Glenlyon is one of Scotland’s most famous and beautiful glens, yet it is also one of the least visited. Being a cul-de-sac has certainly saved Glenlyon from becoming a major through route, and over-populated with tourists. It is not until you look at it on a map that you realise just how significant a presence Glenlyon has in the Central Highlands.
Glenlyon is the longest glen in Scotland, and is possibly the narrowest. The beauty of this wild and unspoiled place, with its Caledonian Pine forests, lochs and waterfalls, is unmatched and in many ways unique. The glen opens from the Appin of Dull, at Fortingall, and extends 25 miles westwards to Cashlie, roughly parallel with Loch Tay.
In the grounds of Fortingall Church you will see the remains of what is perhaps Europe’s oldest tree. This tree is approximately 3000 years old, making it possibly the oldest living thing in Europe. It is not much to look at today, but in the 18th century it was measured to be 54 feet in circumference and 18 feet thick.
Close to Fortingall is a Roman bridge and although the bridge is not amongst Britain’s most spectacular Roman remains, it is complete, and it is an interesting reminder of how far north the Romans ventured. There is also the remnants of an early camp, thought to be of Roman origin. Local fables, and the writings of the medieval historian Holnished, suggest that one of the Roman children born in the Fortingall camp was Pontius Pilate.
The standing stone in the middle of a field, across the road from Fortingall hotel commemorates a medieval plague (probably the Black Death of the 14th century) during which all inhabitants of the village died, except one old woman; she loaded the bodies onto her donkey-cart and buried them in the field.
West from the village of Fortingall, only a mile up the glen, where the Lyon river tumbles through a deep gorge and over a small waterfall, the rocks on either side of the gorge are less than 20 feet apart. The gorge is known as “MacGregor’s Leap”, from the time in 1565, when the Chief of the outlawed MacGregor clan made an incredible escaped by leaping across the river chasm when fleeing from Campbell Bloodhounds.
Two miles further up, there are a series of spectacular waterfalls, as the Allt Da-gohb rushes down to the floor of the glen.
At the next hamlet, Innerwick, there is the 18th century Glenlyon Parish Church. But the hub of the glen is a little farther on, at Bridge of Balgie. Here the road forks, one branch turning south-westwards to climb steeply over the shoulder of Ben Lawers to Loch Tay. The other road continues up the glen, climbing to avoid the lands of Meggernie Castle, a fine late 16th century structure, whitewashed and set amidst ancient trees built by Cailean Gorach, or Mad Colin Campbell in 1580.
Three miles further on, the Glenlyon road passes Loch Cashlie where, at the side of the road are a group of cairns and what appears to be an ancient earth-house.
At its west end is lonely Loch Lyon, hiding behind the mountains that lie to the east of Bridge of Orchy. Just past Loch Lyon, the glen merges into a high pass that leads to the head of Glen Orchy. Throughout that long distance it winds in wild beauty amongst ever more solitary peaks, and varies as much in character, as in width and height. Indeed, its constant variety, between gentle beauty and fierce grandeur, is part of the great attraction of Glenlyon. Beyond rear the mountains of, Ben Achallader and Heasgarnich, and ranging to the south the fierce contours of the Tarmachan mountains
As the head of the glen is neared, or at least the road-end, the scenery becomes more bleak and treeless. The upper glen is mountain-bound and as lonely as anywhere you are likely to find in this part of Scotland. The only through route is on foot.
A few miles to the south of Glenlyon stands Ben Lawers, one of Scotland’s tallest mountains at 3,984 ft, and to the north an arc of high, broad ridges forming what is known as the Carn Mairg Group or Glen Lyon Horseshoe. North of this range the ground falls away gently over open moor and forests towards Loch Rannoch.
Glenlyon is infamous for having been the home of John Cambell of Glen Lyon, who was responsible for leading the Campbells of Glenlyon at Glen Coe massacre. The Macdonalds who had raided Glenlyon the previous winter, leaving the Glenlyon Campbells reliant on the mercies of their neighbour Campbell of Breadalbane.
Glenlyon seems to have been inhabited principally by Campbells, MacCallums and MacGregors, although the MacCallums of Glenlyon do not seem to have been a prominent clan.
Glenlyon later became a favoured hunting ground of the Scottish Kings.
The fertile floor of Glenlyon was once a thriving agricultural area but is now a shadow of its former days. At the beginning of the 19th century, almost 4,000 people lived and worked here but, 200 years later, the few houses that remain are mostly holiday homes lived in, sparingly, during the summer months and lying empty throughout the winter. There are now only nine farms in the entire length of the glen. The population of Glenlyon has since reduced considerably, and been replaced by the modern hydro-electric dam that spans Glenlyon at its head.