Glencoe village lies at the mouth of probably the most famous glen in Scotland, its reputation indelibly linked not only to the awe-inspiring beauty of its mountainous scenery, but also to darker events. The village is synonymous with the infamous Glencoe Massacre of 13 February 1692, when dozens of members and associates of the Glencoe MacDonalds were killed by Scottish Government forces, making a brutal example of the small Highland clan in the aftermath of the first Jacobite Rising. While this aspect of the glen’s history has been studied in detail, the physical remains of its early settlement have only recently been investigated. The stone ruins and enclosures that can be seen from the road represent later sheep farms, mostly dating to the 19th century. Where are the remains of the houses that belonged to the 17th and 18th centuries? Archaeologists from the National Trust for Scotland have been surveying and excavating at a number of locations throughout the glen in an effort to find out.
Cartographic clues helped to guide the search: the earliest detailed map of Glencoe is the military survey undertaken by General William Roy between 1747 and 1755, on which the major townships along the length of the glen are clearly marked. At each of the seven named locations, small clusters of between six and 11 buildings can be seen, showing the foci of settlement around 60 years after the 1692 Massacre. But do any material traces survive today? Three of the clusters – Inverigan, Achnacon, and Achtriachtan – lie within the area owned by the National Trust for Scotland, and as they are more distant both from the mouth of the River Coe and the main area of the current village, it was hoped that some of the early structures could have been preserved. To investigate this potential, over the last few years the Trust’s Archaeology Team has undertaken detailed mapping/survey work at all three settlement sites, coupled with smaller-scale excavation and historical research. Here, we will focus on Achtriachtan – so, what have we found?
Reconstructing a recycled ruin
Between 2018 and 2019, two seasons of survey and excavation at Achtriachtan – the best-preserved of Glencoe’s historic townships – have produced the first detailed plans of the site, as well as recovering illuminating artefacts. Of the eight structures marked at this settlement on Roy’s mid-18th-century map, five have been located through walkover survey. Three of these lie parallel to the old road, on the north side, and might be interpreted as houses. The other two are terraced platforms at right angles to the road and could be barns or byres – further excavation is required to confirm this, but the discovery of four stone- and earth-banked enclosures containing the remains of rigs indicate that crops were being grown in the immediate vicinity, while the presence of a grain-drying kiln to the east of the settlement also supports this interpretation.
We have excavated the footprint of one of the possible houses – Structure 1 – in full, aiming to provide a plan for one of the township buildings. Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that the remains had been heavily disturbed, with its stones robbed for recycling elsewhere – probably when the trackway through the glen was upgraded to a military road in the 1780s (after the route over the Devil’s Staircase was abandoned), and during subsequent widenings and repairs that continued until the creation of the A82 in the 1930s. Stones were probably also removed from the site in the mid-19th century to help build the sheep farm and enclosures that lie to the south of the old road. It seems likely that the building had already fallen into ruin before its materials were taken, however: the flagstone paving of its floor survives over quite an extensive area just below the turf, suggesting that it had become overgrown and hidden before the robbing – otherwise it too surely would have been stripped out.
That is not to say that we cannot say anything about the building’s layout, however. From what does survive, it appears that the ‘house’ was 10.5m long internally, west to east, by 4m wide. As no external facing stones survived in situ, we do not know the exact width and form of the walls – although the two surviving segments at the eastern end do not appear particularly well-built or substantial – but it seems likely that they would have been 0.8-1.0m wide, with at least a foundation of stone. Moreover, the incorporation of a large squarish boulder close to the north-west corner might suggest the construction was of very random rubble rather than neat courses.
Inside Structure 1, surviving evidence suggests that there was a paved central passageway leading in from the single doorway in the southern side. The width of the stepped paving suggests the doorway may have been up to 1.2m wide, while the collapsed nature of some of this surface suggests that there may also have been a drain exiting from the doorway. On entering the house, the left-hand side (western end) of the interior also appears to have been paved, and the base of a quern stone had been incorporated into this surface. Its presence, together with the distribution of flecks and lumps of charcoal in the centre of the structure, could indicate that this had been the location of a hearth surrounded by a kitchen area. As for artefactual evidence, close to the north wall we discovered an iron lock which might be from a dresser, as well as two horseshoes. Other domestic material was relatively scarce in this portion of the structure.
It was the eastern half of the building, which (on the basis of other known structures of this period) may have been separated off using a wattle screen or partition, and which appears to have been unflagged beyond the central passage, that yielded the majority of the domestic refuse that was recovered. This included quantities of green bottle-glass fragments, and pottery sherds including pieces of trailed slipware, a salt-glazed plate, and a single sherd of finer, manganese mottled ware that came from below the rubble and wall core. The recovery of material culture, both from Structure 1 and the surrounding trial trenches and test pits, is a rare addition to our understanding of the types of artefacts used on settlement sites in the late 17th and 18th century – but who lived there?
The Glencoe Massacre
In 1691, following his successful invasion of England and the deposition of the Catholic king James II and VII, William of Orange (William III in England, William II in Scotland) demanded that all Highland clan chiefs, many of whom had been staunch for the Stuart cause, should sign an oath of allegiance to him by 1 January 1692 – or face punishment as traitors under the ‘utmost extremity of the law’.
Being already sworn to the exiled James, MacIain – clan chief of the Glencoe MacDonalds – delayed signing the oath until he was released from his bond by a messenger arriving on 28 December. With three days before the deadline, MacIain set out to fulfil the obligation, but difficulty travelling and the absence of the sheriff required to receive his oath meant that he did not sign until 6 January. Although MacIain believed that his oath had been accepted and his clan was now safe, it was decided to make an example of his community, who were considered to be lawless troublemakers, frequently raiding their neighbours and rustling cattle, and who had few powerful supporters.
Around 120 soldiers – many of them from the Campbell clan, longstanding rivals of the MacDonalds – were sent to Glencoe in late January, where they were ‘quartered’ by the villagers, given bed and board in accordance with traditions of hospitality, for almost two weeks. On 12 February, however, the troops received orders to ‘fall upon the rebels… and put all to the sword under 70’. The slaughter began in the early hours of the following morning, as a blinding blizzard swept through the glen. At least 30 were killed, including MacIain, while more are thought to have died of exposure after fleeing into the snowy hills.
This ‘murder under trust’ outraged popular opinion and damaged the reputations both of William II and III and of the Campbell clan – to this day, the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe has a sign on its door saying ‘No hawkers or Campbells’. A memorial to the MacDonald victims, in the form of a cairn topped by a towering Celtic cross, was erected in the village in 1883.
Memories of the Massacre
The township at Achtriachtan was held by a cadet branch of the main Glencoe MacDonald clan, who were tacksmen (tenants of intermediate status who were often related to their landlord, and who sublet their holdings in turn) of the Glencoe clan chief MacIain. The names of Achtriachtan’s inhabitants from the late 17th century into the mid- 19th century can be traced through a number of sources: documents relating to the Massacre, Jacobite muster rolls, religious confirmation lists, and the census in 1841.
At the time of the Massacre in 1692, we know that John MacDonald of Achtriachtan, the tacksman of the township, and his servant, Kennedy, stayed the night of 12 February with his brother at Achnacon. Both John and his servant were shot by soldiers in the morning, although his brother managed to escape. At Achtriachtan township itself, the soldiers billeted there also turned on their hosts, but it is unclear how many were killed. Many seem to have escaped to the east and gone down Lairig Gartain, avoiding the blocking troops who arrived at 11am, having been delayed by the snows over the Devil’s Staircase. According to John Prebble, the cottages at Achtriachtan were then burnt, and an old man was shot as he ran from the ruins towards the river.
Within a few days of the Massacre, some of the MacDonalds of Glencoe returned to bury the dead – MacIain was laid to rest on Eilean Munde in Loch Leven, and presumably the other victims were interred there too. When the sons of MacIain were accepted back into the peace of King William, the families eventually returned to the glen and presumably rebuilt burnt and destroyed houses and other buildings at Achtriachtan and the other townships.
In the 18th century, the Glencoe MacDonalds returned to their old allegiances, coming out in support of the Jacobite cause both in 1715 and 1745, and fighting at Sheriffmuir and Culloden. The 1745 Muster Roll for the Jacobite army lists 120 men from Glencoe who fought for Bonnie Prince Charlie, and this includes 12 men from Achtriachtan: 11 MacDonalds and a MacStalker. What is also interesting about this list is that it gives the occupations of three people. One Alexander MacDonald is listed as a change keeper, suggesting there was a change house or small inn at Achtriachtan. Another Alexander MacDonald is listed as a drover, while Archibald MacDonald is described as a merchant. It is also recorded that the second-in-command of the Glencoe men was Angus MacDonald of Achtriachtan, who must have been around 70 when he was killed at the Battle of Prestonpans. Being the tacksman of Achtriachtan was obviously a hazardous position!
Following the crushing defeat at Culloden in 1746, British government troops were stationed around the Highlands, posted not only in the large well-known forts at Inverness, Fort William, and Fort Augustus, and the other smaller barracks, but also out in the community they were ordered to suppress. These Cantonments and Posts of the British Army in Scotland during 1745-1753 are listed on the Stennis Historical Society website, and the database notes that at Achtriachtan, Glencoe (named ‘Auchtrischtan’ in the Cantonment Register), on 8 June 1751, there was a post manned by one Corporal and five Privates. So, almost 60 years after the Massacre, the township of Achtriachtan was once again compelled to billet red-coated soldiers.
In the 19th century, the townships fell into decline, and settlement tended to focus on the village of Invercoe at the mouth of the glen, by Loch Leven. By the 1870s, when the Ordnance Survey were mapping Glencoe, the sheep farms that replaced the township at Achtriachtan were already marked as unroofed and ruined. The archaeological survey and excavation work undertaken by the National Trust for Scotland has only just started to uncover the detailed history of settlement in the glen, and more work will undoubtedly be undertaken. As part of the project to improve the interpretation for visitors, the Trust is building a replica house at the Glencoe Visitor Centre using the evidence recovered from the excavations at Achtriachtan. This project was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but we hope will go ahead this year – watch this space for further news.
Derek Alexander is Head of Archaeology at the National Trust for Scotland. You can listen to an interview with him about the fieldwork at Glencoe on this episode of The PastCast.
P Hopkins (1998) Glencoe and the End of the Highland War, John Donald Publishers Ltd, ISBN 978-0859764902.
A Livingstone, C W H Aikman, and B S Hart (2001) No Quarter Given: the Muster Roll of Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s Army, 1745-46, Neil Wilson Publishing, ISBN 978-1903238028.
D MacDonald (1965) Glencoe 1692: Slaughter Under Trust, Robert Hale.
I S Macdonald (2005) Glencoe and Beyond: the sheep-farming years 1780-1830, John Donald Publishers Ltd, ISBN 978-0859766197.
J Prebble (1966) Glencoe, Penguin Books, ISBN 978-0140028973.
ALL IMAGES: National Trust for Scotland, unless otherwise stated.