from Fort William to Inveraray to pledge allegiance to the King… a desperate attempt…
MacIan and his gillies took the road down Loch Linnhe in a thick downfall of snow. The drifts were small, for the full force of the wind was cut off by the Ardgour hills. It was still
black darkness when they reached the narrows of Loch Leven, and found on the beach the boat by which they had crossed the previous afternoon. Here, too, there was some shelter
from the storm, and they made the passage without difficulty. Three miles on the left a light twinkled. That came from Maclan’s own house of Carnoch at the foot of Glencoe,
where his kin waited anxiously to hear the result of his errand. One of the gillies was sent off with a message, but he himself had no time to waste. The quickest route to the south, had
it been summer-time, was up the Laroch stream, between Ben Vair, the ‘Mountain of Lightnings,’ and his own Meall Mor, and so by Glen Creran to Connel Ferry, but in this weather a fox or a deer could not have made that journey. He turned to the right and took the shore road through Appin. Dawn came upon them near Duror, a dawn of furious winds and solid driving snow. Happily it was a fine snow with sleet in it, and so it did not greatly clog the path, but the force of the gale was enough to lift a man off his feet. The running gillies, bent double, their bonnets dragged over their brows, their wet kilts plastered about their thighs, and their bare legs purple with the cold, felt it less than the chief on his shelty. He brought the folds of his plaid twice round his throat, but even so, and for all his years of hardihood, he felt numbed and crippled by the savagery of the heavens. Not a wild thing, bird or beast, was stirring— they knew better; but he himself dare not seek shelter, though the warm chimney-corner of Ardsheal awaited him a mile off. For he knew that he was riding on a mission of life and death.
(The Massacre of Glencoe John Buchan )
13 February 1692 at 5 a.m in the morning…
By five o’clock on the morning of Saturday 13th the wind had grown to a tempest, and the snow was drifting heavily. About that hour Lieutenant Lindsay and a few soldiers presented themselves at macIan’s house, and asked civilly to see the chief on a pressing matter. They were at once admitted, and MacIan gout out of bed and struggled into his trews, shouting to bring the visitors a morning draught. Suddenly two shots were fired at him from behind, one in the body and one in the brain, and the old man fell dead.
(The Massacre of Glencoe John Buchan )
In the early hours of 13 February 1692, English Redcoats under the command of Campbell of Glenlyon, who for the past week had been peacefully quartered on the inhabitants of Glencoe, fell upon their MacDonald hosts. In the ensuing hours 38 defenceless men, women, and children were murdered in cold blood.
The massacre, sanctioned by the new king of England, William of Orange, was initially covered up, but news of such treachery could not kept quiet and it has become a cause celebre of Scottish history. John Sadler re-investigation of the sources and contemporary accounts has yielded valuable new insights into why the order was given, turning the previously excepted view of events on its head.
(From the backcover of John Sadler – Glencoe The Infamous Massacre 1692 – Amberley Publishing 2009 )
Bonne lecture !