Did I ever tell you of that time when myself and a good friend went for a drive up Glencoe? No? Alright, well, it’s not that interesting but I’ll tell you anyway.
It was a dark and stormy day in the depths of winter. A fierce wind howled and the rain lashed down, heavy with ice cruel as nails; the clouds were iron and the – Nah, I can’t bring myself to lie for dramatic effect. OK. It was actually a lovely day for November in Scotland. Today, in fact, if you must know. My friend and I had gone for a wee drive up Glencoe to take her dog for a walk and have a bit of an explore. Y’know, refresh the scenery in our minds, that sort of thing.
Now, I don’t know how much you know about Glencoe, but it’s a place with a rich, dark and tragic history and magnificent beauty. You drive along the road from the village, up the broad, green valley floor. The mountainsides are deceptively smooth, russet and streaked with the grey of rock and scree. Today, the mountains’ shoulders were dusted with a light snow and heavy cloud hung with bleak anticipation around their heads. The rest of the sky was bright blue and clear. Lovely.
We had a walk at the lochan and decided to drive along up the valley because why not? It seemed a fair bit busier than I remembered but nevertheless, the sense of history hummed through the beauty and the agony of the landscape – you can sense the journeys, the old blood shed and the ghosts created. If you didn’t know, Glencoe was the sight of one of the most notorious slaughters of Scottish history – the massacre of the clan MacDonald at the hands of the Campbells who, at the time, were their guests (Red Wedding, anyone?). I won’t go into the details here but suffice to say, the massacre was triggered by longstanding clan conflicts and the fact that the MacDonalds had been slow to declare their loyalty officially to the current monarch.
You’ll not be surprised to hear that the Glencoe Massacre has inspired many chilling tales in local lore. Regardless of your stance on ghosts, I encourage you to look these up. A quick google search will reveal tales that are evocative, haunting and endlessly fascinating. One of my favourites is the tale of the caoineag – a creature not dissimilar to the banshee that is said to haunt streams and waterfalls and wails or sings a lament as an omen of a violent death. She is often said to cry before the downfall of her clan. Apparently, the night before the massacre, some members of the MacDonalds did indeed hear the caoineag wail, heeded her warning and hid in the hills, thus avoiding the slaughter she predicted. Unfortunately, many of the men, women and children who hid in the hills later died of exposure, in addition to the thirty eight murdered by the Campbells. They may have avoided a violent death but perished regardless under the gentle, cruel touch of winter.
It’s a dark tale but necessary in order to understand the history and feeling of the place.
Eventually, we turned from the main road and headed down Glen Etive, following the river. The narrow, single-track road was thick with cars and vans and, so close to the haunting atmosphere of Glencoe, the modern world became impossible to ignore. I mean, we were in a car too but work with me…However, the scenery remained astounding, crawling with red deer, birds of prey and, if you got really lucky, the occasional cluster of kayakers in their pants, huddled around a single Thermos for warmth. I know their ways, I used to be one.
On this particular day, the red deer had come down from the mountainside and were easily seen at the side of the road. I’ve seen plenty of deer in my life (and eaten many more…) but even I had to admit that it was a grand site. Despite being locals, we paused and wound down our windows to get a better look. The stags were stinking! Rank and musky…I guess it’s that time of year. We passed throngs of people less acquainted with the creatures parked up and taking pictures and I did start to appreciate how cool it would be to see wild deer in this number in such an incredible setting. But don’t feed them, lads, OK? That’s not on.
It was not until the end of the road that events took a turn for the worse. We turned at the car park and drove back, only to find our way completely blocked by a queue of several cars stuck behind a group of deer and a van of tourists who had decided to swap pleasantries. At first we laughed but then, after several long minutes, began to feel a little indignant. Had they not noticed? Damn it, what if we had somewhere to be? I mean, we’re a pair of slackers so we didn’t but even so…
People in the cars in front of us had started making gestures and muttering impatiently. No one had yet to sound their horn. I suppose we didn’t want to alarm the deer or to seem anything more than passively, politely rude. Finally, it was too much for my friend to bear – the clouds closed in and the wind picked up; she rolled down her windows, waved her arms and revved the engine, all the while her face afixed in a most ghoulish cast. As the tourists finally parted to let us through, the car stalled and the engine fell silent.
It is said that if you find yourself in Glen Etive on a quiet day in November and you listen very hard, you may hear, carried on an eldritch wind through the mist, the faint moan of an unearthly voice wailing the word: