Glencoe is key to Amanda Mitchison’s latest novel

Glencoe. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Glencoe. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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AUTHOR Amanda Mitchison recalls how a trip to Glencoe was the key to unlocking the plot of her latest novel

Has he got a name this Bronze Age boy of yours?” asked my friend Laura.

“No, not yet,” I replied.

“You need a name. You know that, don’t you?” said Laura. “He won’t come together, he won’t breathe really till he has a name.”

“I know,” I said miserably. I looked out of the car window. It was a chilly spring morning and we were driving over the Great Moor of Rannoch. All around us lay little pools of black peat water. If you took a wrong step here you’d be up over your head in the bog. You could lie there pickling for thousands of years – just like the character in the children’s novel I was writing.

“But I know what he looks like,” I countered. “And his fingers have disintegrated at the ends – so he’s got no nails.”

For a millisecond Laura closed her eyes.

It had been a long morning. We’d taken a very early flight from Bristol, picked up a car at Glasgow airport, driven up the side of Loch Lomond and on into these wild lands. We were following the route that the main characters in my novel – the Bronze Age boy and his two modern day companions – were taking.

And all the way up in the car I’d talked about the book. Yak, yak, yak. And Laura had listened and every now and then she has said something. Pick, pick, pick.

Laura isn’t a writer – she is a highly successful television executive. But she used to work in children’s publishing and she has a nose for inconsistencies, for vague squashy bits in the writing – for narrative bog, really.

So Laura knew, and I knew, that I was stuck. Something was not right. And that was why we were here. Fantasy and dreaming things up in your head was all very well, but I needed to be here, to see and smell the setting of my story. I had to know it from the inside out – only then would it yield up its treasures.

The road curved west and the magnificent pyramid-shaped mountain that guards the entrance to Glencoe rose up in the distance. We drove on, and the mountain loomed nearer. I realised just how insulated we were in our little rented car with its new vehicle smell and the faint dogbreath of the Ginster’s chicken and mushroom slice in the glove compartment.

Finally we entered Glencoe itself. My skin prickled. I defy anyone, however southern and cynical, not to be in awe of Glencoe. It’s ten miles of a great volcanic scoop of winding valley with mountains that soar up on either side, cupping you in.

You have the sensation of entering a tunnel – the smallness of you against a huge, desolate backdrop of towering land and rock.

We passed two car parks. Hunched over us to our right was Aonach Eagach the famous saw toothed ridge of Glencoe. The pinnacles looked jagged, and dark, almost purplish.

“So this is where your characters end up?” said Laura, voice a bit hushed now.

“It’s a bottle neck. There’s no way out.”

“Exactly,” I replied. “They have to get out of the car and run.”

“Run where?” said Laura.

“Dunno,” I replied. “Maybe up the ridge.”

Laura sucked her teeth.

We drove on and I gave Laura a potted history of Glencoe. I peopled the landscape: the mythological warrior Fingal, the poet Ossian, the MacDougalls, and of course the MacDonalds. In particular the red-haired, fantastically bearded 12th chief Alasdair MacDonald (or ‘MacIain’) all six foot seven of him shot dead while pulling up his breeches on the night of the Glencoe massacre. And what an exceptionally sneaky and underhand massacre that had been: British army troops under the command of Robert Campbell of Glen Lyon had spent ten nights billeted with the MacDonalds – eating off their tables, sleeping in their beds. Then on 13 February 1692 at five o’clock in the morning, and when a snow storm raged outside, the soldiers had turned on their hosts, killing men, women and children.

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At the Glencoe Visitors Centre we stopped to ask about climbing the ridge.

You what!” said the woman at the information desk.

“I just wondered what would be the best route up,” I replied blithely.

She looked us up and down. I was carrying a handbag. Laura had a huge lop eared bow in her hair and was, in fact, wearing a skirt.

“Anyone who has to ask the way should not be climbing the ridge!” she said.

Had she climbed it?

“When I was young.” She gave us another Look.

I explained that this was all strictly for research purposes. I was writing a thriller for children and my teenage characters were being chased and would have to hide in the wilds of Glencoe.

“What you want,” she said, at last conceding us a smile, “is the Lost Valley.”

Following her directions we drove back through the glen to the first car park we had passed. Just as we are we putting on our backpacks a terrible roaring reverberated through the glen. Then a group of motorbikes zoomed past. The bikers looked huge and hairy – if MacIain were alive today he’d have been a biker.

Laura and I set out. We crossed the floor of the glen and came down into a damp, leafy ravine. There was a footbridge over the river and then the path rose, following a steep wooded gorge up the mountainside. This was perfect – here my characters would be hidden from their pursuers.

After a few hundred feet the path faded away. We crossed a river in spate and then it was a rough scramble up rocks and shale until we reached a lip in the land.

On the far side we came down into a flat-bottomed stretch of land strewn with enormous boulders. This was the Lost Valley – you cannot see it at all from Glencoe – and it is where the MacDonalds traditionally hid their stolen cattle and where some of them, half dressed and probably barefoot in the snow, fled to on the morning of the massacre.

Laura and I climbed on up until we could see the mountain peaks stretched out along the skyline. Beyond lay the straths of Appin and a dark sea.

I clenched my hand and looked down at my fist. These mountain tops were just like knuckles.

Weeks later, back in Bristol, I’d written the car chase and I’d got my teenagers up the path and into the hidden valley. So many things from the trip with Laura – the men on motorbikes, the ghosts of those fleeing MacDonalds, even the awful chicken and mushroom slice – had wound their way into the story.

Now I was sitting at my desk and in my mind my Bronze Age boy was standing where Laura and I had stood looking at the mountain peaks ahead.

The boy clenched his fist. What was he going to say? I was using Gaelic as the backdrop language for this character – so he speaks English with a slightly contorted syntax. On a whim – maybe I just wanted a distraction – I telephoned my brother Neil, who is a Gaelic speaker. What was the Gaelic word for ‘fist’ or ‘hand’?

Neil reeled off several words: ‘làmh’ ‘dòrn’ ‘bas.’

Then he added that there was another word – it was less common, and had a very specific sense: it wasn’t just a hand, it was a grabbing and grasping hand, perhaps clenched round something.

The word was ‘cròg’. Aha! It sounded right. And ‘grasping hand’ – that fitted my character’s personality perfectly. Now at last I had my boy’s name. Crog it was!

Now I could complete my story.

Crog by Amanda Mitchison is published by Corgie on Thursday, £6.99, paperback.