Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Scotland's Library Highlights Highland's Historic Homicides

Victorian Artist James Hamilton's Romantic Depiction of The Massacre of Glencoe

The National Library of Scotland has chosen as the centerpiece of an exhibit of "nine cultural treasures" one of the most infamous documents in the country's history: the 1692 government order commanding the notorious Massacre of Glencoe. The chilling contents of this death warrant stand as a horrific example of state sanctioned murder.

The Official Order For The Massacre (see full text below.)

In August of 1691 the English crown ordered the chiefs of all Scottish clans to take an oath of allegiance to William III by year's end. This proclamation reflected the desire of the monarchs from the House Of Orange-Nassau to crush the recently deposed Stuart rulers. The unfortunate Alasdair, Chief of Clan MacDonald of Glencoe, swore his fealty to William just over a week into the new year of 1692. (Bureaucrats, later revealed to be part of the murder plot, deliberately delayed the efforts of the clan leader, known as informally as MacIain, to meet the deadline.) This trifling delay allowed a scheming Secretary of State to make an example of the MacDonald clan by ordering that all "under seventy" die by the sword, and "these miscreants be cutt off root and branch."

Robert Campbell of Glenlyon

The man charged with executing the murderous order was Captain Robert Campbell, 5th Laird of Glenlyon. Campbell was a wastrel: a bankrupt, drunken gambler who had lost his fortune to unwise investment and endless extravagance. His last remaining holdings had been looted by soldiers belonging to the MacDonald of Glencoe clan in 1689. This forced the desperate Laird, now 59, to seek humiliating employment as a foot soldier for the Earl of Argyll. As a result, there was no love lost between clans MacDonald and Campbell.

The bitter cold Winter of 1691-92 found Major Campbell's regiment, most probably by design, billeted on land belonging to his enemy, MacIain. The Clan MacDonald Chief extended traditional Highland hospitality to The Earl Of Argyll's soldiers, despite the history of bad blood between himself and their commanding officer. For at least two weeks Campbell and his men depleted the precious Winter food supply of their hosts, and drank and toasted to their good health. Captain Campbell bunked in MacIain's own home, and even proposed arranged marriages between young members of the two clans, ostensibly to end their ongoing feud.

A Vicorian Portrait of A Member Of Clan MacDonald By Artist R.R. McIan

Campbell's conduct was revealed as a ruse upon receipt of the soon-to-be infamous order from his superior officer, Major Duncanson. Campbell and Duncanson spent the evening of February 12, 1692 dining and playing cards with their unsuspecting hosts, even making plans for a festive meal the following evening. But at 5am on February 13 the killing began. The hospitable MacIain was stabbed to death before he could arise from his bed and alert his family to the soldier's treachery. In all, 38 members of clan MacDonald were slain as they attempted to escape from their former guests. Another 40 family members, mostly women and children, died from exposure to the Winter's cold as they fled the dwellings they had generously shared with those who now cruelly set them ablaze.

Glencoe's Winter Landscape

Hair-raising accounts by survivors of the cowardly killings soon prompted a government inquiry into the crime. But despite the fact that Scots law included a special provision for the severest of penalties to be imposed on perpetrators of "murders under trust," no one was ever brought to justice for the Massacre of Glencoe. The event remained a rallying point for those who wished to restore the rule of the Stuart kings well into the next century. In the Victorian era the deaths at Glencoe were romanticized in art and literature, most notably in Sir Walter Scott's story, The Highland Widow. In the 1930's the unforgiving landscape, and equally harsh history, of the glen inspired T.S. Eliot's poem, Rannoch, by Glencoe:

Here the crow starves, here the patient stag
Breeds for the rifle. Between the soft moor
And the soft sky, scarcely room
To leap or soar. Substance crumbles, in the thin air
Moon cold or moon hot. The road winds in
Listlessness of ancient war,
Langour of broken steel,
Clamour of confused wrong, apt
In silence. Memory is strong
Beyond the bone, Pride snapped,
Shadow of pride is long, in the pass
No concurrence of bone.

The document authorizing the murder of an entire clan, guilty only of being convenient victims for a government bent on consolidating control, will be on exhibit at the National Library of Scotland until early January, in low light conditions and with flash photography banned. In a perfect world, such careful preservation of a document detailing the depravity of the power mad might prevent the repetition of such evil events. But our world is sadly far from perfect.

Here is the full text of the document:

You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebels, the McDonalds of Glenco, and put all to the sword under seventy. You are to have special care that old Fox and his sons doe upon no account escape your hands, you are to secure all the avenues that no man escape. This you are to putt in execution at fyve of the clock precisely: and by that time, or very shortly after it, I'll strive to be att you with a stronger party: if I doe not come to you att fyve, you are not to tarry for me, but to fall on. This is by the Kings speciall command, for the good & safety of the Country, that these micreants be cutt off root and branch. See that this be putt in execution without feud or favour, else you may expect to be dealt with as one not true to King nor Government, nor a man fitt to carry Commissione in the Kings service. Expecting you will not faill in fulfilling hereof, as you love your selfe, I subscribe these with my hand at Balicholis Feb: 12, 1692

For their Majesties service

To Captain Robert Campbell
of Glenlyon
(signed) R. Duncanson


  1. What a terrible event!

  2. Having relatives on both the Stuart (Stewart) and Campbell sides, I must wish all families of the slain forgive the one member of our family who chose the wrong Master to obey. May all future clans share the Camaraderie of Peace and Progress rather than Arms and Misunderstanding.


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