Capturing the Atmosphere of Scotland’s Most Majestic Glen

The landscape of Glen Coe is built of ancient geology, scenic soul and a dark history of betrayal most brutal

By Simon Ingram
photographs by Daniel Alford
Published 24 Mar 2019, 09:11 GMT, Updated 16 Dec 2020, 12:00 GMT
Daniel Alford: "This small herd of red deer drink from the River Etive in early morning ...
Daniel Alford: "This small herd of red deer drink from the River Etive in early morning sun. The mountain is one of Scotland's most famous: Buachaille Etive Mor, meaning ‘great herdsman of Etive’ in Gaelic."
Photograph by Daniel Alford

It doesn’t matter if you are in a car, on foot, travelling by bike or looking at a photograph – a journey through Glen Coe in Scotland's central Highlands carries with it the feeling of a shift from one place to another, more ancient place. Mountains rake up on either side, the road thins and the balance between modern civilisation and an ageless Highland landscape slides bewitchingly towards the latter. 

An elemental fusion of moor and mountain, past and present, it’s an embodiment of the Highlands – and it’s this that photographer Daniel Alford set out to capture. And it's not a place that necessarily lends itself faithfully to images of blue sky and clear air. “The mountains and weather have an unbelievable atmospheric quality,” he says.“Hidden rivers, hidden waterfalls and hidden valleys – all of which seem to be kept secret by the fact that the paths through the glen are almost non-existent in places.”

The glen – from the Gaelic word gleann, meaning valley – counts for far more than simply scenery. Frequently overhung by cloud, rain and painted in moorland tones, it’s been the scene of long-cooled volcanism, intense glaciation, inter-clan cattle rustling and a notorious massacre, which on February 13, 1692 saw 38 members of the Clan MacDonald murdered by government soldiers over political allegiance. After accepting the soldiers into their home as houseguests in an act of Highland hospitality, many of the MacDonalds were killed in their beds; many more later died from exposure on the wintery mountainside, after escaping the swords of the guests who had betrayed them.    

The glen runs east-west with steep mountains on either side. On one side runs the famous nerve-jangler the Aonach Eagach ridge; on the other the Three Sisters of Glen Coe, and the mountain of Bidean Nam Bian. The river Coe runs through the centre.

“The mountains and weather have an unbelievable atmospheric quality.”

Daniel Alford, Photographer

A passing place

Today, the A82 carries traffic heading through the Highlands, as well as the famed West Highland Way walking trail – a 96-mile route between Glasgow and Fort William undertaken by tens of thousands of walkers each year. Glen Coe offers both the route’s scenic highlight and its steepest section: a zig-zagging path climbing over a pass on the north side of the glen known as the Devil’s Staircase.  

More recently Glen Coe has been a set-piece for films such as Skyfall and the Harry Potter saga, both of which have recruited the glen for its mystical, otherworldly atmosphere. Two historic pubs – the King’s House Hotel and the Clachaig Inn – bookend the ten-mile glen. And inevitably, tour buses and their camera-toting contents are a feature too, but it’s never hard to lose them in the immensity of the landscape just feet from the road. A step off which, and you can swiftly shift gear into a different time.  

“It’s a quintessential highland vista,” Alford says. “You can almost feel the history here.” 



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