Oh, cruel is the snow that sweeps Glencoe, and covers the grave o’ Donald

This is a reprise of a story I wrote two years ago on Daily Kos. It is updated with a few edits, but is a timeless story of politics, of deceit, of a fearful leader, murder, honor by soldiers in the middle of a massacre, dishonor by their commanding officer, and of a coverup. Sound familiar? This is the story of a mass murder that took place on this night 322 years ago.

It was in the wee hours of the morning on February 13, 1692. The men with evil intent arose on a signal and the carnage began.

The story has been the subject of both truth and myth. And a song.

Oh cruel is the snow that sweeps Glencoe
And covers the grave o’ Donald
And cruel was the foe that raped Glencoe
And murdered the house o’ MacDonald

William of Orange, a Dutchman, took the throne of England in 1688 as William III of England. The Dutch needed English help to fight their wars with the French. James VII of Scotland (aka James II of England) had been ousted and fled the country. His supporter, John Graham of Dundee, started a rebellion with the goal of returning James to the throne. Those who supported James came to be known as Jacobites. Graham was killed at the Battle of Killiecrankie in July 1689. Years later, Robert Burns wrote a song about the Battle of Killiecrankie.

This version was recorded by The Corries in 1965.

A month after the battle of Killiecrankie, there was a pitched battle at Dunkeld. The outcome of Dunkeld was not fully conclusive, but clearly a setback for the Jacobites. On their way home after Dunkeld, the Maclains of Glencoe (a sept of Clan MacDonald), along with some cousins from Glengarry, “liberated” some livestock and property belonging to Robert Campbell of Glenlyon. The plunder was serious enough that Campbell was forced to take an army commission in order to pay some gambling debts. Campbell later made a number of statements indicating he believed the Glengarry men to be the ones responsible. In his statements, Robert Campbell never mentioned the MacDonalds of Glencoe.

In August 1691, William III offered the chiefs of the Highland clans clans a Royal Pardon for their part in the Jacobite Uprising; however, he demanded they take an oath of allegiance to him before January 1, 1692. This oath was required to be administrated by a Magistrate. William threatened them with severe reprisals if they did not sign.

Keep in mind that William III was not even English himself and knew little of the Scottish Highlanders. From all I have been able to learn, not only did he not understand them, he did not care to learn. His wife was Mary II, designated as Queen of Scotland. Yes, they were that William and Mary, who founded a college in the Colonies in 1692, the second college in the Colonies.

The Clan chieftains sent a request to James, now in exile, asking permission to sign the oath. James was prone to indecisiveness, and dithered until it was almost too late.

James’ letter giving permission to his followers to pledge allegiance to William III did not arrive until the middle of December. It was winter in the Highlands and the letters arrived only a few days before the deadline. Some of the Clan Chiefs managed to comply, but others did not, including Alastair Maclain, 12th Chief of Glencoe, who waited until the last day before setting out to take the oath at Fort William, the location of the nearest Magistrate. The weather was awful, with winter blizzard conditions. Maclain, Chief of the Glencoe MacDonalds, arrived at Fort William on December 31, just in time. The Governor, James Hill, told Maclain he was not authorized to give the oath, directing the MacDonald* to go to Inveraray to make his oath before Sir Colin Campbell, sheriff of Argyll. Governor Hill gave Maclain a letter of protection, as well as a letter to Sir Colin asking that he receive Maclain’s oath since Maclain had come to him within the allotted time. Hill reassured Maclain that no action would be taken against him without a proper hearing before the Privy Council.

Maclain arrived at Inveraray three days later. Part of the delay was due to his being detained for a day at Barcaldine Castle by the 1st company of the Earl of Argyll’s Regiment of Foot, at the command of Captain Drummond, as a ruse to delay him. After arriving at Inveraray, it was three more days before Sir Colin returned from a holiday with his family. Sir Colin reluctantly accepted Maclain’s oath when he returned.

Maclain breathed a sigh of relief and returned home, thinking all was well. Maclain failed to take into consideration the Secretary of State over Scotland and Lord Advocate, John Dalrymple, Master of Stair. John Dalrymple was a Lowlander who thought the Highlander way of life was a hindrance to Scotland. He hated the Highlanders, and wanted them brought to heel in order to better serve his goal of uniting Scotland with England.

The senior member of Clan Campbell, John Campbell, saw an opportunity for revenge in the fact that Maclain had been late in taking the oath of allegiance. He enlisted the help of Dalrymple, who was all to eager to punish Maclean. Dalrymple was actually disappointed the Clan Chieftains had taken the oath. Seizing on the pretext that Maclain’s late oath was not valid, Dalrymple decided to make an example of him. In fact, Dalrymple had already drawn up a plan of action in December, even before the oath deadline and he was determined to carry it out. King William III was convinced by Dalrymple that Maclain’s oath was irregular, and he needed to be punished accordingly. The argument to the King was that the MacDonalds of Glencoe were a den of thieves and needed to be exterminated.

Sometime in late January or early February 1692, about 120 troops under the command of Captain Robert Campbell showed up at Glencoe. Many of the troops were from the Campbell of Argyll’s estate, but few of them bore the Campbell name. Since Captain Campbell was related to Maclain by marriage, he was billeted in the home of the Chief. The Captain made a point of visiting the home of Maclain’s son every morning for the two weeks after their arrival. Historical records suggest that at this point, Campbell did not know the true nature of their being in Glencoe. He apparently thought it was to collect taxes.

On February 12, Captain Drummond arrived at Glencoe. As the one who had detained Maclain, he would not have been welcomed by Maclain. However, Drummond was bearing an order for Captain Campbell. The order read:

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 a special care that the 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 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 fulfilling hereof, as you love your selfe, I subscribe these with my hand att Balicholis Feb: 12, 1692
(signed) R. Duncanson
For their Majesties service
To Capt. Robert Campbell
of Glenlyon

This was nothing less than an order to massacre the MacDonalds of Glencoe. Captain Campbell, as a house guest of Maclain, spent the evening playing cards with his unsuspecting victims. Upon retiring, Captain Campbell wished them goodnight. He accepted an invitation to dine with Maclain the following day. On a signal during the night, the Campbell troops arose. Alasdair Maclain was killed trying to get out of bed. He was murdered by a Lt. Lindsay and Ensign Lundie. His sons and wife managed to get away for a short time. Mrs. Maclain was caught and her fingers were cut off to get her rings. She was thrown into the snow to die of the cold and loss of blood.

Thirty-eight members of Clan Donald were murdered as they tried to escape. These included men, women and children. Another forty died of exposure and frostbite, including many women and children after their homes were burned.

Two Campbell officers, Lt. Francis Farquhar and Lt. Gilbert Kennedy, refused to obey Drummond’s order and broke their swords.

The reaction of the Highlanders was not what Dalrymple expected. Scottish law provides a special category of murder, known as “murder under trust.” Murder under trust is considered to be even more heinous than ordinary murder. The Glencoe massacre was a clear example of murder under trust. Highlanders have a long tradition of hospitality to travelers, taking them in and providing for them along their way. To violate that hospitality as “murder under trust” is a terrible crime. The crime, initiated by King William, and carried out by Campbell, Drummond and Dalyrimple can find a parallel in the Nuremburg trial court ruling:

Though the command of superior officers be very absolute, yet no command against the laws of nature is binding; so that a soldier, retaining his commission, ought to refuse to execute any barbarity, as if a soldier should be commanded to shoot a man passing by inoffensively, upon the street, no such command would exempt him from the punishment of murder.

The inquiry set up after the massacre was a joke. The Board of Inquiry was supposed to assign blame to those responsible for the massacre; however, the orders which led to it were signed by the King himself, who could not be held responsible.

The scandal worsened when it was discovered Sir John Lauder, the leading Scottish jurist, was offered the post of Lord Advocate in 1662. Sir John but declined the commission of Lord Advocate because he was told that in order to receive the appointment, he would not prosecute the persons implicated in the Glencoe Massacre. Sir George Mackenzie, Lord Advocate under King Charles II, also refused to concur in this partial application of the penal laws.

The conclusion of the Commission was to exonerate the King from all responsibility, placing the blame for the massacre squarely upon Secretary Dalrymple. In modern parlance, it can be said the Commission threw Dalryimple under the bus, even though he richly deserved it. The Scottish Parliament, after reviewing the Commission report, declared the execution of the MacDonalds of Glencoe to have been murder and delegated the “committee for the security of the kingdom” to prepare an address to the king which included recommendations for the punishment of the perpetrators of the plot and compensation to be paid to the surviving MacDonalds. As far as is known, these recommendations were never acted upon except for the imprisonment of John Campbell (Earl of Breadalbane) for a few days in Edinburgh Castle on a charge of high treason because he had been involved in secret talks with the Jacobite chiefs.

In the aftermath, the Massacre at Glencoe became a rallying cry for the Jacobites, much as “Remember the Alamo” or “Remember Pearl Harbor” became rallying cries centuries later.

The Jacobite uprising came to a head a little more than a half-century later, culminating with the Battle of Culloden Moor in 1746.

In the video below, The Corries sing The Massacre of Glencoe. Contrary to popular belief, this is not an ancient folk song. It was composed in 1963 by Jim Mclean of Duart Music Publishers in Scotland. Despite its recent origins, it quickly became a classic because of the intense emotions this crime still evokes more than three centuries later.

Oh cruel is the snow that sweeps Glencoe
And covers the grave o’ Donald
And cruel was the foe that raped Glencoe
And murdered the house o’ MacDonald

They came in the night when the men were asleep
That band of Argyles, through snow soft and deep.
Like murdering foxes, among helpless sheep
They slaughtered the house o’ MacDonald


They came through the blizzard, we offered them heat
A roof o’er their heads, dry shoes for their feet.
We wined them and dined them, they ate of our meat
And slept m the house O’ MacDonald.


They came from Fort William with murder in mind
The Campbells had orders, King William had signed
Put all to the sword, these words underlined
And leave none alive called MacDonald.


Some died in their beds at the hands of the foe
Some fled in the night, and were lost in the snow.
Some lived to accuse him, that struck the first blow
But gone was the house of MacDonald.


The myth has held that all those named Campbell were responsible for the murders. In truth, some of the Campbells tried to give warning to as many of the Glencoe MacDonalds as they could, and helped some escape the narrow valley.

If there are any real villains in this story, they would be Dalrymple, Drummond and King William III. Captain Campbell was following orders, but clearly should have refused as two of his officers did.

For history buffs, there is a detailed account on Electric Scotland.

For those confused by the Chief being named Maclain, it has to do with Clan custom. The Chief of a Highland Clan is typically designated by the name of the Clan. Although Maclain had a different surname, he would have been referred to as “The Donald of Glencoe.”

About Chuck Stanley

Dr. Charlton (Chuck) Stanley is a board certified forensic psychologist, with interests in aviation psychology, peace officer selection and training, ethics and communication skills.
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23 Responses to Oh, cruel is the snow that sweeps Glencoe, and covers the grave o’ Donald

  1. For those not familiar with Glencoe, it is a haunting place of heart-stopping beauty. A large picture of Glencoe hangs in the guest bedroom, and I have a picture of Glencoe as my screen saver. One of the best vocal versions of the song is by James McDermott This video version has numerous pictures of Glencoe, some in winter.

  2. I have been asked if there are any ghost stories about Glencoe. Well, this is Scotland after all.

    Most tourists visit Scotland in the summer months, but to better understand Glencoe, visit it this time of year. Not that you will enjoy the weather, because unless you are a real arctic snowbird, you won’t.

    Is is said the best time of all to visit is early in the morning on February 13th, the anniversary of the massacre. This is when the melancholy presence of the murdered MacDonalds is felt most strongly. The ghost of Alasdair Maclean still walks the glen, according to some who claim to have seen his ghost.

    On this day in the past, people claim to have caught glimpses of ghostlike images of the fugitive clansmen as they crouched among the rocks and trees.

    Some claim to have seen the massacre re-enacted, or to have heard the screams and cries of those who perished. More people claim to have heard screams and cries than actually to have “seen” the massacre.

    Ghost stories? This is Scotland, after all!

  3. Blouise says:


    Being of the Clan Donald, and rightfully entitled to most of the lands stolen from us by those (spit on the ground) despicable Campbells ( Campbell originally was a gaelic nickname for one of their chiefs, cam-beul – he of the wry and twisted mouth.) who always supported kings and the Lowland rats rather than independence for the Highland clans from any rule by kings from Scotland or England. “Murder under trust” is their natural bent.

    Somerled (Norse and Celtic) was our man and drove the Vikings from our shores in 1160. A hundred years later the Campbells, proverbial kissers of king’s asses and horse thieves who claim their loss at the Battle of Red Ford as their beginnings, became a blight upon our beloved land. Only one man has more living descendents than Somerled – Righ nan Eillean. That man is Genghis Khan.

    Or at least that is what I was told at Clan meetings. 😉

  4. Blouise,
    Some inns and pubs in Glencoe have signs by the entrance warning, “No Hawkers or Campbells.” If a Campbell is unfortunate enough to find themselves in Glencoe at mealtime, they are likely to have to go hungry. It won’t do to pull out a credit card with the Campbell name on it.

  5. Blouise says:

    As a teenager I had a performing partner named Archie Campbell but whenever we played for the Clan my father listed him on the program as Archie Smith. Archie’s father was okay with that telling him, “Those damn Donalds would bleed you out if they knew you were a Campbell.”

    BTW … that descendant thing … the Donalds followed the custom of secular marriage which was prevalent within Celtic society and allowed for polygamy, concubinage and divorce outside the canon law of the Catholic Church. Highland Chiefs would exchange their daughters for a year and a day and lived in concubinage to beget as many sons as possible thus proving their virility and strength and keeping their hold on the leadership role. This was common to all Highland Clans for hundreds of years but the Donalds, being one of the first and oldest clans, had a head-start on the others. The beginning of the Donald downfall in the 1400’s began when a Donald’s wife (who was a Campbell, of course) kept his son captive when he died thus throwing the clan into internal war.

  6. Blouise,
    My wife’s hobby was genealogy. I became a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in the early 1990s, and got all the volumes of the Proceedings. At any rate, we calculated oldest daughters kids (she married a Gordon) could legitimately lay claim to seventeen different clan tartans.

    My son married a red-headed MacCullough lass. We are still working on that bloodline, but new grandson is a redhead with blue-grey eyes.

  7. Mike Spindell says:

    Chuck and Blouise,

    By all accounts William III, William of Orange, had some progressive tendency’s and indeed. James II was somewhat less progressive and wanted to realign England with Catholicism. To me this illustrates the fact that the idea of Monarchy in any form, even benign, is a system that leads to such horrific corruption, because giving any one person such power usually winds up badly. Getting to know you two through the years has awakened my interest in the history of Scotland because of the tales you have told and the insights on the culture you’ve provided. Then too, I do love the music that highlands history has produced and like my own people the Scots have been historic, yet valiant, underdogs. Also there is late night TV’s Craig Ferguson, who is a comic genius and multifaceted entertainer and through Craig’s show I’ve been introduced to the superb Billy Connolly. As a Sci-Fi fan, in my opinion the best Sci-Fi literature of the past 20 years has come from Scots like Iain M. Banks, Charles Stross and Richard K. Morgan. These three men are truly visionaries with incredible imaginations and superb literary skills. So I admit that your influence has made me “Scotophillac” because the depth of their culture is far beyond the age old stereotypes of the Scottish people.

    There will be a vote soon on Scottish independence from Great Britain and I’m curious as to your feelings about this. For my part it would seem to be a no-brainer for Scotland to go it alone and perhaps an opportunity for its people to finally control their own destinies. However, I’m curious as to your feelings about the detachment of Scotland from Great Britain.

  8. Mike,
    I am taking the lead of our Chieftain, Danus Skene of Skene, who ran for the first Scottish Parlament, but did not win a seat. Danus points out that Scotland is a vibrant country, that wants to go its own way. They have been trying to do that since the time of Edward I, and even before. Here is his own statement to the press, with his photo.

    Danus is a friend, and he has a wonderful family. I came very close to becoming an expat twenty years ago. When the historic Skene castle came on the market in the early 1990s, Danus and I talked about buying it and turning it into an academy for gifted girls. The selling price was £200,000. That was a bargain, considering the price of property these days. That price included 23 acres of prime land, with gardens and room for sports facilities such as a soccer field and tennis courts. At the exchange rate at that time, £200K converted to $350,000 USD. BTW, Danus collects University degrees like some people collect stamps. His real day job and training is as an educator and school administrator. His wife is a speech therapist. We had all kinds of plans in the works to float a loan and buy it. Certainly doable at that price. So, Danus went to take a tour of the place, which is located 19km (12 miles) due west of Aberdeen, Scotland. He called me in distress. He said the wiring had to be seen to be believed, and the plumbing was lead pipes which would have to go. The interior had gone to a state of semi-ruin, since no one had lived there since shortly after the great architect John William Simpson built the added living quarters in 1880. Construction on the original keep was started in 1217 and finished about 1313. Repairs and updating would cost in the neighborhood of $2 million USD.

    It was sold to a member of the clan; a well-to-do plastic surgeon from Aberdeen bought it. His surname (Rennie) is one of the septs of the clan, so it has come full circle. Picture at the link:

  9. The UK has more than one National Anthem, the most used being “God Save the Queen” (or King), and the tune is the same as the US patriotic song, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Another of England’s anthems is “Land of Hope and Glory,” which was composed by Edward Elgar, with words by the poet A. C. Benson, written in 1902.

    In Scotland, the traditional anthem has been “Scotland the Brave.” In 1969, the young folk singer Roy Williamson of The Corries (featured at the top of this story) composed a tune he called, “Flower of Scotland.” The “flowers” theme is a reprise of the theme, “Flowers of the Forest,” a lament written by a member of our own Clan Skene shortly after the horrific Battle of Flodden Field in 1513. The history of that tune is a story in and of itself. The “flowers” are those brave Scottish warriors who fought for freedom and Scottish independence.

    Roy Williamson, and his partner Ronnie Browne, were The Corries until Roy succumbed to cancer in 1990 at the age of 54. His tune, “Flower of Scotland,” has become the more or less official national anthem of Scotland. The lyrics are a combination historic account and political speech. There is some dispute about which Edward the song refers to; Edward I, or Edward II. William Wallace (Braveheart) fought Edward I, but his defiance of the English Crown cost him his life when he was tortured and murdered by Edward I, sometimes called “The Hammer of Scotland.” Edward I died not long after that, and his son, Edward II became King. Robert the Bruce took command of the rebellious Scottish militia upon the death of Wallace. Many are of the opinion the song refers to the Battle of Bannockburn in June 1314. If that’s the case, the reference to “proud Edward” in the song is Edward II, the son of Edward I. Later, a victorious Robert the Bruce said, “It was easier to take a country from the son than a yard of soil from the father.” The Battle of Bannockburn is another story worth telling. More of a rout than a victory, the likes of which was not seen again until Desert Storm in 1991.

    Here are the Corries singing “Flower of Scotland.” Roy Williamson is the featured singer, with silver-haired Ronnie Brown backing him up. I wish Roy had lived to see his simple folk tune adopted as the national anthem of his beloved Scotland.

  10. Mike Spindell says:

    Thanks Chuck,

    I hope those on Danus’ side will prevail, just as Ireland did without the violence. Great Britain and the English, while doing some things right, have not distinguished themselves through the years with their treatment of their conquered territories.

  11. Blouise says:


    Chuck and I kind of stumbled upon each others Scot’s heritage and have thoroughly enjoyed exchanging tales and stories. Like so many other peoples, Scotsmen are full of contradictions manifested down through the ages but one thing remains constant … a fierce sense of independence both as a group and as an individual. We have very few “identity” problems. 😉

  12. Just to give you guys an idea what we missed out on, here are some photos of the castle with a bit of history included. Both Danus and I were just sick when he discovered how much it would cost to restore it and bring it up to safety codes. The interior photos were taken in 1999 during the restoration by Dr. and Mrs. Rennie. One or two of the photos shows the poor condition of the wall covering and paint in the unrestored part.

    I am told they are not open for just any visitor who wants a tour, but do have a rental lodging in a detached cottage.

  13. Mike Spindell says:


    You know how much I respect your mind, but after seeing those pictures I think that you wouldn’t be someone I’d go to for real estate advice. 🙂

    “but one thing remains constant … a fierce sense of independence both as a group and as an individual. We have very few “identity” problems.”


    That is a human trait to be admired.

  14. swarthmoremom says:

    Blouise, My brother in law is Scotch. His parents were born there. I have some Scotch in my backround and the name of the person is William Campbell. born in Scotland in 1602 🙂

  15. Blouise says:


    Off with your head!!!

  16. Blouise says:


    You know how much I respect your mind, but after seeing those pictures I think that you wouldn’t be someone I’d go to for real estate advice. 🙂 ” (Mike S.)

    Sure you would if you were planning to take the castle by force.

  17. Mike Spindell says:


    But of course, that would be picking his brains as a weaponry expert. 🙂

  18. Mike,
    Some of the highland games events are based on getting to the top of a wall, or over it. For example, the caber. A caber is a tree trunk that has been stripped of its branches and bark. Some have been sanded and polished. The idea is to take a twenty foot long pole that weighs upwards of 140 pounds and flip it so that it lands straight ahead. The event is often called, mistakenly, “tossing” the caber. The correct phrasing is “turning the caber.” The perfect throw is for it to land on its “top” end, then fall forward, coming to rest at the perfect 12:00 position. Points are deducted for every degree off dead center 12:00. If it does not turn and falls backward, that is a fail and no points.

    This is a 147 pound caber, with almost no taper. No taper adds to the difficulty. This landing is the 12:30 position, which is a good but not perfect throw. This is not an event for weenies. What’s the purpose? Imagine you and a few hundred of your buddies want to scale a parapet. Cut down a few medium sized trees, then flip them so they lean against the wall. Barefoot men shinny up them to the top.

    One of the other events in highland games competitions is the pole vault. Hmmmm….now what purpose could a pole vault serve in an assault on a castle?

  19. Mike Spindell says:

    I may be a Jewish guy from the big city, but I’ve known about caber tossing for years. The only problem with pole vaulting onto the battlements is that you might get the burning naptha thrown in your face. I’m into long distance assaults which is why I’ve always liked sling trebuchet’s sobriquet. Surround the place and starve them out appeals to me as well. 🙂

  20. Blouise says:


    I was always taught that the caber toss was most often used for crossing streams (usually full of very cold water) which are numerous in the Highlands … a bridge if you will that one then picks up and takes with. Once again accuracy is the goal, not distance, so that the caber ‘bridges’ the stream rather than landing in it … the small end of the caber needs to land at the 12 o’clock position, straight out from the thrower then fall directly across the stream allowing clansmen to chase the enemy or run from the enemy.

  21. pete says:

    February 13, 1692

    that may explain why the Scottish part of my family came to america in 1706. they are Grahams. (my brother did the research)

  22. Blouise,
    I have heard that too, but it seems that turning a caber can have all kinds of uses. Think how it would work on a bunch of soccer hooligans.

  23. Blouise says:


    Better yet … rugby players 😉

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