Glencoe view of mountain and blue sky through trees
The Highlands

Glencoe National Nature Reserve

Glencoe is known for its haunting past as well as its wild beauty. The infamous massacre that took place here in 1692 is a tragic and poignant chapter in Scottish history, and a key moment in the story of the Jacobites. But how did this chilling event come about?


From the Caledonians and the Picts rejecting the Romans in the first few centuries AD to William Wallace and Robert the Bruce warring with the English army at Stirling and Bannockburn, the fight for independence is a long-standing theme in Scotland’s history.

The Jacobite cause began in the late 17th century, after the Stuart King James VII of Scotland and II of England was overthrown by William of Orange (later William III) in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. King James fled to France but his supporters in Scotland, known as the Jacobites (from Jacobus, the Latin for James), rose up and tried to restore a Catholic king to the throne.

The MacDonalds and the Campbells

The two Highland clans at the centre of the Glencoe Massacre had a history of feuding. Their lineages are interwoven, with both clans having long histories linked to Robert the Bruce and the fight for independence. As they each grew more powerful, they wrestled for dominance and titles, often raiding each other’s land when the opportunity arose, stealing cattle. They both also had opposing political views, with the MacDonalds supporting the deposed King James.

And although it’s the Campbells who are most associated with the massacre of the MacDonalds, it was less an issue of clan rivalry than it was a plot by the government to bring Highland clans into line behind King William.

A view looking down Glencoe in winter, where a light coating of snow covers the lower slopes of the mountains.

The oath of allegiance

Despite the first Jacobite risings mostly resulting in defeat for the Highlanders, William III wanted to pacify any clans sworn to James and his claim to the throne, including the Glencoe MacDonalds. William demanded that all the clans sign an oath of allegiance to him, initially with the promise of giving them money and land.

Any clan signing the oath before 1 January 1692 would be pardoned, while anyone who refused would be punished as traitors.

One of the problems for the clans was that they were already felt bound by an oath to James, and he only gave his consent to this request from William in mid-December. News only reached the MacDonalds on 28 December: they had three days to meet the deadline. The chief of the Glencoe MacDonalds, Maclain, set out to Fort William, but there was no-one there who could take his oath, and he had to go to Inveraray, 60 miles away. He arrived late, but was eventually allowed to take the oath on 6 January – he believed it had been accepted and his clan was safe. But the decision to make an example of them had already been made. Glencoe’s fate was sealed. It’s known that Lord Dalrymple and others in the government disliked the Highlanders, and the MacDonalds in particular, so some might argue that this was their intention all along.

The massacre

Two companies totalling around 120 men, from the Earl of Argyll’s regiment, but led by Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, arrived in Glencoe in late January. They were ‘quartered’ by the MacDonalds, meaning they were given bed and board, for almost two weeks. Although hospitality like this was traditional in the Highlands, in reality the villagers had little choice.

Then, on the evening of 12 February 1692, Glenlyon and the other officers received orders to destroy the MacDonald clan:

“‘You are hereby ordered to fall upon the Rebells, the McDonalds of Glenco, and putt all to the sword under Seventy.’”

At 5am the following morning, Glenlyon’s men were given the signal and attacked.

The first man killed was Maclain, before the attackers went up and down the glen killing anyone under the age of 70, including women and children. It seems likely that some of the soldiers alerted the families, giving some of them a chance to escape.

However, 38 men, women and children were killed in the attack, and many more died of exposure, evading the onslaught, but succumbing to the harsh weather/freezing winter conditions in the mountains.

The aftermath

When news of the massacre eventually reached the wider public, having first been published in France, a Scottish Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry determined that the killings were ‘murder under trust’. At the time, when hospitality was a cornerstone of the Highlanders’ way of life, this was a shocking and terrible crime.

The Glencoe Massacre did damage William III’s reputation, although he was absolved of any wrongdoing. But many of the instigators of the crime, like Lord Dalrymple, avoided any real repercussions. Much of the blame was laid at the feet of Clan Campbell, when in fact only a dozen or so Campbells were involved.

Glencoe Massacre sites

The events of 13 February 1692 were spread out across Glencoe and the surrounding area. Here are some of our places and elsewhere that you can visit to learn more about this horrific chapter in our history:

  • Glencoe Visitor Centre is a great place to start. Not only is it a gateway to an incredible landscape, but you can also see a 10-minute film narrated by Game of Thrones actor Rory McCann that tells the story of the massacre against a poignant animated backdrop.
  • The Inverigan ruins are from a house that was built after the massacre, but it sits on a site where several MacDonalds were killed. No buildings from the time of the massacre survive, but we’ve recently created a reconstruction of a traditional 17th-century turf house.
  • Coire Gabhail, or the Hidden Valley, was a safe haven for some MacDonalds as they fled from the attack.
  • An Torr, or Signal Rock, is a high point where the signal was traditionally said to have been given to start the attack, although we now believe no warning was given here.
  • In Loch Leven there’s a burial island where clan chiefs and their families were buried. It’s Maclain’s final resting place.
  • The Devil’s Staircase is not on our land, but is where government troops arrived on the morning of the attack, having travelled down from Fort William. Although having been delayed by blizzards, the massacre was over by the time they got to the glen.
  • In Glencoe village you can find a memorial to the massacre and the MacDonald victims, as well as Glencoe Folk Museum, which explores this story in a little more depth.