Midway between Glasgow and Fort William is the Moor of Rannoch, a place often called the last wilderness in Britain. Its moss and hummocks extend for miles of wide, exposed land, cut by dark pools and streams into a thousand wet tessellations. At 50 square miles across, it is the largest area of unbroken blanket bog in Britain.
I step off the dry safety of the road to make a start through the roughage. In every direction, the brown and red carpet of sphagnum rolls to either the horizon or the feet of distant mountains. I had been warned: guidebooks talk about the disorientating nature of the place and how distances are often hard to judge. Now I can see why. There are no landmarks, with very little to break up the twin planes of ground and sky. Meanwhile, the ground is the hard-going, boot-sucking kind. With each squelch it tries to draw me deeper into its soggy, horizontal world.
‘It gives people mixed emotions,’ says Helen Rawling, writer of this Discovering Britain trail. ‘Such rugged, empty places can be liberating and at the same time, unsettling.’
“You never know if the geography is going to be the same as the one you left”
Glaciers forged the astounding scenery at Rannoch. Like much of the highlands, the area sits on the threshold of repeated advance and retreat of glaciers through numerous ice ages. The glaciers scraped the moor’s bedrock of granite and deposited it in loose piles – or moraines – that can still be seen as humps in fields across the landscape. During the most recent Ice Age, however, an enormous ice cap covered the west of Scotland, with Rannoch at its heart. The cap filled the moor and preserved the shapes beneath. As it melted, water filled the scars in the bedrock, forming lochs, and the ice unveiled the marks left by glaciers much older than even itself.
Compared to its dramatic and changeable glacial history, the moor today seems still. As I follow the path beside a lochan (or ‘little loch’), the water is glassy and calm and the barest wind ruffles the grass. But looks deceive: ‘Rannoch Moor is always changing,’ warns Rawling. ‘In fact, we couldn’t use the place first earmarked for this trail because we found the loch’s shoreline shifts with the weather.’ While the mountains ahead look static, they run day and night with streams of tea-coloured water, keeping the moor perpetually soaked and roughly 80 per cent liquid. Rawling sees this as a draw for hikers to the region. ‘You never know if the geography is going to be the same as the one you left,’ she says. ‘It’s unpredictable. Plus the weather has just as much potential to switch. I’ve been out here in sunny skies when, suddenly, the mist has descended. If that happens your whole perception of distance can change.’
Luckily, the new trail is drier, although I still eye the lochan with suspicion. ‘Being so exposed out here, its the kind of place where it doesn’t hurt to check the rain forecast before setting out,’ Rawling adds. ‘And wear tough shoes!’
To the north of the path, the sea of moss continues for some six or seven kilometres before breaking on the pyramid sides of the mountain Buachaille Etive Mor, or the ‘Great Herdsman’. This peak marks the entrance to Glencoe, a sweeping U-shaped valley that runs from Rannoch Moor to Loch Leven ten miles to the northwest. Its knuckled ridges and shaggy sides have a harsh, highland character that is often sought after in film. It appeared in Braveheart, Harry Potter and provided the morose backdrop for James Bond’s homecoming in Skyfall.
“Glencoe has no melancholy except that which men bring to it, remembering its history”
The Glen’s powerful mood, however, is not just confined to fiction. The valley has an angry – and tragic – history of its own: the Massacre of Glencoe. On one foul, blizzardy night in 1692, a highland clan, the Campbells, betrayed another, the MacDonalds, and murdered them while they slept. ‘Glencoe has no melancholy except that which men bring to it, remembering its history,’ wrote the late historian, John Prebble.
From where I stand, it’s possible to see the empty, green innards of the infamous valley. Before the massacre, it had been full of life. Fertile soils and the lively River Coe made it ideal for farming. Meanwhile, being boxed-in by a mountainous ribcage, a loch and Rannoch Moor gave it plenty of protection. Approaching Glencoe from this side, it’s easy to see how the bog kept it safe. Before roads and railways, it would have been tough to cross such open, marshy ground by foot, and without being seen. Plus ‘the Rannoch gate was infrequently closed by winter snows and summer storms,’ wrote Prebble. ‘Only the people of Glencoe, knew the paths across it.’
Its people were the MacDonalds, a proud and influential clan known for their prowess at cattle stealing, but also for their moral code and hospitality. Though Glencoe was their ancestral home, its geography was not enough to protect them from the political power of the English, who sought control of the region. Not coincidentally, the English viewed the highlander way of life as savage, backwards, and uncivilised.
In 1692, the government ordered that all clan leaders swear allegiance to King William III and when the rebellious chief MacDonald was a few days late, the English were all-too eager to attack. To do so, they exploited an old clan rivalry between the Campbells – who were William-sympathisers – and the MacDonalds. On 13 February the English prompted the Campbells to visit the Glen under friendly pretences, and then to slaughter the MacDonalds in the night. Thirty-eight MacDonalds were killed, caught by surprise, and many more died trying to escape through the January snows, mountains and moorland. The fortress glen became a trap.
“Given that so much has happened here, you end up very conscious of how empty it is”
The Glencoe Massacre came to be one of the most controversial events in the history of Scotland. Although war and death had not been new to the highlanders, it was the divisive tactics of the English, and the gross abuse of the highland code for hospitality, that brought trauma to the region. Three hundred years later, it is still hard to visit Rannoch Moor without thinking that the land has absorbed the tragedy. ‘Given that so much has happened here, you end up very conscious of how empty it is,’ says Rawling.
Turning 180 degrees, I am met once more with the uninterrupted expanse of Rannoch, its edges beginning to darken with the evening. Though the trail follows the same way back, the change in light already makes it seem like a different landscape. The sphagnum is turning deep reds and purples. To beat nightfall, I hurry my walk, but it is with some regret that I leave the moor. Its uneasy beauty and turbulent history will not quickly be forgotten.
This was published in the December 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.