Glencoe MacDonalDs – A SecluDeD Celtic Cultural IslanD within their Glen

The new concept of feudal landlords was not well received anywhere in the Highlands. Most responded to this “takeover” by ignoring the rent and taxes of the imposed lairds. Instead of the feudal lords living off the toil of their crofters, as others were doing, the MacIains of Glencoe lived off their feudal lords! They were skillful cattlemen. They could navigate cattle over the moors and crags by moonlight better than others could in daylight. But the cattle they drove were not always their own. Cattle raids had been a major Celtic pastime for over a thousand years. With the new government theft became a way of declaring their independence from “the Kings Lairds”. The MacIains mountain raiding abilities were so respected that when Campbell of Persie had a quarrel with the Ogilvies he commissioned the MacIains to work his vengeance by “fire and sword”. The MacIains’ Celtic point of view made it more acceptable to go into battle for their Campbell lords than to pay them rent. Under authority of the crown, they had raided the Drummonds, Moray, Lennox, the Stewarts and others on assignment of their Campbell Lord.

Laws IntenDeD to Punish Rebellious Clan Chiefs

In 1587 King James VI had two acts passed to deal with the problem of clan feuds in the Highlands as well as the Lowlands. The first act held the Clan Chief accountable for the actions of his clansmen. This was true whether the crown acknowledged the Clan Chief as a landowner or not! The second act was termed “Slaughter Under Trust” and punishment was even greater than capital punishment! Under the Slaughter Under Trust act if a Clan Chief was convicted of massacre of an opponent, under a feigned agreement to settle a dispute, it was punishable not just as treason by death, but the forfeiture of all land including the rights of his heirs! Despite these laws, the government continued to pit clan against clan in order to maintain their rule which they termed “maintaining order”.

HighlanD Victory at Killecrankie

As the religious civil war gripped all Briton, the mostly Episcopalian MacIains were called upon to guide Montrose’s Highlanders over the mountains they knew so well to attack government forces. MacIain guides knew how to feed an army from Campbell cattle and contributed greatly to Montrose’s 1645 campaign. The Campbell lords, who were loyal to the government, suffered loss of many clansmen and property in that campaign and MacIain’s part was well known. “The Braes O’ Killiecrankie” is a favorite song, especially in the Highlands. It tells of the decisive victory of Dundee over the government troops from the point of view of one of the government troops who ran from the devil & Dundee.

BreaDalbane’s Part

John Campbell had found great favor with King William of Orange. John Campbell was Presbyterian at a time of growing anti- Catholic sentiment in all of Great Britain erupting into a religious civil war.Campbell was granted the title of Earl of Breadalbane (Gaelic Braghad Alban literally meaning Highlands of Scotland). His commission was to “bring peace to the Highlands” by bringing the lawless chiefs into submission. Breadalbane petitioned the government for £20,000 pound sterling to bribe the lawless chiefs. The National treasurer, Archibald Campbell, gave him £12,000 for that purpose. He called the chiefs together including Alasdair MacIain, Locheil, Glengarry, and the others. Instead of offering them the money, Breadalbane announced he would keep it as compensation for the damages he suffered after Killiecrankie three years earlier. He threatened the chiefs with extinction if they failed to acknowledge William as their King. He knew they considered it a matter of honor that they had pledged their support of the exiled King James. The meeting ended abruptly and upon hearing of Breadalbane’s “failure,” Sir John Dalrymple wrote, “The Macdonalds will fall into the net. That’s the only Popish clan in the kingdom and it will be popular to take severe course with them. Let me hear from you whether this is the season to maul them in the long cold nights.” The labeling of the mostly Episcopalian MacIains of Glencoe as a “Popish clan” was likely a calculated misstatement of fact on Dalrymple’s part to justify the planned slaughter of the MacIains in the minds of the Argyll troops.

Hospitality BetrayeD
On February 1st the MacIains were alarmed when news of a troop under Robert Campbell of Glenlyon (whom they raided after Killiecrankie) had entered the glen. Glenlyon presented MacIain’s sons with orders the MacIains were to house and feed the troops. He assured them there were no ill intentions and the fact that he received new orders on the 12th indicates Glenlyon may have been unaware of the government’s purpose in sending him to Glencoe. Alasdair MacIain told his clan to hide their weapons and receive the troops into their homes. If there was question about the sincerity of his pledge to King William he would settle it with Highland Hospitality. The troops were given quarter with 4 to 5 in a home. They were well fed (probably on Glenlyon’s confiscated beef and mutton) for almost two weeks. On February 12th Glenlyon was playing cards with MacIain’s two sons at Inverigan when a runner brought him new orders. “You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebells, the Mcdonalds of Glenco and put all to the sword under seventy.” Glenlyon asked his MacIain card mates to excuse him and he informed his lieutenants to pass the word they were to slay all the MacIain clan at 5AM the next morning.
The HenDerson Stone
The Henderson stone is said to have been the object of a warning in Gaelic from one of the officers, “Ah, Great Stone of the Glen. If you knew what is to happen tonight, you would not be lying so peaceful there!” If the warning was heard by MacIains, it was not in time to take up arms. There were about 500 men, women, and children in the glen and between 60 and 100 troops within their homes. At the appointed time the troops began their murderous work, including old Alasdair MacIain himself, who they shot in the back, and Lady MacIain turned out naked in the cold to die of exposure. MacIain’s sons both escaped with their families as did over 450 clansmen into the Glen Etive and Appin. The troops laid torch to the crofts in which they had been hospitably housed, fed, and entertained. The troops gathered the remaining cattle and sheep and took them as spoils of war (it was called theft when MacIains did the same thing after Killiecrankie).
The Aftermath
Word reached Paris of the disgraceful “Slaughter Under Trust” before it was known of in Edinburgh or London. A commission was held in Scottish Parliament that concluded what had occurred did not amount to “Slaughter Under Trust” so it was not punishable as treason under the 1587 act. Instead they ruled it as “Murder Under Trust” and implicated Dalrymple, but exonerated King William. Dalrymple’s stated intent to utterly wipe Clan MacIain off the face of the earth was a failure, and adding insult to injury he was acquitted of any implication in the murders! The final result was that none of the perpetrators were convicted. Instead of causing the Jacobites to cower, the memory of Glencoe cemented Clan Donald behind the Jacobite risings in 1715 and 1745. Ironically, there were Campbells, including the son of Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, who fought alongside the MacDonalds for the Jacobite cause.

The Maclain’s Return Home

Colonel John Hill petitioned the government several times to allow the MacIains to re-settle Glencoe. They were given permission to return to their burned out cottages six months later. The government laid the blame on several individuals named Campbell because they literally held every government office in the Highlands. The King was acquitted of any wrong doing and promptly acquitted his Secretary of State Dalrymple of any wrong doing because of “excesses of those who executed his orders”. For 300 years Clan Campbell has been treated as if the entire clan were guilty of this despicable act. There is no justification for what happened on February 13th, 1692. Nor is there any justification blaming an entire clan for the acts of a few men who lived over 300 years ago and who acted on government orders. Many orders of “Fire & Sword” gave government sanction for one clan to do battle with another. What made the Glencoe Massacre such a despicable act was that it was accomplished through betraying trust. Trust MacIain had that the government would protect his clan after he signed the oath even though it was days past the deadline.

More of the aftermath of the Glencoe Massacre can be found at Cuimhnich (Gaelic = remember). Cuimhnich has been on every wreath laid at the Glencoe memorial since the massacre. It is fitting to remember Glencoe that such injustice not occur again. It is not fitting to foster inter-clan rivalry, feuds, or bigotry.

big•ot•ry (ˈbɪg ə tri) n. 1. extreme intolerance of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from one’s own.