Thursday, May 15, 2008

Scottish Souvenirs: Glencoe and Ballachulish

Glencoe is a magical area, steeped in historical interest and arguably one of the most scenic areas of Scotland. This is what I kept telling myself as I made the long car journey to this area on a rare sunny day in August, while fighting off a numb bum.

Perhaps Glencoe is special because it seems so remote and untouched. Certainly there are more inaccessible and isolated areas of Scotland. But there's something unique and special about Glencoe, which is difficult to describe until you begin leaving the shores of Loch Lomond and bustle of Glasgow behind you. Within an hour, the road becomes more winding, and villages and houses less easy to spot. Mountains start showing themselves proudly, with their sheer faces giving way to the road...and just when you think you may never arrive, Glencoe unfolds dramatically, and reveals a breathtaking scene of highlands, green valleys, and glittering dark waters.

Exploring the Valley of Weeping

Once the home of the MacDonald clan, Glencoe (literally, "Valley of Weeping") today is a monument to the atrocity which occurred here (see related feature), and is a pristine environment that attracts walkers, climbers, and skiers, in addition to tourists. The glen, which has been owned and managed by the National Trust of Scotland (NTS) since the 1930s, is for the most part, uninhabited, which allows the Trust to maintain the natural beauty of the area while balancing the needs of the visitor.

The best place to begin exploring the area is the NTS visitor centre (enquiries: 44 (0)1855 811 307), which is open from April to October. Oddly enough, there is a 50p admission charge, but I imagine this is to help fund staff and the new visitor centre being planned. For your 50p, you can watch a short video about the historical massacre for which the area is known, review the small mountaineering display, pick up a snack, and of course, do some souvenir shopping.

In the summer, informative ranger-led walks leave from the centre daily, and the visitor centre should be able to offer advice and a range of self-guided walks and maps for those who wish to explore the area on their own. Unless you are an experienced walker, I can't stress enough that you should check in at the centre before taking on a hike in this area, especially the high-level walks. Glencoe is notorious for fast changing weather conditions and each year there are fatalities.

Before you leave the centre, you may want to take the short(ish) stroll to Signal Rock, which offers good views of the glen. Historically, Signal Rock is said to be where the signal fire, which indicated the start of the massacre, was built. Readers may also recognise Signal Rock as the place where Davie and Alan Breck rested in Robert Louis Stevenson's "Kidnapped."

For those who crave more to get the historical feel of the area, the Glencoe and North Lorn Folk Museum (enquiries: 44 (0)1855 811 664) can add more to the visitor experience. At the museum, in the village of Glencoe, you'll find displays on rural life, clan and Jacobite history, and local wildlife and geology, with a special children's area. The Folk Museum is open every day but Sunday throughout summer months, and admission is £2.00 for adults and free for children.

Visitors who want to explore the area's natural beauty will find themselves with numerous choices on how to do so. One popular activity in this area during the winter months is skiing, and tourists wanting to ski and snowboard may want to head for Glencoe Ski Centre (enquiries: 44 (0)1855 851 226). The ski centre, located at the foot of Meall A' Bhuiridh, offers rental, tuition, restaurant facilities, and a chairlift. The chairlift and restaurant facilities are open in the summer for those who want a leg up for some walking and great views.

There are lots of other things to do in the area in addition to walking and snow sports. For more information about other activities, from pony trekking to sailing to mountain biking, stop in at the local visitor centre, or grab a copy of "What's On in Fort William and Lochaber."

After a long drive to Glencoe, my mum-in-law and I were ready to grab some dinner and head for bed. We chose the Glencoe Hotel randomly as our dinner spot, and were well rewarded for our efforts in getting to Glencoe. The Glencoe Hotel (enquiries: 44 (0)1855 811 687 or email: sits on the main road, and offers superb views of the mountains and Loch Leven while dining. The hotel has both a bar and a restaurant, and having not booked ahead, I can highly recommend the bar food for a very satisfying and tasty meal, without prices to make you wince. The two of us drank and ate moderately (i.e. - one trip to the bar each, with a shared appetiser and entree each), came away very happy and full, with change from £20.00.

Neighbouring Ballachulish

If you're looking for a place to stay in this area, there are plenty of places to choose from in Glencoe itself, and also in neighboring Ballachulish. I chose the latter, as I had stayed in a lovely B&B in pre-travel guide days with my husband, and was eager to see if it was still as nice when the sun was out (the first time I went there, it was pouring and miserable out weatherwise).

It was my good fortune to find the Strathassynt Guest House (Loan Fern, Ballachulish / enquiries: 44 (0)1855 811 261), and to discover that Lynn and John Bowen were still the owners. The cosy bed and breakfast is decorated very nicely, and guests are made to feel very much at home. Breakfast in the morning is a real treat, with fresh homemade bread as a nice touch. At £25.00 for a single room (they allowed me to stay in the lovely family room at the single price), I can highly recommend this guest house to anyone heading to this area.

Ballachulish itself is a charming village, with a welcoming pub and a proper village around a green to explore. I found the Tourist Information Centre (enquiries: 44 (0)1855 811 296) here more resourceful, informative and accessible than the one at Glencoe. You will be able to take your time and browse here and ask millions of questions without being crowded by tour bus groups.

In town, the big attraction seems to be Highland Mysteryworld (enquiries: 44 (0)1855 811 660 or email:, a place which brings alive Scottish legends and tales with live actors and special effects. Highland Mysteryworld is set in a 36 acre estate, which is open to visitors to explore the lochside trails and lovely views, and offers picnic and barbecue areas, a children's adventure playground, and boat trips to historic islands. For more information, and to get the Internet entry discount password, go to:

As it was a miserable damp morning the evening after we arrived in Glencoe, we skipped the Highland Mysteryworld and ran into the shelter of the Arches Craft Shop (enquiries: 44 (0)1855 811 866) in Ballachulish, which is opposite the TIC. The Arches Craft Shop offers wood sculptures by local craftsmen, clothes, toys, jewellery and other Celtic crafts.

Having perused the craft shop, and the rain showing no sign of giving up, we made a beeline for the Great Glen Fine Foods Confectionery Factory Visitor Centre and Scottish Speciality Food Shop (enquiries: 44 (0)1855 821 277). If you fancy, you can take a free tour of the factory, to see the various confections being made, but we figure, who cares as long as the goodies keep flowing? The shop had a great selection of Scottish speciality foods to choose from, but was a bit small to accommodate the tourist buses that are led through here like cattle. My husband LOVED the whisky I bought for him here.

Should We Go?

All in all, I feel the Glencoe area has a great deal to offer the visitor, especially if the visitor enjoys stunning scenic areas and outdoor activities. Mind you, Glencoe would not be the same if it was full of touristy tack and pointless attractions. For the tourist who may not have the time, nor the outdoor inclination, a day in the area should suffice to give the visitor a feel of the area, and plenty of memories to take home.

Marks out of 10 for Glencoe and Ballachulish: 8

See my Glencoe photos!

Ana's Top Tips!

If you are planning on visiting the Glencoe area in the summer, you may want to book head, as this area gets quite busy.
To find out more information on this area, hit the web!

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