Scotland: War and peace

By Graham Reid

Glencoe has a bloody history but today it is a more benign, beautiful part of Scotland. Photo / Supplied
Glencoe has a bloody history but today it is a more benign, beautiful part of Scotland. Photo / Supplied

The plaque at the reception of the Clachaig Inn at Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands reads: "No hawkers or Campbells."

It is amusing - I'm sure Naomi would be welcome should she show up in this beautiful but largely unpopulated region - but it also reminds you of a fault-line of deep feeling that runs through Scottish history.

It was here in these once-remote valleys - today just a few hours' drive north of Glasgow - that in the early hours of February 13, 1692, the massacre of the Clan MacDonald was carried out by troopers of the London-based government, many of them from Clan Campbell.

The troops had been sent to the region after the Battle of Killicrankie, the first Jacobite rebellion in which the English were defeated by Highlanders whose cause was the restoration of James VII to the throne in place of King William of Orange.

The soldiers had been staying in MacDonald homes, but their secret instructions were brutal: "By fire and sword, and all manner of hostility to burn [Clan MacDonald] houses, seise or destroy their goods or cattell, plenishing or cloathes and to cut off the men."

By the time the attacks began, at 5am on a bitterly cold morning, there had been even clearer orders: "Putt all to the sword under seventy ... You are to secure all the avenues that no man escape."

Surprisingly, many did manage to flee - certainly some soldiers tipped off their hosts or couldn't bring themselves to carry out the command - and history records 38 murders. Some who fled into the rolling valleys that they knew so well died of exposure.

Today the pass at Glencoe beside Loch Leven is a more benign place - walking and cycling trails, fishing, mountain climbing, boat trips on the loch, Dragon's Tooth Golf Course at Ballachulish - but when the mists roll in over the mountains the chill in the air goes straight to the soul.

It was on one such afternoon that we pulled into the Clachaig Inn, the fading light softening the dramatic scenery like a veil of fine gauze. The sky glowered blue-black and rain sent white torrents of waterfalls down the green and black hills. This truly felt like "the glen of weeping", as its name says.

Dorothy Wordsworth was lost when she tried to write about this region in her 1803 journal: "I cannot attempt to describe the mountains. I can only say that [they] were the grandest I had ever seen."

Poets and painters as much as outdoor types are drawn to Glencoe, and many stay in the village of that name. But the Clachaig Inn, tucked in the shadow of mountains at the heart of the Pass, enjoys a reputation for hearty food and an equally hearty welcome - unless you happen to be a Campbell, perhaps.

An inn has been on this site since the 19th century and in recent times it has been a regular winner in awards given by the Campaign for Real Ale, which has voted the Clachaig the best pub in Scotland and the Best Real Ale Pub in Britain.

It was certainly easy to get a drink because, although it seems small, the Clachaig has three quite distinct bar areas (the largest for those hearty souls in hiking boots, the smallest a cute snug). The food was everything we had been told, the kind of meals you need after a day or two in the mountains.

But even if you are just passing through by car - it makes a good loop between Glasgow and Edinburgh if you have a day or two to spare - this region is breathtakingly beautiful.

The character of the mountains changes as clouds pass overhead, and walking just minutes from the road you feel as if you are in a remote and alien world shrouded in mystery and ancient legend.

The sound of a lone piper in a lay-by playing for passing tourists floats eerily in the cold air, the clear water in the small streams is icy, the stones shine black in the rain. And high above, a lone falcon rides the wind.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Cathay Pacific offers daily flights from Auckland to London via Hong Kong.

More info:

* Glencoe and Region

* The Clachaig Inn

* For general information about tourism in Scotland, see the National Trust for Scotland website.

Graham Reid flew to London with assistance from Cathay Pacific Airlines and visitbritain.co.nz.

- Herald on Sunday

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