Friday, September 21, 2007

2 July: The MacDonald Massacre & Devil's Staircase

We woke up and looked out the window this morning and couldn’t see anything. Aonach Eagach was completely obscured by low-hanging clouds, from which a steady rain was falling. Needless to say, we didn’t rush to get going. For breakfast we had a choice of big, bigger, or vegetarian. We chose the “Boar Breakfast” (“big”), which was the full English breakfast with a Scottish twist: wild boar bacon and sausage, baked beans, and a “tattie cake” (thin potato pancake), in addition to the usual fried egg, broiled tomato, mushrooms, and toast. Of course we could have opted for “The Whole Hog,” which included all of the above, plus haggis and black pudding. The menu proudly proclaimed that this meal would “not just set you up for the day, but probably the whole night as well!” It might be sacrilegious to say this, but I really have no strong desire to sample haggis, a classic Scottish dish consisting of some combination of sheep entrails (heart, liver, lungs, etc.) minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, and spices and traditionally boiled in a casing made of sheep’s stomach. According to various accounts, haggis developed as a means to make use of the parts of the animal that would otherwise go to waste, were comparatively inexpensive and easy to come by, or were likely to go bad quickly. While I strongly support the idea of putting all of an animal’s parts to good use once it’s dead, I think I will leave haggis to the die-hard carnivores out there, even if it means missing out on a critical aspect of Scottish culture. Black pudding is blood sausage, and since I’ve already tried German blutwurst, I wasn’t all that eager to sample the Scottish version. I contented myself with a bowl of Highland porridge to accompany my Boar Breakfast, although I saw no sign of the “heather honey” and “whisky cream” that were advertised on the menu. The coffee was great, however!

We drove into Glencoe first, as we wanted to visit the MacDonald monument on the edge of town, which memorializes a dark chapter in the history of the glen. Back in the 17th century, the Highland clans were strongly divided in their political allegiance. Clan Campbell backed the Protestant King William of Orange (William III), while the MacDonalds were Jacobites, supporters of the Catholic James VII (“Bonnie Prince Charlie”), whom they believed to be the rightful King of England. By the late 1680s, the possibility of a Jacobite rebellion had become very real, and in August 1691 the English government announced an Indemnity, which stated that all Jacobite clan chiefs who swore allegiance to King William would be freed of any penalties for previous crimes and would be protected under the Crown. A deadline of January 1st, 1692 was set for the chiefs to take the oath; any clans who refused would be treated severely under the law as traitors and rebels.

The Jacobite chiefs, including MacIain of the MacDonald clan of Glencoe, would not take the oath without James’ approval, but James was exiled in France and his message did not arrive in Glencoe until perhaps as late as the 29th of December, two days before the deadline. MacIain set out in heavy snows for Fort William to give his oath to Colonel Hill there, not realizing that he was actually supposed to take the oath at Inveraray. Upon arriving at Fort William, MacIain learned of his error, and had to lead his men another sixty miles, again in the snow, to Inveraray. They were detained by government troops and did not arrive in Inveraray until January 3rd, where MacIain was eventually allowed to take the oath of allegiance. Unfortunately, the Privy Council in Edinburgh refused to acknowledge his oath and effectively had the clan blacklisted.

Orders to “act against these Highland Rebells…by fire and sword…and by all manner of hostility to burne their houses, seise or destroy their goods or Cattell…and to cut off the men,” were transmitted down the line from John Dalrymple, Master of Stair, to Sir Thomas Livingstone, commander of the King’s armies in Scotland, to Colonel Hill at Fort William (who was sympathetic to the Highlanders and thus distanced himself from the events), and finally to Hill’s deputy, Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton, who seemed almost giddy at the prospect of destroying the MacDonald clan. In the end, 120 redcoat soldiers led by Captain Robert Campbell arrived in Glencoe on February 1st with a letter from Colonel Hill instructing the MacDonalds to board the soldiers in their homes. Highland tradition called for the clans to offer each other such hospitality, even those on opposite ends of the political spectrum, but in reality the MacDonalds had little choice but to obey the orders.

For twelve days, Campbell’s troops slept and ate with the villagers of Glencoe. On the 12th of February, Captain Campbell received his final instructions to attack Glencoe at 5 o’clock the next morning. He was specifically ordered to execute MacIain and his sons and to kill every man under the age of 70. MacIain was the first to fall, killed by a bullet to the back inflicted by Campbell’s deputy. In all, at least 38 boys and men were killed and more died of exposure after attempting to escape into the hills. Many members of the clan survived, including MacIain’s two sons, perhaps due in combination to the bad weather, the MacDonalds being alerted by the first shots, and the unwillingness of the soldiers themselves to betray their hosts. It was this atrocious breach of Highland hospitality that made the massacre famous, and to this day some degree of animosity remains (we saw at least one sign indicating that Campbells were unwelcome).

The MacDonald oath was eventually acknowledged by the Privy Council and the clan members rebuilt their homes in Glencoe under the leadership of MacIain’s son John. The clan continued to support James and fought for the Jacobite cause in the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Members of the MacDonald clan owned property in Glencoe until the mid-20th century, when the lands were consolidated under the National Trust for Scotland. Today a stone cross stands on the outskirts of Glencoe, erected in 1883 by Ellen Burns MacDonald, MacIain’s direct descendant, to honor the clansmen who fell on that cold wintry day in 1692. We visited the monument, which stands on a small rocky outcropping surrounded by the glen’s craggy peaks (photo, above), and admired the view from a beautiful single-arched stone bridge over the rushing waters of the River Coe.

A few patches of blue sky were peeking through the clouds by now, so we decided to take a chance on the weather and go for a hike up the Devil’s Staircase, a small segment of the famous West Highland Way. We retraced our route up the Glen a few miles to the roadside pulloff at Altnafeadh, near the base of Buachaille Etive Mòr. A couple of other cars were parked there, but we still felt a little odd leaving our car totally exposed at the side of the road. It was overcast but not raining as we started up the steep slope, outfitted with the best we could manage in terms of rain gear (raincoats, zip-off nylon pants, and our hiking boots, which we knew from our Goodwood experience were slightly less than waterproof). The trail zigzagged up a moderately steep slope alongside a gurgling stream ("Devil’s Staircase" makes it sound worse than it is; the name was given by soldiers who constructed the trail under much more adverse conditions in the 17th century). The sound of water was everpresent, even though the stream sometimes disappeared beneath the peaty soil. The heather was in bloom all around us, its tiny fuschia blooms brightening the scene, along with a variety of wildflowers including yellow and purple saxifrage and the miniscule lavender-hued heath spotted orchid. We hadn’t gotten very far when it started to sprinkle, but only lightly, so we decided to keep going. After about forty minutes we reached the pass, the highest point on the West Highland Way (about 1600 feet, according to the Clachaig Inn’s hiking guide), which was marked by a large rock cairn. From here we had a relatively clear panorama up and down the glen, including a gorgeous view across the valley to Buachaille Etive Mòr (photo, above) and its little brother, Buachaille Etive Beag (Little Herdsman of Etive), to the west.

At this point we had several options. The trail continued on down the other side of the pass to the town of Kinlochleven, but there was no way for us to get back to our car without retracing the entire route or taking a bus, and we had no information about the bus schedule. We could hike east out to a low rise to try to get a better view of Rannoch Moor, or we could hike west up a steep, rocky slope to a small outcropping above us, which had been periodically enveloped in clouds as we were hiking up to the pass. The outcropping was hidden in a cloud right now, so we opted for the lower route and the moor view. We followed a sporadic footpath over uneven, water-logged terrain to a cairn overlooking what turned out to be a large reservoir (we later identified it as the Blackwater Reservoir). Rannoch Moor was actually mostly hidden around another mountain to the east. We stopped here for lunch, which consisted of salami, crackers, a tomato (the last of our Sussex Pad provisions), and a granola bar. It started blowing rain around this time so we quickly packed up, took a few pictures (photo, above), and headed back to the main trail. Along the way we stopped to investigate some of the marshy pools that dotted the landscape. The edges of the pools were thickly carpeted with clumps of red and yellow bog moss (photo, right) and feathery liverwort, and a narrow-bladed grass variegating from green to bright red was growing right out of the water.

The rain had let up and the mountain above us was mostly clear when we arrived back at the cairn, so we decided to head upwards. It was slow going, as the trail was not much more than a muddy sheep track. Our efforts were rewarded when we reached the top of the knob of rock we had seen from the cairn – the clouds cleared for about thirty seconds and we got an incredible panorama of the glen, from the edge of Rannoch Moor all the way to the Three Sisters, with the thin silver ribbon of the A82 bisecting the valley below us. I scarcely had time to take my pictures before another cloud moved in and it started to rain again. At this point our pants were beginning to soak through and we knew it was time to call it quits. Fortunately the rain and wind lessened as we retreated down the mountain, so we didn’t get any colder or wetter, but we both agreed that it was a good time to turn back. After returning to our car we crossed the road and walked out to a wooden footbridge over the River Coe. We used our binoculars to try to find the trail up Buachaille Etive Mòr in front of us, as we are still entertaining the idea of trying to climb a “munro” tomorrow (what the Scots consider a “real mountain”, or anything above 3,000 feet). We’re not sure if the outcropping we climbed today has an official name, but it is at the easternmost end of the 9-kilometer ridge comprising the Aonach Eagach (I am pointing to the knob of rock that we climbed in the photo, right).

On the way back down the glen we stopped to get some pictures of the Three Sisters, whose peaks were momentarily clear of clouds, and then a bit further down the highway we finally got an up-close look at some Highland cattle. There are only about twenty or so left in the whole glen, so we were lucky that a few of them were grazing right near the road. They are incredibly cute, with shaggy red coats and long bangs falling over their eyes, giving them a rather bemused look (photo, right). We headed back to the hotel around 4:00 and got cleaned up for dinner. It was still early in the evening so we decided to make an outing to Fort William and find a place to eat there. We drove west out of the glen, along the south shore of Loch Leven, and finally saw the Scottish coast, rounded the point and heading up Loch Linnhe to Fort William. This was a very nice stretch of well-maintained tarmac, which the locals like to drive extremely fast. The road to Fort William was peppered with bed & breakfasts – it seemed like every house for several miles had a B&B sign out front. I can’t imagine how they all get enough customers to stay in business!

We looked for a seafood restaurant on the waterfront that was recommended in Fodor’s but couldn’t find it, so we parked in a visitor lot and walked down the High Street in search of dinner. We knew from our guidebooks that Fort William is not known for its charm; a dual carriageway (that's British for four-lane highway) effectively destroys the waterfront and the downtown area is a bit rough around the edges. There were a few people wandering around, but I couldn’t figure out how all those B&B guests could be supported by the apparently limited number of restaurants. Most of the places had the same basic fare – steaks and burgers, fish and chips, etc. We stopped to buy a couple of magnets in a curio shop and two very expensive bottles of single malt at The Whisky Shop (Glenfiddich Solara Reserve and Glenmorangie Port Wood Finish). We ended up eating at the Ben Nevis Restaurant, with a view out over Loch Linnhe (we have yet to see Ben Nevis itself – the highest mountain in the U.K.). I had fish and chips with peas (I had to have it at least once on this trip and it was very good here) and a Scottish bitter (pale ale) called McEwan’s. John’s roast beef plate was disappointing, with an overcooked, thin slice of meat, watery gravy, peas and carrots, and plain boiled potatoes. Plus he was driving so the poor man didn’t even get a beer! We decided to skip dessert and head back to Glen Coe, thinking we could have some of that awesome-looking sticky toffee pudding at the pub. But while we were at dinner the skies had cleared enough to expose a dramatic evening sky, so I made John stop about ten times on the way back (Loch Linnhe at dusk, right). It was the best light for photography that we’ve had on the whole trip! Unfortunately we got back to the inn after they stopped serving food in the pub (9 p.m., which seems rather unreasonable, especially when it is light out until almost 11:00), so we had to settle on a couple of single malts instead, chosen from the Clachaig’s stock of several hundred varieties. John had the Balvenie Portwood and I had Blair Athol, a local Highland whisky.

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