The entrance to Glencoe is at the northwest edge of Rannoch Moor. It creates a level passage to Loch Leven, running for eight, easy U-shaped valley miles under some of the highest mountains in Scotland. While the valley bends west, however, The Devil’s Staircase heads dead north, up and out of the valley wall. At its start, it’s hard to shake the feeling of heading the wrong way. However, this counter-intuitive road made a lot of sense in the past.
‘It does seems bonkers taking the hard road, when a perfectly good natural highway through the glaciated valley is available,’ says Helen Rawling, writer of this Discovering Britain trail. Though the Devil’s Staircase is harder it is still well travelled. In fact, compared to the visibly empty Rannoch Moor, the path is almost always busy, drawing hikers and walkers like a magnet. This is because it’s a well-established checkpoint on the West Highland Way, the 96-mile walking route from Milngavie near Glasgow to Fort William. In guidebooks for the Way, the staircase is described as ‘highest’, ‘exposed’ and even ‘the worst bit’. But in a sense, its infamy gives walkers a sense of camaraderie. The soundtrack is strangers telling each other ‘oof, can really feel this one’ on the way up, or sympathetic ‘nearly theres’ on the way down.
Those coming from Milngavie to Fort William would have done 60 miles already. But high mileage is a tradition in this part of the world. ‘In the 14th century this path was a drove road,’ says Rawling. ‘Farmers used it to herd their animals from the highland pastures to market towns further south. A network of drove roads existed across Scotland and drovers regularly walked tens, even hundreds of miles with their animals.’
Droving explains why the road chose height over comfort – loch avoidance. ‘Although it may seem like an odd route to choose, the drove road going up the mountains meant the herders could get their animals from the highlands to markets without crossing the water,’ says Rawling. Taking the glen from Rannoch Moor to market in Fort William would mean passing through Loch Leven, or walking for miles around it.
From about a third of the way up the mountain path, its possible to see how the A82 makes an unperturbed beeline to the glen. For day hikers, the tarmac highway would have been the way-in. ‘Cars and ferries mean we don’t think about landscape in the same way as our ancestors had to,’ says Rawling. ‘Our priorities were different’.
About half way up, the path changes shape. It becomes a series of switchbacks going up steeper mountainside. In a treeless landscape, the walkers on each terrace give the climb a sense of scale – their neon backpack covers diminishing to the size and appearance of Tic Tacs. This climb is the Devil’s Staircase itself. The bends are well made for a drove road, carefully enforced with stone slabs and steps. ‘This is a sign that it has since been something more,’ says Rawling.
It started with a conflict over religion and leadership. In the 1680s, parliament forced the Catholic King James II off the throne, favouring his daughter Mary and her Protestant husband William III. The Highland clans, who were generally Catholic, believed his son James III had more right to the throne. His sympathisers called themselves the Jacobites, from Jacobus – the Latin version of James, and over the following decades led a series of uprisings in Scotland. By the 1740s, the Jacobites turned to his son, Charles, known as ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, whose final uprisings ended in bloody defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. The Devil’s staircase is proof of fault lines that continued to exist between the English and Scottish forces for years afterwards. ‘Parliament decided the remote highlands needed to be patrolled to keep an eye on the rebels,’ says Rawling. ‘They commissioned a network of military roads to be built so troops could be rapidly deployed if there was anymore trouble.’ English generals converted the drove road into the permanent path it is today.
But there is still something evasive about the road. It’s not as if the soldiers had cattle – why didn’t they cut through the glen? ‘That would have taken them directly though open rebel Highlander territory,’ says Rawling. ‘The soldiers would have been very exposed on the valley floor and open to ambush from the steep mountainsides above.’ More than that, it would have funnelled troops past the site of the Glencoe Massacre 60 years earlier, a flashpoint for tension between Highlanders and the army. In 1692, when chief MacDonald failed to swear allegiance to new King William III in time, troops including members of the rival Campbell clan were ordered into the glen to block the routes out of it. Under false pretences, the MacDonalds welcomed and fed them. At 5am the following morning, the king’s troops carried out their orders to kill everyone under the age of 70. The killings were never forgotten, for the loss of life, but also for what was considered a gross perversion of Highland hospitality.
After a dozen switchbacks, the staircase finally peels away from itself and over the top of the valley wall. The ground plateaus to a wide, high channel between the neighbouring summits of Stob Mhic Mhartuin and Beinn Bheag. Finally on level ground, walkers are often met with a blast of air the wind free to funnel through this lower pass in the high ridges. As a result, walkers group together near grassy tussocks and what small, crumpled trees are available, moving to find shelter from the wind.
By the shape of the trees, you can imagine that the conditions can be dangerous up here, sometimes deadly. A century ago, a group of workers had to stay particularly wary. In the 1900s, navvies were building the Blackwater reservoir, two and a half miles from here. Hidden by the summit, the reservoir is visible further north along the West Highland Way, or south from below the Devil’s Staircase. At 900 metres long, it’s the longest dam in the Highlands and was wedged into the exposed landscape mainly using hand tools. It’s hard to believe, but for the workers the Devil’s Staircase was the route to the nearest pub, the Kinghouse Hotel, back down in the valley of Glencoe. At the end of the month, workers would take their pay over the wall of mountain and down the Devil’s Staircase. They would return up the treacherous path at night. When the weather turned rough, some never made it back. It created a saying that ‘the Devil had claimed his own’.
‘While today the story is recounted rather flippantly,’ says Rawling, ‘it shows just how harsh life was at the time.’ It’s not visible from this distance, but beside the reservoir is a graveyard containing the two dozen or so navvies who died in the harsh conditions of its construction.
From the pass, it’s possible to see how the weather could quickly become formidable. Clouds are sucked through the valley as though on a conveyor belt and you can see them growing in the ridge’s corners. These days walkers will wait for them to clear and when the mists lift to reveal a vertigo-inducing view of the valley floor, the sense of camaraderie returns. With everyone here having deliberately walked up the Devil’s Staircase, it’s fascinating to consider how the road was used for working, not walking, until recently in its history.
This was published in the June 2019 edition of Geographical magazine
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