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Thursday 14 February 2013

The Massacre of Glencoe

One of the most infamous episodes in Highland history was the Massacre of Glencoe (1692) but its main events and intricacies don’t bear repetition here. The effect of the hapless MacDonalds of Glencoe being murdered in cold blood by their Campbell guests has reverberated down the centuries and is still remembered to this day. Here, for example, is a rendition of the event as reflected in popular tradition which was taken down by Calum Maclean from John MacDonald of Highbridge around the 10th of June, 1951:

An deadhaidh Murt Ghleanna Comhnann thachair rud glé iongantach. Agas am a’ mhurst bha boireannach truagh ann, agas chaidh i fo dhrochaid leis an leanabh a bha mu thrì miosan a dh’ aois. Agas dh’ airich na saighdearan sgriach an leanabh is iad a’ dol seachad agas i a’ fiachainn ri chumail sàmhach. Agas thuirst an commandair a bh’ orra:
“Theirige sìos fo’n drochaid agas ma’s e gille a th’ ann, marabh e. Ach ma’s e nighean a th’ ann, leig leis.”
’S e gille a bh’ ann. Agas ghuidh i air:
“Aig ghaoil Dia,” thuirst i, “fàg an gille agam,” thuirst i.
Ach bha cat ann. Agas mharabh e an cat agas chuir e fuil a’ chait air a’ chlaidheamh. ’N uair a thill e air ais son dearaadh a thoirst do’n chommandair gun do mharabh e e, sheall e an claidheamh dha làn fuil (K512.1.). Dh’ fhàg seo làn-riaraichte an commandair.
Ach bliadhanachan an deadhaidh sin, dh’ fhàs an gille seo suas. Bha taigh-òsta aige aig an Apuinn. Thàinig duine allabanach, truagh a staigh a bha a’ falabh air an rathad mhór. Agas an deadhaidh dhà drama na dhà fhaotainn, thòisich e air innseadh m’a dhéidhinn Murst Ghleanna Comhann. Tha an Apuinn pios bho Ghleanna Comhann, ach cha robh e a’ tuigsinn idir gun robh an duine a bha a staigh a' cumail cluais ris na biathran a bha e ag ràdha. Is ’n uair a chuala e e a' bruidhinn air Murst Ghleanna Comhann, thuirst e:
“Cha téid thusa as seo a nochd (H11.).”
Ach ’n uair a dh’ innis e gur e shàbhail a bheatha agas ’s ann a ghabh e bàidh glé mhór ris. Agas chum e riamh tuillidh m’an taigh-òsta e a’ dèanadh mar a thoilicheadh e fhéin gus na chaochail e (Q40.). 

And the translation goes something like this: 

After the Massacre of Glencoe something amazing happened. At the time of the massacre a poor woman was present and she hid under a bridge with she infant that was around three months of age. The soldiers heard the infant’s cry as they went by and she was trying to keep quiet:
Their commander said:
“Go under the bridge and if it’s a boy, kill him but if it’s a girl, then let it be.”
It was a boy and she implored:
“For the love of God,” she said, “leave my boy alone.”
But there was a cat and he killed it and he smeared the blood of the cat on his sword. When he returned to prove to his commander that he had killed the infant boy, he showed his sword smeared with blood (K512.1.). This fully satisfied the commander.
Many years after that, after the lad had grown up, he owned an inn in Appin. A poor dishevelled wanderer came in who had been walking the highways. After he had taken a dram or two, he began talking about the Massacre of Glencoe. Appin is only a short distance from Glencoe but he didn’t understand at all that the man who owned the inn had been paying attention to what he was saying. When he heard him talking about the Massacre of Glencoe, he said:
“You’ll not leave here tonight (H11.).”
When he told him that it was he who had saved his life became greatly beholden to him and so he was given lodgings in the inn and could do what he liked until he passed away (Q40.). 

Despite some folkloristic motifs present in the tale, perhaps there remains an element of truth to this historical narrative. Even in such a dire situation as the woman had been, the soldier contrary to his direct orders shows mercy and allows the infant to survive. Such generosity of spirit is then unexpectedly repaid many years later. If there is a ‘moral’ to the story then it might well be that something good come out of an event that caused revulsion to many when it actually happened. Writing in The Highlands, Calum Maclean made the following observations about the Massacre: 

Glencoe is the most famous glen in the Highlands and it is so not only because of its scenery, which is wild and magnificent, but because of its grim history and the memory of a night of dark treachery and bloodshed in February 1692. The Massacre of Glencoe goes down to history as a blot on the name of Campbell and not so much blame is attached to the monarch who signed the order to extirpate the luckless MacDonalds. William of Orange was no doubt fully aware of what he was doing when he signed and counter-signed the order to murder old MacDonald and his clan in cold blood, even though the fact that MacDonald had taken the oath of allegiance was concealed from him. The massacre was rather the result of deliberate, planned official policy rather than the outcome of a blood-feud between the Campbells and MacDonalds of Glencoe. The real and unfortunate truth was that the Campbells were no more than tools used by unscrupulous authorities to overawe the Jacobite Highlands. The name of Campbell has been eternally disgraced by the events of that dark February night, not so much because the victims were dispatched without warning but because the time-honoured code of hospitality was outraged. Despite all that, it will surprise many to know that even to this very day in such districts as Keppoch and Moidart, both in the heart of the MacDonald country, popular tradition exonerates the Campbells. In Moidart the story was told that on the night preceding the massacre a Campbell soldier went to visit one of the MacDonald houses. He had been to that same home on several evenings previously, and, as they sat round the fire on the fated night, a greyhound lay sleeping in front of the fire. For a few moments all conversation stopped and the Campbell soldier spoke to the sleeping dog: “O grey hound, if you knew what I know, your bed would be on the heather this night!” No sooner had the visitor gone than the family made for the hills and escaped. Another story had it that a Campbell soldier told the terrible secret to a grey stone. Many of the MacDonalds did escape on the night of the massacre.

Calum I. Maclean, The Highlands (Inbhir Nis: Club Leabhar, 1975)
SSS NB 11, pp. 1028–29

Henderson’s Stone / Clach MhicEanruig, the grey stone mentioned above


  1. Have just read a letter in today's Oban Times, "Campbell's exonerated" based on your blog post. Whilst the part played in this slaughter under trust by the government,s representatives can not be exonerated there can be no doubt that the part played by Clan Campbell was as guilty as the rest. From Glen Lyon down there were still upwards of 90 men in the command that took the hospitality of MacIan. Rembering that Macian's wish to take the oath led him a merry dance through Clan Campbell lands there can never be doubt that Clan Campbell had a part in this slaughter. Play the tape to 1752 and Clan Campbell raises its government head again in its "art in part" hanging of Seumas a ghlinne. There is a long standing hatred of the Clan Campbell throughout the period of demise of Clan Donald fron government grace. Iain Lom records the deeds of Clan Donald at Inverlochy in 1645 and that great slaughter. Clan Campbell expansion through government titles and post reformation church lands cannot be disputed. Fact or legend there can be no doubting the part played by Clan Campbell in the slaughter under trust that was the massacre of Glencoe.

    1. I think Maclean seeks to dispel historical essentialism. We are all liable to lean a little further one way if we feel all the weight has wrongly been leaning the other.

      In the 1930s, Nils Holmer lifted the following proverb from the mouth of a Campbell in the heart of their country (Kilmartin):

      Nam bitheamh còir air a chumail,
      Cha bhitheamh Rìgh Deòrs' ann an Lunainn.
      (Supposing right should be observed,
      King George would not be in London)

      Although the proverb is far from rare, its quotation is quite the anomaly for that area almost 200 years after the fact, showing propensity for plenty grey area!