Cruel is the snow that sweeps Glencoe…


Glencoe, Scotland

by Chuck Stanley

This is the story of a mass murder. A 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 cover-up. Sound familiar?

This is a crime that took place on this date 325 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. He needed English help to fight his 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.

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 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.

When he got there, the news was not good. 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 a 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.

A 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 too eager to punish Maclain. 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, long before the oath deadline. With the plan already in place, the scheming Dalrymple was determined to carry it out.

Dalrymple convinced King William III 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.


Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon

Sometime in late January or early February 1692, about 120 troops under the command of Captain Robert Campbell of G

lenlyon showed up at Glencoe. Many of the troops were from the Campbell of Argyll’s estate, but few of them bore the Campbell name. Captain Campbell was related to Maclain by marriage; therefore, 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 order to go to 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. This is the original order to Campbell:


Captain Robert Campbell’s order from the King to massacre the MacDonalds of Glencoe.

Below is the text of the order:

You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebels, the McDonalds of Glencoe, 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 a direct order from the King. It ordered Campbell and his men to massacre the MacDonalds of Glencoe.

Captain Campbell, as a house guest of Maclain, spent the evening of February 12 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 at all 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 is a terrible crime. The law reads:

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.

In the aftermath, the Massacre at Glencoe became a rallying cry for the Jacobites, much as “Remember the Alamo” or “Remember Pearl Harbor” centuries later. The Jacobite uprising came to a head a little more than a half-century later, culminating with the Battle of Culloden Moor.

The events of that night 325 years ago are still being commemorated in story, art and song. In 1963, composer Jim McLean wrote the ballad about the massacre. One of the most popular versions is by the Scottish folksingers, The Corries. This video was recorded at Glencoe.

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 in the house O’ MacDonald


They came from Fort William with murder in mind,
The Campbell’s 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.
But gone was the house of MacDonald


Words and music by Jim McLean,
Published by Duart Music 1963

Aftermath. Survivors looking for anyone left alive. Also searching for the bodies.

Massacre at Glencoe

Massacre at Glencoe, by James Hamilton, 1886

Glencoe 1692 by John Blake MacDonald

Glencoe 1692, by John Blake MacDonald, ca. 1879


It is now 325 years later. In the Scottish town of Glencoe, the villagers are still hospitable, and it is a  wonderful tourist destination. That is, unless your name is Campbell. If you pull out a credit card with the name Campbell on it, you are likely to be asked to leave without being served.  Memories are long in the Highlands.

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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9 Responses to Cruel is the snow that sweeps Glencoe…

  1. rafflaw says:

    Intriguing story Chuck! I am glad that my name is not Campbell!!😳

    • Thanks, I thought you might find the charge of “Murder under trust” interesting from a legal standpoint. That makes the concept of “hate crime” pale by comparison.

  2. shortfinals says:

    I know some who still pass their glass over a tumbler of water as they take the Loyal Toast…..the Jacobite cause still has its adherents. In the Second Rebellion, Prince Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart (who was later called ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’) made it as far into England as Derby. His Highland scouts had crossed the mile-long Mediaeval Swarkestone Bridge across the floodplain of the River Trent, which marks the geographical boundary between the North and the South. The local nobles were not to be persuaded, however, and the Highland forces wended their sorry way back north, again, to turn and face an English army at Culloden, and meet their fate. The door of the inn where Prince Charles and his advisors stayed is preserved to this day (under glass) in a bank in Derby.

    Here is the sorry tale of ‘Black Friday’

    Full disclosure: I am a proud member of the Clan Stuart

    • Thanks for that bit of historical data. I am composing a story about the Battle of Culloden Moor on the 271th anniversary of the battle in April. As for Derby, the Prince should not have listened to his less than competent advisors. The King had his bags packed, literally, and a barge waiting for him in case he had to flee the country.

      But no, Charlie listened to his advisors, stopped at Derby, and turned back north.

      This story is sounding a bit familiar.

  3. ann summers says:

    so perhaps there’s a connection to the song “The Campbells are Coming” …
    “According to Lewis Winstock[5] the tune accompanied the Scottish loyalist vanguard in the Jacobite war,[2]”

  4. pete says:

    I’ve always heard that there are some parts of Scotland that it’s best not to go if you name is MacDonald. Don’t recall that I’ve ever heard the whole story before though.

    Also in the interest of full disclosure I’m a Graham on my mothers side.

    • I see that James Graham, the 8th Duke of Montrose, is your current “An Greumach Mhor” (Chief of the Grahams).


      Clan Graham, badge of the Chieftain

      • pete says:

        Given the number of “James’s” on that side of the family I’m not surprised. Plus another possible “James” due in August.

        • Congratulations. Keep us posted. Pictures maybe?
          Had a discussion about languages with oldest son this afternoon. He suggested they better start learning languages so they can emigrate to civilized country if necessary. I suggested they learn Gaelic. There are properties for sale relatively cheap in the Hebrides. Not even Trump goes there.

          Mo Ghile Mear (My Dashing Darling) is a great lullaby in Gaelic.

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