River Coe & Great Ouse

Guest blog: Rachel Downes, RRC summer intern 2021

Whilst interning for the RRC, I decided to use the opportunity to investigate my favourite river. Although I’m currently at home in Cambridgeshire, I’ve been lucky enough to spend the summer living and working in the Scottish Highlands and felt inspired to write my blog post on this. Whilst it may not be the biggest or most impressive river in Scotland, I’ve gained a soft spot for the River Coe in Glencoe; it’s right on my doorstep and quickly became my favourite place to relax, read, swim, and generally admire the river’s beauty! However, I’ve grown up in the south-east of England with rivers of highly contrasting morphology; I decided to visit the River Great Ouse in St Ives, Cambridgeshire for comparison.

River Coe downstream of Loch Achtriochtan

Ecology and geomorphology

The River Coe is a small river at approximately 6km in length, rising at its source at the base of Buachaille Etive Beag and draining into Loch Leven in Glencoe village. It flows through the U-shaped glen (valley) historically carved by glaciers, and now runs alongside the A82, a major road through the Highlands. Contrastingly, the River Great Ouse is 230km in length (fourth longest in the UK!), originating in South Northamptonshire and flowing through Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire, before draining into the North Sea in Norfolk.

Loch Leven at sunset

Glencoe is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Area of Conservation (SAC) due to its volcanic geology, fluvial geomorphology and biodiversity. The River Coe is geomorphologically active, noted for its sedimentation and erosional landforms in its alluvial plain and braided streams before meeting Loch Achtriochtan around 1km from its source. Further downstream of the loch, the river features several small gorges and waterfalls, with the bed material consisting of large boulders and clean gravels. After a couple of miles, the River Coe passes through the village of Glencoe, subsequently draining into Loch Leven, a saltwater loch which is another one of my favourite spots in Glencoe.

One of the most striking differences between the rivers of Glencoe and Cambridgeshire is the topography - there are definitely no mountainous streams or waterfalls in Cambridgeshire! Instead, much of the River Great Ouse through Cambridgeshire lies in flat floodplains. The Great Ouse is also noticeably deeper, wider and straighter, with signs of modification resulting from its strong presence in urbanised and populated areas, contrasting to the remote Highlands of Scotland. The Great Ouse is well-known for frequently bursting its banks in St Ives into the surrounding floodplain meadows.

River Coe with views of Aonach Dubh and the Aonach Eagach ridgeline

River Great Ouse in flood, December 2020

In terms of wildlife on the Coe, I’ve spotted many fish such as Atlantic salmon Salmo salar and there are many reports of aquatic species such as the Eurasian otter Lutra lutra and European eel Anguilla anguilla. Furthermore, the riparian zone is lined with a variety of flora such as alder, birch and willow wet woodland and an array of wildflowers. Despite its more urban presence, the Great Ouse is still important for wildlife. In St Ives, the Great Ouse is populated with many duck and bird species, whilst otters are also spotted in some areas of the fenlands. Even seals have been known to make an appearance! However, one noticeable difference from the Highlands is that I’m safe from the swarms of midges on a humid day…midge headnets are not a good look!

Floodplain meadows in St Ives

History and tourism

Downstream of Loch Achtriochtan, the River Coe proceeds to flow past An Torr, a coniferous woodland plantation known for Signal Rock, where the MacDonald clan of Glencoe historically gathered. According to legend, the Campbell clan used Signal Rock to declare the beginning of the Glencoe massacre in 1692, in which the MacDonald clan were slaughtered after they failed to meet the deadline to pledge allegiance to King William III.

The River Coe and Loch Achtriochtan from the Aonach Eagach ridge

Glencoe draws in tourists from far and wide, particularly those who are keen to walk and climb mountains such as the Aonach Eagach ridge, an exposed scramble that runs between two Munros, parallel to the river and with views for miles across the valley. You definitely need a head for heights for this one! At ground-level, the river and woodland encourages those who prefer an easier stroll and is the perfect location for a wild swim on hot days. As well as the fascinating geography and history, this section of the river is also only a few minutes’ walk from the Clachaig Inn, an authentic Scottish inn known for its local beers and selection of 400 whiskies!

Whilst not the site of any clan gatherings or famous massacres, the River Great Ouse also has some interesting history, with my hometown of St Ives founded on the banks of the Great Ouse. The Medieval bridge in St Ives is one of only four in the UK to incorporate a chapel; however, it was partially destroyed during the English civil war when blown up by the troops of Oliver Cromwell to prevent King Charles I’s troops approaching London. In a wider context, the Great Ouse is historically important for navigation, whilst sports such as canoeing and kayaking are also popular. The Great Ouse was also used for the Oxford vs Cambridge boat race in 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, highlighting the importance of connecting people with rivers for recreational purposes.

St Ives bridge over the Great Ouse

My visits and research into the two contrasting rivers of the Coe and the Great Ouse has highlighted to me the multitude of values from river environments; both rivers are important for ecology, geomorphology, tourism and recreation. Both rivers also have personal value to me, from growing up next to the Ouse and spending much of my summer at the Coe. Despite their differences, it’s clear that both rivers are integral to wildlife and human life, highlighting the importance of their conservation and restoration.


Wild Lochaber. An Torr and Signal Rock. [Online]. [Accessed 10 September 2021]. Available from: https://www.wildlochaber.com/glencoe/walking/an-torr-and-signal-rock

Nature Scot. Glencoe SSSI. [Online]. [Accessed 10 September 2021]. Available from: https://sitelink.nature.scot/site/731

Jones Boatyard. River Great Ouse. [Online]. [Accessed 13 September 2021]. Available from: http://www.jonesboatyard.co.uk/river-great-ouse/


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