Welcome to Glencoe

Glencoe is one of the most beautiful valleys in the world. It runs for ten miles bounded by the steep slopes of rugged mountains: from Loch Leven south east to the Rannoch Moor. The rock which forms the valley is amongst the oldest in the world. It was stretched, broken and torn by movements in the earth's crust 380 million years ago, and has been shaped and moulded by glaciation and millions of years of erosion. The effects are spectacular; to the north the Aonach Eagach, or 'notched ridge', stretches for over three miles and connects three summits which tower over three thousand feet; to the south Glencoe is lined by complex interconnections of ridges, valleys and peaks. Glencoe is the perfect picture postcard of the Scottish wilderness; shrouded in mists, swept by shafts of light which break through the tumultuous clouds or defined in the soft light of a calm summer's evening; Glencoe provides a myriad of emotive vistas.


Rannoch Moor, nr Glencoe

The setting is fitting for the Celtic myths which provide us with our first insights into the history of the glen. Glencoe is said to have been home to a giant, Fingal, a mythological Gaelic hero who led a band of warriors known as the "Feinn". Fingal and his followers are said to have defeated the Viking army led by King Erragon of Sora, which, having made its way into Loch Leven, was slaughtered by the Feinn on the sea loch's banks. The exploits of Fingal and his men have been commemorated in the name Sgor nam Fiannaidh: ‘rock of the Feinn', one of Glencoe's beautiful mountains. The poet Ossian is regarded as Fingal's son. Ossian became famous throughout Europe in 1762 when the poet James McPherson (1736–96) published "Fingal and Temora", which he represented as a translation of the poet's works. A cave above Loch Achtriochtan, which lies at the foot of the Aonach Eagach, bears the name of Ossian.

Despite Fingal's acclaimed success, the Scandinavian influence would live on in Glencoe. The Clan MacDougall, which owed its origins to the Vikings, ruled over Glencoe until the end of the 13th century. However, their empire collapsed after 1308 when they decided to support John Balliol's claim to the Scottish throne over that of Robert the Bruce. Later, as undisputed king, Bruce gifted Glencoe to Clan MacDonald.

By 1501 a feud had begun between the MacDonalds of Glencoe and the Campells of Argyll. The basis of the feud seems to have been the Campells' attempts at expanding into MacDonald territory and the MacDonalds' frequent theft of the Campells' cattle. On the mountain Bidean nam Bian there is a hidden valley, Allt Coire Gabhail. Here the MacDonalds' found a perfect hiding place for the stolen animals.



Reflections on Rannoch Moor, Glencoe


The traditionally held view is that this feud provided the background for a tragedy which has become the most famous event in the Glen's history: “The Massacre of Glencoe”. However, in reality the massacre was the result of the clans' involvement in a wider conflict: between King William III and the House of Stewart. In 1689 when James II (James Stewart) was ousted from the throne most highlanders remained loyal to the deposed king and an uprising began. Amongst James' supporters were the MacDonalds of Glencoe while many Campells owed their positions in government and in the military to the new regime. Although the uprising eventually failed, the ongoing threat posed by the clans prompted Willaim's government to take measures to ensure the Highlands were brought to order. Part of the plan was to grant pardon to those who had participated in the rebellion on the condition that they sign an oath of allegiance to William by 1st January, 1692. On the 31st of December, 1691, Alistair MacDonald, Clan Chief of the MacDonalds of Glencoe, arrived in Fort William to take the oath. On arrival he was told that he should have gone to Inverary! Despite making haste he eventually took the oath five days late. For a government influenced by Campells and wishing to make an example, Alistair's lack of punctuality was enough to seal the MacDonalds' fate.

Believing the oath had been accepted, the MacDonalds welcomed the government force of about 120 men, led by Captain Campbell of Glenlyon, which came to Glencoe at the begining of February, 1692. For 12 days the government soldiers received the Highlanders' hospitality: slept in the MacDonalds' beds, shared their food, drink and company. At 5 am on the 13th of February the government troops turned on their hosts: murdering men, women and children. Perhaps bloated by the MacDonalds' hospitality, the troops made a botched job of the killing. Only 38 of around 400 defenceless MacDonalds were slain by the soldiers while the remainder escaped into the mountains, where an untold number died of starvation and exposure. Despite the ineptitude of the troops, The Massacre of Glencoe has gone down in history as a day of infamy, not so much because of the numbers slain but because of the duplicitous nature of its undertaking. A monument commemorating the victims of 1692 is situated in Glencoe Village.



Bidean nam Bian - Pinnicle of the Hills, Glencoe

Today Glencoe is an unmissable part of any tour of the Scottish Highlands. It offers as much for climbers, skiers and sightseers as it does for anyone interested in history. Attempts at capturing Glencoe's awesome beauty have been made by countless filmmakers; Highlander, Rob Roy, Braveheart and, most recently, Harry Potter are just a few of the films which have used the glen as a backdrop. Fans of such films are amongst those who come to take in the Glen's views and none leave disappointed; for Glencoe is one of those places which not only lives up to expectations, but surpasses them.

See also: Glencoe Blog