Historically Horrible Houseguests

If you’re going to be a houseguest there are some easy rules to follow - don’t make a mess, don’t insult the host, and, perhaps most easy to follow, don’t kill anyone. Sadly, for a group of folks in Glencoe, Scotland in 1692 their houseguests decided to not follow these rules. In fact, they massacred their hosts, members of the MacDonald clan.

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Derek Alexander, the head of Archaeology at the National Trust for Scotland is leading a research team to find out why, in the late 17th century, the Glencoe branch of the well-known and respected MacDonald clan were brutally murdered.

In a new archaeological undertaking Alexander and his team will be “trying to find remains that tie the landscape to the story of the massacre.” The story, it seems, we do know.

In Glencoe, Scotland roughly 70-80 people, most linked to the MacDonald clan, lived in several farm settlements. These people lived a modest life by farming, raising cattle, and engaging in some light, but typical for the time, tribal stealing from other clans (usually cattle).

Their standard life took a major turn in early February, 1692 when two companies of soldiers (a total of roughly 120 men) came to Glencoe with orders to lodge there and throughout the valley. It was a duty of the people to house and feed soldiers, so this act in and of itself was not incredibly surprising.

However, after two relatively uneventful weeks the commanding officer of all the soldiers, Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, “carried out secret orders to "put all to the sword" in Glencoe.” The people of Glencoe and even the soldiers, seemed to have no idea of these gruesome orders.

On the night of February 13th, a brutal blizzard blew through Glencoe, causing whiteout conditions. It was during this time that, according to BBC, “systematically killing everyone they could. 38 lay dead the next morning, including the chief, MacIain. Many more escaped into the hills, some finding shelter before the elements could kill them, some, including MacIain’s elderly wife, dying on the mountainside.”

However, the low number (38 would be less than half the village) is attributed to soldiers being disgusted with their orders and horrified at an order towards people who had been taking care of them for two weeks and warning families ahead of time. Sadly, roughly 40 people froze to death before they could reach the safety of the next village, although some remained alive to tell the tale.

But what was the reason behind this horrific mass-murder? The village chief not swearing his oath of allegiance to the King. It was a punishment and warning to other Highlanders the price of not swearing fealty and acknowledging the king. Although, the villagers claimed that the reason for missing the deadline was not recklessness or a feeling of superiority, but heavy snow which cased travel delays. Others claimed it was a punishment for the rebellious Highlanders who were also Catholic.

The archaeological team from NTS is currently working through three sites, specifically three farm settlements where the remains of building foundations are. Although the researchers are still in the early stages at the sites, they hope to find the archaeological evidence that aligns with this mythic story.

The archaeological study and research is still in its early stages, and we will be sure to keep you updated!


This above image is entitled "Some sun breaks through onto the Buachaille Etive Mòr on an otherwise cloudy day" and is part of the Highlands, although not tied to the current archaeological search. It is by Graham Grinner Lewis and is liscensed under CC BY 2.0.