The History of Glen Roy

Glen Roy is internationally famous for its ice age landscape, widely known as the ‘Parallel Roads’. However it has both a geological and a human history beyond the three shore lines that so fascinated 19th century scientists.

Early Geology

The oldest rocks of Glen Roy began their existence about 1000 million years ago when muddy, sandy and lime rich sediments settled out in shallow waters around an ancient continent. These sediments turned into Precambrian sedimentary rocks many kilometres thick, and although much was eroded several kilometres are still preserved, although notably altered in their structure.

Between 750 and 400 million years ago the process of mountain building, known as orogeny, pushed up the Caledonian Mountain Belt which stretched from what is now Scandinavia through Scotland and on to the east of North America, now well known as the Appalachians. This process probably buried the rocks which can presently be seen in Glen Roy about 10 kilometres down into the roots of this mountain belt. At such depths the rock would have been subjected to intense pressures and temperatures over 600oC. This process, known as metamorphism, subjected the rock to complex folding, recrystallised the sedimentary material into much harder rock causing the limestone became marble and, on a much wider scale, the mudstones formed mica schist with small (semi-precious) garnets.

Quern Stones

It is this mica schist which became important as a local product. Cut out of the rock in flat circular shapes were quern stones that have been recorded in districts far from where they were quarried. The garnets may have been the reason this rock made particularly good quern stones as the rock would not easily become smooth and therefore less useful at grinding the cereals. The quarry is to the east of the main glen in a subsidiary valley.

The Parallel Roads

06FFHowever it is for the three shore lines known as the ‘Parallel Roads’ for which Glen Roy is most, and justifiably, renown. Charles Darwin visited in 1838 and was convinced that the raised beaches had been caused by the earth bulging up causing the sea level to change, an idea that he eventually called his ‘Great Blunder’ and didn’t accept was wrong for twenty years. Thomas Telford, the famous Scottish Engineer and canal builder was certain that the lines were so level that they must have been man made. The great geologist Charles Lyell swung between several ideas and didn’t strongly back one idea. So it fell to the Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz to recognised that the ‘Parallel Roads’ were in fact the shore lines of an ancient glacier entrapped lake. This theory, which Agassiz had seen himself in the Alps, solved the puzzle that had so confused other great minds. The lack of any trace of an impounding dam and the limited extent of the shore lines all became solved by the theory of a glacier creeping northwards into the mouth of Glens Spean, Roy and Gloy and creating successive lake levels where the overflow water could escape at a low point in the surrounding hills.

Protecting the Roads

During the Second World War the United Kingdom became short of timber. After the war the Forestry Commission was set up to ensure continuity of supply and bought large areas of upland heath and moorland. The purchase of the Glen Spean estate, to the east of the River Roy, threatened to cover the ‘parallel roads’ with a conifer forest which would destroy the geomorphological features. In 1954 the proposal was opposed by the Nature Conservancy Council, who considered the ‘roads’ to be of the highest scientific and historical importance. They regarded the ‘roads’ as deserving preservation for both present and future generations. After five years of negotiation, agreement was reached with the Forestry Commission to restrict planting in the glen so that it would not affect the ‘roads’. The land is now owned by Scottish Natural Heritage, the government conservation body that replaced the Nature Conservancy Council in Scotland in 1991.

Battle of Mulroy

There are other historical notes that cannot be left out of a description of Glen Roy. Not least is the Battle of Mulroy which was fought on the hill top of Maol Ruadh which overlooks the village of Roy Bridge from the north. This battle is renowned for being the last inter-clan warfare fought in Scotland on the 4th of August 1688 between the Mackintoshes who were defeated by the MacDonells of Keppoch, the original local stronghold to the south of the present village location.

The Chalice Stone

Finally the religion of the area is represented by two icons. Firstly the Chalice Stone which is located adjacent to, and east of the road leading up Glen Roy at a point where the old track to the croft house at Cranachan drops away to the east and once crossed the Cranachan Bridge that was swept away sometime in the last fifty years.. It is a physical landmark making use of the local geology in the form of a rock approximately 300mm high by some 600mm square. The rock bears the incised figure of a communion or chalice cup giving it the name of the chalice stone, also known as the mass stone.  The stone was apparently used in the period following the fateful battle at Culloden when local Roman Catholic population were persecuted and made homeless by the troops of the Duke of Cumberland.

Mary Mackillop

The second religious icon is that of Australia’s only saint, Mary MacKillop, who was instrumental in founding the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart. The Roy Bridge church of St. Margaret’s now has a shrine to her located in it. These Josephites, as they became known, established schools and welfare institutions in Australia and New Zealand. Although born in Melbourne in 1842, Mother Mary was descended from Scottish parents and her mother lived in Glen Roy, where she visited in the 1870s.

Although not all the stories associated with Glen Roy are told here it is plain that a trip to Roy Bridge and to follow the sign post to the ‘Ice Age Landscape’ will be amply rewarded. Not only is the geology and history of the glen available but also there is the sheer outstanding natural beauty of the landscape that Darwin enjoyed ‘with gorgeous sunsets & all nature looking as happy as I felt’… in this …’most extraordinary district’