The Highland Perthshire village of Fortingall and stunning Glen Lyon have a tremendously rich and intriguing history that attracts visitors to this unique part of Scotland.
This webpage tells a few of the stories that go to make up that history of the village and its glen.
Fortingall is a small village in the Vale of Fortingall at the eastern end of Glen Lyon; about 9 miles from Aberfeldy.
The name Fortingall derives from the Gaelic language, with its original name being Forterkil or Fartairchill.The words fortair (a stronghold or high ground) and cill (a cell or church) suggest a range of possible meanings, with "Escarpment Church", or "church at the foot of an escarpment or steep slope" being a likely derivation.
The attractive village of Fortingall, as seen today with the hotel adjoining the churchyard, was extensively remodelled and rebuilt in 1890-91 by shipping magnate and Unionist MP – Sir Donald Currie (1825-1909). Sir Donald acquired the Glen Lyon Estate, including the village, in 1885 and set about restyling the village based on designs by architect James MacLaren (1853-90). The hotel, then a mix of Victorian and 17th century rural construction, was demolished and completely rebuilt. There are several ‘before and after’ photographs in the Ewe Bar. The thatched cottages are notable examples of a planned village constructed in vernacular style, in this instance drawing upon Lowland Scottish and English influences – particularly from Devon. The Fortingall Hotel is an important example of Scottish vernacular revival, based on the tower houses with their crow stepped gables and burgh architecture of the 16th and 17th centuries, but in a modern idiom that anticipates the buildings of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose work MacLaren greatly influenced.
The Fortingall yew tree – Oldest tree in the world
To be found in the churchyard next to the hotel, this 3,000 year old tree still survives. It was already aged when Christ was crucified and an ancient giant when recorded history began. Its wood was much prized for making arrows and tools. At its peak it had a girth of 56 feet and there was a time when it was possible to drive through it. Regrettably, the trunk started to split –due it is thought to the fires lit at its roots during the annual Beltane Rites – carried out here from pagan times until the late 19th century. New shoots have formed and the tree continues. Its branches overhang the burial place of the Stewarts of Garth, descendants of Alexander Stewart the infamous third son of Robert II – the Wolf of Badenoch.
The Fortingall yew tree hit the news in autumn 2015 when it was reported that it had “started to change sex”. The Fortingall yew is thought to be male and as such doesn’t have red berries. Only female yew trees have berries. The recent discovery of three red berries on the tree has led experts to wonder if the tree is changing sex, something that can happen to yew trees. After 5,000 years, perhaps the tree is just fancying a bit of a change. Have a look at him/her and see what you think.
Fortingall – Film Location
Fortingall and Glen Lyon are once again attracting interest from major film makers, which is hardly surprising – the scenery is outstanding. Fortingall was chosen by MGM as the ideal setting for Brigadoon, however, budget constraints determined that the entire film was produced in the MGM studio in the US. The original 1935 Alfred Hitchcock version of John Buchan’s Thirty Nine Steps was partly set in Glen Lyon. Much more recently, Sky TV used the hotel, church and village in 2014 for a Freddy Flintoff travel series.
The Cairn of The Dead (Carn-na-Marbh) – NN738469
Just over the road from the hotel stands a single upright stone on top of a mound. This, it is claimed, marks the site of a mass grave where victims of the 16th century Great Plague were buried. So many died, they could not be accommodated in the churchyard. It is said that an old woman, still sufficiently healthy, carried the victims on a sledge drawn by a white horse to the mass grave.
Remembered for all time as the executioner of Jesus Christ – Pontius Pilate is said to have not only been born at Fortingall, but also to have returned here after his exile from Rome. It is a good story, given a new lease of life when a stone burial slab bearing the initials P.P. was unearthed at Fortingall around 100 years ago. Well worth further research – if true it would have made him half Scots. His father, perhaps a Roman envoy, was sent over by Caesar Augustus to make peace with Mettalanus, a local King who was thought to have been based just above Balnacraig Farm. His mother, a Scot no doubt, would have been given as a present.
Glen Lyon runs for some 30 miles from Ween near Aberfeldy to the road end at the foot of the mountains of Mamlorn. It is Scotland’s longest glen and, without doubt, the most picturesque.
In previous centuries the Glen was a much favoured hunting ground of Scottish Kings. Today, it is a must see – some would say hugely underrated – natural wonder of Scotland. Fortingall is both the gate keeper and an ideal base from which to explore the Glen.
“Scotland’s longest glen and, without doubt, the most picturesque.”
Indeed, locals refer to it simply as ‘The Glen‘. In earlier times it was known by the Celts as the ‘Deserted Glen’ – the first Scots termed it ‘Glen of Crooked Stones’ and later ‘Glen of Black Water’. The Glen has a fascinating and at times mysterious history, with a wealth of interesting places to see:
Legend has it that the Celtic hero Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool or Fingal) came to Glen Lyon in the third century with his band of Fianna warriors. They set up their ‘duns’, or fortresses, along the length of the River Lyon and various forts and standing stones in the area are linked to this legendary figure.
The Testing Stones at Camusvrachan consisted of a heavy, rounded boulder with a flat stone behind it and set higher up. The idea was that acceptance into manhood, in the ancient times of Fionn and his Fians, occurred by lifting the lower, round stone and setting it up on top of the higher, flat stone. Only one set still exists, in a field opposite the House of Camusvrachan.
Towards the upper end of the glen is the Dog Stake Stone at Cashlie, where hunting dogs were tethered, including, according to legend, the mighty Bran – Fionn’s own dog with its yellow paws, black flanks and chain of gold – the best hunting dog that ever lived. Beside Bran would have been the fearsome Grey Hound that terrorised the Great Glen until it too was adopted by the Fians. The Dog Stone was also used to protect maidens’ virtue, in other words: safeguarding the local stock of virgins. Let’s not go into more detail.
The Children’s Fairy Hill – close to the Dog Stake Stone is a flat moot-hill, or meeting mound, where until the middle of the 19th century unbaptised children were buried for the fairies to take away.
The Fingalian Towers – there were around 40 – some argue they were Pictish in origin forming part of a sophisticated defence system, whilst others say they were defensive homesteads occupied by pastoralists. We tend to lean towards the Pictish defence legend. The towers were typically circular in shape with an internal diameter of 20 metres and walls 3 metres thick. Three remain visible today:
Dun Geal (The White Fort) - above Balnacraig Farm and on the right just before Fortingall. NN747476.
Red Burn (Roro Homestead) – near Balnahanaid and Milton Roro. NN627468.
Kerrowclach (Stoney Quarter) – near the Bridge of Balgie, off the Lawers Road. NN588469.
The Pagan Shrine of Cailleach – at the very head of the Glen, past Loch Lyon and up Glen Cailleach can be found the Old Woman Cailleach and her five children at her house of Tigh nam Bodach. They have been here since the mists of time and watch out over the cattle – possibly connected to the pagan cult of the Mother Goddess, and thus the oldest surviving shrine in Britain. The Old Woman and her children are heavy, water worn stones shaped like dumb-bells – placed outside in the summer and stored inside for winter – strange things may happen if disturbed from their winter’s sleep. The shrine is tended by successive generations of shepherds and stalkers.
The Stone of the Devil Cat – a very mysterious and supernatural tall and upright stone to be found beside the road in the Black Wood of Chesthill. It is said that every Hallowe’en wildcats would make a circle round it to welcome a huge black cat that sat on the top. One traveller who disturbed such a meeting was savagely attacked – badly wounded he managed to escape to Woodend House, where a dead wildcat was found still clinging to his back.
The Stone of the Demon – opposite the Cat Stone is equally forbidding. It was here that one Macnab, Governor of Carnban Castle, broke his neck in a fall from his horse, having been bewitched by the mother of a girl who had been forced to work naked in the fields. Steer clear if you have a troubled and murky past.
MacGregor’s Leap – NN 724477
To be found just after entering the narrow pass into Glen Lyon, beside a group of five huge larch trees, is the famous site of the death-defying leap of Gregor MacGregor, the young chief of Clan MacGregor. The story goes that MacGregor leapt across the narrowest point of the Pass of Lyon in 1595. His astonishing leap enabled him to escape from a band of pursuing Campbells and their baying bloodhounds. His athleticism was, however, in vain; he was captured shortly afterwards and beheaded at Taymouth Castle. His crime? Simply being a MacGregor. Do not attempt the Leap yourself. A gymnast died in an attempt in 1890!
Short walks from the hotel to historic sites
A series of Bronze Age standing stones (2000 – 500 BC) can be found about 300 metres to the east of the hotel. Three groups of three standing stones can be seen in the field on the south side of the road.
The site of the double-ditched hill fort above Balnacraig was probably occupied throughout the Iron Age (500 BC – 500 AD). The hill fort is an easy ten-minute walk from the hotel.
In the early Christian period (500 – 1000 AD) massively walled circular homesteads were introduced to the area, probably by colonists from the west. Dun Geal (White Fort) is one of the best preserved in the district. Dun Geal is easily reached by foot from the hotel and a visit can be combined with the nearby hill fort.
Discover the Fortingall and Glen Lyon history for yourself
There’s so much history in this area, going back over thousands of years, and throughout all this time the Fortingall yew tree has just got on with life and witnessed the unfolding of Fortingall’s rich and, at times, mysterious history.
Mysterious history. It’s all out there for you to go and explore for yourself. Then again, if you’re not feeling overly energetic, or the weather is misbehaving, why not spend an afternoon with your feet up in the hotel library, where you can browse through our collection of local history books? That can be a relaxing and very pleasant way to discover more about Fortingall’s fascinating past?