On this day in 1692 thirty eight men, women and children were murdered in their beds by a detachment of the British army who had been staying with them as guests. How did this deed of eternal infamy come about?
By early 1691 much of the political and military uncertainty of the preceding years had been resolved. The military efforts to restore King James dynasty to the unified throne had met with decisive failure both in Scotland, with the failure of Bonnie Dundee’s rising in 1689 and in Ireland with the defeat of an army led by James himself at the Boyne on 1690.
John Graham of Claverhouse who led the 1st Jacobite Rising
William II & III could now focus on taking the steps required to solidify the position of the House of Orange and ensure that all threat of the Stuart restoration was put to bed once and for all. Thus in early 1691 John Dalrymple, the Master of Stair was appointed Secretary of State of Scotland.
To William, Scotland was an irritating complication and the mostly Jacobite Highlands were a further annoyance. In Stair, William had a loyal servant, understanding of his master’s wishes and prepared to impose whatever repressive policies were necessary to fulfill these.
Stair determined, not unreasonably, given recent historical precedent, that there should be physical evidence of submission to the new regime by any who had taken part in military action against it. It was announced that the Privy Council of Scotland required all clan chiefs to swear an oath of allegiance to William, before a sheriff, or depute, by the end of the year or be treated as traitors.
Once James’ reluctant assent was given each of the chiefs duly swore the oath. The MacIan, chief of the Glencoe MacDonalds, who had been with Dundee throughout that first Jacobite Rising and had performed the full measure of his duty at Killiecrankie, tarried but eventually, in the dying days of 1691, made his way to FortWilliam to perform the task. When he arrived on Hogmanay, it was to discover that the senior officer of the Government garrison was not empowered to take his oath and he would have to travel to Inveraray to do so. Inevitably, he signed the document late. Nonetheless, the oath having been taken he returned to his people in the belief that he had complied with the new king’s demands.
However, his signed oath, forwarded to the Privy Council with due explanation, was refused. So by 11th January, Stair now knew that a single, small clan group had failed to take the oath in the stated time. And a chain of events was put into motion which would lead to an indelible stain on the political record of Stair and on William himself.
Stair concealed from William the fact that the MacIan had taken the oath. William, on the understanding that the Glencoe MacDonald’s had failed to demonstrate the required loyalty to the new order, duly authorized the full measure of retribution.
So the order was passed from the Secretary of State to the Commander of crown forces, thence to Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton in command of the Fort William garrison in Lochaber, and from him to the King’s officer in the field, Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon.
Glenlyon and his 120 redcoat soldiers duly arrived at Glencoe on 1st February, ostensibly an a tax collecting mission and were hospitably received by the MacIan’s people. And at 5 am on the morning of 13th February they rose up against their unsuspecting hosts and began to slaughter them. In the dark and the confusion many escaped leaving Glenlyon with but 38 corpses to show for his night’s work.
Campbell’s Redcoats execute the ‘Extirpation’ order
Treachery and the murder of women and children were not unknown in the highlands of Scotland but this was a deliberate act initiated by a monarch who had publicly given his commitment to the proper establishment of civil rights.
Glenlyon’s men were swiftly marched to Edinburgh and shipped thence to Flanders, far away from any direct questioning on their role in the atrocity. Stair remained entirely unrepentant over his involvement in the action, throughout the remainder of his political career. Happy to have served his master’s wishes and to have reduced in some small measure the possibility of further rebellion.
William II & III. The man ultimately responsible.
For three more years he remained in office despite the tumult of outrage. But in 1695 a Commission of Enquiry was finally conducted into the matter and all blame was apportioned to Stair who was duly removed from his post. In 1700 he was subsequently restored to his government as a member of ther Privy Council for Scotland and was created 1st Earl of Stair in 1703. He was able to play a not inconsiderable role in the fulfilling his now dead master’s ambition with the achievement of the abhorrence of Parliamantary Union in 1707.