Overview of the Glencoe Massacre

After the Massacre at Glencoe
(Public Domain)

Conflict: The Massacre at Glencoe was part of the repercussions of the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Date: The MacDonalds were attacked on the night of February 13, 1692.

Pressure Building

Following the ascent of Protestant William III and Mary II to the English and Scottish thrones, many clans in the Highlands rose up in support of James II, their recently deposed Catholic king. Known as Jacobites, these Scots fought to return James to the throne but were defeated by Government troops in mid-1690. In the wake of James' defeat at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland, the former king withdrew to France to begin his exile. On August 27, 1691, William offered the Jacobite Highland clans a pardon for their role in the uprising provided that their chiefs swore allegiance to him by the end of the year.

This oath was to be given to a magistrate and those who failed to appear before the deadline were threatened with harsh repercussions from the new king. Concerned over whether to accept William's offer, the chiefs wrote to James asking his permission. Delaying over a decision as he still hoped to regain his throne, the former king finally accepted his fate and granted it late that fall. Word of his decision did not reach the Highlands until mid-December due to particularly harsh winter conditions. Upon receiving this message, the chiefs quickly moved to obey William's command.

The Oath

Alastair MacIain, the chief of the MacDonalds of Glencoe, set out on December 31, 1691, for Fort William where he intended to give his oath. Arriving, he presented himself to Colonel John Hill, the governor, and stated his intentions to comply with the king's wishes. A soldier, Hill stated that he was not permitted to accept the oath and told him to see Sir Colin Campbell, the sheriff of Argyle, at Inveraray. Before the MacIain departed, Hill gave him a letter of protection and a letter explaining to Campbell that MacIain had arrived before the deadline.

Riding south for three days, MacIain reached Inveraray, where he was forced to wait three more days to see Campbell. On January 6, Campbell, after some prodding, finally accepted MacIain's oath. Departing, MacIain believed that he had fully complied with the king's wishes. Campbell forwarded MacIain's oath and the letter from Hill to his superiors in Edinburgh. Here they were examined and a decision was made not to accept MacIain's oath without a special warrant from the king. The paperwork was not, however, sent on and a plot was hatched to eliminate the MacDonalds of Glencoe.

The Plot

Apparently led by Secretary of State John Dalrymple, who had a hatred of the Highlanders, the plot sought to eliminate a troublesome clan while making an example for the others to see. Working with Sir Thomas Livingstone, the military commander in Scotland, Dalrymple secured the king's blessing for taking measures against those who had not given the oath in time. In late January, two companies (120 men) of the Earl of Argyle's Regiment of Foot were sent to Glencoe and billeted with the MacDonalds.

These men were specifically chosen as their captain, Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, had seen his land plundered by the Glengarry and Glencoe MacDonalds after the 1689 Battle of Dunkeld. Arriving in Glencoe, Campbell and his men were warmly greeted by MacIain and his clan. It appears that Campbell was unaware of his actual mission at this point, and he and men graciously accepted MacIain's hospitality. After peacefully coexisting for two weeks, Campbell received new orders on February 12, 1692, following the arrival of Captain Thomas Drummond.

"That No Man Escape"

Signed by Major Robert Duncanson, the orders stated, "You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebels, the MacDonalds of Glencoe, and put all to the sword under seventy. You are to have special care that the old fox and his sons do upon no account escape your hands. You are to secure all the avenues that no man escape." Pleased to have an opportunity to exact revenge, Campbell issued orders for his men to attack at 5:00 AM on the 13th. As dawn approached, Campbell's men fell upon the MacDonalds in their villages of Invercoe, Inverrigan, and Achacon.

MacIain was killed by Lieutenant John Lindsay and Ensign John Lundie, though his wife and sons managed to escape. Through the glen, Campbell's men had mixed feelings about their orders with several warning their hosts of the coming attack. Two officers, Lieutenants Francis Farquhar, and Gilbert Kennedy refused to take part and broke their swords in protest. Despite these hesitations, Campbell's men killed 38 MacDonalds and put their villages to the torch. Those MacDonalds who survived were forced to flee the glen and an additional 40 died from exposure.


As news of the massacre spread across Britain, an outcry rose against the king. While sources are unclear as to whether William knew the full extent of the orders he signed, he quickly moved to have the matter investigated. Appointing a commission of inquiry in early 1695, William awaited their findings. Completed June 25, 1695, the commission's report declared that the attack was murder, but exonerated the king stating that his instructions regarding repercussions did not extend to the massacre. The majority of the blame was placed on Dalrymple; however, he was never punished for his role in the affair. In the wake of the report, the Scottish Parliament requested an address to the king to be drawn up calling for the punishment of the conspirators and suggesting compensation to surviving MacDonalds. Neither occurred, though the MacDonalds of Glencoe were permitted to return to their lands where they lived in poverty due to the loss of their property in the attack.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "Overview of the Glencoe Massacre." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/glorious-revolution-glencoe-massacre-2360789. Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). Overview of the Glencoe Massacre. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/glorious-revolution-glencoe-massacre-2360789 Hickman, Kennedy. "Overview of the Glencoe Massacre." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/glorious-revolution-glencoe-massacre-2360789 (accessed March 27, 2023).