History of Glen Coe

Deep in the remote and mountainous Scottish highlands is a glen which has no parallel; Glen Coe. Its name casts a long shadow over our cultural heritage because of the violent deeds of the 13th of February 1692. The massacre of 38 members of the Glencoe Macdonalds by the King’s troops was a bloody betrayal of hospitality but it is the backdrop to these events, the brooding and impenetrable mountains of Glen Coe, which have amplified these heinous acts through so many generations and still taints the landscape, and our perception of it, to this day. This one episode has been so deeply etched in our collective consciousness that it is hard to imagine Glen Coe as anything other than a fearsome place of warring clans and of the brutality of the King’s men on that winter’s day.

Of course, there is more, so much more to the story of Glen Coe.

Post Ice Age

This area of Lochaber has been continuously, though sparsely, populated since the Mesolithic age around 7500 BC. The landscape of the Mesolithic era would have been relatively hostile to these hunter-gatherers with steep, densely wooded hills containing bears, wolves and lynx. Fortunately, the coastal fringes would have been a much safer environment both for shelter and for food, with an abundance of shellfish and seaweed to complement hunting and foraging trips into the woods.

Through the Neolithic period around 4000 BC farming was introduced, and was quickly adopted throughout the highlands. Scattered temporary shelters became permanent homesteads, and by the Bronze age farming and the subsequent felling of trees for fuel was changing the landscape significantly. These changes to a more structured system of farming coincided with a change in climate. The weather throughout this period was a good deal warmer than in the recent past, and many upland areas would have been farmed too, although never at a particularly high density. Belief systems were changing too, evidenced by standing stones such as Clach-a-charra at Onich and the remarkable cup and ring marks at An Dunan, North Ballachulish. These enigmatic artefacts, whose purpose can only be guessed at, remain powerful symbols for our imaginative interpretations of how our distant ancestors interacted with each other and the landscape hereabouts.

Iron Age

By the early Iron age, about 700 BC, settlements became more common and a distinct division of labour began. No longer would a family be entirely self sufficient, but they would increasingly rely on others with distinct skills such as metal workers. This structure to society and the need to band together might well have begun for practical needs, but soon became invaluable for defence. The settlements became much more defensive with duns, enclosures built on the top of a hill, and forts becoming prominent landmarks. Costal trading links became important throughout the highlands as much of the region’s interior terrain was still almost impenetrable. The forts in Lochaber were inevitably coastal which suggests that the threats came from the sea.

High above Onich is the dun of Lag Nam Morag. It sits on a long steep tongue of land which rises from the shore of Loch Linnhe, parallel to the deep trench of Dubh-Ghlac. The only remaining evidence is a tumbledown, turf covered stone wall which defends the dun from the south. The dun is long (about 23 metres) and narrow (15 metres) and is steep-sided all around. It has been suggested that the entrance was at the north end where the slope is less pronounced. As with so many archaeological sites, a good deal of imagination is required to recreate the scene but, sitting on the boat-shaped crest of the dun, it feels both safe and defensive with extensive views out to sea and over to Glen Coe but it also feels very secluded, hidden in full sight; as clever a use of the natural landscape as is possible and a great testimony to its builders.

The iron age people of the Glen Coe area didn’t just rely on practical measures to keep themselves safe however, they sought spiritual help too. The prominent religions of the iron age were polytheistic – they believed in many gods and goddesses. In an area such as Lochaber with its powerful natural motifs, it is easy to speculate that a certain type of Celtic animism was practiced hereabouts with deities linked to natural features such as rivers, trees, rocks and mountains. Evidence for this can be found in a remarkable discovery from North Ballachulish: The Ballachulish Goddess.

The Ballachulish Goddess

In 1880 a carved figurine was discovered close to Bishop’s Bay in North Ballachulish. At 4′ 6″ in height and carved from a single piece of alder wood with quartzite pebbles for eyes, the Ballachulish goddess would have made quite an impression. The figurine has been radiocarbon dated to around 600 BC and has been variously interpreted as a fertility symbol, the goddess of a spring or pool and, most likely given its position, ‘the goddess of the straits’ which refers to the dangerous crossing of Loch Leven. It is easy to envisage wary travellers making an offering to the deity for safe passage across the loch.

Surely this religion of animism would have extended to the most remarkable natural feature which dominates the view from the dun of Lag Nam Morag, the fort at An Dunan and the site of the Ballachulish goddess: Bidean nam Bian. From these locations the mountain appears as a giant chair with the great sweep of Stob Coire nam Beith and its opposite, Stob Coire nan Lochan lofting up to the final pinnacle of Bidean; a seat of the gods perhaps? Of course, this is all fanciful speculation on my behalf but sitting up on Lag Nam Morag, high above the lochs of Linnhe and Leven and gazing into the depths of Glen Coe, the eddies of time and space can occasionally hint at a past which is not so far removed from our modern lives.

Dawn of the Celts

During the middle iron age, at around 100 BC the population of Lochaber seems to have become a good deal more settled and less warlike. The adoption of a Celtic language and society and the expansion of trade made life here if not prosperous, at least stable. Through Roman conquest and Viking raids, life in this remote community remained broadly the same. Christianity was adopted from the mid sixth century, possibly after St Moluag (523-592) established a community on the isle of Lismore. It is certain that by the beginning of the seventh century the Christian church was well established in the highlands. A good deal of the old lores would have remained, passed down the generations through storytelling and song.

The First Mountaineers

Throughout the medieval period, the population was ruled by the ‘Lords of the Isles’, Celtic remained the common language and the clan system came to prominence. In Glen Coe little changed; crops were grown, sheep were grazed and cattle roamed the glen. The heights above Glen Coe, including Bidean nam Bian, would have been climbed often in the pursuit of livestock, collecting birds’ eggs, foraging for food and fuel and collecting crystals for trade. Winter was spent close to the sea or in farmsteads in the lower glen, and in spring the animals would be herded to summer grazings higher up the glen. The agricultural calendar dominated the landscape rather than the political turmoils of the medieval.

Lochaber in Georgian Times

Glen Coe remained a relative backwater (if we discount the grisly deeds of 1692) until the Stirling to Fort William military road, which ran from King’s House Inn over the Devil’s Staircase and Lairig Mor to Fort William was abandoned in 1785 and diverted to run down Glen Coe instead. This important road would change the dynamic of the glen forever as it is still this route which is used today. This was also the period of the clearances. After the failed Jacobite revolution of 1745 landowners were encouraged to clear settlements across the highlands in favour of less rebellious sheep and Glen Coe would have seen a significant reduction in its population. It was into this denuded landscape that the early tourists came.

Romanticism and Lochaber

Glen Coe was still a remote region and would have had few travellers passing through until the early 19th century when the first tourists began to visit. Visits to the highlands for pleasure were virtually unheard of until the revolution in Paris created a sequence of events which would lead to the birth of modern tourism in England and Scotland. The French revolution of 1789 and the subsequent Napoleonic wars made the traditional ‘grand tour’ unattainable as continental Europe was rendered distinctly out of bounds to the British aristocracy. Instead, they turned their attentions to travelling at home. This shift in location was fuelled by the cultural and artistic movement of romanticism and in the highlands through the writings of Sir Walter Scott and his popular Waverley novels. Popular too was the epic poetry of the Scottish bard, Ossian. It was said that Ossian was born in Glencoe in the third century, although this has since been found to be untrue, and a fabrication of James Macpherson in the 18th century. The bardic tradition, however, has always been a key part of Celtic culture in the highlands and there seems little doubt that the stories were, at least in part, based on ancient tales passed down the generations. Artists were also discovering Scotland with Turner a noticeable visitor in 1801. Romanticism, and in particular the idea of the sublime was a powerful influence on early visitors to Glen Coe. The Glencoe massacre, combined with towering mountains and capricious weather gave rise to some splendidly purple prose but one visiter, in particular, had a more perceptive manner than most: Dorothy Wordsworth. She visited Glen Coe during a tour of Scotland in 1803 with her brother William and her impressions are well worth repeating,

“The afternoon was delightful,—the sun shone, the mountain-tops were clear, the lake glittered in the great vale behind us, and the stream of Glen Coe flowed down to it glittering among alder trees.  The meadows of the glen were of the freshest green; one new-built stone house in the first reach, some huts, hillocks covered with wood, alder trees scattered all over.  Looking backwards, we were reminded of Patterdale and the head of Ullswater, but forward the greatness of the mountains overcame every other idea.

The impression was, as we advanced up to the head of this first reach as if the glen were nothing, its loneliness and retirement—as if it made up no part of my feeling: the mountains were all in all.  That which fronted us—I have forgotten its name—was exceedingly lofty, the surface stony, nay, the whole mountain was one mass of stone, wrinkled and puckered up together.  At the second and last reach—for it is not a winding vale—it makes a quick turning almost at right angles to the first; and now we are in the depths of the mountains; no trees in the glen, only green pasturage for sheep, and here and there a plot of hay-ground, and something that tells of former cultivation.  I observed this to the guide, who said that formerly the glen had had many inhabitants and that there, as elsewhere in the Highlands, there had been a great deal of corn where now the lands were left waste, and nothing fed upon them but cattle.  I cannot attempt to describe the mountains.  I can only say that I thought those on our right—for the other side was only a continued high ridge or craggy barrier, broken along the top into petty spiral forms—were the grandest I had ever seen.  It seldom happens that mountains in a very clear air look exceedingly high, but these, though we could see the whole of them to their very summits, appeared to me more majestic in their own nakedness than our imaginations could have conceived them to be, had they been half hidden by clouds, yet showing some of their highest pinnacles.  They were such forms as Milton might be supposed to have had in his mind when he applied to Satan that sublime expression—
‘His stature reached the sky.’

The first division of the glen, as I have said, was scattered over with rocks, trees, and woody hillocks, and cottages were to be seen here and there.  The second division is bare and stony, huge mountains on all sides, with a slender pasturage in the bottom of the valley; and towards the head of it is a small lake or tarn, and near the tarn a single inhabited dwelling, and some unfenced hay-ground—a simple impressive scene!  Our road frequently crossed large streams of stones, left by the mountain-torrents, losing all appearance of a road.  After we had passed the tarn the glen became less interesting, or rather the mountains, from the manner in which they are looked at; but again, a little higher up, they resume their grandeur.  The river is, for a short space, hidden between steep rocks: we left the road, and, going to the top of one of the rocks, saw it foaming over stones, or lodged in dark black dens; birch-trees grew on the inaccessible banks, and a few old Scotch firs towered above them.  At the entrance of the glen the mountains had been all without trees, but here the birches climb very far up the side of one of them opposite to us, half concealing a rivulet, which came tumbling down as white as snow from the very top of the mountain.  Leaving the rock, we ascended a hill which terminated the glen.  We often stopped to look behind at the majestic company of mountains we had left.  Before us was no single paramount eminence, but a mountain waste, mountain beyond mountain, and a barren hollow or basin into which we were descending.”
From Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland A.D. 1803 by Dorothy Wordsworth

Victorian Popularisation

During the 19th century, the highlands became an increasingly popular destination for travellers. Victorian artists, such as Horatio McCulloch made a series of paintings of Glen Coe, and Sir Edwin Landseer’s painting ‘Monarch of the Glen’ became etched in the nation’s consciousness as the epitome of Scottish iconography, at least in the eyes of the Victorian tourist. Most travellers were content to view the scenery from the safety of the road, to gasp and thrill at the misty mountains of the Coe. Carriages were obliged to stop at the sharp corner at the head of Glen Coe, still known as ‘The Study’ to view the manifest delights of the glen and to revel in tales of cattle rustling and the bloody massacre of 1692. The thought of walking into these mountains for pleasure would have been seen as pure madness to Victorian sensibilities. The upper reaches of Glen Coe and the great peaks of Bidean nam Bian were best left to the shepherds.

The “Sport” of Mountaineering

The first influx of mountaineers came in the second half of the 19th century. Until then the new sport of mountaineering had been conducted in the Alps but the first visit to the Cuillin of Skye by the Alpine Club in 1880 proved that excellent sport could also be found in Scotland. The first detailed maps by the Ordnance Survey in 1880 and the coming of the railways did much to encourage explorations whilst the publication in 1891 by Sir Hugh Munro of his list of hills over 3000 feet gave rise to a pastime which is still popular to this day; Munro bagging. The first recorded rock climb on Bidean nam Bian was in 1894 and by the turn of the century the sport of climbing and the ascent of mountains purely for pleasure was firmly established.

By the 1930’s travel by motor car was growing quickly and the old military road was upgraded and re-routed through Glen Coe. Now classified as the A82 it cuts through the upper gorge by means of an elegant bridge by the meeting of the three waters then slowly descends the flanks of the lower Aonach Eagach above the old road. The majestic view of the three sisters of Glen Coe still halts the modern traveller as it has done for generations. Just below the old road where carriages of early tourists once stopped to admire the scene is a car park which is a popular viewpoint. Modes of transport might have changed but there is no doubt that the power of the mountain environment and the excitement of Glen Coe remains.

The National Trust

In 1935 the National Trust for Scotland bought the land in Glen Coe, including Bidean nam Bian. Much of the money necessary for the purchase came from the fundraising efforts of the Scottish Mountaineering Club whose legacy has given free and unrestricted access to the mountains of Glen Coe for almost ninety years.

The history of Bidean nam Bian is as intrinsically linked to its people today as it was for the neolithic settlers 4000 years ago. Perhaps more know the name of Bidean nam Bian now than in any time previously but to know this mountain well, to really get to grips with its structure, its flora and fauna, in all seasons and in all weathers takes a lifetime of exploration, and it would be a lifetime well spent. The mountain has passed from animist deity to a place of secular pilgrimage in the cult of mountain walking.

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