Black Day in the Scottish Highlands

They call it The Glen of Tears.

Located in a treeless valley, steep cliffs on either side, its rugged beauty belies a historical incident of such treachery its infamy lives on, 325 years later.

We were in the midst of a long day of travel. Starting in Glasgow, we’d already made a stop for a cruise on Loch Lomond, and headed north into the highlands. As we drove the 50 miles to Glen Coe the topography changed, from tree filled and lush to a near treeless, almost tundra-like landscape.

(Click on photos for a larger view)

Trees ascending to tree heaven

Folks in the United States have probably heard of a feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys.


In Scotland, it’s not a feud unless it lasts a few hundred years.  Enter the MacDonalds and the Campbells.

Both families came into prominence in the 12 and 13 hundreds, in part for supporting Robert the Bruce in his campaign to become King of Scotland.  They played nice for many generations; it wasn’t until 1501 that things got testy.

The Campbells had the land to the southwest of Glen Coe, with a name you may know better for footwear.

Argyll (socks).

The testiness was not over fashion; we will grant that both the MacDonalds and the Campbells wandered about in tartan sartorial splendor, albeit a bit drafty above the knees.


The Valley of Glen Coe


Their disagreements were a tad more, well, disagreeable.  The MacDonalds weren’t the most law-abiding types; they were continually rustling cattle from the Campbells.  The Campbells on the other hand didn’t stop at cattle; they were trying to extend their lands at the MacDonalds expense.   This bad behavior went on for generations.

They did take different approaches to their larceny.  The MacDonalds were free spirits that made free with other folk’s property.  The Campbells were political players; they made nice with the English government and used armed force.

This all came to a head in 1691.


If you recall from the Loch Lomond post, in 1688 the Scottish King James II was deposed by the English parliament and William III of Orange.  King Bill III was interested in making peace with the Scots without showing weakness.  On August 27th, 1691, he offered a pardon to all Scots who swore an oath of allegiance before a magistrate by January 1st, 1692.  The alternative? Death.

I read a couple of sources to learn what happened next, but there was so much intrigue and so many players doing their little shenanigans my eyes glazed over.  The upshot was the MacDonald clan chief went to the wrong location to swear his reluctant allegiance, and by the time he got to the right place it was January 6th. But Chief MacDonald figured his clan was ok, he’d sworn the oath and had a letter showing he had tried to do so by the 1st.


The English crown (and maybe a few other players) didn’t care.  They already had a military force in place and wanted to make an example of how they’d deal with resistance.

Although the Campbells and MacDonalds were frequently thorns in each other’s sides, they were still neighbors and they’d still help each other out.  In this case, one of the Campbells (who happened to hold a grudge) asked for temporary quarters for his troop of 130 solders in the MacDonald compound.

After hanging out and playing friendly neighbors for 10 days, Campbell got the order: exterminate the MacDonalds.  Early the next morning the Campbell troop (of which only a few were actually named Campbell) did the dirty deed.  38 were killed directly.  That many more escaped, but died from exposure.  (This is northern Scotland in January.) A few MacDonalds survived, but the clan lost its importance.


As massacres go, this wasn’t a big one.  In 1069-1070 William the Conqueror killed 100,000.  And a scan of just Campbell history suggests internecine warfare in the middle ages was the norm. What made this one notorious was the treachery; the maneuvering to set up the MacDonalds, the make like friends for 10 days, the follow up with sword and gun. It was a black day.

Fortunately for us, it was only a grey day.   The views were not murderous, they were sublime. After enjoying the views we moved on to Fort William.


These days Fort Williams is mostly a tourist town, a jumping off site for hiking the glen, for climbing nearby Ben Nevis (the highest mountain in Great Britain), and for mountain biking.  We stopped for a late lunch, and took in a surprisingly good small museum, with exhibits ranging from natural history to military history.

Highland Weapons
Halberds – 14th to 17th Century

After lunch, we strolled about the town and I came upon a good-natured fellow who seemed to be the only guy in Scotland who’d sit still for my opinions. Although frankly, in time even he seemed to give me the cold shoulder.


But time was a-wasting, we had miles to go. Next up: Glenfinnan.

I admit, I was looking forward to Glenfinnan. Do you remember the Harry Potter movie where the flying car came upon the train to Hogwarts passing over a viaduct?  Or the loch that appeared in a couple of the movies? This was the view I was expecting to see.

Photo from Glenfinnan Monument and Visitor Center

What actually happened?  We pulled into a tourist stop not far from the loch but without the loch view, and the guide walked us 50 yards to a place we could see the viaduct from ground level, 1/4 mile off.  My picture was so unimpressive it didn’t even make the first culling pass after I got home – it got deleted.  It was rush, rush, rush; we were only making a bathroom stop and had no time for a better perspective.

I did at least get a picture of the monument, a statue in honor of the Jacobite rebels who died trying to restore Bonnie Prince Charlie to the throne in 1745.  It was at the mouth of the loch that Charlie Stuart raised his banner, in a last attempt to rally the Scots to restore the Stuarts to the throne.  If you look in the picture above, you can see a tiny spike outlined in the water, just in front of the island. That’s the monument.

In case that little spike underwhelms you as much as the view underwhelmed me when we arrived at the site, here’s that better picture of the monument I took.


And on we went. Back up into the highlands, back above the trees, back into the land of rugged turf and rocks.


Even this wasn’t the end of the drive.  We drove on to the coast, and when we couldn’t drive anymore we got on a ferry.  The next stop, Isle of Skye.

But that’s a story for another post.


43 thoughts on “Black Day in the Scottish Highlands

  1. I certainly recognise that weather! Some 25 years ago or so I walked across Scotland, wild camping on the way, ending up at the ferry for Skye. Wet, cold, but absolutely fantastic rugged scenery. And that was in June. I can perfectly understand how the January climate would kill off the fugitives.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Peter. I wasn’t (and still am not) too sure how well telling a story of a massacre would fly in popularity, but it is a part of the area’s history. I think I read somewhere the Game of Throne’s Red Wedding scene was inspired by that massacre. In any case, stark beauty describes it well.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful pictures, Dave! Amazing scenery. Other than the Jacobite on his watchtower, I don’t think there’s a single figure, or so much as a sheep, in these places, almost spooky in a great way. And who was that character you were talking to? He looks long-suffering, but maybe if his foot wasn’t bothering him, he might have taken off the Argyll socks and made a run for it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I generally don’t include people in my landscape photos, but in this case the lack makes it seem even more remote and lonely. That’s one reason I went ahead and featured a mournful story – it seemed to fit the mood.

      I suspect if every third tourist who came to town sat down next to you and expressed their opinion you’d look long-suffering too! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s true. I imagine there’s some jolly history associated with the place too, but that doesn’t seem to be the stuff that makes the history books. Kind of like the evening news – they seem to focus on the bad things, especially for the lede.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I suspect that back in those days, once you got past the needs of survival there wasn’t a lot to keep yourself entertained. Maybe the local lords and clan chiefs waged wars and power plays not just to try and increase their power, but for something to do. Idle hands, and all that…


    1. I don’t really know how the climate varies over the year. We were there in August and needed sweaters and light jackets, but it was a cool, rainy day. The latitude is roughly equivalent to Juneau, Alaska.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. J.D. Riso

    Well…finally a photo of you, and one that captures your personality so well. The Campbells. They also had a feud with Clan Douglas, so I’ve been told. Douglas is my maiden name. A Campbell made my life hell in high school. So, I automatically side with the MacDonalds.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I did get the impression that historically the Campbells got into a lot of fights – I think they were power hungry. One of my dive buddies is named Campbell, and after returning from a trip to Scotland he mentioned with some chagrin that the Campbells didn’t have the best reputation. I wonder how much of that comes from siding with the English. I’m not sure I can pick a side. If I dig deep enough and wide enough in the family tree I find both McDonalds and Campbells, and Douglas too.


    1. I assume you’re talking about the mountain peaks in clouds. That one evolved a bit, I cropped it in to key on the gaps and fog, and went with B/W since it was nearly monochrome anyway. Definitely made for a moody shot.

      I must have been talking about two of something. Maybe not midfielders, as I’m clueless about soccer (or cricket?).

      Liked by 1 person

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  5. Those landscapes look gorgeous! I’m going to repeat my earlier comment and say how similar it looks to Jeju, Iceland, and even certain parts of Mongolia. I particularly liked the blur effect you used on the black, jagged mountain ridge. Or was it fog? Your photography keeps getting better! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The foggy look is clouds, shrouding the tops of the ridge. I zoomed in to get closer, and cropped in to get to the heart of the matter. Strange how it’s not the clear blue sky days that make the best photos.

      Liked by 1 person

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