Massacre of Glencoe anniversary: The massacre of Clan MacDonald and the alcoholic gambler who led the atrocity on February 13, 1692

Today is the anniversary of the Massacre of Glencoe – when 38 men, women and children were killed in a state-ordered attack on the MacDonald clan on February 13, 1692. Catriona Davidson, curator at the Glencoe Folk Museum, looks at the man who commanded one of the darkest days in Scotland’s history.

Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon has gone down in history as the man responsible for the Massacre of Glencoe, considered one of the most atrocious acts of treachery to take place on Scottish soil.

His life before this was no less wretched; an alcoholic and a gambler, he spent most of his life in debt and poverty despite being born to relatively high estate. He was eventually forced to sell off his ancestral lands at Glenlyon and joined the army – at the age of 59 – in one last desperate attempt to provide for his wife and family.

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The Massacre is often wrongly painted as a clan rivalry, a simplistic retelling of history that places the blame squarely at Campbell’s feet. He would have had good reason to hate the MacDonalds of Glencoe. In 1689, while passing through his lands, they stole his livestock and razed his last remaining holdings, exacerbating his financial difficulties and, ironically, forcing him to seek employment in the Earl of Argyll’s Regiment of Foot.

This gorgeous location is famous for being the site of the Glencoe massacre, a tragedy for Clan MacdonaldThis gorgeous location is famous for being the site of the Glencoe massacre, a tragedy for Clan Macdonald
This gorgeous location is famous for being the site of the Glencoe massacre, a tragedy for Clan Macdonald

His character is difficult to pin down. Some accounts suggest his very presence in Glencoe should have alerted the clansmen to imminent danger as his heart was "black as peat", while others state he held no grudges – lacing no blame on the MacDonalds when claiming compensation for the aforementioned raid – and saw himself as 'kin' to the clan, his niece being married to the Chief MacIain's younger son Sandy.

Whatever his nature, when he arrived in Glencoe on February 1, 1692 with papers demanding bed and board from the MacDonalds, he was unaware of his real reason for being there. The order for the Massacre came through late on February 12, and threatened to treat Campbell as “not true to King nor government” if he did not act as directed – i.e. he would be tried for treason, the punishment for which was death.

There is no denying Campbell’s acts following the order were a grave betrayal of trust and shocking breach of Highland hospitality. However, some accounts of the massacre report Campbell’s decision to begin the slaughter with gunfire was deliberately designed to give as much forewarning to the MacDonalds as possible, and that he actually assisted in the escape of two young men.

If this is true, it must have been to his eternal shame that, after nearly a fortnight of living under the same roof as the MacDonalds and sharing their table, he did not throw down his sword and refuse the order as some of his soldiers did.

The Glenlyon Boot

This boot is one of a number of artefacts belonging to Robert Campbell which were discovered in a room in Glenlyon House.

There was a mystery surrounding a window, which could be seen from outside, yet didn’t correspond to any rooms on the inside. Intrigued, the occupants eventually discovered that a room had been blocked off some years previously.

When the false wall was removed and the doorway opened, the contents were revealed – the belongings of the notorious Campbell deemed responsible for the Massacre of the MacDonalds of Glencoe. It is believed Robert Campbell had been staying at Glenlyon House and had left some of his things behind there when he died, penniless, in Bruges in 1696.

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The then-owners of Glenlyon House no longer wished to have anything to do with this now infamous Campbell, so they had the room boarded up with everything inside and never mentioned his name again.

Upon discovering the ‘hidden room’ some years later, the occupants of Glenlyon House allowed the staff of the house to divide all of Campbell’s belongings between themselves. A charwoman (cleaner) from the McGregors of Balnald and her companion chose to take a boot each. Robert Campbell’s boot was kept by the McGregors for a number of years, displayed in a cabinet along with the glass jars of leather care substance, before being donated to the museum in 2015.

And before that – well, as a riding boot it may well have borne witness to the Massacre of Glencoe.



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