Turf and creel house

Take a look inside our unique turf and creel house to step back in time and get a feel for how the people of Glencoe lived at the time of the infamous massacre of 1692 – a time of clans and rich Gaelic culture.

A reconstructed cottage with a heather-thatched roof stands in a clearing in a glen. Tall mountains rise all around it, with heavy clouds passing over the tops.
The turf and creel house at Glencoe NNR

Long-lost homes

At first glance, the rugged beauty of Glencoe might suggest that it has always been a wilderness, but looks can be deceiving. Today, Glencoe National Nature Reserve is dotted with only a handful of buildings, mostly dating from the 19th century when sheep were farmed in the glen. But, if you look beneath the heather, bilberry and bracken, there are clues to a long-vanished past and the many generations who made their home in this wild place.

More than the Massacre

Glencoe is renowned for the violent, tragic events of February 1692, when 38 men, women and children of Clann Iain Abrach, the MacDonalds of Glencoe, were killed by government soldiers from the Earl of Argyll’s Regiment of Foot. Many more perished due to exposure to the elements as they fled into the wintery hills.

The soldiers had spent the previous 12 days and nights eating, socialising and sleeping in the homes of the people who they were then ordered to ‘put to the sword’. The Glencoe Massacre was all the worse for this breach of trust and traditional Highland hospitality.

But people lived, as well as died, in Glencoe, and we want to share their story too.

Inspired by archaeology

Around 350 years ago, the lower slopes of the glen were home to a community of 400–500 people. They were spread between small settlements, often referred to as townships or clachain.

National Trust for Scotland archaeologists began investigating one of these historic settlements, Achtriachtan, beneath the steep scree slopes of Aonach Eagach, the ‘notched ridge’. It featured on General Roy’s map of 1747–55.

Surveys on the ground located five buildings, a grain-drying kiln and four banked enclosures with traces of cultivation rigs inside. Assisted by volunteers, excavations carefully removed more than two centuries of organic deposits and soil with shovels, trowels and brushes. They exposed the remains of a structure 10.5m long by 4m wide, with walls 80cm–1m thick. The remains of a flagstone floor, the base stone of a rotary quern, some corroded metal items, glass and pottery shards, and a few glass beads were all that had survived.

Informed by this archaeological evidence, we set out to recreate one of the homes of the MacDonalds of Glencoe.

Inspired by historical descriptions

For centuries, earth-built structures were common in the Highlands and, although now missing from our architectural landscape, they are an intriguing feature of Scotland’s architectural heritage.

Historical accounts and observations give us an insight into how these buildings were constructed:

  • The whole houses of the country are made up of twigs manufactured by way of creels called wattling and covered with turf.
    (Survey of the Annexed Forfeited Estates [1755–70], quoted in T C Smout, A R MacDonald & F Watson, History of the Native Woodlands of Scotland 1500–1920, Edinburgh University Press, 2005, p. 93)
  • In wooded districts throughout the Highlands where materials can be found, doors, gates, partitions, fences, barns and even dwelling houses are made of wattle-work.
    (A Carmichael, ‘Grazing and agrestic customs of the Outer Hebrides’, appendix to The Report of the Royal Commissioners of Inquiry on the Conditions of Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands of Scotland (Parliamentary Papers, 1884), 1, p. 454, quoted in T C Smout, A R MacDonald & F Watson, ibid)
  • ‘... the smoke came pouring out through the ribs and roof all over; but chiefly out at the door, which was not four feet high, so that the whole made the appearance (I have seen) of a fuming dunghill removed and fresh piled up again and pretty near the same in colour, shape, and size.
    (Edmund Burt, Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland to His Friend in London, vol. 1, Ogle, Duncan and Co, 1822, pp. 313–314)

Made using only what could be found in the surrounding landscape, these houses could be described as the original eco-homes.

Using all the evidence available and a little bit of experimentation, we assembled a team of craftspeople, skilled in traditional building techniques, to design and reconstruct one as authentically as possible, with the same footprint as our Achtriachtan excavation.

A year in the making

After harvesting our natural building materials, in the spring of 2021 we began by raising the timber cruck frame. The following months saw the addition of a low course of stonework, the foundation for thick exterior turf walls; a basket-like interior ‘creel’ framework, woven from freshly cut green wood; and a ‘daubed’ partition wall made with earth, clay, straw and cow manure, separating the building into two rooms.

The next stage was to cover the roof with birch cabers and a thin layer of turf, onto which heather thatch was fixed. The roof ridge was capped with daub and draped with turf divots. A jigsaw of flagstone flooring was laid inside, with wattle doors and a window, featuring a stretched goat hide ‘pane’, bringing the construction phase of the project to a close in autumn.

We were blessed with a fine dry summer in 2021, which sped up the building process, but 300 years ago these dwellings would have been raised in a matter of days, with the whole community getting involved.

You can see the construction journey in a film that plays every 20 minutes in our visitor centre cinema.

Experience it for yourself

Our turf and creel house now nestles into the landscape at the foot of Meall Mòr, like it has sat here for centuries. Surrounded by a mountain amphitheatre, the views are spectacular, yet it is just a few minutes’ walk from Glencoe Visitor Centre.

While taking in the craftsmanship on show, listen out for a soundscape that evokes the bustle of 17th-century life in the glen. From construction to cattle, Gaelic quern-songs to cookery, and even a traditional evening cèilidh, shut your eyes and immerse yourself in the sounds of a lost way of life.

Several times a week, we light a fire to help keep the damp at bay. These homes had no chimneys and the smoke would diffuse through the thatch, helping to keep it watertight as well as discouraging any wee beasties from making their homes inside. The aroma of peat and wood smoke can be overpowering, even days after a fire.

Enjoy free entry every day during Visitor Centre opening times

Artefacts of daily life

While our turf and creel house is not fully furnished, a collection of interesting domestic and agricultural objects displayed within the building help to tell the story of daily life in the 17th century.

Above the fire, which sits in the centre of the floor, a cast iron griddle pan hangs from an iron chain suspended from the timber framework. Food was traditionally cooked over an open fire using a griddle like this one, or in a round-bellied cast-iron cauldron.

The lives of Glencoe’s past inhabitants revolved around agriculture and livestock. In the byre end of the building, where livestock would have been housed, a traditional muck-rake and flauchter spade, used for cutting turf, give a nod to the agricultural use of the space.

We would like to thank Glencoe Folk Museum for the loan of these objects from their collection, and for their generosity in allowing us to display these objects within the turf and creel house. Showcasing an eclectic array of objects celebrating local heritage and history – and set within traditional 18th-century heather-thatched cottages – Glencoe Folk Museum is a highlight of any visit to Glencoe!

Delve deeper

Interested in hearing more about how the people of Glencoe once lived and how their way of life came to an end? Join us for a free guided tour packed with stories, a behind-the-scenes insight into our turf and creel house project, and the chance to ask your own questions.

Check out our Events page for details of upcoming tours and seasonal activities.

Access for all

Our turf and creel house is 200m from Glencoe Visitor Centre on a relatively level, fine gravel path. The doors are wide enough to allow for wheelchair access, but there is a slight incline as you enter the building and a naturally uneven flagstone floor within.

Please get in touch with us if you have any questions, have any special access needs or if you need support during your visit.

What’s next?

The construction work may be complete, but our turf and creel house project is far from over! It would have been very unusual to see a lone building in Glencoe in the 17th century. The subsistence lifestyle of the majority of the glen’s inhabitants, revolving around cattle and agriculture, meant that dwellings were often grouped together in small settlements, which were complete with their own kailyards, livestock enclosures and grain-drying kilns.

In the future, we hope to add some of these features to the surrounding area to create a more realistic impression of how these 17th-century settlements would have sat within the landscape.

Thank you!

We are incredibly proud of the building we have created and are very grateful for the generosity of donors from all around the world that made this project possible.

A small pond lies just in front of a reconstructed turf house in Glencoe. A group of people are looking at the house's exterior.
Frogs, dragonflies and great diving beetles are just a few of the creatures that make use of our nature pond.