You’ll not go very far amongst the hills of Scotland without encountering something of the nation’s history. Not so often the bigger story, far more likely the small; sometimes a yell from the past, more often just a whisper.
Many a glen will show you the half-buried or grassed-over remains of the hovel-like houses of the folk who lived there before the shameful Clearances. Atop some hills, Ben Alder, for instance, you’ll stumble across similar remains, those left by the hardy glensfolk who drove their cattle to the summer sheilings, summer after summer.
During years of wandering through glen and over hill, I have been able to gradually piece together the faded jigsaw that was once a more heavily-peopled Scotland. In many instances the stones that those people have left behind cry out the pain, the heartache, the horrors of hard times, even atrocities, they have witnessed.
One such place is Gleann Leac na Muidhe. One of Scotland’s most heinous crimes has been dubbed, ‘The Glencoe Massacre’. This event actually took place in Gleann Leac na Muidhe. It was in this glen, a quieter, lesser known offshoot of the famed Glencoe, that the doomed Macdonalds had their homes.
It was here, beneath the brooding slopes of Meall Mor and Aonach Dhub a’ Ghlinne, ‘the ridge of the black glen’, that on the bitterly cold night, on February 13 1692, many a Macdonald met his or her untimely end by a treachery that has left a lasting stench on Scottish soil.
This afternoon, as we passed the scant remains of their former dwellings, there was peace. Whereas it had rained heavily in the glen through the early hours, the sun now shone benevolently on the slopes of Meall Mor; we turned to see a few last clouds kissing the tooth-like ridge of Aonach Eagach.
Not a hint of bygone dastardly deeds tinged the air as we slipped past the glen’s more modern buildings and crossed the Allt na Muidhe, Ulaidh bound.
Due to that earlier rain we’d gotten an unusually late start, gone 11am is an outlandishly late start for a hillwalk (we’d almost given up on the day, thinking to drive down to Kinlochleven for some exercise on the village’s indoor climbing wall). But when the sun had at last broken through and appeared to be making a fist at the clouds, we couldn’t resist the temptation of a quick raid on Sgurr na Ulaidh.
A ‘quick raid’? Well Dave, my companion for the weekend, isn’t one for speed on the hills; he doesn’t get out all that often. I chivvied him along the two miles or so of track which pointed southwest, straight at Creag Lighiche. Mostly a flat bulky lump of green (this time of year, dun coloured), this Corbett’s eastern face is craggy; despite the drying sun the rain-salivered rock glistened.
By the last plantation the track gave way to a messy path. It turned us south and became better trod as it led us by the waters of the allt even now full of the rain waters still running off the hills; noisy!
The grassy slopes of Aonach Dhub a’ Ghlinne, rush down in almost uniform perpendicular terraces divided by the shallow trenches of the burns that drain them. Poor Dave looked aghast as I pointed at the skyline. “After you,” I encouraged. For Dave it was a long and hard, sweaty pull. Often we stopped for breath, his, not mine. Though for most of the ascent his face was the colour of beetroot, he never once complained. It was however with a huge sigh of relief that he finally threw down his rucksack on the stony ridge top, and then himself beside it.
I allowed him a few minutes and then suggested that he accompany me just a few more level paces across the col for a stupendous view of Bidian nam Bian; he was gob-smacked! Bidian, the region’s highest peak, is better recognised from Glencoe, true. In fact by comparison this nether view is quite dull. Yet for sheer immensity of scale (you see the mountain and its neighbour, Sgreamhach, virtually from head to toe), it cannot be beaten.
We lunched. Our next objective lay just before us. Stob an Fhuarain (Fhuarainn, means well or spring), gave Dave’s briefly-rested legs a much less severe test; soon we were standing on the little summit, surveying the rugged drop below us and the final stony slope of Ulaidh. David looked as though he’d had enough however.
But the remaining climb is short and, to my mind, teetering above its gully-riven cliffs, could not be missed. I gently coaxed him upwards. I could at this point describe the fantastic mountain scene that greeted us at the summit cairn, particularly Etive-wards and out towards a rapidly hazing western seaboard, but I want to leave that just a little longer. Suffice to say that we lingered probably longer than we ought.
I had thought of leaving the hill via its rockier western ridge. There are one or two places down that way which would call for caution, especially if the rock was still wet. Should I nurse Dave down that way? Had it been earlier in the day I might have chanced it. Standing atop the Sgurr right now I sensed that the day was already wanting to go to bed. High cloud had streamed in from the west as we’d climbed and long shadows were beginning to finger the glens. Best go back the way we’d come.
It was whilst pausing again on Stob an Fhuarainn, that I was really glad that we had. From this vantage point we looked back Etive-wards. Evening was taking over fast, and in utterly beautiful fashion!
Loch Etive, far below, glinted in the fading light. All that previous rain, sucked back from ground to air by the strong afternoon sun, was turning into haze, a mystifying mist crawled up from the valleys.
Ben Cruachan stood along the skyline, a mini range in gorgeous silhouette. Nearby Benin Trilleachain stood dark and brooding, as did the slopes of Ben Starav that mirrored her across the loch. It was the kind of magical scene you’ll only ever witness if you stay on the mountain late.
It wasn’t too late, but it could be if I didn’t get Dave down soon. We marched back down to the final col and took on those steep grassy slopes again; much easier for Dave going down, than up! We reached the allt in the gloaming. I had to slow Dave down lest he stumbled and pitched head first into the dancing burn.
We reached the track and saw the distant houses up ahead, their windows twinkling yellow with electric light. We passed the buildings quietly. Whilst bathing his feet in the pallid glow of Glencoe’s passing traffic, Aonach Eagach ripped the not quite black northern sky with its blunt teeth. We walked in silence, only our boots crunching on the stony track spoiling the peace that had descended with the darkness; the night was coming quickly...