You know you’re in Scotland when you see a bagpiper in a parking lot in the middle of a vast, desolate glen. If you’re on a Macs Adventure, like us, then such a sight is a clue that you’ve arrived at the first trail head of an eight-day hike-and-drive expedition. We pulled in beside a bright yellow bus with the words “Wild and Sexy” plastered to it in two-feet-tall block letters. The door opened and out came a gaggle of retirees led by a little woman with a red flag. While they gathered around the piper with selfie sticks, we consulted our route notes.
This was Glen Coe, the most famous and impressively dramatic of all Scottish glens. According to the notes, it was also a “true Mecca for keen walkers, epitomised by the famous pyramid of Buachaille Etive Mor, the guardian at the entrance to the glen.” We never figured out quite what the guide was referring to there. Nor did we positively identify the Coire Gabhail, the hidden valley where the MacDonald clan once stashed their stolen cows. But that didn’t make the story of the MacDonald Massacre of 1692 any less riveting a tale of bad manners in the extreme.
The whole thing started out as a Hatfield and McCoy kind of feud. For nearly 200 years the MacDonalds and the Campbells had been at each other’s throats over land, cattle, and retribution for murders and ruined lives. Politicians in the Lowlands often took advantage of this longstanding hostility and used it to their advantage. Which is what happened when the MacDonalds didn’t hop to it when ordered to take an oath to King William after the Jacobite Uprising. Some guy called Master of the Stair ordered the Campbells “to put all to the sword under seventy” and “cut off root and branch.”
The really sickening part is that the Campbells had for nearly two weeks been guests of the MacDonalds. That’s because the nearby fort was full and the weather was particularly bitter. In fact, on the night of the massacre, in which thirty-eight men were killed, a blizzard howled through the glen. Many of the women and children who escaped ended up freezing to death on the mountainsides.
There’s a saying about fish and houseguests stinking after three days, but the Campbells win the award for foulest visitors ever. In fact, the old Clachaig Inn at Glen Coe still posts a sign on its door that says “No Campbells.”
The next morning, as guests ourselves in what we hoped was a more hospitable B&B, we prepped for our next hike, this one to the Falls of Glomach. Fifteen minutes from Plockton, filming location for BBC’s “Hamish Macbeth,” Balmacara Mains overlooks the Isle of Skye and some of the most dramatic scenery in all of Scotland. It’s a family run place, and we were greeted in the breakfast room by a retired music professor who looked, I swear, just like the bust of Beethoven on the messy bookshelf behind him.
“And where are you off to today?” he asked as he placed a bowl of steaming Orkney oats before me.
“Here,” I said and pointed to a dot on the map under glass on our table.
“Ah, the Falls of Glomach, the tallest we have here in the UK.” He moved his reading glasses to his pocket and stared out the window, toward the cloud-covered Loch Alsh. “I would be careful. Very careful, indeed. Those falls aren’t fenced off as they should be.”
“Has anyone died?”
“Oh yes. More than a few, I should think.” He glanced at the table next to us then rapped his knuckles on ours. “Just a moment, let me get these fellows their breakfasts.”
I widened my eyes at Chris then took a bite of oatmeal. It took a split second before a fantastical taste from hell fouled my tastebuds and twisted my face. “What’s the matter?” Chris asked.
I spit the putrid paste into my napkin and tucked it under the edge of my plate. “Good god,” I gasped. “He must have dropped an entire box of salt in there. Maybe he’s a MacDonald who thinks we’re Campbells.” I shoved the dish to the side and surveyed the table for something edible.
“You’re not going to eat any of it?”
“No, I’m not going to eat any of it. It’s absolutely deadly.”
“But he’ll be offended.”
I took an Orkney oatmeal cake from the stack I’d ignored earlier. Crumbly, dry, and absent any flavor, it was, I imagined, similar to the hard tack U.S. Civil War soldiers found in their ration sacks. Not the breakfast I was counting on, but it was far superior to a salt lick in a cereal bowl. I wrapped the thin cakes in a napkin and slipped them into my backpack for later.
“Sorry about that,” said Mr. Beethoven as he returned to our table. You should be, I thought to myself. He smoothed his wavy white hair with his palms, then took a remote control from his pocket and pointed it at the TV that had blared a symphonic score to our morning meal. “Now where was I?”
“People who have died at the Falls of Glomach,” I said.
“Oh, yes, yes. As I said, there must be many. But I knew only one, a student of mine who tried to save his dog. Such a shame. The animal chased something and then went right over the edge. The boy tried to save him and …. ” He raised his hand over his head then dropped it, fingertips first, into a swan dive. “There are no proper barriers. None at all. You’ll see.”