It’s another travel day here. This one opened with a trip out to McCaig’s Tower one last time for some morning shots of the Oban skyline, and then (after bidding our hosts farewell) we set off for the day’s first stop. It was a bright enough morning, but as we’ve learned during our stay so far the usual state of the weather in Scotland is “unsettled.” Based on my experience with weather reports in this country so far this means literally “we have no goddamn idea what the weather will be like; just wear like three layers and do your best.”
In practice, this seems about right. So far we’ve been pretty lucky, the rain holding off or letting up altogether when we step out to visit one of the local sights. The damp is in everything, though: it’s great for skin, I suppose, but it’s disconcerting to open a suitcase and find that everything inside feels just that bit moist.
Anyway, our luck continued to hold as we reached Dunstaffnage, our first stop for the day. This tiny castle is largely a picturesque ruin today, but has a claim to fame as the prison, for a time, of Flora MacDonald. (If you’re like me and going “who?” at that, she’s the person responsible for eventually escorting Bonnie Prince Charlie to Skye dressed as her maid. This action eventually allowed Charlie to escape to France, where he apparently went on to let everyone down by idling away his remaining days in drinking and such.)
We also found our first geocache of Scotland here at last. Huzzah! This one was a nice hide.
From Dunstaffnage, it was a short drive to our next stop, Bonawe Iron Works. This wasn’t a forge, but rather a smelting operation – a charcoal-burning smelter that had run for a surprisingly long time. Here the smiths made some clever use of the landscape, placing the storage sheds for raw materials up at the top of the hills so that as the process moved along everything was gradually ferried downhill to the water, where a boat would carry the finished iron onward to be forged and wrought into useful things. Quite a production, though: it took two tons EACH of charcoal and iron ore to make one ton of smelted iron.
The smelting apparatus is gone now, but the buildings are well preserved, and the exhibitions inside give a pretty good impression of what life must have been like back then. The town was all crofters and fishermen until the ironworks showed up, though. Industry must have really blown up the place (so to speak.)
It was only just late morning at this point, so as the trip to Fort William (our stop for the night) was quite short we made another detour, this time to Glencoe. This is…well…a really beautiful spot; epic mountains, remnants of Scotland’s volcanic prehistory, rake steeply up either side of the glen, broken up here and there by huge boulders or entire hillsides covered with sharp, spiky gravel that sometimes shatters away from the mountains above due to ice or heavy rains. As with most of the glens, sharp little ribbons of water constantly run down the mountainsides, cutting them a little deeper, eventually pooling to make wider rivers or lochs at the bottom. Patches of sunlight drift across the landscape, moving with the gaps in the clouds, and patches of snow and ice still cling to the highest of the peaks.
This area (along with much of the highlands) is a haven for hikers, cyclists, climbers, and outdoorsmen of all sorts, including the truly batshit-insane: the ice climbers. (The notion of trying to scramble up a sheer face of ice using just an axe and some spiky shoes and such seems like madness to me. I’ll stick to snapping photos from here, thanks.)
After a quick lunch we resolved it was a good idea to get into the spirit of the place ourselves and do a bit of walking, so we left the car behind for a hike up to Signal Rock, where according to lore a fire was lit on the night of the massacre.
…and oh, yes, about that. This is the place, all right, and here we got to learn more about the massacre itself. It’s often presented as the Campbells being assholes, but at the place itself we learnt a bit more. It was, as with so many atrocities, political: what we had was a king who needed to bring the unruly highland clans under control. Fine: let’s establish an amnesty – any clan lord who comes in and swears fealty will be forgiven past crimes. However, anyone who doesn’t will be treated as traitors and punished accordingly.
Not being complete idiots, most clans seem to have said basically “oh, fine, very well” and sworn fealty within the deadline. However, the MacDonalds weren’t so lucky: a series of miscommunications and the wrong people being out of town led to their oath being rather late. (There were some pretty sickening quotes from people being like “Yes! Score! Someone we can make an example of!” at this.)
Accordingly, troops of soldiers were sent out to Glencoe, very likely with no idea what it was they were actually there to do; as was the highland custom they were received with all hospitality. For twelve days they hung out as visitors, while other troops moved into position…
And then the leader, a Roy Campbell, finally received his real orders. (I can only imagine how that must have felt.) Thirty-eight were killed, with more driven out into the snow. Interestingly, there are stories that some of the MacDonalds were warned and given a chance to flee. Perhaps some of the soldiers had a bit of a crisis of conscience, in the end.
Today there’s not really much to indicate that awful things once happened there; in the parts that we saw there’s scarcely so much as a foundation to show where the MacDonalds lived. Just the glen, all forbidding and majestic, and the deer and the eagles…and, naturally, the sheep. (It looked as though a croft or two have been grandfathered in, and sit serenely in the middle of all that dramatic landscape.)
The hike up to Signal Rock was pretty and densely forested. I looked as hard as I could for signs of wildlife but couldn’t find any, unfortunately. (We were a rather noisy group, what with all the conversation.) Still, it was good to take in some of the wilderness and its atmosphere: ferns and lichen-covered trees and the distant sounds of wind and water. A bit restorative, even.
A quick stop in town netted us a second geocache, this one hidden in a fake rock near a war memorial. Returning it was a bit problematic, as a car with a couple of people in it sat for some time just staring down the end of the street near the memorial. I had to hang about for some time pretending to read signs before I could return it.
By this time it was getting late, so we made our way to Fort William to settle in at our next B&B. The rooms were massive and had some interesting restrictions (like “no hanging things to dry in rooms”) that suggested Fort William’s status as jumping-off point for all sorts of outdoorsman-ly activator in the Highlands. (And our hosts had easily the broadest Scots accents we’d heard all this trip. Perhaps they become more pronounced the farther north you go.)
Settling in, we made a brief jaunt to the nearby hotel for some venison stew for dinner, then picked up one last cache on the way back to our rooms. This one was at an old bridge between the hotel and our B&B, and even with the hint it was a very tricky find. I doubt we’d have come across it at all if a pleasant middle-aged lady hadn’t eyed us curiously and asked “Are ye lookin’ fer somethin’ hidden?”
Ashamed to be caught out by a Muggle, we admitted we were, and she nudged us toward the cache: an elaborately-rigged beer can hanging by some kind of stout fishing line from the side of the bridge. The line it hung from was green, making it all but invisible.
Cache logged, we returned to our room to have a wash up.