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Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire
Part IV.—Guide to Gairloch and Loch Maree

Chapter XIII.—Excursion by Steamer on Loch Maree


THE steamer on Loch Maree affords a means of viewing the beauties of this queen of Highland lochs in a thorough and luxurious way.

The route from the Gairloch Hotel past Loch Tollie to the junction with the Tollie road is described in chap. vi. of this Part. Proceeding down the estate road past Tollie farm, the tourist will be delighted with the views of Loch Maree and Beinn Aridh Charr, and will soon arrive at Tollie pier in the north-western corner of the loch, where trees and rocks mingle in lovely confusion beneath rugged grey cliffs.

Loch Maree is a magnificent sheet of water, rather over twelve miles in length. Pennant in his "Tour" (Appendix B) says it is eighteen miles long, and this error has been repeated in the New Statistical Account (Appendix E), and in most of the guide-books. The Old Statistical Account (Appendix C) gave the correct length, which can now be attested by any one who will take the trouble to refer to the Ordnance Survey.

Pennant described the scenery of the loch as "making a most beautiful appearance." Dr Arthur Mitchell, adopting the opinion expressed in Anderson's excellent guide, characterises the scenery as "utterly savage and terrific," though he admits that the islands make the loch "an exquisite picture of calm beauty."

Thus doctors disagree! without claiming to have anything new to say on the question, I must express the opinion, which I share with many others, that the scenery of Loch Maree is not surpassed in the United Kingdom for both wild and gentle beauty.

Perhaps its leading characteristic is the frequent contrasts it exhibits between barren, often precipitous, rocks and mountains on the one hand, and calm lochs, smiling woods, or richly-coloured moors on the other. The unconscious, or unanalysed, impressions of these contrasts produce the most pleasing effects on the spectator's mind and feelings.

The Rev. Mr Small refers to the charms of contrast, exemplified in the scenery of Loch Maree, thus :—

"In rugged grandeur by the placid lake,
Rise the bold mountain cliffs, sublimely rude;
A pleasing contrast, each with each, they make,
And when in such harmonious union viewed,
Each with more powerful charms appears imbued.
Even thus it is, methinks, with mingling hearts,
Though different far in nature and in mood,
A blessed influence each to each imparts,
Which softens and subdues, yet weakens not, nor thwarts."

The derivation of the name Maree from St Maelrubha is discussed and conclusively established by Dr Mitchell (Part II., chap. xi.). Other references to the loch incidentally occur in several parts of this book.

At Tollie pier (erected 1883) we step on board the little steamer, and commence the tour of the loch. It will be more convenient to describe the left or north-east shore on our way up the loch, and the other side on the return .voyage. As the steamer leaves Tollie pier the Fox Point (Gallice", Rudha mhadaidh ruaidh) is seen on the left. It is a low and small promontory, terminating in grey-white rocks, deriving its name from some story of a fox closely pursued by dogs taking to the water here, or from some fox of unusual size being killed at the place.

Observe the extreme clearness of the water of Loch Maree. Owing to the rocky and gravelly nature of the bed and shores of the loch, its waters never acquire that dark peaty tinge which characterises the water of Loch Katrine. The Fox Point has long been the resort of persons suffering from various ailments, who have come to drink of the marvellously pure water of the loch, which is, or was, believed to possess valuable health-restoring qualities (Part II., chap. xiii.). The traveller casually tasting Loch Maree water, especially in the summer when it is slightly warmed by the sun, may be disappointed with its flavour, or rather want of flavour, and may think it lacking in freshness. Remember that the fresh sparkle of much spring water, so agreeable to the palate, is due to a certain amount of mineral or other impurity.

Behind, or to the north of, the Fox Point the River Ewe leaves I^och Maree. Here are Inveran House and Inveran farm (Miss Maclennan), situated on the estate of Sir Kenneth S. Mackenzie, Bart, of Gairloch, to whom both sides of the River Ewe and, as we shall see, most of the shores of Loch Maree belong, as well as all its islands and the sole right to the salmon and sea-trout fishings, not only of the loch but also of the river and contiguous sea.

This end of Loch Maree has its Ossianic legend (Part I., chap. i.). " The sweetheart's stepping-stones " are said to have been placed in their present position in the water near the Fox Point by Fingal himself; they render the navigation difficult to those ignorant of their localities.

From the Fox Point to a burn a mile further up, the estate of Mr Osgood H. Mackenzie abuts on the loch; then commences the property of Mrs Liot Bankes. The scrubby wood on the hill side sloping to the loch is called An Fhridh dhorch, or " the dark forest." The sheep have been removed from this ground, so the wood here

will now have a chance of growing. As the steamer emerges from the comparatively narrow part of Loch Maree the new mansion-house of Ardlair (Mrs Liot Bankes) comes in view, situated in natural pleasure grounds of peculiar beauty. The charms of this place, embracing sloping lawns, shady glades, dense thickets, graceful trees, masses of grey rock, and a shingly beach, edged by a belt of feathery wood, the whole reposing at the foot of magnificent precipices, seem to constitute a sort of garden of the Hesperides, and fully justify the title bestowed on the spot by a Scotch poet, who truly called it "the sweet Ardlair." The name Ardlair signifies "the mare's height." It is derived from a stone, rather like a horse's head, which stands in the loch a few yards to the south of the pier below the house.

A little past the cultivated land, to the east of the house of Ardlair, is the "Cave of the king's son" (Part I., chap, iv.); near it is the stone still called the "Minister's stone" (see illustration, page 81), where tradition has it that the Rev. Farquhar MacRae (Appendix A) used to preach.

Beyond the woods of Ardlair may be seen a large boulder on the beach, called Clach a Mhail, or "the stone of rent or tribute" (see illustration), at which the proprietor of the Letterewe estate used to gather his rents, and where a whisky market used to be held. A small cave a little above, called Uamh a Mhail (see illustration), was used by the proprietor if the weather were too stormy for his business to be conducted at the stone. Further on is a long bluish-looking

point called Rudha Chailleach, or "the old woman's (or witch's) point," where it is supposed women accused of witchcraft used to be ducked, or more probably drowned.

On the side of Beinn Aridh Charr, about half way up above Rudha Chailleach, is a conspicuous mass of quartz, called the "White horse." Its shape justifies the name.

Our notes on the islands, among which the steamer passes when opposite Rudha Chailleach, shall be deferred until the return journey.

An enormous rock, or rather lump of rocks, on the southern shoulder of Beinn Aridh Charr rises (just beyond Rudha Chailleach) to the height of 1000 feet. It consists of a number of large rounded masses of stone descending sheer into the waters of the loch, and is called Craig Thairbh, or the "Bull Rock," from a detached stone in the water at the base of the rock supposed to resemble in shape a bull. After passing the Bull Rock the shores of the loch are more or less wooded for a distance of some four or five miles.

On a wooded knoll opposite Isle Maree is an artificial cave, called Uamh an Oir, or "the cave of gold," about forty yards from the margin of the loch. It is an old excavation, made by searchers for the precious metal, which is said to have been found there but in unremunerative quantity. Dr Cochran-Patrick, in his "Early Records relating to Mining in Scotland," gives many interesting facts on the subject of gold mining. Gilbert de Moravia is said to have discovered gold at Durness in Sutherland in 1245. The Scottish Parliament granted to the Crown in 1424 all the gold mines in Scotland. Gold mines were commenced on Crawford Moor during the reign of James IV., about 1511. During the minority of James VI. Cornelius de Vois, a Dutchman, obtained in 1567 a license from the Regent Murray to work gold and silver for nineteen years in any part of Scotland. Cornelius de Vois had several partners who held shares in the adventure. The gold is said to have been found by them principally in the glens and valleys. This "cave of gold" may have been made by them. Many later attempts were made to find gold as well as silver. There is nothing whatever to shew when the search which resulted in the formation of the "cave of gold" took place. According to the New Statistical Account (Appendix E), this excavation was made by some one seeking a vein of silver, and several old people now living say the same, but the name "cave of gold" seems to connect it with the more precious metal.

A rounded mountain to the east of Beinn Aridh Charr, called Meall Mheannidh, is seen above the craggy eminences of Letterewe; and just beyond it Beinn Lair rises in a flattish undulating form, with one small point shewing to the summit. This hill is as it were broken off towards the north in a series of remarkably fine precipices, not discernible from this side (see illustration, page 54). At the back of Beinn Lair are the Claonadh, or "slopes," mentioned in the story of the "Gillie Buidhe" (Part I., chap. xiv.).

The woods of Letterewe begin about half way up the loch. At the commencement of the policies may be noticed the mouth of a canal, and, on the hillside above, the track of a tramway in connection with it. These were constructed by the late proprietor for the purpose of bringing limestone from an extensive and picturesque quarry further up. The quarry is now disused.

To the east of the tramway track notice a fine cascade. Letterewe House (Mr C. Perkins) is an old mansion of the Mackenzies of Letterewe, and is now the property of Mrs Liot Bankes, whose estate extends from the burn (already mentioned) between the Fox Point and Ardlair up to another burn on the west side of Slioch.

A mile beyond Letterewe House the Furnace burn falls into Loch Maree. The hamlet of Furnace takes its name from the iron-smelting furnace (Part I., chap, xx.) established here by Sir George Hay in or about 1607.

The hamlets or places from Letterewe to the head of Loch Maree are in the following order:—Furnace, Innis (or Inch) Ghlas, Coppachy, Regoilachy, and Smiorsair. Above them rises the lordly height of Slioch,—not Beinn Slioch, if you please,—whose name signifies a spear-head; the conical shape of the mountain, as seen from Talladale and Slatadale, resembles the form of the rather thick head of an ancient spear or lance, and still more closely that of an ancient flint arrow-head.

Slioch loses this conical form as the steamer approaches, the mountain; it now assumes the appearance of a vast wall, furrowed and grooved by the natural agencies of ten thousand- generations. The rills and burns which trickle down its steep sides become in wet weather foaming cataracts. The upper part of the mountain is fluted by deep weather-worn channels, thus forming the range of grand summits that nobly cap this chief feature of Loch Maree. Whilst Beinn Aridh Charr is remarkable for its graceful contour, Slioch stands pre-eminent for its barren wildness and grandeur.

At the foot of the Fasagh burn, which flows into Loch Maree to the east of Slioch, afe, on the one side (at some little distance), the old burial-ground called the Cladh nan Sasunnach, or "English graveyard " (Part I., chap, xviii.); and, on the other (the east side of the burn), the remains of ancient ironworks, where large quantities of slag may still be seen (Part I., chap. xx.).

From the head of the loch, which the steamer is now nearing, stretches away to the south-east the partly cultivated strath of Ken-lochewe, with the farm of Tagan in the foreground. On the left of the strath, towards the north-east, is a spur of Beinn a Mhuinidh, called the Bonaid Donn, with its waterfall, which, during or immediately after heavy rains, is a fine cascade of the mare's-tail type (Part III., chap. L). On the south-west side of the strath is Meall a Ghuibhais; and exactly below it, near the head of the loch, the steamer pulls up at the pier on a shingly beach—a "silver strand"—which forms the promontory generally known as Ru Nohar, or " the giant's point." The full spelling of the Gaelic name is "Rudha an Fhomhair" (see "Glossary"). The name of the giant after whom this point is called is not recorded. Can he and his fellows have been buried in the large graves in the Cladh nan Sasunnach?

After a ramble on shore, where many a pleasant nook amid woods and rocks may be found by the roadside suitable for a brief pic-nic (including the consumption of the lunch which the thoughtful voyageur will have provided before starting), we again embark on the steamer for

The Return Voyage.

Our notes will now describe the right or south-west side of the loch, and also the islands which add so much to the beauty and romance of Loch Maree.

Observe, as the Mabel gets under way, the slopes and under-•cliffs of Meall a Ghuibhais, clothed with extremely beautiful woods. They consist for the most part of birch and pine raised by nature, and therefore more picturesque than if planted by man. The oak, the ash, the rowan, the sallow, the hazel, and the quivering aspen, are mingled with the firs and birches, and are all indigenous. Black game and roe-deer abound in these woods, and may often be observed near the margin of the loch. Above the woods are rocky heights : in one place a yellow scar is noticeable, where a landslip occurred many years ago, illustrating the effect of water and frost in disintegrating the hardest rocks.

The woods of Glas Leitire, as this fragment of the old forest is named, extend along some two miles of our return route. As they become thinner, individual trees display their characteristic shapes more freely (see Her Majesty Queen Victoria's remark about these trees quoted in Part IV., chap. iv.).

The county road towards Gairloch, also described in that chapter? runs along the side of the loch we are now noticing. It may be seen here and there winding through the trees, or surmounting some rocky point'on the edge of the loch.

After passing the Glas Leitire woods, Glen Grudidh opens out : the transition from the lovely woods to this wild lonely glen is indeed a transformation scene ! The view looking up Glen Grudidh is one of the finest in the country; the herbage assumes, particularly in autumn, a ruddy golden hue, contrasting wonderfully with the blue-grey boulders scattered upon it, and the steep blue peak of Ruadh Stac—the highest summit in Gairloch parish—and of Liathgach which form the background.

Further on, at a distance of five miles from the head of the loch, is Grudidh Island (Eilean Grudidh), in a small bay renowned for its sea-trout fishing, and where now and then a salmon is hooked. This interesting little island (Part I., chap, xxi.) was originally a stronghold of the MacBeaths, and was afterwards held by the Macleods (Part I., chap. xii.).

Rounding a promontory, called Aird na h' Eigheamh, or "the calling point," which considerably narrows the loch, we come in sight of the main body of the islands. They are said to be twenty-four in number, but no one can accurately number them. When the loch is high from recent rains many parts become detached from the larger islands, which when it lowers again are reunited. The principal islands are Isle Maree, Eilean Suthainn (" the everlasting island"), Eilean Dubh na Sroine ("the black isle of the nose or promontory"), Garbh Eilean ("the rough isle"), and Eilean Ruaridh Mor("the big island of Rory "), with its pendicle Eilean Ruaridh Beag. Another considerable island is called " the planted island." These islands are part of the Gairloch estate of Sir Kenneth Mackenzie; they are the resort of red deer, which swim across from the mainland; and of black game, sea-gulls, and wild fowl, as well as occasionally of roe-deer. In a hard winter wild swans repair to Loch Maree (which is never frozen over), and frequent the islands. A specimen may be seen in the Loch Maree Hotel. Wild geese (the grey lag goose), wild ducks, mergansers, goosanders, black-throated divers, and countless sea-gulls, visit the islands during May and the following months for the purpose of nesting and rearing their young. The sea-gulls are of four kinds, viz., the great black-backed gull (two or three pairs), the lesser black-backed gull (in great numbers), the herring gull (very few), and the common or winter gull (a few pairs).

The islands are for the most part beautifully wooded,—some of the trees being the remains of the ancient forest, which their insular position protected from the axe of the ironworkers ; others self-sown in recent years; and others again planted by the lairds of Gairloch, to whom all the islands have for four centuries belonged. It is pleasant to notice young trees springing up along the north-east shore of the loch, no doubt the result of seed blown from the islands.

Isle Maree is the best known and most interesting of the islands (Part I., chap. ii.; and Part II., chaps, xi. and xii.).

The following verses by Mr James G. Whittier, the American poet, though not quite exact in descriptive details, refer so touchingly to the holy well of Isle Maree (see page 151 et seq.) that I must quote them here :—

"Calm on the breast of Loch Maree
A little isle reposes;
A shadow woven of the oak
And willow o'er it closes.

Within a Druid's mound is seen,
Set round with stony warders,
A fountain, gushing through the turf,
Flows o'er its grassy borders.

And whoso bathes therein his brow,
With care or madness burning,
Feels once again his healthful thought
And sense of peace returning.

O restless heart and fevered brain,
Unquiet and unstable,
That holy well of Loch Maree
Is more than idle fable!

Life's changes vex, its discords stun,
Its glaring sunshine blindeth,
And blest is he who on his way
That fount of healing fmdeth!

The shadows of a humbled will
And contrite heart are o'er it;
Go read its legend—'Trust in God'—
On Faith's white stones before it."

Eilean Suthainn is the largest of the islands. It is nearly a mile long. Within it is a small loch, with two small islands, on one of which is a large fir tree. Beneath this tree the fairies used to assemble (Part II., chap, xiii.), and in its branches an osprey used to build its nest. Another osprey built on a headland of this island (Part III., chap. vi.). There are traces of the remains of the residence of Alastair Breac, laird of Gairloch, and of some of the older chiefs of the Mackenzies, on this island, as well as of bothies where illicit distillation used to be carried on.

Eilean Ruaridh Mor is called after a celebrated chief of the Macleods. On this island, as well as on Garbh Eilean and Eilean Suthainn, the illicit distillation of whisky was extensively conducted in th^ early part of the nineteenth century.

To the west of Eilean Ruaridh Mor is the small island known as Eilean Ruaridh Beag (or "the little island of Rorie"), formerly the residence of Ruaridh M'Leod, and subsequently of John Roy Mackenzie (Part I., chap. xxi.).

The steamer passes between Eilean Suthainn and the mainland to the south of it, and soon reaches the Loch Maree Hotel (described in chap. iv. of this Part).

There is a fine view from the steamer, looking up the glen down which the Talladale river flows. To the right is the eastern shoulder of Beinn an Eoin. The mountain further back, and some distance to the right, is Bathais (or Bus) Bheinn. It is better seen from further down the loch.

After a brief call at Talladale the steamer proceeds in a northerly direction. For a mile or so the Talladale woods continue alongside, and then comes the Garavaig water, where the Slatadale farm begins. About three hundred yards from the loch may be seen through the trees the Victoria Falls (Part III., chap. i.). Close to the loch, at this point, are remains of iron-smelting (Part I., chap. xx.).

The Slatadale farm-buildings are a quarter of a mile further on. Above this farm the road to Gairloch is seen climbing the hill, but taking advantage of a depression.

The steamer now passes between Garbh Eilean, on the right, and Eilean Ruaridh Mor, on the left. Notice the fine views of Slioch.

Beyond Slatadale, i.e. to the west and north-west of the Mabeh course, not a dwelling of man is to be seen, except a shepherd's cottage (now uninhabited) at a place called Doire. The old road, which was formerly the main road to Poolewe, may be traced here and there, until it disappears behind the range of Craig Tollie.

A large bay now opens out, with a small wooded island; it is called Ob Choir T, i.e. "the bay of the island corrie." This name is Anglicised into the "bay of Corree." Here, in the summer of 1868, I was fishing with a friend, who succeeded, after a struggle extending to forty minutes, in landing a magnificent yellow trout of twenty-one lbs. (Part IV., chap. xvii.).

Leaving Corree bay well to the left, we reach the point called Rudha aird an anail, or "the high point of breathing," this being a favourite spot for a few minutes' breathing-time when rowing up or down the loch. Observe how the rocks are rounded by ancient glacial action.

From this point the first spur of the range of rocky hills called Craig Tollie begins to rise. A quarter of a mile further on is a rugged cliff, with a precipitous face, 300 feet high, which descends sheer into the loch (here thirty fathoms deep), and is often called the "Black Rock," from its generally dark colour. The peregrine falcon builds her nest on a tiny ledge of this cliff, on which the young falcons are reared, unless the wary keeper shoots or traps the old birds; or else, let down by a rope fastened round his armpits, robs the nest of eggs or young, as I have witnessed.

On the Black Rock it is said there was formerly an eyrie of the golden eagle, until the ledge where the nest used to be built was destroyed or detached by a flash of lightning.

.In the face of the Black Rock, on the northern end, is a cave, hidden by a mass of ivy, about twenty yards above the water, and almost inaccessible. The hardy and sure-footed Highlander, John Mackenzie,—who was the last post-runner from Dingwall to Gairloch, and was called Iain Mor am Post (Part II., chap, x.),—succeeded in entering this cave, and reported that twelve men might sit in it. The cave is called in Gaelic Uamh gu do roghiann, or "the cave for your choice," a name supposed to refer to some love story now forgotten.

The steamer proceeds alongside the slopes and below the crags of Tollie. The highest point of this range is 1123 feet in height. Some forty years ago a sad event occurred on the side of Craig Tollie. Heather burning, which is carried on in the months of March and April every year, in the interests alike of grouse and sheep, was in hand, and a newly engaged fox-hunter or trapper was assisting. Smothered by the smoke and overtaken by a sudden rush of flame, he was burned to death. Grand effects, as if blazing lava were pouring down the hillsides, are often witnessed during the annual seasons of heather-burning.

Stepping on to Tollie pier, we have completed the tour of Loch Maree, and again enter the carriage or "machine," which returns to Gairloch by the way we came.

 


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