The Ultimate Guide to Glencoe
Written by: Caitlin
Published: 13th January 2020
Last Updated on
So much myth, legend and history surround the iconic location of Glencoe. It’s beautiful and dramatic scenery really is one of the world’s highlights. We’ve tried to gather together all the information we could find about this Scottish gem, and yet somehow it still only feels like we are just scratching the surface.
No matter what the season, you are guaranteed breathtaking views, a never ending tapestry of changing colours setting the backdrop for a rich and thrilling history. It’s really no wonder that regular visitors would keep this fantastic place a secret if only they could!
Where is Glencoe?
Glencoe is possibly Scotland’s most famous glen, named after the River Coe that runs through it. It has volcanic origins and is located in the Highlands. It lies in the north of the county of Argyll, close to the border with the historic province of Lochaber, within the modern council area of Highland. The scenic beauty of the glen has led to its inclusion in the Ben Nevis and Glen Coe National Scenic Area, one of 40 such areas in Scotland.
Glencoe was recently voted as Scotland’s most romantic glen.
Just 89 miles from Edinburgh, and 65 miles from Glasgow. Here you’ll find a wonderful world that has been unspoilt and unchanged for centuries that has captured the hearts and minds of every visitor. It’s a place where time means little.
Getting to Glencoe
When travelling to Glencoe, it is often said that the journey is as good as the destination.
To get here from the South:
From Glasgow take the A82 – a straightforward and scenic journey with plenty of places to stop and stretch your legs along the way. Or the A828 via Oban is also an option, this is a longer drive but a quieter and still scenic route.
Or if you’ve seen Loch Lomond many a time you may want to take a right on the A84 via Stirling/ Callander before you reach Glasgow and take a journey through the countryside.
If you are arriving from the North:
If you are heading down from the North West Highlands or the Isles you will most likely be on the A82 or A830, once through Fort William a drive of about 20 minutes brings you to the start of the Glencoe and Loch Leven area.
Or if using public transport:
You can catch the CityLink bus from various points in Glasgow and in a little over 2 hours you will enter the Pass of Glencoe, if you can I would advise that travel in daylight so you get to see the glen in all its glory. There are several stops to chose from along the way.
Or, you could catch the train from Glasgow Queen Street and enjoy the scenic ride up to Fort William. The journey takes longer than it does by car as the tracks weave their way around the mountains, but I would recommend giving it a try as you get to enjoy the magical journey across Rannoch Moor.
A local train service runs from the North, from Mallaig to Fort William or during the peak season you can hop aboard The Jacobite steam train. Find out more about The Jacobite steam train.
The Geography of Glencoe
Upon arriving at Glencoe the first view for most people will be the dominating and impressive peak of Buachaille Etive Mor. It rises to over 1000 feet over the great wilderness of Rannoch before slowly descending through the glen itself.
Before reaching the Buachaille, you will spot Scotland’s original ski area at White Corries overlooking the moor. The popular long distance path, the West Highland Way, starts beneath the chairlift from the Black Mount before crossing over toward the Devil’s Staircase which meanders all the way to Fort William.
The glen of Glencoe runs in an east to west direction, with steep sided mountains on both sides. To the north is the Aonach Eagach ridge, a precipitous and craggy knife-edge which is a challenging day out even for experienced mountaineers. To the south a whole series of peaks dominate the skyline. After the ‘big’ Buachaille, there’s the ‘wee one’, Buachaille Etive Beag, and also the Three Sisters of Glen Coe- which is what the ridges of Beinn Fhada, Gearr Aonach and Aonach Dubh are collectively known as.
It’s only a short distance along to the small village of Glencoe, which is overlooked by the impressively shaped Pap of Glencoe. The modestly sized village provides the visitor with a wide range of facilities, from bed and breakfast accommodation, restaurant and cafes, petrol station, post office and shop. There’s also a very good but quite small museum and some excellent gentle walks around the Glencoe Lochan, formerly the Strathcona House & estate.
Much of the glen is owned by the National Trust of Scotland.
A history of Glencoe
Not only is Glencoe one of the most magnificent areas of natural beauty in the whole of the world, it is home of one of the most brutal and interesting histories. For many people, hearing of Glencoe is synonymous with the story of the Glencoe Massacre, but that is not the earliest recorded history of this notorious area.
Fingal and the Feinn
The first historical figure connected with Glencoe was Fingal, one of the greatest Celtic heroes and leader of the Feinn, warriors of Gaelic mythology. The glen was his legendary home and his memory is preserved in a number of place names, for example Sgor nam Fiannaidh (rock of the Feinn).
The legend goes that the Fingalian Giants were Celts with shaggy hair and of preposterous strength who sailed to Scotland and settled in Glencoe over 1,700 years ago. They carried immense weapons and were led by Fingal, the tallest and strongest of all. He built 12 castles in the village of Glencoe, in the Crooked Glen of the Stones, at 25 miles long the longest glen in the Scottish Highlands. The Feinn protected the glen from up on the northern hills.
In Glencoe, the Feinn battled the Vikings, and always defeated them. The Scandinavians, led by Earragan, came to fight Fingal’s warriors, and the king of the Norsemen invited Fingal to send an equal number against his first 140 men. The Feinn thundered down the highlands on horseback and defeated the Vikings. A similar test was waged the next day, the next and the next.
On the eighth day the Feinn swarmed against the entire Scandinavian army in a merciless battle and were victorious, and Earragan was killed. The surviving Norsemen fled. But never again would the Fingalian warriors be so bold and terrible, for Fingal had been slain on the battle field. That night as he gasped his last breath, his son Oisin was born, and was fed his first food on the the tip of Fingal’s sword.
As Fingal has instructed, his body was dropped into the breaking waves of the sea cave that transcended the bounds of life and death.
And legend tells us that even now, Fingal, the mightiest of Fingalian warriors lives on in that sea cave, his face rising with the mist for only his true descendants to see.
A transitional period for the Glen
So, Fingal was said to have defeated the Viking leader Earragon of Sora, but the Viking influence could not be held at bay for long. The descendants of Earragon became the MacDougall clan, and the MacDougalls held control over Glencoe from the 11th century onwards.
The clan built a strong base of power in western Scotland, but in 1308 they ‘backed the wrong horse’, or in this case, the wrong contender for the Scottish throne. The clan threw in their lot with the Balliol family against Robert Bruce. After Bruce gained the throne he awarded Glencoe to Angus Og, chief of the MacDonald clan.
The MacDonalds held the glen until 1501 when conflict broke out between the MacDonalds and the Campbells of Argyll. There was fault on both sides; the MacDonalds stole Campbell cattle, and the Campbells kept trying to annex MacDonald territory. The conflict carried on into the 17th century, when the clans found themselves on opposite sides of the Wars of the Covenant.
The Campbells supported the government, while the MacDonalds allied with the Royalist cause. To put it in simple terms, the MacDonalds represented the traditional Highland way of life, while the Campbells represented Scottish ties to England and government control. The centuries-long conflict came to head in one of the most infamous episodes in Scottish history.
The Glencoe Massacre
The famous Massacre of Glencoe took place in Glencoe on the 13 February 1692, following the Jacobite uprising of 1689-92. It is estimated that 30-40 members and associates of Clan MacDonald of Glencoe were killed by government forces billeted with them, on the grounds they had not been prompt enough in pledging allegiance to the new monarchs, William III of England and II of Scotland and Mary II.
Supposedly, MacDonald Clan Chief, MacIain of Glencoe, had reluctantly agreed to take the oath, but he mistakenly went to Inverlochy in Fort William instead of Inveraray near Oban. He finally reached Inveraray on January 6th, which was well after the deadline for pledging allegiance..
MacDonald naively believed that, despite this delay in taking the oath, that he and his clan would now be safe. But unknown to him, a force had already been assembled at Inveraray and given orders to exterminate the whole clan. The force left for Glencoe on 1st February, led by Captain Robert Campbell of Glen Lyon, a man with a grudge against the MacDonalds. Campbell asked for quarters for his 130 soldiers and, unaware of what was planned, the poor MacDonalds entertained them for 10 days.
On the night of the 12th February, Campbell received orders to kill all MacDonalds under seventy years of age at 5 am the next morning. In the early hours of a cold winter’s morning the soldiers rose from their beds and set about the massacre of their hosts, with whom they had been living on friendly terms. It was this act of treachery in response to hospitality that makes this massacre such a heinous crime. Although only forty were killed, many more escaped to the hills only to die of hunger and exposure.
The nation of Scotland, although used to war and murder in its many forms, was outraged by the callousness of the massacre of Glencoe. For the Jacobites in Edinburgh it was a powerful piece of anti-government propaganda. An inquiry was held and Scottish Parliament declared the whole affair an act of murder.
If a brutal and bloody tale of politics and history is something you are interested in reading more about, please refer to our in depth account of The Glencoe Massacre here.
Modern history of Glencoe
Shortly after this period a new military road was built passing the eastern end of Glencoe, and in 1785 the first road was built through the glen itself. Some believe that this was part of government attempts to control the Highland clans. Population declined over the next century as the Highland Clearances forced people out in favour of sheep.
As with so many places in the Highlands, the ‘Clearances’ took their toll, and by the death of the 17th Chief, Ewen MacDonald, in 1837 the chieftainship of the MacDonalds had little meaning.
Ownership passed through several hands during the next century and in 1935, to prevent possible commercial exploitation, the National Trust for Scotland bought 12,800 acres of the glen. With the help of donations from a variety of sources, the Trust’s holding has been extended over the years and today covers most of the glen from the edge of Rannoch Moor to the shores of Loch Leven.
Where to go in Glencoe
Glencoe is world renown as a centre for mountaineering and hillwalking, but it is also the ideal location in which to relax or to use as a convenient base to tour the western highlands of Scotland.
The village of Glencoe lies to the western edge of the glen, and then a mile further west of this is Ballachulish. Both of these locations have facilities for visitors passing through, as well as options for accommodation. Also at this western edge of the glen can be found a Visitors Centre, packed full of information on local activities and footpaths.
It’s easy to explore the area on foot, or you can use local buses or taxis to go further. If you don’t have your own wheels you could hire a car to explore further afield too.
The development of the West Highland Way long-distance trail has led to an increase in the number of walkers over recent years. The trail follows the route of the old military road over Rannoch Moor and descends the glen along the Devil’s Staircase.
The Devil’s Staircase was initially given its name by the soldiers who were part of the road building programme of General Wade. The carrying of building materials up that stretch of the road was not popular! The journey back was even worse as unsteady legs meant that many were unable to manage the return trip and, on a cold winter’s night, the devil often ‘claimed his own’.
The road through Glen Coe takes you through the heart of an ancient volcano. Follow the Glen Coe Geotrail to find out more about how glaciers and fiery explosions carved out the glen’s rugged mountain peaks.
On the east side of the glen is the Glencoe ski area, sometimes called White Corries. Glencoe was the first commercial Scottish Ski Area with the construction of the first overhead ski lift on Meall A’Bhuiridh in 1956. They operate 7 days a week 364 days a year and are well worth a visit.
Where to stay in Glencoe
If camping is your thing, there are 3 official campsites in the glen, and wild camping is allowed in some areas. Perhaps the most popular place to stay (at least for determined climbers) is the Clachaig Inn and its nearby campground, about 3 miles from Glencoe village. Between the inn and the village is a hostel run by the Scottish Youth Hostel Association. About 1 mile from the eastern head of the glen is the Kings House Hotel, a historic coaching inn.
The Isles of Glencoe Hotel nestles on the side of a peninsula reaching into Loch Leven at the foot of Glencoe. This friendly, modern hotel offers everything you look for on holiday; spacious bedrooms with loch and mountain-views and a relaxed atmosphere. It really is one of the most family friendly Hotels in the Highlands of Scotland, so for Fort William accommodation or Glencoe accommodation, look no further!
Or how about the Strath Lodge Glencoe? It is conveniently set in a quiet and secluded location just a short stroll from Glencoe village with large gardens and private off road parking.his is just a stunning and prime location in which to base yourself to explore all that the Highlands of Scotland have to offer.
The region has an oceanic climate with typically warm rather than hot summers and cool to cold winters.
The Scottish Highlands do get periods of cold, snowy and extreme weather however for the majority of the time the Highlands can be visited throughout the year. On average the hottest month is July in summer and the coldest is January in winter. Rainfall on average falls fairly evenly throughout the year, February is the driest month with September the wettest month.
The weather is unpredictable as with the rest of the UK and it is possible to see elements of all four seasons in one day. The region does experience snowfall in the winter and it can be heavy at times. It is advisable for visitors to check the weather forecast before they arrive in the Scottish Highlands to get a better idea of the sort of clothing they will need during their trip. Bringing hooded warm waterproof coats and hats will ensure visitors are prepared for any spells of wind and rain the region may experience.
Check out the most recent updates at the Met Office.
Things to do in Glencoe
Glencoe Clay Shooting‘s Target Centre is set amongst some of the most beautiful scenery in Great Britain, if not the world. They offer Clay Pigeon Shooting, Air Rifles, Archery, Crossbows, Tomahawk throwing and SlingShots all available for complete beginners to enthusiasts, from age 8 years and upwards, for individuals, groups, families and corporate events.
Glencoe Mountain Resort is the perfect setting for individuals, families and groups. In summer the centre offers mountain biking (Downhill and XC), orienteering, hill-walking, climbing, chairlift rides, photography, trail building, guided walks and home cooked food in the log cabin cafe. In winter skiing, snowboarding, sledging and avalanche rescue training are available. 19 runs across 7 lifts catering for skiers and boarders of all levels, including the longest and steepest runs in Scotland.
And don’t forget to check out Glencoe Activities! Select from a great range of adventure activities, including rib Archery in the woodland, Segway tours over a wonderful estate or test your aim with Laser clay pigeon shooting. If you haven’t already purchased your little piece of land from Highland Titles, do so now, because lairds of Glencoe can expect some generous discounts!
Another benefit of becoming a Glencoe Laird or Lady is that you can benefit from 10% off bike hire at CranKitUpGear. They are a small family business and the only bike spares and hire service in South Lochaber. They have developed a network of local off road trails near the village, as well as some longer wilderness rides, and there really is no better way to explore they area. Bikes are available for everyone age 6 and over.
If you haven’t already planned out every minute of your visit, we have compiled the ultimate 2-day itinerary to Glencoe with a top selection of entertainment, activities, accommodation and restaurants, to make sure you fit in as much as possible to even a short stay. Check out our 2-Day Itinerary to Glencoe here.
For more ideas, check out Tripadvisor:
Highland Titles Nature Reserve at Glencoe Wood
The first Highland Titles Nature Reserve, opened in 2007, is made up of thousands of plots which are supported by a global community of Lairds. This land is free to visit whether you have purchased a plot or not. Located close to the historical Glencoe, the reserve is one of two Highland Titles reserves and is also an established 4 star visitor attraction. Every person that purchases a plot from Highland Titles becomes a Laird, Lord or Lady of Glencoe, even if it is a 1 sqft plot. We welcome all to visit this special area of the Scottish Highlands and thank you all for your ongoing support.
The Highland Titles Nature Reserve is sustained by the ongoing support of the over 100,000+ Highland Titles community. With the purchase of every plot, we are able to work with our partners to plant more trees, build more shelters for the animals that inhabit the reserves, and progress in our efforts to conserve the land for future generations as well as offer a unique and charming gift to those who support the progress of our efforts.