First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
There’s an air of menace, faint but definite, that clings to the Pass of Glencoe as the road from Fort William threads it between the jagged ridge of Aonach Eagach and the massive, troll-like faces of the Three Sisters of Glencoe. These volcanic mountains are dark and precipitous, giving the impression of hanging threateningly over the road even on a crisp winter day with clear sky and glassy visibility. That haunted feeling may derive from the notorious 1692 Massacre of Glencoe, when dozens of members of the local MacDonald clan were murdered by soldiers billeted in their houses or died of exposure as they fled through a snowstorm to hide in the mountains.
A couple of miles down the glen the mountains draw further back from the road and the atmosphere lightens as the glen broadens. Here we set off from the packed car park at Altnafeadh for a morning’s saunter up the Devil’s Staircase. All right, maybe not exactly a saunter, but certainly not the grim unrelenting grind we’d been led to expect of this ancient cattle droving pass that climbs to the ridge between Glencoe and Kinlochleven.
It was soldiers working as navvies who converted the old hill track into a paved military road in 1752, hauling stones and equipment up and down the zigzag path on the mountainside. They detested the job, and named the road the Devil’s Staircase accordingly. Today a pale sun struck glints of pink and gleams of mica out of the granite rocks. Where the Allt a’ Mhain stream sluiced across, the water rush had scrubbed and smoothed the rocks to a beautiful smooth orange, a very intense colour.
It was one of those ‘watch your step, take the next zig and zag as they come, how long to the top?’ slogs up the Devil’s Staircase, but at last the path smoothed out at the bealach. Here we turned off the West Highland Way onto a narrow stony track that rose across slippery slabs and squelchy black bog to the modest cairn at the summit of Stob Mhic Mhartuin, 400 metres above the floor of Glencoe.
From here the southward view over the glen burst out in all its glory. Twin mountains stood opposite, their volcanic history written in their crumpled faces, Buchaille Etive Beag on the right looking east across the tight-squeezed glen of Lairig Gartain at her big sister Buchaille Etive Mòr. Snow streaked the gullies on Buchaille Etive Mòr, and a party of hikers were outlined against a smoky grey sky as they inched their way towards the summit. A really magnificent view, worth every step of the hike up the Devil’s Staircase.
How hard is it? 3½ miles; moderate hill climb of 418m/1,371ft; stony track to the pass, then hill track to Stob Mhic Mhartuin. Check the weather (mwis.org.uk); choose a clear day for the best views; hill-walking gear advisable.
Start: Altnafeadh car park, Ballachulish, Glencoe PH49 4HY (OS ref NN 221563)
Getting there: Bus 914 (Fort William-Glasgow) – ask to alight at Altnafeadh.
Road: Altnafeadh is on A82 between Glencoe and Kingshouse Hotel.
Walk (OS Explorer 384): From A82 turn north up West Highland Way/WHW, keeping to left of forestry. Climb 259m/850ft up the Devil’s Staircase zigzags to the bealach or pass at 548m/1,797ft. Just before big cairn (216575) at bealach, left off WHW on clear path that becomes rocky, boggy and steep in places. In ½ mile it bends left to climb to summit of Stob Mhic Mhartuin (707m/2,319ft). Return the way you came.
Lunch/Accommodation: Kingshouse Hotel, Glencoe, Ballachulish PH49 4HY (01855-851259, kingshousehotel.co.uk)