The Trossachs are the key to the story of tourism in Scotland. Though there is no definite answer to the question "what are the Trossachs?", their distinctive landscapes and their location have ensured their popularity as a definitive Scottish experience for more than two centuries.
Sir Walter Scott and his work ‘The Lady of the Lake’ is often cited as the original reason for The Trossachs’ popularity. While his ‘blockbuster’ verse-narrative hugely impacted on the numbers of visitors, the area was already known – and had been visited by adventurous tourists since the very dawning of the Romantic Age, before the end of the 18th century.
The “Cult of the Picturesque' was pursued avidly by those with the funds and leisure time to spend. The Highlands were well on in a process of ‘rehabilitation’ after their perceived role in the Jacobite troubles of the first half of the century. Even the writings of philosophers such as Rousseau and their belief in ‘the noble savage’ – who, in this context, became a kilted Highlander – influenced a Romantic view. The Trossachs’ time had come! Their reputation for craggy beauty soon spread. As early as 1794, the local minister in Callander wrote that 'The Trossachs are often visited by persons of taste, who are desirous of seeing nature in her rudest and unpolished state.'
The Hon Mrs Murray of Kensington was just one such ‘person of taste’. On 1798, she published 'A Companion, and useful guide to the beauties of Scotland, to the Lakes of Westmorland, Cumberland and Lancashire.to which is added a more particular Description of Scotland, especially that part called the Highlands'. This featured her adventurous expedition to the Trossachs from Callander all the way to Loch Katrine and back (no mean feat in a coach at the time!)
Many others followed on, including the Wordsworths on the first of three expeditions in 1803. William Wordsworth’s poems has given quite a few literary connections to the Trossachs and Loch Lomond.
Around this time, several other literary figures, greater or lesser, wandered through including James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd. He was greatly taken with the geological complexities of the area on a journey, seldom undertaken today, westwards along Loch Katrine into Glen Gyle and over a remote hill pass to reach the head of Loch Lomond.
Among the many painters who passed though, seeking inspiration, John Everett Millais in the Trossachs certainly caused the most scandal! Soon – and certainly by the second half of the 19th century – the ‘infrastructure’ had become to catch up with the popularity of the area, by way of inns, coaching services and the arrival of the railways. Even as late as 1914, a North British Railway Company brochure noted that 'To the tourist who undertakes the journey no surfeit of laudation is possible, for in the Trossachs the superlative reigns absolute'. But only in 1932 was the 'Duke's Road' opened beyond Aberfoyle and improved for motor vehicles.
Today, the area taken to mean The Trossachs includes natural landscape beyond the narrow pass between Loch Achray and Loch Katrine. In this wider sense, Aberfoyle, Callander, Lake of Menteith and Loch Ard are all gateways or closely associated with The Trossachs. The area is also crossed by the Highland Boundary Fault, at its most obvious where the Duke’s Road climbs the zig-zags above Aberfoyle to reach the David Marshall Lodge and there is a strong sense of ‘entering the Highlands’.
The Trossachs are noted for their woodlands. Where once the Dukes of Montrose planted oakwoods for harvesting as part of the tanning industry, the Forestry Commission acquired land – basically of poorer economic value but of the very highest landscape value – as early as the 1920s. The Queen Elizabeth Forest Park was established in 1953. Today, the wealth of woodland trails for walkers of all abilities, cyclists and even motor vehicles, is an important aspect of how visitors use and enjoy the countryside here.
The pleasant village of Gartmore is sometimes overlooked as an approach to The Trossachs from the south via Drymen. It was formerly on the old cattle drove road from the north that led down to Falkirk, latterly the main ‘tryst’ or market – though Gartmore had in former days its own cattle fair.
Gartmoreis one of Scotland’s first ‘planned villages’. This type of Scottish community owes its origins to improving landlords – in this case Nicol Graham – who wished to build better homes for their workers and to attract new tradesfolk. This was to increase the wealth of the estate. Both school and church are 18th century and date to the first wave of building here.
The famous writer and patriot Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham was born in the mansion of Gartmore House in 1852. There is a monument to him here, in the care of the National Trust for Scotland.
Gartmore is also on National Cycle Route 7 and the Rob Roy Way, the latter linking Pitlochry in Perthshire with Drymen near Loch Lomond.
Aberfoyle lies below the steep face of the Highland Boundary Fault and is a popular Trossachs gateway. The tiny hamlet here expanded with the arrival of the railway that enabled the slate formerly worked here to be transported away easily. (The Aberfoyle branch has been closed completely since 1959. Passenger services were withdrawn in 1951 and the trackbed is a cycle and walkers’ route as far as Buchlyvie.)
The ‘Poker Oak’ in the village recalls the completely fictional incident in Sir Walter Scott’s novel Rob Roy when Baillie Nicol Jarvie has to defend himself in an inn here by using a red hot poker. The story of the village is told in the Trossachs Discovery Centre, while the Scottish Wool Centre has demonstrations of working sheepdogs, shearing and other entertaining shows, sheep breeds in variety, plus an extensive retail section with, giftwares, foods and holiday souvenirs.
The Queen Elizabeth Forest Park
The Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, the largest of its kind in the UK, as an aside from cropping trees also has plenty of recreational choice. The David Marshall Lodge, above Aberfoyle, is a good starting point to learn about the life of the forest and perhaps to select a suitable way-marked forest trail. There is also a great view southwards over the Lowlands. The adventure park Go Ape is also here, withone of the longest zip wires in the UK, at almost 1400 ft, 426 metres.
North of the Lodge, the main road continues through the heart of the Trossachs, one of Scotland’s most famously scenic journeys, down to the junction with the road that leads to Loch Katrine.
Lake of Menteith
East of Aberfoyle, the Lake of Menteith and its surroundings, with their more Lowland ambience, are really the result of the dumped materials of the last glacial activity – the Loch Lomond Re-Advance more than 10,000 years ago. The waters of the Lake (in this context from ‘laich’ Scots for low-lying ground) occupy a kettle-hole, left after the final melting of a gigantic ice block. Now a famous fishing loch, there is a little ferry taking visitors to Historic Scotland’s Inchmahome Priory on an island on the loch. It was a place of refuge for Mary, Queen of Scots, as a child, prior to her leaving for France.
In the other direction, leading west from Aberfoyle, the cul-de-sac road to Inversnaid is another delectable drive by way of Milton and Kinlochard, with the profile of Ben Lomond unmistakable ahead. There are several walking routes starting from the roadside. From the open moorland on the approaches to the Inversnaid-Stronachlachar road junction there is also a notable view of the Arrochar Alps. Though Loch Lomond lies between viewer and these mountains, it is at this point out of sight, so deep is the glacial trough in which it lies. Stronachlachar has a pier at which the SS Sir Walter Scott calls at the western end of its Loch Katrine cruising. Factor’s Island, a tiny islet near the shore, is also here and just one of several Rob Roy landmarks in the area. (It is possible, for example, to walk or cycle round the head of Loch Katrine, passing the site of Rob’s birthplace in Glen Gyle and also some Clan Gregor graves at Portnellan.)
Loch Katrine, whether discovered from the east or west end, still conforms to the ‘Cult of the Picturesque’ as it was pursued by the early Romantics. And perhaps this was what HV Morton was referring to in his famous – and whimsical - passage on The Trossachs. He complains about travelling the length of Scotland and suddenly finding the area around Loch Katrine as ‘the whole thing in concentrated form, boiled down to the very essence.....they are definitely unfair and should be abolished in the interests of more distant places.’One of the most impressive views of Loch Katrine can be enjoyed for a little effort: the ascent of Ben An (sometimes A’an, though in Gaelic Am Binnean, the pinnacle, contracted and re-named by Scott). Its 1520ft (454m) height make for a pleasant if steep excursion, while its panorama gives the Munro-spotter plenty to identify. (Ben Lui is just one of the more distant mountains in view to the west and north.) Below, to the east, Lochs Achray and Venachar point the way east to Callander.
Callander started life as a tiny Highland-edge settlement, then expanded when it became part of the mid-18th-century military road connecting Stirling with Fort William. The landowner, James Drummond, Duke of Perth had his holdings confiscated after he chose the wrong side in the last Jacobite uprising. He had been planning a rebuild of his town, which the authorities carried out. Before long this grid of streets squeezed between river and crag was in a good place to take advantage of the new tourists’ Romantic tastes. Callander became a gateway to the scenic delights that lay beyond. Two centuries later, it still fulfils that role.
In that time, its rail connection has come and gone – now part of the Rob Roy Way and National Cycle Route 7 – though these are only two of the outdoor excursions within easy reach of the main street! (The Callander Crags and the Bracklinn Falls are two more.)
Callander offers the widest choice of shopping, dining and accommodation in the area and is busy with visitors throughout the year – a classic Scottish Highland-edge resort town.