Literary Loch Lomond and the Trossachs: 13. Loch Chon

 

 

Ben Lomond

Kinlochard is the best place to begin to tackle Ben Lomond from Strathard. The way is by Gleann Dubh, whence a track to Rowardennan crosses the Duchary and climbs the  shoulder of the Ben.  Ben Lomond towers above Loch Ard and has dominated the view thus far. It is a remarkable mountain in that it presents two further, quite different but equally attractive, faces to Loch Lomond. Very few Scottish hills have this quality. The witty Scottish poet, Thomas Campbell (1777-1844), came from Glasgow, and his ballad, Lord Ullin’s Daughter is printed in many anthologies. He was remembered for a long time for several patriotic verses, now forgotten. This poem to Ben Lomond is almost a hymn:

BEN LOMOND

Hadst thou a genius on thy peak,
What tales white-headed Ben
Coulds’t thou of ancient ages speak,
That mock th’ historian’s pen.

Thy long duration makes our lives
Seem but so many hours;
And likens to the bee’s frail hives
Our most stupendous towers.

Temples and towers thou’st seen begun,
New creeds, new conquerors sway;
And like their shadows in the sun,
Hast seen them swept away.

Thy steadfast summit, heaven-allied
(Unlike life’s little span),
Looks down, a Mentor, on the pride
Of perishable man.

The Scenic Annual 1837

Chauncy Hare Townshend (1798-1868), was encouraged as writer by the ‘Lake Poet’, Robert Southey. He was a traveller, minister, mesmerist, writer and dilettante who visited Ben Lomond, and left the following account of it in his Descriptive Tour in Scotland published in Brussels in 1840. Townshend set off from Loch Lomond to Aberfoyle following the track over the shoulder of Ben Lomond from Rowardennan:

Ben Lomond from Glen Dubh

Ben Lomond from Glen Dubh

I have generally remarked that the country people here have a great deal of quaint simplicity about them. They seem quite innocent if I may use the expression, and have melancholy voices with a sort of sing-song utterance. They are an ugly race, but the expression of their countenances is usually good. I have not found them grasping, but, on the contrary, contented with whatever one chooses to give them. But, to continue, never was I more glad to get out of a place than out of this wearisome morass. Had theground been all of one kind of badness, one might have endured it; but it was never the same for two minutes together: and, had we been but gifted with wings, we should doubtless have varied our mode of progress as frequently as Milton’s Satan when he scrambled through chaos. You remember the passage?

“The Fiend
O’er bog, or steep, through straight, rough, dense, or rare,
With head, hands, wings, or feet, pursues his way,
And swims, or sinks, or wades, or creeps, or flies.

At length, after a weary journey, we came in sight of Loch Ard, and here we parted with our guide, of whose services we no longer had any need, as the road was now plain before us to Aberfoyle. It leads along the banks of the two Loch Ards, Upper and Lower, two as lovely lakes as ever I beheld. They have the noble form of Ben Lomond, which here assumes its happiest character, for a background, rising with a double-pointed summit above the meaner mountains. There is something of Italian softness and richness about these lakes; Lower Loch Ard especially, the heights about which are beautifully wooded. It is divided in two by a singular isthmus of land, which gives it a pleasing peculiarity. In the shallow waters of the clear basin nearest to us, a group of variously coloured cattle were cooling themselves. Claude would have rejoiced in such a landscape.

Chauncey Hare Townshend Descriptive Tour in Scotland 1840

Thomas Frognall Dibdin

Thomas Frognall Dibdin

One literary visitor who did give an effective account of Ben Lomond, doing justice, for once, to its neglected precipices, was the prodigious bibliographer Thomas Frognall Dibdin (1776-1847) in his Bibliographical, Antiquarian and Picturesque Tour in the Northern Counties of England and Scotland of 1838. Dibdin’s book, as his title suggests, is really one of the first literary topographies. He is interested in places, not particularly for themselves, but for the books and writers associated with them. His first excursion into this genre was to France and Germany. His Scottish tour was, for its date, conventional, but bold, a crossing of Ben Lomond exemplifying his willingness to explore byways. At the summit Dibdin gazed over this precipice, remarking on the way in which even sheep which had been frightened seemed to halt on the edge of it:

We spent the greater part of an hour in the indulgence of an unbounded gaze; and having looked until our eyes began to ache, and our appetites to be strirred by the keenness of the mountain air, we thought we might as well betake ourselves to something like a sheltered recess, and “hold familiar discourse” with our basket of goodly viands. The guide-boatman said “it would do us a world of good – and might help us to lay the cloth upon a little jutting piece of rock or spar?” He had told us not to provide ourselves with water, as whiskey never mixed so well as with the water found upon the mountain. Accordingly he soon returned from filling a small jug to the brim; and I must say, made himself as agreeable and efficient a waiter as could be found at the Clarendon or the Albion. All things being prepared, we fell to our substantials: the guide seeming to enjoy the alacrity with which we “maintained the combat”. Cold chicken and Fyne herring are only to be eaten to advantage on the summit of Ben Lomond.

Thomas Dibdin 1838

Dibdin goes on to describe a series of toasts in which they then indulged, including, unsurprisingly in view of Dibdin’s dedication to books, the rather unlikely name of William Caxton.

Another nineteenth century literary visitor who actually succeeded in climbing to the top of Ben Lomond was Charles Nodier (seeAberfoyle). William Hazlitt (1778-1830), the journalist and critic, has left a somewhat unsatisfactory account, suggesting that he climbed Ben Lomond, in Liber Amoris. In it he related, to James Sheridan Knowles, his passion for Sarah Walker, his landlord’s daughter. This passion tortured him on a visit to Scotland in 1822, after visiting Loch Katrine from Loch Lomond he must have crossed to Strathard and then gone to Inversnaid. His graphic description of the route suggests the terrors of the Alps, rather than the ordinary road which he is actually describing:

The road preceded by the side of some inferior lochs and terraced woods, very stony and rough until you arrive at the mountain 3262 feet in height; and in crossing the most dreary, pathless part of it, a heavy storm came on. There was not the least shelter, and the heat of climbing such an ascent, together with the fear of losing myself in such a lonely place, almost overcame me; but I guided myself by the direction of the loch as well as I could, and at last, to my great joy, regained the track; but the road was stony and difficult, over a wide and dreary moor, full of bogs, till you arrive at Inversnaid Garrison, as it is still called, but it is in fact merely some ruins of what once was such, in the midst of the moor, the habitable part of which is occupied by a few poor people; and it was by the mere chance of going to beg a drink of water, that I found that this bore the name of Garrison, upon enquiring how far it was to it.

 William Hazlitt Liber Amoris 1822

Sir Archibald Geikie (1835-1924), the Director of the Geological Survey and Professor of Geology at the University of Edinburgh, who travelled all over Scotland uses a story about Ben Lomond related by R. Jamieson in his edition of Burt’s Letters to discuss the impact of Sir Walter Scott on the Highlands:

Scott and the Highlands

No more remarkable contrast between the present tourist traffic in this lake region and that of the early part of last century could be supplied than that which is revealed by an incident recorded as having occurred about the year 1814, four years after the publication of Scott’s Lady of the Lake. An old highlander, who was met on the top of Ben Lomond, said he had been a guide from the north side of the mountain for upwards of forty years; ‘but that damned Walter Scott, that everyone makes such a work about!’ exclaimed he with vehemence – ‘I wish I had him to ferry over Loch Lomond: I should be after sinking the boat, if I drowned myself into the bargain; for ever since he wrote his Lady of the Lake, as they call it, everybody goes to see that filthy hole Loch Katrine, then comes round by Luss, and I have only had two gentlemen to guide all this blessed season, which is now at an end. I shall never see the top of Ben Lomond again! The devil confound his ladies and his lakes, say I!’

If this indignant mountaineer could revisit his early haunts, his grandchildren would have a very different story to tell him of the poet’s influence. For one visitor to his beloved mountain in his day there must now be at least a hundred, almost all of whom have had their first longing to see that region kindled by the poems and tales of Scott. No man ever did so much to make his country known and attractive as the author of Waverley has done for Scotland. His fictitious characters have become historical personages in the eyes of thousands of pilgrims who every year visit the scenes he has described. In threading the pass of the Trossachs, they try to see where Fitz James must have lost his ‘gallant grey.’ In passing Ellen’s Isle, they scrutinise it, if haply any relics of her home have survived. At Coilantogle Ford they want to know the exact spot where the duel was fought between the King and Roderick Dhu. At Aberfoyle they look out for the Clachan, or some building that must stand on its site, and their hearts are comforted by finding suspended to a tree on the village green the veritable coulter with which Bailie Nichol Jarvie burnt the big Highlander’s plaid. So delighted indeed have the tourists been with this relic of the past that they have sureptitiously carried it off more than once, and have thus compelled the village smith each time to manufacture a new antique.

Sir Archibald Geikie Scottish Reminiscences 1904

Loch Chon
From Kinlochard the B829 climbs briskly, dropping down at The Teapot, and then climbing again beside pleasing water breaks to reach Loch Dubh, the black loch. It then passes Rob Roy’s Well and arrives at Loch Chon where there are a variety of picnic places. Loch Chon is sometimes perceived as a dark, unfriendly place because the Forestry Commission have clothed the steep hillsides on its western shore with conifers. However, on a fine day there are few more attractive lochs in the southern highlands; the natural woodland which occur on its eastern bank provide a wonderful setting for a picnic and the Commission have made ample provision for car parking. In spite of this the sense of remoteness which can be obtained there is considerable because there are few houses.

A notable modern collector of Folk Tales was R. MacDonald Robertson, the author of a number of distinguished books about fishing in the Highlands between and just after the wars. In Selected Highland Folk Tales he relates the following story about Loch Chon, which he calls Loch-a-Choin:

There is a chain of three beautiful lochans in West Perthshire – Loch Ard, Loch-a-Choin and Loch Arklet – situated by the main road between Aberfoyle and Inversnaid It is with Loch-a-Choin (The Dog Loch) that this story deals. Tradition attributes to this loch a water-monster in the shape of a huge dog.

Not so very long ago, one oppressively hot summer’s day, a weary tourist sat down by the banks of Loch-a-Choin to have lunch. Soon he heard the sound of the rattle of pots and pans mingled with footfalls on the road behind him; and on looking round observed on the highway a tinker laden with various metal cooking utensils, trudging along the road in company with a young lad. To his astonishment, he saw the tinker suddenly seize the boy, and walking down to the edge of a ledge of rock, fling him into the water. Immediately after the splash of the body, there was a great swirl, and the savage head of a huge and grotesque dog-like monster broke the surface and swallowed the body of the child whole. The tinker thereafter mysteriously vanished from sight. Terrified beyond all measure the traveller fled to Aberfoyle as fast as possible. On entering the inn he met some local people and told them of his weird experience by the shores pof Loch-a-Choin.

He was told that what he had just seen was the recurrence of a tragically true event which had taken place on the banks of the loch many years ago, at the same place where he had rested for lunch, and that the tinker had been found out and hanged for his evil deed. The hiker had seen the murder re-enacted on the exact date and at the exact hour when the crime was originally perpetrated. To this day, many of the older inhabitants of the district believe that the dog-monster still lurks within Loch-a-Choin, waiting for victims.

Patrick Graham drew attention to the mountain hollow beyond the head of Loch Chon:

About a mile beyond the source of the Forth, above Loch Chon, there is a place called Coir-shi’an, or the Cove of the Men of Peace, which is still supposed to be a place of their residence. In the neighbourhood are to be seen many round conical eminences; particularly one, near the head of the lake; by the skirts of which many are still afraid to pass after sunset. It is believed that if on Hallow Eve any person alone goes round one of thse hills nine times, towards the left hand (sinistrorsum), a door shall open by which he shall be admitted into their subterraneous abodes.

Patrick Graham Sketches of Perthshire 1806

Enchantment in the Trossachs

 Fairies from Aberfoyle and Elsewhere

You will not understand the literary history of the Trossachs half so well if you chose not to consider the enormous influence which the supernatural exercises on the place. If Loch Ness has something of a monopoly of water monsters, and the Cairngorms have something of a corner in mountain apparitions, the Trossachs in general, and Aberfoyle in particular, enjoy – in Scotland at least – an unrivalled reputation for fairies. Superstition is unfashionable. The language has abused words which, once upon a time, were to be taken seriously, or at least conjured up widely respected images. Folklore. primitive beliefs, pagan rituals, religion, the dead, changelings, household spirits and fairies used to be intermingled in people’s minds. Nowadays legends are respectable providing they are not too fantastic, religion is generally well-thought-of, but the occult, by and large, is not; fairies are no longer taken seriously. At the edge of the Highlands such distinctions were very much more blurred until not more than a hundred years ago’

The maestro, Sir Walter Scott, used folk history and the history of the district in The Lady of the Lake. His admirers  included Charles Nodier, the French romantic, writer of short stories a fairy tales. Hans Christian Anderson (1805-75), one of the World’s greatest storytellers, and Jules Verne (1828-1905), founder of Science Fiction and exponent of the fantastic, all visited, and were enchanted by the Trossachs.

Robert Kirk, the Minister of Aberfoyle, was as we have seen a serious student of folk beliefs and author of the first notable work on the subject. Patrick Graham, his successor, explainer of Kirk and inspirer of Scott, was, in his own right, a distinguished writer about both the topography and the fairy lore of the district. In addition to Grham’s mentions of it Scott edited n edition of The Secret Commonwealth in 1815, Andrew Lang (see Aberfoyle) edited the next edition in 1893, and R.B.Cunninghame Graham edited a third in 1933.

The following alphabetical guide has been compiled with reference to E. C. Brewer Dictionary of  Phrase and Fable 1978 and Katharine Briggs A Dictionary of Fairies 1976:

Apparition  A ghost; anything shocking or startling which appears

Banshee irish (or Highland Scottish) domestic spirit; in Gaelic Bean-sith, a woman fairie; connected with the death of women in childbirth.

Bocan Hobgoblin or spirit. In Menteith uruisks at one time resided at Goblin Knowe; Creag a’Bochain is an outlier of Ben Lomond.

Boggart Local hobgoblin (Scottish); a particularly bad-tempered, or ill-natured Brownie.

Bogle A bugbear (Scottish); a bogie.

Brownie An English and Scottish fairy, its habits vary from place to place; in Scotland it is most notably associated with the Borders.

 Defined by Scott as a familiar spirit ‘belived in ancient times to supply the deficiencies of  an ordinary labourer.’ A moron in comparison with spightlier beings like the fairies; the brownieis good natured in nocturnal chores; ill-natured in the occasional treatment of women

Drow or Trow
A small troll-like fairie, notably associated with the Orkneys and Shetlands

Drows or Trows  are according to Scott ‘somewhat allied to the faires, residing like them in the interior of green hills and caverns’.  More frequently hostile than friendly to man, these subterranean people as they are called in the Faeroes, are particularly dangerous at midnight. They are also skilled metal workers.

Coleman Parsons Witchcraft and Demonology in Scott’s Fiction 1964

Duergar Gotho-German dwarfs, dwelling in rocks and hills

The English fairy (or Gothic elf) whose prototype is to be sought chiefly in the bergelfen or duergar of the Scandinavians may in turn go back to the diminutive Lapps, Finns, and Letts. ‘Being excellent metallurgists and
meteorologists, these dwarfish refugees worked underground hideouts and,gaining a supernatural reputation, were associated, or confounded, with, German kobolds, English goblins, and Scottish bogles, as also with the
vivacious fairy kind.

Coleman Parsons Witchcraft and Demonology in Scott’s Fiction 1964

Dwarf A diminutive being, natural or supernatural

Elf In Scandinavia fairies of diminutive size; fond of practical jokes. Anglo- saxon word for spirits of any sort. Scott had the following comment:

Sprites of the coarser sort, more laborious vocation and more malignant temper
and, in all respects, less propitious to humanity than the Fairies

Sir Walter Scott Letters on Witchcraft and Demonology 1828

Fairy, or Faërie A supernatural being, fond of pranks, but generally friendly; in Gaelic Duine-sith (also Daoine Sidhe); a fairy person, or fairy folk, people of peace.

Scott supplied the following note to Lady of the Lake:

Fairies, if not positively malevolent, are capricious, and easily offended. They
are, like other proprietors of the forest, peculiarly jealous of their rights of
vert and venison. This jealousy was also an attribute of the northern Duergar, or
dwarfs; to many of whose distinctions the fairies seem to have succeeded, if,
indeed, they are not the same class of beings.

Fay Same as fairy; Fée in French and German

Faun Rural god with the horns and legs of a goat (Classical); thus comparable with uruisks.

Fuath Collective term for independent spirits, or solitary fairies (as opposed to Trooping Fairies), generally malignant, properly associated with water; includes uruisks; spectre.

Glaistig A woman fairy; half-woman, half-goat; combines most fairy characteristics being rather like a Brownie, fond of children, old people and the feeble-minded, but also misleads travellers.

Gnome The guardian of mines and quarries (Germanic)

Goblin, or Hobgoblin A phantom spirit (Gobelin in French; Kobold in German)

The deep-voiced, square-built, long armed Rob Roy seems to Frank Osbaldistone
ferocious, cunning and unearthly like ‘the old Picts who ravaged Northumberland,
a sort of half-goblin, half-human beings’ in Scott’s novel.

Good Folk,the Brownies, or house spirits

Gruagach A damsel; a bridesmaid; a supposed household godess; a brownie.

Habitrot The spinning-wheel fairy

Hag A female fury

Hobgoblin see Goblin; ‘Hob’ is ‘Robin’, thought to soften the word ‘goblin’.

Household Spirits

England: Robin Goodfellow
France: Esprit Follet
Germany: Kobold
Scotland: Brownie or Uruisg
Wales: The Bwbachod or Bwca or Bwbach is a Welsh household spirit.

Ignis Fatuus A will-o’-the-wisp

Imp Puny demon, or spirit of mischief

Jack-a-Lantern A bog, or marsh spirit which delights to mislead.

Kelpie Imaginary spirit of the waters generally in the form of a horse; malignant towards human beings, luring them into the water where they drowned. Loch Chon and Loch Venachar, in the Trossachs, have kelpies; the kelpie, associated with running water, are sometimes distinguished from the Each Uisge, the water-horse, associated with lochs and sea-lochs.

Kobold A German household goblin; also frequents mines.

Luspardan Kind of fairy, referred to by Kirk; dwarf or sprite.

Naiad (Naiades) Water-nymphs(Classical); Akenside and Turner saw Scottish watefalls as
likely haunts for them.

Pegths, or Pechs Traditional lowland name for fairies; identified as a folk-memory of the Picts

Satyr Rural god, half-goat and half-man (Classical)

Sith, Sithean Fairy, fairies; Sidheag Biorach, the pointed fairy knoll, is situated above Loch Chon, Ben an-t-sithein, the fairy ben, is above Loch Lubnaig

Stic Gaelic equivalent of Puck

Stock Changeling substituted by the fairies when they stole a baby; a substitute; explains how Kirk, who was supposed to be imprisoned by the fairies, could be buried in the churchyard.

Subterraneans Kirk’s word for the fairies who lived underground, possibly the spirits of the departed.

Succubus A demon in female form, supposed to have carnal intercourse with men in their sleep[OED]. In ‘Glenfinglas’ Scott describes how the dale got its reputation as the ‘Glen of the Green Women’. Kirk describes the sex-life of fairies suggesting that succubi were common.

Tacharan Sprite; ghost

Troll A hill-spirit (Norwegian); dislikes noise (see Drows or Trows)

Trooping Fairies Fairies who moved from place to place, and lived together, distinguishes them from Solitary Fairies like uruisks, etc.

Uruisk, or Uruisg Highland (domestic) spirit; see Brownie; very lucky to have about the house; sometimes thought to be half-human half-goat; solitary in nature, frequently haunting waterfalls, but uruisks were supposed to meet together at times; easily insulted and quick to take offence.

Coire nan Uruisgean

Ben Venue is rendered venerable in the superstition of the natives, by the
celebrated Coire nan Uruisgean, the cove or recess of goblins,
situated on the northerm side of the mountain, overhanging the lake in gloomy
grandeur. The Uruisks were a sort of lubberly supernaturals, who, like the
Brownies of England, could be gained over by kind attentions, to perform the
drudgery of the farm; and it was believed that many families in the Highlands had
one of their order attached to it. They were supposed to be dispersed over the
Highlands, each own his own wild recess; but the solemn stated meetings of the
order were regularly held in this cave of Ben Venue. The current superstition, no
doubt, alludes to some circumstance in the ancient history of this country:
perhaps it may have taken its rise, like the superstition of the Daone Shie, or
Men of Peace, from the abolition and proscription of the Druidical order, under
the Fingallian dynasty.

Patrick Graham Sketches of Perthshire 1806

Will o’ th’ Wisp Spirit of the bogs; misleads benighted travellers

Wraith Ghost of a person about to die or just dead; it was Kirk’s wraith which was said to have appeared at the christening of his son.

 

The ridge between Loch Katrine and Loch Chon was chosen by J.F.Bateman for the line of the Loch Katrine aqueduct:

The Loch is surrounded by precipitous hills of considerable elevation, and the first piece of work on the line of the aqueduct was to pierce by a tunnel the ridge separating it from the Loch Chon valley. The tunnel is 2325 yards long, and upwardss of 500 feet under the top of the ridge. To facilitate the driving of the tunnel twelve vertical shafts were sunk of an aggregate length of 1173 yards, or about one half the length of the tunnel. Five of the shafts are each about 450 feet deep.

These notable works are further discussed at Loch Katrine, and remain well worth inspection. Another passage in the the same address gives some idea of the working conditions:

The rock, especially the mica slate, proved extremely hard and difficult to work. At several points along the side of Loch Chon the progress did not exceed three lineal yards in a month at each face, although work was carried on day and night. The average progress through the mica slate was about five yards in a month, In drilling holes for blasting, a fresh drill was required for every inch in depth on the average; and about sixty drills were constantly in use at each face. the contractors for the first seven and a half miles were, at an early date obliged to relinquish their contract, and it was carried on and completed by the Commissioners. The cost of gunpowder alone consumed in the contract was £10,540, and there was about 175 miles of fuse burned in firing it.

 

Beyond Loch Chon the road climbs unrelentingly to Loch Arklet. By turning right at the road junction Stronachlachar is reached.

 

 

 

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