Literary Loch Lomond and the Trossachs: 6. Upper Loch Lomond and Glen Falloch.

 

Upper Loch Lomond

At first the A82 from Tarbet to Crianlarich clings very closely to the shore of the upper loch; then it climbs Genfalloch. At one point the road is so narrow that only one-way traffic is permitted. There are several sights: Inveruglas is the site of one of the first major hydro electric power stations in Scotland; just to the north of it is a fine viewpoint, and further on one of the first concrete railway viaducts. Opposite are The Falls of Inversnaid and Rob Roy’s cave (dealt with in more detail elsewhere). The hotel at Inversnaid runs a ferry from Inveruglas for hotel guests . Nichol Graham writing in 1747 described the country seen on the other side of the loch:

“The lands in the head of the parish of Buchanan lying between Loch Lomond and Loch Katerin are, of all these in that country, the best adapted for concealments and the most conveniently situate for bad purposes. Theft and depredations were pushed successfully in these places with an intention, either to turn these lands waste, or oblige that lord; the proprietor of them then, by a purchase from the family of Buchanan, to grant leases to those ancient possessors. The scheme purported answered the sons of Rob Roy got one half of those lands in lease, and Glengyle the nephew, the other half. When these people got possession of these places so well fitted for their designs, they found they were able to carry matters one point further; in order to which, it was necessary that thefts and depredations should be carried on incessantly through their whole neighbourhood. As they had now got possession of these high grounds in a legal way, from whence they could vex the whole neighbourhood, the thing was agreed, and a formal blackmail contract entered into betwixt MacGregor and a great many heritors, whose lands lay chiefly exposed to these depredations, and which enabled him, when the troubles of 174 5 began to raise about forty men for that service, and opened the first scene in that fatal tragedy, by surprising the barracks of Inversnaid, and that part of General Campbell’s regiment which was working at the Inveraray roads.”

Edwin Way Teale(1899-1980), the distinguished American naturalist, wrote a classic travel book Springtime in Britain [1970] in which he described an extended tour of Britain. He catches the atmosphere of the upper loch as follows:

Wherever we stopped, somewhere within sight a foaming cataract traced its descending thread or narrow ribbon, chalk-white or shining silver according to the shade or sun, down the steep plunge to the opposite shore. By the time we turned away towards Inveraray – not far from the place where Wordsworth stood while ‘The Solitary Reaper’ sang her plaintive song perhaps .. . for old, unhappy, far-off things, and battles long ago we had counted 25 waterfalls.

The first site with significant literary connections is Clach nan Tairbh, literally the Bull Stone, but long known as Pulpit Rock. It is an erratic boulder of considerable size between Tarbet and Ardlui. Legend has it that two bulls fought a battle on the slopes of Ben Vorlich and disturbed the rock which came thundering down the hillside. A hollow in the rock, which used to be fronted by a wooden platform, was used by local ministers in place of a church. The site impressed the Wordsworths, and was apostrophised by Blackie. It was after visiting Pulpit Rock that Wordsworth was inspired to write two poems about the hermit who inhabited Eilean a Vow — Eilean Bho, the isle of cows, close to Pulpit Rock. Introducing the first poem of 1814 he has a swipe at Burns:

IN this tour, my wife and her sister Sara were my companions. The account of the “Brownie’s Cell” and the Brownies was given me by a man we met with on the banks of Loch Lomond, a little above Tarbert, and in front of a huge mass of rock, by the side of which, we were told, preachings were often held in the open air. The place is quite a solitude, and the surrounding scenery very striking. How much is it to be regretted that, instead of writing such Poems as the “Holy Fair” and others, in which the religious observances of his country are treated with so much levity, and too often with indecency, Burns had not employed his genius in describing religion under the serious and affecting aspects it must so frequently take.

The poem is elaborately titled:

Suggested by a beautiful ruin upon one of the Islands of Loch Lomond . A place chosen for the retreat of a solitary individual from whom this habitation acquired the name of The Brownie’s Cell

It was probably composed in 1814, but it was not published until 1820. It describes both the island and the hermit:

All, all were dispossessed, save him whose smile

Shot lightning through this lonely Isle!

No right had he but what he made

To this small spot, his leafy shade;

But the ground lay within that ring

To which he only dared to cling;

Renouncing here, as worse than dead,

The craven few who bowed the head

Beneath the change; who heard a claim

How loud! yet lived in peace with shame.

 

In 1831 Wordsworth returned to the district and heard that the hermit had died. He penned a lament, The Brownie, introducing it as follows:


Upon a small island, not far from the head of Loch Lomond, are some remains of an ancient building, which was for several years the abode of a solitary Individual, one of the last survivors of the clan of Macfarlane, once powerful in that neighbourhood. Passing along the shore opposite this island in the year 1814, the Author learned these particulars, and that this person then living there had acquired the appellation of “The Brownie.” See “The Brownie’s Cell,” to which the following is a sequel.

How disappeared he? Ask the newt and toad;

Ask of his fellow men and they will tell

How he was found, cold as an icicle,

Under an arch of that forlorn abode

The river Falloch tumbles down an attractive defile at the head of Loch Lomond, which is traversed by both the West Highland Way and the road [A82] to Crianlaraich. Mountain, Moor and Loch [1895] describes the entrance:

Inverarnan, which lies on the bank of the Falloch, consists of only a few houses and the old hotel, which, during the construction of the [railway] line, was turned into houses, the principal [house] being a residence for the engineers engaged  The steamers on Loch Lomond used to come up to Inverarnan, before the pier at Ardlui was built, and the hotel was the old posting establishment. Beside it can be seen the little artificial basin where the vessels lay. From Inverarnan coaches used to run all the way to Fort William, Oban, and Ballachulish.

 

The inn at Inverarnan was for long the focal point for the winter meet of the Scottish Mountaineering Club. One of its members was the distinguished writer about the Scottish countryside Campbell Steven (1911-2002). In 1971 in Enjoying Scotland he recalled:

… those halcyon days of the past when Inverarnan Hotel was  open all year round, with that reputation for hospitality which was to become almost legendary in the world of climbers and skiers

 

The Glenfalloch estate became the property of Colin Campbell of Glen Orchy in the reign of James IV and the lower part of the glen is densely wooded. The trees were probably planted by Colin’s son, Black Duncan of the Cowl, who was one of the first highland lairds to pay attention to the improvement of his estates. For a time Lucy Walford, the novelist, lived in Glenfalloch House, and John Stuart Blackie, among others, called on her there. Walford’s account of Inverarnan and Glen Falloch in her Recollections is instructive:

At the upper end of Loch Lomond steamers are able to penetrate a short way inland, as the river Falloch broadens into a sort of canal before losing itself in the waters of the lake; and the little saloon steamers thread their way up this as far as Inverarnan, where they come to an anchorage at a rustic pier beneath a huge, wide-spreading elm. When we saw the steam arising from this secluded spot (which we could do from the windows of Glenfalloch House), we knew the boat was there, and ten minutes’ walk would take us to it.

Half-way was the boundary between Dumbartonshire and Argyllshire, with a turnpike-gate on the edge of either county. Thus there were two turnpikes within a hundred yards of each other – a queer state of things, which has since passed away.

There being no West Highland Railway at the period, coaches from the north were the only means of conveying tourists and other passengers from Dalmally and Tyndrum to Loch Lomond, Loch Katrine, and the far-famed Pass of the Trossachs; so that every afternoon coaches came in rapid succession, galloping, rocking, and swaying, down the glen.

 

There were dangerous corners to be turned; but of course the bulk of the coach-load did not know this, and were innocently happy as they spun past, though we, who soon grew familiar with every inch of the road, were well pleased when they disappeared among the trees on the plain below.

 

Many other writers, of whom Dorothy Wordsworth is perhaps the most famous, have celebrated Glen Falloch. She gives a memorable account of her walk from the head of Loch Lomond to Glen Gyle at the head of Loch Katrine, with her brother, William:

The most easy rising, for a short way at first, was near a naked rivulet which made a fine cascade in one place. Afterwards the ascent was very laborious being frequently almost perpendicular. Higher up we sat down and heard, as if from the heart of the earth, the sound of torrents ascending out of the long hollow glen. To the eye all was motionless, a perfect stillness. The noise of waters did not appear to come from any particular quarter; it was everywhere, almost, one might say, as if ‘exhaled’ through the whole surface of the green earth. Glen Falloch, Coleridge has since told me, signifies the hidden vale; but William says that if we were to name it from our recollections of that time we should call it the Vale of Awful Sound.

 

Dorothy Wordsworth calls Glen Falloch ‘the Vale of Awful Sound’, because of its waterfalls. At the Falls of Falloch the plunge pool is named ‘Rob Roy’s Bathtub’, and a small cleft above it is called ‘Rob Roy’s Soapdish’. The falls impressed Coleridge as he walked north towards Glen Coe and Fort William after parting with the Wordsworths. . They can be reached from a car park on the right of the road going north.

It was at the Falls of Falloch that W.H. Murray nearly lost his life. He tells the story in Mountaineering in Scotland (1962):

On our way home we visited the Falls of Falloch, which were in full spate and a sight worth seeing. Above the topmost fall was a long narrow gorge through which the congested waters dashed foaming to leap with a thunderous roar into a rock cauldron. At one point the gorge was narrow enough to challenge one’s sporting instinct. Was a leap possible? We measured it up. It would have to be a standing jump from spray-drenched rock….

One by one we jumped safely. The gut was narrower than it looked. We had been too impressed with the fury of the water. Thus I was just a trifle less careful in making the return jump; my foot slipped off the wet rock and down I went into the gorge.

 

He was swept over the falls and found it impossible to escape from the whirlpool at their foot. Nearing exhaustion he was finally carried out of the cauldron by an undercurrent. Murray is also one of the best biographers of Rob Roy, and writes well about district as a whole.

Sidney Tremayne (1890-1963), the Ayrshire poet who was a feature writer for the Sun and the Daily Mirror, echoes Wordsworth in his poem The Falls of Falloch‘:

This white explosion of water plunges down

With the deep-voiced rush of sound that shakes a city.

A fine cold smoke drifts across dripping stone

And wet black walls of rock shut in the scene.

 

Now thought hangs sheer on a precipice of beauty

Lifting with leaping water out from the rock.

A gasp of time, flung clear in a weight of falling,

Bursts like a bud above the deep pool’s black

Parted and curled back under by the shock

Where light’s bright spark dives to the dark’s controlling.

 

But the brilliance is not extinguished. The heart leaps up,

The heart of the fall leaps up, an eternal explosion,

Force without spending, form without fetter of shape.

And at the pool’s edge wavelets scarcely lap

Where drifted spume clings with a soft adhesion.

 

Beyond the waterfall, above the road on the left is Clach na Briton, so called because it marks the northernmost boundary of the ancient kingdom of Strathclyde. Mountain, Moor and Loch [1895] relates a tale associated with it:

. . . an interesting object presents itself — a boulder of peculiar formation, standing on a gentle eminence on the west side ot the stream. This is the Clach-na-Brton, or, as it is generally called, the ” Mortar Stone,” its shape being exactly like that piece of artillery standing in position. It was here that Robert the Bruce paused to reconnoitre, in his flight after his defeat by the M’Dougals of Lorn, in Strathfillan, otherwise known as the Battle of Dairy — or, to write more correctly, Dail Righ, “the King’s Field.”

 

After climbing through Glen Falloch the road levels off, reaching a plateau which, was, in the words of John Thomas (1914-1982), the distinguished railway historian, and author of The West Highland Railway [1965]‘to become known to generations of West Highland footplatemen as ‘the fireman’s rest’.  After a gentle descent, the village of Crianlarich is reached.

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