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February 1st 1692

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Robert Campbell and the Glencoe massacre

When Robert Campbell inherited Meggernie Castle, in Glenlyon, from his father he set about improving it in the most lavish fashion. He roofed it with slates instead of thatch, he enlarged it very substantially and in the process created one of the stately homes of Perthshire. He also succeeded in bankrupting himself. Though he borrowed from his friends, his relatives and his tenants, he still could not meet his debts.

In a last despairing effort he sold all the woods of Glenlyon which were part of the old Caledonian forest. Workmen arrived from the south, the trees were felled and the logs sent floating down the Lyon, choking the river, causing widespread flooding and ruining the fishing. Even the trees left uncut were burned by the workmen so that all that was left was bare hillside.

But Robert Campbell was still unable to satisfy his creditors. His own tenants offered him half their cattle to pay off his debts but he refused and sold almost all of the estate to the Earl of Tullibardine in1684. All that he retained was Chesthill, a few miles from Fortingall, which belonged to his wife. In a last desperate effort to support his wife and family Robert Campbell at the age of fifty nine joined the Argyll Regiment of Foot and came to play his part in the Glencoe massacre.

The Government, after the rising of 1689, decided that all the clan chiefs should be required to take an oath of loyalty to King William before January 1st 1689. It was not something that many of them were particularly happy to do and they sent a messenger to France asking the exiled King James’ permission to change their oath of allegiance. The messenger only came back to Dunkeld on December 23rd, and it was December 29th before he reached McDonald of Glencoe.

Unfortunately McDonald went to Inverlochy to register his allegiance instead of Inverary. It was sixty miles to Inverary, it was snowing heavily and it was January 5th before he reached there. Even so, his deed was registered by the Sheriff and sent to Edinburgh together with a letter from Colonel Hill of Inverlochy explaining the reasons for the delay. But the document was declared illegal and McDonald’s name was not added to the list of those who had signed the Oath of Allegiance.

Glengarry was also late with his Deed and was the subject of a revealing letter from the King to Colonel Hill dated January 16th 1692. “We do allow you to receive the submission of Glengarry and those with him upon their taking the Oath of Allegiance…If McEan (McDonald) of Glencoe and that tribe can well be separated from the rest, it will be a proper vindication of public justice to extirpate that sect of thieves.” 

On February 1st, men of the Argyll Regiment under the leadership of Robert Campbell were marched to Glencoe and billeted upon the people of the village. They were received with typical Highland hospitality for there was no reason to suppose that their mission was anything but friendly. Robert Campbell himself spent much of the time with McDonald’s two sons, one of whom was married to his own step-sister.

Then on February 12th, he received a message from Major Duncanson. “You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebells, the McDonalds of Glenco, and put al to the sword under seventy. You are to have a special care that the old fox and his sones doe upon no account escape your hands. You are to secure all the avenues that no man escape. This you are to putt in executione at fyve of the clock precisely; and by that time or very shortly after it I’ll strive to be at you with a stronger party. This is by the King’s special command, for the good and safety of the Country, that these miscreants be cutt off root and branch. See that this be put in executione without feud or favour, else you may expect to be dealt with as one not true to King or Government, nor a man fit to carry Commissions in the King’s service. Expecting that you will not faill in the fulfilling hereof, as you love yourself, I subscribe these with my hand att Balichelis February 12th 1692. Ro Duncanson.” 

The instructions were chillingly precise. Yet out of more than two hundred living in the glen only thirty eight were killed. Either Robert Campbell was incompetent or he and his men were less than enthusiastic for their task. There were tales told of soldiers warning families of the approaching massacre by holding strange soliloquies with dogs and cats and even stones. Though the ‘old fox’ was indeed shot dead his two sons escaped with their wives and families.

Besides being ineffectual, the massacre proved to be a monumental blunder and public opinion was such that the Government was forced to hold an inquest into the affair.

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