Inland from Gweedore lies some of the most dramatic scenery in Donegal, an area dominated by mountains such as Errigal and Slieve Snaght and loughs of startling beauty. This is popular hill-walking country, especially along the Poisoned Glen, part of the much-visited Glenveagh National Park. Further on, towards Letterkenny, the countryside becomes gentler and increasingly verdant, especially in the environs of Lough Gartan, an area rich in associations with St Columba.
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Heading east on the N56 from Gweedore, the imposing and starkly beautiful mass of Mount Errigal becomes increasingly prominent. From a distance the mountain appears to be snow-covered, but skirting the northern shore of Lough Nacung, it becomes apparent that the white colouration has geological, rather than meteorological, causes. Quite often the area around Errigal is shrouded in mist, but on a clear day the beauty of the mountain is unsurpassable, its silvery slopes resembling the Japanese artist Hokkusai’s images of Mount Fuji. The hour-long hike up to the top is a must, and there’s a waymarked trail from the road, 2km past the Poisoned Glen turn-off, up the southeast ridge. The climb to the summit is well worth it for the stupendous views: virtually all of Donegal, and most of Ulster, is visible and you could easily spend several hours just sitting and absorbing the contrasts provided by coastline, loughs and mountains.
The environs of Lough Gartan are one of the supreme beauties of Ireland. St Colmcille was born into a royal family here in 521; his father was from the house of Niall of the Nine Hostages and his mother belonged to the House of Leinster. If you walk over from Glenveagh you’ll pass his birthplace – take the first road right at the first house you see at the end of the mountain track, and you’ll come to a colossal cross marking the spot; the site is also signposted from the road running along the lough’s southern shore. Close by is a slab known as the Flagstone of Loneliness, on which Colmcille used to sleep, thereby endowing the stone with the miraculous power to cure the sorrows of those who also lie upon it, though nowadays it’s bestrewn with coins. During times of mass emigration, people used to come here on the eve of departure in the hope of ridding themselves of homesickness. Archeologically, it’s actually part of a Bronze Age gallery tomb and has over fifty cup marks cut into its surface.
Glebe House is a gorgeous Regency building set in beautiful gardens on the northwest shore of Lough Gartan. Richly decorated both inside and out, it owes its fame to the time of its tenure by the English artist Derek Hill (1916–2000), though it’s now run as a gallery by the Heritage Service. The converted stables are used for visiting exhibitions, while the rooms of the house itself display a rich collection of paintings, sketches and numerous other items once owned by Hill, including works by Kokoschka, Yeats, Renoir and Picasso. The study is decked out in original William Morris wallpaper and there are Chinese tapestries in the morning room. The kitchen has various paintings by the Tory Island group of primitive painters, most remarkably James Dixon’s impression of Tory from the sea.