The Road through Glencoe

The road from Loch Leven through the pass at Glencoe up to Rannoch Moor rises high above the river, giving the traveller a memorable view of the mountains, first to the north, Aonach Eagach, the Notched Ridge, later the higher peaks to the south. In mid June, the tourist season has not yet begun in earnest and, though there are plenty of people passing through, the roadside car park half way up the pass is still quiet.

We were driving through the Glen, on our way south from the Western Highlands to the Lake District, south in England. It was a few days before the start of Wimbledon Fortnight, and we were headed back to London. It was late on a high summer's morning. We stopped at the parking area, overlooking the valley. The mountains above Glencoe rose massive to the south, towering high above us, their blackness tinged with purple from the heather, still with small patches of snow near the peaks, left from last winter's blizzards.

A hundred feet or so below, the River Coe crashed over granite boulders, the soft, wild water stained pale brown by the peat from which it seeps, high on the slopes. To our amazement, a lone piper stood, in full dress uniform, the skirl of the pipes drifting along the valley. He was a regular visitor, it seemed, no doubt making plenty of money from tips from the tourist, presenting the chance of a photograph that one seldom sees except on postcards.

Piper at the Pass

After taking several photos of this spectacular sight, with the piper resting, I stood looking down into the valley. The only sound, apart from the occasional car, was the drift of the wind and the twittering of unseen skylarks somewhere high overhead.

As I looked down to the valley bottom, I could make out the faint traces of the old road that followed the river. My mind turned to the last time I had been here, much younger, as a lad of 8 years.

On that day, nearly three decades earlier, we were travelling north, on our way from the smoke of London to the Hebrides. My mother, Australian of Scots ancestry, had decided we should take our summer holidays near where her ancestors hailed from.

In those days the trip north took three days. We had stayed overnight in a hotel at the Bridge of Orchy, evidently a favourite spot for fishing, as I can still remember the fishing tackle in the hotel foyer. We had left on the final leg to Skye earlier that morning, another fine summer's day. As we drove westwards through the pass at Glencoe, I remember marvelling at the water gushing down the mountainsides in torrents to the main river. The old road weaved its way along the northern bank of the river, the hillside rising steeply to our right, the river still swollen with the melted snow on our left.

As we came around a bend in the road, we saw the tall figure of a man standing beside the road, looking west towards Loch Leven. As we drew near, we saw that he was anything but a normal hiker. He had long white hair and a long white moustache and was wearing not the regular kilt but the full long plaid of the old style, seldom seen these days. He wore a bonnet bearing ribbons that streamed out behind him in the wind, and carried a cromach, the Scottish hiking stick, famous in words of the song, "as step I with my cromach to the Isles". He was an old man but still in the prime of his vigour. He paid no attention to us, though we must have looked strange, peering at him from within the car as we passed. My younger sister and I were awe struck by this figure. He seemed to us to have come out of a history book, perhaps even from the Massacre at Glencoe. We had, of course, learned from our mother about the tragic events of 1692, when the Campbells, on behalf of the English, had massacred the MacDonalds of Glencoe in the dead of a winterís night. Glencoe was a place of mystery and perhaps some foreboding for us as we drove through. Seeing this amazing figure made it all the more magical.

As we drove by, my sister and I scrambled around to look out the rear window of the car - a Maigret style Citroen - to see the old man we had just passed. But he was nowhere to be seen. He had vanished completely. What made this puzzling was that there was nowhere he could have gone. We could see the road for some forty yards back, and the river was far too deep and swollen for him to have crossed. The hillside opposite was only fit for a mountain goat, certainly not somewhere an old man - even one so vigorous - might climb. He had simply disappeared into the gentle Scottish air.

This was a source of great mystery to us as children. Our parents had seen the figure as we passed, but only we children had seen that he had disappeared. In due course the story became one of those family myths that get discussed on stormy nights and other times of reminiscence.

Many years later, my brother, at the time of the trip to Skye a baby of five months, was working in a government office. One of his colleagues was a Scots lady, who, though she had been out here for many years, like many Scots, had retained her distinctive accent. He had occasion to recount to her our family story about the old man with white hair who had disappeared. She looked at him for a second, then said, "Ach, you've seen the ghost of Glencoe. He appears to people from time to time. They say he is the MacIan, chief of the clan, killed during the massacre. His spirit still walks along the old road beside the River Coe."

As I gazed down on the river and the traces of the old road, many years later, I wondered if the ghost of the old man still walked there. These days there would be few but the highland sheep to see him. Looking up at the dark peaks above, I could find no way to doubt this place could harbour ghosts. It is a place one does not forget.

David C Nicholls
1998