Literary Loch Lomond and the Trossachs: 19. The Duke’s Pass

The road from The Trossachs Pier to Aberfoyle is called the Duke’s Pass.  Leave Aberfoyle by A821(Trossachs Road) which climbs steeply past the disused toll house to the Pass. There are extensive views over the Vale of Mentieth, and towards Ben Lomond. The road reaches a summit under Craig Vad, with views of Ben Ledi, and then descends to the Easan Grumach from which there is a glimpse of Loch Drunkie. Ben Venue then comes into sight with Ben A’an, above Loch Katrine. The road descends past another toll house to Loch Achray whence there is a road junction for the Trossachs Pier. The road can obviously be traversed in either direction. There has always been a track (see MacCulloch’s remarks below), but it was after the arrival of the railway in 1882 that the Duke of Montrose leased the land for a proper road to be built. This road was used for coaches between Aberfoyle and the Trossachs.

The Coach from Aberfoyle to the Trossachs.

The Coach from Aberfoyle to the Trossachs.

Nature made it an exquisite spot, particularly beautiful in spring and autumn, with its foliage of birch, hazel, and dwarf oak in a setting of purple crags. In the height of the season, however, it is congested – in spite of road widening – with cars and tourists, itinerant pipers, beggar children, and the like.

H.A.Piehler Scotland for Everyman 1934

In his book The Trossachs in Literature and Tradition the only time the Rev William Wilson crosses the Dukes Pass is to quote, memorably, from the autobiography of Sir Robert Christison, the archaeologist about his sojourn at the ‘Bailie Nichol Jarvie’ Hotel:

On reaching the Aberfoyle inn we found it ‘Sacrement Monday’, when all the surrounding Highlands were eating and drinking, and bargaining, and love-making, and quarrelling, as if on a fair day, in the house and outside the house, after the religious service of the ‘occasion’ was over. we had to lie more than an hour on a grassy bank of the Forth, till the lass of the inn contrived to clear a room of therevellers for our accommodation, and gave us possession, cautioning us at the same time to keep out door locked against all comers, except herself with our dinner. After dinner, however, a hill-farmer came rattling at the door, and enquiring for our new acquaitances. He was scarcely admitted when fresh knocking announced others to enquire after him: then came fresh enquires for them, till at length, as the lass had foretold, we had twenty Highlanders and more, all seated around us against the wall, and quaffing pure whisky circulated rom man to man with an oft-replenished bottle and one wine-glass. Next morning we crossed the high, broad, rough wild hilly land which divides the upper valleys of the Forth and Teith, and arrived at the Trossachs.

Sir Robert Christison Autobiography 1816

The Government sanctioned the improvement of the Duke’s Road in order to provide work for unemployed miners from Stirlingshire, Dunbartonshire, Lanarkshire and Ayrshire in 1931-32. Perthshire landowners opposed the scheme at first on the grounds that it was a waste of public money and would lead to a loss of amenity. After some delay they were compelled to acquiesce. An intriguing feature of the scheme was that, in order to make it labour-intensive, as few mechanical aids as possible were to be used. The structures which were afterwards used as the Youth Hostels at the Trossachs, and at Ledard were part of a camp built at the head of Loch Achray to house the workers.

There were strikes in protest at low wages in the summer of 1931, but the work which had been started in May 1931 was completed by October 1932. Great attention was paid to amenity: heather borders were laid out, and there was a ‘hiker’s path’. Rob Roy’s ‘Well’ near the summit was left in its original state.

The road, formerly restricted to horse-drawn vehicles and cyclists, soon became a favourite, as a testing route which ordinary drivers could tackle, with the rapidly increasing number of private motorists of the nineteen-thirties. It was one of the few roads in Britain where hairpin bends suggestive of the Alps could be found. The four-in-hand coaches were soon succeeded by motor coaches engaged in the Trossachs Tour.

The old toll houses in Aberfoyle and at Loch Achray are still to be seen.

Further improvements were made when the Forestry Commission selected a site above Aberfoyle for its visitor centre for the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park. David Marshall Lodge was built in 1958 and it provides access to the delightful glen of the Allt a’ Mhangan (Allt Vingen), the tributary of the Forth which tumbles down from Craig Vadh in two dramatic waterfalls. The hazards of orthography are admirably illustrated here: James B. Johnston asserts that the burn is ‘The burn with overhanging boughs’; the Forestry Commission that it is ‘The burn of the Little Fawn.’ The main waterfall was for long known as MacGregor’s Leap, but Cunninghame Graham calls it ‘The Grey Mare’s Tail’ and, being one of those falls notably wide at the top and narrow at the bottom in most conditions, it does resemble a mare’s tail. Whatever the name means the place should not be missed.

As a route to the Trossachs the Duke’s Pass is superior in several respects to the more conventional route, from Callander, which seems to have been taken by most literary visitors . However, it does not have supposed scenes from the Lady of the Lake every step of the way. It is the route from Glasgow rather than that from Edinburgh, too. Thus few authors have noticed it. One unconventional visitor in this respect is Townshend whose account of the Highlands frequently deviates from the norm in this respect, and is all the more pleasurable a read for that. as we have already learned when he crossed from Ben Lomond to Aberfoyle. The next day he crossed the Pass to the Trossachs:

Half the horizon was filled with mountains, tossed and tumbled about like an ocean arrested in its wildest rage, and the greater part of those were flooded with a golden mist, blending them, like an unsubstantial pageant, with the glories of the western sky. Earth and heaven seemed interfused and molten together; while, in front of the radiance, Ben Venue and Ben An stood dark and frowning over the lustrous waters of Loch Katrine and Loch Achray. “Oh, ’twas an unimaginable sight!”

Chauncey Hare Townshend Descriptive Tour in Scotland 1840

No one who crosses the Duke’s Pass should omit the short walk to Tom an-t-Seallaidh (Watch Hill) near the summit. It is from this point that the force of Chauncey Townshend’s remarks can be appreciated. Percy Wentworth describes the road in 1821.

The descent to the valley of the Avondhu, as the Forth is called at Aberfoyle, is as frightfully rugged as the ascent on the other side of the hills. The track of wheels is in many places visible; but how any animal can drag a carriage, of any description, through these wild passes is more than I can readily conceive

‘Three Nights in Perthshire’                                                                                                        

He found that the view was not so impressive as some made out, but then went on to praise it to the heavens:

The view from Creag Vadh, though certainly very fine, is hardly so much so as the guide books of the District would have one believe. however, I have seen few landscapes that surpass it in sublimity and grandeur; so much are these its characteristics, that many patches of quiet and beauty that are interspersed, are lost in the features which surround them.

‘Three Nights in Perthshire                                                                                                     ‘

Writing in 1824 John MacCulloch (1773 –1835) found little to commend the Duke’s Pass:

“It offers few temptations; except to those who may wish to visit this wild country on account of its historical recollections. There is a road, across the hills to this latter place [Aberfoyle]: practicable, I must not say more, even for gigs, but in no respect interesting.

‘The Highlands and Western Islands of Scotland                                                               

The American Gothic novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne came over the pass in 1856. His account of a visit in the Spring of 1856 is realistic about the disadvantages of that season of the year:

We started in a drosky (I do not know whether this is the right name of the vehicle, or whether it has a right name, but it is a carriage in which four persons sit back to back, two before and two behind), for Aberfoyle. The mountainside ascends very steeply from the inn door, and, not to damp the horse’s courage at the outset we went up on foot. the guide book says the prospect from the summit of the ascent is very fine; but I really believe we forgot to turn round and look at it. all through our drive, however, wev had mountain views in plenty, especially of the great Ben Lomond, with his snow covered head, round which, since entering the Highlands we had been making a circuit. Nothing can possibly be drearier than the mountains at this season; bare, barren and bleak, with black patches of withered heath variegating the dead brown of the herbiage on their sides; and as regards trees the hills are perfectly naked, There were no frightful precipices, no boldly picturesque features on our road; but high weary slopes, showing miles and miles of heavy solitude, with here and there a highland hut, built of stone and thatched; and, in one place, an old gray ruinous fortress, a station of the English troops after the rebellion of 1745: and once or twice a village of huts, the inhabitants of which, old and young, ran to their doors to stare at us.

Hawthorne was clearly not so enthusiastic about the district on his first visit as he later became, and he goes on in the same grumpy vein:

I do not remember what o’clock it was, but not far into the afternoon, when we reached the Bailie Nichol Jarvie Inn at Aberfoyle; a scene which is much more interesting in the pages of Rob Roy than we found it in reality. Here we got into a sort of cart, and set out over another hill-path, as dreary as or drearier than the last, for the Trossachs. on our way we saw Ben Venue, and a good many other famous bens, and two or three lochs; and when we reached the Trossachs, we should probably have been very much enraptured if our eyes had not already been weary with other mountain shapes. but, in truth, I doubt if anyone ever does really see a mountain, who goes for the set and sole purpose of seeing it. nature will not let herself be seen in such cases. You must patiently bide her time; and, by and by, at some unforseen moment, she will quietly and sudenly unveil herself, and for a brief space allow you to look right into the heart of her mystery.

Nathaniel Hawthorne English Notebooks Spring 1856

The affection which Hawthorne has for Nature is, of course, shared by many Scots. Ben Humble (1903 – 1977) was one of that generation of Scottish climbers who escaped from the depression of the nineteen thirties by going to the hills. At least Humble, a Dumbarton man, had work, as his account of a working-weekday ascent of Ben Venue from Glasgow tells us. The piece captures the atmosphere of the Trossachs between the wars perfectly:

We found that a bus left Glasgow for Aberfoyle at 5.15 pm, and that a bus left Aberfoyle for Glasgow at 6.55 am. the times could not have suited better. after a rush from business we eventually got to Aberfoyle. there we dallied a while before starting north by the magnificent Duke’s Road; soon we were following the path by the burn instead, which cuts out all the zig-zags.

It was fine to get away from the city like that, up among the scents of the hills, bracken, bog-myrtle and heather, with glorious evening clouds in the sky. We wandered on past the quarries and then downhill, to where the ever welcome SYHA sign indicated the path to Brig o’ Turk hostel. it was about ten o’clock when we reached that hostel situated on the south side of the river near Loch Achray and overlooked by Ben Venue. Right there in the very heart of the Trossachs, it has been one of the most popular hostels in Scotland since its opening in 1932.

It was August and the hostel was busy. Most of the visitors were from England though there was a party of Americans and a lad from Holland. Some were playing cards. Others were writing up diaries. There was a babel of voices. With ten different parties preparing supper it was quite a delicate operation to edge our pan of soup on to the already crowded stove. We were travelling light and that, with fruit and biscuits, made up our evening meal. Then we discovered that neither of us had brought a watch with us so we induced another visitor to hang up his watch between our bunks when we turned in at 11 pm.

My next recollection was of a torch shining on my c face and a hand from the upper bunk pointing to the time on the watch – 1.55 am. we rose quickly, folded blankets and packed ruc-sacs. By 2.10 am we were pulling on our boots in the porch and five minutes later were trudging along the road with sleep not yet out of our eyes.

From knowledge of our own pace on the hills, the distance to be covered and the height to be climbed, we calculated that just under five hours would take us over Ben venue, along the ridge of hills, and down to Aberfoyle.

Stars were reflected in the dark waters of Loch Achray. There was absolute stillness with the black outline of great firs silhouetted against the sky. No other humans were afoot in the Trossachs region that morning. The only sound was of hobnailed boots striking metalled road: now and then sparks flew up. Few have walked through the world famous Trossachs at such an hour.

Beyond the hotel we took the road to the Sluices and then the path to Bealach nam Bo (The Pass of the Cattle). This was the route of Rob Roy and his bold raiders of old; often stolen cattle were hidden in the caves around.

We left the path for the steep northern slopes of Venue. Lack of sleep and our early breakfastless start soon took its toll and our progress was slow. It became lighter as we climbed higher and we could see the whole chain of lochs, Venachar, Achray and Katrine spread out below us. The final peak loomed ahead. it seemed quite near but distances were deceptive in that early morning light.

At last we reached the cairn and saw the mountains and lochs beyond. Ben Lomond seemed quite near but did not look impressive when shorn of its broad shoulders so familiar to us in the south. It was about 4 am. To the east were the Ochil Hills, the Fintry Hills, the sharp outline of Meikle Bin and Dumgoyne as sentinel of the Campsies. away to the south a glimpse of the Firth of Clyde; to the west the Arrochar hills with morning clouds in the valleys and the peaks clear above them; to the north Ben Ledi and the hills beyond Loch Katrine.

A cold wind sprang up and we had to seek a sheltered spot to munch chocalates and biscuits. after that and from the sheer exhilaration of being on the tops so early in the day, we felt fine and travelled fast down to the bealach and up to Cgeag Tharsuinn. The route from there was right aloong the ridge of hills above Loch Ard. It was easy moor walking, always towards the east and the sunrise.

B.H.Humble On Scottish Hills 1946

 

 

 

 

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