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A History in the Glen


It is not until the late-thirteenth or early-fourteenth centuries that specific written evidence associated with Glencoe emerges. Tradition suggests that the MacIain MacDonalds first acquired the lands of Glencoe after the Wars of Independence, through Iain og Fhraoch (Iain of the Heather).  Their direct ancestor was Angus Og, the first of the Clan Donald to be given the area of Lochaber, the valuable land at the head of Loch Linnhe.  These lands, including Glencoe, had originally belonged to the MacDougalls.  But when the MacDougalls found themselves on the wrong side of Robert I (Robert the Bruce), their lands were divided up and given to the King’s allies and supporters.  One of the first in line was Angus Og, who had brought the MacDonalds to fight on the side of the King at Bannockburn.  In turn, Angus Og passed the lands of Glencoe to his son Iain og Fhraoch and, taking his title, his descendants - the chiefs of Glencoe - were known as MacIain - son of John.  The written record of medieval charters confirms the MacIain association, with grants of lands of Glencoe "terram de Glanchomyr  (lands of Glencoe)" confirmed to Angus Og's son, John of Islay in 1343.  

Unfortunately for the MacIains, by the second half of the fifteenth century, the power of the MacDonald Lords of the Isles was beginning to crumble.  In 1493 James IV finally succeeded, aided by the first Earl of Argyll, Colin Campbell, in abolishing the Lordship.  Among the possessions seized by the Crown were the lands of Glencoe. The MacIain MacDonalds who lived in the Glen had no charter or legal title to their lands, holding them only ‘by the sword’.  They therefore found themselves to be tenants of the area under a series of different clan chiefs, the area coming under the control initially of the Stewarts of Appin and later of the Campbells of Glenorchy and Argyll.

At its peak the MacIain MacDonald clan numbered between 500 and 600 people, living in an area which stretched along the southern shores of Loch Leven from west of Ballachulish to east of Invercoe and south along Glen Coe.  In the 1590s the lands were decribed thus: "This Glencone is a twenty markland, which pertaineth to certane of the Clandonald. This countrie is verie profitable fertill and plenteous of corne, milk, butter, cheese and abundance of fish both salmond and herrings and other kynd of fishes therein."  In the 17th century sturdy black cattle were raised and grazed, sheep were kept for wool, milk and meat, barley and oats were grown.  The houses were traditionally built of stone, turf and wattle and thatched with straw, bracken or heather.  The climate was harsh and life may often have been a struggle, but the MacIain MacDonalds of Glencoe were a fiercely proud and independent people.

Much has been made of the clan rivalry between the MacDonalds and the Campbells during the seventeenth century to try to explain the massacre of 13th February 1692.  The MacDonalds did raid cattle from their Campbell neighbours, but so did many clans - the activity was common throughout the Highlands, since cattle were among the most valuable commodities.  Further tensions arose between the clans when Archibald Campbell, the tenth Earl of Argyll, gained unrivalled power and influence in his unofficial role as the King’s agent in the Highlands.  Politically, too, the MacDonalds and the Campbells held opposing views.  The Campbells were supporters of the Protestant King William of Orange, who had gained the thrones of England and Scotland when the Catholic King James VII fled to France in 1689.  In contrast, the MacDonalds were Jacobites, supporters of James, whom they believed to be the rightful king.  The Massacre of Glencoe has often been portrayed as a tale of Campbells butchering MacDonalds, but in reality responsibility for the massacre went right to the heart of the establishment.  It was part of a government plan to bring the troublesome Highlanders into line behind King William.
Eilean Munde
Eilean Munde

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