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The majestic grandeur of its mountain landscape, its notorious history and even the dramatic localized weather system combine to create in Glen Coe one of the most atmospheric and scenically spectacular places in Scotland. Along with Bannockburn and Culloden, Glen Coe ranks among the most famous historic sites in Scotland, notable because of the infamous but incompetent massacre, in 1692, of the MacDonalds of Glen Coe, the smallest of the Clan Donald sects. Although worse atrocities involving greater slaughter have occurred during Scotland's turbulent past, the Massacre of Glen Coe has earned a unique place in the lore of the Highlands because of its treacherous and brutal manner of execution. In the 300 years since the massacre, the events of 13th February, 1692 have often been wrongly attributed to the centuries-old feud between the prosperous and ambitious Campbell clan and their poorer, war-like and cattle-rustling neighbours, the Glen Coe MacDonalds. The massacre was, in fact, a government-inspired plot to exterminate the minor but troublesome Highland clan.
After the rebellion of 1689, King William III (William of Orange) needed to release the valuable peace-keeping troops from his northern kingdom in order to pursue his ambitions against the French on the Continent. He set a deadline for all Highland chiefs to swear an oath of allegiance to him. This was to be in exchange for a pardon for having fought against him in the cause of the Jacobites. Alastair MacDonald, otherwise known as MacIain of Glen Coe, failed, however, by a few days to meet that deadline. MacIain was not a leading Jacobite and other notable chiefs took the oath much later than he did, but Sir John Dalrymple, Master of Stair and Scotland's Secretary of State, singled him out for persecution. Dalrymple ordered Captain Robert Campbell to lead government troops to Glen Coe, seal off all escape routes, and put all the MacDonalds under the age of 70 to the sword. The captain was to "have a special care that the old fox [MacIain] and his sons do upon no account escape." After enjoying the unsuspecting hospitality of the MacDonalds and sharing in their social life for some ten days, the government troops, of whom only about one-tenth were Campbells, fell upon their hosts in the early hours of 13th February, on a command reputedly given from Signal Rock at the west end of the glen. An estimated 38 clansfolk were slaughtered and some who evaded the bullet or bayonet perished from exposure or starvation in the hills. Those who survived included MacIain's two sons and his grandson. Although MacIain was killed in his bed, the murderous scheme failed in its objective. Apart from its notorious past, Glen Coe has also attracted more than its share of other superlatives, none too extravagant.
Awe-inspiring, untamed, foreboding, mysterious, evocative, all can justly be applied to the brooding splendour of this famous glen. Today, the 14,200 acres of Glen Coe and the neighbouring estate of Dalness, both owned by the National Trust for Scotland, not only contain some of the most dramatic scenery in Scotland but also provide some of the best summer and winter climbing opportunities in Britain. Glen Coe is at its best in the spring but at all times of the year the mountains are dangerous and warnings about walking and climbing the hills must be taken seriously. Apart from the golden eagle and hooded crow, the wildlife of the glen is not exceptional, but it is an area of outstanding botanical interest. The Nature Conservancy Council has designated the glen a "Site of Special Scientific Interest" and the Countryside Commission for Scotland has made it part of a National Scenic Area. Geologically, the glen is perhaps the world's classic example of "cauldron subsidence," in which a ring fault allows the subsidence of a roughly circular block, thus preserving remnants of older rocks, which have eroded away to nothing elsewhere. At Glen Coe, the rocks preserved as schists more than 500 million years old and volcanic lavas more than 300 million years old. Glen Coe's alternative name, "The Glen of Weeping," derives not from the tragedy of the massacre but from the fact that the average annual rainfall exceeds 90 inches. The weather only adds to the air of mystery in the cloud-veiled rock faces, deep gullies and precipitous summits. The most breath-taking approach to the glen is from the east, across the contrasting desolate wilderness of Rannoch Moor. Buachaille Etive Mt (The Great Herdsman) stands like an ominous 3,353-foot-high sentinel both the Glen Coe and the neighbouring Glen Etive. Adjacent is its little brother, Buachaille Etive Beag, "The Wee Buachaille."
To the west of the buachailles lies Stob Coire nan Lochlan--3,658 feet high and probably the most popular winter mountain in the glen--and the Three Sisters of Glen Coe--Beinn Fhada, Gearr Aonach and Aonach Dubh. The 300-foot climb of the sheer face of Aonach Dubh is known to mountaineers as "Freak Out." Opposite the Meeting of the Three Waters and situated between the first two of the Sisters is Coire Gabhail--The Hidden Valley--which is concealed from view and is where the MacDonalds hid their stolen cattle without risk of detection. South-west of Stob Coire nan Lochan, the highest peak in Argyllshire, Bidean nam Bian rises to 3,743 feet. On the north side of the glen is the 3,000-foor Aonach Eagach ridge, the narrowest ridge on the British mainland. A major feature of the west end of the ridge is Clachaig Gully, a 1,735-foot-long dark slit in the hill with prolific flora in the spring. Glen Coe boasts a multitude of features to interest historians, geologists, tourists, and mountaineers. It accessibility enhances its popularity. The A82 Glasgow to Fort William road traverses the glen, carrying an incalculable number of visitors each year, and the National Trust for Scotland's visitor centre, located near Signal Rock, attracts more than 160,000 callers annually. Nothing tangible remains of that terrible February night in 1692 except a monument to the MacDonald clan chief and his people. Echoes of the massacre have reverberated down the centuries and today the memory of the past still hangs heavily over the glen, contributing in a large measure to the tangible sense of melancholy that often descends upon the hillsides.
Oh cruel is the snow that sweeps Glencoe,
and covers the graves o'Donald.
Oh cruel was the foe that raped Glencoe,
and murdered the house of MacDonald.
They came in a blizzard, we offered them heat,
a roof o'er their heads, dry shoes for their feet,
we wined them and dined them, they ate of our meat,
and they slept in the house of MacDonald.
came from Fort William with murder in mind,
the Campbell had orders, King William had signed,
put all to the sword, these words underlined,
leave no one alive called MacDonald.
came in the night while our men were asleep,
this band of Argylls, through snow soft and deep,
like murdering foxes among helpless sheep,
they butchered the house of MacDonald.
died in their beds at the hand of the foe,
some fled in the night and were lost in the snow,
some lived to accuse him, who struck the first blow,
but gone was the house of MacDonald.