The Massacre of Glencoe - 13th February 1692

Monument to a Massacre
On the 13th February 1692 and on the direct orders of King William III, known as William of Orange, 78 people were killed without warning in Glencoe, Scotland.   

The stone memorial to this event has always struck me as particularly paltry, given that as each year passes, the crime itself seems more heinous, more unjust, and more worthy of being remembered, instead of being quietly forgotten. 

This is because as with so much historical iniquity, the final reckoning was delivered by the victors, meaning that justice was not done.   

The king who signed the order was exempt from guilt because a king could not be tried or found guilty of any such crime.  Of the other perpetrators, recommendations for punishment were made and compensation was suggested to be paid to the surviving MacDonalds — but neither of these happened.


This is a blog post and I am trying to keep it under 1200 words.  It is not an authoritative history of the massacre of Glencoe but aims to remember the event, sketch the actual monarchical and governmental tyranny which it represents, and will conclude by arguing that it is just this sort of brutality that has become the bedrock and ultimately the guiding principle of our state.

I know! But bear with me. If you want a complete history of the Glencoe Massacre then there are a few (but not plenty) books on the subject.


It is fair to generalise details of the massacre at Glencoe because the story can be told in so many different ways.  It is not a ‘blame-the-English’ tale.  Instead, what we have at Glencoe is a boiling cauldron of clan rivalry, petty bureaucracy gone wrong, personal ambition, and actions taken to subdue a strange and alien people, by a group of distant patriarchs who were worried about war with France and who wished to achieve a kind of unified, homogenous state they were to soon be calling Great Britain. Three years previously the Macdonalds had attacked Campbell lands killing individuals, stealing food and livestock, and leaving Campbell settlements to starve over the winter period. Unjustified as this raid was, some people tell the Glencoe story as payback.  There are simply many ways to present these events.

Personally, I present the massacre at Glencoe as symptomatic of the violent tendency of the state to bribe and threaten dissenting citizens, and as an example of state use of violence to cajole and terrorise.  The king and his chiefest administrators thought they could get away with it — and they did.  The aim had been to kill the entire clan, over 200 people, and in that at least the nascent British state failed as they only wiped out a half of them.


After his marriage in November 1677, William of Orange became a strong candidate for the English throne if his father-in-law (and uncle) James were to be excluded because of his Catholicism.

William, always looking for ways to lessen the power of France, hoped that James would join the League of Augsburg, but by 1687 it became clear that James would not join the anti-French alliance. 

Seeing him as a friend, and often having maintained secret contacts with him for years, many English politicians began to urge William to carry out an armed invasion of England.

In 1688, the British government asked William of Orange to travel from Holland and seize the throne of what was then England and Scotland.  Political union between the two countries had not been made but a union of the crowns was in place — one monarch wearing two crowns if that makes sense.

When William took the English and Scottish throne he did not just depose a monarch however but an entire dynasty — the Stuart dynasty.  The reasons why this happened was ostensibly to preserve freedom of worship in England.  This freedom of worship had been an important part of English life since the times of Henry VIII and it was felt that James II and the Stuart dynasty threatened this.

It wasn’t a smooth takeover however and there were major battles in the British Isles as William’s monarchy was asserted. The Battle of the Boyne is the best known and was fought in 1690 between the two rival claimants of the English, Scottish, and Irish thrones. Then there were a series of Jacobite risings also took place in Scotland, where Viscount Dundee (a personal hero of mine) raised Highland forces and won a victory on 27 July 1689 at the Battle of Killiecrankie, but he died in the fight.

After these battles, William offered something of a truce to the Highland clans that had resisted him, saying that if they signed an oath of loyalty by 1st January 1692, they would not be punished for rebelling.  If they wouldn’t sign, they would face what had been the effective punishment in this area for decades — treatment by fire and sword.

‘Fire and sword’ however meant to extirpate, and not exterminate, and involved the burning of crops, and the driving away of cattle but as a rule little loss of life.

As is dramatised in the 1971 film of the Glencoe events starring James Robertson Justice, James II, in exile in France, dithered before advising the clans to sign. Due to this and various other factors — sluggishness on his own part and deliberate delays made on the government part — Alastair Maclain, 12th Chief of Glencoe, did not come to sign the oath until 6th January, some days late.

Here's the film, found on YouTube:

This was the cause used behind the order to carry out the massacre of Glencoe, and King William, John Campbell, 1st Earl of Breadalbane and Holland, and John Dalrymple gave an order not to extirpate, but to exterminate this clan. 

There are reasons why this clan was chosen — they were not popular, for one, but they also lived in a glen from which it would be impossible to flee.

The Villains

King William - Murderous Queynte
Chief Queynte and murderer number one is universally held to be John Campbell, 1st Earl of Breadalbane and Holland, but both King William and John Dalrymple were also murderous queyntes.

King William’s signature appears twice on the order, a fine indication that he knew exactly what was going on, and so the blood of infants, men and women, old, young, pregnant and nursing is plastered across his hands and throne.

John Dalrymple’s case is also of note.  Dalrymple was the effective ruler of Scotland at that time — kind of a Scottish secretary of State — and not only did he think Britain was going to be better together under the union which he saw through in 1707, he was repulsed by the fact that many people in Highland Scotland were  living a clan based existence, when he and others like him sought a unified state, very much of the tax-farm model which we still persist with.

John Dalrymple - Murderous Queynte
Dalrymple already had a plan in place to remove the clan system, and was not normally one for violence — but in this case as is clearly seen from his correspondence he felt that a lesson could be made of this clan.

Finally there is John “Iain Glas” Campbell, 1st Earl of Breadalbane and Holland, Viscount of Tay and Pentland, and Lord Glenorchy, Benderloch, Ormelie and Wick, 1696. 

The problem with Breadalbane was that he was so deep in what he conceived to be real-politik, that he switched from being a supporter of the Jacobites, to being their scourge, upon the ascent of William.  

Breadalbane is held by most accounts to be the chief queynte behind the massacre at Glencoe.

Breadalbane is such a controversial figure however that you are best advised to research him for yourself, because your opinion will be so vastly different from mine, that there is little point in my saying what I think of him.

The Glen

The ancient and famous Highland hospitality and the inviolable rights of guests was one reason why the attack was seen as so heinous.  Rough and crazy as the Highlanders were, they had a strict code regarding the treatment of guests, and so to have guests turn round and kill their hosts had the most shocking impact on everybody.

The massacre began simultaneously in three settlements along the glen — Invercoe, Inverrigan, and Achnacon — although the killing took place all over the glen as fleeing MacDonalds were pursued.

Glencoe is a land of moods. Of a June evening the hills drowse in a haze of sloeberry bloom and the clear streams croon.  Unlike much of the Highlands it is a fruitful and habitable place.  There are juicy pastures where black cattle, sheep and goats can feed, and Loch Leven and Loch Linhe would have provided the clan with herrings, trout and salmon.  Oats did well in the glen (when people used to grow crops there) and red deer were also plentiful.

It wouldn’t have been an idyllic life, but it was not one of naked barbarism.  These people had their own type of civilisation and their own type of economy, and they grew their own corn and traded with people from the Lowlands, as they always had a surplus of black cattle.


In actual comfort, in fact, the society of Glencoe probably exceded that of most Lowland parishes of the time.  There was no backbreaking monotonous toil, and their food was better than that of most people in Britain.

There's Been a Murder (78 of them)

Although it happened 323 years ago the mass murders at Glencoe are not ancient history.  There are very good records of the events, including copies of the orders as they travelled north to Edinburgh and were disseminated from there, as well as eye-witness accounts and municipal records. 

There are also letters and accounts from many landowners some of whom defended the king — the powerful always have their apologists — but there is no doubt that William of Orange in carrying out this crime etched divisions so hard into the fabric of the British Isles that as a consequence we still have hatred in Ireland and in Scotland, and bigotries which may have left the battlefield but which now persist on football terraces and on Twitter.

Tendencies Abound

Wikipedia states of the Glencoe massacre that:
The Glencoe massacre became a propaganda piece for Jacobite sympathies
I think this use of the word propaganda is stretching things a little, at least for the ancestors of the victims.  Of course it is a true statement, but only insofar as one can neutralise the word ‘propaganda’. 

We can equally say: ‘9/11 became a propaganda piece for those carrying out the War on Terror.’  It just depends on what side of the propaganda you are on, as to how offensive or true that statement is.

Still, this is the sort of foundation on which the modern state and the absolutist political system was built.  The statist political system requires that everybody be on board and there is no opt out, and so as in the cases of the Seminole Indians of Florida, and numerous other clan based systems across later modern history, some people needed to be either wiped out, bribed or forcibly coerced into being a part of the system. 

This might well remind us of the fact that our state exists by means of coercion.  If you don't believe me, try not paying tax, and you will see that your complaint will be met with force.

There is a loaded gun in the room and nobody talks about it, but Glencoe, here in Scotland, was one of the places it was fired.  I don’t believe that people much care about it these days, and I have no problem with that. Different people will look at the massacre at Glencoe and see different things, but they will have to be pretty blinkered not to see the word MURDER written large across it.

The instruction given at Glencoe was that every person under the age of 70 be killed, and that is what the British state tried to do here.  This included infants and children.  There is no need for anger or revenge, but having said that, it is still important to me to remember now and then what sort of events our modern states were built on.

If you don’t believe me, or aren’t even interested in Scotland and Britain, then just ask the Seminoles of Florida.  They had it worse, and much more recently also. It's a recurring historical pattern and one that we may be able to learn from. 

The message would be something like: Don't Commit Mass Murder or Genocide.  Pass that on to your children please.

The Creative Commons Licesnsed image of Glencoe was taken by Gil Cavalcanti and is located here.
The Creative Commons Licensed image of the Glencoe Massacre Monument is located here.

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