A big thank you to one of our Collections Team, Kenneth Maclean, who put together this article on the infamous Massacre of Glencoe, which took place on February 13th 325 years ago!

Glencoe Massacre, 13th February, 1692

This month’s blog post commemorates the 325th anniversary of the Massacre of Glencoe. We have selected several images to situate this tragic event in its historical and geographical context.

An infamous Massacre

Early in the morning of Saturday, 13th February, 1692, a heavy snowstorm drifted heavily through Glencoe: a glen well described by novelist and climber John Buchan as “a gash like a sword-cut among the loftiest and wildest of the Highland hills” (see accompanying maps). This narrow, fertile valley was home to the MacDonalds of Glencoe and their elderly clan chief, Alasdair MacIain. For the two previous weeks they had hospitably hosted around one hundred and twenty soldiers, members of the Earl of Argyll’s Regiment, under the command of Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon. At five o’clock, in complete disregard of both the Highland tradition of hospitality and contemporary military code of honour, Campbell and his men turned on their hosts, butchering old MacIain as he rose from his bed, and thirty-seven other clansmen in their homes and as they attempted to flee the glen. Another forty, women and children, perished from exposure after their houses were torched to the ground and livestock driven away.

The resulting scene of desolation was well painted by Buchan in his adroitly depicted The Massacre of Glencoe (1933): “By the afternoon of the 13th Glencoe was a silent place. Scorched thatch still smoked among the snow drifts, and ravens barked above the blood-smears on the blackened thresholds. From Aonach Eagach and Aonach Dubh the eagles and the buzzards were gathering where the corpses had been left unburied. Except for these there was no sound – save that from Loch Leven shore came the far-away echo of Glenlyon’s pipes. The tune they played was The Glen is Mine” (pp.143-44).

A war crime

There is no doubt that such a massacre would nowadays be considered a war crime. And, doubtless, at any trial, a plea of ‘I was just obeying orders‘ would be heard by way of justification. The orders were quite explicit:

“You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rabelle, the Macdonalds of Glenco, and to put all to the sword under seventy. You are to have speciall 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”

 Why was such an order given and who bears responsibility?

The extermination took place just a few years after the 1688 Glorious Revolution and subsequent first Jacobite Rebellion, when most Highland clans sided with Roman Catholic James II and VII rather than Protestant William of Orange, only to fail after their leader’s death at the battle of Killiecrankie in 1689. In the aftermath, Jacobite chiefs were expected to swear an oath of allegiance to William before 1st January, 1692. News of the pledge arrived late in Glencoe by mid-December. This left little time for the aged MacIain to undertake a circuitous journey via Inverlochy, then Inverary, arriving on the 3rd of January, only to finally have the oath administered on the 6th, by the sheriff-depute, Campbell of Ardkinglass. Various explanations have been suggested for MacIain’s delay. He certainly waited until the last possible day before departing, perhaps hinting at a bit of foolhardy brinkmanship on his part; severe winter weather, typical of the 1690s, the worst decade of the ‘Little Ice Age’, undoubtedly slowed him up; and there was the deliberate attempt by Argyll’s Regiment to delay him at Barcaldine Castle. Such tardiness, however explained, afforded a welcome opportunity for the Secretary of State for Scotland – the staunchly pro-King William, John Dalrymple, Master of Stair, a lowlander, a bigot and no friend of the Highlands – to make an example of the MacDonalds and severely punish them. Ultimately, the plan to deal with MacIain’s “wild brood” was hatched in London, perhaps with the full knowledge of King William, it was ultimately Dalrymple who ordered the slaughter of the MacDonalds


At one level such a punitive policy may be seen as sorting out age-old clan rivalry. Apart from the historic dislike of Campbell hegemony, cattle and sheep rustling was common; the MacDonalds – “a sect of thieves”, according to Dalrymple – were reivers, who habitually encroached on Campbell territory. Nor did it help that the MacDonalds, according to Dalrymple and the Government, were Roman Catholics, conveniently ignoring the fact that they were Episcopalian in terms of religious persuasion. Ultimately, perhaps the black legend of Glencoe, one of the most infamous chapters in Scottish history, should be seen as punishment for those Highland clans with strong Jacobite sympathies. Although a 1695 parliamentary inquiry accorded Dalrymple most of the blame and had him dismissed, there was little done to punish all of the perpetrators, thereby further encouraging support by certain clans for the Stuart cause in 1708, 1715 and 1745. And, according to historian Andrew Mackillop, Glencoe encouraged the British government to believe that they could “perpetrate unconstitutional acts of military execution in the region with relative impunity”, well demonstrated in the organised savagery that was the aftermath of Culloden.



Glencoe is very effectively shown in the extract from an early Bartholomew’s Half-Inch to the mile sheet of the Arisaig and Lochaber area. The map clearly defines the glen, hemmed in to the north by the steep, craggy buttresses of the Aonach Eagach and mountains such as Aonach Dubh to the south. Most of the Macdonalds lived on the fertile stretches of the valley bottom in scattered clachans between Achatriachatan and Invercoe, where the glen meets Loch Leven. Enhancing this map is the use of contour layer colouring, an effective technique pioneered in 1880 in Britain by the Edinburgh-based, map-making company.

Bartholomew’s method of relief depiction contrasts with the earlier method of hachuring, used in Buchan’s The Massacre of Glencoe (pub. 1933). In this case, the map is clear, and usefully locates the site of MacIain’s house. Buchan had a keen eye for landscape; as he put it, ‘Geography has always intoxicated me’. Consequently, maps often accompanied Buchan’s writings, whether one of his brisk ‘thrillers’, a genre which he is generally credited with inventing, or his historical and biographical works; appropriate cartographic aides for a fine wordsmith who so effectively conveyed a sense of place.

Something of the dramatic relief of Glencoe is further conveyed in the sketch of the glen, taken from the 1885 Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, Vol.1, opposite p.72.