As lovers of literature, escape and Scotland in general we were delighted to come across a new series of literary guides for travellers from I.B.Tauris. When it comes to independent travel, with a dash of history, these books are sure to inspire a spot of creative wanderlust. Below is an extract from Garry MacKenzie‘s guide to Scotland, a delightful read that explores the literary allure of Loch Lomond. We’ve run it with a selection of images from our own Scotland magazine – oh to return to those bonnie braes!
Jules Verne, the famed French author of Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, loved Scotland and even claimed Scottish ancestry. He set three of his lesser-known novels in the country. The earliest of these is a fictionalised account of his own travels in Scotland in 1859, a work that lay forgotten for well over a century before being rediscovered and published in France in 1989. In 1992, Janice Valls-Russell’s English translation, titled Backwards to Britain, was released. Verne’s impressions of Scotland are narrated by a character named Jacques Lavaret, who travels with a friend from Edinburgh to Glasgow and then on to the Trossachs, visiting landmarks such as Arthur’s Seat, Glasgow Cathedral and the Necropolis. Jacques, like Verne, is passionately excited about being in Scotland, to the extent that he even waxes lyrical about a steam-operated sausage machine in a Glasgow butcher’s window: ‘“What a people,” Jacques exclaimed. “What genius to apply steam to charcuterie! No wonder the British are the masters of the world!”’ Upon reaching Loch Lomond, the two travellers sail from Balloch, on the southern shore, and Jacques can’t help being reminded of ‘his favourite novels’, including Walter Scott’s Rob Roy, and anyone seeking similarities between Verne’s writing and that of Scott will and them in this description of the loch:
The first, overwhelming impression of Loch Lomond is of countless delightful islands of every shape and size imaginable. The Prince Albert weaved its way between them, skirting their rugged outlines and revealing a myriad different countrysides: here a fertile plain, there a solitary glen, elsewhere a forbidding ravine bristling with age-old rocks. Ancient legends clung to every shore, and the history of this land is written in these gigantic characters of islands and mountains.
The large area of Loch Lomond, and its position on the Highland Boundary Fault, mean that it feels less like a single body of water than like a series of interconnected lochs with changing characteristics. At its southern end it’s broad and surrounded by fields and parkland. As Verne points out, there are numerous islands, some of which are inhabited and many of which can be visited on boat trips. The south of Loch Lomond is busy with yachts and jet skis; on a sunny day the villages and pubs on its shores are filled with Glaswegians escaping the city.
The northern half of the loch is very different. About a third of the way up it narrows, and slopes rise on either side for almost 1,000 metres to form the mountains of Ben Lomond and Ben Vorlich. Lochside fields give way to wooded crags and banks of ferns. There are fewer pleasure boats on the water. On the eastern bank the road ends altogether at the hamlet of Rowardennan and only a rough footpath continues northwards to another settlement, Inversnaid. In Walter Scott’s Rob Roy, the rough country to the east of Loch Lomond is the territory of the eponymous outlaw, a real historical figure whom Scott describes as a Robin Hood character, a ‘kind and gentle robber’. Rob Roy MacGregor lived in the early eighteenth century and was both a cattle drover and, latterly, a cattle thief who earned a living by rustling. He’s the presiding spirit, but not really the hero, of Scott’s novel. Instead much of the action follows Frank Osbaldistone, a young Englishman caught up in intrigue involving Jacobites.
Such was the popularity of Scott’s Highland romance that countless tourists sought out its landscapes for themselves. ‘We ought to traverse the district novel in hand,’ says one Victorian guidebook of ‘Rob Roy’s country’, searching for locations such as ‘the precise spot where Francis Osbaldistone for a moment pressed the flushed cheek of Diana Vernon’. In the summer of 1817, the year before the novel was published, Scott came here himself, visiting ‘Rob Roy’s Cave’, not far from Inversnaid. The cave is one of countless landmarks in the area associated with Rob, an indication of his reputation as a folk hero. It’s allegedly one of his hideouts, though there might be little truth in this – it’s really just a cleft in a pile of boulders, and for visitors today the solitude of the location is more rewarding than the cave itself. Scott himself may have been disappointed by the cave, as he didn’t even mention it in his novel. For those seeking the real Rob Roy, a good place to start is Balquhidder, a quiet village an hour’s drive north of Aberfoyle, at the eastern end of Loch Voil. Rob Roy farmed at Balquhidder and his grave lies in the village church.
For hikers on the West Highland Way, the 100-mile footpath from Glasgow to Fort William, Inversnaid is something of an oasis, the only natural stopping point on the lochside on the rough path north from Rowardennan, and the site of a hotel and a cosy bunkhouse. In 1881 a young Jesuit priest based in Glasgow, Gerard Manley Hopkins, stopped briefly at Inversnaid. Hopkins found life in the big city oppressive and came north with a yearning for wilderness. His poem ‘Inversnaid’, with his distinctive rhythmical stresses, is a brilliant evocation of the sounds, colours and movements of the waterfall at the edge of this hamlet where Arklet Water cascades into Loch Lomond:
This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the eece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
[. . .]
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wilderness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wilderness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
Today a bridge crosses in front of the waterfall, affording spectacular views. Inversnaid itself is difficult to reach – visitors must either walk here from Rowardennan, navigate a long and twisting road from Aberfoyle or take a ferry from Tarbet on the western shore. As a proto-environmentalist Hopkins would be pleased that Inversnaid now lies within Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, which was established in 2002.
There are less than 30 copies of the Lodestars Anthology Scotland magazine remaining and you can grab your copy here.
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