At 5am on the morning of 13 February 1692, government troops who had been billeted for two weeks with the MacDonalds of Glencoe turned on their hosts and massacred them. 38 MacDonald men, women and children were killed by the troops, and perhaps twice as many more died of wounds and exposure while trying to escape through the wintry mountains in the days that followed.
The Glencoe Massacre is without doubt the most infamous single incident in highland history. This is a history which for centuries had been marked by inter-clan warfare and a long list of atrocities which, simply in terms of numbers of deaths, often exceeded Glencoe. Two things mark out the Glencoe Massacre as exceptional. The first was the fact that the killers had been living with their victims for two weeks prior to the action, and this was generally seen as a breach of one of the fundamental tenets of highland society: that hospitality was freely given and never abused. The second thing to set Glencoe apart from earlier massacres was that it was committed as a deliberate act by the government of the day as a means of making an example of a clan who had few friends and many enemies: it was not, as some continue to believe, just another episode in the long conflict between the MacDonalds and the Campbells.
John Sadler's "Glencoe" presents an exceptionally fine analysis of the massacre, looking in detail at the each of the key actors in the tragedy and at the various elements in the very fluid political background. He concludes that the cause of the massacre was a series of reinterpretations of orders approved by the King to punish the MacDonalds that, largely thanks to the Secretary of State for Scotland, Sir John Dalrymple, 1st Earl of Stair, and Lieutenant Colonel James Hamilton, ended up as explicit instructions to massacre them.
The book's approach means the reader moves backwards and forwards through history as the different strands are pursued, but all this is put aside when the story reaches the point at which the troops arrive in Glencoe. The reader knows what is going to happen next, as do some of the officers enjoying their hosts' hospitality, and the account takes on the tension of a thriller as it moves inevitably towards its horrific conclusion.