x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

On a high

Travel Spending a wet week to help conserve the peaks of Glen Coe is one of the most fulfilling things you could do in the Scottish highlands.

A view of Loch Leven with Pap of Glen Coe mountain in the background. More than two million visitors arrive in Glen Coe each year to climb its mountains.
A view of Loch Leven with Pap of Glen Coe mountain in the background. More than two million visitors arrive in Glen Coe each year to climb its mountains.

Glen Coe was about to live up to its star Highland billing as "The Glen of Weeping". We had driven across Rannoch Moor, normally a desolate boggy wilderness where Alfred Hitchcock filmed Robert Donat being chased by Eastern assassins in the first Thirty Nine Steps movie, but sunshine strong enough for Jamaica lifted our spirits and led to community singing in the people carrier. Summer Holiday. Not appropriate, I know. Should have been I'll Take The High Road.

Dead ahead was the sentinel that stands guard at the mouth of Glen Coe, the awesome Buachaille Etive Mor, in Gaellic. The Big Herdsman of the Etive Glen - 3,350 feet of uncompromising granite - is an iconic rock featured in every Scottish calender. It wasn't smiling a bonny welcome. You could see the rain approaching, a big black hand that swept over every mountain top in the glen, burying the peak of the Big Herdsman in angry clouds, rivers of water falling away from its black Eiger-like face as if they were swishing silver tails on grey mares.

If any of us didn't know Glen Coe was shrouded in myth and tragedy, the weather certainly sent the message, snuffing out the sun in what felt like a doomy omen. For the uninitiated, it was here in 1692 that the McDonald clan were massacred by 120 redcoats led by Captain Robert Campbell. For 12 days the soldiers had been sheltered from a snowstorm in the McDonalds homes, singing and carousing. The Campbells and McDonalds had been enemies for centuries, but Highland hospitality had its rules.

At 5.00am on the morning of the 13th, Campbell opened his orders. He was to massacre all 400 of the clan. The death warrant came from the King himself, the protestant William the Third, who lived in constant terror of a Jacobite uprising and feared Popish sympathies from these Stuart supporters who wanted one of their own, James the Second, on the throne of Scotland. The clan chief was shot in the back, his wife stripped of her clothes and turned into the snow. Men, including boys, were roped together and shot. But the massacre was inept. Extra soldiers coming over a track to cut off the glen from the south arrived too late. Only 38 McDonalds died. The others escaped to the hills.

The two clans had been enemies for centuries, constantly stealing each others cattle, but this murderous betrayal ensured the feud would last the millennium and become a byword for infamy. At the local inn, The Clachaig, there is a sign prominently displayed at reception declaring "No Campbells"; though bizarrely, protection of this hallowed ground does not extend to the reputed riverside site of the chief's death. It is now the Red Squirrel Caravan Camp where holidaymakers happily build their barbecues.

The massacre has not hurt tourism to the Glen. More than two million visitors arrive every year, 150,000 of them, to climb its precipitous peaks and deep glens. And Glen Coe is still claiming lives 315 years after the battle. The death toll of climbers - lost because of the capricious weather and rockfalls that can hurl backpackers 1,000 feet through space - reaches well into double figures every year. On one black night, six died in avalanches of snow so deep three bodies couldn't be found for two months.

Three metres of rain fall here every year and I think most of it fell on me in the week I was in Glen Coe. It was like standing in a shower for seven days. What had happened to all of those glorious postcard panoramas of the heather strewn Highlands, smiling, long-horned shaggy haired cattle, and the sun glinting off salmon as they leapt in Loch Leven? I hadn't expected I needed to be Jacques Cousteau just to avoid drowning when I took the Low Road out of Edinburgh in a National Trust van with ten others to join the Trusts Thistle Camp residential working holidays project.

You pay £50 (Dh340.5) to spend a week living in one of Europe's last great wild places, mending mountain paths, bashing back the rampant rhododendron, repairing crofts, wading in rivers to clear fallen trees from the rocks, even shearing sheep and counting bats. The Trust pays for all food, lodging and transport but the team prepare it, cook it and wash up. You sleep in spartan bunk rooms, and in some camps, gather wood to chop for the evening fire. There are hot showers and a communal room to play party games in after all that labour - if you still have the energy.

In the brochure, Glen Coe looked exactly like the deserted mountain paradise every office slave sitting in front of their computer dreams of escaping to when the pressures of corporate performance bear down. The Trust had intended to billet us in a picturesque rustic village of timber lodges hidden in a riverside wood, but because of a bookings mix-up we ended up checking into the local youth hostel. A youth hostel! All I knew about youth hostels was contained in the Village People hit YMCA. The Glen Coe Youth hostel was nothing like the song. You got the picture the minute you walked in the door, which had a handle made out of a climbers pick axe. The first thing you saw was a sign which said "How to Recognise Hypothermia". There was a photo of the frozen face of a climber on it, ice clinging to his beard. Beside it was another poster advising you how to survive an avalanche, with the telephone number for the mountain rescue team.

Our dormitory was the size of a cupboard into which six blokes laden with bags, rucksacks and waterproofs piled into to sleep on stacked bunk beds. Some wanted the window open at night, some didn't. Some wanted the light on, some didn't. This was worse than my years at boarding school. Thistle Camp is a bit like a cross between Big Brother and a chain gang. It throws up diverse characters, both professionals and artisans, the young and not so young. There's Gordon The Entertainer, our Archie Rice, a retired Bank of England executive, who insists on swimming in the freezing river to impress the girls; Alan, ex-army, who gets us all up in the morning with his annoyingly cheerful reveille; and youthful Lee, once keyboardist in a pop group. Wendy advises schoolgirls in Liverpool and Sheila is a retired teacher twice her age.

Our first day was great fun. Jon, the group's leader, a chemistry graduate from St Andrews, wanted us to clear a patch of rhododendrons in an ankle-squelching hillside bog. They may be delicate pink and white flowered plants that brighten suburban gardens in the south, but here they are an invasive weed smothering native trees like hazel, denying red squirrels food. Hacking with saws wielded like claymores, then dragging the 50-year-old dead branches to house-high bonfires through woody wastelands in protective wellies, watching flames lick at our handiwork, before being eclipsed suddenly in clouds of choking smoke as the wind changed direction, was like being a naughty schoolboy again.

Johnny McDonald, one of the local rangers, feeds the fire and tells us that at this time of the year he has to cull 200 of the 700 wild deer that live in the mountains, stalking them for hours at up to 3,000 feet, sometimes crawling on his belly to within 30 yards of a Royal Stag to drop it with a single high velocity bullet between the head and the shoulder. Actually, "drop it" is a misnomer. "Even though they are dead, their momentum can keep them running for 100 yards," he tells me.

Next day two other rangers, Abby Wylde and Scott McCrombie (once a kilt salesman in America), take us to Glen Etive. Our task in Glen Etive was to clear derelict campsites, hurling boulders and rocks back into the river, and collecting rubbish left by picnickers. After this it was Scott's turn to guide us 2,000 feet up a glen, to a secret valley you couldn't see from below, past tumbling waterfalls, where the McDonalds hid stolen cattle. We mended mountain paths here with mattocks, pinch bars and shovels.

This was the day the elements really seemed in a rage. When sodden we returned to base camp, the five 20-pound notes I had carefully tucked in my wallet were glued together. I had to unstick the dripping notes and dry them over the boiler. Never done that before. Seeing this, Sheila told me how she kept her money dry. She waved a small Perspex bag at me. "Get your wife to get one of these,"she said.

"What is it?" "A Marks and Spencers knickers bag. They never let the wet in." I'll tell you just how much water they have here. If it hadn't been for the reservoir on Ben Cruachan, it's turbines releasing millions of gallons when there is a sudden surge in demand for power on the national grid, half the nation watching the 1966 England versus Germany World Cup Final at Wembley would not have seen extra time. It was no surprise to learn the SAS trained here.

It was in this glen Scot told us about the cherubs he finds. "People love these mountains so much they want them to be their last resting place, so they have memorials put up. We have to take them down or the glen would look like a cemetery. I found a little stone dog statue up here the other day. Somebody had put up a memorial to their pet." The monsoon abated for just one glorious afternoon when the sun blazed high in a clear Botticelli blue sky so bright, the pink and purple heather seemed to burn the velvet green of the mountains. You could see stags on the hillside and hawks high above them. We were alone in this wonderful wilderness.

Yet even when angry and obscured by cloud and rain, Glen Coe evokes a powerful authority, a unique humbling magical presence, like nowhere else. You understand why so many films have been shot here. Braveheart, Mel Gibson's movie of clan leader William Wallace, even castles disguised as Camelot for Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Most recently, the Panavision cameras were in action for the Harry Potter films. The steam train from Fort William to Mallaig doubled for the Hogwarts Express. While shooting The Philosopher's Stone, the action became so excited that sparks from the engine momentarily set fire to the 21-arches Glenfinnan Viaduct.

The Trust estimate Thistle Camps save them thousands of pounds a year. Almost half the volunteers are female, and as many aged between 55 and 70 apply as those half their age. They are united by their desire to help preserve a natural heritage and a passionate love of wild open places. The reaction from the public is instructive. While shifting boulders in the Moffat Hills, one sturdy lady walker, thinking this was my day job, told me: "Well, laddie, it's better than stacking shelves at Tesco." Another on Arran asked me if I was on an Asbo (Anti-Social Behaviour Order). In Glen Coe I was given a £10 (Dh68) note from one picnicker by way of reward.

I have been lucky with my holidays. I have slept in Princess Diana's bed on Richard Branson's private Caribbean island, Necker, and cruised the Aegean in the Barclay Brothers luxury yacht. But I wouldn't have swapped them for Glen Coe even though I did nearly drown. Can't wait to return to Glen Etive next year to see if my mountain path repairs have held, but I might take some water wings with me.