Glencoe and the Glen Etive pest

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:

FaaaaAAAAAAnnieeeees!

Tending my widgets

Come in closer, aye, that’s it. I’m after some advice, you see. It is probably obvious that I am new to this whole blogging malarky. I started under the impression that all I had to do was a wee bit of writing, maybe stick up a few pictures, show it to my Mum, who will show it to all the other Mums and then, hey presto, the whole of Oban is reading it.

Turns out, it’s not that simple. I keep being pestered by these creepy wee creatures called “widgets”. Seriously, they’re everywhere – the whole house is riddled with them. I saw one run under the sofa just now, a nasty wee thing with too many legs, like a spider. It disappeared before I could catch it.

Apparently, I’m supposed to do something with these widgets. Does anyone know what they eat? I looked it up and even Robert Burns had no idea what to do with the bloody things:

Wee sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,

Oh, what a panic’s in thy breastie!

I ken you’re just here to unbraid me

An’ turn me to a bloody eejit.

I wad be laith to rin’ an’ chase thee

Thou feckin’ widget.”

…I’ll see myself out…lock up after yourselves, will you? My widgets are hungry.

Peat Bog Wellies

My childhood home is littered with tarnished, saliva-filled tin whistles left over from the fèis; old sheet music written in a crabbed hand and songs with words that I don’t understand anymore. I grew up near Oban, although I was born nearer Cumbernauld. In High School, I chose French, not Gaelic. I have spent next to none of my adult life in Scotland and, on meeting me, a person’s mind does not leap so easily to the Highlands and Islands as it does to the uncomfortable thought, “What the fuck is that accent anyway?” and all the social difficulties that this implies.

Still, I went to Fèis Latharna every year and I had a yellow sticker on my name tag that meant I knew a wee bit of Gaelic (Is mise Ally; pòg mo thòin and such…). My poor parents suffered through two daughters learning the fiddle and endlessly repeating songs about some truly shite sounding porridge. My childhood was lost wellies and being forced to sit on a poly bag on the way home to keep the car seat clean. It was that horrible, cringy feeling you get swimming over rocks, lest your hand brush through the weed and touch a jelly fish or…God forbid…a RED one! It was going camping on Lismore or Kerrera with the comfortable awareness that someone, usually a younger sibling, would track sheep shit into the tent. Above all, it was the long, slow, itchy summer of the ceaseless midgie.

I live in Canada now, after three years in New Zealand and every time someone asks me where I’m from, I say Oban, Scotland. I have left as many wellies preserved in peat bogs for future archaeologists as anyone so, really, what else can I say?

I am The Prodigal Teuchter so leave your flat cap at the door and settle down with a dram for yarns about beasties and bogles and Brexit, misty-eyed reminiscing and, above all else,  indecipherable grumbling into a pint about everything that doesn’t really matter.