Literary Loch Lomond and the Trossachs: 20. Glenfinglas and Loch Venachar

 

Glen Finglas

In 1853 John Ruskin (1819-1900), his wife Effie, and John Everett Millais (1829-96), stayed in the village of Brig o’ Turk, which gets its name from an eighteenth century bridge, carefully widened and restored in the 1930s, over the burn which flows through Glenfinglas. It was here that Millais fell in love with Effie whose marriage with Ruskin had not been consummated. When Effie later left Ruskin and married Millais, the biggest scandal since Byron’s day broke.

The little river Turk still rushes down a fine gorge where there are four waterfalls. In spate the nineteenth century atmosphere of the clachan can be recaptured, but the gorge is dominated nowadays by a spectacular dam, 40 metres high. In wet conditions the spillway is a magnificent sight, blocking the glen with a wall of white water.

It was probably the associations of the place with Scott that drew Ruskin to Brig o’ Turk in 1853 accompanied by his wife, whom he had married five years previously, and his protégé, Millais. Ruskin had been to the Trossachs in 1838 with his parents. In 1879 Ruskin exhibited a picture of the view from the Silver Strand entitled Loch Katrine, looking to Coir nan Uriskin, July 28 1838. In 1853 Ruskin made some famous drawings of the rocks he found in the bed of the Turk:

  20th July, 1853

Yesterday drawing on the rocks by the stream. Everett still ill with headache. The skies all turquoise and violet, melted in dew; and heavenly bars of delicate cloud behind Ben venue in the evening. This morning grey with heavy clouds low on the hills……

John Ruskin Letters

Millais also began one his most famous pictures, in which one of the waterfalls on the Turk was to form the background to a portrait of Ruskin, but he did not complete it until the following year. He also painted a picture of Effie beside a waterfall in the glen, and his sketch book is a delightful record of what was, in spite of wet weather, a varied holiday. The portrait of Ruskin, the difficulty of its execution and, above all, the blossoming romance between Effie and Millais dominate the letters which the three wrote to their family and friends. Mary Lutyens (1908-1999) used these letters as the basis for her delightful biography Millais and the Ruskins (1967). At the beginning of the holiday Millais was an admirer of Effie, and worshipped Ruskin; by the end of it he was complaining of Ruskin and hopelessly in love with Effie. The following letter from Millais to Holman Hunt, which refers to Millais’ brother, William, captures the atmosphere:

The last four days we have had incessant rain, swelling the streams to torrents. This afternoon we all walked to see some of the principal waterfalls which in colour resemble XXX stout. The roads are deeper in water than the Wandle so we were walking ankle deep. the dreariness of mountainous country in wet weather is beyond everything. I have employed myself making little studies of Mrs Ruskin whilst William has given way to whisky and execration.

Having the acquaintance of Mrs Ruskin is a blessing. Her husband is a good fellow but not of our kind, his soul is always with the clouds and out of reach of ordinary mortals – I mean that he theorises about the vastness of space and looks at a lovely little stream in practical contempt. I have had a canvas and box made in Edinburgh to paint his portrait overlooking a waterfall. I think it will be fine as it quite suits his character and the background of the foaming water, rocks and clasping roots look splendid behind his placid figure.

     J.E.Millais Letter to Holman Hunt    

In another letter Millais refers to midges, the only reference to them that I have come across in the voluminous outpourings of eighteenth and nineteenth century visitors:

When the weather permits, we all dine out upon the rocks, Mrs Ruskin working, her husband drawing, and myself painting. there is only one drawback to this almost perfect happiness – the midges. They bite so dreadfully that it is beyond human endurance to sit quiet, therefore many a splendid day passes without being able to work.

William Millais  gives a vivid description of a Glenfinlas Sabbath:

How well I remember our going to the little free kirk, arrayed as well-turned out Highland men. The service was to us somewhat comical and we could hardly stay it out. The precentor was a little very bow-legged old man, with the wheeziest of voices, and sang the first line of the paraphrase alone, whilst his little shaggy terrier, the image of his master, joined in in a piteous howl. The other lines were sung by the congregation, assisted by a few collies. I afterwards tackled the little precentor, and asked him why he didn’t have an organ. ‘Ah man, would you have us take to the devil’s band?’ was his answer.

When the sermon came, it was most amusing to us to watch the old men passing their ram’s horn snuff-mills to one another, and putting little bone spades full of the pungent material up their noses to keep them awake.

In front of us were two well-dressed young girls, in all the newest fashion, and when the offertory-box was poked towards them, they put in a farthing. We afterwards saw them take off their shoes and stockings and walk home barefooted.

J.G.Millais Life and Letters of Millais 1899

Everett Millais and his brother William often wore the kilt, to the amusement of the local inhabitants. This had a highly amusing artistic consequence. The famous French animal painter Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) came to the Highlands inspired by Landseer’s Highland stags. After visiting the cattle fair at Stenhousemuir, where she obtained much subject matter, she came to the Trossachs anxious to espy a native in a kilt. The first such person she saw was Millais! Rosa Bonheur and her companion were accompanied by the picture dealer and publisher Gambart who introduced them. “Ah, my dear Millais,” said Gambart, “Mademoiselle Rosa Bonheur has been eagerly on the look-out for the Highland garb ever since we left Edinburgh, and yours is the first kilt she has seen. You are immortalised.”

John Everett Millais. Effie in Glenfinlas

John Everett Millais. Effie in Glenfinlas

Millais filled two sketch books containing highly finished drawings and sketches when he was in Glenfinglas with Ruskin including ‘A Fishing Party on Loch Achray’ and ‘The Kirk in Glenfinlas’. After his marriage to Effie Gray in June, 1855 Millais took the manse of Brig o’ Turk in Glenfinglas in August, 1856. Here, after an interval of shooting and fishing, ‘… he painted a small portrait of the minister – a hard-featured and by no means prepossessing Celt.’ (J.G.Millais)

John Everett Millais [Sketchbook]: Loch Achray

John Everett Millais [Sketchbook]: Loch Achray

Perhaps the connection with Ruskin led ‘the Glasgow Boys’ [James Guthrie (1859-1930), Edward Arthur Walton (1860-1922), and George Henry (1858- 1943)] to Brig o’Turk in 1879-81, but it was probably its character as the nearest ‘Highland clachan’ (in contrast to the estate villages of Luss and Gartmore) to Glasgow that attracted them. In any case it is agreed that the summers they spent there were critical to their development as artists, not so much for what they produced (see Appendix 00) as for the conversations about painting they had. Later Guthrie drew Crawhall, himself and Walton sharing a bottle of wine which captured their fellowship. Arthur Melville (1855-1904), the leading ‘Scottish Impressionist’, followed Guthrie, Henry and Walton in going to Brig o’ Turk, and he exhibited pictures entitled ‘Loch Vennacher’ and ‘The Shieling, Brig o’ Turk’ in 1884.

In August 1863 George Gilfillan (1813-1878), the nineteenth century literateur who was a friend and admirer of Alexander Smith, undertook an extensive Highland Tour including visits to Loch Maree and Glencoe, as well as the Trossachs. He was full of praise for Brig o’ Turk:

No hour in all my recent journey did I enjoy more than a quiet walk to the Brig o’ Turk. It is to me a most interesting spot. THe river comes down from thr green and purple Glenfinlas, and below the bridge flows in a deep yet bright current, with the noble Ben Venue looking down at it from the west. The sun was bight, the hills serene, the stream pure and lustrous. All was calm. I was alone and my musings were pensively delightful.

Glenfinlas is also associated with Scott, and James Hogg, Lady Sarah Murray and other early visitors to the Trossachs refer to it. Scott makes it the setting of a wierd ballad, Glenfinlas, or Lord Ronald’s Coronach, and he refers to it in The Lady of the Lake making it the setting of even wierder goings on in that poem. Elsewhere Hogg refers to the power of place-names, and there as little doubt that Glenfinlas (or, Glenfinglas, the accepted spelling) caught Scott’s imagination of itself because it had, at the time he first visited it, both a magical name and a different appearance from the rest of the district. Whether this was on account of the fact that it had been preserved as a royal deer forest or not, is not clear, but both Patrick Graham and Alexander Campbell, refer to the appearance of its greensward. In an introduction to Glenfinlas, the place which brought forth from Scott his first substantive poem, he gives the following perfect general description of the Trossachs:

Glenfinlas is a tract of forest-ground lying in the Highlands of Perthshire, not far from Callander in Menteith. It was formerly a royal forest, and now belongs to tyhe Earl of Moray. This country, as well as the adjacent district of Balquhidder was, of yore, chiefly inhabited by the MacGregors. To the west of the Forest of Glenfinlas lies Loch Katrine, and its romantic avenue called the Trossachs. Ben Ledi, Ben More, and Ben Voirlich are mountains in the same district, and at no great distance from Glenfinlas. The river Teith passes Callander and the Castlew of Doune, and joins the Forth near Stirling. The Pass of Leny is immediately above Callander, and is the principal access to the Highlands from that town. Glenartney is a forest near Ben Voirlich. The whole forms a sublime tract of alpine scenery.

Coleman Parsons (1905-1991) summarises the plot of Glenfinlas as follows, alluding to its richness in superstition:

The action belongs to a time when red deer were hunted with bows and arrows, and the scene is near the poet’s favourite Loch Katrine and Ben Ledi. Sheltered in a hut on a moonlit night, Lord Ronald longs for the presence of Glengyle’s daughter, Mary. In spite of second sighted Moy’s reporting death-damps on his friend’s brow, corpse lights, and the cry of Ronald’s warning spirit, the amorous chief descends a dell for a tryst with Mary. Later Moy refuses to let a green-clad huntress wile him out in search of the lovers. The spirit then expands horribly, a storm rips the hut apart, and fragments of Lord Ronald rain from the sky on his virtuous friend. The youth has ben torn to bits by a succubus disguised as a wayward Lady of the Glen.

Coleman Parsons Witchcraft and Demonology in Scott’s Fiction 1964

Scott says that since then Glenfinlas has been called ‘the Glen of the Green Women’. In a note in The Lady of the Lake he elaborates on the significance of the colour green:

As the Daoine Shi’, or Men of Peace, wore green habits, they were supposed to take offence when any mortals ventured to assume their favourite colour. Indeed, from some reason, perhaps originally a general superstition, green is held in Scotland to be particularly unlucky to particular tribes and counties. The Caithness men, who hold this belief, allege as a reason, that their bands wore that colour when they were cut off at the battle of Flodden; and for the same reason they avoid crossing the Ord on Monday, being the day of the week on which their ill-omened array set forth. Green is also disliked by those of the name of Ogilvy; but more especially it is held fatal to the whole clan of Graham. It is remembered of an aged gentleman of that name, that when his horse fell in a fox-chase, he accounted for it at once by observing, that the whipcord attached to his lash was of this unlucky colour.

Scott makes Glenfinlas the site of a ritual to divine the future in Canto IV of the poem

The Taghairm call’d; by which, afar,
Our sires foresaw the events of war

The Highlanders, like all rude people, had various superstitious modes of inquiring into futurity. One of the most noted was the Taghairn, mentioned in the text. A person was wrapped up in the skin of a newly slain bullock, and deposited beside a waterfall or at the bottom of a precipice, or in some other strange, wild, and unusual situation, where the scenery around him suggested nothing but subjects of horror. In this situation, he revolved in his mind the question proposed; and whatever was impressed upon him by his exalted imagination, passed for the inspiration of the disembodied spirits who haunt the desolate recesses.

The precipice Scott chose is called Sgiath Mhic Griogar, situated above the river a little distance from Brig o’ Turk. In climbing circles ‘sgiath’ would be ‘slab’; Scott translates it literally as ‘targe’, the name given to those compact shields which seemed always to be used in medieval battles, which this massive rock does not resemble at all. At the foot of ‘MacGregor’s Targe’, the River Turk tumbles in the series of waterfalls drawn by Ruskin and painted by Millais. The poet describes the place as follows:

That huge cliff, whose ample verge
Tradition calls the Hero’s Targe.

There is a rock so-named in the Forest of Glenfinlas, by which a tumultuary cataract takes its course. This wild place is said in former times to have afforded refuge to an outlaw, who was supplied with provisions by a woman, who lowered them down from the brink of the precipice above. his water he procured for himself, by letting down a flagon tied to a string, into the black pool beneath the fall.

Sir Walter Scott The Lady of the Lake

Both Lady Sarah Murray and James Hogg went to Glenfinlas when the weather was inclement. Although it has been transformed by the Glasgow Corporation’s dam the lower part of the glen is still recognisably as it must have been, although Lady Sarah’s description of the old bridge and the ford have to be imagined:

Though it ceased to rain, all nature was weeping when I came to the foot of Glen Finlas, and to the river issuing thence; over which is a frail foot bridge of considerable breadth, made of birch wood intertwined, and covered with sod. As I entered the ford the scene was gloomy and awful. I was alone in the chaise: but I had confidence in my driver; therefore my mind was free from all sensations, but those produced by the extraordinary scenery around me. On the right a few scattered huts, and the river roaring from the deep glen, at that part darkened almost to night, by the high towering crags of the forest of Glenfinlas covered with wood. The river, though loudly heard, was scarcely seen from the abundance of large trees; some tall and straight as the pine, others spreading wide and embracing each other from bank to bank, bending over the broken flood, which was furiously advancing to the green bridge.

Lady Sarah Murray Beauties of Scotland                                              

I went quite out of my road to see Glenfinlas, merely because it was the scene of a poem in which I delighted, but could see nothing more than in other places. The hills were covered with mist down to the middle.

James Hogg Highland Tours 1803

 Those visiting the district can take the glen road to the entrance to the waterworks. Just beyond the entrance there is a footpath leading down to the river at a weir. It is immediately underneath Sgiath Mhic Griogar mentioned above. From the fork at the entrance to the waterworks the other track leads to the glen above the dam.

 

Loch Venachar
From Brig o’ Turk follow the A821 by Loch Venachar to Callander. At the foot of the loch on the left is Ben Ledi with its foothills, Dunmore and Bochastle Hill. At the road junction turn right, and cross the Eas Gobhainn by an eighteenth century bridge to join the Invertrossachs Road. This road extends from Callander along the south bank of the loch; turn left to reach Callander. By turning right and following the road, which is a cul-de-sac for motor cars , the visitor reaches Invertrossachs whence motorists must return the way they came.

Loch Venachar [Loch Vennachar, Loch Vennacher] gets its name from the gaelic. There is some doubt about its derivation, but several early writers call it the ‘loch of the fair valley’, others ‘the horned loch’: neither seem particularly apt. Situated at the open end of Strath Gartney, and turned into a reservoir in 1859, it has not the same degree of attractiveness as either Loch Achray or Loch Katrine. However, both banks have interesting enough stopping places, and the south bank commands fine views of the Trossachs Hills. Beyond Callander Uam Var is well seen on a fine day. This unprepossessing hill, little frequented, was made the starting point of the chase in ‘The Lady of the Lake’. Its name is thus better known than that of many other Scottish hills. Black’s Guide (1920) is interesting on the subject of this road beyond the Brig o’ Turk:

The road rapidly worsens, and for the rest of the way to Callander is a disgrace to the neighbourhood. Motor cars are forbidden: perhaps because of its narrowness, perhaps because those who are responsible fear that an outcry would be raised against them for allowing this much frequented road to welter in mud and dust. Loch Vennachar, in spite of its high-sounding name, and Sir Walter’s

Here Vennachar in silver flows,
There ridge on ridge Ben Ledi rose,

is distinctly disappointing. In fact, having reached Brig o’ Turk, the traveller has seen by far the best part of the trip.

G.E.Mitton Black’s Guide to Scotland      1900                                    

This passage undoubtedly alluded to the situation immediately before the war. There is little doubt that the road was kept as it was partly to preserve the road as it was for the four-in-hand coaches which plied daily between the Dreadnought in Callander and the Trossachs Hotel. The coaches were auctioned in 1920 and rapidly replaced by motor char-a-bancs.

Milton-of-Callander, half-way along the northern bank of the loch, is associated with Annie S. Swan (1859-1943), a prolific popular sentimental novelist of the nineteen-thirties, who occupied then the place in popular literature which Barbara Cartland now occupies. However, Virginia Woolf’s opinion about her [Diary 14th April, 1935] is worth reflecting on – “I read Annie S. Swan on her life with considerable respect…..no doubt her books, which she can’t count and has no illusions about…..are wash – pigs, hogs – any wash you choose. But she is a shrewd capable old woman.” Her novel ‘The Bridge Builders’, published in 1913 is partly set in West Perthshire, with scenes in Callander and Lochearnhead.

At the foot of the loch is Coilantogle Ford where the Glasgow Corporation sluices are situated. Above it is Dunmore, a distinctive iron age fort, and next to it Bochastle Hill, on the side of which is an erratic boulder, Sampson’s Putting Stone. Either Portnellan or Coilantogle make the best starting point for the easy way up Ben Ledi. However, it is much more usually ascended from the Pass of Leny.

Queen Victoria, it is recorded, reached the top of Ben Ledi on pony back, which indicates that it is not a hill that need test the powers of any two legged walker. the route her mount followed was from the vicinity of Coilantogle on Loch Vennachar. After about three miles easy ascent, interrupted by only one short steepish stretch, where Her Majesty may have dismounted and walked, it brings you to the handsome cairn.

W.Kersley Holmes Tramping Scottish Hills Eneas Mackay Stirling 1946

Another visitor to ascend Ben Ledi was John Everett Millais:

We have, in fine weather, immense enjoyment, painting out on the rocks, and having our dinner brought to us there, and in the evening climbing up the steep mountains for exercise, Mrs Ruskin accompanying us. Last Sunday we all walked up Ben Ledi, which was quite an achievement. I am only just getting the mountaineer’s certainty of step, after experiencing some rather severe falls, having nearly broken my nose, and bruised my thumb-nail so severely that I shall lose it. My shins are prismatic with blows against the rocks.
John Everett Millais August, 1853

Below Coilantogle at Gartchonzie there is a eighteenth century bridge across the Eas Gobhain, the outlet of the Loch, and a by road leads to Invertrossachs House. This bogus name was given to the place when Queen Victoria visited it in 1869 – Drunkie Lodge, it was thought, had difficult connotations.

It was owned then – the place has had numerous owners – by a Stueart MacNaughten, whose wife had connections with the Royal Household at Balmoral. The papers which exist about the visit include some letters about the domestic arrangements which were considered in an article in The Lady by Angus MacNaughten, his grandson. It was a private visit, but the house was vetted by officials, and one of the early letters speaks of Queen Victoria’s hope that ‘you would not go to any unnecessary expense in regard to new carpets or new furniture.’ The Queen was accompanied by Princesses Louis and Beatrice, and attended by Colonel Ponsonby, her private secretary, Lady Churchill and John Brown, her personal servant, all of whom stayed at the house together with other members of the household. Ponsonby took charge of the tour in the absence, owing to illness, of J.J.Kanne, the Director of Continental Journeys to the Royal Household. It was from Invertrossachs that the Queen made her several expeditions to the Trossachs which are quoted from elsewhere. Her account of their arrival from Callander is as follows:

We at once got into our celebrated sociable which has been to the top of the Furca in Switzerland, and had been sent on before, Colonel Ponsonby and Brown going on the box. We drove off at once with post horses through the small town of Callander, which consists of one long street with very few shops, and few good houses, but many poor ones. Poor Kanne (who was to have managed everything but had fallen ill) was still laid up there. We drove on., and, after about three-quarters of a mile’s drive, came to Loch Vennachar, a fine lake about four miles long, with Ben Venue and other high and beautiful mountains rising behind and around it. The road is thickly wooded with oak, birch, beech, mountain-ash, etc. The house stands extremely well on a high eminence, overlooking the loch and surrounded by trees, you drive up through evergreens and trees of all kinds. Half an hour brought us to the door of the house, Invertrossachs, which is small and comfortable. At the entrance is a nice little hall in which there is a small billiard table; to the left, beyond that, a very nice well-sized dining room with one large window. To the right of the hall is the drawing room, very much like the one at Invermark (Lord Dalhousie’s); altogether the house is in that style, but larger. The staircase is almost opposite the hall-door, and there is a narrow passage which goes on to the left and right, along which are Louise’s, Beatrice’s, my sitting room (a snug little room) and my bedroom (very good size); and, out of that, two little rooms which I use as dressing and bath rooms, and Emily Dittweiler’s. Further on, round a corner, as it were, beyond Louise’s, are Lady Churchill’s, her maid’s. and Colonel Ponsonby’s rooms, all very fair sized and comfortable. Close to my dressing room is a staircase which goes upstairs to where Brown and our other people live. The rooms are very comfortably and simply furnished, and they have put down new carpets everywhere.

 

William Mathie Parker, the Edinburgh literary topographer, suggested that Invertrossachs was used by Anthony Trollope in Phineas Finn, It is typical of Trollope to unwittingly infuriate his Scottish readers by transferring an Irish soubriquet to a Scottish loch, but Parker locates Lough Linter in the Trossachs, suggesting that the house may be Invertrossachs.

Millais: Illustration for Phineas Finn

Millais: Illustration for Trollope’s Phineas Finn

His case is convincingly argued, and when Kennedy, the laird of Lough Linter, says he will send to Callender [a Trollopian rendering, perhaps of Callander] for a doctor, the case seems proven. Millais’s famous illustration of Laura’s reception of Fineas Finn’s proposal has a hint of Loch Venacher about it, too.

Those going directly to Callander will cross the delightful ‘Roman’ bridge across the Leny at Kilmahog which Hogg called “a paltry village”. In fact it is an eighteenth century bridge built out of the funds derived from the Forfeited Estates. It was designed by the same architect as designed the beautiful bridge at the foot of Loch Tay, John Baxter.

 

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