Glencoe By The Rev. Kenneth Wigston, Rector, St. Mary’s, Glencoe, Associate Member of the Clan Donald Society of Edinburgh

Of all the places in Scotland, the best known are Loch Lomond for its “bonnie banks” and Glencoe because of the infamous massacre. The Glen was inhabited by Hendersons before the MacDonalds came on the scene in the fourteenth century, when Robert the Bruce rewarded Angus Og MacDonald with Glencoe for supporting him against the English and the hostile Comyns and MacDougals. Angus gave the lands to his illegitimate son, Iain Iraoch (Heather John) and from him the MacDonalds of Glencoe lake their name, the Maclains. Glencoe, however, had inhabitants long before this, though they were purely ecclesiastical.

St. Kenneth, or Canice, like others of his time, had Irish connections. There is a tradition that not only did he live in the Glen but that he gave the place its Gaelic name, Gleann Comhain, the Glen of the Shrine, or cell of the saint. In Loch Leven near the narrows there is Eilean Choinneich, Kenneth’s Isle. M.E.M. Donaldson writes of a duel that was fought between two swordsmen of great repute, and that the island is named after MacKenzie who was killed there. D. MacDonald of Castleton calls it St. Kenneth’s Island. We commemorate the Saint on October 11, the day of his death in 600 A.D.

Another Saint with Irish and local ties is St. Munn, Munda, or Fintan Munnu, who built his church early in the seventh century on the island in Loch Leven that still bears his name, Eilean Munda. He was a contemporary of St. Columba. He died in 635 and we commemorate him on 21 October.

The island was used as a burial place by the MacDonalds of Glencoe, Stewarts of Ballachulish, and Camerons of Callart. Those murdered in the slaughter of 1692 are buried on the island. In 1495 the Church was burned down when it would have been used for the last time, though apparently it was rebuilt and used again and for the last time once more in 1653. Burials from St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Glencoe, have continued to the present, the last taking place in January 1972, and the last interment of ashes in 1979. Most of the Chiefs of the Glencoe MacDonalds have been buried there. The last ones were Ewen, 17th of Glencoe, 25 August 1840, his heiress Ellen, 1887, and both her sons, Alexander Duncan, 1894, and Duncan 1907, and her younger daughter, Caroline in 1954.

In affairs of Church and matters of State the Glencoe MacDonalds were Episcopalian and loyal to Scotland’s Stewart Kings. No record of this very troublous period of our country’s history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries can be complete without reference to religious matters of the time. The MacDonalds of Glencoe are often, though inaccurately I believe, called Roman Catholics because most of Clan Donald generally were so. Dalrymple, Master of Stair, himself a Presbyterian, was Secretary of State in 1691, and in a letter written before the amnesty for all those who had taken up arms against the Government of William of Orange was due to expire on 31 December, he, delightedly anticipating a massacre of some Jacobite clan wrote of the MacDonalds – “That’s the only popish clan in the kingdom and it will be popular to take severe course with them.”

He was wrong and on two points. First, there were other clans that were Roman Catholic, and secondly, the MacDonalds of Glencoe were Episcopalian, a fact borne out by many other authorities. To many then, as still today, “popish” and “Episcopalian” were one and the same thing: Episcopalians and Roman Catholics were alike, “all papists.” In this very active Jacobite period, in which the MacDonalds of Glencoe took part in all three successive failures for the Stuarts, Killiecrankie in 1689, the Rising of 1715 and that of 1745/ 46, the people (Stewarts, MacDonalds, and Camerons) of this area, Appin, Fasnacloich, Achnacon, Ardsheal, Ballachulish, Duror, Glencoe, Lochaber and Ardnamurchan, were often described as “at least half papist,” or “a kind of Protestant,” or “susceptible to some Catholic doctrines.” The plain inference is that they were neither Presbyterian nor Roman Catholic but Episcopalian. It was as much because they were Episcopalians as because they were Jacobites that the MacDonalds of Glencoe, a very small clan, were chosen for massacre. And that conviction is firm here in the Glen.

In 1660 at the time of the Restoration of the Monarchy in the person of Charles II. Alexander McCalman was inducted to the Parish of Lismore, which had by then included the Glencoe part of the ancient parish of Eilean Munda. Two years later. Episcopacy was once again restored to the Reformed Church of Scotland, and Alexander McCalman became Dean. When Parliament passed legislation in June 1690 making the Church of Scotland Presbyterian once again, Alexander McCalman refused to change and ministered as an Episcopalian until his death in 1717. What this means is that at the time of the Massacre in 1692 the Parish and its incumbent were Episcopalian.

A foray was made into Glenorchy in April 1691 by the Glencoe men. The purpose, however, was not to plunder but to carry off “by twelve men fully armed”, a Presbyterian minister who had come to displace the Episcopalian incumbent, the Revd. Dugald Lindsay.

In 1713 the whole “catechisable population” was given as 229, all Episcopalian. It is inconceivable that just twenty one years after the Massacre the population, had they then been Roman Catholic, should have been converted to the old disestablished Episcopal Church of Scotland just at a time when her own priests were sufficiently occupied with their own congregations. There would have been none to spare converting Roman Catholics to Episcopalianism!

There is a letter dated 20 October 1782 addressed to Bishop Arthur Petrie of Argyll requesting him to appoint a resident Gaelic priest for the “numerous concourse of people in Appin district, and this is signed by “Alex Stewart of Invernahyle, Jas Stewart of Fasnacloich, and John MacDonald of Glenco.”

Our church”s Burial Register contains the entries for the last of the Glencoe MacDonalds:

“Ewen MacDonald of Glencoe. buried 25 August 1840 in St. Munn’s Island”.

An account of the funeral is given by D. Rory MacDonald in the Clan Donald magazine No. 8, page 57.

“Ellen Caroline Macpherson Burns MacDonald, Carnoch, Perth and Invercoe House. Glencoe, died 3 March 1887, aged 56. Buried 9 March 1887 in St. Munn’s Island.”

“Alexander Maxwell MacDonald (her son) died 9 June 1894, aged 39. Buried 15 June in St. Munn’s Island”.

“Duncan Cameron MacDonald (his brother), a Major in the Cameronians, died in London, 6 June 1907, aged 48. Buried in St. Munn’s Island, 12 June.”

Amongst the clergy officiating at his funeral in St. Mary’s Church was the Revd. Dugald MacDonald who was descended from MacIain’s younger son, Alasdair Og who fled to Dalness at the Massacre. Some of the Revd. Dugald’s relatives are still about. “On Holy Saturday (17 April) the ashes of Caroline Cook, sister of the last MacDonalds of Glencoe, who died in England in January 1954, aged 81, were interred in the MacDonald vault on St. Munn’s Island after a Memorial  Service in St. Mary’s Church.”

Also in St. Mary’s Church are three memorial tablets to these descendants of the Maclain of Glencoe, two of which tablets, along with the reredos, are kindly being restored by a very generous donation to cover the cost from the Glencoe Foundation Incorporated, Delaware, U.S.A.:

“In loving memory of Ellen Caroline Macpherson MacDonald Wife of Archibald Burns MacDonald of Glencoe Died Carnoch, Perth, 3 March 1887 Interred in St. Munn’s Isle”

“Archibald Maxwell MacDonald of Glencoe Born at Fanans, Inverawe, 1st January 1855 Died at Taifletts, Perth, 9 June 1894. Eldest son of Mrs Ellen Caroline Macpherson MacDonald and Archibald Burns MacDonald and became Laird of Glencoe upon the death of his mother who had been owner for 47 years.  He was the last Laird of his race, the lands held by the Maclains of Glencoe from early in the Fourteenth century wherein his mother succeeded her father, and he succeeded her, having passed out of the family on his death. Placed by his sister, Ellen MacDonald, wife of Andrew Hunter Ballingal, W.S. Taifletts, Perth”.

“Erected by her family in ever loving memory of Caroline Cook, younger   daughter   of  Ellen   Caroline Macpherson Burns MacDonald of Glencoe, aged 93 years.”

There is a discrepancy between the age of Caroline as stated in the Burial Register, 81 years, and this memorial plaque.

At the top end of the village beyond the Bridge of Coe on a hillock on the south side of the river there stands a unique slender tall Celtic Cross erected in August 1883 by Ellen Caroline Macpherson MacDonald in memory of Maclain and his people who were slaughtered on that fateful February day. The famous Henderson Stone, Clach Eanruig, can be seen on the adjacent croft (though permission should be sought before tramping over the ground).

On February 13th an impressive ceremony of commemoration is held at the Cross. About 1929 or 1930 Angus MacDonald, the “Gille Breac” who claimed descent from the Glencoe MacDonalds and lived at Braefoot Cottage, Tighphuirst, Glencoe, laid a wreath at the Memorial Cross. The wreath was provided by the Rankin sisters of the Old Croft, Tighphuirst. The wreath-laying ceremony was often carried out at the precise hour of the Massacre, 5 a.m. and was continued by Angus’s sons, first Robert, then Donald, and later by his nephew, Ewen, and more recently still by Mrs Hilda MacTaggart. No doubt because these were all Episcopalians and members of St. Mary’s, the Rector, the Revd. Duncan Macinnes. later Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness, 1953 to 1970, initiated in 1935, a year or two after his arrival in the village, the memorial service at the Cross on 13 February. The Service has continued in unbroken tradition ever since, each Rector inheriting the Service from his predecessor. As Rector of the village church school (still the only one) the Revd. D. Macinnes involved the children, who attended the Commemoration Service at 8 a.m. before going on to their studies. Occasionally, one of the children would lay the wreath, and two of our members at St. Mary’s can recall doing this at school. The children and teachers still attend whenever possible.

The Clan Donald Society of Edinburgh became involved in the wreath-laying ceremony in 1959 under its President, the late Donald J. MacDonald of Castleton and opened it out to Clan Donald Societies and others outwith the locality and Scotland. Such an arrangement with the Service and the wreath-laying ceremony will ensure the remembrance on February 13th far into the future.


The Saints of Scotland. E.S. Towill.
A Dictionary of Saints, Penguin Reference Books.
Wanderings in the Western Highland and Islands. M.E.M. Donaldson.
Scotland’s Suppressed History. M.E.M. Donaldson.
Clan Donald. Donald J. MacDonald of Castleton.
Glencoe and Dalness. National Trust 1966.
Massacre: The story of Glencoe. Magnus Linklater.
Pages from the History of the Parish of Eilean Munda compiled by the Revd. Archie Russell.
The West Highlands of Scotland. W.H. Murray Book of Scottish Tartans.
Ian Grimble The Scottish Historical Review. XLVI.
Clan Donald Magazine. No. 8
The Headship of the Gael. Clan Donald Lands Trust.
A Short History of the Episcopal Church in Scotland, Frederick Goldie.
17th Century in the Highlands by Inverness Field Club Scotland.
1689 to the Present by William Ferguson.
The Parish of Kinlochleven by A.G. MacKenzie.