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Tour of Glencoe
by Margo Fallis

Going Home

I don’t get back to my homeland very often, but when I do, I always discover something new. Scotland is a land full of historical wonders and breathtaking scenery. No matter how much research I do, there are places I go to visit that I know nothing about. One such place is Glencoe. My mother and I signed up for a bus tour that would take us into the northern highlands of Scotland, where the mountains are rugged, stones are abundant, and small streams, called burns, flow gently through the peaty moors. I’d always wanted to go to the highlands and was thrilled with the opportunity to see the things I’d dreamed about since I was a wee lass. My family immigrated to Australia when I was a child, and a few years later moved to the United States. It was always a treat to go back to the land of my birth.

The bus tour consisted of twenty-two people, all from the capital city of Edinburgh. I found it amusing that Scottish people, unlike we Americans, who prefer to fly off to exotic countries, wanted to take a week long tour to see other places in Scotland, instead of going to the continent, where the climate was warmer. Scotland is known for its rain and bone chilling winds.

It was early September and there was already a bite in the air as the bus pulled out of Edinburgh’s St. Andrew’s Station. We chatted away, quite the thing, getting to know each other while the bus drove along the winding roads. My mum passed around several bags of biscuits (cookies) that she’d brought from the U.S.A, sharing them with the others, much to their delight.

As we drove north, I felt the temperature dropping. Raindrops spat against the windows and a howling wind rocked the bus back and forth. This didn’t seem to bother the Scots, but it did me. I had hoped for better weather; but I decided that no matter what, I was going to see all the sights. The others were content having a chance to get out of the city and get a break from their seemingly mundane lives.

Each time we arrived at a battlefield or a castle, the bus driver/tour guide, George, asked if anyone wanted him to stop the bus and get off. He squirmed each time he asked, knowing I would raise my hand and he’d have to pull over. Bundled up in my coat, gloves, scarf, and hat, he hesitantly opened the bus door, just wide enough for me to squeeze through, keeping the cold air outside where it belonged. He’d grab his book from under his seat. This wasn’t a problem for the rest of the passengers. They seemed content, occupying themselves by reading, doing crossword puzzles, or taking naps under their wool blankets. I enjoyed the peace and solitude as I explored the hills and glens. I wanted to see everything! After all, I’d paid good money for this tour and I had no idea if I’d ever get the opportunity to visit these places again. After a while, George stopped without asking and automatically opened the door for me. I noticed his eyeballs rolling around in his head each time I headed to the front of the bus. Most of the group moved to the back, keeping away from the cold air rushing inside. George’s place was in the driver’s seat and he wasn’t pleased about it!

I came back with rosy cheeks and ice-cold hands, but also with special memories. I took many photographs to enjoy at a later time. So it went, day after day, town after town. I became the joke of the group, teasing me every opportunity that availed itself.

Each night, much to my mother’s delight, we stopped at a clean, warm hotel. We were served traditional Scottish fare - delicious meals of haggis and neeps (turnips), hot scones with butter, deep-fried fish with a golden crust and salty chips (French fries) smothered in malt vinegar and tomato sauce (ketchup). There was always room for meat pies with flaky crusts, bridies and pasties filled with onions, beef and bits of mushrooms, drenched in a rich brown, meaty gravy. Who could resist the stew with big chunks of Aberdeen Angus beef and tender carrots, peas, and tatties (potatoes). This sort of food ‘stuck to your ribs’, as my mum said, and kept the Scots well insulated. They needed to take advantage of anything that made it easier to bear the harsh highland elements.

Janet, an elderly lady, often took these types of tours with her daughter. She always carried her ukulele with her, much to our delight, and strummed away as the bus drove along. We sang all the Scottish favorites, such as ‘Loch Lomond’, ‘Scotland the Brave’, and ‘Donald –Where’s Your Trousers’. The songs I didn’t know before then, I quickly learned. We bonded as a group and a friendly love prevailed between us.

The next to the last day of our tour, we woke to a particularly bitter dawn. An American would call it a nasty morning. The sleet pelted down, hitting the top of the bus. It sounded like darts of glass pinging against the windows. Once on our way, George asked if I intended to stop at all the sites and pointed out the miserable weather. I smiled, assuring him that I was aware of the current weather conditions and I did indeed wish to stop at every stop. He made strange faces and looked confused and filled with dread as he sat down behind the wheel. I giggled to myself, seeing a tartan wool blanket on the back of his chair. He must have picked it up at our last stop. It was about time he attempted to stay warm!

One of the highlights of the highland tour was seeing the heather-covered hills, carpeted with tiny purple flowers. I gasped with pleasure. The wind blew the heather bells back and forth in waves. I closed my eyes and could swear I heard them tinkling. The exhaust pipe scratched back and forth against the bottom of the bus in rhythm with the nodding flowers. Thick-wooled sheep grazed among the matted, decaying bracken, feathery ferns, and flowering yellow gorse, oblivious to the onslaught of sleet and wind.

The bus pulled off the road at the bottom of a mountain at Glencoe. I didn’t know the importance of the area, but since the bus stopped here, I figured it was important, so as usual, I left the group sitting in the warm protection of the bus and headed into the glen. The wind attacked me with all its ferociousness; its icy grip slithered into every crack and seam of my coat. I shivered uncontrollably. I wished I’d listened to my mum’s warnings and worn more layers of clothes. Determined to take at least one roll of film, I walked through the spongy, wet grass, snapping shots of the glen, large stones covered with yellowish-green moss, and a few highland sheep hidden in the gray mist. Clear water trickled as the burn meandered through the grasses. It looked inviting and I was tempted to sip from the burn, after hearing so much about Scotland’s water. I cupped my hands to scoop up a drink, but hesitated. Did I really want to have my hands feel colder?

Heading back to the bus, I became curious. I wanted to know what made Glencoe so important to the Scots. After settling into my assigned seat, the engine revved and George headed down the road. I asked Janet to tell me about Glencoe. She didn’t answer me for several minutes as if contemplating what to say. Tears puddled in her eyes and soon spilled onto her cheeks. She gently pulled her ukulele out of her bag, strummed a few notes to make sure it was in tune, nodded at me and began to sing. Her voice was a whisper as the notes flowed from her lips:

"Oh, cruel was the snow that sweeps Glen Coe
And covers the grave o' Donald.
Oh, cruel was the foe that raped Glen Coe
And murdered the house of MacDonald.

They came in a blizzard, we offered them heat,
A roof for their heads, dry shoes for their feet.
We wined them and dined them, they ate of our meat
And they slept in the house of MacDonald.
Oh, cruel was the snow that sweeps Glen Coe
And covers the grave o' Donald.
Oh, cruel was the foe that raped Glen Coe
And murdered the house of MacDonald.

They came from Fort William with murder in mind,
The Campbell had orders King William had signed.
"Put all to the sword"- these words underlined,
"And leave none alive called MacDonald."
Oh, cruel was the snow that sweeps Glen Coe
And covers the grave o' Donald.
Oh, cruel was the foe that raped Glen Coe
And murdered the house of MacDonald.

They came in the night when the men were asleep,
This band of Argyles, through snow soft and deep,

Like murdering foxes amongst helpless sheep,
They slaughtered the house of MacDonald.
Oh, cruel was the snow that sweeps Glen Coe
And covers the grave o' Donald.
Oh, cruel was the foe that raped Glen Coe
And murdered the house of MacDonald.

Some died in their beds at the hand of the foe.
Some fled in the night and were lost in the snow.
Some lived to accuse him who struck the first blow,
But gone was the house of MacDonald.
Oh, cruel was the snow that sweeps Glen Coe
And covers the grave o' Donald
Oh, cruel was the foe that raped Glen Coe
And murdered the house of MacDonald."

By the time she finished, the entire bus had joined in the chorus, including George. There wasn’t a dry eye to be found. ‘The Ballad of Glencoe’ touched all of us. Janet couldn’t speak. Her lips quivered as she fought back tears. She and her daughter, Bessie, were MacDonalds and their ancestors were among those had been slaughtered by the Campbells on that bitter night of February 13, 1692. Only a few survived, escaping to tell of the horror.

A reverence filled the bus. Nobody wanted to speak and break the spell over our hearts. Having just been out in the cold weather of Glencoe, I could imagine the frightened women and children running for their lives into the wintry night, only to be hunted down and murdered.

I reached over and hugged Janet. She broke down, sobbing on my shoulder as I held her. Even though more than three hundred years had passed since that tragic night, this proud and noble woman still felt the pain shared by her loved ones long ago. There were no words of comfort to offer. I simply wiped her tears away with a hankie and tenderly squeezed her hand.

We sat quietly contemplating the events of the journey as George headed for Inverness. Some read books, others wrote poetry, and I gazed out the window at the mountains. Only the foothills showed through the low clouds. The fog enshrouded them with a thick, highland mist. The next morning we were back to our normal selves and the rest of the tour was filled with laughter and wonderful memories. Life long friendships were made. Yes, I continued to get off the bus at every stop, but everyone expected me to and would have been shocked if I hadn’t. My outdoor adventures became part of the ambience of the bus.

When we returned to Edinburgh and it was time to say goodbye to my fellow bus-mates, I found myself emotionally drained. Each of them held a special place in my heart, especially Janet. I embraced them and gave thanks for sharing part of Scotland with me. I realized it was no longer just the place I was born; it was my home, my heritage, and I was proud of it.

I learned something valuable that week. When we read about tragedies, battles, massacres and such in history books, it’s easy to forget the realities of these horrific events. Real people suffered and perished, leaving behind families that loved and missed them. It doesn’t end with their deaths; the descendants of these people continue to feel anguish over what happened. Janet has since passed on, but I will forever remember her eyes, filled with pride and love for her MacDonald ancestors - the brave men, women and children of Glencoe.

Note: The Ballad of Glencoe - Words and music by Jim Mclean, published by Duart Music

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