Oh, cruel is the snow that sweeps Glencoe
And covers the grave o’ Donald;
Oh, cruel was the foe that raped Glencoe
And murdered the house of MacDonald
– Jim McLean, The Massacre of Glencoe
They were hacked to death in the black winter night, more than three dozen men, women and children put to the sword by guests who had shared their homes for two weeks. The survivors staggered out into the fresh fallen snow, most freezing to death in the crags surrounding the valley of Glencoe.
More than 300 years have passed since the Campbells murdered the MacDonalds in the remote highlands of Scotland. Time and pavement have tamed the land. The clans have dispersed. Hikers have replaced warriors.
But the 1692 slaughter of clan MacDonald by clan Campbell still resonates in Glencoe. Nature and history combine to create a melancholic mood that draws visitors to the small villages and twisting trails of the sharply rising hills hugging the A82.
“Glencoe is the most beautiful place in all of Scotland, at least to my thinking,” says David Clellend, visiting from Glasgow. “Every schoolchild has heard the story of the massacre.”
Summer was long gone by the time my friend Jebb and I bundled up for the 186km trip up from Edinburgh. By the time we got north of Crianlarich, civilisation had largely receded, save for wisps of smoke from the chimneys of the occasional country inn. The road curled around Beinn Chaorach, Ben Dorian and other mountains smoothed by eons of wind and water. Rain clouds raced across the barren hillsides.
We stopped for coffee at a roadside stand just past the Water of Tulla on a turnout near Rannoch Moor. The hot brew was as much to warm our hands as to warm our bellies while we stared out at the immense wet plateau of icy lakes and spongy fields filled with burnished brown heather.
The expanse of Rannoch Moor narrowed as the road dropped into Glencoe, the long, tight valley flanked by massive crags.
Backpackers slogged up the sloppy trail to Three Sisters, three squat peaks separated by rocky ravines. Rainwater tried to find the quickest way down the mountain, creating impromptu mini-waterfalls against the stone walls. A few trees clung to the streambeds, partly protected from the biting wind.
The valley today looks more like it did in the 17th century than it did at the beginning of the 19th century, thanks to the non-profit National Trust for Scotland who, starting in the 1930s, began buying more than 2000 hectares in and around Glencoe, removing structures to return much of the valley to nature.
A 1970s visitor centre was bulldozed to be replaced in 2002 by a combination museum, café and gift shop tucked into an unobtrusive spot at the north end of the valley. The centre tells the story of the massacre as well as the geological forces that form the scraped and scoured topography of Glencoe.
The efforts of the National Trust make it easier to imagine what it must have been like to live in Glencoe that winter of 1692. William and Mary were newly on the throne of the United Kingdom, the union of England, Scotland and Ireland formed in 1603. The Protestant pair were invited to become King and Queen as part of a parliament plot in 1688 for the peaceful overthrow of James II, a Catholic.
Many in the Highlands supported James II and helped in an abortive uprising in 1689. William III and Mary II promised a pardon to Highlands chiefs if they would now swear an oath of fealty to the new monarchs. A deadline was set. Miss it and there would be reprisals.
Alasdair MacIain was the fearsome chieftain of the MacDonalds of Glencoe. A massive man with flowing white hair and beard, he had backed James II early in the succession struggle. Faced with the ultimatum, MacIain pondered his options. In the end, he decided to submit, but officials in Edinburgh with longstanding animosity to the clan ruled that he had missed the deadline. A secret order was sent out that the MacDonalds were to be destroyed “root and branch” by “fire and sword”.
A military unit made up of the MacDonalds’ longtime clan rival, the Campbells, marched south from Fort William to Glencoe in the bleak winter of February 1692. The troops asked for shelter from the fierce storms that swept across the valley. Though they disliked the Campbells, Highland codes of hospitality required the MacDonalds share their homes. For 12 days, the two clans uneasily coexisted. Then in the midst of a heavy snowfall in the early hours of February 13 1692, the Campbells struck.
By sunrise, 38 MacDonalds lay dead, including MacIain. Many more MacDonalds escaped into the mountains, though some – including MacIain’s wife – died of exposure. When word of the murders spread, the Scottish Parliament launched an inquiry. The government leader who had approved the raid was forced to resign and the Campbells were forever branded as cowardly murderers.
Glencoe today is a popular spot for hill walkers and day-trippers up from Glasgow or Edinburgh. At the north end of the valley, we turned off on a one-lane road at the end of which was Clachaig Inn, the most atmospheric hotel and pub in Glencoe. We headed around back to the happily scruffy Boots Bar, named for the muddy clogs of the climbers who come there.
Pictures of hikers have been tacked up on the walls, along with broken ice picks, snowshoes and stickers from a worldwide collection of hiking equipment manufacturers. Hikers and travellers swapped stories of the mountains. A muscular, but goofy Staffordshire terrier ran around looking for a table scrap or two. A man staggered beer in hand to the jukebox, to choose Lynyrd Skyrnd’s Free Bird. Over the bar, bottles of single-malt Scotch lined a shelf. A shot of Linkwood, my favourite Scotch, was £1.80. It would cost four times as much in an Edinburgh bar. The happy fellowship of hikers has replaced the animosity of the clans of Glencoe. The bad old days were now just legend. Almost.
On the way out of the Boots Bar, I noticed a warning sign hanging on a wall: ‘No hawkers or Campbells’.
• Citylink Bus Service (www.citylink.co.uk) between Glasgow and Fort William stops at Glencoe, which is approximately three hours from Glasgow and four hours from Edinburgh.”