Glen Coe

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

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Glencoe (Gael. gleann-cumhann, 'narrow vale'), a desolate defile in Lismore and Appin parish, N Argyllshire, commencing at a 'col' (1011 feet) that parts it from Glenetive and the basin of the Tay, and thence descending 7 ½ miles west-by-northward to salt-water Loch Leven at Invercoe, 1 ¾ mile ENE of Ballachulish. It is traversed from head to foot by the turbulent Coe, the 'Cona' of Ossian, which midway expands into sullen Loch Triochatan (3 x 2 furl.; 235 feet); and it takes up a road leading 17 miles east-by-southward from Ballachulish Pier to Kingshouse Inn. As one ascends this road, on the left stand Sgor na Ciche or the Pap of Glencoe (2430 feet), Sgor nam Fiannaidh (3168), and Meall Dearg (3118); on the right Meall Mor (2215), Benveedan (3766), and Buachaille-EtiveBheag (3129) - porphyritic, conical mountains that rise 'on either side nearly as abruptly as the peaks of the Alps burst out of the coating of snow. There is a narrow strip of grazing ground in the main glen, watered by the Cona; there are a few, still narrower, scattered here and there in the upper levels, whence start the scaurs and mural precipices.' Of many descriptions of Glencoe, none is so fine and graphic as that in Dorothy Wordsworth's Journal, under date 3 Sept. 1803: . 'The impression was, as we advanced up to the head of this first reach, as if the glen were nothing, its loneliness and retirement - as if it made up no part of my feeling: the mountains were all in all. That which fronted us - I have forgotten its name - was exceedingly lofty, the surface stony, nay, the whole mountain was one mass of stone, wrinkled and puckered up together. At the second and last reach - for it is not a winding vale-it makes a quick turning almost at right angles to the first; and now we are in the depths of the mountains; no trees in the glen, only green pasturage for sheep, and here and there a plot of hay-ground, and something that tells of former cultivation. I observed this to the guide, who said that formerly the glen had had many inhabitants, and that there, as elsewhere in the Highlands, there had been a great deal of corn where now the lands were left waste, and nothing fed upon them but cattle. I cannot attempt to describe the mountains. I can only say that I thought those on our right - for the other side was only a continued high ridge or craggy barrier, broken along the top into petty spiral forms - were the grandest I had ever seen. It seldom happens that mountains in a very clear air look exceedingly high, but these, though we could see the whole of them to their very summits, appeared to me more majestic in their own nakedness than our imaginations could have conceived them to be, had they been half hidden by clouds, yet showing some of their highest pinnacles. They were such forms as Milton might be supposed to have had in his mind when he applied to Satan that sublime expression—

"His stature reached the sky."

The first division of the glen, as I have said, was scattered over with rocks, trees, and woody hillocks, and cottages were to be seen here and there. The second division is bare and stony, huge mountains on all sides, with a slender pasturage in the bottom of the valley ; and towards the head of it is a small lake or tarn, and near the tarn a single inhabited dwelling, and some unfenced hay-ground - a simple impressive scene! Our road frequently crossed large streams of stones, left by the mountain-torrents, losing all appearance of a road. After we had passed the tarn the glen became less interesting, or rather the mountains, from the manner in which they are looked at; but again, a little higher up, they resume their grandeur. The river is, for a short space, hidden between steep rocks: we left the road, and, going to the top of one of the rocks, saw it foaming over stones, or lodged in dark black dens; birch-trees grew on the inaccessible banks, and a few old Scotch firs towered above them. At the entrance of the glen the mountains had been all without trees, but here the birches climb very far up the side of one of them opposite to us, half concealing a rivulet, which came tumbling down as white as snow from the very top of the mountain. Leaving the rock, we ascended a hill which terminated the glen. We often stopped to look behind at the majestic company of mountains we had left. Before us was no single paramount eminence, but a mountain waste, mountain beyond mountain, and a barren hollow or basin into which we were descending. . . . At Kingshouse, in comparing the impressions we had received at Glencoe, we found that though the expectations of both had been far surpassed by the grandeur of the mountains, we had upon the whole both been disappointed, and from the same cause ; we had been prepared for images of terror, had expected a deep, den-like valley with overhanging rocks, such as William has described in his lines upon the Alps. The place had nothing of this character, the glen being open to the eye of day, the mountains retiring in independent majesty. Even in the upper part of it, where the stream rushed through the rocky chasm, it was but a deep trench in the vale, not the vale itself, and could only be seen when we were close to it.'

Glencoe has been claimed for Ossian's birthplace; but its chief, everlasting fame arises from the massacre of 13 Feb. 1692. To break the power of the Jacobite Highlanders, a plan was concerted between John Campbell, Earl of Breadalbane, and Sir John Dalrymple, Master of Stair - a Highland chieftain the one, a Lowland statesman the other. The Earl obtained £20, 00 from government to bribe the allegiance of the chiefs, while a proclamation was issued by the Privy Council declaring all to be traitors who did not take the oath to William and Mary on or before 31 Dec. 1691. Not till that very day did old Macdonald of Glencoe, surnamed Mac Ian, repair with his principal clansmen to Fort William and offer to be sworn. At Fort William, however, there was no magistrate; the sheriff of Argyllshire at Inverary was the nearest ; and this caused a further delay of six days. The roll was then sent into Edinburgh, with a certificate explaining the circumstances of the case; but that certificate was suppressed, and Glencoe's name deleted from the roll. Stair was the man that did this hateful deed, and Stair it was who straightway procured the signature of William to an order 'to extirpate that sect of thieves.'

On 1 Feb. 120 soldiers, Campbells mostly, and under the command of Captain Campbell of Glenlyon, were approaching Glencoe, when they were met by John Macdonald, the elder son of the chief, at the head of some 20 men. To his question as to the reason of this incursion of a military force into a peaceful country, Glenlyon answered that they came as friends, and that their sole object was to obtain suitable quarters, where they could conveniently collect the arrears of cess and hearthmoney, - a new tax laid on by the Scottish parliament in 1690, - in proof of which, Lieutenant Lyndsay produced the instructions of Colonel Hill to that effect. They thereupon received a hearty welcome, and were hospitably entertained by Glencoe and his people till the fatal morning of the massacre. Indeed, so familiar was Glenlyon, that scarcely a day passed that he did not visit the house of Alexander Macdonald, the younger son of the chief, who was married to Glenlyon's niece, the sister of Rob Roy, and take his morning dram, agreeably to the most approved practice of Highland hospitality.

In pursuance of fresh instructions from Dalrymple, on 12 Feb. Lieut. -Col. Hamilton received orders forthwith to execute the fatal commission. Accordingly, on the same day, he directed Major Robert Duncanson of Argyll's regiment to proceed immediately with a detachment of that regiment to Glencor so as to reach the post which had been assigned him by five o'clock the following morning, at which hour Hamilton promised to reach another post with a party of Hill's regiment. Whether Duncanson, who appears to have been a Campbell, was averse to take an active personal part in the bloody tragedy about to be enacted, is a question that cannot now be solved; but it may have been from some repugnance to act in person that immediately on receipt of Hamilton's order, he despatched another order from himself to Captain Campbell of Glenlyon, then living in Glencoe, with instructions to fall upon the Macdonalds precisely at five o'clock the following morning, and put all to the sword under seventy years of age.

Glenlyon himself appears to have been a man equal to any kind of loathsome work, especially against a Macdonald. With this sanguinary order in his pocket, and with his mind made up to execute it rigorously, he did not hesitate to spend the eve of the massacre playing at cards with John and Alexander Macdonald, the sons of the chief, to wish them good night at parting, and to accept an invitation from Glencoe himself to dine with him the following day. Little suspecting the intended butchery, Glencoe and his sons retired to rest at their usual hour; but early in the morning, while the preparations for the intended massacre were going on, John Macdonald, the elder son of the chief, hearing the sound of voices about his house, grew alarmed, and jumping out of bed threw on his clothes and went to Inverriggen, where Glenlyon was quartered, to ascertain the cause of the unusual bustle which had interrupted his nocturnal slumbers. To his great surprise he found the soldiers all in motion, as if preparing for some enterprise, which induced him to inquire of Glenlyon the object of these extraordinary preparations at such an early hour. Glenlyon endeavoured by professions of friendship to lull his suspicions, and pretended that his sole design was to march against some of Glengarry's men. As John Macdonald, the younger son of Glencoe, was married to Glenlyon's niece, that crafty knave referred to his connection with the family, and put it to the young man, whether, if he intended anything hostile to the clan, he would not have provided for the safety of his niece and her husband. Macdonald, apparently satisfied with this explanation, returned home and retired again to rest, but h e had not been long in bed when his servant informed him of the approach of a party of men. Jumping out of bed he ran to the door, and perceiving a body of 20 soldiers with muskets and fixed bayonets coming in the direction of his house, he fled to a neighbouring hill, where he was joined by his brother Alexander, who had escaped from the scene of carnage, after being wakened from sleep by his servant.

The massacre commenced about five o'clock in the morning at three different places at once. Glenlyon undertook to butcher his own hospitable landlord and the other inhabitants of Inverriggen; where he and a party of his men were quartered, and despatched Lieutenant Lyndsay with another party of soldiers to Glencoe's house to cut off the unsuspecting chief. Under pretence of a friendly visit, he and his party obtained admission. Glencoe was in bed, and while in the act of rising to receive his visitors, was shot through the head by two of the soldiers. His wife was already up and dressed, but the ruffians stripped her naked, tore the rings off her fingers with their teeth, and so maltreated her that she died the following day. The party also killed two men whom they found in the house, and wounded a third named Duncan Don, who came occasionally to Glencoe with letters from Braemar.

While the butchery was going on in Glencoe's house, Glenlyon was busy with his bloody work at Inverriggen, where his own host was shot by his order. Here the party seized nine men, whom they first bound hand and foot, and then shot one by one. Glenlyon was desirous of saving the life of a young man twenty years old, but Captain Drummond shot him dead. He too it was that, impelled by a thirst for blood, ran his dagger through the body of a boy who had grasped Glenlyon by the legs and was imploring mercy.

A third party under the command of Sergeant Barbour, which was quartered in the hamlet of Auchnaion, fired on a body of nine men whom they observed in a house in the village sitting before a fire. Among these was the laird of Auchintriaten, who was killed on the spot, along with four more of the party. This gentleman had at the time a protection in his pocket from Colonel Hill, which he had received three months before. The rest of the party, two or three of them wounded, escaped by the back of the house, with the exception of a brother of Auchintriaten, who, having been seized by Barbour, asked as a favour to be killed in the open air. The sergeant consented, on account of having shared his generous hospitality; but when brought out he threw his plaid, which he had kept loose, over the faces of the soldiers who were appointed to shoot him, and in a moment was lost in the darkness.

Besides the slaughter at these three places, there were persons dragged from their beds and murdered in other parts of the Glen, among them an old man eighty years of age. In all, 38 were slaughtered. The whole male population under 70 years of age, amounting to 200, would in all likelihood have been cut off, if, fortunately for them, the party of 400 men under Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton, who was principally charged with the execution of the sanguinary warrant, had not been prevented by the severity of the weather from reaching the Glen till eleven o'clock, six hours after the massacre, by which time the whole surviving male inhabitants, warned of their danger and of the fate of their chief and other sufferers, had fled to the hills. Ignorant of this latter circumstance, Hamilton, on arriving at the pass, appointed several parties to proceed to different parts of the Glen, with orders to take no prisoners, but to kill all the men that came in their way. They had not, however, proceeded far when they fell in with Major Duncanson's party, who informed them of the events of the morning, and told them that as the survivors had escaped to the hills, they had nothing to do but to burn the houses, and carry off the cattle. They accordingly set fire to the houses, and having collected the cattle and effects in the Glen, carried them to Inverlochy, where they were divided among the officers of the garrison. That Hamilton would have executed his commission to the very letter, is evident from the fact, that an old man, above seventy, the only remaining male inhabitant of the desolate vale they fell in with, was by his orders put to death.

After the destruction of the houses, a heartrending scene ensued. Aged matrons, women with child, and mothers with babies at their breast and children toddling after them, might be seen wending their way, halfnaked, towards the mountains in quest of some friendly hovel, beneath whose roof they might seek shelter from the pitiless tempest and deplore their unhappy fate. But as there were no houses within the distance of several miles, and as these could only be reached by crossing mountains deeply covered with snow, a great number of these unhappy beings, overcome by cold, fatigue, and hunger, dropped down and perished miserably in the snow.

The tale of perfidy and blood excited widespread indignation. A parliamentary inquiry was only averted by the nomination of a royal commission, which found (1695) that William's instructions 'offered no warrant for the measure.' Stair was severely censured, but was left to be dealt with by the king, who was addressed to prosecute Glenlyon, Major Duncanson, Captain Drummond, etc., then in Flanders. And so the affair ended.

Glencoe gives name to a post office, with money order, savings' bank, and telegraph departments, an Established chapel of ease, St Mary's Episcopal Church (1880;250 sittings), and St Mun's Roman Catholic (1836;100 sittings). Invercoe House, on the Coe's right bank, immediately above its mouth, is the seat of Archibald Burns-Macdonald, Esq. of Glencoe (b. 1829), who holds 6305 acres in the shire, valued at £715 per annum. Pop. of registration district of Ballachulish and Glencoe (l861) 1324, (1871) 1529, (1881) 1444, of whom 1363 were Gaelic-speaking.—Ord. Sur., sh. 53, 1877. See pp. 170-179 of Dorothy Wordsworth's Tour in Scotland (ed. by Princ. Shairp, 1874); chap. xviii. of Lord Macaulay's History of England (1855); and vol. vii., pp. 394-413, of Dr Hill Burton's History of Scotland (ed. 1876).

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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