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Issue 40 - The ghosts of Glencoe

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 40
August 2008


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The ghosts of Glencoe

Do the victims of an infamous massacre still haunt this beautiful glen? Gary Hayden reports

Glencoe is one of Scotland’s most scenic glens. Indeed, the sheer scale, grandeur and beauty of its rugged peaks could hardly be bettered. Small wonder, then, that it attracts walkers, climbers, nature-lovers and winter-sports enthusiasts from all over the world.

But Glencoe is every bit as famous for its history as its scenery, because it was the scene of one of the most notorious events in Scottish history: the premeditated slaughter of 38 men, women and children of the clan MacDonald.

THE GLENCOE MASSACRE In August 1691, King William III (II of Scotland) decreed that all of the clan chiefs in The Highlands of Scotland must take an Oath of Loyalty to him. Alasdair, chief of the MacIain MacDonalds of Glencoe left it rather late to comply, and was further delayed by unlucky circumstances and unsympathetic officials. Consequently he missed the January 1st deadline by two days.

The authorities used his late-signing as an excuse to make an example of his clan.

Government forces from the garrison at Fort William, under the command of Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, were ordered: ‘to fall upon the rebells, the McDonalds of Glenco, and putt all to the sword under Seventy.’ Posing as peaceful visitors, Campbell’s troops were billeted on the MacDonalds for almost a fortnight. Then, in the early hours of February 13th 1692, they set about murdering their hosts as they slept. Thirty-eight of the Glencoe MacDonalds were slaughtered. Those who escaped fled to the winter hills where many of them died from exposure. The massacre was regarded as a heinous example of ‘murder under trust’ and caused widespread outrage. John Dalrymple, the Master of Stair, who had orchestrated the plan, bore the brunt of the criticism, though he escaped severe punishment and was later created Earl of Stair.

GHOSTS OF GLENCOE As the scene of such an infamous slaughter, it is hardly surprising that Glencoe has acquired a reputation for being haunted. The ghosts of the MacIain MacDonalds, unable to rest in peace after been torn so violently and cruelly from life, are said to still inhabit the glen.

Most tourists visit Glencoe in summer, but winter is the best time to experience its ghostly grandeur.

At this time, the mountains appear at their starkest and most forbidding, and shifting mists add an eerie, unworldly quality to the landscape.

The best time of all is early in the morning on February 13th, the anniversary of the massacre. This is when the melancholy presence of the murdered MacDonalds is most strongly felt.

On this day, some people claim to have glimpsed the ghostly shadows of the fugitive clansmen crouching amongst the rocks and trees on the hillsides. There are even those who claim to have seen the massacre re-enacted, or to have heard the screams and cries of those who perished.

According to one rather fanciful legend, a troop of phantom pipers led the government soldiers astray as they made their way back from Glencoe to Fort William. Some folk say that the plaintiff wail of their pipes still sometimes echoes through the valley.

These supernatural sights and sounds are enough to strike fear into the hearts of anyone – but especially those who go by the name of Campbell.

PLACES TO VISIT In fine weather, visitors can stroll out from the National Trust Visitor Centre to some fine, atmospheric sites associated with the Glencoe massacre.

The 1.5km Village Walk leading from the Visitor Centre to the village passes the ruins of Inverrigan House. This was built during the late 19th century on the site of an earlier house where nine of the MacDonald clan were slain. Nine Scots pine trees, planted around the ruins, stand in remembrance of them.

At the eastern end of Glencoe village stands the Massacre Memorial where the events of February 13th 1692 are commemorated each year.

Finally, there is a lovely 2.5 km walk that leads from the Visitor Centre, through woodland, to a rocky outcrop known as Signal Rock. According to tradition, this is where the members of the clan MacDonald used to meet in times of peril. Another popular legend has it that it was from this point that the signal was given to Campbell’s men to begin the massacre.

Legends and traditions aside, Signal Rock is a fine natural viewpoint, which affords stunning views of the glen.

Vistor information Details of the Village Walk and the Signal Rock walk available from the National Trust for Scotland Visitor Centre. Tel: +44 (0)844 493 2222 Email: Wailing washerwoman There are lots of Celtic folk-tales about bean-nighe or ‘washing women.’ These eerie harbingers of doom come in two varieties: the banshee and the caoineag.

The banshee (Gaelic bean si, ‘fairy woman’) is most often associated with Ireland, but she also inhabits the Highlands and islands of Scotland. Her appearance at a river or stream is an omen of violent death. She wails or sings a funeral lament as she washes the bloodstained clothes of those about to die.

With care, it is possible to approach a banshee and take hold of her. She must then name those who are about to die, and according to some accounts will grant three wishes.

Unlike the banshee, the caoineag is invisible to the human eye. Her presence known only by her heart-stopping cries. She will be heard wailing at a waterfall the night before a calamity overtakes her clan.

It is wise to give the caoineag a wide birth, since she will lash out at the legs of passers-by with her wet washing.

Those stricken are often left paralysed. It is said that the caoineag of the MacDonalds was heard wailing on the night before the Glencoe massacre, and that some of the clan took warning from her cries and fled into the mountains. As a result, the bloodshed was not quite so widespread as it might have been The Curse of Scotland For 300 years, the nine of diamonds in a pack of playing-cards has been known as ‘The Curse of Scotland.’ There are a number of stories to account for this. The most persuasive is that the card resemble the family crest of the Master of Stair, John Dalrymple, who authorised the Glencoe Massacre.

Some accounts say that Dalrymple used the card to send a cryptic message ordering the killings.


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