A coin hoard discovered in the Scottish Highlands is likely to have been hidden before or during the Glencoe Massacre and to have belonged to a murdered Jacobite clan chief, experts say.
The 36 coins were found in a dig this August by archaeology student Lucy Ankers in a pot concealed beneath the fireplace of a ruined “summer house”.
The building at Gleann Leac-na-Muidhe, Glencoe, appears to have been a hunting lodge and feasting place and has traditionally been associated with Alasdair Ruadh “MacIain” MacDonald. MacIain was chief of the MacDonalds of Glencoe from 1646 until his death during the massacre of 1692 — when soldiers billeted in the Highland valley, and enjoying the clan’s hospitality, murdered MacIain and his followers to make an example of the former rebel.
One reason that archaeologists suggest the coins were stashed shortly before or during the slaughter is that none date from after the 1680s. As many are silver, they presumably belonged to someone fairly wealthy. Significantly, they include coins minted in France and Italy where MacIain had travelled.
Dr Michael Given, senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Glasgow and co-director of the archaeological project in Glencoe, said documents of a 1690s commission of inquiry into the massacre may help to explain the circumstances of the concealment. “There were two precautionary acts that MacIain is said to have taken when the soldiers arrived. He sent the unmarried women from his house down in the valley up to the summer house, because he was worried about what soldiers do. And he told his clan members to hide all but the very worst of their guns as he feared they might be confiscated. An obvious extension of that would be hiding away his money.”
Such precautions suggest that MacIain was somewhat wary of his guests, but Given said he evidently had no inkling of the horrors to come. “It’s interesting that was all he did. When they clamoured at his door on February 13, he was putting his trews on and they shot him in the back. He certainly wasn’t expecting that.”
MacIain was among the chiefs who took part in the first Jacobite rising of 1689, when Highlanders sought and failed to restore the Stuart King James II and VII after his ousting by William of Orange. Afterwards, William required the rebel chiefs to sign an oath of allegiance before January 1, 1692. MacIain only learnt of the order with a few days to spare. In the end, he took the oath late, on January 6, after he was turned away at Fort William and told to travel to Inverary, some 60 miles away.
It was in late January, after MacIain had taken his oath and returned home, that around 120 men of the Earl of Argyll’s Regiment of Foot arrived in Glencoe carrying orders that they should be given free lodging. The soldiers then stayed in MacDonald dwellings with the pretext of collecting arrears of taxes locally. After two weeks, on the evening of February 12, the army officers received word to slaughter their hosts — an especially heinous offence under Highland traditions of hospitality.
The government orders sent to Glenlyon stated: “You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebells, the McDonalds of Glenco, and put all to the sword under seventy. you are to have a speciall care that the old Fox and his sones doe upon no account escape your hands, you are to secure all the avenues that no man escape. This you are to putt in execution att fyve of the clock precisely…”
Early the next day, with snowstorms swirling, the plan was put into action. Around 30 members and followers of the clan were murdered, including the “old Fox” — shot in his main residence, the remains of which probably lie underneath the modern village of Glencoe. Many others died from exposure after fleeing into the mountains, the clan chief’s wife among them. His sons were among the lucky ones who got away.
The fate of the women sent to the summer house is uncertain, but it may be ominous that whoever buried the coins never returned for them. If MacIain did not arrange for the money to be hidden days before the massacre, Given suggests a relative or retainer may have taken the initiative while attempting to flee. “We know some of the survivors ran through the blizzard and escaped up the side glens, including this one,” he added. “Were these coins witnesses to this dramatic story?”
After news of the killings spread, the Scottish parliament launched a commission of inquiry and gathered testimony. The instigators avoided serious repercussions, however. John Dalrymple, who bore significant responsibility, was dismissed from his post as Secretary of State for Scotland but later returned to government and was made an earl. It was claimed that King William, who had signed orders to “extirpate” the clan, had not read them.
While the apportioning of blame is still debated, historians now reject the idea that Clan Campbell orchestrated the massacre as part of a longstanding feud with the MacDonalds.
The coins in the hoard date from the late 16th-century through to the 1680s, including pieces from the reigns of Elizabeth I, James VI and I, Charles I, and Charles II, as well as the Commonwealth. There are also coins from France and the Spanish Netherlands, and one thought to be from the Papal States. MacIain travelled to Rome and Paris in his youth, so the archaeologists suggest that some of these coins may have been personal mementoes.
Ankers, who found the coins in the pot, with a pebble for a lid, underneath a stone hearth slab, said: “As a first experience of a dig, Glencoe was amazing. The two weeks I spent digging solidified that I want to pursue a career within archaeology. I wasn’t expecting such an exciting find as one of my firsts, and I don’t think I will ever beat the feeling of seeing the coins peeking out of the dirt in the pot.”
Given said it was very unusual to be able to link artefacts like coins to such dramatic events with a high degree of probability. “This is really rare. As archaeologists, we tend to talk in generalities about social structure and social relations and all of that sort of thing. So to be able to talk about an event like the massacre, and individuals, is really quite amazing.”
The coins are among numerous finds from the university’s first season at Glencoe. Others from the summer house include musket and fowling shot, a gun flint and a powder measure, all of which support the idea that it was a base for hunting. Although the building wasn’t large, its status and use as a place of feasting can be inferred from the range of imported dining wares from England, Germany and the Netherlands found there, and the remains of an impressive fireplace and stone floor.
Explaining the broader project’s remit, Given said: “Part of it is training for our third-year students like Lucy. They get experience of doing excavation with Eddie Stewart [excavations director], survey work with me — looking at landscape archaeology in the wider area of Glencoe — and digital and creative approaches to the communication of archaeology, which is the third strand. The massacre is only part of it. Being archaeologists, we’re more interested in everyday life and the practicalities of agriculture and pastoralism and how houses were built, and so on.
“We’re trying to get insights into how people lived and how that changed, and how people related to their environment. Even without the hoard the whole project would have been a huge success and we’re already getting organised to go again next summer.”
The photograph at the top of the article shows the coin hoard, pot and pebble lid discovered in the Glencoe “summer house”. Credit: Gareth Beale