William of Orange defeated King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, and claimed the Throne of England. He had beaten and deceived the Celts of Ireland into submission, and turned his attention to the Celts of the Scottish Highlands. He demanded that all clan Chieftains swear an oath of allegiance, and surrender their lands to the Crown by 1 January, 1692 or suffer government reprisal. By that date, the clan of MacIan MacDonald of Glencoe had not yet signed. On 31 December MacIan had travelled to Fort William to ask the governor, Colonel Hill, to administer the required oath, but Hill refused saying he was not authorised to do so. He told MacIan to go to Inveraray to make his oath before Sir Colin Campbell, sheriff of Argyll and gave MacIan a letter to Sir Colin asking that he receive MacIan’s oath since MacIan had come to him within the allotted time. It took MacIan three days to reach Inveraray due to winter weather. On his arrival he had to wait three more days for Sir Colin, who was spending the New Year with his family. Upon his return, Sir Colin reluctantly accepted MacIan’s oath on January 6 and sent it on to the Secretary of State.
The Secretary of State decided to make an example of the Glencoe MacDonalds for signing after the deadline. His reasons were sinister. He wanted a proud and ancient Celtic clan to humiliate, in order to humble the other clans, and the one clan considered by Celtic law to be the rightful leader of what remained of Dalriada – the Celtic heart of Scotland – were the MacDonalds of Clan Donald. Their Chief claimed direct descent from Conn of the Hundred Battles, ancient High King of Ireland. Branches of Clan Donald peopled the Hebrides from the Butt of Lewis to the Isle of Skye; in the highlands they held Lochaber, Ardnamurchan, and Kintyre; in Ireland they filled the Glens of Antrim. They were true Celtic Chieftains, and fiercely independent. They could be persuaded, convinced, or hired, but they could never be ruled. The MacDonalds of Glencoe – the smallest branch of the Clan and home of the clan chieftain – were no less proud. MacIan’s delayed arrival at Edinburgh had provided the Secretary with a perfect candidate for his plan.
Glencoe, the 8-mile valley that was the home of the MacDonalds, was protected by high hills on both sides, with natural entrances only at either end. It was beautiful and serene with a river running through it, and the homes of Clan MacDonald scattered through the rich pasture land, surrounded by cattle, sheep, and goats. It was a perfect home, but it could also be both fortress and trap, for in time of battle, there was no entrance to, nor escape from Glencoe. In February, 1692, the Crown sent the traitorous Campbells of Argyll into Glencoe. Campbell was a relative by marriage to MacIan, the old Chieftain of the MacDonald. They arrived in a Blizzard in the dead of night seeking quarter. The MacDonalds offered them food, wine and shelter in keeping with traditional Celtic hospitality and the Campbells stayed in Glencoe throughout the blizzard – for 14 days. Then at 5AM on the 15th day, (February 13 – 321 years ago) the Campbells quietly rose in the pre-dawn hours and fell on their hosts, slaying them in their beds – men, women, and children! They burned the MacDonald homes and drove off the livestock. A few fortunate women and children scrambled up the steep snow-covered slopes enclosing the valley and watched as their homes went up in smoke and the river of Glencoe ran red with MacDonald blood. Gone was one of the stalwart Celtic Clans of the highlands forever.
It was a heinous crime against humanity, a heartless and vicious act of villainy, but the lesson worked. Never barbaric enough to even consider such tactics, the Celtic mind had no defense against such heartless treachery. The demise of the independent highland Celt was at hand. The highland clearances had begun, and many hundreds fled across the western sea to a far away place that they called New Scotland – Nova Scotia – where their descendants live to this day. And the Valley of Glencoe is silent; although it is said that on a still night of a cold February evening in the valley, if you listen to the wind you can hear a piper playing a piobrach – the ancient lament – for the rape of Glencoe!