Were the Macdonalds of Glencoe Catholics? By Donald C.E. Gorrie MA.

MacDonalds may be interested in the recent lively controversy in the Scottish Historical Review (Vol. XLVI 1 and 2) on this subject. First, Dr. W. Ferguson of Edinburgh University, author of the forthcoming volume on Scottish History from 1688 to the present day, wrote a short article suggesting that the MacDonalds of Glencoe were not Catholics; then John Prebble, who had said in his book, “Glencoe, the Story of the Massacre,” that they were, replied giving his evidence. While further broadsides may yet be fired, the argument at present stands as follows.

Dr. Ferguson emphasises that the records of the Synod of Argyll, in various searching enquiries about Catholics in their area in 1639-1661, never mention any Catholics in Glencoe. Again, in 1703, a very thorough investigation showed Catholic MacDonalds in Inverness-shire – mostly Clanranald’s and Glengarry’s people – but Argyll found none. Further, Webster’s census of 1755, the S.P.C.K. survey of 1759-72, and the Old (1791) and New (1844) Statistical Accounts have no mention of Catholics in Glencoe, the last two giving four or five Catholics in all Appin and emphasising the strength of Episcopalianism in the parish.

Dr. Ferguson then lists 12 historians who make no mention of Catholicism in connection with the massacre, starting with Bishop Burnet, and shows bow those historians who do mention it derive their views from the letters of Sir John Dalrymple, the Master of Stair, then Scottish secretary and planner of the massacre, who wrote, “The Clan Donald is generally popish” and “The McDonalds … the only popish clan in the kingdom.” He argues that Dalrymple was confused and ill-informed about the MacDonalds, and shows how some writers on the massacre, like Donald J. Macdonald in Slaughter Under Trust, have quoted his words, while others, like John Buchan, have set these statements down as facts.

Mr. Prebble, in his reply, gives evidence that the MacIains were Catholics from Papers Illustrative of the Political Conditions of the Highlands (Maitland Club, 1845), which also contains Dalrymple’s letters. He quotes Colonel John Hill writing from Fort William that MacIain’s second son, Alasdair Og, was a Papist, and elsewhere that Keppoch and MacIain were Papists – a confused reference involving some complex argument. He also quotes an otherwise reliable Memorial of 1695 from Stair’s papers which says. “M’Ean of Glenco and his son . . . were papists” and a letter to the Duke of Argyll’s widow in 1715 describing MacIain as “one of the most mischievous of the Highland Popish Jacobite banditti.” Mr. Prebble’s final evidence comes from Mrs. Jean MacDonald Clarke, a descendant of MacIain’s, who says that he and Alasdair Og were Catholics and his other son John was Protestant.

Contending that it is most unlikely that MacIain could have been Catholic and his people Protestant, Mr. Prebble suggests that the MacDonalds concealed their Catholicism from the various surveys mentioned by Dr. Ferguson. He concludes that their Catholicism was a factor, but not a vital one, in Dalrymple’s decision to make an example of them.

Until better positive evidence on the MacDonalds’ religion is produced – it may well exist in some contemporary local survey – the verdict must remain in doubt. Mr. Prebble’s case hangs heavily on Colonel John Hill, whose honesty and knowledge he rates more highly than Dr. Ferguson does. In the other quotes “Papist” seems to be used loosely as a dirty word, like “Communist” and “Fascist” nowadays. None of his evidence relates to the clansmen of Glencoe. Dr. Ferguson’s negative evidence is impressive, especially that from before the massacre which Mr. Prebble ignores, but to clinch his case he must both discredit Colonel Hill and find positive evidence that the Glencoe MacDonalds were Episcopalians.

A trivial argument perhaps – a storm in a strupach – but a fascinating example of the ambiguity of historical evidence.