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Glen Coe – The Myth, The Massacre & Majestic Mountains

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The Myth

Glen Coe is probably the busiest wilderness in the world with thousands of tourists driving through. Very few people actually stop and even less take the hike up to Ossian’s Cave, mostly due to the restricted number of trails, but it is well worth the effort. Ossian’s Cave is high up on the slope of Aonach Dubh, one of the three sisters. Many early Himalayan climbers honed their skills on the challenging treacherous slopes. There are almost no trees or shrubs, only grass, fen and heather.

Ossian was the legendary poet son of FION and SADBH. The Druid FER DOIRICH was in love with SADBH and when she spurned him he struck her with his hazel wand and SADBH was turned into a deer by the Druid FER DOIRICH. As FION hunted with his dogs he caught her but curiously they did not kill her, when she was released she transformed into a beautiful woman and they fell in love. Soon after FER DOIRICH transformed her back into a deer and she ran away pregnant.

OSSIAN was born in this cave in Glen Coe, OSSIAN means “little faun”.

The legend is that one day whilst out hunting he saw a beautiful maiden with long golden hair and a pale blue dress, riding a majestic white horse. She had a godly appearance as a golden light surrounded her. She approached the Fianna on horseback (The Fianna were a group who guarded the King of Ireland), and introduced herself as Niamh the daughter of the king of Tir Na nOg, the land of eternal youth and was searching for a great warrior named Ossian. She stated she had come to take him back with her. She explained in her land nobody grew old, or ever felt sadness as they were in a constant state of happiness. The island was covered with fruit tree orchards and the forest trees dripped with honey.

Ossian was hesitant about leaving his father but was drawn to Niamh and had fallen in love with her and agreed to go with her, telling his father he would return soon. Ossian arrived in Tir Na nOg and was very happy there with Niamh until he came across an older woman which confused him. The old woman explained she had been older when she arrived, and that here she would continue to get younger till she became a child.

Ossian was happy with Niamh but missed his father terribly and felt a loneliness in his heart, he asked Niamh if he could return to his father, his homeland and his people, she resisted at first and then realised how much it meant to him and allowed him to visit. She sent him on her white horse telling him specific instructions not to get off the horse, as if his feet should touch the ground he could never return to her.

Ossian headed home and when he arrived everything had changed, the Fianna was gone, his home was crumbling, and he desperately looked for something he could recognise but he failed and headed back towards Tir Na nOg. The legend states as he was heading back to Niamh he came across some men struggling to move a rock, he asked about his father and the Fianna but the old men said that his father, Fiona Mac Cumhaill and the Fianna were just legends.

Ossian leaned over from his horse to help move the rock but fell from the horse and just as Niamh had told him, the instant he touched the ground he aged 300 years. He had not realised that time on Tir Na nOg stands still and he had actually been away from his home 300 years. It is said now he was a blind old man and was devastated to hear his father had died many years ago. Ossian shared stories of his father, the Fianna and Tir Na nOg with Saint Patrick before dying of old age.

To this day the story of Ossian and Tir Na nOg remains a powerful and mesmerising Irish legend, an island of youth where all are happy and never grow old, but also the sad story of one man who loved his home and father so much he left to return home but was too late.

Glen Coe Massacre

During the Jacobite rebellion of 1689-1692, the English king William the Third had armies spread thinly in various parts of the world. He had men in the Caribbean protecting lands and ships from pirates and other opposing countries in the region, men on board ships in the Indian Ocean, men in South Africa and also in Ireland, plus huge contingent in Scotland.

In an attempt to quell the rebellion and free up much-needed men, in 1689, he drafted a document which was in any other language a peace treaty. As England refused to recognise Scotland as a free and independent nation, it was a “non-aggression pact”. This was to be read, signed and sealed by all clan chiefs in Scotland and set a deadline of 31st December 1691.

On the 27th of August 1691 another chapter of this tragedy began when the English king offered a full pardon to all those who has raised arms against the English, as long as they took an oath of allegiance in front of a magistrate by 1st January 1692. Many of the clan chiefs were happy to sign following years of conflict, others were more reluctant as there were trust issues as to whether the English would honour this treaty.

One clan chief left it till the last minute, he was the clan chief of the McDonalds of Glen Coe his name was MacLain. He left it till after Boxing Day 1691 to head off to reluctantly agree to take the oath, but mistakenly went to Inverlochy in Fort William instead of Inveraray near Oban. He finally reached Inveraray on 6th January 1692, well after the deadline. MacLain, then naively believed that although he’d missed the deadline that he and the members of his clan were safe.

This could not have been further from the truth as a force was already in motion and on the 1st February left from Inveraray to Glen Coe village ordered by King William. The commander was Captain Robert Campbell of Glen Lyon, who had a long-standing grudge against the MacDonalds. On arrival at Glen Coe village Captain Campbell asked for shelter from the storm for his 130 men, and unaware of what was to be their fate the villagers gave them shelter, dry clothes and half their meat for 10 days.

On the evening of 12th February Campbell received orders to kill all MacDonalds between the ages of 7 and 70 years of age at 5am the following morning. In the cold winter’s morning, 38 MacDonalds were slaughtered in their sleep. Some had been warned to make their escape by the men who felt guilty after the great hospitality they had been shown. It was the act of treachery in response to the hospitality when they had been living on such friendly terms that make this horrible massacre all the more heinous.

There were no recorded survivors, many perished due to exposure making their way to the hidden valley at the Three Sisters over 9 miles from the village. They sheltered their animals here and those who made it here would have animals to kill for food and warmth from the skins. They would then make their way west to the coast to gain passage to the Western Isles and safety. Any who did survive would have changed their names to avoid persecution from the English and the Campbells.

A monument was erected in the village to honour the victims of this barbaric massacre. MacLain was buried on the island of Eileen Munda in Loch Leven. Signal Rock where the order for the massacre to commence is a few hundred yards west from Clachaig Inn on the River Coe.

In 1785 the first road was built through the glen but following the “clearances” by the time the 17th chief Ewen MacDonald died in 1837 the name MacDonald had little meaning.

The people of Scotland still feel a strong sense of anger towards the Campbell’s and their actions. The Clachaig Inn in Glen Coe even displays a sign stating, “No hawkers or Campbells”.

The Majestic Mountains

Glen Coe is a popular venue for walkers and climbers of all abilities, due to its variety of winter climbing and easy access from the main road and parking.

There are some notable climbs including Buachaille Etive Mor at 1018 metres commonly known as “The Beuchle” and various routes on The Three Sisters, also the beautiful waterfalls at The Study in the Pass of the Glen Coe. For more experienced hillwalkers we have one of the best mainland scrambles in Scotland. This scramble is home to two of the most challenging of the Munros, Sgorr nam Fiannaidh at 996 metres and Meall Dearg at 951 metres.

Walkers will follow the route of the old military road which now forms part of The West Highland Way over Rannoch Moor, crossing the river Etive and then onwards 1.2 miles as you ascend the Devils Staircase, a very steep cut 352 metres then northwards through the hills towards Kinlochleven.