The role of the Kennedys in the massacre of Glencoe

Copyright © 2008 Iain Kennedy

Everyone has heard of the notorious event at Glencoe when troops loyal to the Government killed a number of MacDonalds in cold blood after they had been their hosts. Not so widely known, but unsurprising, is that several Kennedy individuals played key roles in the affair.

The most well documented Kennedy was Lt. Gilbert Kennedy of Colonel Hill's regiment. He, along with fellow lieutenant Francis Farquhar, refused to carry out the orders to kill their hosts and was promptly arrested and taken away to Glasgow. Later his position was vindicated and he became one of the key witnesses to the parliamentary commission of enquiry, held at Holyrood House. But there is another documented Kennedy officer on the Government side, for the muster lists show a Corporal Duncan Kennedy in the infamous 'Glenlyon' battalion raised by Robert Campbell of Glenlyon. The men under Duncan Kennedy's command included 7 Campbells and 6 McCallums. (Contrast these two given names, Duncan being a very traditional highland name whereas Gilbert had proved a popular name amongst the lowland Kennedy lairds).

The raising of a regiment of foot soldiers loyal to the Crown by the Earl of Argyll is well documented. 600 men were to be raised in 1689 from the glens of Lorn, Cowal, Knapdale and Argyll, mustered in 10 companies, officered by Campbell gentry and their sons. The company officers were almost all Campbell gentry, landowners and tacksmen of Argyll or their sons. In the beginning the companies were raised in the old manner of the clan levy, each captain bringing 60 of his own people. Argyll's company was raised from his tenants at Inverary. Auchinbreck's was from his lands at Knapdale, the Barbreck brothers from Kilbride. The names of these private men to be found on the muster rolls are the common names of Argyll; Campbell, McCallum, MacDiarmid, MacKissock, MacKellar, MacIvor, MacUre and MacNichol. Later companies raised in Cowal and Rosneath contained some lowlanders but the great majority were Campbell clansmen. Glenlyon's battalion was mustered at Stirling in October 1691 but the names of the men suggest they were men from his own estate and we can assume that Duncan Kennedy was such a man. The origin of Lt. Gilbert Kennedy is not known although almost all the Gilbert Kennedys I have seen were from Ayrshire.

Corporal Duncan Kennedy served alongside Sergeant Robert Barber whose men went to Achnacon to kill the MacDonald brothers, the lairds Achnacon and Achtriachtan. According to Prebble's modern account, at the moment a gun was pointed at Achtriachtan, his servant Kennedy threw himself in the way and both were instantly killed. Again, although no further identification is made, the Highland Kennedys often played a supporting role to the MacDonalds, more usually with Glengarry and Keppoch. What is interesting is to delve further back into the historical sources to seek confirmation from first hand accounts that such a dramatic sacrifice was truly made.

The most important of the contemporary sources for the massacre is Ridpath, for which I consulted the second edition printed in London in 1704, in the rare books room at the National Library in Edinburgh. The accounts here are very similar in form to those reproduced in Prebble, who consulted a wide range of sources but does not provide the detailed references I would like. It contains "the Commission under the Great Seal for making an enquiry into that horrid murther; the proceedings of the Parliament of Scotland upon it; the report of the Commissioners upon the enquiry laid before the King and Parliament; and the address of the Parliament to King William for justice upon the murderers; faithfully executed for undeceiving those who have been imposed upon by false accounts...". It does not contain the detailed depositions by the witness Lt. Gilbert Kennedy but consists largely of quotes from the MacDonald laird Glenco's sons. They were fleeing in the direction of Auchnaion when they heard the shots that killed Achtriachtan, and do not shed any light on the matter of whether a Kennedy was killed there, merely mentioning the body count of 4; and the other witness Ronald MacDonald deponed that he saw the bodies of Auchtriachtan and three more thrown outside and covered with dung, but does not name the others.

I also consulted the memoirs of Lord Viscount Dundee which include a letter 'from a gentleman in Scotland' dated Edinburgh 20 April 1692 describing the affair, but it lacks any references to any of the aforementioned Kennedys.

In more recent times there have continued to be Kennedys at both Glencoe and Ballachulish where they worked at the famous slate mines.


The massacre of Glenco, being a true narrative of the barbarous murther of the Glenco men in the highlands of Scotland by way of military execution on the 13th of Feb. 1692, George Ridpath, London 1703 (attributed variously to George Ridpath or Charles Leslie)

Memoirs of the Lord Viscount Dundee, the Highland clans and the massacre of Glenco, 'An officer of the army', London, 1714

Glencoe the story of the massacre, John Prebble, London, 1972

Slaughter under trust - Glencoe 1692, Donald MacDonald, London, 1965

In famed Breadalbane, William A. Gillies, Perth, 1938