William of Orange was a smart man. In his thirteen years on the throne, everything was working out exactly as William had planned. He ousted James II off the throne, he and Mary had won Parliament over to their side by signing the Bill of Rights, he'd managed to halt James from taking Derry in his attempt to use it as a launch pad to take back Scotland and Ireland and then he'd defeated James II unequivocally at the battle at the River Boyne. No date in Irish history is better known than 1st July 1690 and no Irish battle is more famous than William's victory over James. It would be the last time in history that a king would fight on a battlefield. But in his attempt to show the Scots who was the boss and deal with the clans who were still loyal to James, he made one major mistake. Glencoe.
After the Battle of Boyne, and knowing William's history for patience, it's not surprising that he took his time in thinking long and hard about what to do. It took him a year to come up with a plan but by August 1691, he was ready to put the plan into action. He would offer the Highland clans a pardon for their part in the Jacobite rising, but only if they took an oath before a magistrate and agreed to pledge allegiance to him before New Year’s day. That date was four months away and it would give them plenty of time to take affirmative action. It was also a symbolic date for William representing the beginning of a new reign and the start of new era.
Of all the clans in Scotland, the clan Donald was a huge force in the Highland system and the MacDonalds of Glencoe were only a small segment. Glencoe had a rugged beauty and it had been their home since the early 14th century when they had supported Robert the Bruce. It was one of the most magnificent areas of natural wilderness in all of Britain with Loch Leven to the north and the vast empty spaces of Rannoch Moor to the south. Skirted on both sides by huge imposing mountains was the Glencoe pass.
Alasdair MacLain was not a man who could hide in a crowd. The head of the MacDonald clan was a huge man with flowing white hair, beard and a well-respected leader and very much old school. His clan were constantly involved in trouble with both the law and with neighbouring clans for consistently raiding, pillaging and cattle rustling. Unfortunately, they also had a dislike for the nearby Campbell clan. And the feeling was entirely mutual.
William’s order came through with promises of money and land for the clans who signed the oath but by the time it was circulated publicly, the terms had changed and were much more threatening. The clans would sign the agreement or be punished with the 'utmost extremity of the law'.
One of the problems for the clans was that many of them were already bound by an oath to James now back in France. James had promised to return to Britain to reclaim his throne and the Highlanders were not-so-patiently waiting for him to fulfil that promise. James’ delay put them in a difficult spot. While they wanted to wait for his return, and had promised to stand by him and fight with him and beside him when he did return, they had William’s dire threat hanging over their heads if they didn’t sign allegiance to him. If James didn’t come back soon, their families’ safety would be at risk. That meant signing the allegiance to William, like it or not. According to Williams’s instructions, their lives depended on it.
They sent urgent word to James of their predicament, outlining the importance and speediness of his reply and informing him that the deadline was January 1st.
Weeks turned into months and still James dithered with a reply, convinced that he was close to returning. It wasn’t until December 12th that it became apparent this wasn’t going to happen before the deadline so reluctantly James sent orders back to Scotland releasing the clans from their oath. The problem was that due to his prolonged delay, his messenger only arrived back in the Highlands during dreadful winter conditions and with only three days before the deadline.
Cruel winter winds swept through Glencoe on December 31st as MacLain arrived at Fort William ready to sign the oath, fearful for his clan’s safety. When he arrived, Colonel Hill told him that the oath had to be taken before a sheriff, which involved another 60-mile trek further on to Inverary. And Inverary was the hometown of his enemies, the Campbells.
Colonel Hill knew about the friction between the Campbells and the MacDonalds, which is why he gave MacLain a letter of protection and a letter for the sheriff, Sir Colin Campbell, requesting that he receive MacLain’s late oath since he had come to him within the allotted time. Hill assured MacLain that no action would be taken against him but he urged MacLain to make haste to Inverary in any case.
MacLain could have met the deadline had Campbell soldiers, commanded by Captain Drummond serving with the Earl of Argyll’s regiment, not captured him along the way. They detained him for a full day and then finally sent him on to Inverary where he was held for several more days due to the absence of the sheriff, who was visiting his family across the waters of Loch Fyne. When Sir Colin returned, MacLain pleaded with him to accept the late oath. He gave him the letter from Colonel Hill and explained the reasons why he had been delayed. Reluctantly, the sheriff accepted the late oath.
But other forces were already in play as MacLain headed back to Glencoe, sure that his signed oath was on its way to London.
In Edinburgh, the Secretary of State, John Dalrymple and John Campbell, 1st Earl of Breadalbane and Holland, had other things in mind. John Campbell, a senior member of the Campbell clan, saw an opportunity for revenge for the decades of raids on Campbell lands and the tradition of sheep and cattle rustling by the MacDonalds. As such, he had a strong dislike for the MacDonalds and he’d already decided to decline the late-delivered oath. Together with his cousin, Archibald Campbell, 10th Earl of Argyll, they found a willing accomplice in John Dalrymple who had been disappointed in the fact that the clan leaders were taking the oath of allegiance at all. He was rather hoping they would have declined. Together, the three men sent an order to London for William to sign, stating that MacLain and his den of thieves had not signed within the allotted time and they should be punished severely.
I suppose we should give William some credit for not knowing the full circumstances surrounding the late oath. He had given a specific order and his commanders in Scotland had informed him that that order had not been carried out. They’d just omitted a small, rather important, part of the story but William didn’t know that. As a result, he had to show that he meant what he said. If you make a threat, you had to carry through with it.
He signed the order and sent it to Sir Thomas Livingstone, commander of the forces in Scotland. With the order, he gave explicit instructions to John Dalrymple: the MacDonalds were to be slaughtered. From there, the order was sent to a Major Duncanson who then sent three of his commanders, two from the Campbell-dominated Argyll regiment and lastly, Colonel Hill from Fort William, with an infamous letter.
“You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebells, the McDonalds of Glenco, and put all to the sword under seventy. you are to have a special care that the old Fox and his sones 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 special command, for the good and safety of the Country, that these miscreants be cut 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 fit 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. For their Majesties service. (signed) R. Duncanson”
Unaware of what was happening in Edinburgh and London, the MacDonald clan were billeting 120 English soldiers hospitably in Glencoe. The soldiers were under the command of a Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon but most of the regiment was recruited from the Argyll estates and only a minority bore the Campbell name.
Captain Campbell was actually related by marriage to MacLain and so it was natural that he should be given special treatment and billeted in the old chief’s house. Each morning for the past two weeks, Captain Campbell had visited the home of MacLain’s youngest son, Alexander, who was married to Campbell’s niece. This niece had a brother by the name of Rob Roy McGregor.
During the day on 12th February, the sky was a seething cauldron of clouds and a light dusting of snow had fallen, making all the paths cold and slippery. The feeble afternoon sun had only persisted occasionally through the thick dark clouds and in the winter light, there seemed to be no colours except grey, white and black. Captain Drummond arrived in Glencoe and due to his role in detaining MacLain and ensuring that he was late giving his oath, he would not have been welcomed at all. What they didn’t know was he was bringing a letter from Major Duncanson bearing fateful instructions to give to Captain Campbell.
In his heart, Drummond must have known what he was about to do was wrong. He’d eaten their food and accepted their hospitality. He even spent the evening playing cards with them before retiring, wishing them a good night and accepting an invitation to dine with MacLain the following day. Still, he continued with his instructions.
By evening, a blizzard howled through Glencoe and snow blanketed the rugged landscape as the MacDonald clan slept restlessly. As they slept, the soldiers were preparing to carry out their instructions to systematically kill everyone they could.
In the early hours of February 13th, MacLain had woken from his fitful sleep to the sound of muffled cries. Before he could rise from his bed, he was killed along with thirty-eight others. Forty women and children managed to flee the massacre but they would soon be dead of exposure after their homes were set alight and burnt to the ground. A few survivors had managed to escape into the hills finding makeshift shelters but they would lose their lives as well in the relentless blizzard. Among the death was MacLain’s elderly wife who died on the mountainside just outside of the town.
The survivors told stories of how a few of Captain Campbell’s soldiers had alerted the families and given them time to rug up and escape. Two lieutenants had even broken their swords rather than carry out the orders. In addition to the soldiers who were actually in Glencoe that night, two other detachments, each with 400 men, were to have converged on the possible escape routes. But both were late in taking up their positions, and it was suggested that the lateness of the two other companies was not purely because of the snowstorm, but a ploy not to be involved in the atrocity. What they did know was that Colonel Hill from Fort William had brought the orders for the massacre.
An inquiry was held under the category ‘murder under trust’ but nothing would ever come of it. The King himself had signed the orders and he could not be held responsible. The conclusion of the enquiry was that William was to be exonerated and the blame placed firmly upon Secretary Dalrymple’s shoulders. Not long after the enquiry, Dalrymple resigned his position but no other action was taken. A few years later, he was back on the Privy Council of Scotland and created 1st Earl of Stair by Queen Anne in 1703. Apparently all would be forgiven.
William did not wait for the verdict from the enquiry. Europe was waiting for him to deal with, more specifically France, and he left immediately.