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The Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal
An Ascent of Ben Lomand (3,192 ft) by William and Mary Howitt in 1822


THE following interesting little account of the ascent of Ben Lomond, some seventy years ago, by William and Mary Howitt, may not prove uninteresting to readers of the Journal. It was undertaken in April 1822, at a time when there were no such facilities for climbing the mountain as now. The account is extracted from the "Autobiography of Mary Howitt," edited by her daughter Margaret Howitt, and published by Wm. Isbister, Limited, London, 1889.

"On Monday, April 14th, 1822, we started on foot for Loch Lomond, up the beautiful Vale of Leven; saw on our way the monument erected to Smollet's memory and scenery of his 'Roderick Random,' by which name this native poet is chiefly called here. In the afternoon we sat down on a sunny bank at a short distance from Loch Lomond, and were joined by an old merchant, who travelled from Renton to the different villages on the loch side, supplying them with the staff of life, cakes, and gingerbread.

"He carried on the top of his basket of good things what he deemed the greatest necessity and luxury of all, a well-worn Testament, out of which it was his wont to read a few passages, and expound and dialogue upon them with the good dames and hoary shepherds to whom he administered his temporals; and from the specimen he gave us, we thought he had a very extraordinary gift of discernment that way. He strongly recommended us to lodge at Rowardennan, where there was 'a very fine, clever, discreet woman, who bought bread of him.

"We took tea at Luss. With the exception of the inn, and one or two other houses, it consisted of a cluster of genuine Highland huts amidst a group of trees, then covered with a profusion of blossom. Our walk after tea led us along the margin of the lake. The sound of the many torrents became more perceptible as the silence of evening came on. The lake slept still and beautiful in the last rays of the sun; and the mountains around, as the twilight stole over them, assumed successively a variety of the softest hues,—purple, deep blue, grey, then wrapped themselves in awful obscurity. By the time we arrived at the ferry of Rowardennan it was deep twilight ; and the ferryman, snugly seated at his whisky, desired us 'to wait a wee.' Not being inclined to wait, we applied to another proprietor of a boat, who ordered a boy to take us across. The lad had his cows to milk, and he therefore desired us 'to wait a wee.' It was only by force of menaces that we got him off at length, and then either to revenge himself or alarm us, or both, he led us down through a rough hollow, across a deep-ploughed meadow into a wood, where it was too gloomy to discern anything many yards; here he stopped and whistled, but seeing we discovered nothing but a desire to get over, he at length led us to his boat, and out we pushed into the lake. If ever we were in a scene of gloomy grandeur it was then, paddling at nine o'clock across the water with scarcely enough light to discern our course, but enough to perceive the savage cliffs that arose around, and which seemed to cast down from the sky a deep stillness upon us.
"The inn at Rowardennan we found after some stumbling about in the dark, every window and door being closed; and on entering, discovered a goodly family—father, mother, and a troop of children—seated round a blazing wood-fire. Our appearance seemed to excite that sort of surprise and anxiety which unprepared-for guests occasion. A candle was lighted, and we were requested to walk upstairs; but having full assurance that we were then by the only fire in the house, there we determined to seat ourselves. Our landlord had much the air and attire of a gamekeeper, and our landlady was a comely matron of superior stature. She begged to know if we would wait for a 'fool' to be cooked. Declining this offer, we managed to make a supper of their oat-cake, their whole stock of eggs, three in number, procured a glass of whisky toddy, none of the best, and added a supplement out of our own budget.

"Our landlord's conversation made us some amends. He had been up Ben Lomond as guide to Sir Walter Scott; like everybody else he had read his works; and it was in this very house that young Rob Roy celebrated his marriage with his fair captive, and stayed a few days before he proceeded to his own dwelling. The kitchen where we sat was a scene fit for the pencil. Around the ample fireplace hung several pairs of tartan hose, wet with traversing the spongy moors. On the floor, among sticks, dust, half- roasted and half-crushed potatoes, crowded the whole tribe of dirty half-naked children, and several large shepherd-dogs. Overhead were guns and a variety of household implements. About one-fourth of the room was occupied by a press-bed with sliding panels, which from its aspect appeared to the nest of the chief part of the family. In our bedroom the sheets were so thoroughly saturated with peat smoke that we did not lose the odour of it for days. In the morning we heard our host and hostess engaged in a warm debate. He dropped a word now and then in a subdued tone, but our ' fine, clever, and discreet woman' was loud and impetuous; and from a few of her shrill accents that reached us, we guessed that a lack of viands for our breakfast had raised her fiery indignation. At length mine host fled into the wilderness, and after a long delay our breakfast appeared—good tea, raw sugar, boiled eggs, mutton-ham, and dirty salt. Such was our sojourn at Rowardennan, the Duke of Montrose's inn. Alas, that our old merchant had not arrived here before us with his wheaten loaves! This was the only place in Scotland of which we had reason to complain, and the poverty of the people was evidently the cause.

"A little before ten o'clock we set out to climb Ben Lomond, at the foot of which we had slept. The ascent is reckoned about six miles, and we found it a laborious task of four hours. We waded deep in heather, crossed rocky and impetuous torrents, laboured up acclivities only to see unsuspected hollows which must be descended; but the most impeding obstacles were the black and trembling bogs, which intercepted our course every few yards, and which required a good deal of boldness, contrivance, and circumspection to pass.

"As we advanced, however, and paused at intervals to rest, the most extensive and grand prospects opened before us, whilst we became and more impressed with the profound silence which reigned over the immense barren and lofty solitude in which we were. Not a sound seemed to live there but the twitter of a small bird always found in heather, the casual call of the raven, the less frequent and more plaintive cry of the plover, or the bleat of the solitary sheep wandering on a far-off slope, or coming to look down gravely with its grey face from some eminence above. About a mile from the top the ascent became suddenly more steep, the summit rising up like a cone, whilst the apex, torn out, presented a black and terrible perpendicular hollow of two thousand feet deep. This tremendous hollow, open to the north side of the mountain, in naked and rugged gloom, revealed its ghastly and dizzy depth at our feet, to which the snows of many winters sleeping in it gave an air of greater desolation. Labouring with increasing ardour, we at length stood upon the summit. What a prospect! At the south-west foot of the mountain lay Loch Lomond in full view, an expanse of water twenty-eight miles in length, scattered with as many beautiful islands; the Clyde, Dumbarton, and the southern part of Scotland; Argyleshire, with its lochs, woods, and mountains; the coast of Ireland —but it would be useless to enumerate the distant places visible from it. Yet we were not so much amazed at the vastness of this extensive survey as at the tempestuous sea of mountains which the Highlands exhibited. They lifted their bare and abrupt peaks into the sky; some brown in the nearer view, some splintered and desolate, some shrouded in snow, some black beneath the frown of a passing cloud, and some blue in the softened distance. When we had surveyed this magnificent scene about half-an-hour, the clouds began to gather, and at length closing upon us, involved us every moment in deeper gloom. The wind began to whistle with the hollowness of an approaching storm. It became suddenly extremely cold, and the snow fell as thick and heavily as in the depth of winter. We were upon the very edge of the tremendous chasm, which could hardly be distinguished from the solid mountain, except by the snow in its bosom. The darkness became so great that we could not discover each other at more than an arm's length. We were therefore obliged to hold each other's hand, and in this manner we endeavoured to retrace our steps till we could get below the cloud. Fearful of stepping into the chasm, we held so much in the opposite direction that we speedily bewildered ourselves amidst a chaos of rocks, which forbade all further progress and almost any return. At length we regained our old station, and, by a more successful effort, the path by which we had come up. Then descending below the region of cloud, we found we had again diverged, but continued our way, and in the space of two hours, sometimes stopped by precipices, sometimes by torrents, and sometimes fearful of being engulfed in the tottering bogs, and all the time sinking deep in the wet spongy moss, the rain pouring down plentifully, we escaped in safety to a farmhouse at the foot.

"Women, children, and clamorous dogs had long noticed us descending, and were assembled at the door gazing in astonishment at our temerity; but as we approached they all withdrew into the house, and when we reached the door everything was so still there might have been so soul in it. We found, however, a family of no less than thirteen persons. It was a genuine Highland hut, built of rough stones, and thatched with bracken. Two goats, the first we had seen, came and presented their bearded visages at the door. Having sat, chatted, and rested ourselves with the solitary family, we crossed the river by some stepping-stones, and pursued our way down the sublimely desolate Glen Dhu." A. E. M.

[It is interesting to compare the poet's experiences on Ben Lomond nigh seventy years ago with modern times, when there is a most comfortable inn at Rowardennan, and a convenient service of steamers on the loch. Probably, too, the modern climber will be of opinion that the terrors of the ascent have disappeared with the difficulties of access, as he should, without much difficulty, be able to follow the pony track to the summit in two hours, while even less time will suffice him for the more interesting and direct ascent from the Ptarmigan Lodge, about a couple of miles to the northward of the modern hotel of Rowardennan.—ED.]


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