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The Glencoe Massacre


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A young roebuck raced across the glen, bounded up the hillside and stood for a second silhoutted against the misty horizon; then he dropped out of sight behind a mountain crag, the luckiest deer in Inverlochy.

Never before had the aged chief of Glencoe allowed so noble a prize so easy an escape. But to-day MacIan had more important affairs on hand than stalking his neighbours' deer. Not that he was averse from shooting the preserves of others, for more than once, when food was scarce, he had trespassed in search of beef and venison. Yet always he had been able to stifle a robust conscience with a satisfactory excuse. Were not his powerful neighbours indebted to him for many things which they had no intention of repaying? The loss of a few cattle would still leave the Argylls and the Breadalbanes debtors to the little clan in Glencoe.

So argued the laird at all times when the subject was raised. But to-day his thoughts were centred on other things as, attended by his four running footmen, he rode over the mountains to Garrison Headquarters at Fort William. A striking figure of a man was this master of Glencoe. At first sight of his great moustachios one remembered the Vikings of old. But he was a Highlander, every inch of his six foot six inches. His eyes were dark and wild, and his nose was long and fierce. The faded heather in his bonnet, and the shaggy white hair which fell down to his shoulders, all stamped him for what he was - a Highland chieftain who was accustomed to defend his rights against the world. The man who opposed MacIan of Glencoe won nothing without a desperate struggle. Quite recently, at a chiefs' conference, MacIan had stood up fiercely to the mighty Breadalbane, and what he said was so sharp that it had got under the skin of that avaricious Jacobite turned loyalist. Breadalbane had said afterwards that he would make MacIan suffer for his daring. The word was quietly passed to MacIan's sons.

To-day MacIan's journey was taken to prevent Breadalbane from getting his opportunity. He owed it to himself and to his clan of some 200 souls whom he had ruled with wisdom and strength. For MacIan was above all a just man whose word was believed as well as obeyed. But he was a fighter, as all his clan were fighters, and Glencoe men of his day and for centuries had taken a distinguished part in Scottish history.

Yet MacIan had been negligent and he was troubled both for himself and his clan. It was the end of December and the time limit given to rebellious Jacobites to turn from James and vow allegiance to William was nearly expired. As a stout Jacobite MacIan had no love for King William. Had he not fought at Killicrankie and been willing to join in any rising of the clans against the usurper? But the clans were divided; Breadalbane had arranged a truce, and now if they were to be amnestied, an oath of allegiance must be sworn by all the chiefs on or before the last day of December. There had been no great rush to obey the summons, but as the end of the days of grace came in sight the bigger clans, who had so much at stake became sullenly submissive. Their chiefs rode in and took the oath, two clans only holding out, the powerful Glengarrys and the MacIans of Glencoe.

Glengarry might offer a stout resistance but Glencoe was almost defenceless. As MacIan could only put fifty men under arms his little glen would soon be turned into a death trap. Glencoe offered a temptation to a powerful autocrat desirous of giving the turbulent Highlands a sharp lesson by making an ugly example of one of its clans. Just then, one man, Dalrymple, Secretary for Scotland, was looking for that opportunity. Who more suitable for his black purpose than these intractable Papists, the cattle-raiders of Glencoe? Fortunately they were the only Roman Catholic clan now remaining in the Highlands, and their extirpation would be popular with the Protestants.

Had MacIan known that Dalrymple was thinking thus about Glencoe, his rugged face would have looked still more troubled as he rode along, his running footmen easily keeping their traditional places. Those twelve miles from Glencoe to Fort William were covered in about a couple of hours, and MacIan, better late than never, sent word to the Colonel commanding, requesting an audience, so that he might make his submission. At news of MacIan's arrival Colonel Hill was definitely relieved. He had been fearing that the obstinate old cattle-thiever, as he was regarded by the new regime, intended to defy their Protestant Majesties indefinitely; if so there would be trouble enough.

Hill received MacIan warmly. He at any rate had no desire to harm this picturesque giant whose vigour of body, intellect and dignified presence had surrendered nothing to his sixty odd years of turbulent life. In delaying his submission until the last moment MacIan was merely behaving with characteristic independence. More marvellous was the fact that he had come at all. Now that he had made up his mind to submit, the real tragedy was that he had come to the wrong official. Colonel Hill spoke rather sharply. His visitor knew very well that the oath must be taken before a civil and not a military authority. MacIan retorted fiercely that Hill had previously sworn one of his relatives; why could riot he be sworn likewise? As a soldier he preferred to make his submission to a soldier.

That was a good point and Hill would gladly have accepted it. But having no power to do this he wrote a letter to Campbell of Ardkinglas warmly bidding him to "receive this wandering sheep," and advised MacIan to take it immediately to Inveraray. MacIan's self-confidence was badly shaken by the news that he could not be sworn at Fort William. Now thoroughly frightened he set off in haste, but the journey to Inveraray was long and difficult. Though the way led past Glencoe he dared not stay the night at home. Yet he was unable to make Inveraray before the New Year, though he would have arrived earlier had not Captain Drummond, met on the way, wilfully delayed him for twenty-four hours.

It was January 3, 1692, when after battling against bitter weather, the old chieftain arrived at Inveraray, three days too late. Because of that stormy weather another three days elapsed before Ardkinglas was able to see him. Though the official would gladly have administered the oath he hesitated to do so, pointing out that MacIan was now a week too late. Moved by the chieftain's tears and Hill's recommendation he at last gave way, and forwarded the certificate, with Hill's letter, to Edinburgh, asking that he be informed whether the submission was accepted.

In Edinburgh it was decided that without a new warrant from the king the certificate could not be accepted; but it was not thought necessary to bring the matter before the Privy Council. A pen was drawn through old MacIan's belated submission. The little clan in Glencoe was "outside the law."

Now that he had taken the oath, MacIan set out for home, believing that all was well, blissfully unaware that Dalrymple, comfortably housed in the king's palace in London, was preparing to make a bloody example of the little clan that had insolently flouted the king by delaying his submission until after the days of probation had passed. Maybe Dalrymple did not realise that the time-limit had been unintentionally exceeded. Perhaps King William, too, was unaware of MacIan's unlucky mistake. Yet, before they gave their order for the massacre, both king and secretary knew that submission had been duly made. What did a few days matter if, during that time, an enemy had become loyal to the throne? The worries of a continental war, which was following the custom of such wars by going all too badly, may have upset the instinct for justice undoubtedly possessed by both king and secretary; or it may have been that they, unfairly regarding MacIan and his clan as just a robber band, had determined to execute double justice with one ruthless stroke. Whatever their thoughts, it is true that they ordered British soldiers to do a bloody deed which is a standing disgrace to English arms, the story of which will send a shudder through each successive generation.

When Dalrymple heard that Glencoe was "outside the law" he said, "At this news I rejoice." He regarded it as a great work of charity to root out that damnable sect, "the worst in all the Highlands." On January n King William signed a letter to Sir Thomas Livingstone, the officer commanding in Scotland, saying that if Glengarry and his clan gave up their castle they might take the oaths and their lives would be safe; for their estates they must trust the king's mercy. But the king was cautious, and he added that if the castle could not be reduced, then it might be better to offer the Glengarrys complete indemnity. In fact, this clan, whose offence was worse than that of the MacIan's, were granted the king's mercy.

But William, acting on the advice of Dalrymple and Breadalbane, showed no such tender feeling towards defenceless little Glencoe. The king wrote that: "If MacIan of Glencoe, and that tribe can be well separated from the rest, it will be a proper vindication of public justice to extirpate that set of thieves."

What did King William mean by "extirpate?" A great deal has been written in answer to this question since the Glencoe massacre. In Scotland at that time "extirpate" had a different meaning from the word "exterminate," though Dalrymple down in London was determined that his subordinates should read it to mean the latter. The worst that should have been read into the king's order was that the clan should be broken, or perhaps "mauled," as Breadalbane had previously advised. Previous to this act of fright-fulness clans had been "extirpated" or "rooted out" and had become what was known as "broken clans," that is to say they had been made landless and chiefless like the Macgregors, "whose name is nameless by day." When subsequently Parliament inquired into the massacre it decided that neither "the barbarous murder" which was actually committed nor the worse massacre that was arranged for was according to the royal order, and that Dalrymple had exceeded his instructions.

Dalrymple's orders were to entrap the MacIans in a net which would contain no broken mesh, and then to make an exemplary bloody sacrifice. It was to be secret and suddenly done, and the Government were not to be troubled with any prisoners. He told Livingstone that what was done must be done in earnest, since the other clans were not in a condition to give them help. "I think that to harry their cattle or burn their houses is but to render them desperate, lawless men preying on their neighbours. I believe you will be satisfied that it will be a great advantage to the nation that thieving tribes are rooted out and cut off. It must be quietly done, otherwise they will make shift for both men and cattle." There is no doubt that Dalrymple, who had the finest brain of any Scotsman of his day, and who took pride in his humanity, had determined that the king's order should be translated into a spectacular punishment that would be a lesson in frightfulness to the Highlanders for all time.

The man to whom was delegated the work of extermination was the kindly Colonel Hill, who showed no liking for his job. Indeed, when the official inquiry was made for the purpose of affixing the blame, the commission had no difficulty in acquitting that good-natured if somewhat disappointed soldier from all blame. He and his men were under orders, and though morally they could not escape blood-guilt, as soldiers they had done their duty to the State. Indeed, had they not done so they were in danger of stern treatment. To guard against laxity one of the officers in charge of the massacre, Major Duncanson, gave this explicit order to Glenlyon, the officer who was entrusted with the actual slaughter:

"You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rabble, the Macdonalds of Glencoe, and to put all to the sword under 70. You are to have special care that the old fox and his sons do not escape your hands. You are to secure all avenues so that no man escapes. This order you are to put into execution at 5 a.m. precisely. And by that time, or very shortly after it, I will strive to be at you with a stronger party. If I do not come to you by 5 a.m. you are not to tarry for me, but to fall on. This is by the King's special commands for the good and safety of the country, that these miscreants be cut off root and branch. See that this be put into execution without fear or favour, else you may expect to be dealt with as one not true to King nor country nor fit to carry a commission in the King's service. Expecting you will not fail in the fulfilling thereof, as you love yourself...."

Yet, even with this encouragement to zeal in slaughter, and warning against leniency, the planned massacre of Glencoe was bungled. Though the clan was rooted out, it was not exterminated; and very soon it came back to its own. But the terror of that scene in the little glen at 5 a.m. on February 13, 1692, has haunted the Scottish Highlands ever since.

Until then it was understood the one law in Scotland that was never broken was the law of the inviolability of the guest. Still more was it understood that the guest in the Scottish home conducted himself with every deference to his host. But the plan for the massacre of the men of Glencoe, because it had to be secret and sudden, provided for the sudden and treacherous turning of the soldier-guests upon their Highland hosts, and the murder of them in their beds by cold steel without, if possible, the firing of a shot. This treachery to hospitality was done in the name, and perhaps at the command, of King William III.

When MacIan arrived back from Inveraray he was greeted by his sons, who asked him anxiously if all was well. He assured them that his submission had been accepted, and so they were safe from any trouble from the king's soldiers. The old chief was now told that Captain Glenlyon, leading some of Argyll's soldiers, had been sent out against him. He frowned, but still felt confident. The work in the little valley went on as before; the women wove their wool; the young men tended the cattle and hunted the deer on the heights.

Over at Fort William Colonel Hill was making his plans. Hating the work, he took good care to delegate it to subordinates. Two officers, to their credit, protested against the piece of foul play that was being engineered; they were arrested and sent down to Glasgow. Authority was standing no nonsense.

It has been said that the word Glencoe means "the valley of weeping," but that is untrue; it means the "narrow glen" of the doe, for that river flows through its four miles of length. Its appearance is undoubtedly sinister, and those who visit it to-day agree that it feels haunted. At first it is a bleak upland moor, broad enough until it comes to those tall perpendicular cliffs, part of which are almost black. Hereabouts is Ossian's Cave and that dangerous rock, so tempting to the youth of Glencoe, known as The Chancellor, still the home of the eagle and the wild fox.

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