Updated: Oct 30, 2021
Scottish folklore is full of stories about supernatural beings and Glencoe has its fair share: ghosts and bogles, water bulls (tarbh uisge) and water horses (each uisge), fairies and selkies – Ballachulish even has a dragon! But some of the most enduring stories centre on “wise women” or “witches” (bana-bhuidsichean).
Though we now tend to use “witch” as a catch-all term when referring to women with powers, it should be noted that the traditional wise woman aimed to help her community and ward off negative influences: finding lost items or animals, foretelling of death, diagnosing and healing ailments etc. They would usually be older, single women with a strong connection to the natural world. In contrast, the witch was a more harmful and feared figure, cursing those to whom they wished ill, calling on storms to sink ships, transforming into animals to play tricks and generally causing mischief and misery. However, witches could also be called upon to help if asked – for example, providing love potions, charms or a glimpse into the future – but this would usually come at a price.
Many areas in Scotland have their own local witches. Among others, there was Doideag of Mull, Gormshuil of Moy, Laorag of Tiree and Maol-odhar of Kintyre. In Glencoe we had Corrag, who is said to have lived a solitary life in the mountains and been of “outstanding badness”. She is the focus of a number of local folk stories – though, interestingly, the surviving tales tend to paint her as more of a helpful character than an evil one…
Most famously, Corrag is said to have foretold of the Massacre of Glencoe. However, her warnings to the clan fell on deaf ears and she awoke on the morning of the 13th February 1692 to discover the devastation that had been wrought by the government soldiers: houses burnt to the ground, families fled to the hills, and MacIain himself – the Chief of the MacDonalds - murdered as he rose from his bed. Corrag took up his broadsword and cast it into the waters of Loch Leven, saying:
“So long as this sword lays undisturbed by man, no man from this Glen will die by the sword again.”
And so the sword lay, providing protection to the men of the valley throughout the centuries. Though the MacDonalds took part in the Battle of Culloden and locals have fought at Waterloo, Balaclava etc, there are no records of any men from Glencoe having died in battle. Then, in June 1916, a dredger was brought from Glasgow to clear the bed of the loch in order to allow the passage of bigger ships as part of the war effort. On the night of 30th June, the man went into a local bar to show off the old sword handle that he had discovered that day. Horrified, the locals who knew of the legend of Corrag immediately cast the sword back into the loch, hoping that they had done enough. The following day, the 1st July 1916, was the first day of the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest and most brutal of the First World War. Casualties were enormous, and included seven men from the village of Glencoe – the first to die in battle since the Massacre of Glencoe…
Corrag also warned that if the narrows of Loch Leven were ever bridged, a flood would wipe out the entirety of Glencoe. When the Ballachulish Bridge was being constructed in the 1970s, this prophesy came to the attention of the engineers, who found a loophole to avoid testing it: they never technically completed the bridge. If you look carefully at the concrete support on the south side of the bridge, you will see that one of the 24 bolts is missing; in fact, it was never put in place – just in case Corrag’s prophesy came true.
Whether through fear of her powers or gratitude for her warnings, after Corrag’s death it was decided that she should be buried on Eilean Munde, a sacred burial island usually reserved for clansmen. It was often noted that, however stormy the seas or wild the weather, the loch would still long enough to allow boats out for a burial. However, in the case of Corrag, a fierce storm started up as soon as the boat set out for the island, forcing it to turn back to shore. Three times they attempted to carry Corrag to Eilean Munde, and three times they were driven back by the storm; as a witch, Corrag was not allowed to be buried on sacred ground. Eventually, they gave up, and Corrag was instead buried by the shore near Ballachulish, overlooking the loch.
Her simple grave was not marked, but it was known by a mound where the grass never grew long. When construction of the new road along the lochside began, there were two bad landslides and one construction worker and his vehicle were thrown into the water – supposedly because he had disturbed Corrag’s resting place. He survived, but sadly Corrag’s grave was lost.