Literary Loch Lomond and the Trossachs: 16. Loch Katrine II

The Lake Poets in Scotland

William Wordsworth (1770-1850), and Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855) visited Scotland together, and separately, on several occasions. Coleridge and Robert Southey each visited Scotland once

Their itineraries, on visits to Scotland, were as follows:

Itinerary [1801]: Wordsworth

Visited Hamilton and Glasgow; probably visited Loch Lomond

Itinerary [1803]: Wordsworth with Dorothy Wordsworth and Coleridge

Entered Scotland from Longtown, then by Annan to Nithsdale,
Thornhill, Wanlockhead, the Falls of Clyde, Hamilton, and Glasgow

Wednesday 24th August: Dumbarton to Luss
Thursday 25th August: Luss to Tarbet
Friday 26th August: Tarbet by Inversnaid to Glengyle
Saturday 27th August: Glengyle to Loch Achray; return to Coilachra
Sunday 28th August: Coilachra (The Ferryman’s Hut) by Inversnaid to Tarbet
Monday 29th August: Tarbet to Cairndow; Coleridge leaves Party

Went by Inverary, Loch Awe, Oban, Loch Creran, Ballachulish, Glencoe,
Kingshouse, Inveroran, Tyndrum, Killin, Kenmore, Blair Atholl, Dunkeld,
Rumbling Bridge, Sma’ Glen, Crieff, Lochearnhead, Strathyre, Pass of
Leny, to Callander and the Trossachs

Monday 12th Sept: Inversnaid by Glenfalloch to Glengyle
Tuesday 13th Sept: Coilachra by Loch Voil to Strathyre
Wednesday 14th Sept: Strathyre by Callander to Falkirk

Travelled home by Edinburgh, Roslin, Peebles, Melrose, Dryburgh,
Jedburgh, Mosspaul, Hawick, Carlisle

Itinerary [29th Aug– 15th Sep 1803]: Coleridge

Coleridge left the Wordsworths at Arrochar and went via Glen Falloch, Tyndrum, Glencoe, and Fort William into the Great Glen. He went via Foyers to Inverness and Fort George before turning south via Culloden, Moy, Dalnacardoch and Tummel Bridge to reach Kenmore. He then crossed to Amulree, Methven, Perth and Edinburgh before travelling south by coach.

Itinerary [19th Jul – 9th Sep 1814]: Wm. & Mary Wordsworth and Sarah Hutchinson:

Travelled to Carlisle, Brampton, Eskdalemuir, Moffat, Lanark Falls of Clyde, Glasgow, Dumbarton, Ardencaple, Rosneath Castle, Arrochar to Luss,

31st Jul Kilmaronock, Aberfoyle
1st Aug Loch Ard, Loch Chon, Lake of Menteith, Callander
2nd Aug Trossachs
3rd Aug Lochearnhead, Killin

From Killin they went to Glencoe, Inverness and Beauly. They returned by Inverness and Perth to Edinburgh, then to Traquair and Yarrow

Itinerary [17th Aug – 1st Oct 1819]: Robert Southey with Thomas Telford, John and Susannah Rickman

From Edinburgh they travelled to Linlithgow, Bannockburn, Stirling, Callander, the Trossachs, and round by the head of Loch Earn to Killin, Kenmore, and by Aberfeldy to Dunkeld. From Dunkeld they went to Dundee, Bervie, and Stonehaven, and thence to Aberdeen. The next point reached was Banff, then Cullen, whence they proceeded in gigs to Fochabers, thence by Craigellachie Bridge, which Southey greatly admired, to Ballindalloch, Forres, Nairn and Inverness whence then proceeded to view the works constructed at the crossing of the River Beauly and to visit Strathglass.
They arrived at Dingwall via Conan Bridge and proceeded to Invergordon, Tain, and Bonar Bridge, thence to the Mound and Dunrobin whence they retraced their steps. From Dingwall they went by Strathpeffer, Strome Ferry and Lochalsh to Skye before resuming their journey southwards via the Caledonian Canal, which is described in detail. The party then went to Ballachulish, Inveraray, Loch Lomond and Glasgow. Southey returned home by New Lanark and Moffat.

Southey’s Journal of a Tour in Scotland was published by the Institution of Civil Engineers, but not until 1927.

Itinerary [1822]: Dorothy Wordsworth and Joanna Hutchinson:

“We planned a little tour up the Forth to Stirling, thence by track-boat to Glasgow; from Dumbarton to Rob Roy’s Cave by steamer; stopping at Tarbet; thence in a cart to Inveraray; back again to Glasgow, down Loch Fyne, and up the Clyde, thence by coach to Lanark; and from Lanark to Moffat in a cart.”

Itinerary [1831]: Wordsworth with Dora Wordsworth:

In mid-September, at Scott’s invitation, with Dora, his daughter, as his companion, Wordsworth made his way in an open carriage by way of Carlisle and Hawick to Abbotsford where Scott was already seriously ill. They visited Newark Castle, and proceeded to Callander (via Roslyn Chapel, and Edinburgh) where Charles Wordsworth joined them.

“I rejoined my uncle and cousin at Callander: the former had just composed his beautiful sonnet on Sir Walter Scott’s Departure, and he recited it to me…on the banks of Loch Achray”

Charles Wordsworth Annals of My Early Life

They proceeded to Bonawe, Oban, and Mull

Itinerary [1833]: Wordsworth, his son Rev. John Wordsworth, and Henry Crabb Robinson

In July, departed from Whitehaven and visited the Isle of Man, then, Oban and Staffa. Returned by Loch Awe, Inveraray, Lochgoilhead, Greenock and through Renfrewshire, Ayrshire and Dumfries-shire to Carlisle

Loch Katrine

The focal point for the Wordsworths’ sojourns at Loch Katrine was the ‘Ferryman’s Hut’ at Coilachra. Dorothy Wordsworth’s affectionate account of this place, of the ferryman and his wife, and their neighbours is the most notable account we have of Highland domestic life at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It is beautifully written. Ferries are a leitmotiv of the Journal. Reading it one gradually becomes aware of their enormous significance everywhere in the Southern Highlands, not just on the seaboard. The Wordsworths embarked on ferries as a natural part of their journeyings, not just across lochs, but up and down them as well. Just how uncomfortable and dangerous they were is frequently made plain. One might suppose that the office of ‘ferryman’ in such a remote spot as the upper end of Loch Katrine, especially as the head of the loch was closer then than it now is, was scarcely required.

Coilachra was situated opposite Stronachlachar opposite the military road from Inversnaid constructed in 1718 leading, surprisingly to us nowadays, to Balquhidder,  Loch Earn, the foot of Loch Tay, Blair Atholl, and the Minigaig to Ruthven Barracks.. The party first engaged the ferryman after staying the night with the MacFarlanes at Glengyle. Their purpose was to travel to the Trossachs, at the foot of Loch Katrine. An amusing note is struck because Coleridge decides to walk, considering it would be too cold in the boat, and gets there first. One must suppose that the Wordsworths considered it appropriate to travel in the comparative style afforded by a vessel, however humble and however inconvenient.

We found the ferryman at work in the field above his hut, and he was at liberty to go with us, but being wet and hungry, we begged that he would let us sit by his fire till we had refreshed ourselves. This was the first genuine Highland hut we had been in. we entered by the cow-house, the house-door being within, at right angles to the outer door. The woman was distressed that she had a bad fire, but she heaped up some dry peats and heather, and, blowing it with her breath, in a short time raised a blaze that in a short time scorched us into comfortable feelings. A small part of the smoke found its way out of the hole of the chimney, the rest through the open window-places, one of which was in the recess of the fireplace, and made a frame to a little picture of the restless lake and the opposite shore, seen when the outer door was open. The woman of the house was very kind: whenever we asked her for anything it seemed a fresh pleasure to her that she had it for us; she always answered with a sort of softening down of the Scotch exclamation, ‘Hoot’. ‘Ho! yes, ye’ll get that,’ and hied to her cupboard in the spence. We got oatmeal, butter, bread and milk, made some porridge and then departed. It was rainy and cold, with a strong wind.

Coleridge was afraid of the cold in the boat, so he determined to walk down the lake, pursuing the same road we had come along. There was nothing very interesting for the first three or four miles on either side of the water: to the right, uncultivated heath or poor coppice wood, and to the left, a scattering of meadow ground, patches of corn, coppice woods, and here and there a cottage. The wind fell, and it began to rain heavily. On this William wrapped himself up in the boatman’s plaid, and lay in the bottom of the boat till we came to a place where I could not help rousing him.

Dorothy Wordsworth Journal                                         

When the Wordsworths first arrived at Stronachlacher they were very dismissive about Loch Katrine, likening it to Ullswater, which from them is praise indeed, but going on to say ‘Ullswater dismantled of its grandeur, and cropped of its lesser beauties’. However, the following passage, describing the Trossachs displays their enthusiasm for Scottish scenery which permeates the Journal:

We now came to the steeps that rose directly from the lake, and passed by a place called the Rock or the Den of the Ghosts, which reminded us of Lodore; it is a rock, or mass of rock, with a stream of large black stones like the dried up bed of a torrent down the side of it; birch trees start out of the water in every direction, and cover the hill above, further than we could see. The water of the lake below us was very deep, black, and calm. Our delight increased as we advanced, till we came in view of the termination of the loch, seeing where the river issues out of it throughj a narrow chasm in the hills.

Here I ought to rest, as we rested, and attempt to give utterance to our pleasure: but indeed I can impart little of what we felt. we were still on the same side of the water, and, being immediately under the hill, within a considerable bending of the shore, we were enclosed by hills all round, as if we had been on a smaller lake of which the whole was visible. It was an entire solitude; and all that we beheld was the perfection of loveliness and beauty.

We had been through many solitary places since we came to Scotland, but this place differed as much from anything we had seen before, as there had been nothing in common between them; no thought of dreariness or desolation found entrance here; yet nothing was to be seen but water, wood, rocks, and heather, and bare mountains above. We saw the mountains by glimpses as the clouds passed by them, and were not disposed to regret, with our boatman, that it was not a fine day, for the nearobjects were not concealed from us, but softened by being seen through mists. The lake is not very wide here, but appeared to be much narrower than it really is, owing to so many promontories, which are pushed so far into the lake that they are much more like islands than promontories.

Dorothy Wordsworth Journal                                                   

The simple intricacy of the scenery of the Trossachs is the secret of its charm remarked on by many nineteenth century visitors. Coleridge’s account of Loch Kathrine differs markedly from Dorothy Wordsworth’s, what she calls a ‘Highland Hut’, he calls a ‘Hovel’! Here is his account, which agrees with the Wordsworths’, of the time he spent with them at Loch Katrine and Inversnaid. It is taken from a letter to his wife written after he had left them, by their account because of his own lack of fitness and bad temper, by his because Wordsworth was getting on his nerves:

It rained all the way – all the long long day – we slept in a hay-loft, that is Wordsworth, I, and a young man who came in at the Trossachs and joined us: Dorothy had a bed in the hovel which was varnished so rich in peat-smoke, an apartment of highly polished oak would have been poor to it: it would have wanted the metallic lustre of the smoke-varnished rafters. This was the pleasantest evening evening I had spent since (the beginning of) my tour: for Wordsworth’s hyperchondriacal feelings kept him silent, and self-centred.

The next day it was still rain and rain. The ferry boat was out for the preaching, and we stayed all day in the ferry-house to dry, wet to the skin. Oh, such a wretched hovel! But two highland lasses who kept house in the absence of the ferryman and his wife were very kind, and one of them was as beautiful as a vision, and put both me and Dorothy in mind of the Highland Girl in William’s ‘Peter Bell’.

We returned to Tarbet, I with rheumatism in my head, and now William proposed to me that I leave them and make my way on foot to Loch Kathrine and the Trossachs whence it is only twenty miles to Stirling, where the coach runs through for Edinburgh. He and Dorothy resolved to fight it out. I eagerly caught at the proposal: for sitting in an open carriage in the rain is death to me, and somehow or other I had not been quite comfortable. So on Monday I accompanied them to Arrochar, on purpose to see the Cobbler, which had impresssed me so much in Mr Wilkinson’s drawings, and there parted with them, having previously sent on all my things to Edinburgh by a Glasgow Carrier who happened to be at Tarbet. The worst thing was the money – they took twenty-nine guineas, and I six, all our remaining cash.

S.T. Coleridge Letters September, 1803

In one important respect Coleridge agrees with the Wordsworths. Both have high praise for the Trossachs when they finally get there, indeed Coleridge pays the place the highest compliment he can think of by likening it to Borrowdale, one of the most sublime parts of the English Lake District, and allowing that it is ‘the only thing which really beats us’, that is, that in this one respect Scotland is superior to the Lake District. Coleridge went on to visit other parts of the Highlands, and asserted that the five finest things in Scotland were ‘(1) Edinburgh; (2) The antechamber of the Fall of Foyers; (3) The view of Loch Lomond from Inchtavannach; (4) The Trossachs, and (5) The view of the Hebrides from a point, the name of which I forget.” Few would quarrel with this list of itself, although one might wish to add to it. It stands up surprisingly well today and, pleasingly, the Trossachs are included. His description is given here:

You must conceive of the Lake of Keswick pushing itself up, a mile or two, into the Jaws of Borrowdale, winding round Castle Crag, and in and out among all the nooks and promontories – and you must imagine all the mountains more detachedly built up, a general dislocation – every rock its own precipice, with trees young and old – and this will give you some faint idea of the place – of which the character is extreme intricacy of effect produced by very simple means – one rocky high island, four or five promontories, and a ‘Castle Crag’, just like that in the Gorge of Borrowdale, but not so large.

S.T. Coleridge Letters September, 1803

Those who know both the Trossachs and the jaws of Borrowdale will be struck by the aptness of Coleridge’s image.

The party were united at the foot of the loch, and explored the place. At that time, even, Lady Perth had erected huts to shelter visitors, long before the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake. The Wordsworths went on to visit Scott on this trip and one cannot doubt that they conveyed their enthusiasm for the place to him, and he his to them, although their account does not make reference to this. In the Journal Dorothy Wordsworth makes a revealing comment about her disposition towards Nature which is dismissive of ‘The Picturesque’. With the Wordsworths a particular attitude to scenery emerged. The ferryman clearly had a primitive understanding of what ‘tourists’ wanted:

The ferryman was a good-natured fellow, and rowed very industriously, following the ins and outs of the shore; he was delighted with the pleasure we expressed, continually repeating how pleasant it would have been on a fine day. I believe he was attached to the lake by some sentiment of pride, as his own domain – his being almost the only boat upon it – which made him, seeing we were willing gazers, take far more pains than an ordinary boatman; he would often say “This is a bonny part,” and he always chose the bonniest, with greater skill than our prospect- hunters and “picturesque travellers”; places screened from the winds – that was the first point; the rest followed of course, richer growing trees, rocks and banks, and curves which the eye delights in.

Dorothy Wordsworth Journal                                                          

In his thought-provoking book ‘Sir Walter Scott: Landscape and Locality’, James Reed argues that the Wordsworths’ attitude to Nature was less all-embracing, more old-fashioned, even, than that of Scott, but that it prevailed during the nineteenth century:

For the Wordsworths, nature and man are different, but related components of one larger whole; components which interact physically, morally and spiritually. In the long run, Wordsworth’s view superseded that of his eighteenth century forbears, but it might have been different if Scott’s commitment to poetry had been stronger than his devotion to history and Scotland. what he does is see man, and the works of man, in a total landscape: land, buildings, people, manners, history fused by time. Like the ballad-makers, he uses his own idiom from the region he knows best, but the approach is transferable. Scott’s man leaves in his wake ruined towers, decaying abbeys, flints, spearheads, broken helmets, bones; legacies of a fuedal faith and a romantic chivalry. Every walk or ride with Scott was a History Trail imbued, like his writing, with the anecdotal, reminiscent richness of the experienced and informed observer. Only now is the Wordsworthian outlook losing some of its tyranny; only now are we beginning to return more frequently to see man in his landscape, rather than the landscape alone; now we may be inclined to renounce our next Highland, Alpine, or Lakeland Holiday for an exploration of our nineteenth century industrial heritage in the wilder regions, say, of West Yorkshire, where woolen mills quietly decay in the valley bottoms, and where violent tales of coining and machine-breaking whisper to us from the old stone of Hebden Bridge and Heptonstall. The idioms of Scott, and those of, say, Norman Nicholson, Ted Hughes, Edwin Morgan and R.S.Thomas are very different but they see and use the landscape in a way that he would appreciate and Wordsworth would not.

James Reed Sir Walter Scott: Landscape and Locality 1980

The Wordsworth’s further reactions to the Trossachs that day are considered later. In the evening, when it was getting dark and cold and coming on to rain, the party returned the way they had come, accompanied by an Edinburgh artist, probably called Wilson. Coleridge again chose to walk. They were warmly received once more by the farmer’s wife and Dorothy Wordsworth gives a further description the house and of their domestic life:

When I went to bed the mistress, desiring me to go ‘ben’, attended me with a candle, and assured me that the bed was dry, though ‘not sic’ as I had been used to’. It was of chaff; there were two others in the room, a cupboard and two chests, on one of which stood the milk in wooden vessels covered over; I should have thought that the milk could not have been sweet, but the cheese and the butter were good. The walls of the whole house were of stone unplastered. It consisted of three apartments – the cow house at one end, the kitchen or house in the middlre, and the space at the other end. the rooms were divided, not up to the rigging, but only to the beginning of the roof, so that there was a free passage for light and smoke from one end of the house to the other.

I went to bed some time before the family. the door was shut between us, and they had a bright fire, which I could not see; but the light it sent up among the varnished rafters and beams, which crossed each other in almost as intricate a manner as I have seen the under-boughs of a large beech tree withered by the depth of the shade above, produced the most beautiful effect that can be conceived.

Dorothy Wordsworth Journal                                

The following morning the party left Coilachra and returned to it in September after completing their Short Highland Tour, approaching the place this time from Callander. It was a fine day, and Wordsworth probably ascended Bealach nam Bo, if not Ben Venue itself. Dorothy went so far, and then waited for him. The description of the road they then took along the north bank of Loch Katrine is memorable. The road has been widened and surfaced in the interests of the Glasgow Corporation, but it remains a narrow country lane which, because the Water Board prohibit traffic, is highly attractive to the cyclist and the walker. Indeed, the reputation which the upper part of Loch Katrine has as a dreary place is, to my mind, quite unjustified. It is very easy, even today, to recollect Dorothy Wordsworth’s description of it:

I can add nothing to my description of the Trossachs, except that we departed with our old delightful remembrances endeared, and many new ones. The path or road – for it was neither the one nor the other, but something between both – is the pleasantest I have ever travelled in my life for the same length of way – now with the marks of sledges or wheels, or none at all, bare or green, as it might happen; now a little descent, now a level; sometimes a shady lane, at others an open track through green pastures; then again it would lead us into thick coppice woods, which often entirely shut out the lake, and again admitted it by glimpses. We have never had a more delightful walk than this evening. Ben Lomond and the three pointed-topped mountains we had seen from the Garrison, were very majestic under the clear sky, the lake perfectly calm, the air sweet and mild. I felt it was much more interesting to visit a place where we have been before than it can possibly be the first time, except under peculiar circumstances.

Dorothy Wordsworth Journal                                

It was on this evening that they met two neatly dressed women, one of whom said to them in a friendly tone of voice , “What! you are stepping westward?” Dorothy goes on to point out “I cannot describe how affecting that simple expression was, with the western sky in front, yet glowing with the departed sun.” It inspired Wordsworth’s poem ‘Stepping Westward’, and put that memorable phrase into the language:

STEPPING WESTWARD

“What! You are stepping westward?” Yea,
‘Twould be a wildish destiny
If we, who thus together roam
In a strange land and far from home,
Were in this place the guests of chance:
Yet who would stop, or fear to advance,
Though home or shelter he had none,
With such a sky to lead him on?

The dewy ground was hard and cold,
Behind all gloomy to behold,
And stepping westwards seem’d to be
A kind of heavenly destiny;
i liked the greeting, ’twas a sound
Of something without place or bound;
And seemed to give me spiritual right
To travel through that region bright.

The voice was soft; and she who spake
Was walking by her native lake;
The salutation was to me
The very sound of courtesy;
Its power was felt, and while my eye
Was fixed upon the glowing sky,
The echo of the voice enwrought
A human sweetness with the thought
Of travelling through the world that lay
Before me in my endless way.

‘The Solitary Reaper’, perhaps Wordsworth’s most distinguished Scottish poem, was inspired by a phrase in Thomas Wilkinson’s ‘Tours of the British Mountains’, published in 1824, but written following a visit in 1797. Wilkinson copied down an extract from his description in Wordsworth’s common-place book:

Passed by a female who was reaping alone, she sung in Erse as she bended over her sickle, the sweetest human voice I ever heard. Her strains were tenderly melancholy, and felt delicious long after they were heard no more.

The manuscript encouraged the Wordsworths to visit Scotland although the book was not published at the time. Wilkinson, a Quaker yeoman farmer from Yanwath near Penrith in Cumberland, where the Wordsworth family to which William and Dorothy belonged originated,, was a friend of the Wordsworths whom they visited often. It was after they had crossed the hill pass and were descending the Invernenty Burn towards Loch Voil that they saw the reapers. The poem begins as follows:

Behold her single in the field
Yon solitary Highland Lass,
Reaping and singing by herself –
Stop here or gently pass.

The poem is quoted in full in the section dealing with Balquhidder (#21). It is a fitting end to the Wordsworths’ first tour of the Trossachs. That day they left distict for Stirling, Edinburgh and the Borders. It contains some fine imagery and reworks the theme Wordsworth returned to again and again: the way nature stays in the mind’s eye. Like much of his poetry it can be mocked, as Wilfred Taylor (1910-1987), the highly regarded Scotsman Columnist, does here, in his gentlest vein. He and Wordsworth both had a good deal of time for Highland lasses:

 I do not happen to believe, as the poet Wordsworth did, in solitary Highland lasses. The Highland lass is a very gregarious and sociable institution and not at all prone to mope by herself in the hope that an English bard may come along and apostrophise her. There is no doubt at all, however, that the Highland lass is a delight to hear. She speaks with a soft. clear, highpitched, melodious intonation with undertones of grave dignity and great courtesy

Wilfred Taylor Scot Free 1953

 

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