Hillwalking and History: Glencoe

Chances are, when you think of Scotland, you think of weathered old mountains rolling down into a valley, with a stream running along the bottom and green everywhere. If you are, then you’re thinking of Glencoe.


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Living in the US, the pictures we usually see of Scotland are actually of just one valley – or glen, rather: Glencoe. And chances are that if you’re doing a bus tour of the Scottish Highlands, you’ll be driving through it (and probably stopping for a picture of the bagpiper). The place is stunning, and pictures of it make their way onto postcards and into guide books as easily as you please. Its beauty is not the reason for its fame, though. Like so many other places, Glencoe has a tumultuous history.


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Way back in 1689, the English organized what has come to be known as the Glorious Revolution. The king at the time, James VII of Scotland and II of England, was a Catholic, and he has recently had a son with his second wife, ensuring a Catholic dynasty in Britain (which was stoutly Protestant). Mary, his daughter by his first wife, and her husband, William III of Orange, ousted him from the throne and took over as joint rulers of Great Britain. They also signed the Bill of Rights of 1689 and passed a law stating that no sitting monarch could be Catholic. According to my high school history classes, it was called the Glorious Revolution because there was no bloodshed – James VII/II just picked up and ran. As it turns out, that wasn’t quite the truth.


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After he took the throne, William (now III of Orange and II of England) knew that he didn’t quite have the undying loyalty of all his subjects. With the birth of James VII/II’s son, Mary was no longer in line for the throne, and even when she had been William’s claim to the throne had been tenuous at best. In order to maintain control over his new kingdom, he ordered that all of his subjects sign an oath of loyalty to him by January 1, 1692.


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For many Brits, this wasn’t a problem. They were happy to have a Protestant monarch on the throne, and they weren’t all that bothered about Mary’s no longer having a claim to the Crown. The further north you went, however, the less okay with it people were. By the time you got to the Scottish Highlands, there was outright resentment about the coup d’état. So much so, in fact, that many Clan leaders refused to sign the oath until they had written permission from James VII/II, which arrived fairly late in the game. The permission was issued by a dejected James on December 12, 1691. The problem was, he was living in France at the time, and it didn’t arrive in the Highlands until December 23rd, and couldn’t be shared among the Highland clan leaders until December 28th. To make matters worse, Scotland was having a rather severe winter, and the combination of snow and practically non-existent roads made it almost impossible for people to get around. For the MacDonalds of Glencoe, this would have dire consequences.


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The clan leader, known as MacIain, finally got the news on December 28th that he could swear allegiance to William, and he immediately set out to sign his name. He went to Fort William, thinking that the commander there would be able to accept his oath. He was not, and told MacIain he’d have to go another 60 or so miles out of his way to Inverary in order to submit his oath. He wrote MacIain a letter stating that he had fully intended to sign the oath on time, but had simply gone to the wrong post. MacIain continued on his way, and finally made it to Inverary on January 6, 1692 and signed the oath. He returned home, believing he’d done his duty and protected his clan.


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William decided he needed to cement his power even further. Clearly he didn’t understand the weight and oath carried in the Highlands, because he decided to make an example of one of the Highland clans. He chose the MacDonalds of Glencoe, who had been six days late in submitting their oath. Despite the Crown’s claims that it was simply because they were late, contemporary letters prove that it was premeditated and politically motivated: William gained the loyalty of the Clan Campbell by promising to get rid of their rivals, the Clan MacDonald. William issued a letter to the Clan Campbell, stating

You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebels the McDonalds of Glenco, and put all to the sword under seventy. 

The Campbells did as they were told. They went to the village at the bottom of Glencoe, and asked for accommodation. Even today in the Highlands, you’ll notice that the people are very hospitable. This is the remnant of the idea of ‘Highland hospitality,’ whereby any traveler could knock on any door, ask for help, and be given a place to sleep and some food for the evening. Highland hospitality was all but law in the Scottish Highlands, where life was hard enough without your neighbors making things worse for you. Any breach of Highland hospitality, whether on the part of the host or the guest, was tantamount to sacrilege. The Campbells breached the code of Highland hospitality.




The MacDonalds of Glencoe opened their homes to the Campbells, never suspecting anything. At five in the morning, the order was called, and the Campbells began firing on their hosts. The MacDonalds ran out and scurried away into the surrounding mountains. All told, roughly 38 people died that day, although many later died of exposure from hiding out in the mountains in the middle of winter.




Such was the Massacre of Glencoe. Even today, if you hear a Scottish person talk about it, the thing they’re most offended by was the breach of Highland hospitality. Remember, life was rather warlike in the Highlands, and the clans were always feuding à la Hatfield and McCoy. The feud between the Clan MacDonald and the Clan Campbell went back generations. But never before had anyone misused Highland hospitality to get their way with the other.


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So after you hop out of the tour bus to snap your pictures of the astounding scenery (and maybe a bagpiper), maybe wander down to the pub in the village and see the sign reading “No dogs or Campbells.”


2 thoughts on “Hillwalking and History: Glencoe

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