You know it’s gonna be a good day when Papa puts on his sunglasses and we take off all our sweaters. 64 degrees on the drive to Glencoe. Home base for the week was in the charming town of Ballachulish (bal-ah-cool-ish) – once the slate manufacturing capital of Scotland. We checked into the cutest cottage tucked in the Glencoe mountains. The cottage was surrounded by trees and at the top of a steep drive and it certainly put you in the “highlands” mood immediately. On our way to Ballachulish, we stopped in Fort William for groceries and at the train station for train tickets for the Jacobite Steam Train used for filming Harry Potter. But know this, as we learned the hard way, you can’t buy them there. You have to purchase them online or via telephone in advance and waaaay in advance I would recommend as we weren’t able to get 3 seats on the same train despite a ton of begging.
Fire and Ice is what is said to have created the foreboding mountains and prodigious valleys of Glencoe – a mere 8 miles in distance from east to west and a surreal 8 miles to get lost in both physically and spiritually. Glencoe, to me, is what grit and determination would look like if grit and determination had a visual representation. It’s forlorn, capricious and seemingly admonishing and inexorable. Yet while there you don’t feel despondent because of this, or at least I didn’t. I did feel small and alone in its vastness and was struck humble in a pontificating manner by Glencoe itself, as if God’s sole purpose for its creation was to remind us of how negligible we, as individuals, truly are. At the same time the thought occurred to me that it was created to remind us that we are so special to him that he formed Glencoe from fire and ice as a gift to us. Either way, Glencoe is a life form all its own. It has its own heartbeat, its own personality, its own mood swings and breath. I was completely mesmerized by every inch of it and you will be too.
While I found it difficult to photograph the steep craggily rock mountains and the abyss of the shallow gorges sleepily winding in between, I attempted too. In fact, I climbed up on waterfalls, trudged through rivers, trekked down glens and across moors, and if I had more time and was alone, would have hiked up either the Aonach Dubh to Ossian’s Cave or perhaps up one of The Three Sisters or Buachaille Etiv Mòr, the Devil’s Staircase or perhaps done them all. I even took a scary “near” fall into a river in the Mòr where I found a marble looking rock with the cross carved in it (look very closely at below photo) and two separate cairns (mounds of stones built as memorials).
What I didn’t know is that this worldwide and ancient practice of stacking rocks called cairns comes from the Gaelic language and comes from right here in Scotland. The “near” fall came right while I was trying to photograph the cairns so perhaps photographing them is seen as a desecration of some kind like with certain tribes or like with the Mayans in Honduras. Having said that, I SHOULD have fallen into that river. I was most definitely going down and yet it was a slow motion fall and as incredulous as it sounds, I am certain I felt the hand of God on my shoulder stabilizing me. He did, however, let me go calf deep into the water but with only one foot. I was also reminded that not only was God there watching out for me but that God has a sense of humor. I was not reminded of this immediately – not until after I started breathing again.
In addition to Glencoe’s own natural moodiness, don’t forget the ghosts of Glencoe while here. The “Murder under Trust” i.e. the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692 is a story that encapsulates a lot of Scottish history – clan rivalry, conflict with England and divided loyalties. “Murder under Trust” is arguably the number one reason that spirits walk the earth amongst us. Why? Well it is the worst kind of betrayal there is and in Scotland it is considered revenge’s sword in the afterlife. If you don’t believe it to be true, just come here and listen to the wind and then decide.
What happened was a result of a rivalry between the Campbell and the MacDonald clans – not unlike the American version of the Hatfields and McCoys – presaged the first Jacobite uprising in 1715. A great number of the Highlanders, as I now know, long believed that James Stuart’s line was the rightful holders of the crown when William of Orange and his wife, Mary, held the monarch as a duo in the 1690s. William, being concerned about the Jacobite threat to his reign, used a mix of force and negotiation to keep the Highlanders in line. Most clan chiefs signed an indemnification agreement for past “crimes” of betrayal against the anointed monarchs of England pledging their loyalty to the crown (the negotiation strategy) by the deadline of December 31, 1691 including the Campbells. Yet, MacLain, the MacDonald clan chief, waited until the last minute and missed the deadline not signing until January 3rd. Unbeknownst to him, his pledge was rejected and his and his clan’s death warrants were signed (force tactic).
In order to understand the “Murder under Trust” you must be aware that for at least 12 days MacLain housed and fed in the middle of the winter (February to be exact) the same Argyle regiment that turned on him and his clan on February 13, 1692 at 5:00 a.m. This was considered the worst betrayal one could make hence the saying “Murder under Trust”. It was not a clan battle but a government sanctioned murder using the MacDonald clan as an example. The good news is some of the soldiers were unwilling to murder, men, women and children and, in fact, may have helped some of the clan escape including MacLain’s two children, He and his wife were not so lucky unfortunately. In fact, his wife was disrobed and tossed into the snow where she later was found frozen to death. The massacre, as expected, furthered the support for the Jacobite cause in the Highlands.
In summary, Glencoe should not only be visited but should be heard, felt and even reasoned with. You’ll understand when you get here. Drive deep into Glencoe and the surrounding area on its single track roads. Try a climb or two or take a walk through what feels like the valley of the shadow of death and then, and only then, will you understand the daunting and the divine which is Glencoe.
While in the Glencoe area, take the time to drive up along Loch Leven to a town called Kinlochleven. Here they have your quintessential Scottish river flowing through the town, a lovely waterfall and if you can believe it, the largest indoor training center for ice climbing, bouldering and rock climbing in the world. They even have an aerial obstacle course with trapezes and swings, climbing nets and the like. But hear me when I say it is not for the faint at heart! If I had been on my own, I would have likely tried out the indoor ice climbing and definitely would have rented the gear to do some outdoor rock climbing in the area. There is also great places for kayaking in the area and I even saw some scuba divers.
Also, when in the Glencoe area, take a trip into Oban stopping periodically for some Kodak moments and find your way up to McCaig’s Tower – the Crown of Oban. It is a full circle coliseum-like structure and daunting in size. It overlooks the town of Oban, the Isle of Mull, Iona and Staffa. You can take a daily tour to these islands via boat assuming the weather holds up. (See the Isles of Scotland post coming soon to hear more about that adventure.) I enjoyed photographing the colorful sailboats which from that distance looked like cute little toy boats. Oh and don’t forget while you are in Oban to stop for seafood. Oban is known for the best seafood in Scotland.
Rain rain go away come again some other day (and preferably after I leave!). Take my advice – when you get a sunny day in the U.K., make sure you spend every waking second outside! Take your photographs, take your meandering walks and take it all in as it’s bound not to last. If you do get a rainy day, use that day to go to museums. That’s what we did. It is a great way to learn the rich history of the area before diving into it and there is a LOT of it.
Try Glencoe Visitor Center for one but don’t confuse it with the Glencoe Folk Museum although you may want to stop there as well. At the visitor center is where we learned how glaciers and volcanoes – fire and ice – formed Glencoe millions of years ago as stated above. Here we also learned the history of mountaineering and ice climbing in the area including how the idea of metal ice picks that are used today came about. One Scottish rescuer found an entire climbing party dead in the mountains – all with broken wooden picks which gave him the idea to make the change to metal.
On our way to Glenfinnan, we found a lay-by at Inverscaddl Bay. We got some lovely photographs of this bay as well as Glenfinnan as the sun came out. Glenfinnan is a famous monument at Loch Shiel to Bonnie Prince Charlie. This is where the Prince first landed in Scotland in August 1745 (the Second Jacobite uprising) and where he raised his standard. The scenery from here is spectacular and you may recognize the train bridge from a Harry Potter movie or two!
Enjoy a little video of Scotland below and really take in all that Glencoe has to offer on your next trip to Scotland,
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