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The Land of Heather
Chapter VIII. Lochs and Bens


Water from the Well

LAKES and mountains abound throughout the Highlands to an extent that in many sections leaves little else. Very few areas of any size have escaped the general upheaval, and such aspects of gentleness as these northern regions display are usually confined to nooks and corners. Of this country of the lochs and bens no district possesses more charm in itself and in its literary and historic associations than that which contains Lochs Katrine and Lomond, and, like most visitors to Scotland, I succumbed to the attraction of these twin lakes, and early one evening took a coach at Callander, the end of the railway line, to go through the Trossachs. The name Trossachs means bristled region, that is, a region of rocks, forest, and craggy mountain ridges, thrown together in rude disorder; and this very aptly describes not a little of the landscape neighboring Katrine and Lomond.

The coach was a great high affair with four seats running crosswise of its upper story, each intended to accommodate four persons. Every one wanted to mount aloft to get the benefit of the view, and the body of the conveyance was simply a hollow storage compartment for baggage. The place on a coach most coveted by the passengers is the front seat with the driver. Thence you get an unimpeded outlook and a chance to chat with the man who holds the reins and pick up information. On this trip two hustling Americans snapped up the sittings on the front seat. One was a gray little man with a toothless lisp. The other was his wife, a ponderous, red-faced woman who was scarcely less intent than her husband to gobble up first places. As soon as the coach drove up to the station these two were right on hand, elbowing through the crowd, and their use of physical force and liberal tips to porters and driver, made it hopeless for any one else to compete with them.

A mountain stream

There were two other typical Americans on the load who at once made themselves apparent. They were a young man and a young woman, and it did not take much penetration to decide they were on their wedding-trip. The young man came briskly out of the station soon after the train arrived, and walked all around the coach to see if there were vacant seats. He had assumed an air intended to impress one that he was an experienced traveller, but no one took any stock in that, unless it was " Clara," his wife. Still we liked him. There was nothing mean and crowding about him as there was in the front seat couple. We had no trouble in discovering his wife's name, for he was not at all timid in his tones, and he spoke to be heard, on all occasions, no matter whom he addressed. "You get up on that seat, Clara," he would say, "and I'll get up here." Then later, "Are you all right, Clara," etc., etc., always loud and distinct, and Clara's name tacked on to every sentence. He did all he could, in the way of conversation and little attentions, to make Clara enjoy herself, and she seemed quite appreciative.

Much of our journey was along the side of Loch Vennachar, with heather hills round about and Ben Venue's ragged summit looking down on us from the west. Toward eight o'clock we reached "The Trossachs Inn," a great, lonely stone hotel which, with its wings and turrets, looked like the mansion of some wealthy nobleman. In front of the inn the land sloped down in pleasant meadows to Loch Achray. Behind it the hills climbed steep and high. I had the good fortune to be assigned to a room in one of the hotel turrets, with windows that overlooked the country for miles. Best of all, the view included Ben Venue in the distance, lifting its calm heights far into the sky.

Early the next morning I started for a walk up the valley. The road wound through a forest in which graceful, round-plumed birches were predominant, though occasional oaks and other trees were not lacking. The woodland was quite enchanting with the rank-growing ferns underneath, and the continual glimpses of lofty hills and mountain peaks. Now and then I saw a rowan tree brightening the wood with its clusters of scarlet berries, and again a high cliff would shoulder into view, its top overflowing with pink heather bloom. Once, in a marshy open, a red deer lifted its startled head, watched me a moment, and then bounded away with short, hoarse barks of alarm. Sometimes a rabbit scudded across the roadway ahead, or I caught a momentary glimpse of a bushy-tailed red squirrel whisking up a tree, and these various denizens of the woodland added greatly to the sylvan charm.

Thus I went on, up and down the little hills through the ferny forest, till a turn in the road brought into sight the waters of Loch Katrine reaching back in blue inlets among the tree-crowned cliffs of its shores. In one of the little bays lay a steamer with a lazy wisp of smoke drifting up from its black chimney. It seemed out of place, and almost as sacrilegious as does the conveyance of the waters of this loch of romance through twenty-five miles of iron pipe to supply the city of Glasgow. But the lake water is remarkably pure, and what romance loses, the crowded humanity of the great town gains.

I kept to the road that skirted the eastern shore for a mile to the famous "Silver Strand." This is no more than a bit of white, pebbly beach, hooking out into the loch, yet it has a fascinating interest from its connection with Scott's "Lady of the Lake," and the spot itself is delightful. Southward the giant Ben Venue loomed skyward in treeless heather, and slopes of emerald turf, and outcropping crags of gray rock. Behind me were woods where the birds sang and where the sunshine glinted irregularly through the leafage to the green undergrowth of grasses and bracken. The day was warm and quiet, with a sky of cloudless blue. Only enough wind stirred to make the leaves whisper and the pendant branches of the birches sway, and to keep a pleasant rippling of little waves along the shore.

Not far away was the Isle of the Lady of the Lake, rising above the water in a rocky knoll, wholly covered with trees, just as Scott described it —

. . . . "all so close with copse-wood bound,
Nor track nor pathway might declare
That human foot frequented there."

Of course the poet drew freely on his imagination in telling the story, and yet it is not at all unlikely that

"Here, for retreat in dangerous hour,
Some chief had framed a rustic bower ; "

for the situation of the isle well accords with such use; the old Celtic chieftains, their lives continually exposed to peril, were accustomed to have a secret domicile ready in as strong and easily defended a spot of the most retired part of their domains as could be selected. It might be a cave, but, more often, a tower or rude hut was erected.

Loch Katrine and Ben Venue

The plot of the poem is not, however, dependent on these genera! possibilities. It has a modicum of genuine historic foundation. The facts are these.— a troop of Cromwell's cavalry had made a raid into the Trossachs, and the local Highlanders had carried all their most valuable property to this little island in Loch Katrine, and left it there in the care of the women and children. The soldiery learned of what the natives had done, and came to the borders of the lake; but they could discover no means of getting out to the islet. While they were debating the difficulty, a trooper with sharper eyes than his fellows noticed a boat moored under one of the island cliffs, and he volunteered to swim across and get it. If they could possess themselves of the boat, access to the isle would be easy, and they were sure to gain a rich reward of plunder. The man was a good swimmer, his progress was rapid, and his comrades soon saw him nearing the island. But as he was about to set his foot on land, a woman armed with a sword appeared and smote off his head, and his lifeless body fell back into the water. His fellow-soldiers in great dismay and anger vainly discharged their guns toward the island, yet none of them ventured any further attempt to secure the boat. Shortly they withdrew, and left the possessors of the islet undisturbed. The name of the woman who by her valor saved the refuge from the invaders was Helen Stewart, and it was christened in her honor Helen's Isle. Fiction, however, has proved more powerful than fact, and the island is now much more distinctly connected with the name of Ellen Douglas than with that of Helen Stewart.

When I retraced my steps along the borders of the loch I found the brisk little steamer fast filling with passengers, and soon it cast loose, and we were off for the other end of the lake. During the first part of the journey the shores rose in wooded precipices and the mighty Ben Venue looked down from near at hand, and, better still, we passed close by the wild little Ellen's Isle. Later the country turned milder, and on either side were simply great grazing hills, sweeping far upward in green, unwooded slopes.

We arrived at our destination in the course of an hour. The steamer was lashed to a pier, and we all hurried off to get a choice of seats on the three big coaches that stood waiting on the near highway. These were to take us six miles over the hills to Inversnaid on Loch Lomond, and each vehicle had four horses and a red-coated driver and liveried footman. The route led through a deserted country of heather-clad uplands, where the only life was the groups of feeding sheep. Presently we began the descent toward Lomond by sharp loops of the steepest sort of roadway. The brakes were set tight, and scraped and jarred, but the horses kept on at a trot, and when the driver swung his whip and let the long lash cut through the air, they broke into a spurt of galloping. The passengers braced their feet and imagined what would happen if anything gave way, or if we met a team as we turned one of the wooded curves. The drive and these imaginings were the more exhilarating by reason of a deep ravine whose precipitous edges were skirted by the narrow road for the final mile or two.

Our journey's end was a steamer wharf at the edge of the loch, with a big hotel just up the hill. As the coaches came to a standstill two men with bagpipes began to march back and forth in front of the hotel, playing away with ardor enough for a whole orchestra. We were also welcomed by three bareheaded gypsies — a frouzy woman and two girls, — each of whom accosted such of the travellers as they could waylay with the words, "Please gie me a penny, sir, to buy a cup o' tea wi', sir," in the most plaintive of tones.

Rob Roy, that most noted of outlaws since Robin Hood, owned property in Inversnaid, and had a cave not far away to the north on the border of the lake, where he sometimes took refuge when hard pressed. All the region around is full of associations with this wild chieftain. Medivalism was not extinct in the Highlands until the middle of the eighteenth century, and Rob Roy flourished here less than two hundred years ago. He was born about 1660, in Glen Gyle, at the head of Loch Katrine; and in Balquidder, a little farther north, he lies buried, and his gravestone, with a sword roughly carved on it, can be seen there in the churchyard.

He was of the hardy, unruly clan of the Macgregors, whose very name was outlawed so that its members were obliged to add some other appellation. Thus Rob Roy's full name was Robert Macgregor Campbell. Roy, meaning red, was simply a nickname suggested by the color of his hair and his ruddy complexion. In person he was unusually strong and compact, with great breadth of shoulders and very long arms, and he was a master in the use of the Highland sword. But, more potent as a safeguard than bodily strength or skill with weapons, was his intimate knowledge of all the recesses of the rough country in which he harbored. This was admirably suited to his purposes. It was broken up into narrow valleys, and the habitable parts bore no proportion to the huge wildernesses of forest, rocks, and bogs by which they were encircled. A few men acquainted with the ground and well led were capable of baffling the pursuit of numbers.

A coach to Lomond

Rob was not always an outlaw, and for a considerable period was favorably known as a dealer in cattle. No lowland or English drovers in those days would venture into the roadless northern hills and mountains, and the cattle, which were the staple commodity of the uplands, were driven down to border fairs by parties of Highlanders with their arms rattling about them. Disputes and fights sometimes occurred ; but in the main the trading was done peaceably and in all honor and good faith. While engaged in this cattle traffic in early manhood Rob Roy became a trusted agent in purchase and sales for his powerful neighbor, the Duke of Montrose. He maintained herds of his own in a glen north of Loch Lomond; and because he often suffered loss from marauders dwelling among the hills still more to the north, he organized a company of armed men. He not only protected his own flocks, but those of all the dwellers in his vicinity, for which service he levied a tax. At length came a time when, through unfortunate speculations and the dishonesty of a partner, he was rendered totally insolvent, and the Duke of Montrose, to whom he was deeply in debt, seized his estates.

Rob himself got away and collected a band of twenty followers. Then he proceeded to annoy, by every means in his power, the duke, and all that nobleman's tenants, friends, allies, and relatives. But Rob did not confine his attentions to them. Under one pretence or another he raided all his neighbors of the lowlands who had anything to lose, unless they bought security by an annual payment. In spite of his calling he was after a manner benevolent and humane rather than cruel and ferocious. He avoided bloodshed as much as possible, and was liberal in relieving the poor, of whom there was no lack, owing largely to Rob Roy himself and other depredators of his kind; for the lawlessness of the region discouraged industry, and there was little culture of the ground and no manufactures or trade.

The robber chief never stirred without a bodyguard of ten or twelve picked followers, and when he chose he increased this number to fifty or sixty. He rarely had any trouble in eluding or driving off the expeditions sent against him, and on the one or two occasions when he was captured, he quickly escaped. If he suffered any serious damage, he without delay revenged himself. For instance, when his house was burned, he made a descent on the factor of the Montrose family who was on a rent-collecting tour, and carried off all the money the man had gathered, to the, last shilling. Rob's usual method, however, of levying on the duke's rentals was much more matter-of-fact. To a considerable extent the tenants paid in grain, and storehouses were established at various points for its reception. Rob Roy was in the habit of helping himself to such quantities of grain as he pleased, sometimes for his own use, sometimes for the assistance of needy country people ; but he never failed to give regular receipts for what he took, pretending that he was going to reimburse the duke for it later.

Highland Pipers

As he advanced in years he became more peaceable, and the duke, who had found offensive measures ineffectual, stopped harrying the Macgregors, and to such of them as would settle down he gave leases at a low rental. The result of the duke's clemency in the case of Rob Roy was that toward the close of his life he dwelt undisturbed under his own roof, and about the year 1733 he died in his own bed in the parish of Balquidder.

His temper was not without fire to the very last. During his final illness it was announced to him by members of his family that a certain person with whom he was at enmity had come to visit him. " Raise me from my bed," commanded the sick man, "throw my plaid around me and bring my claymore and pistols. It shall never be said that a foeman saw Rob Roy Macgregor defenceless."

The visitor then entered and made friendly inquiry after Rob Roy's health, but the latter maintained a cold, haughty civility during the short conference. As soon as the caller had gone the old chieftain sank back, saying, "Now all is over. Let the piper play, 'We return no more.' "

The piper played, but before the quavering dirge was finished Rob Roy had expired; and when the news of his death spread, his loss was lamented far and wide in his own wild district.

When I prepared to leave Inversnaid, I sought the wharf, and looking toward the north saw approaching from among the mountains the black hull of a lake steamer overhung by a cloud of smoke. The surrounding scenery was on such a grand scale that the craft appeared to be very low and small — just a little blot on the waters; but it proved to be a very good-sized double-decked vessel. Passengers hurried off, and other passengers hurried on, the big piles of trunks and boxes were rushed aboard, and we went on southward. The hills and mountains bordering were higher than on Loch Katrine, and much of the time we had in view the majestic Ben Lomond rising serenely above all its fellows. On the lower slopes of the heights were many gray-green acres of bracken, and in the ravines were waterfalls making white leaps down the steep declivities. Here and there patches of purple heather were coming into blossom, frequent woods of evergreen and copses of birch grew along the shores and in the little glens that furrowed the hillside, while in the lake itself were occasional small islands, on which could now and then be glimpsed a ruin hiding among the trees.

Kilchurn Castle

The voyage ended at the extreme lower end of the lake. Thence I continued a few miles south to Dumbarton, on the Clyde, where I planned to spend the night. A remnant of the day still remained, and after I had selected a hotel I went for a walk. Ship-building was plainly the chief industry of the place, and along the river were the great yards where all day long is to be heard the confused clamor of hundreds of hammers ringing on the iron hulls of half-built vessels. When I got glimpses into the enclosures I saw forests of upright timbers supporting the new vessels, and there were black foundries and workshops, tall, smoke-plumed chimneys, and an army of mechanics.

My ramble ended with a visit to the old castle perched on a great, rough, double-turreted cliff that rose steeply from the level banks of the river; and then I started to go back to my hotel. It was later than I had thought, and the working people had finished their suppers. The men were lounging in doorways or walking the streets, children were playing on the pavements, and many frowzled women were visiting at the entrance to their houses, or, if it happened to be more convenient, in the middle of the highway. There was abounding dirt and slovenliness. All the poorer children were barefoot, and so were many of the women, and it seemed to me that nearly every woman, even down to the young girls, had either coarse and wrinkled faces or bold and rude ones.

I had just returned to the main street, after threading through several of the byways, when I heard a noise of many voices and saw a turmoil of people approaching and filling the thoroughfare like a sudden flood. I hastened to the protection of a doorway and let the mob sweep past. In the front and centre were four men carrying a fifth on their shoulders, and the fifth man lay apparently lifeless, with a white face falling limply to one side. This grewsome vanguard hurried on, with men, women, and children running after, and from every alley poured newcomers, till the whole town was alive with people, and I could not but wonder how such numbers could get together so quickly. The majority followed the injured man, but others gathered in excited groups, and all sorts of stories were circulated as to what the trouble was. One said the man had dropped in a faint, another that the bobby (policeman) had struck him and laid his head open with a club, another that he had been hit in fun by a friend.

Presently I went on, and entered the side street on which stood my hotel. To my surprise I found the crowds continually getting thicker and more excited. A particularly dense and uneasy mob was gathered in front of my hotel, and I had difficulty in forcing a way through. I was admitted at a side-gate by one of the women of the house who was looking out over the wicket, and from her I got the full story of the disturbance.

Jacob Primmer, an anti-papist of considerable fame, had been lecturing on the common. There were many Catholics among his hearers, and his denunciations so stirred them that they resorted to violence, and the orator had to be escorted to his hotel, which happened to be the very one I had chosen, in the midst of eleven policemen. Sticks and stones were thrown, and a stray missile had struck and stunned the man I had seen carried along the main street. The mob outside thought Primmer would go to the railroad station later in the evening, and were waiting to assault him ; but he disappointed them by staying at the hotel over night. I saw him when I went indoors — a brisk little man, getting gray and elderly. He looked harmless enough, and he seemed in no wise disconcerted by the riot he had brought about his ears.

It was not very agreeable stopping in a house beleaguered as mine was, but it was an interesting experience. The sounds that came from the street reminded me of the angry hum one hears within a beehive when it is given a disturbing rap. For an hour or so the crowd hung on, and then a street musician came along and played a merry tune on an accordion. That was a great help toward a peaceful dispersion, and I am inclined to think a good dose of pleasant melody would have a quieting effect on any mob.

The next morning I returned to Loch Lomond and sailed northward the full length of the lake. The steamer was thronged, and the day sunny. The men smoked, and the women read and chatted. At the piers-, everywhere we stopped, buses and coaches and parties of pleasure-seekers were waiting, and each time as soon as we got under way again a boy made the rounds of the deck with a basketful of guides, souvenirs, and photographs for sale.

At the head of the lake I exchanged the steamer for the railway, and by noon reached Dalmally, not far from another of the famous Scotch lochs with its attendant mountains. A visit to this loch was the pleasantest feature of my stay at Dalmally. It was four miles distant, a comfortable walk down a wide valley on a road that much of the way kept company with a little river lingering through drowsy lowlands. Though it was not yet mid-August, all the greens of woods and fields were lightened in the early morning of the day I walked to Loch Awe by a heavy white frost, and when the sun began to get high, the beech leaves shrivelled at their tips and looked scorched; but except for this I did not observe that the frost did any special harm. In time I sighted the lake basking in blue serenity beneath the quiet summer sky. Wandering breezes rippled its surface here and there into silver, and, well out in the midst, a lazy rowboat was paddling back and forth, its occupants intent on fishing. But what attracted the eye most was the beautiful ruin of Kilchurn castle. Its half-fallen walls rose above a little grove of attendant trees, and in the background was a lofty tumble of mountain ranges, with Ben Cruachan monarch of the peaks. The old castle was a gem, and I promptly turned my footsteps in its direction. It lay beyond a long stretch of marshy meadows where a group of men and women were at work haymaking.

I approached the ruin, expecting to find it wholly forsaken to nature, and was a good deal surprised to come on a bevy of hens and chickens picking about under its walls, and to discover that the entrance was barred by a heavy oak door. On the door was a little sign, "Ring the bell," and I pulled a cord that dangled down close by. Soon I heard footsteps. The door was opened, and a middle-aged woman admitted me to the castle. As soon as I crossed the threshold I found myself in an ancient earthen-floored dungeon with a vaulted roof, for the entrance here was one cut through in recent years. The woman keeper of the fortress did not live in the ruin, but in an ivied cottage that had been built in a green court of the castle interior. There it was nestling under the old walls, with its chimney cheerfully smoking and giving a pleasant domestic touch to the historic ruin.

I explored the castle thoroughly, climbed its towers, followed its walls, looked up its cavernous chimneys; and then a shower came trailing down from Ben Cruachan. From the parapet of the fortress I saw the new-starting streams glisten in the high ravines of the mountain, and I watched them grow and glide with frequent foamy tumbles down the slopes. When the shower struck the castle, I sought the dungeon at the entrance, opened the oaken door for the sake of light, and sat there looking out on the flying rain. The hens sidled up to the doorway from the coops under the near bushes and studied their chances for stealing into the apartment; but I blocked the way, and they sank discouraged heads between their shoulders, and stood just outside, with the water sliding in little rills off their tail-feathers. Tricklings from the rain above came down plentifully into the dungeon, and the furrows in the hard earth underfoot showed that in heavy downpours the streams must have run in small torrents clear across the sloping floor and out beneath the entrance door.

I might have found the dungeon a trifle tiresome, but the lady of the castle came to my relief and entertained me with some ancient lore of the region. There was a time, she said, when there was no Loch Awe at all — only a deep valley. In those days a race of giants inhabited the land, and the vale was filled with their flocks. Their home was on the lofty heights of Ben Cruachan, and they spent much of their time in hunting over the hills. In the valley was a spring which was mysteriously connected with the destinies of the giants, and it was their sacred duty neither to allow the last ray of the sun at eventide nor its first gleam in the morning to touch the water. To prevent this a large stone was laid over the fountain just before sunset, and this was on no account removed until after sunrise the next morning.

For ages the spring was faithfully guarded; but the race gradually dwindled until only one remained to perform the task—a giantess of such mighty stature that she could step from the summit of one mountain to that of another at a single stride. One afternoon in the heat of midsummer, after a fatiguing day's hunt, she sat down to rest for a little. She recollected that she must soon descend into the valley to cover the spring, but the sun was high in the heavens, and there was no need of haste. Unfortunately, she fell asleep, and did not awake until the following morning. It was broad daylight, yet when the giantess looked about her she hardly knew where she was, so changed was the scene. A vast sheet of water now filled the vale, many of the lesser hills were changed to islands, and her flocks were all drowned. Such had been the result of leaving the spring uncovered for a single night. More than that, as she looked with dismay on the destruction she had caused, she felt her strength ebbing away, and knew she was doomed. In some occult manner her life was connected with the spring, and she soon lay dead on the high moorland. With her ended her race, and Loch Awe remains their sole memorial.

Another legend was of an island of the loch on which was once an enchanted garden more beautiful than any other spot on earth. Golden apples hung ever fair on its trees, and a frightful dragon watched over them. Persons sailing past sometimes caught gleams of the golden fruit, and if the boat came at all near the isle, those on board were likely to see the dragon flapping the air with his tail and opening his enormous mouth significantly. While the garden on this island still bloomed, there lived on the slope of Ben. Cruachan a fair maiden named Mego. She had everything a reasonable maiden could wish for, yet she was not happy. Nothing would do but she must have one of the dragon-guarded golden apples. So she ordered Frooch, her lover, to get one for her.

Frooch foolishly swore to do as she bid, and get the apple, dragon or no dragon. Accordingly he swam over to the island, and he and the dragon fought until the life was belabored out of both of them. Immediately the golden apples and the enchanted garden vanished, and the island became like other islands. As for the maiden, Mego, she pined away and died, but whether for lack of the coveted apple or in remorse for the loss of her brave lover, the lady of Kilchurn castle could not say.

The shower was past by the time these tales were finished, and I started back toward Dalmally. I lingered through the meadows where the tall grasses heavy with water drops prismatic in the sunlight, and before I knew it, another storm was brewing among the mountain peaks, and its mists of falling rain were sweeping high and gray across the western sky. Then little shreds began to veil the near slopes, and though I hastened, the first drops caught me in the open meadows. No house was near, and I ran to the protection of a railroad bridge, and sat and waited beneath it by the edge of the stream, with my back against the stone abutment. The storm was fierce while it lasted, but that was not long, and then I took the Dalmally road again.

Loch Lomond and Ben Lomand


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