Sir Walter Scott and the discovery of the Trossachs and Loch Lomond.
Around 1790, Sir Walter Scott, as an apprentice in his father’s law office, had to deliver legal documents to some ‘difficult’ tenants in Balquhidder Glen. Trouble was expected, and Scott picked up an escort of six soldiers and a sergeant from Stirling Castle. From this sergeant – who knew the ground well - he heard more tales of Rob Roy, to add to those he had already learned from an old Highland client of his father who had known Rob personally.
He further added to his growing familiarity with the Rob Roy country in the 1793 when, as a newly qualified advocate, he visited several of the homes of other legal associates and friends who came from the area around Callander.
For some years afterwards he pursued his career and also became known as the author of ‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel’ and ‘Marmion’. He decided to put his store of knowledge of the geography and folklore of The Trossachs and Loch Lomond area into another creative project. By the summer of 1809 he was at work on ‘The Lady of the Lake’. He rode from Loch Venachar to Stirling to check the time it would take his hero Fitz-James who makes the journey in the story. He then systematically studied the terrain around Loch Lomond. He even read out the first part of the poem while staying with the Duke of Montrose at Buchanan Castle.
‘The Lady of the Lake’ was published in 1810 and was a sensation in its day. Huge numbers of visitors then descended on the Trossachs - far more than the then primitive ‘tourism infrastructure’ could cope with! However, the visitors found the scenery very much to their taste.
This ‘cult of the picturesque’ was reinforced by artists who painted suitable Highland scenes sold as prints to meet demand. Much artistic licence can be noted in the works of this era. Alexander Nasmyth, for example, who painted Loch Lomond as well, thought that his Loch Katrine view could only be enhanced by inserting a classical temple into the composition, in the manner of the classical landscape allusions of the earlier painter Claude.
So real was the vision that Scott then created that the then land-owners of the Loch Katrine area (the Ancaster family) also built a replica of the ‘sylvan hall’ on Ellen’s Isle as described in the poem. A living tree held up its roof. The inner walls were created with animal skins and old armour and Gothic windows were created by interlacing branches. There was also a large fireplace. Unfortunately visitors took to lighting fires to boil their kettles there and in consequence, at some point after 1835, the whole place burned down. (This suggests that thoughtless camping is not a new phenomenon in the area!)
But Scott was not yet finished with the landscapes and settings of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs. In 1817 he conceived a novel about the famous Rob Roy Macgregor. Characteristically, he researched ‘on the ground’, visiting Rob Roy’s Cave on Loch Lomond. The novel was in print by the end of the year and was an instant success. Set against the backdrop of the 1715 Jacobite rebellion, like The Lady of the Lake it featured easily identifiable local topography and its success attracted visitors, otherwise focused on Loch Katrine, back towards the Loch Lomond area.
As well as the romance and adventure elements, Rob Roy can be interpreted as a symbol of courage and honour, qualities of the clansfolk of old, with Baillie Nichol Jarvie representing the commerce and industry that would change the Highlands forever. And visitors would easily recognise the descriptions of Loch Ard and the Echo Rock used by Helen Macgregor to confuse the soldiers under Captain Thornton. Above the loch on the north side, the Falls of Ledard, earlier described in Scott’s Waverley, re-appear as the setting for Helen Macgregor, Baillie Nicol Jarvie and the hero, Frank Osbaldistone’s open air meal together.
Overall, it was this weaving together of the ‘Cult of the Picturesque’, the romantic but easily accessed landscape, and the recognisable settings of the popular works of Scott that assured the Loch Lomond and Trossachs area would be high on the list of visitors’ essential experiences of Scotland – and remain popular for the last two centuries.