Literary Loch Lomond and the Trossachs: 10. Menteith

Leave Callander by A81 (Glasgow Road) which climbs the Braes of Greenock to Loch Ruskie, where there were the remains of an island castle occupied by the Earl of Menteith. Shortly after Loch Ruskie the Carse of Forth comes into view and there is a good view of the Lake of Menteith in the middle distance. Turn right at the foot of the hill. The ruined castle on the right is Rednock Castle, former seat of the Grahams. The road then leads to Port of Menteith (road junction), and the Lake of Menteith:
Queen Victoria followed this route on her visit to Aberfoyle when she was staying at Invertrossachs. She mentions Uam Var the prominent, isolated mountain above the Teith which dominates Callander from the south east. Scott used it in The Lady of the Lake in the chase, which forms the subject of the first canto, and is the source of most of the famous passages in that work. The reason for this was the magnificent view of the district from the brow of Uam Var:

The noble stag was pausing now,
Upon the mountain’s southern brow,
Where broad extended, lay beneath-
The varied realms of fair Menteith,
With anxious eye he wandered o’er-
Mountain and meadow, moss and moor,
And pondered refuge from his toil(
By far Loch Ard or Aberfoyle;,
But nearer was the copsewood gray.
That waved and wept on Loch Achray,/
And mingled with the pine-trees blue+
On the bold cliffs of Ben Venue.

Sir Walter Scott Lady of the Lake

It was a fine day and Victoria describes the scenery crossing the Braes of Greenock road in greater detail than most guidebooks to the district. Further information about the Queen’s holiday at Invertrossachs is given under Loch Venachar:

A very fine bright warm morning. We decided to go on an expedition, but not to Loch Lomond, as we should have to start so early. Breakfasted in the drawing room with Louise and Beatrice. Then writing, etc. At twenty minutes to twelve I started in the sociable with Louise, Beatrice, Jane Churchill and Colonel Ponsonby and Brown on the box, and drove (excellent post horses, always only a pair), to Callander, but turned right short of it, and went on some little way. On coming to the top we saw Ben Ledi, a splendid hill; to the north Ben Vorlich, and to the east the heights of Uam Var, a pink heathery ridge of no great elevation; andi in the distance rising up from the horizon, Dumyat, and the Wallace Monument on the Abbey Craig, near Stirling. We went across a moor and soon passed Loch Ruskie, quite a small lake. The country here is rather lowland but as we proceeded it was extremely pretty, with very fine trees and cornfields, and harvesting going on; and soon after that, descending a hill we came on the “Loch” of Menteith (the only loch in Scotland which is ever called a lake). it reminds one very much of Loch Kinnord near Ballater, and very low blue and pink hills rise in the distance. There are two or three islands in it; in the large one, Inchmahome, you perceive among the thick woods the ruins of an ancient priory. Queen Mary lived there once and there are monuments to the Menteiths to be seen upon it. To the right we passed the ruin of Rednock Castle, and on the left the gates of the park of Rednock, with very fine large trees.

Queen Victoria Highland Journal

The castle was long ago levelled, and the building stones were used to build houses at Blairhoyle, and the farm-steading of Muirhouse. The island on which the castle was built was submerged when the level of the loch was raised. Margaret Holford (1778-1852), minor poet and unsuccessful imitator of Scott, mentions the castle in her first poem Wallace, or the Fight of Falkirk [1809]:

Where the majestic Grampians spread.
Their shadows o’er old Rusky’s head;
Where friendship warns the escutchion’d walls,
Of frowning Rusky’s antique halls.

The old castle of Rednock and its successor Rednock House at the foot of the pass have a highly significant literary connection. Susanna Blamire (1747-94) was a Cumbrian poet whose sister, Sarah, married Col Thomas Graham in 1767. Between 1767 and his death in 1773 Susanna spent much time in Scotland with her sister. One of her lost poems celebrated the ‘Lake of Menteith’ while several others became famous Scottish songs. The DNB puts it thus: “As a song-writer she deserves to rank very high. She preferred to write songs in the Scottish dialect, and three at least of her songs are exquisite, What ails this heart o’ mine?,  And ye shall walk in silk attire (The Siller Croun), and The Traveller’s Return. Another beautiful song, ‘The Waefu’ Heart’, is, with great probability, attributed to her. Of the four songs The Traveller’s Return may be the least well known, but it is the most interesting. Students of folk song suggest that the air to which Susanna Blamire set When silent time wi’ lightly foot is probably the original of Burns’ tune for “Auld Lang Syne”. In 1871, Sarah Tytler and J. L. Watson included her in The Songstresses of Scotland, asserting that she “adopted Scotland and the Scotch with enthusiasm, and thenceforth wrote Scotch songs like a Scotchwoman” Hugh MacDiarmid stated that she wrote some of the finest Scots verse ever written by any non-Scot, fully equal to all but the very greatest work of the same sort ever achieved by any Scots poet — praise indeed. Susanna was very friendly with the Grahams of Gartmore as well.

Susanna Blamire

Susanna Blamire

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) is one of the giants of Scottish literature. He was a novelist and poet, and as young man he was actively employed as a lawyer in the district. His greatest creative impetus probably came from the Borders where he lived for much of his life, but he had an intimate knowledge of, and love of parts of the Highlands. He made an early acquaintance with Perthshire when engaged in an eviction, but revisited Loch Lomond and the Trossachs frequently to see two friends, his fellow advocate Hector MacDonald Buchanan at Ross Priory on Loch Lomond, and Major Buchanan at Cambusmore beside the Keltie near Callander. He was also well known to Patrick Graham, the then Minister of Aberfoyle.

His Lady of the Lake, published in 1810 and set in the Trossachs created a lasting interest in the place. His first novel, Waverley (1814) makes use of a scene in the locality, but it was Rob Roy (1818), the nexus of which is set in the district, which brought as much fame to Aberfoyle as The Lady of the Lake brought to Loch Katrine. Scott was a fine storyteller as this extract from Tales of a Grandfather set in Menteith illustrates:

The Earls of Menteith, you must know, had a castle, situated upon an island in a lake, or loch as it is called of the same name. But though this residence, which occupied almost the whole of the islet, upon which its ruins still exist, was a strong and safe place of abode, and adopted accordingly to such perilous times, it had this inconvenience, that the stables and other domestic offices were constructed on the banks of the lake, and were, therefore, in some sort defenceless.

It happened upon a time that there was to be a great entertainment in the castle, and a number of the Grahams were assembled. The occasion, it is said, was a marriage in the family. To prepare for this feast, much provision was got ready, and in particular, a great deal of poultry had been collected. While the feast was preparing, an unhappy chance brought Donald of the Hammer to the side of the lake, returning at the head of a band of hungry followers, whom he was conducting homewards to the West Highlands, after some of his usual excursions in Stirlingshire. Seeing so much good victuals ready, and being possessed of an excellent appetite, the Western Highlanders neither asked questions, nor waited for an invitation, but devoured all the provisions that had been prepared for the Grahams, and then went on their way rejoicing through the difficult and dangerous path which leads from the banks of the Loch of Menteith, through the mountains, to the side of Loch Katrine.

The Grahams were filled with the highest indignation. The company who were assembled at the castle of Menteith, headed by the Earl himself, hastily took to their boats, and disembarking on the northern side of the lake, pursued with all speed the marauders and their leader. They came up with Donald’s party in the gorge of a pass, near a rock, called Craig Vad, or the Wolf’s Cliff. The battle then began, and it was continued with much fury till night. The Earl of Menteith and many of his noble kinsmen fell, while Donald, favoured by darkness, escaped with a single attendant. The Grahams obtained, from the cause of the quarrel, the nickname of Gramoch an Garrigh, or Grahams of the Hens.

Tales of a Grandfather 1828-30

Scott sets this incident in the Duke’s Pass. Others state that it took place in the Pass of Glenny immediately above the Loch of Menteith where an old Roman road leads to Loch Vennacher.

There is at least one splendid fairy tale associated with the Loch of Menteith. Again, it is connected with the feasting, which appears to have gone on there:

One of the Earls of Menteith – which one, the tale does not condescend to say – was entertaining a company of friends in the halls of Inchtalla, when it was found that the supply of liquor was running out. Late though it was, he summoned his butler and ordered him to set off at once for Stirling, procure the necessary supply, and be back as early as possible the next day. The butler immediately took his cask, and unmooring the boat proceeded to row himself to the shore. As he neared the shore he observed two ‘honest women’ among the reeds at the margin. watching them, he saw each cut a bulrush for herself, then crying the one to the other ‘Hae wi’ ye!’, they mounted their bulrushes and immediately rose sailing into the air. The butler, seized with a sudden impulse, also cut a bulrush, and shouting ‘Hae wi’ ye!’ found himself flying at lightning speed through space. Together they descended in the palace of the King of France, where, being invisible, they enjoyed themselves in their several ways. The butler, in some mysterious manner, never let go his cask; and finding himself in the royal cellar he replenished it with the choicest wine. But that was not all. In case the truth of the marvellous story of adventure he had to tell might be doubted, he resolved to carry off a memento of his visit, and so laid hands on the King’s own drinking cup of silver. Then with the cup and barrel, getting astride of his bulrush again, another ‘Hae wi’ ye!’ brought him back to the servants’ hall at Inchtalla, where he was found by the Earl in the morning sound asleep beside his barrel. The Earl, thinking that he had drunk too much and neglected his message, awoke him and began to reproach him for his dereliction of duty, when the butler, begging his lordship’s pardon, informed him that he had got the wine, and much better wine than could be found in the burgh of Stirling. Then he told the whole story of his adventure, and in confirmation, not only pointed to the full cask, but handed over the valuable silver cup he had brought with him. The earl believed, or affected to believe the story, and that day entertained his guests with a wine the quality of which astonished them all. The silver cup, with the fleur de lys and the royal arms of France also graced the board.
A. F. Hutchinson Book Of Menteith

The largest of three irregular islands in the Lake of Menteith, on which is a ruined priory is Inchmahome where the five-year old Mary Queen of Scots found refuge after the Battle of Pinkie. A very good historical account of the incident is to be found in Antonia Frazer’s Mary Queen of Scots. The young Queen tended a garden there, the subject of an essay by the author Dr John Brown (1810-1882) in Horae Subsecivae [Leisure Hours]:

“Here you find on landing huge Spanish chestnuts, one lying dead, others standing stark and peeled, like gigantic antlers, and others flourishing in their viridis senectus, and in a thicket of wood you see the remains of a monastery of great beauty, the design and workmanship exquisite. You wander through the ruins, overgrown with ferns and Spanish filberts, and old fruit trees, and at the corner of the old monkish garden you come upon one of the strangest and most touching sights you ever saw – an oval space of about eighteen feet by twelve, with the remains of a double row of boxwood all round, the plants of box being about fourteen feet high, and eight or nine inches in diameter, healthy, but plainly of great age. What is this? it is called in the guide-books Queen Mary’s Bower; but besides its being plainly not in the least a bower, what could the little Queen, then five years old, and ‘fancy free’, do with a bower? It is plainly …. the Child-Queen’s Garden with her little walk, and its rows of boxwood, left to themselves for three hundred years.” [1863]

Alexander Scott (c1515-1583), the lyrical poet of the first Scottish Renaissance, was appointed organist at Inchmahome in 1548. This was a result of his connection with Robert Erskine through whom this Scott was also connected with the exiled court of Queen Mary.

The Lake of Menteith, on the edge of the Highlands ‘ is lovely rather than beautiful, and is a sort of gentle prelude, in the minor key, to the coming glories and intenser charms of Loch Ard and the true Highlands beyond’ [Dr John Brown].

Stewart Alan Robertson (1866-1933), who worked in Stirling, celebrated Menteith in verse. He was a poet whose settings included the Pentlands, Perthshire and Stirlingshire:

Moonrise with its dusky radiance veiled
the moorlands of Menteith,
Where the cliffs of Ben Dearg glimmered to
the gleaming lake beneath,
And, like emerald set in silver on a gentle
maiden’s breast,
Lies the sweetest named of islands,
Inchmahome, the Isle of Rest.

A further, at one time obscure, artistic visitor to the district was Edith Holden (1871-1920) who spent several happy summers in Perthshire, and was particularly appreciative of the Lake of Menteith. She records one visit in the best-selling Country Diary of An Edwardian Lady.

Edith Holden (self portrait)

Edith Holden (self portrait)

The ruined Priory of Inchmahome is one of the most delightfully situated of all the historic monuments in Scotland. In the aisle are the graves of the ‘Gaucho Marxist’, Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham (1852-1936), Cunninghame Graham, whose body was brought back from Argentina, and of his wife, Gabriella. She was a poet admired by W.H.Hudson, and a religious historian. Her grave was dug by Cunningham Graham himself, whose own remains rest among those of his ancestors in this atmospheric place. There was a notable turn out for his burial in April, 1936, including many of his political and literary associates: James Bridie (O.H.Mavor), Wendy Wood, Compton MacKenzie, Alisdair Alpin MacGregor, Helen B. Cruickshank, and others. The distinguished literary critic, William Power, delivered his funeral oration.

He spent much time in Argentina, helped to set up both the Labour Party and the SNP, and, with others, came close to bringing about a Revolution in Britain on ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1887. His first book was Notes on the District of Menteith for Tourists and Others, written “half in idleness and half out of that affection, which is common to a man, and trees for the soil in which they have been for ages rooted.” A notice on the first page illustrates Graham’s wit: ‘All rights reserved except in the Republic of Paraguay’. Here he describes the lochans of the District:

Wolves roamed the hills, as the name Craig Vad would seem to show. Around the desolate Loch Reoichte, perhaps, the Caledonian bull has fed, the wild boar harboured; and yet the ground was more secure than nowadays, for fewer perils from broken whisky bottles and sardine tins lurked in the heather. And how shall sardine tins offend? Are they not, after all, a sign natural and visible, of the spirit of the age, and did not Providence place them (most likely) in our path to show us something? What if we cannot see it, and only cut our feet upon the bottles and jagged tins? No doubt the cross, which, seen in the sky, converted Constantine, was there before; and many another Roman general was not so much deep-dyed pagan as merely unobservant.

Hard by Craig Vad is the desolate hill tarn known as Loch Reoichte. In the district there are many of these curious black hill-lochs, generally in peaty hollows, with the water black as jet, peopled with little muddy trout, and often overgrown with water-lilies.

Each has its legend, as in duty bound. Loch McAn Righ, close to the Lake of Menteith, is sacred to the memory of a king’s son, who, in the days when princes of the blood-royal perambulated the world at a loose end and unattended, almost lost his life whilst chasing wild deer, by his horse bogging down with him. Tradition hath it that one Betty or Betsy, for there is room for doubt on the forms of the name that the royal maiden bore, extracted him like a royal cork, from the mud and saved his life. The field is known as Achnaveity, said by Gaelic speaking men to mean the field of Betty. Tradition is in error in having woven no romance about the King of Scotland’s son and Betty, but then how seldom tradition, on the whole, misses its opportunities in matters of the sort. Anyhow, nearby the field is the ‘laroch’ of the chapel of Arnchly, one of four chapels connected with the monastery of Inchmahome, so possibly the nearness of the sacred edifice prevented scandal making free with the Prince’s or Betty’s name.

Other little lochs preserve their legend, as the Loch at Duchray Castle, said to be unfathomable, and the Tinker’s Loch (Lochan Cheird), above the hills of Aberfoyle, in which the mysterious water- bull of the Highland legends was said to dwell. Among them all for desolate beauty Loch Reoichte stands first.
   Notes on the District of Menteith

The writer is buried at the Priory on Inchmahome next to his wife, Gabriela Cunninghame Graham who was a religious historian and minor poet whose work was admired by one of Graham’s many literary friends, W.H.Hudson. Graham was the author of a number of Scottish pieces, which have been admirably collected by John Walker in The Scottish Sketches of R. B. Cunninghame Graham [1982]. One of his most interesting longer works is the biography of his ancestor Robert Graham (1735-1797), the eighteenth century poet and politician, which begins with an evocative description of the country between Gartmore and Aberfoyle:

The old house of Gartmore, in the district of Menteith, was built, as tradition says, by the grandfather of the brothers Adam, somewhere about the year 1680. With it low flanking wings, its perron and heavy mouldings over the windows and the doors, it was a perfect specimen of a Georgian mansion of the time. In the days of the poet’s youth, before extensive planting was the fashion in the north, it must have looked a little bare, although the great beech avenue was possibly growing up. Rough woods of scrubby oak sheltered it from the north. The six great yews which I remember as a child were probably old trees when the poet was a boy. Great rushy parks led down to Flanders Moss, that had once been a shallow inland sea, as said tradition, and flowed up to the hill of Gartmore, where a huge stone, known as Clach nan Lung (the stone of the waves) was there to testify.

Looking out of the windows of his home, to the left of the tall cedars, then perhaps just planted – they are shown as little trees in the drawings of the time – he could see the Grampians.

The silvery waters of the Lake of Menteith, dotted with its two dark wooded islands, shrouding the Priory of Inchmaholme and the Castle of Inch Talla, the fortress of the Earls of Menteith, the poet’s ancestors, and with the fir-clad promontory of Arnmauk cutting the lake almost in two halves, lay just below the hills. The moss that flowed right from the Hill of Gartmore through the Carse of Stirling to the sea bounded the lake upon one side. Upon the other rose Ben Dearg and Ben Dhu. Between them ran the Pass of Glennie, an old Fingalian track, whose stones, polished of yore by generations of feet shod in deerskin brogues, even today show white amongst the heather in places now disused, that once it traversed like a dull silver streak.

Only two miles away to the north-west by the hill-road behind the Drum, crossing the burn where the stones form a rude bridge, lay Aberfoyle with the change-house immortalised by Walter Scott, and half a dozen black Highland cottages, all thatched with rushes or with ling.

A rough hill-track skirting the waterfall, known as the Grey Mare’s Tail, passing Craig Vadh and coming out upon the shore of Loch Achray, led to the Trossachs, in whose fastnesses lurked broken men from all the highland clans. Still farther westward rose Ben Lomond, looking exactly like Vesuvius, with its perfect cone and its top shaped crater-wise, when the white mists curled round its crest, steaming and billowing.

A dividing line, almost as abrupt as that between Portugal and Spain upon the Minho when Tuy and Valenca still glare at one another in mutual incomprehension, was drawn between the denizens of Gartmore House and the wild Highlanders, who lived only a mile or so away in the recesses of the hills.

R.B.Cunninghame Graham Doughty Deeds 1925

Cunningham Graham got his title from the nickname by which Robert Graham was known. He wrote the distinguished song, which begins:

Then tell me how to woo thee love;
O tell me how to woo thee!
For thy dear sake nae care I’ll take
Though ne’er another trow me

If doughty deeds my lady please,
Right soon I’ll mount my steed;
And strong his arm, and fast his seat’
That bears frae me the meed.

In his Minstrelsy Scott stated that the verses were taken down from recitation, averred to be of the age of Charles I. However, he went on to say that since their publication in the first edition, he had been assured that the late Mr.Graham of Gartmore composed them.

Robert Graham made several significant literary friendships. Hector MacNeil (1746-1818), the minor poet, was a frequent visitor to Gartmore 1786-90 when he lived near Stirling. Graham almost certainly met him in the West Indies, where he also formed a lifelong connection with Tobias Smollett (1721-71). Robert Burns (1759-96) thought Graham “the noblest instance of great talents, great fortune, and great worth that ever I saw.” John Leyden (1775-1811), the scholar who collaborated with Scott on The Minstrelsy dedicated a book of poems to a Miss Graham of Gartmore, presumably one of Graham’s three sisters.

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