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

Chapter XIV.—The Fionn Loch and its Dubh Loch, by William Jolly


THERE is no royal road to learning, and there is no "royal route" to our finest scenery. The common tourist, like the sheep, meekly follows the beaten tracks, missing the better bits, which only the hardier and more adventurous pedestrian finds, like the more independent goat. There are a hundred nooks of rarest beauty and wildest grandeur hidden away in our mountainous land, far from the sheep runs of coaches and hotels, and their mere enumeration would be longer than a Gaelic song or a Highland sermon.

One of these nooks may be found not far from Loch Maree. Immediately to the north of the lake stretches one of the least frequented tracts in broad Scotland,—the region that surrounds the beautiful, many-islanded, salt-water Loch Gruinard. Here, right across the high range which skirts the north shore of Loch Maree from Beinn Aridh Charr to Slioch, lies the Fionn Loch, with its upper chamber, the Dubh Loch. Fionn Loch—that is "the fair lake"—is so called from its contrast to its darker portion, the Dubh or "black" Loch. Its name contains the word that has become classical in the famous name of the heroic Fingal, "the fair stranger" of some interpreters; and in the less known but real name of the equally famous Flora Macdonald, Fionnghal, "the fair one."

The Fionn Loch may be reached by the hardier climber by crossing Loch Maree from Talladale, and dropping down on it through the pass behind Letterewe. But the easier, and in a scenic point of view better, way is to go from Gairloch or Poolewe by the good road which runs to its very shores. From Gairloch the way is unusually fine, commanding one of the best views of the queen of Scottish lakes, from the very spot rendered famous by Horatio Macculloch's great picture; passing the sweet sea gulf of Loch Ewe, and skirting the picturesque banks of the swift-flowing Ewe, which carries the waters of the great lake to the ocean. Leaving this clear stream you enter on a wild heathery region, till lately trodden only by the firm foot of the hunter or the pedestrian in search of game or the picturesque. You soon catch a view of Loch Kemsary, holding its prehistoric artificial island, and of its knots of trees, a pretty picture, with Loch Ewe looking like a lake, and the sea in the distance. You soon leave the Torridon sandstone and enter on the ancient barrenness of the Hebridean gneiss, covered by innumerable erratic blocks, the representatives of the Arctic era when ancient Caledonia was a Greenland and Fionn Loch was swathed in ice. From an eminence on a spur of the Rowan Tree Hill, you at last look down on Loch Fionn. It is a large sheet of fresh water, seven miles in length, enclosed within winding shores, diversified by islands, and surrounded by a magnificent range of mountains, which stand about it on every side but the one next the sea. In fine weather it forms a splendid mirror set in a fretted frame of alpine carving, seldom surpassed for wild and picturesque beauty. In storm it becomes a furious sea of crested waves, under driving rain, rolling mist, and howling winds. These descend with uncommon strength from frowning mountains, which guard a scene then almost as wild, dark, and grand as Coruisk itself. From its character and surroundings the lake assumes either aspect with equal ease.

Right in the centre of the view stands Craig an Dubh Loch, or the "black loch crag," a bare precipitous mountain, whose white front at once catches the eye and unifies the wide-sweeping view. On both sides of this central point there extends a semi-circle of mountains, a splendid range of rocky masses,—those to the right, pointed and craggy; those to the left, more rounded and sloping, and grassed to the summit. The striking peak farthest to the right is Beinn Aridh Charr, "the ben of the rough shieling." It presents a front of steep precipice, two thousand feet in height, and has a cairn of immense blocks at its base, called the Cairn of the Caves, till a few years ago an eyrie of the golden eagle. The hill next it is Meall Mheannidh, or the "middle mountain,"' so named as lying between it and the grander mass beyond. That is Beinn Lair, or "the ben of the mare" which rises right from the widest part of Loch Maree. From the left of the central Craig an Dubh Loch stretches a series of mountains with different trying names. The fine peak next to it bears the pretty title of Maighdean, '"the Jungfrau, or Maiden." The highest is Beinn a Chais-gean Mor, and the farthest to the left is Fhridh Mhealian. This long mountain screen is singularly varied in outline and aspect, being both precipitous and rolling, peaked and rounded, and greatly diversified in contour and colouring. The hilis are separated from each other. especially those to the right, by deep narrow glens, which afford passage across the range, and increase their picturesqueness,

On the right hand, the loch is separated from the steep mountains by a narrow stretch of rough heathery moorland, containing many small lakes; to the left, the hilis swell right from the water in green rounded slopes. At the lower end, the lake divides into several sinuous branches, with numerous tributary lochans, and its waters are discharged by a stream, a few miles in length, which falls into the sea at the head of Gniinard Bay.

It is nigh twenty years since I first visited this romantic spot, along with some scientific friends, intent on geologic and scenic pursuits; one of whom, Dr James Bryce, has since perished in the pursuit of science, near the Fall of Foyers, where a monument, subscribed by his admirers, marks the tragic spot. We followed the wild mountain track between Beinn Aridh Charr and the lake, up to its head, and had a glorious day.

Many years after I paid the scene a second visit, accompanied by other Mends; one of these, the proprietor, Mr Osgood Mackenzie. whose unrivalled knowledge of the country, and especially of its birds, completed our enjoyment.

The morning was lovely, the sky blue and flecked with light fleecy clouds, though the air was electrical, with threatening masses of raincloud which darkened part of the day. The colouring was unusually fine, the shadows transparent, the sunshine warm and mild. and the sheen on the water such as our artist declared could be painted only by Alfred W. Hunt, The severity of the retreating winter was revealed in July in several patches of snow, which gleamed in some of the conies, chiefly in the group at the head of the lake. Everything was favourable to high influence and happiness,—the threatening possibilities of storm only adding new elements to the scene.

Embarking at the pier, we rowed slowly up the smooth lake, enjoying the scenery and passing several islands, the haunts of some of our rarer birds. Reaching a sandy bay, about half-way up the loch on the right, we landed beneath a projecting cliff called Rudha Dubh, or "the black cape," which bears a singular resemblance to a Highland bonnet, a perched block on its crest appropriately completing the likeness by way of tassel. We ascended nil we came in sight of two other lochs with islands, called Lochanan Beannach, or "the lakelets of the bens." There we rested for lunch, in view also of the Fionn Loch and its opposite hills, and beneath the crags of Beinn Aridh Charr. From this point the nearest of the peaks of this Beinn presents a perfect natural dome, which at once suggests a gigantic St PauPs. The pass between this peak and its neighbour, the Middle Hill, is unusually low, some two thousand feet under the enclosing mountains. It forms a grand inverted curve, almost as fine in sweep as the hollow of Glen Rosa in Arran, with the peaks of Beinn Eay and Liathgach on Loch Torridon, visible through it in blue distance.

The situation was simply charming, and luncheon there amidst such surroundings, with genial friends, pure pleasure. Its interest and beauty were increased by watching two black-throated divers (Colymbi Arctici) on one of the lakelets below, a very rare sight in this country. They had a pair of tiny babies, just hatched, whom they tended with pretty care, keeping them between them as they quietly oared themselves onwards, circling round them at times, and gently leading them to greater effort, and wider range,—altogether a pretty group of nature's nurslings.

Taking boat again and rounding the Black Cape, we left our artist and his wife at the next rocky point, which charmed them, there to sketch the remarkable mountains round the Dubh Loch, while we explored the upper reaches of the lake. The precipitous-ness and grandeur of the hills increased with nearness. Fresh peaks rose into view, and the old took new and more striking forms with each new point of sight. Many tops, unseen before, opened up to the left of the Maiden,—the Ruadh Stac, or "red peak," so called from its red Cambrian strata, a fine contrast to the Cam Bhan, or "white cairn," in front of it, formed of bare glistening pegmatite: and a remarkable hill called Scuir a Laocainn, which means either "Scuir of the calf-skin," so named from some ancient legend or fancied appearance, or, according to one of my friends, the "Scuir of the heroes."

We landed in a flat bay called Poll Fraochainn, or "the heathery pool," on the right of Craig an Dubh Loch, in order that I might reach the precipices of Beinn Lair. The way to them, through a narrow pass right ahead, is steep and trackless, but the reward is well worth the toil. It skirts the base of a high cliff on the right, where you are greeted by the mountain sorrel, last seen on Ben Nevis, with its bright green and russet leaves, which will refresh your parched throat; the rare Cornus suessica^ or dwarf dogwood, occurring also near the big Ben; the beautiful European globe flower; and by abundant oak fern and other charms for the lover of wildflowers.

With stout heart you soon reach a green platform between two valleys, where a wonderful scene at once bursts on your sight,—a straight, narrow, long-drawn glen stretching for miles before you, with Loch Fada at its farther end, skirted all along its right side by a continuous wall of gigantic cliffs, which are the back of Beinn Lair. These cliffs are practically vertical, forming a sheer precipice above fifteen hundred feet in height. They are singularly barren of vegetation except on the ledges of the rock, and strangely mottled in colour, with grey lichen on dark rock. They are scarred and fissured with countless deep vertical cracks running from base to summit, which, by carrying the eye upwards, increase the apparent altitude. Their crest is jagged, pointed, domed, and battlemented, in a wonderful serrated edge. Seen from this point the long cliffs stretch down the glen in splendid succession, rampart behind rampart, which are separated by the vertical fissures of the gneiss. The whole is clothed in sombre deep purple, tending to black. Except for the trickling runnels from the rock, the scene is solitary and silent even to sadness, with a powerful grandeur which becomes painful from its impressiveness. In a thunderstorm it must pass conception. The Honister Crag, near Borrodale, in Cumberland, magnificent as it is in a dying sunset, is narrow and poor in comparison.

In returning by the top of the hill that rises above the pass to the south, I passed a great perched block, fifteen feet long and ten feet high, a standing witness of the Ice Age. An old hill fort on the head of this ridge, formed by a strong enclosing wall, was an unexpected sight in such a retired region, indicating more inhabitants in the old days. It commands an unsurpassed prospect over the whole lake country below, westwards to the open Minch with the dim Uists in the far horizon.

Descending, I caught the old road to Loch Broom, which crosses the Bealloch from Letterewe on Loch Maree, and which led me straight to the boat.

After embarking, we pulled till just under the front of Craig an Dubh Loch, a precipice above a thousand feet high, whose remarkable whiteness had arrested the eye from the first. This is caused by the presence of the pale granite, called pegmatite, which runs over the face of the cliff in serpentine lines and masses, expanding and contracting, and stretching in tongue-like extensions to the summit, where it is again broadly developed. This curious granite gives the cliff the general aspect of the precipices of Cape Wrath or Skye, with their volcanic intrusions and contortions, as figured by Macculloch and Nicol.

The upper part of the Fionn Loch glen narrows into a steep close corrie, occupied by the waters of the Dubh Loch, and a higher green cul de sac, with its mountain streamlet, enclosed by Craig an Dubh Loch on the right, and the Maiden and her rugged companions to the left or north. The Dubh Loch is a dark, deep pool, grand in a scenic and most interesting in a geological view. It forms a marked contrast to the expansive and brighter Fionn Loch, of which, nevertheless, it is merely an alpine chamber; and the contrasted names given by the old Celts to two parts of the same water, the "white" and the "black," are as true as they are descriptive. Their general aspect shows this sufficiently, but when viewed from any of the neighbouring hills, the truth of the description is more evident. The Dubh Loch always bears a dark look if not a sullen frown, even in a calm, looking then like a pavement of black Galway marble.

The Dubh Loch forms a well-curved crescent, its concave side being occupied by Craig an Dubh Loch. Crossing the causeway between the lakes, the traveller should ascend the steep rocky hill, called Cam na Paite, some three hundred feet high, which is isolated from the mountains beyond by a deep valley. Its top commands a wonderful view of the whole alpine scene, and enables you to see the steep silent corrie at the head of the Dubh Loch, and thus complete your survey. The scenery from this central point of vantage is very grand, being wild, desolate, and imposing, unusually stern in character and colouring, and as lonely and separate from the world as Manfred or the most misanthropic could desire.

When we left the Dubh Loch, a fierce thunder shower burst, the big drops being sent sharply into the lake like hail, with a pelletlike force and high upward rebound of water. Viewed through this wonderful screen of rain and mist, the great mountains became mere flat shadows. Then it changed to a misty gauze, returned again and again to a black obliterating denseness, and then cleared off till the hill-tops held the upper clouds like volcanic smoke from active craters, the whole scene passing through many grand and beautiful phases from thundery rain to sunshine. It was a splendid exhibition of the scene in its alpine aspects, and completed the pictures of the varied day.

In the middle of the falling rain we picked up our artists, drenched, but delighted, though with unfinished canvas. The wet prevented a visit to some of the islands in this part of the loch which we wished to see, the haunts of some of our rarer birds that still linger in this wild Highland loch. In Eilean a Chuillin, on the north side, a heronry is said to have been destroyed by golden eagles from the rocks on Beinn Xridh Charr, one of the accused being poisoned in consequence. In Eilean nan Corr-sgreach, that is the "heron's isle," the largest heronry perhaps in the country still flourishes on stumpy crooked birch and holly trees, the flapping wings of the birds being visible through the mist. On another island close by this one, the very rare goosander used recently to build, Mr Mackenzie being the first discoverer of its nest in Scotland. On another islet close by the opposite shore the white-tailed eagle nested more than twenty years ago. On Eilean Molach, near the pier, the black-throated diver still exists. The peregrine falcon then haunted the scene, having its eyrie on the cliffs of Beinn Aridh Charr, and one flew over our heads, chased close to his nest by two angry curlews; but he has, it seems, now deserted the place. Other still rarer species yet linger in this retired spot.

It is devoutly to be hoped that they will long continue to do it honour, guarded by the proprietors, and all good and true men. Happily none are allowed on the lake unless under the care of sanctioned boatmen; and the whole has now been forested. These means of protection, we trust, will preserve these rare creatures as a beauty and a boast for generations to come. In this connexion, nothing shows the defects of the moral and aesthetic training of our people more than the prevalent desire, in even the so-called cultivated classes, to destroy such unusual visitants, some of them harmless. If individual kindliness and sense will not do it, public indignation and penal enactment should be invoked for their preservation.

Our artist and his wife returned by carriage to comfort and shelter. Wishing to see more we crossed the rough country, covered with boulders, lakes and bogs, that lies between this and Loch Ewe. We were disappointed at not reaching Loch an Iasgair, that is the "loch of the fisher or osprey." This rare and interesting bird seems now to have quite deserted this alpine region, though once abundant both here and in the islands of Loch Maree. We visited, however, an immense block of gneiss not far from the loch, borne hither in glacial times, twenty feet long, ten broad, and fifteen high, with steep inaccessible sides, crowned by two feet of moss, and adorned with grass, heather and bushes. Forty years ago a pair of marten cats committed such havoc amongst the lambs that they were watched and followed, but they were always lost sight of just when their lair was thought to be reached. Both dogs and men were long at fault, till a pair of sharper eyes one day observed the clever martens leap to the top of our boulder in two bounds. That was, of course, the end of their history, of the Martens of Castle Marten, as they were called by my friend; for they were followed, and themselves and their young exterminated. This big block is but one of countless others of all sizes scattered over this rude mossy territory, in which they form a special feature; their glacial history being further corroborated by the abundant, well rounded, polished, and striated roches moutonnksy here so abundantly scattered between the hills and the sea.

Reaching an eminence which commanded the whole of the Fionn Loch and its enclosing peaks, the last look we had of it revealed it in a bright, pearly light, exquisitely fresh after the rain, its now smooth surface reflecting a silvery sheen in the descending sun, and showing the appropriateness of its name, the "fair lake."

 


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