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Issue 66 - Home of Ancient Kings

Scotland Magazine Issue 66
December 2012


This article is 5 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Home of Ancient Kings

Nearing the end of our coastal journey, we explore Fort William to Campbeltown, taking in the ancient capital of Dalriada

Fort William
The largest town in the Western Highlands started life as a few houses huddled next to a fort on Loch Linnhe.

The Fort was called Fort William, after William of Orange, and the town Maryburgh after his wife.

Together with Fort Augustus and Fort George Fort William was the lowest outpost of a chain of Government defences intended to suppress the ‘savage’ clans during the 17th Century.

The remains of the fort are often missed by visitors, but can be found a few yards from the main road passing along the shores of the loch.

Today Fort William is the second largest settlement in the Highlands, and is a major base for tourism – particular of the outdoorsy kind. Ben Nevis, or the 'Ben' as it is fondly known locally, dominates the skyline from the town, rising 4,406ft (1,344m) from the shores of Loch Linnhe. Thousands of visitors to Fort William are resolved to climb it each year, and there is a well trodden footpath to the summit from Acintee. It takes about four hours to climb.

Fort William also marks the end of the West Highland Way, Scotland's oldest and most popular long distance walk, and there are all sorts of other outdoor activities available in the area.

The West Highland Museum in the centre of the town is an excellent way to get to know the history of the area and its people, and also has some fascinating exhibits relating to the fort, Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites.

The Glen of Weeping
From Loch Leven at its northern end to vast empty spaces of Rannoch Moor, Glen Coe pass is flanked by huge imposing mountains.

The most iconic of all Scottish glens, Glen Coe is internationally famous as much for its magnificent scenery as for one of Scotland’s most infamous and notorious events.

In February 1692, hundreds of years of clan warfare and government posturing culminated in the massacre of 38 MacDonalds, and many more that perished in the brutal winter snows.

Following the 1689 Uprising, William of Orange offered to pardon the Highland clans if the Chiefs swear allegiance to him by 1 January 1692.

If they did not, they would face ‘the utmost extremity of the law’. Alasdair MacDonald, chief of the MacDonalds of Glen Coe, was fearful for his clan. He went to the fortress at Fort William on 31 December to swear his oath, only to find he should have gone instead to the sheriff at Inveraray. This was a 60 mile trek, and MacIain, as the chief was known, arrived five days after the deadline.

Sir John Dalrymple, 1st Earl of Stair, wanted to set an example by punishing one of the clans who failed to take the oath. Even though some other clans had made no effort at all, the Glen Coe MacDonalds were selected because they were often in trouble with the law, they had no castle, and because Glen Coe could be easily blocked off.

The orders were explicit: the MacDonalds were to be “cut off root and branch.” Three commanders were to be involved - two from the Campbell-dominated Argyll regiment and one from Fort William. In the end, two of them never arrived in time, claiming delay through bad weather, though history suggests they wanted no part in atrocity.

The Campbell soldiers arrived at Glen Coe nearly two weeks before the massacre, and were given shelter from the MacDonalds in accordance with Highland hospitality. For 12 days, killer and victim lived together with neither knowing what lay ahead.

On the night of February 13 Glen Coe was in the grip of a ferocious blizzard when the Campbell soldiers received their orders "to put all to the sword under seventy". Thirty eight lay dead the next morning, including the chief, MacIain. Many escaped into the hills to perish in the snow.

Following an inquiry, Dalrymple resigned and the events of that night passed into legend. For many years the Campbells were accursed in the Highlands and to this day the Clachaig Inn at Glen Coe carries the sign on its door, 'No Hawkers or Campbells'

The Gateway to the Isles
Oban is the largest port in the west of Scotland, and the jumping off point for exploration of the Hebrides. Ferries from here travel to Mull as well as Coll, Tiree, Barra, South Uist, Colonsay, Lismore and Islay.

The name derives from the Gaelic an t-óban, which means ‘little bay’ and this little bay provided shelter for some of Scotland’s earliest settlers. The foundations of Dunollie Castle, for instance, which sits on a rocky outcrop at the north of the town, date back well into the bronze age.

Dunollie became the seat of the Clan MacDougall when Somerled, Lord of the Isles, gifted it to his eldest son Dugall in the 12th Century. The MacDougalls of Lorne were extremely powerful and at the height of their power ruled much of Scotland from eight strategically positioned castles, including Dunollie and Dunstaffnage a few miles further north.

Despite all this, the town of Oban itself is only around 200 years old. It owes its development to the distillery which was founded here in 1794.

Before then, Oban consisted of only a few houses, a quarry and small shipbuilding industry. Once the distillery was in production, Oban began shipping the alcohol along with wool, slate and kelp, to larger ports such as Liverpool and Glasgow and the town began its rapid expansion.

During World War II, the port was used by merchant and Royal Navy ships, and it also had strategic importance during the Cold War, thanks to the first Transatlantic telephone cable which came ashore at Gallanach Bay a little to the south of the town. This carried the direct ‘hot line’ between the American and Russian presidents.

Kilmartin is a small village with a weight of history that belies its size. This tiny settlement boasts 800 ancient monuments within a six mile radius of the village centre; many of which are prehistoric. With its standing stones, burial cairns, rock art, forts, duns and carved stones it is one of the richest archaeological landscapes in Scotland. One of the most significant of which is the remains of Dunadd on the River Add; a fort dating from as early as AD 500.

Dunadd is reputed to be where the ancient kings of Scotland were inaugurated, by placing a foot into the rocky imprint carved out of a stone slab. With 360 degree views, one foot in the carved rock and a little imagination, visitors can literally step back in time.

For further exploration of the area’s history, a visit to the award-winning Kilmartin House Museum is essential. This world-class centre for archaeology and landscape interpretation was established to protect, investigate and interpret Kilmartin’s internationally important archaeological landscape and the artefacts that have been found here.

Following the A816 south, the road will take you to Lochgilphead, a large town planned and built it in the 18th Century. It’s a pretty place at the top of a loch and has some interesting old-fashioned shops! No Starbucks here, thank you very much.

The busy fishing village of Tarbert further south marks the head of the Kintyre peninsula, joined only to the rest of Argyll by a narrow isthmus, or ‘tarbert’ in Gaelic. Off the beaten path, Kintyre is charming with many attractions, including lush gardens warmed by the Gulf Stream.

Kintyre’s main community in the south is Campbeltown, the one time capital of Scotch whisky making. In its heyday there were 34 distilleries around the town. Today there are only three, but like Speyside and Islay, Campbeltown is still considered a distinct region in terms of single malt production.

The best known of Campbeltown’s remaining distilleries is probably Springbank. This pretty distillery is well worth visiting, not least because it undertakes 100 per cent of the whisky making process in-house. Don’t they all, we hear you ask?

Sadly no. Most of Scotland’s 100-or-so distilleries buy in their malted barley from elsewhere, Springbank is one of just six with its own operational floor maltings and working kilns.