Everything is a lush, verdant green of the type that only comes with plentiful, regular rainfall. There are lakes of all shapes and sizes: great and small, round or serpentine, sometimes covered by the ethereal shroud of a very fine mist. Surrounding these are pine forests, valleys and mountain ranges; not quite Alpine, their gentle slopes stop just above horizon level. The only sound you will hear is the bleating of lambs and calves, or the gentle lowing of big brown cows. After a rain shower you will often see a wide, hazy rainbow. Although I didn’t notice many daffodils, it is all impossibly Wordsworthian. Thine too is the last green field that Lucy’s eyes surveyed. Nor England did I know ’til then, what love I bore to thee.
Except that this post finds me not in England, but the heartland of the auld enemy: the bellicose Scots. The rugged and rocky highlands that provide the world with the Scotland of the imagination only comprise a part of it; there are also the Lallans, less wild and less romantic, but with qualities and pleasures of their own. Higher still are the Trossachs that could stand in for Keswick or Windermere; roughly speaking, you cross the Glasgow-Edinburgh belt and take a left turn after Stirling.
Around here, the legendary figure who draws in tourists and New World diaspora from the Highland Clearances is Rob Roy, cattleman and one of the Jacobite rebels that populate Sir Walter Scottland. This illustrates the human tendency to simplify complex histories; Ulster Scots like me regard ourselves and the Scots as barely divisible. Yet 1688, 1690 and the Glorious Revolution, which saved our bacon and are celebrated to this day, were settlements against which Scottish heroes took up arms, and which they were still fighting to overturn in the 1740s. Because the Jacobites lost, they are romanticised; they are chivalric Hollywood Scotland, the other side are Calvinist, dour and unloved. The legacy of such sentiments has leaked out with the rush to break up the United Kingdom, that makes me wonder if we are altogether deluded.
Enough sidetracking myself into half-baked historical musings. We were staying in a house overlooking the Lake of Menteith (the only lake that is not a Loch, owing to a cartographer’s error). It looked onto the lake and its small islands, more of which later. It might just be the effect of unusually fresh air but away from the plugged-in cities, where there are street lights and television and neighbours staying up late, pitch black darkness descends on you by around 9pm and it really does feel like God’s way of telling you to go to bed. The only light was a full moon and its reflection on the lake.
The house, invisible from without, was a C17th crofter’s cottage which had been doubled in size five years previously with the addition of a modern kitchen to befit our pampered age. It would have been very easy to cock this up and ruin the whole thing, but it has been handled sensitively. Diagonally adjoining the old house, the new one mimics its shape but eschews stone walls for huge windows. The cottage did slightly lose out as the stellar view of the lake kept us in the new extension.
The nearest village, Aberfoyle, lay at the end of a 3 mile walk through a forest of Scottish pines and fabulous views.
Known as the ‘Gateway to the Trossachs’, it is a small place comprising of little more than a high street, but which also functions as a well-used resort. There are Germans, Americans and Japanese wandering around most days, a petting zoo and daily sheepdog demonstration is laid on for them and the wool centre has everything from toy Loch Ness monsters to the Partridgesque threads of the Colin Montgomerie collection.
Tourist information is geared towards Rob Roy, and a late C17th Reverend who published a book about fairies. His death during a stroll was attributed to angry fairies and they say his soul is trapped within a pine tree; a good thing to tell Americans visiting the land of the little people. The residents really go in for solar panelling, ironically, whilst the high street has a gastropub with baronial dining hall, a retro post office and two butchers. With wooded hills ascending high above them, it all feels slightly Swiss.
The visitor centre recommended that we head into the hills for the Alice in Wonderland theme park which, hilariously, mostly consists of playing cards strung across washing lines. With stacked tires painted red & white acting as ‘teacups’, the Mad Hatter’s tea party looks like a murder scene. The door to Wonderland is a printout of a door stuck to a tree stump, the Cheshire Cat is a stuffed leopardskin tight leg with a grin painted on a stone, and the Blue Caterpillar is three kitten’s plastic balls from a pet shop tied together. If they got a penny more than £50 in arts funding for this, they are genii.
Better are the views of nature:
In the other direction from Aberfoyle was the lakeside Port of Menteith: more hamlet than village, it consisted of a few houses, a modest Victorian church, a primary school, a posh hotel and a fishery (the lake serves as Scotland’s chief supply of trout).
A 12-seater motorboat runs to Inchmahome, the largest island on the lake. Here you find the Tintern Abbey of the Loch District; the remains of the Augustinian Priory (the difference between a monastery and priory, if there is one, was lost on me entirely). It is famous as the place where a four-year-old Mary Queen of Scots hid out for a few weeks after Henry VIII’s invasion and before being smuggled to France.
The Reformation did for all these places, of course, and the remains are largely picturesque exposed walls; you can still see the walls of the church, its nave, choir, and campanile. There isn’t a vast amount to see but the pieces of information dotted around were fairly enlightening. The world ‘parlour’ comes from the one room where residents were allowed to speak to each other and the rest of their lives were similarly spartan; they slept from 6:30pm to 2:30am and only one room in the complex was heated.
The one building that has remained intact, the Chapterhouse, hold tomb effigies of the poshos who took over the island after dissolution of the priory. A husband and wife have the trademark dogs at their feet to symbolise fidelity.
Our furthest excursion into the Trossachs took us, via a miniature rollercoaster of twisting lanes and sharp downhill turns, to the huge Loch Katrine, today the reservoir for Glasgow. A car park of a pier houses a cafe whose balcony, with decorative ironwork, makes it look like the platform for a train line that never showed up. The scale of the lake, and the mountain views, are fairly awe-inspiring and it’s a good place to begin a long walk, as long as you mind the cyclists in full flight.
On the last day we spent a morning in Stirling. I find I have little to say about nature or topography, however stunning the view, and I was happy to get my teeth into a historic town full of interesting buildings. Sitting on the road through that narrow strip between the Clyde and Forth estuaries and the two major cities, it is the gateway into the Highlands and had huge strategic importance.
It’s all about the old hilltop town around the castle, but the rest of Stirling tries to play up to its reputation with Victorian Baronial architecture in pretty sandstone, and shops specialising in bagpipes and kilt hire. This is where the purveyors of Hollywood Scotland buy their props.
Things start to hot up as you get onto the steep slope of the old town; a fair bit of it is Victorian but quite fancy; few prisons cut such a dash as this.
I expected Stirling to be a diminished Edinburgh but what I found reminded me more of inner Londonderry, or the bit of Glasgow’s East End around the cathedral. The Boys Brigade & Scouts Hall had edifying axioms carved into it like ‘PLAY THE GAME’ and ‘KEEP SMILING’. These seem like deferential echoes next to the carvings on an almshouse set up by the King’s tailor.
The C14th Church of the Holy Rude (Holy Cross to you and me, I think) is prominent on the hill, as is the C17th hospital facing its entrance.
With bulky, stone Gothic arches lining the nave and holding up a timbered, pre-vaulting roof, and with its foundations tailored to sit comfortably on a steep slope, it has much in common with Glasgow cathedral.
The light filtering in at the end of the choir is wonderful, and the ornate carved thrones on the wooden choir are no slouch themselves. There are plenty of interesting Georgian memorial tablets, one for a ‘John Blackadder Esq’ and slightly pre-Raphaelite stained glass.
Passing the church uphill you have a pleasant surprise, as the narrow street opens into a vast and dramatic graveyard not unlike the Glasgow necropolis; most graves go for the Greco-Roman look, with obelisks or tombstones topped by amphorae, and one dark, monumental pyramid that left me wondering if it were a Freemason thing.
The eye is invited beyond the graveyard, which is more or less the summit of the hill, to the walled halls of Stirling Castle and the landscape beyond the town. You can see the flat plains, and beyond these the mountains where the Trossachs begin.
Around the corner, passing a wonderful old townhouse, is the road leading to the castle itself. That one of the buildings was a vibrant orange colour with ziggurat gables, that has its echoes in the buildings downtown, made me curious; Stirling was the site of the renaissance court ruled by James IV-VI and apparently the castle is not just a nasty big defensive structure.
Robert the Bruce stands over the car park, about to draw his sword, and there are fine views of the Wallace Monument on the next hill along. I’d like to have gone in but it was a flying visit and there wouldn’t have been enough time to get my £15 worth, and opinions differ on whether the contents are really worth £15.
Back down the hill a slightly different route, we pass the market square that the handsome Tollbooth clocktower looks onto. There are some great townhouses (the one pictured has an image of the lawyer it was built for on top of the gable) and even a unicorn on a column.
We get a closer look at the Wallace Monument on the way out of town, with its Victorian baronial cladding. Mel Gibson fans, if there are any left, can climb it for £10. It looks great from the castle, crowning a wooded hill like something from Macbeth, but like a Scottish Tower Bridge it is less impressive the closer you get to it. The busy, manifold crenellations are almost Manueline and the myriad tiny turrets like multiplying gargoyles. This fits the man himself, a potent mythical symbol about whom we realise, when we look with scrutiny, we know as many facts as we do King Arthur or Jesus. It is not the man that matters, but the fertile idea that he hosts. As the entirety of Scotland votes for the Scottish Party and the entirety of England votes for the English Party, my country -Britain- rolls over a steep cliff and I would not feel particularly sorry if this tower, and all other symbols of difference and division, were blown up.