Literary Loch Lomond and the Trossachs: 5. Into Argyll

 

Arrochar and Glencroe

At Tarbet the A83 leaves Loch Lomond and heads into Argyll proper. Until recently places like Helensburgh, Luss and Arrochar were in Dumbartonshire rather than Argyll, but there is no disputing that, beyond the head of Loch Long, you are in Argyll. The road between Tarbet and Arrochar is not much more than two miles long. Viking raiders took advantage of this portage in 1263 to stage a raid on Loch Lomond from the sea. The crossing, in either direction, is a pleasing one. Visitors evince surprise at the similarities and contrasts which there are between the two lochs. In Written in the Highlands of Scotland Sep 1, 1812 Samuel Rogers (1763-1855), travelling from fresh water to salt expressed his feelings as follows:

Tarbet! thy shore I climbed at last,

And through thy shady region passed,

Upon another shore I stood

And looked upon another flood:

Old Ocean’s self! (’tis he who fills

That vast and awful depth of hills).

 Rogers was, in his day, a highly regarded poet, who visited Scotland on several occasions. In 1803 his visit coincided with that of the Wordsworths. Jeffrey praised his work. Rogers, like other authors relied  on publishers. However, when his  poems did not sell well he produced a lavish edition of them himself, and persuaded Turner to illustrate it.
Loch Lomond 1832 Watercolour for Roger's Poems

Loch Lomond 1832 Illustration for Rogers’ Poems. Drawn: J.M.W.Turner Engraved William Miller

The praise which Robert Southey offers for the inn at Arrochar is praise indeed, since his opinions about other Highland inns was generally unfavourable:

“The country here is well cultivated, well wooded and very beautiful. A line of mountains is on the opposite shore, and behind them Ben Lomond rises in great majesty, Loch Lomond lying, unseen by us, between two ridges. The road turns leftward up the shore of the saltwater loch, and rounds the head: not far from the head stands the Arrochar Inn, more beautifully placed than any inn I have seen in Scotland or elsewhere – a large good house with fine trees about it, not a stone’s throw from the shore, and with the high summit of the grotesque mountain abominably called the Cobbler, opposite and in full view.”

‘The Cobbler’ is a rich joke. Travellers, bred on hills like Grasmere’s Helm Crag with its ‘lion and lamb’, have long supposed they can see a cobbler, his last, and even his wife. It is probably a corruption of the Gaelic for a sensible name for it, ‘forked peak’. However, John Stoddart pointed out:

“This terrific rock forms the bare summit of a huge mountain, and its nodding top so far overhangs its base as to assume the appearance of a cobbler sitting at his work, from when country people call it an greasaiche cróm, the crooked shoemaker.”

The famous ben at the head of Loch Long is, alternatively, and evocatively, called Ben Arthur. One of the sons of Aeden Mac Gabhran, a king of the Scots of Dalriada was called ‘Artur’, and it is sometimes argued that he formed a basis for the legendary monarch.

Coleridge, writing to his wife in September 1803, related how he went ‘ to Arrochar, on purpose to see the Cobbler, which had impressed me so much in Mr Wilkinson’s drawings…’ It was Wilkinson’s Tour which in part persuaded him and the Wordsworths to visit Scotland.

Writing from Arrochar, Burns probably had the Cobbler in mind when he referred to his sojourn in ‘a land of savage hills, swept by savage rains, peopled by savage sheep, tended by savage people.’ However, Turner, and others, thought it sublime.

Neil Munro made Arrochar one of two possible birthplaces of the skipper of the Vital Spark, and the setting for the famous story Mudges, giving the place a reputation of another sort.

Beyond Arrochar the character of the country changes. This is partly due to the fact that Loch Long is a sea loch, but it is also a result of the absence of deciduous trees. The Forestry Commission have excelled themselves in Cowal, where they have planted innumerable conifers. Elsewhere, in contrast to Loch Lomond, are apparently bare hillsides. The road turns into Glen Croe, and, nowadays, climbs steadily across the breast of a hill; the old military road sticks to the valley floor before scrambling in a series of dizzy hairpin bends to the summit. The hills to the south of the road have a splendid name: Argyll’s Bowling Green. In Scotland [1982] Tom Weir offers an explanation:

Argyll’s Bowling Green! How did such a piece of knobbly country, rugged even by Wester Ross standards, get such an undescriptive name?

It was nothing to do with some early duke’s sense of humour, merely the corruption of a Gaelic name Buaile na Greine, which means the sunny cattle fold, a place where the dukes and duchesses used to rest their horses on Loch Longside after crossing from Lochgoilhead.

It was their route to their castle of Rosneath. In 1735 the map maker Carington Bowles applied the name to the whole peninsula, except that he showed it as Argyll’s “Bowling Green.”

And rough as that peninsula is, it was much traversed by cattle drovers coming from Loch Fyne by Hell’s Glen to skirt Loch Goil, cross the ridge to Loch Long, and ferry their cattle across to Portincaple.

In The New RoadNeil Munro states ‘There is not a finer glen in Albyn than Glen Croe.’ Nowadays the traffic still appears to be reduced to insignificance by the mountains, but the spirit of the place has changed. It is not so wild and desolate as when Munro was thinking of it, or when Wordsworth climbed to the Rest and Be Thankful in late August 1803. The weather had brightened as they ascended the Rest, and Dorothy Wordsworth reported that ‘afternoon and evening the sky was in an extraordinary degree vivid and beautiful’ They got to the head of the pass:

At the top of the hill we came to a seat with the well-known inscription “Rest and be thankful” On the same stone it was recorded that the road had been made by Col. Wade’s regiment. The seat is placed so as to command a full view of the valley, and the long, long, road, which, with the fact recorded, and the exhortation, makes it an affecting resting-place.

It is unlikely that the seat, now gone, referred to Wade, since it was built by his successor, Caulfeild. William reflected on the pass in a sonnet Rest and Be Thankful of which the first four lines are:

Doubling and doubling with laborious walk,

Who, that has gained at length the wished-for Height,

This brief this simple wayside Call can slight,

And rests not thankful?

   The answer to this memorable poetic question might have turned out to be John Keats, who thought he was coming to an inn, and was very disappointed when he traversed this famous pass in 1818 :

We were up at 4 this morning and have walked to breakfast 15 Miles through two tremendous Glens – at the end of the first there is a place called rest and be thankful which we took for an Inn – it was nothing but a stone and so we were cheated into 5 more Miles to Breakfast

Southey compared Glencroe with Glencoe:

“The road too is in itself much finer, descending from the immediate summit down a much  steeper inclination; and with such volutions that a line drawn from the top would intersect several times in a short distance. In mountainous countries a fine road is a grand and beautiful work, and never so striking as when it winds thus steeply and skilfully. There has been some improvement of the old military line at this place.” [1819]

The naturalist and traveller, Thomas Pennant, crossing the Rest southbound in 1769 had nothing more to say of it than: “Ascend a very high pass with a little lough on the top of it” but Samuel Johnson called it:

a bleak and dreary region, now made easily passable by a military road, which rises from either end of the glen by an acclivity not dangerously steep, but sufficiently laborious. In the middle, at the top of the hill, is a seat with the inscription “Rest, and be thankful.” Stones were placed to mark the distance, which the inhabitants have taken away, resolved, they said, to have no new miles.

In 1784 a French scientist,Barthélemy Faujas de St Fond, travelled to Scotland, attracted by its remarkable geology. His route took him up Lochlomondside, which delighted him, and then into Glencroe:

I soon found a contrast to the delightful scenes we left. They were succeeded by deserts and dismal heaths. We entered a narrow pass between two chains of high mountains, which appear to have, at a very remote period, formed only one ridge, but which some terrible revolution has torn asunder throughout its length.

This defile is so narrow, and the mountains are so high and steep, that the rays of the sun can scarcely reach the place and be seen for the space of an hour in the twenty-four.  For more than ten miles, which is the length of this pass, there is neither house nor cottage, nor living creature except a few fishes in a small lake, about half way.

In 1796 Sarah Murray, the widow of Captain William Murray, RN, made an extensive tour in Scotland and wrote A Companion and Useful Guide to the Beauties of Scotland:

 

The carriage road…turns to the right, up one of the most formidable as well as most gloomy passes in the Highlands, amongst such black, bare, craggy, tremendous mountains, as must shake the nerves of every timorous person, particularly if it be a rainy day. And when is there a day in the year free from rain in Glen Croe? and on the hill called “Rest-and-be-Thankful?” no day; no not one!

Lord Cockburn, returning from administering justice in Inveraray, wrote:

The day was perfect for that glorious stage from Cairndow to Tarbet. Few things are more magnificent than the rise from Cairndow to Rest-and-be-Thankful. The top of it, where the rocky mountain rises above the little solitary Loch Restil, and all the adjoining peaks are brought into view, is singularly fine. As I stood at the height of the road and gazed down on its strange course both ways, I could not help rejoicing that there was at least one place where railways, and canals, and steamers, and all these devices for sinking hills and, raising valleys, and introducing man and levels, and destroying solitude and nature, would for ever be set at defiance.

From the Rest and Be Thankful a lesser road descends to Lochgoilhead.Sara Jane Lippincott[pseud: Grace Greenwood](1823-1904), an American poet, biographer, and author of children’s books, was best known by her pseudonym. InHaps and Mishaps of a Tour in Europe(1854) she describes Loch Goil:

It was not until we had passed from Loch Long into Loch Goil that the true Highland scenery began to open upon us in its surpassing loveliness and naked grandeur. The shores of Loch Goil are rough, barren, and precipitous, but now and then we passed green-sheltered nooks and dark glens of indescribable beauty. I grew more and more silent and unconscious of my immediate surroundings, for my very soul seemed to have gone from me, to revel abroad in the wide, varied, enchanting scene.

The coachman who took visitors through Hell’s Glen gave Sara Jane the impression that Lochgoilhead was the scene of Thomas Campbell’s poem Lord Ullin’s Daughter. The poem is properly associated with Mull, but it is easy enough to see how confusion may have arisen. Campbell’s second verse is as follows:

Now, who be ye, would cross Lochgyle,

This dark and stormy weather?”

“O, I’m the chief of Ulva’s isle,

And this, Lord Ullin’s daughter.—“

In Gaelic Lochgyle is Loch Goill, the forked loch. Mountain Moor and Loch [1895], the handsome guide produced to mark the opening of the West Highland Railway, offers an explanation for the mistake:

Whether this is the scene described in the ballad of “Lord Ullin’s Daughter” is open to question, as that “dark and stormy water” lies a long way off, west of Mull, with “Ulva’s Isle” adjoining, though, strictly speaking, the name is Loch-na-Keal and not Loch Goil; and our Loch Goil may well be the point intended by the poet, because three days from the mainland opposite Mull, would bring “her father’s men” to it.

Another Campbell poem sometimes attributed in guide books to Carrick Castle on Loch Goil is Lines on Visiting a Scene in Argyllshire , but it is almost certainly about Kirnan, near Kilmichael Glassary, where Campbell’s family came from.

Bill [W. H.] Murray (1913–1996) lived near Carrick Castle for many years . One of the best, and one of the most affectionate, books about the West Highlands is his Companion Guide to the West Highlands of Scotland [1968]. His mountaineering books, about both the Himalayas and the Highlands are entertaining and authoritative. He was also a novelist, and his biography of Rob Roy is important. In his Companion Guide he maintained that Loch Goil, ‘the only truly mountainous fiord of Argyll’ is the most beautiful sea loch of Cowal or the Clyde Coast.

 

Strachur and Ardentinny

From Lochgoilhead it is worthwhile travelling through Hell’s Glen [B839] to join the A815. Strachur is a small resort where there is a Smiddy Museum. Strachur House was in recent years the residence of the writer of one of the most distinctive books about the Second World War, Eastern Approaches [1949] by Sir Fitzroy Maclean (1911-1996), partly about his work with the Partisans in Yugoslavia. A diplomat, then an MP and a Minister, he is also the author of various serious, and other popular historical works.

From Strachur the A815 crosses to Loch Eck. From Whistlefield a lesser road [signposted Ardentinny] leads to Glen Finart.

Glen Finart was the country residence of George Murray, 5th Earl of Dunmore (1762-1836). It is situated near Ardentinny in Cowal, and was visited by Samuel Rogers in both 1803 and 1812 (when he encountered a grampus in the loch). Rogers wrote a poem [1812],  reminiscent of Wordsworth. He refers to Fingal’s Falls, near the head of the glen:

Oft shall my weary mind recall

Amid the hum and stir of men,

Thy beechen grove and waterfall,

Thy ferry with its gliding sail,

And Her – the Lady of the Glen.

In his Journal there is a letter to his sister describing the house affectionately, and shedding light on life in Cowal in the C19:

The house is very small and neat, in a narrow rocky glen running up among steep mountains, with its small river, and a beautiful beech grove between it and the lake. A ferry is within sight of the windows; and while we sit at dinner, we see the little boat passing and repassing continually. At the ferry house is kept also a packet-boat, which twice a week sails to Greenock with passengers, and takes and brings back our letters, and brings back grapes and peaches from the gardens at Dunmore….

This is a reference, of course, to the products of the most spectacular conservatory in Scotland, the ‘Pineapple’, erected by the Dunmores in 1761 at Airth near Stirling. Rogers asks ‘What would Fingal and his family have thought of this?’, and tells how an old laird living on Loch Eck who dined once a year with the Dunmores loved their ‘apples with stones’. He goes on to describe the walks he took to the point [Shepherd’s Point] above the ferry from which there was (and is) a stunning view up Loch Long:

. . . sublime, mountain behind mountain receding one behind another, on each side of the lake, till the vista terminates in a point, and these clad in the softest and richest colours that mist and sunshine can give them. Indeed, I think in its way it surpasses everything of the kind we ever saw together.

Turner’s illustrations for Roger’s Poems included one of Loch Long.

Ardentinny is a small holiday resort in Cowal held in high esteem by generations of Glasgow holidaymakers. No small part of its reputation is due to one of Robert Tannahill’s best-known lyrics:

Far lone amang the Highland hills,

‘Mid Nature’s wildest grandeur,­

By rocky dens and woody glens,

With weary steps I wander.

The langsome way, the darksome day 

The mountain mist sae rainy,

Are nought to me when gaun to thee

Sweet lass o’ Aranteenie.

As with some of Tannahill’s other topographical lyrics the evidence that there ever was such a lass in his life is uncertain.

Blairmore was the residence, after his retirement, of John Joy Bell (1871-1934), the journalist and author of the Glasgow equivalent of ‘Just William’, Wee Macgreegor. One of Bell’s between-the-wars travel books about the west coast, Scotland’s Rainbow West was very popular indeed between the wars. 

From Blairmore visitors returning to Loch Lomond will probably find it most convenient to continue via Kilmun to the Dunoon road [A815], and thence by the Younger Botanic Garden to Loch Eck and Strachur.

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