Literary Loch Lomond and the Trossachs: 4. Luss and Tarbet

 

Camstradden and Luss

Beyond Ross Dhu, at Camstradden, is the most intimate part of Loch Lomond. There are several large islands in the loch which partly close the view and give Loch Lomond the feel of a much smaller lake. It is no wonder that Dorothy Wordsworth found the place highly appealing.

It seems likely that it was as a result of visiting Inchfad in 1796 that Thomas Wilkinson (1751-1836) later recollected a singularly influential event:

On one of the islands was ripe corn; last week in the shire of Ayr we saw oats that had not yet arrived in the ear. Passed a female who was reaping alone: she sung in Erse as she bended over her sickle; the sweetest human voice I ever heard: her strains were tenderly melancholy, and felt delicious, long after they were heard no more.

Wilkinson’s book Tours to the British Mountains was not published until 1824, but Wilkinson, a landscape gardener employed by the Earl of Lonsdale at Lowther Castle, showed Wordsworth the manuscript before the Wordsworths travelled to Scotland in 1803. It was said to have partly inspired The Solitary Reaper. In a note of 1807 Wordsworth wrote:

“This Poem was suggested by a beautiful sentence in a MS Tour in Scotland written by a Friend, the last line being taken from it verbatim.”

Of the other islands Inchloanaig, ‘Yew Tree Island’, was used as a deer park by the Colquhouns, and visited by Dr Johnson and Boswell. In his amusing guide book, A Tour in Tartan Land [1863], Edward Bradley [pseud. Cuthbert Bede] (1827–1889), reported that foresters living on Inchloanaig told of fairy superstitions to protect their illicit stills:

“It is to be hoped, however, that all these spirits, not only of fancy, but of reality, had been banished the island by the commencement of the present century, for within its boundaries was founded an establishment for the reception and cure of persons who had been the victims to delirium tremens, and those other maladies which arise from excessive drinking…”

 The Tour of Dr Prosody, the satirical poem by William Combe (1742–1823), takes his characters to the same place, an episode illustrated by a well known ‘Rowlandson’ drawing.

In his Table Talk Coleridge asserted that the view of Loch Lomond from Inch Tavannach, Monks’ Island, was one of the five finest things in Scotland. Dorothy Wordsworth enthused, too:

We had not climbed far before we were stopped by a sudden burst of prospect, so singular and beautiful that it was like a flash of images from another world. We stood with our backs to the hill of the island, which we were ascending, and which shut out Ben Lomond entirely, and all the upper part of the lake, and we looked towards the foot of the lake, scattered over with islands without beginning and without end. The sun shone, and the distant hills were visible, some through sunny mists, others in gloom with patches of sunshine; the lake was lost under the low and distant hills, and the islands lost in the lake, which was all in motion with travelling fields of light, or dark shadows under rainy clouds. There are many hills, but no commanding eminence at a distance to confine the prospect, so that the land seemed endless as the water. . . . Wherever we looked, it was a delightful feeling that there was something beyond. Meanwhile, the sense of quiet was never lost sight of; the little peaceful lakes among the islands might make you forget that the great water, Loch Lomond, was so near; and yet are more beautiful, because you know that it is so. . . .

In contrast, William Gilpin (1724-1804), the high priest of the Picturesque, and chooser of stations from which places might be most rewardingly viewed, had a low opinion of the view:

“The countryside immediately beyond the islands appeared flat, and the mountains were too far removed to be of any picturesque use…”

Further north, just off Luss, is Froach Island, a prison where as Wilkinson puts it, ‘delinquents in remote times were conveyed and left, it is said, to shift for themselves as best they could’

 

 

Luss Straits Painted: E.W.Haslehurst

Wordsworth probably visited more of Loch Lomond’s islands than most. In 1803 Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth and Coleridge were rowed to Inchtavannach. In 1814 we learn from Sarah Hutchinson, Wordsworth’s sister-in-law, that they visited Inchtavannach,  again, and then went to Inchgalbraith, and sailed round Inchcruin. They landed on Inchlonaig, deer island, where they met the forester. They then became the only recorded literary visitors to Eilean Fraoch where they gathered bilberries

Luss is an enigma. Its estate cottages, built to house workers from the slate quarries, are attractive, but its present day ‘attractions’ all but destroy their effect. However, the village is much admired by visitors. Intriguingly Lord Cockburn(1779-1854), writing in 1838, condemned the place as a “hog-stye”. He found the best of Luss to be the churchyard where Mrs Cockburn searched for a verse inscription which she had found years ago The Church is to the south of the centre of the village. It was built built by the Colquhouns in 1875 and dedicated to St Kessog. ‘The church at Luss is as beautiful as ever’ said Cockburn. The minister at Luss in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was JohnStuart,(1743–1821), the notable Gaelic scholar and botanist, who was born in Killin. Immediately before he was translated to Luss he accompanied Pennant on his second Highland tour. During his own tour in 1798 Thomas Garnett reported:

After breakfast we repaired to the manse to visit Dr Stuart the minister a man of great taste and learning he received us very politely and shewed us his garden which contains a variety of scarce plants particularly British alpines brought by himself from their native mountains I found here most of the scarce plants which grow upon Benlomond and Benevis as well as in the wilds of the Hebrides but being removed into a milder clime they flourish more luxuriantly

Thomas Garnett (1766–1802), was born in Westmorland and practised as a doctor in Harrogate where his interest in Chemistry led him to became an expert on mineral waters. He was eventually appointed to a professorship of natural philosophy at Anderson’s Institution, Glasgow, a predecessor of the University of Strathclyde. He published Observations on a Tour through the Highlands and Part of the Western Isles of Scotland. [1800] which is one of the more entertaining and informative of several books of the same sort published at about that time. There is some evidence that Dorothy Wordsworth read it.

Three poems by Iain Crichton Smith (1928-1998), the poet who made memorable phrases about people and places all over Scotland, are about Luss.  Translating his own Gaelic in one he calls Luss ‘a picture of a village rather than a true village.’ In Luss Village, like Cockburn, he ends up in the in the churchyard:

Such walls, like honey, and the old are happy

in morphean air like goldfish in a bowl.

Ripe roes trail their margins down a sleepy

mediaeval treatise on the slumbering soul.

And even the water, fabulously silent,

has no salt tales to tell us, nor makes jokes

about the yokel mountains, huge and patient,

that will not court her but read shadowy books.

A world so long departed! In the churchyard

the tilted tombs still gossip, and the leaves

of stony testaments are read by Richard,

Jean and Carol, pert among the sheaves

of unscythed shadows, while the noon day hums

with bees and water and the ghosts of psalms.

The village of Luss and the islands nearby were used as the setting of Goblin Island [1907]. This was the first novel by Elsie Jeanette Dunkerley, [pseud. Elsie Oxenham] (1880–1960), in what became a so-called Scottish sequence of children’s stories Loch Lomond itself appears as Loch Avie. Luss also appears as ‘Markinch’ in the short story The Provost’s Tale [1931] , byA. J. Cronin(1896-1981) and elsewhere in his work. Cronin was a world famous novelist, born in Cardross, whose best known work was Hatter’s Castle [1931].A collection of short stories, Adventures of a Black Bag (1969), was made into the immensely popular radio and television series Dr Finlay’s Casebook.

Above Luss is one of finest viewpoints in Scotland. Wilkinson mentions it as follows:

At Luss took a young Highlander with me on an eminence and there I saw one of the most interesting scenes I ever remember to have beheld. Twenty-one islands rising from the lake in a variety of forms, and beautifully shaded with trees. The points of the islands run past one another in a most picturesque manner

In Observations Garnett describes it thus:

On our return to Luss we dined with our amiable and learned friend Dr Stuart who accompanied us after dinner to Strone Hill, just above the village whence we had a delightful view of the lake and its islands. The evening was fine, the lake still and a pleasing serenity pervaded the whole scene. Below us was the villageof Luss, almost hid in trees with its verdant points projecting into the lake. Inch Tavannach and most of the other islands are seen to great advantage and in the distance are part of the Grampian Mountains, which form a very fine background. The obelisk erected to the memory of Buchanan may likewise be seen distinctly.

Strone Hill, or Stronbrae, is above the glen road (which is now reached by car from the by-pass, or by a footbridge from the village) just outside Luss.

North of Luss the loch is at its most dramatic, its character caught by Hazlitt:

The road to Tarbet is superb. It is on the very verge of the lake – hard, level, rocky, with low stone bridges constantly flung across it, and fringed with birch trees, just then budding into spring, behind which, as through a slight veil you saw the huge shadowy form of Ben Lomond. It lifts its enormous, but graceful bulk direct from the edge of the water without any projecting lowlands….. Loch Lomond comes on you by degrees as you advance, unfolding then withdrawing its conscious beauties like an accomplished coquet.

Inverbeg and Tarbet

Qne of the ‘low stone bridges’ between Luss and Inverbeg, built by Caulfield after 1745 has been handsomely restored, and can still be seen beside the A82. Thomas Pennant offers this description of the military road and the loch:

“The road runs sometimes through woods, at others is exposed and naked; in some so steep as to require the support of a wall; the whole the work of the soldiery: blessed exchange of instruments of destruction for those that give safety to the traveller, and a polish to the once inaccessible native.

Two great headlands covered with trees separate the first scene from one totally different; the last is called the point of Firkin. On passing this cape an expanse of water bursts at once on your eye varied with all the softer beauties of nature. Immediately beneath is a flat covered with wood and corn: beyond the headlands stretch far into the water and consist of gentle risings; many have their surfaces covered with wood, others adorned with trees loosely scattered either over a fine verdure, or the purple bloom of heath. Numbers of islands are dispersed over the lake of the same elevated manner; others just peep above the surface, and are tufted with trees; and numbers are so disposed as to form magnificent vistas between.”

Perhaps one of the best travel books ever written about Scotland is The Companion Guide to the West Highlands of Scotland [1968] by W.H.Murray (see Lochgoilhead). Early on he touches on Loch Lomond:

The banks of Loch Lomond are clothed by deciduous woods. Oak, beech, chestnut, larch, and birch predominate. Caledonian pine and most other coniferous evergreens are present but not much in evidence. Loch Lomond thus appears most colowful in spring and autumn when leaf is either bursting or dying. One of the more enthralling sights of June is the bluebell wood north of Luss, or in May the azaleas and rhododendrons brightening cottage gardens, and in autumn dead bracken, sun-stricken on the hillsides and blazing like a Viking’s pyre. These woods of Loch Lomondside are becoming more highly prized as the work of the Forestry Commission, whose appetite for ground is insatiable, spreads a coniferous monotony across the face of Scotland, for broad-leaved trees and hardwoods are not a rewarding crop. That the banks of Loch Lomond have remained so long free from the forester’s axe and from impairment by tourist development appears well-nigh mira­culous. Their preservation has been due to the rule of enlightened landowners, principally the Colquhouns of Luss, who have sacrificed personal profit.

The librarian and mountaineer Ernest A. Baker(1869-1941), writing in the thirties recommended Glen Douglas, between Loch Lomond and Loch Long as a fine walk. George Eyre Todd explained in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs [n.d.] the connection which is sometimes made between Glen Douglas and King Arthur:

Geoffrey of Monmouth, the monkish chronicler who died in 1154, in his fantastic account of King Arthur, describes how that king pursued his enemies up Loch Lomond, besieged, and all but exterminated them on the islands, and overthrew an Irish army which came to their relief. The earlier historian, Nennius, from whom Geoffrey seems to have got his facts, merely states that Arthur fought certain of his battles in Glen Douglas, and this Glen Douglas is identified by Skene in his Celtic Scotland with the high pass which comes over from Loch Long, and descends at the little inn of Inverbeg between Luss and Tarbet.

In the sixtiesTom Buchan(1931-1995) drew attention to the Glen’s more terrible associations with nuclear warfare :

… the mountain behind him

was drilled with caves

each one crammed with nuclear hardware

and the sea loch over the mountain

lay easy with obsolescent new submarines.

Buchan was a poet who was also the part author of the revolutionary Great Northern Welly Boot Show [1972]. Glen Douglas climbs relatively gently from Loch Lomond before the road descends very precipitously indeed to Loch Long. There it joins the road from Helensburgh and makes an interesting route to Arrochar.

Between Luss and Tarbet on the banks of Loch Lomond is Firkin Point a low hill which best commands its upper and lower reaches. Boswell took General Paoli as far as this when he showed him Loch Lomond.”In point of picturesque beauty, Loch Lomond is probably surpassed by few lakes in Europe,” wrote ‘Christopher North’ in The Land of Burns:

“The highway suddenly ascends to the top of a lofty promontory denominated the Point of Firkin. Although the ascent is difficult, abrupt and tedious, the view from the summit amply repays the labour attending it. From this eminence the whole surface of the lake, diversified with its numerous islands is displayed to the eye.”

An ancient yew-tree beside the old military road which is situated above the A82 along Loch Lomond was for long pointed out as Robert the Bruce’s Tree. It served to mark a somewhat undignified episode in the great warrior’s career. After his defeat by the English at Methven in Perthshire he became a fugitive accompanied by a body of about 200 men. On reaching Craig Royston the King and his men were unable to find a boat but then found one, but one which would take only three at a time. The tree was their rallying point on the other side of the loch. It took a day and a night to ferry all the men. The poet John Barbour (c.1320-95) related all of this in the epic poem The Bruce. The medieval saga has been both transcribed and translated. One prose version was by George Eyre Todd, the local littérateur:

Tradition says he sheltered in the fastness there known as Rob Roy’s Cave. The enemy was behind, and the loch lay deep in front- No means of escape appeared till James of Douglas discovered “ane litil boat that wad but thresome flit”. In that little boat the king was ferried across, and all his host after him. While the passage was being made, Bruce entertained and heartened his men by reciting to them one of the romances which were the chief literature of that time.

Here is Barbour’s account:

The king efter that he wes gane

To Louch Lomond the way has tane

And come on the thrid day,

Bot tharabout na bait fand thai

That mycht thaim our the water ber.

Than war thai wa on gret maner

For it wes fer about to ga,

And thai war into dout alsua

To meyt thar fayis that spred war wyd.

Tharfor endlang the louchhis syd

Sa besyly thai socht and fast

Tyll James of Douglas at the last

Fand a litill sonkyn bate

And to the land it drew fut-hate,

Bot it sa litill wes that it

Mycht our the watter but a thresum flyt.

Thai send tharoff word to the king

That wes joyfull off that fynding

And fyrst into the bate is gane,

With him Douglas, the thrid wes ane

That rowyt thaim our deliverly

And set thaim on the land all dry,

And rowyt sa oftsys to and fra

Fechand ay our twa and twa

That in a nycht and in a day

Cummyn out-our the louch ar thai,

For sum off thaim couth swome full weill

And on his bak ber a fardele.

Swa with swymmyng and with rowyng

Thai brocht thaim our and all thar thing.

Not far south of Tarbet a splendid regency cottage, Stuckgowan, is exquisitely situated above the A82. In its architecture it is one of the finest houses in the National Park. In 1835 Nathaniel Parker Willis, the American poet, visited Scotland. He is a good, but sometimes acerbic guide:

“In the course of our ramble we walked through an open gate, and, ascending a gravel walk, found a beautiful cottage, built between two mountain streams, and ornamented with every device of taste and contrivance. The mild pure torrents were led over falls and brought to the thresholds of bowers; and seats and bridges and winding paths were distributed up the steep channels, in a way that might make it a haunt for Titania. It is the property, I found afterward, of a Scotch gentleman, and a great summer retreat of the celebrated Jeffrey, his friend. It was one more place to which my heart clung in parting.”

At the lochside close to Stuckgowan is Edendarroch, the subject of an extended paean of praise from Professor J.M.Blackie.

The name ‘Tarbet’ is found throughout the Highlands. It occurs where a low divide, forming a portage, separates two bodies of water, in this instance Loch Lomond and Loch Long. Viking raiders took advantage of this portage in 1263 to stage a raid on Loch Lomond from the sea. N. P. Willis, the American poet, St Fond, the French geologist, and others have waxed lyrical about Tarbet. Faujas dreams of returning there:

The superb Loch Lomond, the fine sunlight that gilded its waters, the silvery rocks that skirted its shores, the flowery and verdant mosses, the black oxen, the white sheep, the shepherds beneath the pines, the perfume of the tea poured into cups that had been given by kindness, and received with gratitude, will never be effaced from my memory, and make me cherish the desire not to die before again seeing Tarbet. I shall often dream of Tarbet . . .

Jeffrey, as already mentioned had a summer retreat at Stuckgowan. The old inn at Tarbet, at which various literary travellers sneered, was replaced in the C19 with a very grand hotel which now dominates the place. However, in his Reminiscences [1887], Thomas Carlyle, traversing the district in 1817 with friends, thought otherwise:

. . . to Tarbet , a most hospitable clean and welcome little country inn (now a huge “Hotel” I hear — worse luck to it, with its nasty “Hotel Company Limited”!)

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