In 1691 the Prince of Orange offered a pardon to those Scottish clans whose chiefs would swear the oath of allegiance to him before January 1, 1692. MacIain, chief of the MacDonalds of Glencoe, proceeded to Fort William where he arrived on December 31. The military governor (Colonel Hill), however, refused to administer the oath on the grounds that it had to be taken before the civil magistrate. MacIain, therefore, was required to proceed to Inverary. There he had to wait three days for the return of the sheriff of Argyleshire, Sir Colin Campbell of Ardinglass. At first Campbell refused to administer the oath (since the deadline had now passed), but eventually he yielded and MacIain swore allegiance to the Prince of Orange.
Four weeks later at the beginning of February a company of 120 troops in the service of the Prince of Orange arrived at MacIain's home in Glencoe. They were under the command of Captain Campbell of Glenlyon; the Campbells were historically enemies of the MacDonalds, but Glenlyon was related by marriage to MacIain. Accordingly Glenlyon and his troops were offered hospitality by the MacDonalds of Glencoe, which they accepted for over a week.
Below: The infamous order
In fact, Glenlyon had orders to put the community to "fire and sword" on the grounds that MacIain had not taken the required oath before the deadline of January 1. On February 13, without warning, Glenlyon and his troops fell upon the community, burning all the houses and massacring the people. Some 38 (of about 200 inhabitants), including MacIain himself, were killed that day by the troops of the Prince of Orange. Others who had fled into the mountains died in the next week from cold and starvation.
The Lord Advocate was disappointed that the entire clan had not been exterminated. Gradually the MacIans drifted back to Glen Coe and the Scottish Privy Council granted them protection - under the patronage of the Earl of Argyll, a Campbell. John the 13th Chief of Glen Coe was formally allowed the king's pardon and rebuilt the family home. But the story of the atrocity began to circulate in Edinburgh and London partly as a result of Captain Robert Campbell leaving his orders in an Edinburgh bar while drunk. Of course, the Lord Advocate had many enemies who were only too pleased to stir things up. In 1695 a commission was formed which noted that others who had been late in taking the oath had been excused. King William had demanded that the MacIans be "extirpated" but this was said to have been taken too far by the Master of Stair who was deemed to have exceeded his authority. But Stair was never brought to trial, and though he was forced to resign, soon returned to politics - and was one of the chief architects of the Act of Union in 1707.
In order to have the pain of death removed from himself a MacDonald was required to kill a fellow kinsman and be able to prove it.
Oh, cruel is the snow that sweeps Glencoe
And covers the grave o' Donald;
Oh, cruel was the foe that raped Glencoe
And murdered the house of MacDonald.
They came in the blizzard, we offered them heat,
A roof for their heads, dry shoes for their feet;
We wined them and dined them, they ate of our meat,
And they slept in the house of MacDonald
They came from Fort William wi murder in mind;
The Campbell had orders King William had signed;"
Put all to the sword," these words underlined,
"And leave none alive called MacDonald."
They came in the night when the men were asleep,
This band of Argyles, through snow soft and deep;
Like murdering foxes amongst helpless sheep,
They slaughtered the house of MacDonald.
Some died in their beds at the hand o the foe;
Some fled in the night and were lost in the snow;
Some lived to accuse him wha struck the first blow,
But gone was the house of MacDonald.
Lyrics and music by Jim McLean (JawMac@aol.com), 1963. First recorded in 1969 by Nigel Denver. © Duart Music
Dieu le Roy,
Taken in part from Jacobite Heritage.