Literary Loch Lomond and the Trossachs: 18. Loch Achray

 

From Trossachs Pier Leave by A821 by Trossachs Hotel, Loch Achray and Brig o’ Turk.

Dorothy Wordsworth described Loch Achray in her Journal as follows:

At the opening of the pass we climbed up a low eminence, and had an unexpected prospect suddenly before us – another lake, small compared with Loch Katrine, though perhaps four miles long, but the misty air concealed the end of it. The transition from the solitary wilderness of Loch Katrine and the narrow valley or pass to this scene is very delightful: it was a gentle place, with lovely open bays, one small island, cornfields, woods and a group of cottages. This vale seemed to have been made to be tributary to the comforts of man, Loch Katrine for the lonely delight of Nature, and kind spirits in delighting in beauty. This small lake is called Loch Achray.

This description does justice to Loch Achray although she got the dimensions wrong. It could quite easily stand by itself, even if it were not ‘tributary’ to Loch Katrine; the view of Ben Venue coming from Callander (another ‘Queen’s View’), and any view of the splendidly set church are first class.

The Trossachs Hotel was erected in 1852. Its towers are so etiolated that they are called ‘candlesnuffers’. The old inn was always overcrowded, and there are accounts of it from Carlyle, in Henry Cockburn’s Circuit Journeys, and in the letters of Charles Dickens. An early visitor to the new hotel was Nathaniel Hawthorne, the American Gothic Novelist:

Our voyage being over, we landed, and found two omnibuses, one of which took us through the famous Pass of the Trossachs, a distance of a mile and a quarter to a hotel erected in castellated guise by Lord Willoughby d’Eresby. We were put into a parlour within one of the round towers, panelled all round, and with four narrow windows, opemning through deep embrasures. No play-castle was ever more like the reality, and it is a very good hotel, like all that we have experience of in the Highlands. After tea we walked out, and visited the little kirk that stands near the shore of Loch Achray, a good point of view for seeing the hills round about.

Thomas Carlyle‘s account is of the previous establishment, notorious in its day, and it precedes the account of his visit to Inversnaid already alluded to. He wrote it at Cheyne Row, in the Autumn of 1866, and it appears in his reminiscences. His companions were Edward Irving, John Pears (a schoolmaster in Kirkcaldy), and James Brown:

 

We marched for Doune in the evening to breakfast at Callander next morning, and get to Loch Katrine in an hour or two more. I have not been in that region again until the August last year (four days of magnificent perfect hospitality with Stirling of Keir); – almost surprising to me how mournful it was to look on ‘this picture and on that’ at an interval of fifty years!

Irving was in a sort the captain of our expedition; he had been there before; could remember everything, – was made by us(unjustly by us) quasi- responsible for everything. The Trossachs I found really grand and impressive, Loch Katrine exquisitely so (my first taste of beautiful scenery); not so any of us the dirty smoky farm-hut at the entrance, with no provision in it, but bad oatcakes and unacceptable whisky, or the ‘Mr Stewart’ who somewhat royally presided over it, and dispensed these dainties, expecting to be flattered like an independency, as well as paid like an innkeeper. Poor Irving could not help it: – but in fine the rain, the hardships, the ill-diet were beginning to act on us all; ………..

Stewart’s Inn was widely referred to in similar terms. It was known as ‘Stewart’s Inn’ on account of the force of the personality of its landlord. The place where it was situated was the rather difficult to pronounce Ardceanachrochan, an old name for Loch Achray.

Here the stranger, who requires a guide, will meet with a very intelligent and obliging person, James Stewart, whose principal occupation, during the summer, is to act as cicerone of the Trosachs. he keeps boats upon Loch Katrine, and servants in readiness to attend.

Patrick Graham Sketches of Perthshire                   

Sir Robert Christison‘s Autobiography, confirms Carlyle’s view:

A few years earlier in the century, before the Lady of the Lake made the district famous, the only refuge for travellers here was the simple dwelling of Mr Stewart of Ardcheanacrochan. When my father visited the place, Stewart received him and his party as would a small highland chieftain, entertaining them with his company as well as with his good fare. But it was a well understood rule for the visitors at parting to leave on the table what they judged to be compensation.

The accommodation consisted at that time of a rude thatched ground floor house, with very limited, but comfortable quarters. When my party was there [1816], a larger, yet still small, blue slated house accommodated the few additional guests attracted by the scenery of Scott’s poem; and the visit concluded with the appearance of an innkeepers modest bill in due form. We were so unlucky, however, as to find the new house occupied by a fashionable London sister-in-law of Stewart, so that we were relegated to a long low thatched cottage consisting of a butt and a ben, each containing two roomy press beds. Ten years later, when I revisited the Trossachs, Stewart’s humble quarters were replaced by a large hotel, which bedded 37 customers, and now [1885] there is a huge castellated edifice capable of housing a hundred.

Henry Cockburn (1779-1854) the circuit judge left, in his Journals, an invaluable and affectionate account of Scotland and of the Scottish landscape in the first half of the nineteenth century. He railed twice about ‘Stewart’s Inn’ in Circuit Journeys and, if Cockburn complained about something, it was generally completely justified:

Tarbet: 11th September, 1838

The inn near the Trossachs could, perhaps, put up a dozen, or at the very most two dozen of people; but last autumn I saw about one hundred people apply for admittance, and after horrid altercations, entreaties and efforts, about fifty or sixty were compelled to huddle together all night. They were all of the upper rank, travelling mostly in private carriages, and by far the greater number strangers. But the pigs were as comfortably accommodated. I saw three or four English gentlemen spreading their own straw on the earthen floor of an outhouse, with a sparred door, and no fire-place or furniture. And such things occur every day there, though the ground belongs partly to a Duke and partly to an Earl – Montrose and Willoughby. These are the countrymen of Sir Walter Scott. His genius immortalises the region. This attracts strangers and this is their encouragement. Is there any part of the Continent where this could happen?

Henry Cockburn Circuit Journeys                                                                                                                              

A notable victim of these conditions was Charles Dickens who left an amusing account of his experiences in a letter to John Forster, his biographer. It is sometimes forgotten that Dickens travelled all over the country giving readings from his works, that he was an enthusiastic appreciator of the countryside and a hill walker who left a description of his ascent of Carrock Fell in the Lake District. After describing the Trossachs, he goes on to make some observations about Scottish Hotels in general:

Lochearnhead: 5th July, 1841

Having had a great deal to do in a crowded house on Saturday night at the theatre we left Edinburgh yesterday morning at half past seven, and travelled, with Fletcher for our guide, to a place called Stewart’s hotel, nine miles further than Callander. We had neglected to order rooms, and were obliged to make a sitting room our own bedchamber; in which my genius for stowing furniture away was of the very greatest service. Fletcher slept in a kennel with three panes of glass on it, which formed part and parcel of a window; the other three panes whereof belonged to a man who slept on the other side of the partition. He told me this morning that he had a nightmare all night, and screamed horribly, he knew. The stranger, as you may suppose, hired a gig and went off at full gallop with the first glimpse of daylight. Being very tired (for we had not had more than three hours sleep on the previous night) we lay till ten this morning; and at half past eleven went through the Trossachs to Loch Katrine, where I walked from the hotel after tea last night. It is impossible to say what a glorious scene it was. It rained as it never does rain anywhere but here. wqe conveyed Kate up a rocky pass to go and see the island of the Lady of the Lake, but she gave in after the first five minutes, and we left her, very picturesque and uncomfortable, with Tom [their servant] holding an umbrella over her head while we climbed on. When we came back, she had gone into the carriage. We were wet through to the skin, and came on in that state four and twenty miles. Fletcher is very good natured and of extraordinary use in these outlandish parts. His habit of going into kitchens and bars, disconcerting at Broadstairs, is here of great service. Not expecting us till six, they hadn’t lighted our fireswhen we arrived here; and if you had seen him (with whom the responsibility of the omission rested) running in and out of the sitting room and the two bedrooms with a great pair of bellows, with which he distractedly blew each of the fires out in turn, you would have died of laughing. He had on his head a great Highland cap, on his back a white coat, and cut such a figure as even the inimitable can’t depicter…….

The inns, inside and out, are the queerest places imaginable. From the road this one looks like a white wall, with windows in it by mistake. We have a good sitting room though, on the first floor: as large (but not as lofty) as my study. The bedrooms are of that size which renders it impossible for you to move, after you have taken your boots off, without chipping pieces out of your legs. There isn’t a basin in the highlands which will hold my face; not a drawer which will open after you have put your clothes in it; not a water bottle capacious enough to wet your toothbrush. The huts are wretched beyond all description. The food (for those who can pay for it) “not bad”, as M [Mitton] would say: oatcake, mutton, hotch potch, trout from the loch, small beer bottled, marmalade, and whisky. Of the last named article I have taken about a pint today. The weather is what they call “soft” – which means that the sky is a vast water-spout that never leaves off emptying itself; and the liquor has no more effect than water.

Charles Dickens Letter to John Forster                                                      

Cockburn’s second passage makes virtually the same complaint as his first. It is of interest, however, because of the description it gives of the rapid changes which were occurring in transportation, and an idea of the pace of travel in the Highlands in those days. There is a reference at the end to the scheme, later abandoned, to obtain water for Glasgow from Loch Lubnaig:

Stewart’s Inn, Trossachs: 8th September, 1846

Mrs Cockburn, my daughter Elizabeth, and Elizabeth Richardson, embarked with me on a northern voyage, in a carriage on the Falkirk railway, at eight this morning. The carriage had been sent forward last night, and met us at Falkirk a little after nine. We breakfasted at Stirling, after which Lizzie Richardson and I explored the castle and the city under a torrent of rain. We set off about one: and after leaving our cards for David Dundas, the new Solicitor General for England, at Ochtertyre, his seat, we got here about half past six. The two Lizzies and I walked, and just saw the end of loch Katrine under a still, grave peaceful evening. The day brightened before we got to Ochtertyre, and has continued steadily fine ever since.

Comrie House: 9th September, 1846

We passed a couple of hours yesterday on Loch Katrine; then went to Callander; renewed my acquaintance with the Falls of Brackland which I last saw in March 1811; left Callander about two; and gliding along Loch Lubnaig and Loch Earn, got here at about seven, amidst the blaze of a glorious sunset. All excellent; but too common, even to myself, for reflections worth recording.

The world is still paying homage to the genius of Scott at the Lake of his Lady. I find that Stewart’s Inn can accommodate about a dozen of people comfortably, and about twice that number with some decency. But there is now a small steamer on the loch, which goes three times down and three times up daily, and generally loaded. There are omnibuses to carry them on to Callander, besides gigs, cars, and private carriages. But they all arrive from Loch Lomond, Callander and other quarters, expecting accommodation at the wonderful and expansive place called Stewart’s inn, and, except the twelve or the twenty four, are all daily, or rather hourly, destined to be disappointed. On our way from Callander to that place we counted fifty people returning from Stewart’s inn in vehicles. There had beem above one hundred people at that inn that day. Yet the two peers, Willoughby and Montrose, have not the sense to either shut up the loch altogether, or spirit to build a proper house.

Montrose’s side of the loch is still bare. It was cut, or rather grubbed out, I don’t rember how long ago, but certainly after the publication of the poem; for I remember Scott, in his indignation, threatening to save the trees, and disgrace their owner, by getting up a penny subscription, and paying the £200 (this, I believe, was the sum) for which they were to be sold. but we observed one of the very finest weeping birches, on the right hand side of the road going towards Loch Katrine, which we were told that Lady Willoughby had given five guineas to save. I trust, and have no reason to doubt, that she has in store the treasure of many as good deeds.

Loch Lubnaig, it is supposed, is going into Glasgow – to cleanse faces and to be made into punch. I believe that an Act has been obtained for the supply of what the inhabitants delight to call the Metropolis of the West, with water from this lake.

Margaret Drabble in Writer’s Britain points out that George Eliot’s Mary Garth (Middlemarch) and Maggie Tulliver (Mill on the Floss) are both Scott addicts. George Eliot [Mary Ann Evans] (1819-80) visited Scotland in October 1845 in the company of one of her close friends Sara Hennell and another couple, the Brays. She wrote to Sara Hennell before the trip:

“There is a very misty vision of a trip to the Highlands haunting us this quarter. The vision would be much pleasanter if Sara were one of the images in it.”

Their itinerary, which is also interesting, made the Trossachs and Abbotsford high points of the visit. From Coventry they went to Liverpool and by packet steamer to Greenock to visit Glasgow, the cathedral in particular, the next day. A further day was devoted to Dumbarton and Balloch, and the Saturday to travelling up Loch Lomond to Tarbet Inn. On the Sunday they went to church there. The next day was devoted to walking by the shore of Loch Lomond, and the following one to crossing it and reaching the Trossachs Inn. They then rambled about Loch Katrine for a day; and the next went to Callander and the Bracklinn Falls. They reached Edinburgh by Stirling and Falkirk and spent a further day there. Their last day included Galashiels, Abbotsford and Melrose where they stayed, travelling to Birmingham the next morning.

Millais Sketchbook: Trossachs Church

Millais Sketchbook: Trossachs Church

Beyond the Hotel is the Trossachs Church, arguably the best situated in Scotland, and, at a corner, “The Queen’s View”, Loch Achray. One of the best accounts of the road from Callander to the Trossachs is in Alexander Smith Summer in Skye (1864):

The loveliest sight on the route to the Trossachs is about to present itself. At a turn of the road Loch Achray is before you. Beyond expression beautiful is that smiling lake, mirroring the hills, whether bare and green or plumaged with woods from base to crest. Fair azure gem in a setting of mountains! The traveller – even if a bagman – cannot but pause to drink in its fair beauty; cannot but remember it when far away amid other scenes and associations.

 

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