Glenlyon is one of Scotland’s most famous and beautiful glens, yet it is also one of the least visited. Being a cul-de-sac has certainly saved Glenlyon from becoming a major through route, and over-populated with tourists. It is not until you look at it on a map that you realise just how significant a presence Glenlyon has in the Central Highlands.
Glenlyon is the longest glen in Scotland, and is possibly the
narrowest. The beauty of this wild and unspoiled place, with its
Caledonian Pine forests, lochs and waterfalls, is unmatched and in many ways unique. The glen opens from the Appin of Dull, at Fortingall, and extends 25 miles westwards to Cashlie, roughly parallel with Loch Tay.
In the grounds of Fortingall Church you will see the remains of what is perhaps Europe’s oldest tree. This tree is approximately 3000 years old, making it possibly the oldest living thing in Europe. It is not much to look at today, but in the 18th century it was measured to be 54 feet in circumference and 18 feet thick.
Close to Fortingall is a Roman bridge and although the bridge is not
amongst Britain’s most spectacular Roman remains, it is complete, and it is an interesting reminder of how far north the Romans ventured. There is also the remnants of an early camp, thought to be of Roman origin. Local fables, and the writings of the medieval historian Holnished, suggest that one of the Roman children born in the Fortingall camp was Pontius Pilate.
The standing stone in the middle of a field, across the road from
Fortingall hotel commemorates a medieval plague (probably the Black Death of the 14th century) during which all inhabitants of the village died, except one old woman; she loaded the bodies onto her donkey-cart and buried them in the field.
West from the village of Fortingall, only a mile up the glen, where the
Lyon river tumbles through a deep gorge and over a small waterfall, the rocks on either side of the gorge are less than 20 feet apart. The gorge is known as “MacGregor’s Leap”, from the time in 1565, when the Chief of the outlawed MacGregor clan made an incredible escaped by leaping across the river chasm when fleeing from Campbell Bloodhounds.
Two miles further up, there are a series of spectacular waterfalls, as
the Allt Da-gohb rushes down to the floor of the glen.
At the next hamlet, Innerwick, there is the 18th century Glenlyon
Parish Church. But the hub of the glen is a little farther on, at Bridge
of Balgie. Here the road forks, one branch turning south-westwards to climb steeply over the shoulder of Ben Lawers to Loch Tay. The other road continues up the glen, climbing to avoid the lands of Meggernie Castle, a fine late 16th century structure, whitewashed and set amidst ancient trees built by Cailean Gorach, or Mad Colin Campbell in 1580.
Three miles further on, the Glenlyon road passes Loch Cashlie where, at the side of the road are a group of cairns and what appears to be an ancient earth-house.
At its west end is lonely Loch Lyon, hiding behind the mountains that lie to the east of Bridge of Orchy. Just past Loch Lyon, the glen merges into a high pass that leads to the head of Glen Orchy. Throughout that long distance it winds in wild beauty amongst ever more solitary peaks, and varies as much in character, as in width and height. Indeed, its constant variety, between gentle beauty and fierce grandeur, is part of the great attraction of Glenlyon. Beyond rear the mountains of, Ben Achallader and Heasgarnich, and ranging to the south the fierce contours of the Tarmachan mountains
As the head of the glen is neared, or at least the road-end, the scenery becomes more bleak and treeless. The upper glen is mountain-bound and as lonely as anywhere you are likely to find in this part of Scotland. The only through route is on foot.
A few miles to the south of Glenlyon stands Ben Lawers, one of
Scotland’s tallest mountains at 3,984 ft, and to the north an arc of
high, broad ridges forming what is known as the Carn Mairg Group or Glen Lyon Horseshoe. North of this range the ground falls away gently over open moor and forests towards Loch Rannoch.
Glenlyon is infamous for having been the home of John Cambell of Glen Lyon, who was responsible for leading the Campbells of Glenlyon at Glen Coe massacre. The Macdonalds who had raided Glenlyon the previous winter, leaving the Glenlyon Campbells reliant on the mercies of their neighbour Campbell of Breadalbane.
Glenlyon seems to have been inhabited principally by Campbells,
MacCallums and MacGregors, although the MacCallums of Glenlyon do not seem to have been a prominent clan.
Glenlyon later became a favoured hunting ground of the Scottish Kings.
The fertile floor of Glenlyon was once a thriving agricultural area but
is now a shadow of its former days. At the beginning of the 19th
century, almost 4,000 people lived and worked here but, 200 years later, the few houses that remain are mostly holiday homes lived in, sparingly, during the summer months and lying empty throughout the winter. There are now only nine farms in the entire length of the glen. The population of Glenlyon has since reduced considerably, and been replaced by the modern hydro-electric dam that spans Glenlyon at its head.
The earliest chiefs of Glenlyon were the Fingalians about whom there are many legends but few hard facts. Later, in Robert the Bruce’s time, William Olifant received lands from the King. There was a Black John of the Spears who was probably a Macdougal, but by the mid-16th Century the lairds of Glenlyon were Campbells and remained so for the next three hundred years. There was Archibald, step-son of Black John, then Red Duncan of the Hospitality, and then the third Campbell laird, Cailean Gorach or Mad Colin.
These are both quotations ‘Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian
Highlander’ by Duncan Campbell. Inverness 1910.
‘In our Glen [Glen Lyon] a clannish community through inter-marriage was formed by people of many surnames. It was much the same in the neighbouring glens and districts. There never existed on the south side of the Grampians a parish or barony or estate of many farms that was inhabited by people of one surname. I question whether the ideal of one-clan, one-descent ever existed anywhere on the Highland mainland, or in the larger islands, whatever might be the case in the smaller islands. The one-stock clan idea came out of a precedent Celtic system which was superseded by the feudal system. When the clans in the fourteenth century began to raise their heads, they had, in order to succeed, to graft their idea on feudalism, and to accept the mixed population that had gathered themselves under it. The early Chronicle of Fortingall, written by the three Roman Catholics, contained most of the surnames which the Fortingall people bore in my time, such as Macnaughtons, Robertsons, Macdougals, Menzieses, Maegregors, Stewarts, Maclellans, Campbells, Irvines. The introduction of most of these surnames could be traced by the procession of proprietors. John of Lorne, who received Glenlyon as tocher with his wife, the neice of King David Bruce, was not indeed proprietor of Fortingall, but he was the “toiseach” or King’s representative, and uplifter of his rents and dues until the next reign, when the Wolf of Badenoch, who placed an eagle’s nest up at Garth, “intromitted” with his charge, and got the heiress of Fortingall, Janet Menzies, married to his son James. John of Lorne placed a Macgregor vicar in Fortingall, and introduced Macdougal clansmen of his own there. The Stewarts began to come in with the Wolf’s usurpation, and afterwards had additions from the Appin-Innermeath line. They were divided into the “Stiubhartaich Dubh-Shuileach” and “Na Stiubhartaich Gorm-Shuileach” ‹ that is to say, the black-eyed and the blue-eyed Stewarts. Huntly, on the forfeiture of Neil Ruadh of Garth, had temporary hold of the superiority of that place, and introduced the Irvines. The Macnaughtons, many of whom were called Mackay ‹ that is, the Children of Aodh ‹ were transported from the North to the banks of the Tay by William the Lion. The Chief of the old Atholl clan ‹ afterwards called Robertsons ‹ and Fergus, son of Aod or Aoidh, were lessees of Fortingall and other thanages before John of Lorne appeared on the scene. As for the Maclellans, named after St Fillan, they came at a later dato to Fortingall from Glenlyon. I think the Macnaughtons and Robortsons are the people of longest descent in Fortingall. The Macintyres were late comers from Argyll, and the Andersons and Fishers were also late comors from Breadalbane. So were the Campbells from Glenlyon and Breadalbane, and also the much scattered Clan Charles Campbell, branch of the Black Dougal of Craignish stock. With the variations of a small kind which a long period of time must bring about anywhere, the Fortingall population had retained the same~complexion and composition for four hundred years.’
Here in the churchyard are the still growing remains of a 3,000 year-old yew tree – claimed to be the oldest piece of vegetation in Europe. St. Adamnan’s bell dated from around 660AD can be seen inside the Fortingall church. Legend has it that Pontious Pilate was born here, his mother a Scotswoman his father a high ranking Roman soldier. Some believe he returned to die here and early this century a stone burial slab was unearthed bearing the initials P.P.
Throughout the centuries Glenlyon held a substantial and thriving population. The hamlet of Invervar was a once busy industrial village, the only evidence remaining is the ruins of a circular lint mill
It was here near a bend in the road that St. Adamnan climbed the hilllock of Craig Fhionnaidh and prayed for a miracle for the people of the Glen who were dying of the black plague. A Bronze Age standing stone with a crude cross carved upon it marks the spot where St. Adamnan stopped the plague.
In 1502 Glenlyon became the ownership of Sir Duncan Campbell of Glenorchy. His son built his house in the hamlet of Innerwick. The Church contains a remarkable stained glass window depicting St. Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland, wearing a kilt. A Celtic bronze bell is also displayed in the Church
5. Bridge of Balgie
Home of the Glenlyon Gallery. This was once a thriving community and the hub of Glen life. Black John of Spear built a house here. He also built a Church at nearby Kerrowmore. Milton Eonan was the home of St. Adamnan – called Eonan by the local people who dearly loved him and claimed him as their patron saint. St. Adamnan left Glenlyon to return to Iona and became famous as the biographer of St. Columba and Abbot of the Abbey of Iona. In his old age he returned to his beloved Glen and on his death was buried at Dull.
6. Meggernie Castle
Originally a tower house built in 1585 with a thatched roof which is now the west wing of the castle. It was built by mad Colin Campbell named so after a blow to the head made him unpredictable. Marauders burnt Carnban Castle his previous home and he hung 30 of them from the tree-lined avenue approaching Meggernie Castle. The castle is said to be haunted by a wife of a Menzies Laird who murdered her and cut her body in two. It is said only the top half of her body can be seen. It was extended to its present state in 1673 by Robert Campbell of Glenlyon infamous for the Glencoe massacre. Meggernie Castle is now a private home.