Although the fighting ceased, many of the Highland chieftains were slow to accept William and Mary as their King and Queen. At last William made a proclamation, offering pardon to all the chiefs who, before the 1st of January 1692 a.d. , would take the oath of obedience to him, and saying that all those should be punished who did not take the oath.
One by one the proud chieftains gave way and took the oath. Only one old man, Macdonald of Glencoe, as he was called from the name of the lonely glen in which he and his clan lived, would not give in. But suddenly, finding that he alone of all the clans was holding out, he too made up his mind to take the oath, and hurried to Fort William, the nearest big town.
He arrived there on the 31st of December. But to his dismay he found that he had come to the wrong town, and that there was no one there to whom he could swear obedience to the King. Too late, Macdonald began to realise what he had done. He burst into tears, and prayed the Governor to receive his oath. But the Governor was powerless; he was sorry for the old man, however, and sent him away to Inveraray, the right town, with a kindly letter to the sheriff, saying that he hoped this lost sheep would be received.
Once more Macdonald started off, but at this time the Highland roads were always very bad. Now in mid-winter they were almost impassable. Through the cold and snow, Macdonald trudged bravely on. The shortest way to Inveraray led him within a mile of his own house. He would not even turn aside one mile, but passed it by. But hurry how he would, it was the 6th of January before he reached Inveraray; just six days too late.
When the sheriff knew for what Macdonald had come, he looked grave. "It is too late," he said. But Macdonald was so earnest and begged so hard, that at last the sheriff let him take the oath, and the old chieftain started home again feeling safe and happy.
But the Master of Stair and the Marquis of Breadalbane, who were helping to rule Scotland, hated the Highlanders and particularly the Macdonalds of Glencoe. They had hoped that some of the clans would hold out, so that they might have a chance of punishing them. They were really angry when they discovered that all had taken the oath. They resolved that as Macdonald had taken it too late he should not escape.
So the King was never told that Macdonald had taken the oath. He was made to believe that he and all his clan were a set of robbers, and that there would never be peace in the Highlands until they were utterly destroyed. And the King signed a letter giving orders for their destruction.
It is said that William did not read, or did not understand, the paper, and that he did not know what he was doing when he signed it. But he ought to have known.
Having the King's permission, the Master of Stair set to work. But he did not go about it openly. He meant to root out the Clan Macdonald thoroughly, and the letters he wrote are filled with a horrid joy. "To plunder their lands and drive off their cattle," he wrote, "would only render them desperate. They must all be killed, and the manner of execution must be sure and secret."
Sure and secret he meant it to be. So on the 1st of February, one hundred and twenty soldiers appeared marching down the glen. As soon as their red coats came in sight, Macdonald's sons went out to meet them, and ask them if they came in peace or war. In peace, they said. The new barracks at Fort William were so full that there was no room for them, so they had been sent to quarter in Glencoe.
The Macdonalds believed the men, and welcomed them as visitors. For a fortnight they lived together. All the hospitality that the little glen could provide, was pressed upon the guests. Every day the officers passed some of their time at the chieftain's house. Every evening they gathered round his cheerful fireside, playing cards and games. Glencoe means "glen of weeping," but during these short winter days it was a glen of smiles. No thought of treachery disturbed Macdonald; he was sure of the King's protection.
At four o'clock one dark morning, the glen lay silent, except for the shriek and howl of the wind, not a sound was heard. But over the snow, dark forms were stealing. Suddenly a shot rang out. A few minutes more and the silent glen was echoing from end to end with the sound of gunshots, and the cries of fear and pain.
The soldiers were at their deadly work. Nor did it take them long, for they had only defenceless men, women, and children to deal with. In the darkness, almost in their sleep, they murdered the men who had treated them as friends and brothers. None were spared, old men and children alike met the same fate. Half clad, many fled through the darkness and the snow. Some reached safety, others died miserably in the lonely glens and mountain paths. As the soldiers butchered and robbed, they set fire to the cottages, and soon the dark sky was lit up with the glare, and the crackle and roar of the flames mingled with the cries of the dying.
Then when their work was done, the murderers marched away, driving before them the sheep and cattle of their dead hosts, leaving Macdonald and thirty or more of his clan to lie stiff and cold in the silent, lonely glen—the Glen of Weeping—the Valley of Tears, as it was rightly called.
The news of this deed was everywhere received with horror. It did great harm to William. The Highlanders, who had been inclined to live peaceably under his rule, were once more stirred to hatred against him. The Massacre of Glencoe, as it was called, perhaps brought more friends to the banished King than anything else which happened during the reign of King William.