Index  Dorothy Wordsworth

Tour in Scotland

Two sheep hung up, as if just killed from the barren moor

A night in The King's House Hotel

Until 2017, driving by car on the two-lane A82 from the south - or walking parallel on the famous West Highland Way – one saw from a great distance, just before entering the Pass of Glencoe, a striking white building: The King's House Hotel. For over 250 years, this inn has been a striking landmark in the vast, empty landscape at the foot of Scotland's highest mountains. The pass that starts here, is long, narrow and deep. Two high, steep mountain walls rise up on either side.

The King's House was one of Scotland's oldest inns, built in 1746 next to the main military road, as a stopping place for English soldiers. According to Dorothy, it was primarily home to 'cattle drivers, feedmen, horse buyers and travelers'. She writes that she has never seen such a sad place. On Saturday, September 3, 1803, Dorothy and William, led by a guide, crossed the Pass of Glencoe from west to east. They saw the white building from afar.

Our guide pointed out King's House to us, our resting-place for the night. We could just distinguish the house at the bottom of the moorish hollow or basin - I call it so, for it was nearly as broad as long - lying before us, with three miles of naked road winding through it, every foot of which we could see. The road was perfectly white, making a dreary contrast with the ground, which was of a dull earthy brown.

Wretched place
At a distance the house looked 'respectable': a 'large square building, cased in blue slates to defend it from storms.' But when they came close, 'the outside forewarned us of the poverty and misery within'. They found a bare grassless lot with 'a few starveling dwarfish potatoes'  nearby. Inside it was not much better.

The first thing we saw on entering the door was two sheep hung up, as if just killed from the barren moor, their bones hardly sheathed in flesh. After we had waited a few minutes, looking about for a guide to lead us into some corner of the house, a woman, seemingly about forty years old, came to us in a great bustle, screaming in Erse, with the most horrible guinea-hen or peacock voice I ever heard, first to one person, then another. She could hardly spare time to show us up-stairs, for crowds of men were in the house - drovers, carriers, horsemen, travellers, all of whom she had to provide with supper, and she was, as she told us, the only woman there.

Never did I see such a miserable, such a wretched place, - long rooms with ranges of beds, no other furniture except benches, or perhaps one or two crazy chairs, the floors far dirtier than an ordinary house could be if it were never washed, - as dirty as a house after a sale on a rainy day, and the rooms being large, and the walls naked, they looked as if more than half the goods had been sold out.

Shivering from the cold
The Wordsworths had to wait fortyfive minutes, 'shivering in one of the large rooms' before the woman had time to meddle with them again and promise them a fire in another room. After dinner - the woman had 'no eggs, no milk, no potatoes, no loaf-bread' and the 'shoulder of mutton was so hard that it was impossible to chew the little flesh that might be scraped off the bones' - it was time to make bed.

The woman, having first asked if we slept on blankets, brought in two pair of sheets, which she begged that I would air by the fire, for they would be dirtied below-stairs. I was very willing, but behold! the sheets were so wet, that it would have been at least a two-hours' job before a far better fire than could be mustered at King's House, - for, that nothing might be wanting to make it a place of complete starvation, the peats were not dry, and if they had not been helped out by decayed wood dug out of the earth along with them, we should have had no fire at all. 

According to Dorothy 'the woman was civil, in her fierce, wild way'. Later in the evening she even made time for a chat.

She told us that she was only a servant, but that she had now lived there five years, and that, when but a 'young lassie', she had lived there also. We asked her if she had always served the same master, 'Nay, nay, many masters, for they were always changing.' I verily believe that the woman was attached to the place like a cat to the empty house when the family who brought her up are gone to live elsewhere.  The sheets were so long in drying that it was very late before we went to bed. We talked over our day' s adventures by the fireside, and often looked out of the window towards a huge pyramidal mountain at the entrance of Glen Coe. All between, the dreary waste was clear, almost, as sky, the moon shining full upon it. A rivulet ran amongst stones near the house, and sparkled with light: I could have fancied that there was nothing else, in that extensive circuit over which we looked, that had the power of motion.

The King's House - Requiem for an old inn

Judging by Dorothy's description, The King's House Hotel in its time was a place where you didn't stay longer than was strictly necessary. This changed with the rise of tourism in the nineteenth century. In recent decades, guests have found  there a simple hotel room or - for backpack hikers - a bunkhouse and a tasty bar meal in the atmospheric café. In 2018 this historic site underwent a complete metamorphosis.

Project developer
A year earlier, the King's House Hotel had been purchased by a project developer. According to the original 'renovation plan', they would replace part of the building by a modest two-storey hotel with thirty rooms. The plan survived the public consultation. The nature conservation charity John Muir Trust also agreed. According to it, the new building would not dominate the area and would fit well in the protected landscape in between two nature reserves.

To the surprise of the Trust, a year later the plan - by a number of amendments - turned out to include twice as many rooms and become three floors high. The charity opined that the proposed development was out of keeping with the surrounding landscape, and submitted an objection. The project developer lowered the roofline slightly, but it remained sixty rooms and three floors.

The Trust rejected what she called a false solution and stuck to its position: the modified extension will completely overshadow the original historic building. In  their objection they stated that:

  • the three storey extension will dominate and overwhelm the original historic building;
  • the extension is of a scale and size that its mass will be very obvious from near and far viewpoints including the mountains;
  • this large, incongruous building will stick out like a 'sore thumb' and significantly impact on the surrounding NSA and the qualities of wildness of the nearby WLAs. It will draw people's eyes towards it;
  • The elevation drawings show a building which resembles functional business units on a modern industrial estate.

Fig leaf
The Trust's objections were to no avail. The new owner started construction before the permit procedure was completed. And so now a characterless new hotel complex overshadows the historic inn, which is tolerated as an inconspicuous fig leaf against the side wall. Behind the large glass front door of the hotel you will find a drab and lifeless interior. The genius loci sacrificed to international mass tourism. Destruction of cultural heritage, you cannot call it anything else