Glencoe turf house shed light on life for massacred MacDonald clan

It is one of the UK’s most visited areas and a popular stopping point for tourists travelling to the Scottish Highlands.

Glencoe’s dramatic, other-worldly landscape has made it instantly recognisable world-wide, with the infamous massacre of the MacDonald clan adding to the intrigue.

Now, a unique project hopes to shed some light on the living conditions for the 500-600 strong community that once occupied the lands in 17th century Scotland.

Led by archaeologists, a team of volunteers building crafts specialists have re-created a heather-thatched turf house, which will become a permanent fixture, visible from the A82 that winds its way through the historic glen.

The team required planning permission to build the 4.9m high house because it is likely to welcome around 350,000 tourists over its threshold annually and there are plans to host traditional music and Gaelic story-telling events at the site.


Derek Alexander, head of archaeology for the National Trust Scotland came up with the idea for the project after a initial archaeological survey was carried out of part of the glen.

The team discovered pottery including a tankard that dates from 1650s to 1750s and a coin that was too corroded to date but are still excavating the site.

“We knew that there was some archaeology in the glen but very little was known about the early townships that were occupied from the 17th into the 18th century.

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“When you drive through the glen today you see lots of stone built ruins and those are mostly related to the 19th century sheep farms. There was very little known about earlier buildings.


“So we did a walk-over survey to find out if there was anything there, particularly at a site called is Achtriachtan. which is at the eastern, uppermost end of Glencoe. The townships are mapped on the 18th century maps and General Williams Roy’s military map of Glencoe shows maybe about eight different townships, running up from where Glencoe village currently is.

“Because those have been the focus of later settlements, the chances are that earlier structures have been removed.

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“We found some buildings about half-way up the glen but we also found the remains of five structures at is Achtriachtan. If you are coming north it’s just before you come to the lochan on the right hand side.”

The team carried out excavations at the site along with working holiday volunteers and found one complete house structure, beside the road.


They decided to recreate what they had found at a less busy area, near Glencoe Visitor Centre.

“I think people are very aware of the really quite impressive geology (of Glencoe) and the wildlife, such as the Red Deer but it was about creating something tangible, where people could relate to the historical and cultural heritage of the glen.

“We managed to raise quite a bit of funds through an appeal to our members and supporters.

“We know there was a settlement at is Achtriachtan at the time of the massacre.”

An estimated 36 members and associates of Clan MacDonald were killed by Scottish government forces, allegedly for failing to pledge allegiance to the new monarchs, William III and Mary II on February 1692.

“The head man of the village, he was John MacDonald of is Achtriachtan, on the night of the massacre was actually down visiting his brother at another settlement and he gets killed there the following morning.


“We think probably, as Achtriachtan was further up the glen and further away from the officers in charge, so that more people got away.

“There were two other forces that were sent across from Fort William, one was to block the lower end of the glen and the other was to come over the top of the Devil’s Staircase and block the top end of the glen but both of those groups of soldiers were late in arriving and the second one didn’t get there till about 11am so by that time – the massacre had started at about 5am in the morning – so warnings would have been sent all the way up the glen.

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“There were 36 or 37 people killed although many others would have died through exposure in the snow. At that time there would have been about 400 people living in the glen.

He added: “We know that after the massacre, when houses were burnt, people came back quite quickly, within a week and re-buried the dead but once they are accepted into the King’s peace again they re-occupied the township in August of that year.”


Emily Bryce, Operations Manager for Glencoe National Nature Reserve, has overseen the project to build the dwelling house which was constructed with 60 tonnes of thick turf, 185 roof caber timbers, 3,500 handmade wooden pegs and six tonnes of heather.

Each house would have had an extended family of  8-10 people with  wooden box beds, some chairs and stools.

She said it is likely that cattle would have shared the family home during the worst of the winter.

She was involved in some elements of the build herself, including harvesting the wattle – the woven lattice of wooden strips which would have been daubed with wet soil, clay, sand, animal dung and straw to form the walls. The team weren’t able to use as many volunteers as planned due to pandemic restrictions.


She said: “We started on site in February and then it’s been a continuous process. In the 17th century, they wouldn’t have spent this long on it. The entire community would have got involved because you do need a lot of labour.

“All the way through we tried to do things with as little modern power tools as possible.


“When we raised the cruck (the wooden frame that holds the house together) we used a traditional gin pole and a hand winch and just lots of people pulling. There were about ten people involved in that.

“The maintenance would have been little and often, you would add a bit more heather if that was going down.

“We wanted it to be as authentic as possible but it’s probably a bit over-engineered because it needs to meet health and safety requirements.”

The team haven’t decided what the interior will look like yet and will be asking visitors for their thoughts over the Autumn, before it opens in Spring next year.

“It might be more of an audio-visual experience, potentially with shadows of people projected on the walls and the sounds of what life would have been like. There might be a peat fire.

“Visitors have been popping over and there has definitely be a lot of interest. There’s nothing else like it in the west Highlands. I think people are excited to see history being brought back to life in a very real way.”

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992