Literary Loch Lomond and the Trossachs: 1. The Vale of Leven

Tobias Smollett

Renton, Alexandria and Balloch

Leaving Dumbarton for Loch Lomond the first village encountered is Renton, however, the A82 by-passes the place; to reach Renton leave Dumbarton by the A813. The literary associations of Renton ought not to be overlooked, but often are.  It is an industrial village on the Leven that gets its name from one of Tobias Smollett’s relations by marriage. Indeed, Smollett put the delectable Cecilia Renton into his last novel, Humphry Clinker [1771]. The true Cecilia Renton was a neice of the Earl of Eglinton who married Smollett’s nephew, Alexander Telfer. Tobias Smollett (1721-1771), was born at Dalquhurn, a house long gone, which was situated beside the river in Renton. He is best known as a novelist, the author of Roderick Random and Humphry Clinker, and, at one time, his reputation was the highest of the four or five great authors  — Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne were the others — who can be said to have founded the English novel. Smollett’s comic inventiveness influenced Sheridan, Dickens and Thackeray, and Scott paid tribute to his impact on him, pointing out Smollett’s ability to make readers laugh out loud. As well as being a novelist Smollett was an historian, a travel-writer, a journalist, and a pamphleteer.

In his day Smollett’s reputation as an historian vied with that of Hume.  Dr Johnson admired him and, like Johnson, he was one of the first writers to earn his living from his pen. Arguably Burns is more important than Smollett, and, perhaps, his reputation stands somewhat lower than it did, but Smollett deserves notice as one of the first half-dozen among Scotlands literary geniuses, yet, but for his impressive monument in the village, he is not adequately celebrated locally, nor, for that matter, is he properly remembered nationally. The explanation probably lies in the erroneous perception of Smollett as an ‘English’, not even a ‘British’ author. There is an irony here because although Smollett did espouse the Union, and perceive Scotland as ‘North Britain’, his novel Humphry Clinker [1771] contains a distinctive and loving portrait of Scotland, and there is no more heartfelt cry for Scotland’s independence than Smollett’s Tears of Scotland, written after Culloden in a London tavern in the presence of several London Scots. At first the poem consisted of six stanzas. According to Robert Graham of Gartmore, his friends considered that the ending of the poem was so strongly expressed that it might give offence, whereupon Smollett retired in some indignation, and wrote a seventh stanza:

While the warm blood bedews my veins,

And unimpair’d remembrance reigns,

Resentment of my country’s fate,

Within my filial breast shall beat.

And, spite of her insulting foe

My sympathising verse shall flow:

‘Mourn hapless Caledonia, mourn,

Thy banished peace, thy laurels torn.

Smollett is an amiable and perceptive guide to Scotland in the eighteenth century. Readers of Humphry Clinker are given an affectionate description of Edinburgh, including Dr. Smollett’s imprecations on the rudimentary sanitary arrangements there, to a briefer, but even fonder, description of Glasgow, and to a lyrical account of Loch Lomond and the West Coast. Industry, agriculture and the social life of the countryside are conjured up in illuminating asides.

Smollett draws attention to the significance of the Carron Iron Works and to the importance of the plan to build a canal from the Forth to the Clyde (at that time considered likely to traverse the Vale of Leven, but not completed until nearly a quarter of a century later). However, he is at his best in giving some account of things peculiarly Scottish — haggis, whisky and the bagpipes, for example. Above all, although he can be both savage and crude, Smollett is funny.

The Smollett Monument, allowed to decline in the C19, has been restored and is set in a school playground on the A813.

The Smollett Monument. Dalquhurn is the house in the middle distance.

In 2003, the area around the column was redesigned to accommodate the war memorial, too. A wall separates the column from the school playground, and there is a mosaic depicting Smollett’s various achievements in life and literature. The elegant Tuscan column (appropriate, perhaps, because Smollett died in Tuscany), erected by his cousin, James Smollett in 1774 is the district’s most important literary monument. It reminds travellers of his literary greatness.

In a small enclosure by the wayside is a pillar erected to the memory of Dr Smollett, who was born in a village at a little distance, which we could see at the same time, and where I believe some of the family still reside. There is a long latin inscription, which Coleridge translated for my benefit. The latin is miserably bad – as Coleridge said, such as poor Dr Smollett, who was an excellent scholar, would have been ashamed of.

Dorothy Wordsworth Journal of a Tour to Scotland (1803).

In spite of its shortcomings in Latin the sentiments expressed are appropriate enough:

 Halt Traveller!

If elegance of taste and wit, if fertility of genius, and an unrivalled talent in delineating the characters of mankind, have ever attracted your admiration, pause a while on the memory of Tobias Smollett, MD, one more than commonly endowed with those virtues which, in a man or a citizen, you would praise, or imitate; Who, having secured the applause of posterity by a variety of literary abilities and a peculiar felicity of composition was, by a rapid and cruel distemper snatched from this world in the fifty-first year of his age. Far, alas, from his country, he lies interred near Leghorn in Italy. In testimony of his many and great virtues this empty monument, the only pledge, alas, of his affection, is erected on the banks of the Leven, the scene of his birth and of his latest poetry, by James Smollett of Bonhill, his cousin, who would rather have expected this last tribute from him. Try and remember this honour was not given alone to the memory of the deceased, but for the encouragement of others.

Deserve like him and be alike rewarded.

Above Renton is Carman hill, a low hill, with a hill-fort, situated between the Leven and the Clyde, commanding very fine views. Formerly the site of an important cattle and horse fair, it was said by Win Jenkins in Humphry Clinker to be the abode of fairies.

Dalquhurn House was situated beside the Leven, which Smollett celebrated, and which, in his youth probably resembled the idyllic stream he described in a fine lyric poem:

No torrents stain thy limpid source;

No rocks impede thy dimpling course,

That sweetly warbles o’er its bed,

With white, round, polish’d pebbles spread

Professor William Richardson (1743-1814), of Glasgow University, one of Smollett’s friends, echoes this sentiment in Idyllion :

Fair Leven, in soft-flowing verse

Exults in Smollett’s name;

Nor fails triumphant to rehearse

The islands whence she came;

The woody islands, resounding cave

And rocks that Lomond’s hoary

billow laves

In Humphry Clinker Smollett, the seasoned traveller familiar with both the New World and with Europe, is drawing the attention of his readers to a country which, as Dr Johnson later pointed out, was as little known in the eighteenth century as either Borneo or Sumatra. In this respect Smollett, whose journey, and his account of it, pre-date Pennant, Gilpin and Johnson, was the forerunner of all the tourists who ultimately came to his beloved Loch Lomond.

There are two lesser literary lights from Renton. Katherine Drain (1868-1904) was born at 13 Burns Street. In 1902 she published Loch Lomond Rhymes, which are not so much about Loch Lomond as about people and places in the Vale of Leven. 

Much more significant is Elizabeth Jane Cameron [pseuds: Jane Duncan and Janet Sandison] (1910-1970) Her parents were Duncan Cameron from the Black Isle and Jessie Sandison, who gave Elizabeth her pen-names. Her highly successful first novel My Friends the Miss Boyds [1959] was set on the Black Isle, and it was there that “Reachfar” (an idyllically situated croft) was to be found. She drew deeply upon her own life experiences in her novels, sometimes appearing as a character in them herself. The four Janet Sandison novels (1969-75) are abouta housemaid from Lochfoot’, an overgrown village, based on Balloch at the foot of Loch Lomond.

The idyllic name, the Vale of Leven, conjures up a variety of images. To locals nowadays it describes an agglomeration of overgrown villages, not quite towns – Balloch, Alexandria, Jamestown, Bonhill and Renton – between Loch Lomond and Dumbarton. For long it was highly industrialised, chiefly concerned with printing and dyeing textiles:

“Where cloth is printed, dyed and steamed

Bleached, tentered, in water streamed

Starched, mangled, calender’d and beamed

And folded very carefully…”

In 1843 in a famous passage Lord Cockburn (1779-1854) commented :

“…how abominable is the whole course of the Leven. Pure enough, I suppose in Smollett’s time, but now a nearly unbroken track of manufactories, which seem to unite the whole pollutions of smoke, chemistry, hot water, and squalid population, and blight a valley which nature meant to be extremely beautiful.”

Alexandria is the main industrial village in the Vale of Leven. It derives its name from Alexander Smollett, and is not to be confused, as it sometimes is, with the city in Egypt. It was the birthplace of the Edwardian littérateur, (Sir) John Alexander Hammerton(1871-1949), of English extraction, some of whose books celebrated Stevenson and Barrie. Tom Gallacher (b. 1934), the playwright, was also born there.

The Place of Bonhill was situated beside the present Vale of Leven Academy. It was one of the early family homes of the Smolletts, and is referred to in both Roderick Random and Humphry Clinker. Poachy Glen is a tiny den above Place of Bonhill, which Smollett relates impressed a seafaring neighbour of his in Chelsea as superior to the Pacific island of Juan Fernandez.

Cameron House, at the very foot of Loch Lomond, is the superbly situated later residence of the Smolletts, mentioned in Humphry Clinker. The house was visited by James Boswell and Samuel Johnson in 1773, by which time, of course, Tobias Smollett was dead. His cousin, James Smollett, was on the point of erecting his monument, and Johnson was asked to revise the Latin – not very well in Coleridge’s opinion. The inscription was the subject of a discussion, reported by Boswell: Lord Kames [Henry Home] averring that it should be in English; Johnson holding that if it were not in Latin, it would be a disgrace to Smollett. Boswell chipped in, not very much to his credit, that those for whom it was intended would understand it if was in Latin, and that ‘surely it was not meant for the Highland Drovers, and other such people…’ Johnson praised the ‘solid talk’ he enjoyed at Cameron. Among the topics which might have been rehearsed was the one solid connection which there was between the two authors. Smollett intervened on Johnson’s behalf with Wilkes to secure the release of Johnson’s black servant, Francis Barber, from deportation.

2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    shed97 said,

    Thanks Louis – interesting research on Smollett. Where does his name come from? Did the family fortune come from manufacturing, dying etc?

    • 2

      louisstott said,

      Thank you for your comments on Smollett. Smollett argued that the name “Smollet” was Norman, and was the same as “Malet” or “Mollet”. The Smolletts of Bonhill long resided in the Vale of Leven, and owned much of the land in the parish of Cardross. They were a family of lawyers and soldiers, Whig in politics and Presbyterian in religion. John Smollett, the earliest known member of the family, occupied a good position in the burgh of Dumbarton as a merchant and bailie about the year 1504.

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