Southwest Virginia Campbells

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The Massacre of Glencoe

by Phil Norfleet


As discussed in my monograph entitled Campbell Surname, I believe that the unpopularity of the Campbells among the Scots primarily stems from the Campbell Clan’s consistent support of the English Crown against the forces of Scottish nationalism during the late 17th and early-middle 18th centuries. The Glencoe incident was a particularly notorious example of this support. Accordingly, I believe the massacre at Glencoe should be examined in some detail.


Margaret Hamilton Campbell Pilcher’s View of the Massacre

Mrs. Pilcher attempts to excuse the massacre of the MacDonalds at Glencoe with these words:

"The Campbells should not be so severely censured for this action, as they have been by many writers, especially McCauley [sic] in his History of England. They were officers in the King’s Army, and only carried out his orders." [1]


Lord Macaulay’s Account

Although Mrs. Pilcher considers his account biased, Lord Macaulay has written perhaps the most famous and complete account of the massacre of Glencoe. My own short account of the essentials of the Glencoe incident, given in the following paragraphs, will makes frequent use of Macaulay’s own words as set forth in his monumental work: The History of England from the Accession of James II.


Offer of Amnesty

In 1688, the Protestants William III and Mary II had deposed the Roman Catholic King of Britain, James II. While the English were quite content with these new monarchs, for several years the Highlands of Scotland remained a hotbed of support for the deposed King James II. Finally in 1691, to obtain peace in the Highlands, King William agreed to an amnesty scheme, which had been negotiated with the clan leaders. The scheme included a requirement that all clan chieftains must take an oath of allegiance to William and Mary prior to 1 January 1692.


MacDonald of Glencoe

Although many clan leaders waited until the last few days before the deadline to take this oath, all except one man, MacDonald of Glencoe, successfully swore the oath before the expiration of the deadline. Macaulay tells us that:

" … no Celtic potentate was so impractical as MacDonald of Glencoe, known among the mountains by the hereditary appellation of Mac Ian. … among the Highlanders generally, to rob was thought at least as honorable an employment as to cultivate the soil; and, of all the Highlanders, the MacDonalds of Glencoe had the least productive soil, and the most convenient and secure den of robbers.

" … The authorities at Edinburgh put forth a proclamation [in August 1691] exhorting the clans to submit to King William and Queen Mary, and offering pardon to every rebel whom, on or before the thirty-first of December 1691, should swear to live peaceably under the government of their Majesties. It was announced that those who should hold out after that day would be treated as enemies and traitors. … The thirty-first of December arrived; and still the MacDonalds of Glencoe had not come in. The punctilious pride of Mac Ian was doubtless gratified by the thought that he had continued to defy the government … At length, on the thirty-first of December, he repaired to Fort William, accompanied by his principal vassals, and offered to take the oaths. To his dismay, he found that there was in the fort no person competent to administer them. Colonel Hill, the Governor, was not a magistrate; nor was there any magistrate nearer than Inverary. Mac Ian, now fully sensible of the folly of which he had been guilty in postponing to the very last moment an act on which his life and his estate depended, set off for Inverary in great distress. He carried with him a letter from Hill to the Sheriff of Argylshire, Sir Colin Campbell … it was not till the sixth of January that he presented himself before the Sheriff at Inverary. The Sheriff hesitated. His power, he said, was limited by the terms of the proclamation; and he did not see how he could swear a rebel who had not submitted within the prescribed time. Mac Ian begged earnestly and with tears that he might be sworn. … His entreaties and Hill’s letter overcame Sir Collin’s scruples. The oath was administered, and a certificate was transmitted to the Council at Edinburgh, setting forth the special circumstances which had induced the Sheriff to do what he knew not to be strictly regular." [2]

A sizable faction within the government of King William III firmly believed that the only way to obtain true peace in the Highlands was by the vigorous application of military force against the more recalcitrant clans such as the MacDonalds. At Edinburgh, this faction was led by three men: the Prime Minister for Scotland, Sir John Dalrymple, better known as the "Master of Stair;" Archibald Campbell, the Earl of Argyle; and John Campbell, the Earl of Breadalbane. When these men heard that the MacDonald chief had not taken the oath within the prescribed time, they determined that an example must be made of the MacDonalds.


Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon Ordered to Glencoe

The first action taken was to order a force of Campbells, under the command of a certain Captain Robert Campbell, into Glencoe. The MacDonalds met the Campbells warily, but they were assured that the Campbell troops had come in peace and not in war. For eleven days the Campbells were quartered in the Glencoe valley eating the food and sharing the roofs of the MacDonalds. I now return to the words of Macaulay:

"Meanwhile the Master of Stair was forming, in concert with Breadalbane and Argyle, a plan for the destruction of the people of Glencoe. It was necessary to take the King’s pleasure, not, indeed as to the details of what was to be done, but as to the question whether Mac Ian and his people should or should not be treated as rebels out of the pale of the ordinary law. The Master of Stair found no difficulty in the royal closet. William had, in all probability, never heard of the Glencoe men mentioned except as banditti. He knew they had not come in by the prescribed day. That they had come in after that day he did not know. If he paid any attention to the matter, he must have thought that so fair an opportunity of putting an end to the devastations and depredations from which a quiet and industrious population had suffered so much ought not to be lost.


King William’s Order

"An order was laid before him for signature. He signed it, but if Burnet may be trusted, did not read it. Who ever has seen anything of public business knows that princes and ministers daily sign, and indeed must sign, documents which they have not read; and of all documents a document relating to a small tribe of mountaineers, living in a wilderness not set down in any map, was least likely to interest a Sovereign whose mind was full of schemes on which the fate of Europe might depend. But even on the supposition that he read the order to which he affixed his name, there seems to be no reason for blaming him. That order, directed to the Commander of the Forces in Scotland, runs thus:

‘As for Mac Ian of Glencoe and that tribe, if they can be well distinguished from the other Highlanders, it will be proper for the vindication of public justice, to extirpate that set of thieves.’

"These words naturally bear a sense perfectly innocent, and would, but for the horrible event which followed, have been universally understood in that sense. It is undoubtedly one of the first duties of every government to extirpate gangs of thieves. This does not mean that every thief ought to be treacherously assassinated in his sleep, or even that every thief ought to be put to death after a fair trial, but that every gang, as a gang, ought to be completely broken up and that whatever severity is indispensably necessary for that end ought to be used." [3]


Order Issued to the Campbell Forces at Glencoe

Unfortunately for the MacDonalds, the order that was actually issued to the Campbell forces at Glencoe was far more brutal and explicit. The order, which probably had been drafted by the Master of Stair, was as follows:


Feb. 12, 1692


You are hereby ordered to fall upon the Rebels, the MacDonalds of Glencoe, and put all to the sword under 70. You are to have especial care, that the Old Fox and his Sons do upon no account escape your Hands, you are to secure all the avenues that no man can escape: this you are to put in Execution at five a Clock in the Morning precisely, and by that time or very shortly after it, I’ll strive to be at you with a stronger party. If I do not come at five, you are not to tarry for me but fall on. This is by the King’s Special command, for the good and safety of the country, that these miscreants may be cut off root and branch. See that this be put in execution without Feud or Favor, else you may expect to be treated as not true to the King or Government nor a man fit to carry Commission in the King’s Service. Expecting you will not fail in the fulfilling hereof as you love yourself, I subscribed these with my hand,

/Signed/ Robert Duncannon

For Their Majesties Service

To Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon"

Link to Facsimile of Actual Order Given to Robert Campbell of Glenlyon

The above order was carried out, although in a rather sloppy and inept fashion. Macaulay estimates that about three-fourths of the MacDonalds escaped the slaughter. However, many of those survivors probably died that winter from starvation as the Campbell forces carried off all the livestock, burned the houses and otherwise completely devastated the land of Glencoe. In all only about thirty-six men and boys and four women were killed. Even so, once the story of the massacre got out and the Jacobite supporters had made a propaganda ploy out of it, the reputation of the Campbells received a blow from which it has not to this day fully recovered. As Macaulay puts it:

"The circumstances which give a peculiar character to the slaughter of Glencoe, the breach of faith, the breach of hospitality, the twelve days of feigned friendship and conviviality, of morning calls, of social meals, of health drinking, of card-playing … By slow degrees the whole came out." [4]


Jacobite Version

Over the years the Jacobite version of the story is the one which has prevailed. All that people remember are that MacDonalds were killed and Campbells did the killing. The words of a Jacobite poet best summarizes the typical Highland Scottish view of the Campbells:

"Ye Campbells, Ye Johnstones, by yourselves you’re a sect;

You’re false robbers and thieves, none should you protect.

From God and from Caesar you remove all respect,

Your slughorns are falsehood and plunder.

In such a hurray of rogues Argyle may come in,

Whose blood bears the stain of original sin;

And if he is like to go on, as they did begin,

Then he’ll follow the fate of his grandsires."

Scottish Pasquiles, II 67


Impact of Glencoe on the Southwest Virginia Campbells

The Southwest Virginia Campbells discussed at this web site probably came from the Lowlands of Scotland prior to their migration to Northern Ireland. As discussed in my essay on the Scottish Migration to Northern Ireland, this Lowland origin is probable because the English did not permit Highlanders to migrate to Ireland as they were considered to be too intractable and unyielding. [5] The Glencoe massacre was committed by Scottish Highland Campbells who had little relationship with the Campbells of Ulster who happened to have the same surname. But in spite of these facts, a Campbell is a Campbell and the infamy of Glencoe quickly attached itself to all Campbells, even those of Virginia Colony in the eighteenth century. Mrs. Pilcher cites the case where two sons of "White David" Campbell wanted to marry two MacDonald sisters. At the time, this was a cause celebre among the MacDonalds and only with some difficulty were they persuaded to acquiesce in the marriages! [6]


1.  Margaret Campbell Pilcher, Historical Sketches of the Campbell, Pilcher and Kindred Families (1911), pages 34-35.

2.  Thomas Babington Macaulay, The History of England from the Accession of James II ( First Published 1855), Vol. IV, pages 280-281.

3.  Ibid., pages 288-289.

4.  Ibid., page 298.

5.  Professor Leyburn’s views on this subject are concurred in by other historians of the Scotch-Irish. For example, see Carlton Jackson, A Social History of the Scotch-Irish (1993), page 20.

6.  Margaret Campbell Pilcher, Historical Sketches of the Campbell, Pilcher and Kindred Families (1911), page 35.