Glencoe: Planning Your Trip

Glencoe, Scotland

Mathew Roberts Photography / Getty Images

In Scots Gaelic mythology, it's the legendary home of Celtic hero Fingal and his son Ossian, remembered in Ossian's Cave, a large and dramatic feature on Aonach Dubh (The Black Ridge), part of a Glencoe massif also known as the Three Sisters. While you may recognize the beautiful scenery as the backdrop in popular films like "Skyfall," and the "Harry Potter" series, the area’s most notorious claim to fame is as the site of the Glencoe Massacre, which happened here on February 13, 1692. It’s a complicated tale of clan politics and betrayal, but we’ll do our best to tell it here—and offer tips for visiting this romantic part of the Scottish Highlands.

A Bit of History: The Glencoe Massacre

For hundreds of years, the MacIains of clan MacDonald had lived in Glencoe, becoming one of the most powerful clans in the Highlands. Their traditional rivals were clan Campbell, with whom they’d engaged in generations of low-key feuding over cattle raids and poaching in each other's territories. In 1493, the Campbells helped James IV, Stewart King of Scotland, abolish the MacDonalds' Lordship; Glencoe and the rest of their lands were confiscated by the Crown, while political hostility soon grew over the Campbells’ influence at court. In the 17th century, the MacDonalds chose the losing (Jacobite) side against the Protestant King, William of Orange.

In 1691, tired of all the continual raiding and warfare in Scotland, King William offered a pardon to the Highland clans who had rebelled against the Crown, provided they stopped raiding their neighbors and agreed to swear an oath of allegiance before a magistrate by January 1, 1692. The alternative, the King promised, would be death.

The head of the MacDonald clan held out as long as possible but eventually agreed. Unfortunately for his clan, he went to the wrong castle to swear the oath: Inverlochy near Fort William instead of Inveraray near Oban. By the time he reached Inveraray, the deadline had passed by five days. Having taken the oath, MacDonald assumed his clan was safe, however, the order to exterminate them had already been given and a force of 130 soldiers had been sent to Glencoe.

What makes the Glencoe massacre so horrific is that the MacDonald families had, like their leader, assumed they were safe, welcoming the soldiers into their homes and entertaining them for 10 days. On the night of February 12, on secret orders (some say from their Campbell captain, others say from the King himself) the soldiers rose up and murdered between 38 and 40 MacDonalds—men, women, children, and the elderly—as they slept in their beds. The rest fled into the mountains, where they either died or dispersed into the caves they knew well (after generations as outlaws and cattle rustlers) and survived.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: April to September are the most pleasant times to visit Glencoe, as the sun will be up longer in summer months. July and August can be crowded and prices higher due to summer holidays, so sticking to shoulder seasons like spring and fall can help you save. It’s cold, dark, and snowy in winter, making hiking and driving conditions difficult.
  • Language: English is spoken throughout the Scottish Highlands, though you may also hear Scots (a Germanic language dating back to Old English) and Scottish Gaelic (a Celtic variation with ties to Ireland), also recognized as official languages.
  • Currency: The pound sterling, known colloquially as “the pound” (GBP) is the official currency of the United Kingdom. Credit cards such as Visa, MasterCard, and American Express are widely accepted, though occasionally old-fashioned pubs, cafes, or restaurants may only accept cash, so be prepared just in case.
  • Getting Around: From Fort William, the Glencoe National Nature Reserve Visitor Centre is 20 miles south along the A82. Buses between Fort William and Glasgow also stop in Glencoe village, and from there, it’s a 1.5-mile walk or bike ride.
  • Travel Tip: If you’re not planning on renting a car (or don’t want to try driving on the left side of the road) it may be easier to book a guided day trip or multi-day tour of the Scottish Highlands from Edinburgh or Glasgow instead.
Glenfinnan Viaduct

TripSavvy / Jess Macdonald

Things To Do

You may recognize the rolling green hills of Glencoe National Nature Reserve from the movies, as it’s been featured in several “Harry Potter” films, “Highlander,” “Braveheart,” and the popular James Bond flick “Skyfall,” among others. Located about a 2.5-hour drive from Edinburgh or a two-hour drive from Glasgow or Inverness, it’s a popular choice for day trippers to the Scottish Highlands given its opportunities for hiking, mountaineering, hill trekking, biking, kayaking, wildlife viewing, scenic drives, and wintertime activities like skiing and sledding. 

Start by learning more about the area with a trip to the National Trust for Scotland Visitor Centre, which has several interactive displays about the development of the landscape, local flora and fauna, and the history of complicated developments that led to the Glencoe massacre. Several easy circular walks start here; there’s also a gift shop, cafe, a ranger station, and a viewing platform with a telescope to spot buzzards, golden eagles, and pine martens. Then, visit the Glencoe and North Lorn Folk Museum, open from April to October and housed in a terrace of traditional 18th century thatched cottages near the A82. Collections include Jacobite relics, costumes, as well as toys, domestic utensils, and weapons found in the thatched roofs of local houses, concealed after the Glencoe massacre for more than 200 years.

  • Fans of the “Harry Potter” films can catch a glimpse of the “Hogwarts Express” traveling across the iconic Glenfinnan Viaduct (it’s actually the Jacobite Steam Train making its way from Fort William to Mallaig, but a little imagination never hurt anyone). The catch is it only runs from late-April to early October. Check the schedule and plan to be by the Viaduct roughly 45 minutes before or after the train enters or leaves Fort William, bearing in mind you’ll need time to park and walk a bit to find a good viewing spot (and chances are you won’t be the only ones there).
  • Have a family day out at Glencoe Activities in Ballachulish, which offers cycling, climbing, white water rafting, river “bugging,” canyoning, bridge swinging, and a range of other high-adrenaline activities. For less adventurous types, forest walks, mountain biking, and gorge walking, archery, laser clay shooting, nature trails, electric bikes, and golf opportunities abound.
  • Glencoe Mountain Ski Resort is situated in one of Scotland's best remote ski areas, with lifts and runs in dramatic Rannoch Moor, located near the head of the glen. Visit in the winter to enjoy skiing, snowboarding, hill walking, and sledding, or in warmer months for mountain biking, tubing, and scenic rides on the chairlift.

What to Eat and Drink

Whether you’re in the mood for locally caught seafood (think dishes involving oysters, crab, lobster, clams, scallops, and mussels) or prefer to warm up with a hot coffee and a fresh scone, there’s something for everyone in Glencoe. Pub fare prevails in these parts, with no shortage of fish ‘n’ chips, burgers, hearty soups, or sandwiches. Head to the historic Clachaig Inn to try uniquely Scottish bites like game pie, venison pastrami, Stornoway style black pudding, and haggis (there’s a veggie version available, too).

Whiskey and gin are the name of the game in these parts, so much so that the Scotland tourism board has created a map of distilleries to visit in the area. Nearest to Glencoe are Pixel Spirits in North Ballachulish and Ben Nevis Distillery in Fort William, though many others can be found throughout the Scottish Highlands.

Where to Stay

You’ll find your fair share of inns, bed and breakfasts, lodges, and Airbnb vacation rentals, especially in and around Glencoe village, close to the Visitor Centre inside Glencoe National Nature Reserve, and in nearby Fort William. For those traveling on a budget, hostels are available, as are a number of boutique hotels. For a memorable stay during your trip, consider spending a few nights in one of the area’s manor hotels or cottages, typically found in the countryside outside the larger towns.

Getting There

Traveling to Glencoe is easiest by car, especially if you wish to explore the rest of the area. One of the best road trips in Scotland, it’s a famously scenic two-hour drive from Inverness, a great day trip from Glasgow (also a two-hour drive away), or about a three-hour drive from Edinburgh. Another option is to fly into one of the airports in Inverness, Glasgow, or Edinburgh, catch a train or bus to Fort William or Bridge of Orchy, and take a 30-minute bus ride the rest of the way to Glencoe village. From there, the Glencoe Visitor Centre in the Glencoe National Nature Reserve is only a five-minute drive along the A82, so you could take a taxi from town if you’re not driving.

Money Saving Tips

  • Take on the tallest mountain in Scotland and the entire U.K. with a hike to the summit of Ben Nevis, an extinct volcano located just outside Fort William, about 30-minutes from Glencoe village. Get acquainted with the trails at the Ben Nevis Visitors Centre—the Mountain Track is popular among visitors while the Càrn Mòr Dearg Arête path is geared toward more experienced climbers. Either way, you’ll need five to seven hours to make the journey.
  • Stop by the West Highland Museum next door in Fort William to learn more about the history of the Jacobites and all things Bonnie Prince Charlie, and explore other parts of Scottish Highland heritage. Located in Cameron Square, it’s free to enter.
  • Whisky enthusiasts can save a bit of money by taking a tasting tour at a distillery, which includes samples and a commemorative glass depending on where you go. Ben Nevis Distillery in Fort William is a popular option near Old Inverlochy Castle, which is free to enter and also worth a look if time allows.