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Clich Here Larger Image and Coat of Arms Major Duncanson

Crest badge of Maj. Robert Duncanson Argyll's Foot 1692

Major Robert Duncanson, Argylls'Foot

(The Massacre of Glencoe)

By John Duncan of Sketraw, FSA Scot


The Massacre of Glencoe. That there was brutal cruelty and a breach of every kind of rule about Highland hospitality is not in any doubt. That it was the settling of an ancient score by the Campbell's against their sworn enemies the Macdonald's is total fiction. The real culprit for the events of late 1691/early 1692 is an "honour" shared by uncle and nephew. In London, William III decided to use a soldierís style of brutal example to reel in the rebel Highlanders. In Paris, James II was too preoccupied with his mistresses and other vices. William had issued an Offer of Pardon and Immunity to all Highland Chiefs taking an oath of allegiance to him by 1st January 1692, William being in Flanders at the time. James too so long to decide to permit the Chiefs to relinquish their oaths to him that his messenger Duncan Menzies of Fornooth only  arrived  back in  Edinburgh  on 21st December. That only one chief hadn't been able to hear the permission and make his oath within ten days is a miracle. Historians rarely blame James for what happened, they should.

That MacIain of Glencoe was some sort of bandit is not entirely true. That he was hated by the Campbells is definitely not true. One Campbell hated him. Sir John Campbell of Glenorchy, also known as Iain Glas and later as 1st Earl of Breadalbane, was power mad and very jealous. He was jealous of the power his cousin, the Duke of Argyll, Chief of Clan Campbell wielded, both at court and in his homelands.


Major Rpber Duncanson, Argylls' Foot


A rare portrait of Maj.R. Duncanson
Painted by
Thomas Murray (1663-1734)
Click Here for Larger Image

On word reaching Argyll that William intended to land, Argyll seized Glasgow and the West of Scotland and declared for William. At the same time his friends like the Earl of Sutherland also acted, in his case seizing Inverness and declaring for William. Breadalbane was outmanoeuvred by his cousin again. He wanted to become the top Campbell dog in the kennel. He also intrigued and became very close to a cunning and ambitious lawyer, Sir John Dalrymple, Master of Stair. Stairís father had returned from exile with William and was created a Viscount. His son wanted more and in 1691 became sole Secretary of State for Scotland, which made him the most powerful man in Scotland, and at his side was Breadalbane. Breadalbane was also jealous of the lands his cousin Argyll controlled and he started eyeing up the lands of others. He wanted to expand his sphere of influence within the western part of Scotland, north of his cousin Argyllís lands and this meant Northwest Perthshire and south west Inverness-shire as well as that fringe of Argyllshire not fully controlled by the Duke.

Bleak Glencoe Scotland  

Glencoe Scotland


There were already several Lairds, Chiefs and Chieftains prominent in that area. The grandest was of course the Great Lochiel, Chief of Clan Cameron. From his base in Achnacarry, he ruled much of what today forms Lochaber District and such was the threat of his strength and power, that the London based Government was to rebuild and garrison the old fort at Maryburgh, now known as Fort William, among a number of other forts in that pat of the western Highlands. Another man of influence though little land was MacGregor of Glengyle. The problem here though was that MacGregorís wife Margaret was Breadalbaneís own first cousin, sister of the next key player, Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon. History has painted Margaret Campbell of Glenlyon not as one of those nasty dastardly Campbells, but as the heroic mother of a heroic son.  Yes Rob  Roy

MacGregor was more Campbell than anything else and through his mother claimed close ties of blood to the two great Campbells, the Earl of Breadalbane and the Duke of Argyll. He was to hide behind his Campbell cousinís veil of protection many times during his adult life, when the going got too tough and he was a wanted man.

A third man of influence in the area was Margaret Campbellís brother, Captain Robert Campbell, 5th Laird of Glenlyon. A poor pale remnant of the man he had once been, drinking and gambling as well as unwise investments, had seen him dissipate his inheritance as a major Chieftain within Clan Campbell and more and more he began to rely on the financial handouts of his "generous" cousin Breadalbane. Never could he have envisaged the effects both on him and his clan, when the "pay-back" came!

The fourth character of major importance here was Alasdair MacDonald, 12th of Glencoe. Known to  history as  "Red Alasdair" or  MacIain, he was the Chieftain of a little, but fiercely proud part of that formerly great Clan MacDonald, Lords of the Isles, who had watched as piece by piece, through Royal intrigue and mistaken judgement, it had been pushed back to the mere fringes of itís former "realms". The main beneficiaries of the MacDonald fall from grace had been, the Campbell Earls of Argyll!

Back to 1692. William of Orange wanted men for his armies and he couldnít risk the Catholic elements in Highland Scotland rising to support his father-in-lawís still active claim for Restoration to the British throne. Although both the Scots and English Parliaments strongly supported William, he wanted something to act as a show of force. Stair and Breadalbane saw this as their chance to strike and gain favour. I have mentioned the Oath and Pardon, which accompanied it. Stair wanted to make an example of someone, regardless of whether the oath was taken by all clans or not. MacIain provided him with his victim. Having failed, through a combination of wrong information and bad advice to take the oath on time, MacIain was sitting like a dead duck in the water, waiting to be shot down. Stair and Breadalbane were ready to strike.

  McLain Graves Glencoe

McLain Graves Glencoe

It is believed that Breadalbane put the idea of the Massacre into Stairís head. Breadalbane was desperate to prove his loyalty since rumours had said, probably correctly, that he had been flirting with The Jacobite cause. Certainly he had entered into talks with the Jacobite chiefs after the failed Risings of 1689.

The first piece of treachery came with the choice of Commander. In December 1645 and June 1646 and again in 1655, the MacDonalds of Glencoe had participated in raids on Breadalbane, raids which both offended the pride and pocket of the Campbell of Glenorchy. However the 1655 raids also took place in Glenlyon. Iain Glas had waited a long time for revenge. What better way than to organise the slaughter of MacIain and his brood. That Glenlyon was a willing participant is highly unlikely. Glenlyon may have had no love of the Glencoe MacDonalds, but he was closely related to them. The fact that Breadalbane was equally closely related seems to have weighed little with him. Breadalbaneís father, Sir John Campbell, 10th Laird of Glenorchy had a sister Jean. She is probably the central figure in this entire story, or rather her marital habits are!

Jean Campbell of Glenorchy was both unlucky in her choice of husband and through those choices, the central figure, as I have said. Her first husband quite naturally came from within her Campbell family. She married Archibald Campbell, Heir to Glenlyon and that marriage produced the ill-fated Captain Robert Campbell, 5th of Glenlyon and his heroic sister, Margaret MacGregor of Glengyle, thus also making her Rob Royís maternal grandmother. Archibald died in 1640 so she moved on to husband number two, Patrick Roy MacGregor of Roro and this took her slap bang into the middle of the Clan her daughter was subsequently also to marry into. She didnít wait long until she was widowed again but still had time for another husband and this time it was Duncan Stewart of Appin, another family which was to play a leading role in the Jacobite saga to follow as anyone who has read Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson will know. I know that was a work of fiction, but the alliances and many of the people referred to did live, but under another identity. Jean Campbell, aunt to Breadalbane, mother of Glenlyon and grandmother of Rob Roy, managed to bear 15 children between her first two husbands but still had time to provide Duncan Stewart, 3rd Laird of Appin with one as well. Their daughter married yet another Campbell, a Campbell of Lochnell and a daughter of that union, Sarah Campbell of Lochnell married Alasdair Og, second son of MacIain of Glencoe. Thus by virtue of her multiple marriages and off-spring, Jean Campbell of Glenorchy made Sarah MacDonald of Glencoe the first cousin once removed of Breadalbane, the niece of Glenlyon and the first cousin of Rob Roy. Confused? You should be!

Major Duncanson order to Cambell of Glenlyon

Duncanson's order to Glenlyon, 12 Feb 1692 - Larger Image  

Duncanson's order to Glenlyon, 12 Feb 1692

Feb. 12, 1692
You are hereby ordered to fall upon the Rebels, the MacDonalds of Glencoe, and put all to the sword under 70. You are to have especial care, that the Old Fox and his Sons do upon no account escape your Hands, you are to secure all the avenues that no man can escape: this you are to put in Execution at five a Clock in the Morning precisely, and by that time or very shortly after it, Iíll strive to be at you with a stronger party. If I do not come at five, you are not to tarry for me but fall on. This is by the Kingís Special command, for the good and safety of the country, that these miscreants may be cut off root and branch. See that this be put in execution without Feud or Favor, else you may expect to be treated as not true to the King or Government nor a man fit to carry Commission in the Kingís Service. Expecting you will not fail in the fulfilling hereof as you love yourself, I subscribed these with my hand.

Signed Robert Duncanson
For Their Majesties Service

To Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon

It is quite clear that at the time Glenlyon led his two Companies of men into Glencoe, he didnít know what was to happen. In December 1691 and January 1692, Breadalbane and Stair wrote via General Sir Thomas Livingstone and Colonel John Hill to Lowland officers Lieutenant-Colonel James Hamilton and Major Robert Duncanson of Fassokie, clearly stating that he wanted the MacDonalds of Glencoe wiped out. Hamilton and Duncanson planned the Massacre. There is no doubt that Breadalbane suggested Glenlyon as the fall guy and given his financial dependence on Breadalbane, Glenlyon had the impossible choice of breaching the Highland code of Hospitality by killing MacIain and his people, including potentially his own niece Sarah, or disobeying a military order and at the same time betraying his duty of allegiance to his cousin and financial backer, Breadalbane. He only received the orders on the 13th February 1692, the day of the Massacre, issued the day before by Duncanson. We all know what decision he took and it ruined both the rest of his life and his clanís name in Scottish history. The unanswered question remains, why were so few murdered and so many escaped? Was it perhaps that neither Glenlyon nor the few Highlanders within his command could really stomach their orders and turned a blind eye to many MacDonalds escaping.

The last myth to be debunked in part one of this tale is the Campbells doing the slaughter. It is recorded that out of 135 men thought to be present and participating in the slaughter, there were 15 Campbells including Glenlyon and the other Campbell officers, hardly a majority or even a large minority. Maybe one day an old document will be discovered in some long abandoned attic somewhere in the Highlands and the recollections of someone present, written all those years ago will come to reveal the real heroes and villains. Until then all we can do is speculate but we must leave the myths and false claims to Hollywood.


Bibliography: A Pageant of History published 1970 by William Collins and Son, Glasgow' Glencoe published 1966 by John Prebble, Rob Roy MacGregor published 1982 by W.H. Murray, Dynasty: the Royal House of Stewart published 1990 by The Royal Galleries of Scotland

Thanks too, Stephen Clarke, Fine Art Agent for the Portrate Image of Maj. Duncanson beleived to be painted by Scottish Artisit Thomas Murray (1663-1734).

Parts by Mark Sutherland-Fisher


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