Literary Loch Lomond and the Trossachs: 17. The Trossachs

In a word, the Trossachs beggar all description.

Dorothy Wordsworth quoting Rev James Robertson DD  The Parish of Callander

I saw a wild confused assemblage of heights, crags, precipices which they call the Trossachs

  Nathaniel Hawthorne English Notebooks Spring 1856

The world believes, and will continue to believe, that Scott was the first sassenach who discovered the Trossachs, as it was his poem which gave them their world-wide celebrity. It would probably be as impossible to alter this impression as it would be to substitute for Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Lady Macbeth the very different versions of the facts and characters which historical research has brought to light. And yet it would be interesting to inquire what first brought the Trossachs into notice, and who first did so?

John Campbell Shairp Introduction to Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journal 1874

 

The Trossachs Pier is at the heart of the Trossachs. When he visited the Trossachs in 1800 John Leyden (1775-1811), a friend and disciple of Sir Walter Scott, met the redoubtable Lady Sarah Murray (1744-1811), who conducted him to Murray Point, named after herself, from which the Loch could be viewed. Sarah Murray was the author of A Companion and Useful Guide to The Beauties of Scotland, and she asserted that she ‘discovered’ the Trossachs, and that Scott ought to have dedicated The Lady of the Lake to her. In fact, both Dorothy Wordsworth and she quote freely from James Robertson, minister of the Parish of Callander writng in The First Statistical Account whose description was undoubtedly one of the earliest.
In his admirable little book William Wilson points out that Dorothy Wordsworth misquotes Robertson. What he says is, “When you enter the Trossachs, there is such an assemblage of wildness and rude grandness, as beggars all description, and fills the mind with the most sublime conceptions.” The Wordsworths, Patrick Graham and Thomas Wilkinson also deserve some credit for discovering the Trossachs, but it was undoubtedly the publication of the Lady of the Lake in 1810, of Waverley in 1814 and Rob Roy in 1818 which led to a boom in the Tourist Trade:

The whole country rang with the praises of the poet – crowds set off to the scenery of Loch Katrine, till then comparatively unknown; and as the book came out just before the season for excursions, every house and inn in that neighbourhood was crammed with a constant succession of visitors. It is a well ascertained fact that, from the date of the publication of ‘The Lady of the Lake’ the post-horse duty in Scotland rose to an extraordinary degree, and indeed continued to do so regularly for a number of years, the author’s succeeding works keeping up the enthusiasm for our scenery which he thus originally created.

Robert Cadell (Scott’s Publisher)

John MacCulloch took a more realistic view, in a letter addressed to the author, of the effects of Scott’s works which included, as a by-product, an adaptation of ‘Rob Roy’ for the stage (18xx):

But the mystic portal has been thrown open and the mob has rushed in, dispersing all these fairy visions, and polluting everything with its unhallowed touch. Barouches and gigs, cocknies, and fishermen and poets, Glasgow weavers and travelling haberdashers now swarm in every resting place and meet us at every avenue. As Rob Roy now blusters at Covent Garden and the Lyceum, and Aberfoyle is gone to Wapping, so Wapping and the Strand must also come to Aberfoyle. The green-coated fairies have packed up their alls and quitted the premises, and the Uriskins only caper now in your verses.

In A Summer in Skye Alexander Smith‘ (1865) alludes to Scott’s influence in an impressive passage:

 Scott has done more for Edinburgh than all her great men put together. Burns has hardly left a trace of himself in the northern capital. During his residence there his spirit was soured, and he was taught to drink whisky-punch – obligations which he repaid by addressing “Edina, Scotia’s darling seat,” in a copy of his tamest verses. Scott discovered that the city was beautiful – he sang its praises all over the World – and he has put more coin into the pockets of its inhabitants than if he had established a branch of manufacture of which they had the monopoly. Scott’s novels were to Edinburgh what the tobacco trade was to Glasgow about the close of the last century. Although several labourers were before him in the field of Border Ballads, he made fashionable those wonderful stories of humour and pathos. As soon as “The Lay of the Last Minstrel” appeared, everybody was raving about Melrose and moonlight. He wrote “The Lady of the Lake” and next year a thousand tourists descended on the Trossachs, watched the sun setting on Loch Katrine, and began to take lessons on the bagpipe. He improved the Highlands as much as General Wade did when he struck through them with his military roads. Where his muse was one year, a mail-coach and a hotel were the next. His poems are grated down into guide books. Never was an author so popular as Scott and never was popularity worn so lightly and gracefully. In his own heart he did not value it highly; and he cared more for his plantations at Abbotsford than for his poems and novels. He would rather have been praised by Tom Purdie [Scott’s gardener] than any critic.

Confirmation that Scott’s influence was at work before the Lady of the Lake is to be had in Scotia Depicta, a collection of fine etchings of the scenery of the Highlands of Scotland published in 1804, which gives the following description of the Trossachs. Although it dates from the early nineteenth century the approach is that of the eighteenth, giving some idea of people’s perception of the countryside at that time:

Perthshire not only contains some of the most beautiful scenery in North Britain, but also some of the most sublime. The Trossachs are often visited by those persons who are fond of seeing Nature in her wildest and most unpolished garb. They consist of large broken masses of rock and mountain thrown into every fantastic shape as well as some others of the most stupendous height.
By passing along the southern side of Ben Ledi, a traveller may wind along the sides of two beautiful lakes which present him with a variety of the finest scenery. The foregrounds are enriched with wood which sometimes admits and at others secludes the exposure of the lake and the distant mountains. In walking along the north side the road is in some parts cut out of the solid rock, two hundred feet above the perpendicular of the lake, and in others passes along the bottom of some rugged and stupendous masses of rock. In order to examine the spot in all its parts, it is necessary to sail along the lake to what is called the ‘Rock or Den of the Ghost’, in the dark recesses of which a fanciful and rude imagination might conceive of some supernatural beings to have fixed their residence. In this neighbourhood is also the celebrated Glen Finglas now more generally known from the beautiful poem of Mr Walter Scott which bears the same name and is published in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. When a person first enters the Trossachs there appears such an assemblage of wildness and grandeur as renders every description inadequate to convey a satisfactory idea: it seems as if a whole mountain had been torn in pieces by a convulsion of nature and the huge fragments of rock and woods scattered in confusion along the side of Loch Katrine. The access to this lake is through a narrow pass. The rocks are of a great height and seem of their very projection ready to fall on the head of the traveller and crush him in their ruins.

In addition to Scotia Depicta, another similar book appeared at about the same time by a local man, Alexander Campbell who was born at Tombea, at the foot of Loch Lubnaig. A poet, whose poems in the Gaelic he translated into English. His Journey Through Parts of North Britain, a beautifully illustrated book, was published in 1802. There is no better description of the Trossachs than this, even if Campbell perhaps combines Rob Roy with the Uruisks to put the wind up the traveller:

Pathless and perplexed with all the wild luxuriance of briar, bramble, thorn, and a multiplicity of matted vegetation (till lately, when a road, rude, it is confessed, but on foot and on horseback, passable, was, with much difficulty constructed), the entrance to Loch Katrine was known to the natives only; and, indeed, to but very few of them. On turning a creek to the right, we enter the celebrated pass called the Trossachs. These rugged masses leave their hoary cliffs, and bend all their fantastic wildness over us, as we proceed on to the end of the pass; where some, more conical than the rest, seem to a lively imagination as if placed by nature as mute spectators of that thrilling amazement which the stranger feels at his entrance on the confines of the lake; the east end of which is the deep dark pool on whose margin we now halt.
Here let us pause. Look up to the left; behold that gigantic precipice, wooded to the top, bending over the pool in sullen grandeur. Among these rocks, whose gloom rests eternal on the bosom of the lake, in former times a savage band, ruthless, intractable, and cruel, had fixed their lurking place, and issued forth, naked as they were born, committing depradations on the peaceable inhabitants of these glens, ravishing the women, murdering those that resisted, setting fire to habitations all round, ,and butchering without distinction the old and the young. Hence this precipice retains the name of Coire nan Uruisken, the den of the wild-men or savages.

However, there is no doubt that the most influential book to appear at this time was A Companion and Useful Guide to The Beauties of Scotland by Sarah Murray. Lady Sarah Murray [Aust] (1744-1811), undertook her tours on her own at the end of the eighteenth century, and merits the epithet ‘indefatigable’ which is frequently applied to her. She visited many sites which were at that time very inaccessible, and wrote about them with an infectious enthusiasm. Visiting Loch Awe, she mentions her meeting with Leyden, referring to his poem about breaking a bottle of cider – just as he was about to drink it – on Cruachan. Her visit to the Trossachs is full of her customary superlatives and conceits. However, there is no doubt that she was a remarkable traveller, and her work has a tremendous vitality. The passage quoted is preceded by a somewhat exaggerated description of the Pass of the Trossachs in which she states that her coachman was so frightened that he was afraid that he might encounter the devil. As a consequence she had to lead the way:

 

When I first caught sight of Loch Katrine, I was astonished, I was delighted -.a faint ray of sun was just then penetrating through the mist, still resting on the tops of the surrounding mountains and crags, tinging the the woods on their sides, and gleaming on the beautiful islands in the lake. The ‘devils’ [boatmen] too greatly added to the beauty of the foreground. They were in a large boat, throwing from it upon the shore, logs of wood which they had brought from the head of the lake. This was a fortunate circumstance, as it enabled me to be rowed about the lake as much as I chose. It was a mere chance, but a lucky one for me, that a boat should be at the end of the lake. whilst the innocent devils were finishing their work, I walked up the road, cut out in steps on the crags, hanging over the lake to the north, to a high point, since called Mrs Murray’s Hill, whence I saw the chief part of the the loch; which lies nearly from west to east. The view from that point to the foot of the lake, which is the east end, over the islands, and to the mountains on the south side of the lake, belonging to the Duke of Montrose, is beautiful; but part of it may truly be called sublime, where the lake runs off by a river that conveys the water of it through the awful Pass of Achray. i was very sorry I could not see the shape of the Stuc a Chroin [Ben Venue], but it had on it an impenetrable cap of mist. At the south side of the peak is Loch Chroin and Coire a Chroin [Coire Uruiskin]. From the high point I was upon, I perceived my boatmen had finished their task, and were rowing to take me up. I therefore descended to the edge of the lake, and with some little scrambling embarked. They rowed me to the Den of the Ghost, and under the solid rock which rises two hundred feet perpendicular above the level of the lake; and also round the beautiful wooded island, and to the foot of the loch.

Sarah Murray Beauties of Scotland                                                                                                                                         

John Leyden’s account follows; he makes the same error as Sarah Murray in calling Ben Venue ‘Stuc a Chroin’ – what the explanation of this is, it is difficult to decide, but it suggests that Leyden probably got his information from Lady Sarah. The mistake is unusual for both of them, and it is possible that this was an alternative name:

At the upper end of the of the lake the Trossachs present themselves, a cluster of wonderful rocks which shut up the defile of Loch Katrine. They display a most astonishing and savage mixture of gray precipices huddled together in awful confusion, projecting with bare and woody points, intermingling with and surmounting each other, wedging into each other’s sides, and patched in the most fantastic manner by brown heath finely contrasted with the verdure of the trees. The precipices are dreadfully rent and torn. The gloom and the silence of the place cause every footfall to,be echoed far and wide. as we wound silently through this confusion of beauty and horror, we soon heard the sounds of the waves dying away among the rocks. the spout end of the lake is finely diversified by islands and woody promontories, but in some places, from the quantity of wood that has been cut down, the sides of the rock have been left bare and naked, by which the solemn effect is much diminished, as we were informed by Mrs Murray of Kensington, whom we were fortunate enough to meet just as we came in sight of the lake. She conducted us to Murray Point, named from herself, the discoverer; whence we had an enchanting view of part of the Trossachs and of the greater part of the lake, the precipice of Den of the Ghost, and the peak of Rutting, or Stuc a Chroin.

John Leyden Tour in the Highlands and Western Islands 1800

James Hogg in his Highland Tours was one of the next to describe the scene. He came up, as was the fashion, with a rather far-fetched and tedious explanation of the geology of the place, and went on to say, ‘I will not attempt a particular description of them, but they are indeed the most confused piece of nature’s workmanship that I ever saw, consisting of a thousand little ragged eminences all overhung with bushes, intersected with interstices, the most intricate and winding imaginable.’

Some account has already been given of the Wordsworths’ first visits to the Trossachs. Their reactions when they first saw the heart of the place are contained in the Journal as follows:

The second bay we came to differed from the rest; the hills retired a short space from the lake, leaving a few yellow fields between, on which was a cottage embosomed in trees; the bay was defended by rocks at each end, and the hills behind made a shelter for the cottage, the only dealing except one on this side of Loch Katrine. We now came to the steeps that rose directly from the lake, and passed by a place called in Gaelic the ‘Den of the Ghosts’ [Coire nan Uruiskin], which reminded us of Lodore; it is a rock, or mass of rock, with a stream of large black stones like the naked or dried up bed of a torrent down the side of it; birch trees start out of the rock in every direction, and cover the hill above further than we could see.

Dorothy Wordsworth Journal                                                            

After we had landed we walked along the road to the uppermost of the huts where Coleridge was standing. From the door of this hut we saw Ben Venue opposite to us – a high mountain, but clouds concealed its top; its side rising directly from the lake, is covered with birch trees to a great height, and seamed with innumerable channels of torrents; but now there was no water in them, nothing to break the stillness and repose of the scene; nor do I recollect hearing the sound of water from any side, the wind being fallen, and the lake perfectly still; the place was all eye, and completely satisfied the sense and the heart. Above and below us to the right and the left, were rocks, knolls, and hills, which wherever anything could grow – and that was everywhere between the rocks – were covered with trees and heather; the trees did not in any place grow so thick as an ordinary wood; yet I think there was never a bare space of twenty yards; it was more like a natural forest, where the trees grow in groups or singly. not hiding the surface of the ground which instead of being green and mossy was of the richest purple. The heather was indeed the most luxuriant I ever saw; it was so tall that a child of ten years old struggling through it would often have been buried head and shoulders, and the exquisite beauty of the colour, near or at a distance, seen under the trees, is not to be conceived. But if I were to go on describing for evermore, I should give but a faint and very often false idea of the different objects and the various combinations of them in this most intricate and delicious place.

Dorothy Wordsworth Journal                                                         

On their return, without Coleridge, from the direction of Callander, they had better weather. They revisited the places they had been to and were ‘ delighted to behold the forms of objects fully revealed, and even surpassing in loveliness and variety what we had conceived.’ Wordsworth climbed from the Pass of Achray towards Ben Venue leaving Dorothy behind before they went back to Coilachra. It was this place that inspired, years later, Wordsworth’s famous sonnet, The Trossachs. It was composed by the poet after his last visit to Sir Walter Scott. ‘As recorded in my sister’s journal, I had first seen the Trossachs in her and Coleridge’s company. The sentiment which runs through this sonnet was natural to the season in which I again saw this beautiful spot, but this and some other sonnets that follow were coloured with the remembrance of my recent visit to Sir Walter Scott, and the melancholy errand on which he was going.’

THE TROSSACHS

There’s not a nook within this solemn Pass
But were an apt confessional for One
Taught by his summer spent, his autumn gone
That Life is but a tale of morning grass:
Withered at eve. From scenes of art which chase
That thought away, turn, and with watchful eyes
Feed it midst Nature’s old felicities
Rocks, rivers, and smooth lakes more clear than glass:
Untouched, unbreathed upon. thrice happy quest,
If from a golden birch of aspen spray
(October’s workmanship to rival May
The pensive warbler of the ruddy breast
That moral sweeten by a heaven-taught lay
Lulling the year, with all its cares, to rest.
William Wordsworth

:
Dora Wordsworth remarks, of the the same journey, ‘At Loch Katrine and also among the rocks of the cataract of the Dochart near Killin, we were particularly struck with the rich and wild beauty of the aspens, the depending sprays of which looked exactly like the tassels of the laburnam in full blossom.’

These accounts go some way towards distinguishing what it was about the Trossachs that people came to see before Scott.  The appeal of the place is something to do with its scale. Ben Venue, for example, is an unimposing presence amongst the mountains of the southern highlands as they are seen from the South; yet, at Loch Katrine, it completely dominates the scene, looming above the loch as if it were Ben Nevis itself. Ben A’an, equally dominant from some spots, is a subsidiary summit of an otherwise uninteresting moor. However, it is the fact neither of these two mountains can be adequately seen from more than one or two points of view and that the intervening hills and promontories mean that there are continuously changing backdrops to the scene which give the Trossachs ‘proper’ their charm. In addition, of course, the associations of the place, add to the effect: the ‘Den of the Ghosts’, the Silver Strand, Bealach an Duine, Ellen’s Isle, and Bealach nam Bo are geographical locations about which, even before Scott wove them into an epic poem, tales could be told.
Even today the slopes of Ben Venue are relatively inaccessible between the isolated farmstead, Glasahoile, mentioned by Dorothy Wordsworth and the exit from the loch at the Pass of Achray. High above the loch is Bealach nam Bo, the pass of the cattle, across which Rob Roy is said to have driven stolen cattle, beneath this, yet still dramatically above the lake is Coire nan Uruisken, the corrie of the satyrs, or, more poetically, the den of the ghosts, or the goblin’s cave about which Patrick Graham told authoritative tales of its fairy inhabitants. Scott offers the following description in a note:

This is the very steep and most romantic hollow in the mountain of Ben Venue, overhanging the southwestern extremity of Loch Katrine. It is surrounded with stupendous rocks, and overshadowed with birch trees, mingled with oaks, the spontaneous production of the mountain, even where its cliffs appear denuded of soil.

In The Lady of the Lake it appears more poetically as follows:

It was a wild and strange retreat,
As e’er was trod by outlaw’s feet.
The dell, upon the mountain’s crest
Yawned like a gash on warrior’s breast;
Its trench had staid full many a rock
Hurled by primeaval, earthquake shock,
From Ben Venue’s gray summit wild,
And here, in random ruin piled,
They frowned incumbent o’er the spot,
And formed the rugged sylvan grot.
The oak and birch, with mingled shade,
At noontide there a twilight made,
Unless when short and sudden shone
Some straggling beam on cliff or stone,
Gains on thy depth, Futurity.
No murmur waked the solemn still,
Save the tinkling of a fountain rill;
But when the wind chafed with the lake,
A sullen sound would upward break,
With dashing hollow voice, that spoke,
The incessant war of wave and rock.
Suspended cliffs with hideous sway
Seem’d nodding o’er the cavern gray.
from such a dell the wolf had sprung,
In such the wild-cat leaves her young;
Yet Douglas and his daughter fair
Sought for a space their safety there.
Gray Superstition’s whisper dread,
Debarr’d the spot to vulgar tread:
For there, she said, did fays resort,
And satyrs hold their sylvan court,
By moonlight tread their mystic maze,
And blast the rash beholder’s gaze.

On the other side of the loch is Bealach an Duine, the pass of the man, the site of a battle in Cromwell’s time when an incident woven into the poem, as the battle is, took place. One of Cromwell’s soldiers was indeed stabbed to prevent him setting foot there, by one Helen Stuart who, with other women and children, was taking refuge on Eilean Molach, the shaggy island. The pass is above the Silver Strand, the white-pebbled beach opposite what Scott, and everyone ever since, called Ellen’s Isle.

Sir Walter Scott is not generally considered to be a poet of the first rank, and he did not have any great opinion of his own abilities as a poet. There is no doubt, however, that he was a compelling phrase-maker of very considerable abilities, and the impact which passages from two or three of his poems have had is out of all proportion to their particular merits as poems. His first successes were connected with his native Borderland, and The Lady of the Lake was his first substantial venture north of the Highland Line. Its effects have already been alluded to, and they continued throughout the nineteenth century and it must be supposed, if he was not of the first rank as a poet, that they were connected with the intrinsic merits of the Trossachs, and that Scott was simply an enabler. His most famous lines celebrating the scene occur in four stanzas in the first canto of the poem, which is in six cantos consisting of two hundred and two stanzas!

The western waves of ebbing day
Rolled o’er the glen their level way;
Each purpled peak, each flinty spire,
Was bathed in floods of living fire.
But not a setting beam could glow’
Within the dark ravines below.
Where twined the path in shadow hid,
Round many a rocky pyramid,
Shooting abruptly from the dell
Its thunder-splinter’d pinnacle;
Round many an insulated mass,
The native bulwarks of the pass,
Huge as the tower which builders vain
Presumptuous piled on Shinar’s plain.
The rocky summits, split and rent,
Form’d turret, dome and battlement,
Or seem’d fantastically set!
With cupola or minaret,
Wild crests as pagod ever deck’d,
Or mosque of Eastern architect.1
Nor were these earth-born castles bare,
Nor lack’d they many a banner fair;
For, from their shiver’d brows display’d,
Far o’er the unfathomable glade,
All twinkling with the dew-drops sheen,
The brier rose fell in streamers green,
And creeping shrubs, of thousand dyes,
Waved in the west-wind’s summer sighs.

***

Boon nature scatter’d, free and wild,
Each plant or flower, the mountain’s child
Here eglantine embalml’d the air,
Hawthorn and hazel mingled there;
The primrose pale and violet flower,
Found in each cleft a narrow bower;
Fox-glove and nightshade, side by side,
Emblems of punishment and pride,

Group’d their dark hues with every stain
The weather-beaten crags retain.
With boughs that quaked with every breath,
Gray birch and aspen wept beneath;
Aloft, the ash and warrior oak
Cast anchor in the rifted rock;
And, higher yet, the pine tree hung
His shattered trunk, and frequent flung,
Where seemed the cliffs to meet on high,
His boughs athwart the narrow’d sky.
Highest of all, where white peaks glanced,
Where glist’ning streamers waved and danced,
The wanderer’s eye could barely view
The summer heaven’s delicious blue;
So wondrous wild the whole might seem
The scenery of a fairy dream.

                                  ***
Onward, amid the copse ‘gan peep
A narrow inlet, still and deep,
Affording scarce such breadth of brim,
As served the wild duck’s brood to swim,
Lost for a space, through thickets veering,
But broader when again appearing,
Tall rocks and tufted knolls their face
Could on the the dark-blue mirror trace;
And farther as the hunter stray’d,

Still broader sweeps its channel made.
The shaggy mounds no longer stood,
emerging from entangled wood,
But, wave encircled, seemed to float,
Like castle girdled with its moat;
Yet broader floods extending still,
Divide them from their parent hill
Till each, retiring, claims to be
An inlet in an inland sea

                                     ***
And now, to issue from the glen,
No pathway meets the wanderer’s ken,
Unless he climb, with footing nice,
A far projecting precipice.
The broom’s tough roots his ladder made,
The hazel saplings lent their aid;
And thus an airy point he won,
Where, gleaming with the setting sun,
One burnish’d sheet of living gold,
Loch Katrine lay beneath him roll’d,
In all her length far-winding lay,
With promontory, creek, and bay,
And islands that, empurpled bright,
Floated amid the livelier light,
And mountains, that like giants stand,
To sentinel enchanted land.
High on the south, huge Benvenue
Down on the lake in masses threw
Crags, knolls, and mounds, confusedly hurl’d,
The fragments of an earlier world;
A wildering forest feather’d o’er
His ruin’d sides and summit hoar,
While on the north, through middle air,
Benan heaved high his forehead bare.

Scott Lady of the Lake Canto I

The complex poem is about the mythical adventures of a medieval Scottish king and his court, James Fitzjames, in reality James V, the father of Mary Queen of Scots. As a boy he was held captive by Archibald Douglas who after the young king’s escape flies to the Highlands where he lives under the protection of a Highland Chieftain, Roderick Dhu to whom Douglas has promised the hand of his daughter, Ellen. However, Ellen falls in love with Malcolm Graeme. Thus the stage is set. Apart from the four stanzas quoted, the poem has other equally well-known descriptive passages, but it was undoubtedly these four which Smith had in mind when he spoke of Scott’s work being cut up for guide books. They are descriptive of the Trossachs ‘proper’, and constitute a pause in what is otherwise very much a narrative poem; the four stanzas are an appropriate dish for the literary gourmet

However, most people would now quarrel with the approach to the poem adopted by very many guide books, in particular that in what is still probably the best guide book to the district yet produced. In Black’s Trossachs, the then Astronomer-Royal, Sir George Bidell Airy (1801-92) who, among his other accomplishments accurately weighed the Earth using a pendulum, analysed the ‘topography’ of The Lady of the Lake in great detail. Sir George, possibly at times with his tongue in his cheek, undoubtedly did this approach to death, pausing, for example, in an aside, to comment that four of Scott’s lines about the position of the moon were astronomically correct, to chide the poet, here and there, for his choice of location, and, elsewhere, to praise the aptness of his choice. Scott mentions the name of a place, and Sir George, with what must be regarded as tremendous application tells us exactly where it can be found on the six inch map; Scott describes how a character gets from place to place, and Sir George struggles after him, ‘forcing’ his way where necessary. The product of all this was that no guide book for the next fifty years, it seemed, mentioned Brig o’ Turk without quoting the lines:

And when the Brig of Turk was won
The headmost horseman rode alone

The lines tell us nothing about the Brig o’ Turk, and may not necessarily have been inspired by that particular spot. It is merely a euphoneous location on an exciting journey. In contrast the evocative lines, descriptive of a location,

Where the Trossachs’ dread defile
Opens on Katrine’s lake and isle,

are more worth quoting, but are only picked up by the few, for example, in H.A. Piehler‘s admirable guidebook Scotland for Everyman. Not even the master wordsmith Scott could make anything of the ‘Allt Ardcheanacrochan’, and others have pointed out that had ‘Callander’ had a more poetic name it might well have been featured in the poem which has brought millions of people to the place.

Of course, Scott loved to explain his own allusions and his introductions and notes are quite as interesting as his poems and novels. Thus these criticisms may seem more than a little unjust, particularly in a book like this, but what gives Sir George away is that he disects the work to a much greater extent than is really justifiable, and he hardly quotes at all from the four stanzas given above. He is much more interested in geography, than in poetry. He ought to be more balanced. That is not say that his analysis is not enjoyable, or that it is not a very good read.

Another device, in addition to the descriptive passages, which Scott uses to break up the action is the introduction of ‘Songs’ of which the best known are the ‘Hymn to the Virgin’ (Ave Maria), the ‘Boat Song’ (Hail to the Chief), and the ‘Coronach’. Franz Schubert (1797-1826) set seven of these songs to music in 1825, and separated at least one of them from the poem to such an extent that it is often not realised that what is one of the most famous songs in the world, Ave Maria, has this quintessentially Scottish connection. It is this development that illustrates the success which Scott really enjoyed, and the grip he took on European culture at the time. In this respect The Lady of the Lake is in direct line of succession to ‘Ossian’ which enjoyed similar international recognition; the fascination which the Highlands have exercised on foreigners transcends landscape, it is about European culture. In a letter to Schober from Steyr in 1823 Schubert says he is at work on an opera, goes for walks, and reads Scott. Ellen’s Third Song [Ellen’s Gesang III] has the following words:

AVE MARIA!

Ave Maria! Maiden mild!
Listen to a maiden’s prayer
Thou canst hear though from the wild,
Thou canst save amid despair
Safe may we sleep beneath thy care
Though banish’d, outcast, and reviled,
Maiden! hear a maiden’s prayer;
Mother, hear a suppliant child!

Ave Maria!

Ave Maria! undefiled!
The flinty couch we now must share
Shall seem with down of eider piled,
If thy protection hover there.
The murky cavern’s heavy air
Shall breathe of balm if thou hast smiled;
Then, maiden hear a maiden’s prayer;
Mother, list a suppliant child!

Ave Maria!

Ave Maria! stainless styled!
Foul demons of the earth and air
From this their wanton haunt exiled,
Shall flee before thy presence fair.
We bow us to our lot of care,
Beneath thy guidance reconciled;
Hear for a maid a maiden’s prayer,
And for a father hear a child!

Ave Maria


In a moving passage in a letter to his parents Schubert, then aged twenty-eight and not noted for his sobriety, commented on the immediate success which ‘Ave Maria’ enjoyed:

My new songs from Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake especially had much success. People were greatly surprised at the piety, which I expressed in a hymn to the Holy Virgin by which, it seems, all are struck and turned to devotion. I think this is due to the fact that I have never forced devotion in myself and never compose hymns or prayers of that kind unless it overcomes me unawares; but then it is usually genuine religious feeling.

Franz Schubert Letters July 1825

The seven songs from The Lady of the Lake which Schubert set were: Ellen’s First Song [Soldier rest! thy warfare o’er (‘Raste, Krieger’)] is basically a lullaby, Ellen’s Second Song [Huntsman rest! Thy chase is done (‘Jage, ruhe’)], Ellen’s Third Song [Ave Maria], ‘Norman’s Song'[The heath this night (‘Die Nacht bricht bald herein’)], the ‘Lay of the Imprisoned Huntsman'[My hawk is tired of perch’ (‘Mein Ross so mude’), a polonaise; and the two choruses the ‘Boatsong’, for four male voices, and the ‘Coronach’, for three female voices. It is suggested by Schubert’s biographer, Otto Deutsch, that, in his imagination, Schubert used Lake Traun in the Salzkammergut instead of Loch Katrine. The lake has another vague, sad Hanoverian connection with Scotland; beside it is Cumberland Castle where the last Duke of Cumberland died. Schubert used a translation by P. A. Storck, which in the case of all of the songs except Norman’s Song, sticks closely enough to Scott, although freely adapting him in places, for the original English words to be used in singing. The Coronach remains the song still most closely associated with and most widely quoted from The Lady of the Lake:

CORONACH

He’s gone to the mountain,
He is lost to the forest,
Like a summer-dried fountain,
When our need was the sorest.
The font, reappearing,
From the rain-drops shall borrow,
But to us comes no cheering,
To Duncan no morrow!

The hand of the reaper,
Takes the ears that are hoary
But the voice of the weeper
Wails manhood in glory.
The autumn winds rushing
Waft the leaves that are searest
But our flower was in flushing,
When blighting was nearest.

Fleet foot on the corrie,
Sage counsel in cumber,
Red hand in the foray
How sound is thy slumber!
Like the dew on the mountain,
Like the foam on the river,.
Like the bubble on the fountain,
Thou art gone and forever.

Scott Lady of the Lake Canto III

Scott offers the following description, in a note, of a ‘coronach’:

The coronach of the Highlanders, like the ululatus, and the ululoo of the Irish, was a wild expression of lamentation, poured forth by the mourners over the body of a departed friend. when the words of it were articulate, they expressed the praises of the deceased, and the loss the clan would sustain by his death.

Schubert’s songs remain the best known adaptations of Scott. However, the Lady of the Lake provided the basis for the first opera based on Scott, who apart from Shakespeare, is the British writer who was the progenitor of most operas. Gioacchino Antonio Rossini (1792-1868) wrote La Donna del Lago in 1847. It is, unlike many other adaptations, a “good” opera which has remained in the repertoire, although it is not so often performed these days. However, by far the quirkiest, the least expected, and, in a curious way, the most significant, derivation from the Lady of the Lake is “Hail to the Chief”. It was first played at the inauguration of President Polk in 1845 and, since then, it has had the curious status of not quite being the National Anthem, but of being the anthem played to announce the arrival, or to recognise the President of the United States: Coolidge and Carter, Eisenhower and Bush, Roosevelt and Nixon, Trueman and Kennedy, Clinton and Obama have all arrived, here, there and everywhere in the World, to the echoes of a song first devised by Scott to celebrate the arrival of a Highland Chief, rowed by his clansmen down Loch Katrine:

BOAT SONG

Hail to the Chief who in triumph advances!
Honor’d and bless’d be the evergreen pine!
Long may the tree, in his banner that glances,
Flourish, the shelter and grace of our line.
Heaven send it happy dew,
Earth lend it sap anew,
Gayly to burgeon, and broadly to glow,
While every Highland glen
Sends our shout back again,
“Roderigh Vich Alpine dhu, ho! iero!”

Ours is no sapling chance-sown by the fountain
Blooming at beltane, in winter to fade;
When the whirlwind has stripped every leaf on the mountain,
The more shall Clan alpine exult in her shade.
Moor’d in the rifted rock,
Proof to the tempest’s shock,
Firmer he roots him the ruder it blow;
Menteith and Breadalbane, then,
Echo his praise again,
“Roderigh Vich Alpine dhu, ho! iero!”

Proudly our pibroch has thrill’d in Glen Fruin,
And Bannochar’s groans to our slogan replied;
Glen Luss and Ross Dhu, they are smoking in ruin,

And the best of Loch Lomond lie dead on her side.
Widow and Saxon maid
Long shall lament our raid,
Think of Clan Alpine with fear and with woe;
Lennox and Leven glen
Shake when they hear again,
“Roderigh Vich Alpine dhu, ho! iero!”

Row vassals row for the pride of the Highlands
Stretch your oars for the evergreen pine
O! that the rosebud that graces yon islands,
Were wreathed in a garland around him to twine!
O that some seedling gem,
Worthy such noble stem,
Honour’d and bless’d in their shadow might grow!
Loud should Clan Alpine then
Ring from the deepmost glen,
“Roderigh Vich Alpine dhu, ho! iero!”

Scott gives a note in explanation of the cry “Roderigh Vich Alpine dhu, ho! iero!”:

Roderick the Black, the descendant of Alpine. besides his ordinary name and surname, which were chiefly used in the intercourse with the Lowlands, every Highland chief had an epithet expressive of his patriarchal dignity as head of the clan, and which was common to all his predecessors, as Pharoah to the kings of Egypt, or Arsaces to those of Parthia, this name was usually a patronymic, expressive of his descent from the founder of the family. Thus the Duke of Argyle is called MacCallum More, or the Son of Colin the Great.

Scott Appendix to Lady of the Lake          

It is supposed that the song was set by James Sanderson (1769-1841), a prolific songwriter from Washington in County Durham, England, although there are odd circumstances surrounding its publication in England. The original has not been traced. The song is also known in America as ‘Roderic Dhu’s March’, ‘Wreathes for the Chieftain’, and ‘Erie and Champlain’.

Robert Southey (1774-1843) was another early visitor, post The Lady of the Lake, to the Trossachs. Like the Wordsworths he was a ‘Lake Poet’ and, of course he compares the Trossachs with his beloved Lake District. Interestingly, he chooses Leathes Water which was transformed for its waterworks by Manchester in exactly the same way and at about the same time as Loch Katrine was transformed for the same purpose by Glasgow. Leathes Water became Thirlmere. His comparison with Helvellyn is less certain; he may have meant Place Fell. Southey approached, as did almost everyone else, from Loch Achray:

The day cleared before we began to return, and nothing could then be more favourable than the lights. the side on which we landed was of a sylvan character, like the end of Leathes water, but upon a much larger scale. Ben Venue, if I remember rightly, more resembles Helvellyn as seen from Ullswater than any other mountain with which I can compare it. It appears well for its height: indeed I should have guessed its elevation above its real measurement. But perhaps the finest points of view are in the Trossachs, before you arrive at the water; and when its summit appears over the hills in the gorge; and the entrance of the gorge from the Lake, where the base of the mountain is seen.

Robert Southey Journal of a Tour in Scotland                                                              

Southey had a distinguished Scottish friend, Thomas Telford, and his tour in 1819 of the Highlands was rather different from that made by other literary visitors to Scotland because it was a trip to see Telford’s civil engineering works. His account is, perhaps, very much more alert to the contemporary social and economic life of the country than others. It was not published until 1929, when it was put before the public by the Institution of Civil Engineers. At the Trossachs he deplores the Duke of Montrose’s recent sale of the trees on Ben Venue for timber. Scott tried to avert this by raising a subscription but it was too late:

The scenery must have suffered much, but not so much as might be supposed; trees enough of smaller growth were left, because they were not worth cutting, to prevent any appearance of nakedness; and rocks and crags have been laid bare, which before must have been concealed. But this did not enter into his Grace’s calculations; he is fairly entitled to all the vituperation which is bestowed upon him by visitors to Loch Katrine.

Robert Southey Journal of a Tour in Scotland                                                          

Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849), the historical novelist and the poineer of women’s education who was much admired by Scott, and an admirer of his, visited the Trossachs in 1823. Her letters echo Southey in several respects although she turns, naturally enough, to Killarney to make comparisons. She wrote, of the place:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Callander, 20 June, 1823
Here we are! I can hardly believe we are really at the place we have so long wished to see: we have really been on Loch Katrine. We were fortunate in the day; it was neither too hot, nor too cold, nor too windy, nor too anything.The lake was quite as beautiful as I expected, but that is telling you nothing, as you cannot know how much I expected. Sophy has made some memorandum sketched for home, though we are all well aware that neither pen nor pencil can bring before you reality. William says he does not, however, fear for Killarney, even after our having seen this. Here are no arbatus, but plenty of soft birch, and twinkling aspen and dark oak. On one side of the lake the wood has been within these few years cut down. Walter Scott sent to offer the proprietor ú500 for the trees on one spot, if he would spare them; but the offer came two days too late; the trees were stripped of their bark before his messenger arrived. To us, who never saw this rock covered with trees, it appeared grand in its bare boldness and in striking contrast to the wooded island opposite.

Tell Fanny that, I think Farnham Lakes as beautiful as Loch Katrine; as to mere beauty, perhaps superior; but where is the lake of our own, or any other times, that has such delightful power over the imagination by the recollections it raises? As we were rowed along, our boatman, happily our only guide, named to us the points we most wished to see; quietly named them, without being asked, and seemingly with a full belief that he was telling us plain facts, without any flowers of speech. “There’s the place on that rock yonder, where the king blew his horn.” And there’s the place where the lady of the Lake landed.” “And there is the Silver Strand, where you see the white pebbles in the little bay yonder.”

He landed us just at the spot where the Lady

From underneath an aged oak-
That slanted from the isle rock,

shot her little skiff to the silver strand on the opposite side. When William asked him if the king’s dead horse had been found, he smiled and said he only knew that bones had been found near where the king’s horse died, but he could not be sure that they were the bones of King James’s good steed. However, he seemed quite as clear of the existence of the Lady of the Lake, and of all her adventures, as of the existence of Ben Ledi and Ben Venue, and the Trossachs. He showed us the place on the mountain of Ben Venue, where formerly there was no means of ascent but by ladders of broom and hazel twigs, where the king climbed,

with footing nice’
A far-projecting precipice

At the inn the mistress of the house lent me a copy of the Lady of the Lake, which I took out with me and read while we were going to the lake, and while Sophy was drawing. We saw an eagle hovering, and, moreover, Sophy was drawing some tiny sea-larks flitting close to the shore, and making their little, faint cry. Returning, we marked the place where the armed Highlanders started from the furze brake before King James, when Roderic Dhu sounded his horn, and we settled which was the spot at

Clan Alpine’s outmost guard

where Roderic Dhu’s safe conduct ceased, and where the king and he had their combat.

Maria Edgeworth Letters 1894

Horatio McCulloch (1805-1867) is probably the most famous of a number of Scottish painters who have been inspired by Scott. His most notable work is ‘Loch Katrine'(1866) which is in the Perth Museum and Art Gallery. Alexander Smith, who was a friend of McCulloch’s wrote in The Scotsman ‘As a view of Highland scenery we have never seen its equal; and no man but McCulloch could have produced it’. In his literary guide William Wilson mentions this picture:

Concerning the picture by Horatio McCulloch, the late Captain Munro told me that while McCulloch was making this picture, they walked home together in the evenings. One evening, when the Captain joined the artist, McCulloch said, “I have just finished my picture. Leave me alone for a few minutes. Whenever I finish a big picture, I offer a word of thanks to the Most High.”

Wilson, who served as the Minister of the Trossachs Church for 41 years does not mention that McCulloch probably stayed at the Trossachs Manse in 1863 when he completed his sketches for two big pictures of ‘Loch Achray’ in which the Manse is visible. His sketches for the ‘Loch Katrine’ were probably made in 1861 when he also stayed in the district, but it is not clear where. This subject was painted by McCulloch as early as 1842 which is the date of his ‘Loch Katrine from the Boathouse’. McCulloch also made an oil painting of another local subject in his ‘View near Aberfoyle’ of 1836.

Of course it is not in the least surprising that the district should attract notable artists. Indeed, the greatest of them all, J.M.W.Turner (1775-1851), who was inspired in the first instance to visit Scotland by Joseph Farington, illustrated Scott, and his choice of viewpoint for his illustration of Loch Katrine for the Lady of the Lake probably influenced McCulloch. Turner was at Loch Lomond and the Trossachs in 1831, following ‘The Trossachs Tour’, one of his principal objectives being to secure illustrations for Scott’s Poetical Works. The two finally chosen, and engraved by William Miller (1796-1882), were ‘Loch Katrine’, and ‘Loch Achray’, a vignette.

An earlier painting by Turner entitled ‘The Trossachs’ is sometimes dated 1799- 1800, although Turner’s first substantive visit to Scotland was not until 1801. The picture was first entitled Mountain Landscape with a Lake and it is now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. It is a striking picture, but Ruskin lambasted it:

The worst picture I ever saw of this period, ‘The Trossachs’, has been for some time exhibited at Mr Grundy’s in Regent Street; and it has been much praised in the public press on the ground, I suppose, that it exhibits so little of Turner’s power or manner as to be hardly recognisable as one of his works.

Wilson also mentions ‘Loch Katrine’ by James Docharty (1829-1878) of Bonhill, the painter of realistic, true to life pictures of the Highlands, ‘Loch Achray’ by Sam Bough and ‘The Heat of the Day’ by John Smart (1838-1899), which Wilson regarded as his best picture. He also records pictures by John McWhirter (1839- 1911), and Colin Hunter (1841-1904), the pupil of James Milne Donald noted for his watercolours. John Knox (1778-1845), the artist who taught McCulloch, painted a picture called ‘Highland Loch Scene’ which is generally considered to be of Loch Katrine. Two Scottish Academicians Joseph Adam (1842-1896) and Archibald Kay (1860-1940) lived in Callander.

Many pictures of Loch Katrine are from the Silver Strand of Ben Venue or of Ellen’s Isle. Seton Gordon describes the most famous incident – which Scott wove into his poem – connected with this island in his Central Highlands. This notable author did not write as much about this district as about the Cairngorms and Skye, but the piece captures his distinctive tone of voice, and his economy with words, admirably:

 It is said that one of Cromwell’s soldiers lost his life on this island. The story is that a part of soldiers saw the women on the isle. Since the boat in which they had crossed to that retreat was drawn up on the island shore, the soldiers who were planning to outrage and slay the wives and daughters of their foes, saw no way of reaching the isle. At last one of their number, who was a strong swimmer, entered the water and swam over to the island, in order to bring the boat to the mainland. He reached the island shore, but his feet had barely touched bottom when one of the women, rushing into the water with a claymore in her hands with a wild sweep of the weapon severed the soldier’s head from his body. His comrades, seeing this horrid sight, then wisely made all haste to leave the place.

Seton Gordon Highways and Byways in the Central Highlands 1948

Opposite the island is the site of the Silver Strand, a beach of white pebbles. it is now submerged, but its impressive view of Ben Venue is undiminished.

No one visiting the Trossachs ought to omit a sail on the ‘Sir Walter Scott’ (see Loch Katrine) which departs from the Trossachs Pier twice a day. In the mornings it sails to Stronachlachar in the afternoons it makes a shorter circular tour. There is a fine walk from the Achray Car Park to The Pass of Achray and Bealach nam Bo. This is the route followed by William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and countless visitors since. By following the forest road behind the Achray Hotel the Sluices are reached and then an obvious track, separated from the loch by a series of rocky knolls, each one of which might have been the spot that Wordsworth reached, leads to a prominent col at the skyline. Once there Coire nan Uruisken is at your feet and Scott and Graham come to mind. There is a short walk to The Silver Strand´ from the car park at the Trossachs Pier. It heads along the tarmac on the eastern shore of the Loch as far as Eilean Moloch where one is at the Silver Strand. A longer walk follows the long pass between Loch Katrine and Loch Voil followed by the Wordsworths when they encountered ‘The Solitary Reaper’. From Strone, near Edra, which can be reached either from Stronachlachar or the Trossachs Pier, a long moor leads beside the burn to a col beyond is the Invernenty Burn, scene of the murder by one of Rob Roy’s sons of a MacLaren. This walk is a mountain excursion and should only be undertaken by those properly equipped.

 

 

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