Here at the Visitor Centre we are often asked why the trees all around the glen are being felled. The answer is that many trees are not indigenous to the area. They are planted by the Forestry Commission to harvest as theses species grow quickly with minimum maintenance. Before World War One the The Highlands in general and Glen Nevis in particular were forested with great numbers of native Caledonian Pines. During the war these forests were decimated to provide pit props for the trenches..
On the hillside above Steall car park can be found the remains of around 20 charcoal burning platforms and there were once many more scattered throughout the glen. They were in use from about 1750 until the late 19th century providing charcoal for iron foundries in Argyll.
Industry in the glen mainly turned to Estate activities through farming. Sheep are the perfect animals for the terrain in Glen Nevis and the Highlands, generally the black faced breed. Highland Cattle are robust animals and can often be seen taking charge in the glen, marching along the road and stopping cars! They are large, gentle creatures, quite docile and very photogenic, but don’t get too close when there are calves amongst the herd.
This has been the way of life in the glen for many years. Take the walk out to An Steall waterfall and beyond you will come across the ruins of an old farming settlement.
Fishing The Water of Nevis is also run by the estate. The river is a known salmon run which explains why the river was so heavily guarded by (famously ruthless) bailiffs in the past. One story reveals that a bailiff, when coming upon a group of poachers, hanged the three of them on the spot with their own nets! This supposedly took place at the Roaring Mill. Although fish landed now are mainly brown trout, the income from permits is much more lucrative these days!
Tourism is now the main industry of the glen. Glen Nevis Holidays operates a large caravan and camping park, holiday lodges and cottages, a restaurant and cafe. Forestry, farming and tourism, diverse activities which keep business alive and well in the glen.
Peat has long been a source of fuel in Highland crofts. Near the Visitor Centre is The Peat Track, now part of the Cow Hill Circuit walking trail, originally an area where peat was cut. The force of this fuel keeps some of our forest and moor fires burning for days!
Continue along the track to “the burial path”, the route used by clans from further away to carry their dead to the old graveyard in Glen Nevis. It is said that the journey was too far for many people who gave up and buried their loved ones along the path! . The old graveyard is truly peaceful with an astounding view across to Ben Nevis and definitely worth a visit. Nowadays it is a favourite place to see red squirrels as there are some feedersplaced just beyond its outside wall.
The old Cameron clan graveyard is on the Ben Nevis side of the river and surrounded by large Birch trees. It was used for the funeral scene in the film Braveheart. The Camerons have a rich history and legend in the glen. The most notable tale is the story of the Dun Dige massacre in which Dun Dige hosted a peacekeeping meeting between Clan Cameron and Clan Chattan. The meeting went extremely well and, to end on a high-note, Chief Cameron ordered his head piper to play them out. Unfortunately, the piper didn’t welcome the peace as much as the rest of the Clan and decided to express this by playing “Come Children of the Dogs” and “You will get Flesh”. Outraged, Clan Chattan returned down the glen vowing revenge for such an insult. Expecting the revenge to take some time, Clan Cameron retired for the night. However, fuelled on rage (and most likely whisky), Clan Chattan took council on a nearby small hillock, (later named “Hill of the Evil Council”) where they decided to return that night and spare no-one. The Clan was slaughtered in the dead of night. One young man managed to smuggle out the baby heir and some heirlooms and fled to the hills where they hid in “Samuel’s Cave” for several weeks before fleeing further North. Upon his 17th birthday, the heir returned to his land to take his place as the rightful heir of Glen Nevis. He was known to be the true heir by producing heirlooms recognised by his Aunt, mostly notable was his silver spoon.
Another Dun that has a much less documented history is Dun Deirdal. This area is surrounded by mystery as nobody is sure as to how it was created. Many attempts have been made to recreate the vitrification process and all have failed. So how did our ancestors, many years ago, with minimal tools, manage to cause a heat high enough to actually fuse stone?
More recently it was discovered that, on May 16th 1943, flying officer John Donald McDonnell (aged 21 from the Royal Canadian Air Force) was flying for the RAF returning to Dyce in Aberdeenshire and when flying over Fort William he experienced engine problems. Due to low cloud he crashed into the hillside on Meall an T and died. This has now been classified as a war grave by the Commonwealth War Commission and is marked by a memorial plaque in the grounds of the Glen Nevis Visitor Centre.
A lot of people also ask about the strange pipes that come down the side of the Ben. These actually go down the side of the Meall an T after going through the mountain. They start at Loch Treigg, which is dammed and water piped along a 24km pipeline. This comes through the mountain and down the side where the water force gained by this drop is used to power the generators at the local aluminium smelter. The factory has 80 cells spread over 2 cell rooms. These turn the raw alumina into 40,000 tonnes of aluminium per annum! This is then stored in a cast shop before being transported to various other industries. The factory itself has a rich history through World War Two and makes for interesting reading if you do the research!
Recently, as Rio Tinto own the lower slopes of Ben Nevis, they have replaced the 2 aluminium bridges on Ben Nevis. Ironically, one is now an unnoticeable convert and the second is now oak. This is due to the path requiring constant maintenance as literally hundreds of thousands of feet trod on it each year!