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The Massacre of Glencoe James Hamilton (1853–1894)

Mapping A Massacre for Old Times Sake


Archaeologists in Scotland are to bring alive “the human story” of the Glencoe massacre, one of the most violent episodes in British history.

Three former settlements in the magnificent Glencoe region in the west coast of Scotland, which are managed by National Trust for Scotland, have been surveyed "with more detailed studies due to follow.” The stunning natural scenery of Glencoe is famous as being a picture postcard Scottish landscape, but its rivers and burns are tainted with blood from its murderous past.

Glencoe, Scotland, the site of the MacDonald massacre.

Glencoe, Scotland, the site of the MacDonald massacre. (CC0)

Yesterday was the anniversary of the 1692 massacre at Glencoe “when the state ordered the killing of the MacDonalds of Glencoe after their chief tried but failed to meet a deadline to pledge allegiance to King William II.” Derek Alexander, head of archaeology at the National Trust, spoke to the Scotsman ahead of the anniversary about how the project would enrich the “understanding of the cultural heritage of the glen.” He said: “This is an iconic landscape and what we are trying to find are the physical remains that tie that landscape to the story of the massacre. I’m surprised that is not been done before.”

The orders via Duncanson to Robert Cambell to execute the MacDonalds clan.

The orders via Duncanson to Robert Cambell to execute the MacDonalds clan. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Translation of the old English order as presented by New World Encyclopedia website:

Feb. 12, 1692


You are hereby ordered to fall upon the Rebels, the MacDonalds of Glencoe, and put all to the sword under 70. You are to have especial 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 can escape: this you are to put in Execution at five a Clock in the Morning precisely, and by that time or very shortly after it, I’ll strive to be at you with a stronger party. If I do not come at five, you are not to tarry for me but fall on. This is by the King’s Special command, for the good and safety of the country, that these miscreants may be cut off root and branch. See that this be put in execution without Feud or Favor, else you may expect to be treated as not true to the King or Government nor a man fit to carry Commission in the King’s Service. Expecting you will not fail in the fulfilling hereof as you love yourself, I subscribed these with my hand.

Signed Robert Duncanson
For Their Majesties Service

To Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon

The massacre resulted in the deaths of at least 38 MacDonalds of Glencoe, who were murdered by troops led by Robert Campbell of Glenlyon. The Campbell soldiers had spent about two weeks being hosted by the MacDonalds in the three former townships – Achtriachtan, Achnacon and Inverrigan, said Mr Alexander. The focus of their study was on Roy’s 18th century military maps which “show six settlements in total through the glen – but by the 19th century they disappear from documents, given the townships were later cleared for sheep.”

Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon.

Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon. (Public Domain)

About 5am on the fateful morning of 13 February 1692, at Achnacon, Seargeant Robert Barber commanded the mass-slaughter. Barber himself took 18 men to the home of his host, MacDonald of Achnacon and “Musket shots were fired through the windows," according to John Prebble’s Glencoe. It was reported that “the host’s brother was instantly killed” while Achnacon managed to escape. Although much is known about events on the day and it looks like we are soon going to know a lot more, what was the underlying political environment which “inspired” the massacre in the first place?

Under Scots law there was a special category of murder known as "murder under trust,” for acts more heinous than ordinary murder, and the massacre fit this category of crime. However, the big problem was that the chief puppet master was the king himself, who had signed the orders that led to the massacre. Because the king couldn’t be held responsible, a commission exonerated the king and held Secretary Dalrymple responsible for the massacre, as reported by The New World Encyclopedia.

Glencoe Massacre memorial inscription

Glencoe Massacre memorial inscription. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Scottish Parliament declared the execution of the MacDonald men as “murder" and recommended that the king punished the perpetrators of the plot and paid compensation to the surviving MacDonalds. The only person arrested for the massacre was John Campbell Earl of Breadalbane who spent a “few days in Edinburgh castle on a charge of high treason because he had been involved in secret talks with the Jacobite chiefs.”


The Glencoe massacre became a political tool, a propaganda piece for Jacobite sympathies and helped the Rising of 1745. Because Argyll's regiment was under Glenlyon's command, the massacre was remembered not as an act of governmental murder, but another chapter in the long-standing Campbell - MacDonald rivalry. In the stark light of reality, we now know enough about this massacre to know that the traditional clan rivalries have served only to obscure the real story behind the horror of Glencoe. It was an official act of murder, approved by the king, led by a Scottish commander-in-chief and executed by a regiment of the British Army.

Monument to commemorate the massacre of Glencoe, Glencoe Scotland.

Monument to commemorate the massacre of Glencoe, Glencoe Scotland. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

It is held among Scottish historians, such as I, that the reason an ‘Argyll’ Regiment was chosen to commit the crime was most probably because it was known that their involvement would be perceived as clan rivalry. On February 13 every year the Clan Donald Society of Edinburgh lays a wreath at the memorial to the Massacre of Glencoe, in Glencoe village, and members of the Clan Donald from across the world attend.

Editor’s note: This article was updated on 7/9/2020 to correct the statement that the ‘MacDonald soldiers had spent about two weeks being hosted by the Campbells’ to say the ‘Campbell soldiers had spent about two weeks being hosted by the MacDonalds’

Top image: The Massacre of Glencoe James Hamilton (1853–1894) (Source Credit: Glasgow Museums, CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0)

By Ashley Cowie



Hello - is there a list of those who died at the Glencoe Massacre? I am a descendant of Alexander McDonald who lived in Glencoe and died in 1692 or 3.

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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