Glencoe, Scotland: The past on the wild wind

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Glencoe, Scotland: The past on the wild wind

The plaque at the reception of the Clachaig Inn at Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands reads: “No hawkers or Campbells”.

It is amusing -- I’m sure Naomi would be welcome should she show up in this beautiful but largely unpopulated region -- but it also reminds you of a fault-line of deep feeling that runs through Scottish history.

It was here in these once remote valleys -- today just a few hours drive north from Glasgow -- that in the early hours of 13 February 1692 the massacre of the Clan MacDonald was carried out by troopers of the London-based government, many of them from Clan Campbell.

The troops had been sent to the region after the Battle of Killicrankie, the first Jacobite rebellion in which the English were defeated by Highlanders whose cause was the restoration of James VII to the throne in place of King William of Orange.

The soldiers had been staying in MacDonald homes but their secret instructions were brutal: “by fire and sword, and all manner of hostility to burn [Clan MacDonald] houses, seise or destroy their goods or cattell, plenishing or cloathes and to cut off the men”.

By the time the attacks began, at 5am on a bitterly cold morning, there had been even more clear orders: “putt all to the sword under seventy . . . You are to secure all the avenues that no man escape”.

Surprisingly many did manage to flee -- certainly some soldiers tipped off their hosts or couldn’t bring themselves to carry out the command -- and history records 38 murders. Some who fled into the rolling valleys that they knew so well died of exposure.

Today the pass at Glencoe beside Loch Leven is a more benign place -- walking and cycling trails, fishing, mountain climbing, boat trips on the loch, Dragon’s Tooth Golf Course at Ballachulish -- but when the mists roll in over the mountains there is a chill in the air which goes straight to the soul.

It was on one such afternoon we pulled in to the Clachaig Inn, the fading light softening the dramatic scenery like a veil of fine gauze. The sky glowered a blue-black and rain sent white torrents of waterfalls down the green and black hills. This truly felt like “the glen of weeping” as the name says.

Dorothy Wordsworth was lost when she tried to write about this region in her 1803 Journal: “I cannot attempt to describe the mountains. I can only say that [they] were the grandest I had ever seen.”

Poets and painters as much as outdoor types are drawn to Glencoe, many staying the village of that name. But the Clachaig Inn, tucked in the shadow of mountains at the heart of the Pass, enjoys a reputation for hearty food and a good welcome -- unless you happen to be a Campbell, perhaps.

There has been an inn on this site since the 19th century and in recent times it has been a regular winner in awards given by the Campaign for Real Ale. It has voted the Clachaig the best pub in Scotland and the Best Real Ale Pub in Britain.

It was certainly easy to get a drink because, although it seems small, the Clachaig has three quite distinct bar areas (the largest for those hearty souls in hiking boots, the smallest a cute snug). The food was everything we had been told, the kinds of meals you need after a day or two in the mountains.

But even if you are just passing through by car -- it makes a good loop between Glasgow and Edinburgh if you have a day or two to spare -- this region is breathtakingly beautiful.

The character of the mountains changes as clouds pass overhead, and walking just a minutes from the road you feel as if you are in a remote and alien world shrouded in mystery and ancient legend.

The sound of lone piper in a lay-by playing for passing tourists floats eerily in the cold air, the clear water in the small streams is icy, the stones shine black in the rain.

And high above a lone falcon rides the wind. 

For other travel stories by Graham Reid, see here for his two award-winning travel books.

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