The Glencoe Sheep Farming Empire

As well as being a place that defines the early modern development of the Highlands; Glencoe was a place that is closely connected with an industry which was instrumental in forcing the social change in the Highlands which is emblematic of the destruction of the old way of life. The story of sheep farming in Glencoe is significant evidence that change came as a result of Highland landowners as much as any external factors. In Glencoe, this led to the unsettlement of families who had existed in this glen for centuries.

But before any disruption of population, the Glencoe sheep farming empire was to be a ground-breaking business development. It took inspiration from examples outside the Highlands and developed to suit Highland estates and land as well as making the most of connections between land owners and the desperation of the period to improve at all costs. For a short while, until the disastrous consequences of an over-extended business and debts struck, Glencoe was the leader in Highland sheep farming and the remit of its business far outreached the Glencoe estate.

This entire episode of history comes out of the Jacobite period, which not only saw the massacre happen in the glen in 1692, but also saw the involvement of Glencoe men in the 1745 Jacobite rising and their involvement in MacDonnell of Keppoch’s Regiment at the Battle of Culloden.[1]

Alexander MacIain MacDonald, 14th Chief of Glencoe, lived between 1708 and 1750 and was Grandson to Alasdair Ruadh MacIain MacDonald killed during the massacre in 1692.[2] Alexander, 14th of Glencoe and his men were present at the battle of Sherrifmuir in 1715 and Prestonpans in 1745.[3] The chief did not join the Jacobite march into England, but was later in Doune, possibly recruiting while his men fought with MacDonell of Keppoch’s regiment at the battle of Falkirk in 1746. Alexander 14th of Glencoe was then ill at home and not present at the battle of Culloden where his men again bolstered Keppoch’s regiment. After Culloden, Alexander 14th of Glencoe surrendered with his men to Major-General Campbell of Mamore. He was later released in 1749 with the future of the Glencoe estate still to be decided upon.[4]

After this period, Glencoe was an estate which was certainly of interest to the authorities. At this time many estates were forfeited to the crown and annexed. Despite the events in 1692 and the MacDonald of Glencoe support for Jacobitism, including their involvement in Charles Edward Stuart’s army of 1745 and presence at Culloden in 1746, the Glencoe estate was not forfeited or annexed:

“The uncertainty which surrounded so many is well illustrated by the list proposed by Milton, Deskford and Lieutenant-Colonel David Watson, a friend of Cumberland’s, who was Quartermaster-General for Scotland. They included one that was not to be forfeited, Glencoe, and several that were later sold…”[5]

The forfeiture of other estates after the last Jacobite rising of 1745-46 may have, in turn, had a positive effect on Glencoe’s development. These estates enabled the government to raise annexed estates funds from rents and items from the estates which then paid for, amongst other things, roads. The road through Glencoe was one of these and was built with assistance from the funds before the 1770s. This road and the connection it gave the Glencoe estate to the increasingly connected network or roads in the Highlands would have undoubtedly assisted the Glencoe estate’s developments between 1787 and 1814.[6]

Alexander 14th of Glencoe’s son, John MacIain MacDonald, became 15th Chief of the MacDonalds of Glencoe. He died in 1785 and his fourth child and only son, Alexander MacIain MacDonald of Glencoe became 16th Chief of the Glencoe MacDonalds and landowner of the Glencoe estate in 1787.[7], [8]

Having taken on the estate, Alexander almost immediately began taking on rentals and grazing agreements throughout the Highlands. According to Charles Fraser-Mackintosh, sheep farming was unusual behaviour at this time for a Highland landowner and he blamed Lowland landowners for “leading Highlanders astray”.[9]

This brave style of business development may have been influenced by the land usage patterns in the lowlands and possibly further afield, but what is immediately clear is that Highland based landowners, predominantly estate chieftains, were inflicting a business model on the land in their ownership which would not co-exist with populated glens and the working of land for food which would be better for grazing. The business model was profitable and had been proven elsewhere, but it was implemented by Highlanders who wished to make their countryside profitable and knew how.

This, to avoid confusion, was not the clearances. Not at this early stage. It is arguable that it directly led to them in areas like Glencoe, however. In the early stages, this was land owners looking to better their estates. It may even be said that initially their intentions towards people of the estates was fair and positive, but this was hard business and income generation was the driving force. Profitability relied on sound economic and business decisions. It inevitably led to clearance type evictions as debts grew and profitability dropped, but this was some time after initial developments.

This development towards clearance was not just as a result of the profitability of wool, but also the decline in wool prices against the developing cotton trade (1780-1815), which meant that Highland wool producers were forced to expand to maintain profitability, even without the income to pay for their expanding business. The risks of debt-inducing loans were off-set by a belief that economics would counterbalance the expenditure and, in the process, that ‘developments’ which were irrevocable, including the removal of tenants with long histories on the estates, would be worthy of the risk for a selection of the landowning gentry. As we will see, this did not include Alexander MacDonald of Glencoe, but the actions and decisions taken by him, regardless of his personal aims, led to the financial ruin and removal of Rankins and MacDonalds from the Glencoe estate due to economic pressures after 1814.

To understand the extent of Alexander MacDonald’s business development strategy, we must look at the land usage he left upon his death in 1814. It is clear that Alexander expanded to attempt to out-grow the declining wool prices, which was a strategy with inherent risk which Alexander left to the following generations of MacDonalds of Glencoe. At this junction in the Glencoe estate’s history, Alexander had an incredible list of geographically diverse land tenancies. These included, but aren’t limited to:

  • Glencreran in North Argyll from Campbell of Barcaldine,
  • Three leases at Brae Lochaber from MacKintosh of MacKintosh,
  • Glendessaray to the west of Loch Arkaig from Cameron of Locheil,
  • Kinlochnevis in Knoydart from MacDonnell of Glengarry,
  • The central part of Glenstrathfarrar from Fraser of Lovat,
  • Glenmarksie south of Loch Luichart from MacKenzie of Strathgarve,
  • Part of Fersit near Brae Lochaber from the Duke of Gordon,
  • Part of the forest of Monar in Ross-shire from MacKenzie of Fairburn. [10]

Other tenancies include the rental of Corpach from Cameron of Locheil, and the sub-tenancy of Auchteraw near Fort Augustus from Fraser of Lovat.

This list reads like a ‘who’s who’ of land owners in the Highlands during this period and is clear evidence of MacDonald of Glencoe’s shrewdness in business development and the estate’s power at the time. To put a finer point on this, in order to see all of these tenancies in one view, you would need to look at the Ordinance Survey 1:50,000 maps 25, 26, 33, 34, 40, 41 and 50 simultaneously.[11]

The timing of Alexander’s ownership of the Glencoe estate in 1787 and his apparently sudden interest in sheep farming was for good reason. In 1780 there had been a huge rise in wool prices and anyone who could access land tenancies or money to develop had an irresistible opportunity to build an empire.[12] This was exactly what Alexander MacDonald did.

Further evidence of Alexander MacDonald’s power to develop an empire can be found in the money that other landowners appeared so willing to give Alexander MacDonald to keep his business afloat and to keep the development growing. Alexander’s access to money during this period was nothing short of incredible. We must again look at the point of his death in December 1814 to see the true scale of his borrowing ability. At the point of his death, Alexander had outstanding loans of over £8,000. Today this is equivalent to approximately £512,000[13] and included:

  • £2,000 from MacPherson of Cluny,
  • £1,000 from Isabella MacLeod of Bernera,
  • £1,000 from Rev. Alexander Rose of Inverness,
  • £1,000 from George MacKenzie of Dundonnell,
  • £800 from his uncle, Captain Donald MacDonald,
  • £500 from Angus Kennedy of Leanachan.[14]

There were also various other loans recorded by the Glencoe Trustee Accounts after Alexander’s death. Apart from showing an incredible ability to gain money and land tenancies to build a business which grew to be an Empire at its height; we also begin to see the evidence of a man who was funding a business on money not owned by the business. This was and is a recipe for failure. This failure was also disastrous for the Glencoe estate and the people living there.

“Alexander MacDonald of Glencoe also misjudged the market badly. The very large sums of money which he had been able to borrow enabled him to expand well beyond the limit of prudence and he built a sheep farming empire which he was probably incapable of managing properly.”[15]

It is clear that Alexander MacDonald’s brave ‘have a go’ style of business development was flawed from the beginning. He had developed by pushing the boundaries and was unable to stop that style of management when he achieved success. He ignored the principles of working to supply a market and attempted to manage the market to his own agenda. In doing so he gained his business accruement with borrowed money which the business would never manage to pay off. In doing so he destroyed the Glencoe estate, but the true effect of this wasn’t to be felt until 1935 when the entire estate was auctioned in 40 separate lots.

Of the 40 lots, only 30 sold for a combined value of c.£17,800 after the entire 48,357 acre estate was withdrawn from sale at a bid of £28,000. The National Trust for Scotland, through Mr Arthur Russell, bought the smallest plot of land of just 23 acres for £1,350 – by far the highest price per acre in the sale.[16]

Managing an estate effectively and within your means is the first rule of land ownership. Paying attention to trends in the markets you are reliant on is fundamental to achieving secure management. The years leading up to the sale in 1935 are significant in charting the failure of Alexander MacDonald’s sheep farming empire and the demise of the historic Glencoe estate.

Alexander MacIain MacDonald of Glencoe died in December 1814 at the age of 53. It appears that a group of gentleman calling themselves the ‘Trustees of Glencoe’ took over the estate at this time due to the absence of Alexander’s sons. A Trustee minute of a meeting in January 1817 refers to the men being ‘men from Glencoe’ but, according to historian Iain S. MacDonald; “this slender evidence about their origins lacks corroboration”.[17] Left with Alexander’s debts, it was these Trustees who enforced a raised tenancy rate upon the MacDonald and Rankin families living in Glencoe and, in pursuing them for monies, ruined them.[18]

Alexander’s 5th child, Ewen McDonald, became 17thChief of the faltering estate and was the last to take an active role in the management of the estate. He was to be survived by his brother (Alexander’s 7th child) Ronald MacIain MacDonald, 18th chief, who died in New South Wales; who was survived by the last of the Glencoe MacDonalds, Alexander James John MacDonald, born on the Isle of Man and who died in Middlesex on 7th December 1889, the 19th and last MacDonald of Glencoe.[19]

Ewen, 17th of Glencoe and his brother Colin were serving in the East India Company during the time that the Trustees took charge of Glencoe. A record of the Trustee’s accounts records that £5,000 was sent by Ewen and Colin from India, but £6,500 of debt still remained in 1818. It appears that despite the attempts of the Glencoe brothers, the Trustees could not correct the debts accrued by Alexander and were set for failure from the outset:

“In 1821 a messenger called Stewart in Dingwall was instructed by John Cumming, a Writer there acting for the Glencoe Trustees, to poind stock at Monar. Fortunately for Stewart he was paid promptly by John Cumming, but by 1827 Cumming had still not been reimbursed by the Glencoe Trustees who disputed the amount of Stewart’s charges.”[20]

In 1828, after failure to correct the situation, the Trustees handed the estate to Ewen.[21] It would appear that, at this stage, the Glencoe-based sheep farming empire had all but failed and the historic estate was on a decline towards fragmentation from which it would never recover.

The development from 1828 to the breaking up and sale of the Glencoe estate in 1935 is evidence that the risks taken by Alexander MacIain MacDonald, 16th Chief of Glencoe, had been disastrous for the people and the estate. Despite being one of, if not the biggest sheep farming estate in the Highlands, economic pressures led to an inevitable demise due to the economic insecurity of the risks. It was as a result of the decline from 1814 that the estate was broken up and sold in 1935.

The sale catalogue of 1935 held at the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness also records the development of a deal with Dr Sutherland who bought a larger lot from the estate and after discussion with Mr Russell decided to donate his lot to the National Trust for Scotland.[22] The organisation now claim to own the Glencoe estate and took legal ownership of the name in the mid-2010s, which saw the organisation threaten a small outdoor clothing manufacturer with legal action for producing a ‘Glencoe’ jacket.[23] Other lots were sold for, generally, lower than value bids and were intended as farmland or sporting estates.[24] The Glencoe estate is still split and not owned by a single individual or organisation.

Andrew Grant McKenzie MA (Hons) FSA Scot


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[1] Livingston, A., Aikman, C.W.H. and Hart B., (1984), No Quarter Given: The Muster Roll of Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s Army, 1745-46, Glasgow, Neil Wilson, pp.152-154


[3] Lee, H., (1920), History of the Clan Donald: The Families of MacDonald, McDonald and McDonnell, New York, R.L. Polk and Company, p.80

[4] Livingston, A., Aikman, C.W.H. and Hart B., (1984), p.152

[5] Smith, A.M., (1982), Jacobite Estates of the Forty-Five, Edinburgh, John Donald, p.21

[6] Ibid, p.177-178


[8] Macdonald, I.S., (1997), Alexander MacDonald Esq of Glencoe: Insights into early Highland Sheep Farming, The Review of Scottish Culture, No. 10, pp.55-66

[9] Mackintosh, C.F. (1897), Antiquarian Notes: Second Series, Inverness, p.9

[10] Macdonald, I.S., (1997), pp.55-66

[11] Ibid, pp.55-66

[12] Ibid, p.56


[14] Macdonald, I.S., (1997), p.57

[15] Ibid, p.62

[16] Fox and Sons, Walker, Fraser and Steele, (1935), Sale Catalogue, Glencoe Estate: Argyllshire and Perthshire, Highland Council Archives, HCA/D4/243, Inverness

[17] Macdonald, I.S., (1997), p.62

[18] Ibid, p.62


[20] Macdonald, I.S., (2000), Some Highland Lawyers and Their Clients, The Review of Scottish Culture, No. 12, pp.85-92

[21] Macdonald, I.S., (1997), pp.62-66

[22] Fox and Sons, Walker, Fraser and Steele, (1935), HCA/D4/243


[24] Fox and Sons, Walker, Fraser and Steele, (1935), HCA/D4/243

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