Geology,  History

Ossian’s Cave in Glen Coe

The Three Sisters of Glen Coe are some of Scotland’s most iconic mountains, and certainly among the most photographed.   Glorious on a summer afternoon but formidable in winter, they loom like giants above the thousands of cars, coaches and walkers that pass along the A82.   There are points when the summits feel close enough to touch, and others where they seem so remote that you can only reach them in your dreams.

Glen Coe (1)

One of the ridges of the Three Sisters is called Aonach Dubh, and on a vertical rock face is a narrow opening known as Ossian’s Cave.   From below, it looks like a dark keyhole cut into the mountain, and it’s surprisingly difficult to locate, despite being about 100 feet in height.  Despite its symmetrical appearance, the cave is natural rather than man-made, having formed when a column of basalt dropped away at some time in centuries past.

Ossian's Cave, Glen Coe 6

Who was Ossian?

A legend claims that this cave was the birthplace of Ossian, son of Irish warrior-hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill and a woman called Sadbh or Saba.  A druid named Fer Diorich was in love with Sadbh, but she spurned his love and so the druid struck her with his hazel wand and transformed her into a deer.  Fionn Mac Cumhaill hunted the deer with his hounds, but curiously his dogs refused to close in for the kill;  when Fionn called them off, he was amazed to see a beautiful woman instead of a gentle deer hind.  The two fell in love, and soon Sadbh was pregnant;   but Fer Diorich tricked her again and turned her back into a deer.  She returned to the wild and gave birth to a son, named Ossian or Oisín, meaning ‘little fawn’, in a cave high above Glen Coe.  Fionn never saw Sadbh again, but he is said to have discovered his child on Benbulbin, a mountain in Ireland, seven years later.

When Ossian grew up he was welcomed into his father’s band of supreme warriors, known as the Fianna.  With his deer-like qualities, Ossian could leap higher and run faster than any other man, and his footsteps through a woodland were ‘lighter than starlight’.  He also wrote the most beautiful verses of poetry.  He was destined to be taken across the waves from Ireland to a place of timeless beauty known as Tír na nÓg, ‘the land of youth’, where he was married to Niamh of the Golden Hair.  But he grew to miss his family and his companions, and galloped back across the waves to Ireland.   On putting his foot onto the sandy shore, time immediately caught up with him and he became an old man in a matter of seconds;  he was just able to relate some of his experiences to Patrick, a holy man, before he died.

Ossian’s Cave features in my new book, Britain’s Landmarks and Legends.

Ossian's Cave, Glen Coe 10

Finding Ossian’s Cave

Unless you’re an experienced climber, Ossian’s Cave is best viewed from the safety of the glen. Damp, slippery conditions and a dizzying drop mean that you are dicing with death, whatever the season.  It’s no coincidence that the early Himalayan climbers used to hone their skills on the treacherous rock faces of Glen Coe.

Aonach Dubh is the third of the Three Sisters if you’re approaching from the east;  pull off in the car park overlooking Achtriochtan, by the National Trust for Scotland cairn, and you should be able to make out the cave in the rock face.

Footnote, 12th March 2016:  I am grateful to R Munro, who says that the climb is not impossible for anyone experienced enough to try:  “The climb into the cave is a fairly easy one, it’s called ‘Ossian’s Ladder’.  The Ladder is a wet, vegetated route, but it’s not a very technical climb. It’s not much of a cave inside, the floor slopes at a 45 degree angle and this is where accidents occur.”


Photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf


  • oglach

    Beautiful photos and telling of the tale; also, I’m glad you included the cautionary bit about the skill level of climbers. These mountains look easy to climb to some, but they are most definitely not!

    • Jo Woolf

      Thank you! Yes, by all accounts it’s almost impossible to get to, although one friend on Twitter tells me there was once a visitors’ book in there!

      • Davie Kerr

        Jo, I live not far away, and I took my two older kids (then 15 and 12 1/2) up there for a sprachle 28 years ago. The climb up to the base of the rock in which the cave is is relatively easy and no special skill is required, but getting into the cave itself could be dodgy and getting out again even dodgier, which is why we didn’t do it: we simply scrambled on up to the ridge, and sat there for a while looking DOWN at RAF jets flying past us!

  • david

    Very interesting Jo and very clear photos . I must confess I’ve never seen it so obvious before. I was rather hoping that you had scrambled up to it and could give some feedback. Accounts of the scramble to it vary considerably in terms of difficulty.

    • Jo Woolf

      Haha, this gave me a laugh this morning, David! It’s been a while since I did any rock climbing. I always think, when they call it a ‘scramble’, that what they really mean is ‘hanging on for dear life with your fingernails’. So don’t hold your breath! 😀

  • blosslyn

    Love the first photo and will have to make sure we have a look next time we are passing. Its rather tempting to have look inside but like you my rock climbing days are over 🙂 By the way are there another set of mountains on Skye or Mull that are call the three sisters.

  • Perspeculor (Travel & History)

    It would be a shame if a place as beautiful and atmospheric as Glen Coe didn’t have some sort of ancient legend attached! I didn’t know about the association with Oisín, though, so thanks for a very interesting read!

  • R Munro

    The climb into the cave is a fairly easy one, it’s called “Ossian’s Ladder’. The Ladder is a wet, vegetated route, but it’s not a very techincal climb. It’s not much of a cave inside, the floor slopes at a 45 degree angle and this is where accidents occur.

    • Jo Woolf

      Thank you for explaining this. It certainly doesn’t look easy but I’ll take your word for it! 🙂 That’s interesting, because from a distance, I thought that I could make out that the floor was sloping – so not much of a refuge, then!

  • Martin Ross


    I’m doing Ossian’s Cave next week on the 23rd June, weather permitting. Will get some nice photo’s from inside the cave and hopefully my GoPro will behave so I can film climbing up the mossy slope, roped of course.

    You could neatly fit The Scott Monument inside the cave 🙂

    I’ll get the photos online if anyone’s interested.


    • Jo Woolf

      Wow, that sounds amazing! Send me a link to your pics if you can. Would love to see them! I could include the link here if you’d like. Take care and good luck! 😀

      • Martin Ross


        I will do, weather will hold hopefully. Once I get back on Friday I’ll upload them to Flickr and post the link.

      • Martin Ross


        We had a good day for the cave, my mate climbed in. Unfortunately I gashed my hand on a rock about 10 mins before I made my attempt. We bandaged the wound but the wet grass soon loosened the plaster and the sharp rock started to niggle on the open wound. I should add we all got down safely and my hand is fine now 🙂

        I have pics if anyone would still like to see them, a few before the climb, some on the route, and one right inside the cave.

    • Jo Woolf

      Hi Martin, Just enjoyed looking through your album – fantastic! Well done! What a day and what an achievement! It looks EXTREMELY steep. Very interesting to see the cave up close. Is this the first time you’ve tried it? You did well, especially after cutting your hand – that can’t have been easy. What spectacular views from there, too. Makes me want to get up on the tops, but by an easier route! 🙂 Thank you so much for sharing – will add a link into the main post. Best wishes, Jo

      • Martin Ross

        Thanks, unfortunately I didn’t make it into the cave. Next time for sure, providing I don’t slip again and stick my hand on another jaggy rock lol

  • Martin Ross

    I gave the cave climb a go and made it to the fixed grey coloured rope you can see in the pics. Someone left that rope in place but it’s been there for a good while now, through all seasons, it’s still in reasonable condition but I wouldn’t use it as my only rope.

    When I got the that rope the cut on my hand opened up and the big plaster came away, it’s not the place you really want to be trying to put on a plaster with one hand 🙂

    It was not meant to be that day, but the cave will wait and I will be make another attempt soon.

  • Robert Inman

    Very entertaining account and link to the flickr page. In 3 weeks I am walking from Perth to Ft William with two other Californian’s and will first pass the “less authentic” Ossian’s Cave by Dunkeld before we pass beneath this one six days later. I am prepping myself with lore so this was a great read. We also have “The Three Sister’s” in Yosemite but they are more properly known as Cathedral Rocks.

    • Jo Woolf

      Thank you! That sounds like a fun trip – from east to west. At Dunkeld you might also like to look at the Birnam Oak, supposed to be a remnant of Shakespeare’s ‘Birnam Wood’ from Macbeth – but really there’s so much folklore everywhere you look, I’m sure you will find heaps! 😀 I will look up the Three Sisters – sounds interesting. Hope you have a wonderful time!

  • Peter Taylor

    I’m originally English and found your wonderful blog and photos, and this post when reminiscing a holiday in Glencoe in 1968 when I was 19 and climbed to this cave. I’d fogotten its name. With limited climbing skills, I just followed a friend… I’m sure there was a book in the cave then. We did use ropes and yes, it did feel scary with the slime and not the wisest of choices. Having completed it, we climbed a little higher and more safely absailed off.

    Best wishes and thanks from Brisbane, Australia – just added my photos of it and Arran to Facebook.


    • Jo Woolf

      Dear Peter, thanks so much for your kind comment – sorry it took me a while to see it! Delighted to hear you have good memories of climbing in Glen Coe. We were there just yesterday as a matter of fact, admiring the first snow on the tops, and looked up at Ossian’s Cave which seems as remote as ever! I can only imagine what it feels like to climb up there. We did see lots of climbers, as it was a beautiful morning. Very best wishes to you too, and thanks again! Jo

  • louise

    thank you for your story it was lovely. i drove past ossians cave for the first time and thought i was seeing things. Glencoe, what can i say, one can never ever tire from there. mystical, spiritual yet full of danger. what a place. now when i drive past i can tell my kids the story. thanks again x

    • Jo Woolf

      You’re very welcome, Louise, and I’m glad you enjoyed it. Glen Coe does have its own very special atmosphere, and I agree it’s a wonderfully enchanting story about Fionn and Sadbh and Ossian!

%d bloggers like this: