AUSTERE, stark and hauntingly beautiful, Glencoe in Argyllshire is arguably the most scenic of all Scotland’s glens, and it is definitely the most renowned.

That is because of an event that took place there 224 years ago this coming Friday. On February 13, 1692, more than 70 members of the Clan MacDonald of Glencoe were killed in one of the world’s most infamous mass murders.

The Massacre of Glencoe was not a simple clash between the two most powerful clans in the Highlands, the Campbells and Clan Donald, as it is so often portrayed. It was in fact a state-instigated atrocity that helped lay the foundations of the Jacobite rebellions that plunged Britain into civil war in the 18th century.

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We know a great deal about the Massacre because it was arguably the first case anywhere of the state investigating its own barbarism via a parliamentary inquiry – you can see the 1695 report at the National Library of Scotland.

Yet the men who ordered the Massacre and the soldiers who carried it out were never brought fully to justice.

In the years after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when the Dutch Prince William of Orange became King of Scots as well as King of England, many people in Scotland bitterly opposed the usurper of the throne, which they believed rightfully belonged to King James VII and II.

The “united” kingdom of England Wales and Ireland was divided into those who supported James, called Jacobites, and the majority who backed King William. Their support was mainly for religious reasons – James was Catholic, while William was Protestant and had promised to guarantee Presbyterianism as Scotland’s state faith.

Scotland still had its own Parliament, but there were many in the nobility in both countries who wanted a true incorporating union between England and Scotland.

In both Scotland and Ireland, Jacobites took up arms in support of King James and his claim for the throne of the United Kingdom. The Rising of 1689 saw Highlanders in their clan formation march south along with Irish regiments, all under the command of John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee. Their first major battle at Killiecrankie in 1689 was a resounding victory, achieved by the phenomenon known as the Highland Charge, but at the moment of victory, Bonnie Dundee was killed and the Jacobites lost heart and were defeated in battles at Dunkeld and the Haughs of Cromdale. The Rising in Scotland fizzled out.

Over in Ireland, King James’s army lost the Battle of the Boyne in July, 1690, and with his victory William moved to end all possibility of further civil war. Through John Campbell, the Earl of Breadalbane, he offered the Jacobite clans an armistice and pardon, but for it to work the clan chiefs would have to take an oath of allegiance to William by January 1, 1692.

Then came the first of a series of misfortunes for Clan MacDonald of Glencoe which would bring disaster upon them.

They became the target of the ire of the hugely ambitious John Dalrymple, Master of Stair, very much a pro-Union man who had helped William to gain the Scottish crown and who had been made Lord Advocate and Joint Secretary of State for Scotland, effectively making him the King’s governor of Scotland.

Like many Lowlanders, he loathed the clans of the Highlands, and saw them as a real barrier to progress. The King having issued the opportunity for a pardon, it fell to Dalrymple to ensure that the chiefs either took the oath or were severely punished.

The members of Clan MacDonald of Glencoe, the smallest sept of mighty Clan Donald, were renowned for their loyalty to the deposed Stuarts and their alleged adherence to Catholicism, though evidence of that is scanty – Dalrymple did refer to them as “popish”, however.

Their land was surrounded by that of the Campbells, Scotland’s most powerful clan and traditional enemies of the MacDonalds. For centuries each clan had raided the other’s land and stolen cattle, and there had been many bloody battles between them.

The Glencoe MacDonalds were also known as the clan MacIain, and their chief was Alasdair MacIain, 12th chief of the clan. He was a huge man in his sixties, a renowned warrior whose clansmen fought at Killiecrankie, stopping on the way home to raid the farm of Robert Campbell, Laird of Glenlyon.

The second misfortune of the MacDonalds in the run-up to the massacre was that King James dithered about giving his loyal clan chiefs permission to take William’s oath of allegiance. He eventually did so in mid-December and slowly but surely the clan chiefs went to their local sheriffs and took the oath.

Another misfortune – in Glencoe, Alasdair MacIain did not get word of James’s decision until December 28, 1691. He rushed north to Fort William only to be told by the local military commander, Colonel Hill, that he had come to wrong place as the oath could only be accepted by the local sheriff. He was Sir Colin Campbell, based at Inveraray many miles to the south.

MacDonald and his clansmen hurried there, but the weather turned foul and they were held for 24 hours by a detachment of redcoats, so that the sheriff was away when they eventually made it to Inveraray.

On January 5, MacIain threw himself on the mercy of the Campbell sheriff, who promised to write to Dalrymple to say that the clan chief had made every effort to take the oath in time.

Dalrymple was having none of it, however, having decided to make an example of the Glencoe clan. He informed King William who duly signed the order to his army’s commanding officer in Scotland, Sir Thomas Livingstone, with its infamous phrase: “it will be a proper vindication of public justice to extirpate that sect.”

Historians have argued for decades over that word “extirpate”. Dalrymple, who wrote the order, knew exactly what he wanted – the destruction of the clan.

Livingstone ordered local commander Major Robert Duncanson to act accordingly. Duncanson had just the men to do it – redcoated soldiers of the Earl of Argyll’s regiment, all with some some sort of adherence to Clan Campbell though only a few bore the name, under the command of Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon. That’s right, the same Campbell whose farm the Glencoe men had raided. Robert was a hard-drinking gambler who had little idea of soldiering.

Thus two companies of Argyll soldiers marched in to occupy Glencoe, where the people lived in scattered settlements. The MacIain MacDonalds welcomed them warily, but after a few days a bond of trust had grown up between the ordinary soldiers and the clan.

The troops took food and shelter for almost two weeks before Dalrymple’s order signed by the King was enacted.

Even as the snow began to fall in Glencoe, Duncanson wrote to Glenlyon, the order was carried by a Captain Thomas Drummond, a brutal thug.

“You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebells, the McDonalds of Glenco, and put all to the sword under seventy. You are to have a speciall care that the old Fox and his sones 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 att 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 miscreants 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 the full-filling hereof, as you love your selfe, I subscribe these with my hand att Balicholis Feb: 12, 1692.

For their Majesties service

(signed) R Duncanson

To Capt Robert Campbell of Glenlyon”

Campbell was horrified, by all accounts. He was told to kill the MacDonalds in cold blood, and that did not sit well with him – not least because he was related through marriage to the clan.

But orders were orders and at 5am on February 13, 1692, the massacre began. The clan chief was one of the first to die, shot through the head as he struggled to dress. His wife was stripped and thrown into the snow, where she died of exposure.

A young boy ran to Robert Campbell pleading for his life. Drummond dirked him dead. Men and women were put up against farm walls and shot without mercy, others were stabbed and hacked to death.

An old man couldn’t prove he was over 70, so he was killed on the spot.

MacIain’s two sons and baby grandson escaped, but some 38 men, women and children were systematically butchered, and another 32 members of the clan died in the freezing mountains after they fled to their neighbours, clan Stewart of Appin.

It was also reported that some of the soldiers, led by two officers, refused to carry out their orders and failed to carry out the slaughter. Some others undoubtedly tipped off their hosts as to what was coming.

In Edinburgh, Dalrymple’s only annoyance was that more MacDonalds had not been killed.

Yet the Massacre did not have the effect of pacifying the Highlands or ending Jacobite resistance. Indeed, it inflamed it.

Due to political and public anger at the massacre, the Scottish Parliament ordered a full inquiry. The massacre was thus the first state atrocity in modern history to be fully investigated.

The results were predictable. King William was exonerated and over-zealous soldiers were blamed. Dalrymple lost his job as Secretary of State, but within a few years he was back, created Earl of Stair by Queen Anne as one of the architects of the Act of Union in 1707.

Yet Jacobite anger at the massacre did not abate, and the MacDonalds of Glencoe stayed loyal to the cause. In 1746 they charged at Culloden and died for Bonnie Prince Charlie. A stone marks the spot where they fell.