The infamous Massacre of Glencoe took place on the early morning of the 13th of February, 1692.
There have been many instances over the centuries of Scottish Kings being involved in dark deeds; so dark they’ve been called ‘black’. Back in the day, Robert the Bruce tarnished his reputation with the ‘Black Parliament’ of 1320. Then we had the ‘Black Dinner’ and the ‘Black Murder’ of the 8th Earl of Douglas, both involving James II and the latter personally in ‘subdicide’. Then there was the black deed that saw the hanging of Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie by order of James V. After that, there was the mysterious involvement, shades of grey if you like, of James VI in both the Gowrie Conspiracy and the murder of the Bonny Earl o’ Moray, which were black days in the reign of that King. And then we had the ‘Black Massacre of Glencoe’ in 1692, in which William of Orange was implicated.
In 1691, with William the Dutchman sitting comfortably established on the thrones of both England and Scotland after the defeat of James VII at the Battle of the Boyne, the Highland clans that supported James were offered a pardon. The offer of pardon was issued on the 27th of August and was conditional on the clan chiefs taking an oath of allegiance in front of a magistrate and by the deadline of 1st January 1692. The Highland clans were threatened with reprisals if they did not sign, but many remained loyal to James VII and deemed it necessary to get his approval or permission to take the oath. The delusional James was in exile in France and still dreamt of reclaiming his throne. As a consequence, he dithered and dallied over his decision, before eventually sending word back to Scotland authorising the taking of the oath. He’d left it very late to give his OK, which made compliance difficult for many of his followers. James’ message didn’t reach its intended recipients until mid-December, just a few weeks before the deadline. In difficult winter conditions and with magistrates being reasonably thin on the ground, it’s surprising that most all of those who were ever going to take the oath actually managed to swear it in time.
One of those who found it difficult to meet the deadline was Alastair Maclain, 12th Chief of Glencoe. He made if hard for himself as he waited until the last day, the 31st of December, before setting out on his loathsome oathsome journey. Arriving at Fort William within the allotted time, MacIain asked the governor, Colonel Hill, to administer the oath. Hill decided he wasn’t authorised to receive MacIain’s oath, but, decently enough, he gave MacIain a letter of protection and a letter addressed to Sir Colin Campbell, the Sheriff of Argyll, explaining that MacIain had appeared with the right intentions and, crucially, on time. No doubt in good faith at the time, Hill also gave MacIain his assurance that no action would be taken against him without him having the opportunity to put forward the evidence of his compliant purpose.
It took MacIain three days to reach Inveraray, where he expected to meet Sir Colin, the Sherrif. That was only partly due to winter weather. In the main, it was due to his having been detained for a day at Barcaldine Castle by the 1st Company of the Earl of Argyll’s Regiment of Foot, under the command of Captain Drummond. You can speculate on Drummond’s motives, for he later played a crucial role in the massacre. On arrival at Inveraray, MacIain then had to wait for a further three frustrating days, until Sir Colin arrived back from celebrating Hogmanay. So, after several delays and contrivances had thwarted his efforts, MacIain eventually managed to swear his allegiance before the reluctant Sheriff of Argyll on the 6th of January. The fact that he was late can be explained reasonably. MacIain’s only failing was not to have started out in good time and in believing that pitching up at Fort William would’ve been good enough. He wasn’t to know the authority was looking for an excuse to make an example of his kind.
That authority was embodied in the despicable shape of John Dalrymple, the Master of Stair and Lord Advocate and Secretary of State for Scotland. He was also an advocate of Union with England and saw the Highlanders as a hindrance and a nuisance. Dalrymple deemed MacIain’s oath to have been invalid and managed to persuade King Wullie that the Macdonalds of Glencoe needed to be exterminated. If you believe the King’s absolvists, such as the historian Macaulay, the 17th Century Dalek-rymple persuaded the King that the order, which Orange Wullie signed in person, was merely designed to root out a nest of thieves in Glencoe. Nevertheless, one way or another, King William authorised the genocide in Glencoe, which began simultaneously in the settlements of Invercoe, Inverrigan, and Achnacon on the 13th of February, 1692. Thirty-eight MacDonald men were either killed in their homes or chased down and chopped down. Another forty clansfolk, women and bairns, died of exposure after their homes were burned. MacIain was killed while trying to rise from his bed.
One aspect of the massacre that sticks in the craw was the betrayal of the MacDonalds’ Highland hospitality – a charge of ‘murder under trust’ was made at the later inquiry. Another distasteful fact is that Captain Campbell, who led the troops, was related by marriage to MacIain and billeted in the Chief’s own house. And it should not be forgotten that the troops from the Earl of Argyll’s Regiment of Foot lived alongside the MacDonalds for around two weeks leading up to the killings. Ostensibly, the army was there to collect a tax, which in effect meant there was no suspicion about their presence. Then there is the behaviour of the vile Captain Drummond, who brought the orders for the extermination. He actually spent the evening before the slaughter playing cards with his unsuspecting victims and even accepted an invitation to dine with MacIain the next day – an appointment he knew he’d never keep.
At the official inquiry in 1695, the Widgery Tribunal of its day, the conclusion of that sordid affair was to exonerate the King and blame everything on Dalrymple. The Scottish Parliament voted that “the killing of the Glencoe men was murder,” but that responsibility lay with the King’s Ministers. Macaulay’s later history does admit to King William being guilty of a “great breach of duty,” but only in shielding the Master of Stair from any punishment beyond his (temporarily as it transpired) dismissal from office. The date of ‘Mort Ghlinne Comhann’ (the murder in Glen Coe) is indeed a black day in Scotland’s history.