Alt-na-Reigh in Glencoe has a long history

IT’S a familiar sight to travellers through Glen Coe – a small white house tucked into the hillside where the A82 sweeps left to face the full majesty of the Three Sisters. Called Allt-na-Reigh (the Burn of the Shieling or Ground at the Foot of the Mountain, in Gaelic), it reminds us that this was historically an inhabited landscape where people lived and worked.

It has been in the public spotlight recently due to its ownership by serial sex offender Jimmy Savile, who owned it from 1998 until 2013. More recently, attention has been focused on a planning application submitted by the current owner to demolish this small house and build a larger modernist one in its place.

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But the history of this site goes back possibly centuries. Given its name, it was possibly a shieling (summer pastures) site of the MacDonalds of Glen Coe before the Clearances. In 1796 a drove road which ran through Glen Coe was upgraded to a proper road, formalising the traditional route.

Then in the early 19th century, Telford’s road from the south replaced the old military road running across Rannoch Moor. It continued down Glen Coe following the route of the 1796 road instead of following the military road north over the Devil’s Staircase to Kinlochleven and on to Fort William.

Roads then as now required maintenance and there was probably a small hut or similar at Allt-na-Reigh which was replaced by the current house in around 1890 as accommodation for a roadman and his family. On four hectares of croft land on the hill, these early inhabitants would have kept a cow and perhaps a few sheep. A stalker employed by Glencoe Estate occupied the house in the early 20th century, followed in the 1920s by Rob Downie who lived there until retirement in the 1960s.

Alt-na-Reigh in Glencoe has a long history

In the 1930s, the working classes began exploring Scotland’s hills and mountains in greater numbers and Glen Coe became a mecca for some of Scotland’s most famous and testing summer and winter climbing. Walkers and climbers would typically spend the weekend in various “howffs”, barns and outbuildings, one of which was the outbuilding at Allt-na-Reigh, affectionately known as Downie’s barn. During all of this period the property was part of the Glencoe Estate, owned by Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal.

In the 1930s the estate was put up for sale, with the largest part being acquired by the National Trust for Scotland from funds provided by Percy Unna, a mountaineer and benefactor whose principal interest was ensuring public access for walkers and climbers.

The remainder of the estate, including Allt-na-Reigh, was sold first to the Lambert family and then to Frances Kitson who lived in Sussex.

In 1961, the house and associated land was sold for £1000 to its most famous inhabitant, the world-renowned mountaineer Hamish MacInnes, who lived there until 1987. It was in the old Downie’s barn that MacInnes invented the world’s first metal-shafted ice axe and early versions of the MacInnes stretcher used today in mountain rescues around the world.

Here, he and his partner Catherine established the Search and Rescue Dog Association and Hamish was instrumental in establishing the Glencoe Mountain Rescue team, serving as its leader for 30 years.

Author, film-maker, safety adviser to numerous films such as the Eiger Sanction, his house Allt-na-Reigh is a site of special historical importance in the mountaineering community around the world.

In 1975, the National Trust for Scotland acquired a right of pre-emption over the house, meaning that, in the event of a sale, NTS would have first refusal to buy it at the sale price. McInnes sold the house and land in 1987 to a couple from Edinburgh who used it as a holiday house. NTS declined to use its power of pre-emption.

Alt-na-Reigh in Glencoe has a long history

Then in 1998 the property was sold to Jimmy Savile. He was seldom there and there is no evidence that any of his offending took place at Allt-na-Reigh.

In 2021 the property was sold for £335,000 to Glencoe Cottage Ltd, a company owned by Glenshire Group Ltd, a company owned by Harris Aslam, Raza Rehman and Amir Aslam from Kirkcaldy, owners of Eros Retail convenience stores.

The planning application lodged with Highland Council in November 2021 proposes to demolish the house and replace it with a modernist luxury villa over two levels. The plans have been criticised by heritage and mountaineering groups, as being inappropriate in such a prominent setting within the world-famous scenery of Glen Coe.

This is a historic building in a stunning location. It is part of the cultural heritage of Glen Coe but is in poor condition. An appropriate response by Highland Council planners would be to reject the application but support a sympathetic modernisation of the existing dwelling and the preservation of Downie’s barn, Hamish MacInnes’s famous engineering workshop.

Allt-na-Reigh has a long and fascinating history that deserves to be celebrated, and not contaminated by its short and unfortunate association with Jimmy Savile.

Do you want to find out more about a specific piece of land? Contact landdetective@thenational.scot with some brief information and pictures if possible, and Andy will do his best to investigate.