Who ordered the Massacre of Glencoe?

He is known as the “Curse of Scotland” for his part in the Glencoe Massacre which took place on this day in 1692.
The role of John Dalrymple, 1st Earl of Stair (right), in the Glencoe Massacre led him to be known as the 'Curse of Scotland'. PIC: Creative Commons.The role of John Dalrymple, 1st Earl of Stair (right), in the Glencoe Massacre led him to be known as the 'Curse of Scotland'. PIC: Creative Commons.
The role of John Dalrymple, 1st Earl of Stair (right), in the Glencoe Massacre led him to be known as the 'Curse of Scotland'. PIC: Creative Commons.

The killing of 38 members of the MacDonald clan by government troops, led by Robert Campbell of Glen Lyon, is one of the darkest episodes in the turbulent history of the Highlands

The role of John Dalrymple, 1st Earl of Stair, a shrewd political operator who helped secure King William II and his wife Mary on the throne, went largely unpunished.

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Dalrymple’s family crest is said to resemble the nine of diamonds playing card, with the card sometimes called the Curse of Scotland.

His role in the Glencoe Massacre helped forge the bitter association.

Victims of the atrocity were killed at daybreak on a freezing winter’s morning by soldiers who had enjoyed 12 nights of MacDonald generosity in the glen.

It was deemed an outrageous affront to both the rule of law as well as the Highland code of hospitality and caused uproar across the country.

But the multiple deaths - a further 40 perished in the snow after their homes were set on fire - were the result of far more than the inter-clan warfare of the Campbells and the MacDonalds.

The attack had been planned at the very highest level of the state.

Dalrymple was appointed Secretary of State of Scotland during the reign of William II and had virtual control of his affairs north of the border.

Dalrymple, of Ayrshire, a former Lord Advocate, quickly acted upon his disdain for the Highland clans who broadly retained support for deposed James VII, the brother-in-law of the new king.

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Rebel clan chiefs were called to a summit at the ruins of Achallader Castle in June 1691 with the Earl of Breadlebane, Lord Treasurer of Scotland, who was also a member of Clan Campbell, leading negotiations.

Breadlebane, known as “Slippery John” for his double dealings, promised a royal pardon and £12,000 to the clan chiefs involved in the recent Jacobite win at Killiecrankie in return of an oath of allegiance to King William - to be signed by January 1 1692.

The Highland Jacobites sought counsel from France and a form of peace briefly settled as clansmen waited a response.

However, Dalrymple took issue with the pace of progress and King William issued a proclamation to the clan leaders - pledge your allegiance or be answerable at your “highest peril”.

On December 30, Alistair McIain of Glencoe - head of a sept of Clan Donald - was crossing the north in deep wintry conditions in order to sign the pledge.

Mistakenly, he went to Fort William and then was sent on to Inverary, a Campbell stronghold three days away ,to pledge his allegiance to the King via the sheriff. He missed the deadline by six days.

Despite assurances at Fort William that McIain would be protected, word was delivered to Dalrymple at his office in Kensington Palace by Archibald, 10th Earl of Argyll, Chief of Clan Campbell, that MacIain’s certificate was void.

Some believe that Archibald’s cousin, the Earl of Breadlebane encouraged the position that MacIain’s pledge was irregular given the opportunity it opened up for Clan Campbell to seek revenge on the MacDonalds.

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Other historians have disregarded this. Whoever was pulling the strings, Dalrymple had found his target - and could barely contain his delight.

He added in to the letter he had been writing at the time: “Just now, my Lord Argyll tells me that Glencoe hath not taken the oaths, at which I rejoice.

“It’s a great work of charity to be exact in rooting out the damnable sept, the worst in all the Highlands.”

The massacre was launched on February 13 1692 after the King ordered Captain Robert Campbell of Glen Lyon to attack his hosts and “put all to the sword under seventy”.

Instructing that the attack be carried out at 5am, the order added: “This is by the Kings special command, for the good & safety of the Country, that these miscreants be cutt off root and branch”.

The Campbell’s have long been vilified for their role in the massacre. But accounts exist that a number of Campbell’s tried to warn the MacDonald’s of an impending horror and urged them to flee.

Fugitives were helped at Castle Stalker, a safe place for Clan Campbell, according to tradition.

Muster rolls also show that Campbells made up a minority the government-backed troops dispatched to Glencoe.

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Public outcry led to a parliamentary commission which found events to be a “murder under trust” with Dalrymple then forced to resign.

But it wasn’t long before he was back in government.

By 1700 his reputation had been rehabilitated. He was appointed as a member of the Privy Council of Scotland and lobbied hard for the Act of Union in 1707.

It was from around that time, that people started to refer to a new name for the nine of diamonds.