DCSIMG

Glencoe - forged from fire and ice

Ever since the birth of geology and the scientific study of the earth, its makeup and how it works, Scots as well as Scotland itself, have been at the forefront of investigation and discovery.

Scotland's geological journey through time was first appreciated by a Scotsman, James Hutton, who lived in the eighteenth century, he has been justly styled 'The father of modern geology'.

Earthquakes and volcanoes, ice ages and monumental land slips as well as crustal movements and the immutable hand of time have all shaped the land we live in, their signatures left are plain for us to see.

Glencoe, they tell us in simple terms, is all that remains of an ancient volcano.

The Aonach Eagach and, across the valley floor, the mountains of the Bidean range, layers of granite, quartz, rhyolites and other rocks formed deep in the bowels of the earth, (strata easy enough to see when you know it's there), apparently define the ring of the ancient caldera.

The glen itself was later scoured into its familiar form by vast thicknesses of ice, ice flowing so powerfully and relentlessly that the ends of three major ridges were chopped clean off leaving the truncated spurs of what we affectionately call 'The Three Sisters'. Wind rain and frost have done the rest.

The middle of those three sisters, An Gearrnach, is the only one with a feasible walker's path up its steep end. Known as 'The snake', it provides an easy scrambly way up amid magnificent and airy surroundings high above the floor of the glen.

The familiar Coe cloud was well down when I went looking for 'The snake'. I never found it! I was supposed to head up to a point on the spur where grey rock gave way abruptly to pinkish Rhyolite, in good light the junction is obvious. I missed it in the gloom.

Before long I found myself on the most horrendous scree slope you can imagine. Steep and constantly shifting beneath my soles it truly was a case of one step up and a dozen steps down.

The slope, clearly seen from the road below, marks the place where a gigantic rock fall has tumbled debris into the corrie below, choking the entrance to its glen and even burying its little river - thus was born Glencoe's romantically named 'Lost Valley'.

I struggled on until eventually I found a little path. Though the guide book said nothing of screes I imagined that I'd finally found my route. About a foot wide and with a fearsome drop beneath my toes, it made me wonder...

After abruptly dumping me on a sheer wall of rock, the path gave up the ghost. This was definitely not the way! Realising that I'd inadvertently walked along a climber's traverse, I very gingerly reversed my steps until I could painfully descend those horrible screes. I gave up on 'The snake'.

Running those screes to the boulders in the tree clad glen of Coire Gabhail, (or corrie of plunder, as The lost valley is properly known), did for my knees - not recommended at the beginning of the day. By the time I'd clambered into the hidden glen itself, I wanted to go home.

Stob Coire Sgreamhach, the imposing Munro that climbs out of the head of the glen, was invisible - thick unfriendly looking cloud swirled around its col. I decided to give it a miss. It wasn't the thought of going up, you understand, more the dread of the knee jarring descent to get back down. Instead I went exploring.

I continued a good way up the glen and chatted to a couple of National Trust for Scotland gents who were toiling with spades and heavy boulders, improving the eroded path. The glen is always busy and we walkers have done much damage over the years.

A lower, less frequented path takes you down to a dramatic rock gorge, a sheer walled channel riven by aeons of cascading water, it's well worth the detour.

I eventually went back down to the vast stony floor of the Lost Valley. It's said that the local Highlanders used to hide their rustled cattle in here. There's certainly no hint of the place from anywhere in Glencoe itself.

I lingered awhile and tried to imagine the herds grazing on the hillsides where now only deer are left to roam. There may have been temporary summer huts here too, I could almost smell the peat reek from the cooking fires.

The valley was busy with tourists. Families paddled in the burn amongst the trees below; others, with sights set higher, passed with packs and trekking poles. I made my way, past a crashing waterfall, back to 'The glen of weeping'.

Glencoe is noted for its gloomy moods. In the time it had taken me to get back down the clouds had cleared and the sun shone fiercely, even 'the sisters', their lower slopes still green and lush, provided only scanty shade. From here to Achtriochtan is all down hill, I picked up the path of The West Highland Way, and romped along.

Past Achtriochtan farm, beneath the towering crags of Aonach Eagach with its fearsome row of teeth, and then below the final sister, I headed for the loch. High up on the face of Aonach Dubh, a huge chunk of basalt has fallen out to leave us Ossian's Cave, a dark and forbidding looking hole.

The loch itself was peace. Shallow and full of flowing wraith like weeds around its rim, its waters reflected beautifully the soaring mountains that come down to wash their feet.

A car park and, across the road, a little quarry. Two disparate types of rock sit together here, side by side. One, the dark igneous rock of the volcano's caldera ring, the other the paler, younger limestone of the resultant valley's floor. Yet best of all, this little quarry is possibly the finest viewpoint for the entire glacier gouged valley that is Glencoe.

Even with the Clachaig Inn just a kilometre down the lane, I found it hard to finally tear myself away.

 
 
 

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