Saturday, 30 September 2017

Loch Lomond, Scotland - You Take the High Road

‘Twas then that we parted, in yon shady glen
On the steep, steep side of Ben Lomond
Where in purple hue
The highland hills we view
An’ the moon comin’ out in the gloaming

So runs the song of Loch Lomond, a traditional Scottish melody whose namesake is often synonymous with Scotland itself. Only fifteen miles north of Glasgow, this crystalline lake is the largest inland body of water in the United Kingdom and marks Scotland’s most significant geological and cultural divide.

Loch Lomond is both an anchor and a crossroads of identities and historical forces. Its still waters reflect stories of feuding clans and herds of swimming cattle; of islands where ancient monks studied and worshipped in seclusion; of still older, artificial islands that may be some of the oldest land reclamation works in the world; and of course, of that perpetual struggle with Scotland’s foil of a thousand years, the English.

Ben Lomond (974m), the most prominent mountain overlooking the loch and southernmost of the Scottish munros.

The Two Scotlands
Scotland’s two aspects, Highland and Lowland, are not entirely a human invention but rather date back over 450 million years.

In those distant days the north of Scotland was part of the great continent of Laurentia, along with much of what would become North America. Southern Scotland existed on a separate continent, Avalonia, with the rest of today’s Britain and much of Europe. These two continents collided during the Silurian period, crushing the earth of the two parts of Scotland together and raising mountains which, though now much eroded, once rose high as the Himalayas.

The line of convergence is known as the Highland Boundary Fault, a fracture which runs right across Scotland from east to west (and indeed can be traced out as far as the United States, where the same processes created the Appalachian Mountains). And at Loch Lomond, carved out of this mountainscape by millions of years of rain, wind and glaciation, the frontier cuts cleanly through the middle.

The above photograph is taken facing west from Conic Hill, which rises up on the eastern shore of the loch (the third red dot from the left on the 3D chart). The chain of islands, as well as Conic Hill’s own ridge, runs along the zone where the two ancient continents collided, and thus traces the effective boundary between Highland and Lowland Scotland.

The ridge with Conic Hill and its neighbouring peaks, following the Highland Boundary Fault east from the loch.

Atop this fault, the divergent characters of the two sides are in plain sight. To the south unfurl the Lowlands: the political core of Scotland, home to the majority of its population and its dominant economic activity – once heavily industrial, now inclined towards electronics and finance. But to the right, the land sweeps and soars into the peaks, lochs and glens of the Highlands: the old Gaelic heart of the country, made sparse by generations of tragedy and oppression but whose stories and symbols largely define the Scots in popular imagination today. Remote as it may seem, this region’s coasts and islands have long connected the island of Britain to the outside world, while some of its rocks, at 3,000 million years old, are believed to be among the oldest on the planet.

The view south towards the Lowlands: farms, plantation forests, and lots of orderly lines.
The view north towards the Highlands: rugged, rolling moors that rise into untameable mountain ranges wreathed in clouds.

Crannogs, Christians and Clansmen
Human habitation in the Loch Lomond area goes back at least seven thousand years, and the remnants of some of its ancient peoples' creations can still be seen on the water.

The loch contains around thirty islands, the precise number varying with the water level. Some of these are thought to be not natural islands at all, but crannogs: artificial islets engineered upon Scottish and Irish waterways during a long period of prehistory. They may have been dwellings or storage facilities, and were often built with defensive causeways or palisades.

A typical reconstructed crannog, from the Scottish Crannog Centre.
Just visible through the branches here is the tiny island known as ‘The Kitchen’, thought to be the remains of an ancient crannog.
Over time the loch came to host a widening range of farming and fortifying types, and eventually the migrants and settled societies whose stories played out across Scotland and the wider British Isles: the imperial Romans, the Pictish confederations who outlasted them, and the kingdoms of Strathclyde, Northumbria and Dál Riata, in the midst of all of which Loch Lomond was something of a junction.

The last of these kingdoms, Dál Riata, lay west of the loch along the coasts of Argyll, and was made up of Gaels who had migrated over from Ireland. The Romans called them scoti, a word whose origin is unclear but possibly had barbarous overtones given their raids on Roman settlements. It was from this term that the name of Scotland emerged, while the nation itself took shape through the gradual amalgamation of these Pictish and Gaelic societies into the Kingdom of Alba over the eighth to twelfth centuries, driven it is thought by pressures from the Viking and Norman conquerors to the south.

One of Loch Lomond’s larger islands tells the story of another influence to enter proto-Scottish society around this time. Inchcailloch, the island of ‘old women’ or ‘cowled women’, is so named on account of an Irish nun by the name of Kentigerna, who legend has it came to the loch in the seventh century and founded a monastery on the island. A number of the other islands also hold monastery ruins that tell similar stories. Saint Kentigerna was one of many Christian missionaries who arrived over this period and introduced Christianity to Scotland and northern England.

A half-hourly ferry runs between Inchcailloch and the village of Balmaha, on the loch’s eastern shore. Another connects to it from Luss on the west side.
Like Kentigerna, many of these missionaries came across from Ireland, and the religion they brought with them was a Celtic Christianity that differed markedly from the stricter, more dogmatic Christianity of the late Roman Empire. Its image was gentler, more tolerant and contemplative, less aggressively gendered, and closer both to the earth and to the polytheistic and animistic strands of the earlier Celtic spiritualities it had mingled with. Its centres of power arose at great island monasteries like Iona and Lindisfarne, where tonsured monks studied in quiet reflection and inked remarkably elaborate illustrated gospels.

However, these Christians came into dispute with the Latin-speaking inheritors of Roman Christianity in continental Europe, now establishing themselves in England at Canterbury, and they quarrelled over issues like the authority of the Pope, the calculation of Easter and the monks’ tonsure. Gradually the Celtic tradition went into decline as it was eroded and suppressed by the Roman one, while many of the monasteries were sacked and plundered of their treasures by Viking or Norman raiders. It could be said that this triumph of the more punitive, authoritarian Christianity that came to dominate British history was one of these islands’ greatest historical tragedies, and its repercussions continue to this day.

Inchcailloch has been considered sacred ground ever since Kentigerna’s death in 734 CE. A church was built in the twelfth century on the site of her monastery and remained in constant use until its abandonment in 1770. Its ruins still stand on the island, along with its cemetery where burials continued until as late as 1947.
Loch Lomond’s story then fills up with an array of clans, whose names and rivalries are the stuff of Scottish legend (perhaps more so than of actual history, as we will see). The loch’s strategic location on the frontier of Highland and Lowland Scotland made it frequently contested, especially between the clans of those two worlds which by now showed separate structures and value systems. The Lowland clans became increasingly absorbed into the English and Lowland Scottish feudal systems, where loyalty was based on economic vassalage relationships. By contrast the Highland clans held fast to traditions where kinship and personal allegiances to chiefs were more important.

It is hard to give a fair assessment of this period given the sheer violence that was done to the Highlanders in the later centuries, as well as the re-invention of their image that followed. It seems unfair to concede too much to the stereotypical picture of blood feuds, plundering, cattle-raiding and endlessly brutal clan warfare that characterizes today’s imagination of the Scottish clans, even if we admit that a certain amount of all that did take place.

The term blackmail for example originates in this period, from a form of extortion carried out by several clans, most notably Clan MacGregor under the infamous Rob Roy, against cattle farmers who were too poor to pay protection against cattle raids in silver – known as white mail, from Middle English male meaning rent or tribute – so paid in the black mail of meat or grain instead. Another outstanding institution of these times was the drunken funeral: Highland funerals were deeply solemn and layered with complex rituals and superstitions, but that did not stop them involving the consumption of copious amounts of whisky or ale, and folktales persist of funerals where the participants got so drunk that they forgot to bury the body or lost it on the way to the cemetery. And in 1603 the MacGregors got involved in a bloody skirmish with the Colquhoun clan in the Battle of Glen Fruin in a valley adjoining Loch Lomond, and some two to three hundred Colquhouns were slaughtered. 

Other prominent clans in the area included the MacFarlanes, who raided so much cattle at night that locals came to refer to the moon as ‘MacFarlane’s Lantern’; the Campbell, Galbraith and Graham clans, who were among those that owed extensive land and built castles by or close to Loch Lomond; and Clan Buchanan, who still give their name to the loch’s southeastern parish. As these examples suggest, very often these clans were not brigands but established land-holding families which connected or married into the Scottish nobility. Their influence persists in many of Loch Lomond’s place names, legacies, and clan descendants who still live there today.

Inevitably, much of the clans’ warfare was about more than inter-family rivalry. Rather it was bound up in the much wider struggle that has defined a millennium of Scottish experience: that is, the struggle against their bellicose, colonizing neighbour, the English. Their constant presence has always cast a decisive shadow over the question of what kind of country Scotland should be – and a divisive one too, in that even at those times when it has been most fiercely contested, from the first independence war to the most recent independence referendum, it has tended to turn the Scots against themselves.

And I’ll Take the Low Road
The drama of the relationship between Scotland and England has unfolded over many episodes, each climaxing in a canon of triumphs and tragedies now told as the defining acts of Scottish history. It is a roll of names well recognizable to a people whose long story of national awakening is still in progress, and whose very mention still raises inspiration or fury: names like Stirling Bridge, Bannockburn, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Dunbar or Culloden; or like William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, Mary Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie, or perhaps Alex Salmond.

So much of Scotland’s national consciousness was forged through these conflicts with the English, sometimes in words, often in blood, spilt by successive waves of would-be English conquerors but almost as often by Scots themselves who held competing political interests or visions of national destiny. The story of William Wallace in the First War of Independence (1296-1328), fashioned over the ages into the great heroic centrepiece of Scottish nationalism (and popularized with much-questioned historical accuracy by the film Braveheart), is no exception, having as its key twist the betrayal of Wallace by Scottish nobles, who handed him over for a savage execution by the English in return for favours in a not-so-lasting peace agreement.

The National Wallace Monument in Stirling, which overlooks the site of Wallace’s most famous victory over the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. This is an excellent place to learn more about the Wallace story, which it presents with a clear and engaging sobriety that is not easy to pull off for so romanticized and politicized a tale. Visit Stirling today and you can’t miss it – it towers over the town and is visible from almost anywhere.
The tangled web of interests and values grew only more complex as the Scots got involved in alliances with the French, acquired the western isles which had their own inherited Gaelic-Viking cultures, and clashed repeatedly with generation after generation of English armies.

After violent conflicts with the Tudor kings Henry VII and Henry VIII, and the great drama of Queen Mary Stuart amidst a morass of royal and noble intrigues across both sides of the border, the Scottish king inherited the English throne and became simultaneously James I of England and James VI of Scotland. The Acts of Union of 1706-7 brought the two countries together as a single British polity for the first time – further dividing the Scots between those who favoured this union, and those whom it caused to fear for their Scottish freedom and future. To further complicate matters, over the same period Scottish Christianity’s experience of the Protestant Reformation involved taking off on a turn of its own, giving rise to the Presbyterian kirk (church) under the teachings of Calvin and Knox which would eventually go on to take over the Church of Scotland. New tensions emerged between this largely Lowland-dominated Protestantism and the traditionally Catholic, Gaelic-speaking Highlands and Islands. All of this came together into a simmering Scottish cocktail that then detonated in the Scottish Civil War (1644-51), an interconnected conflagration with the civil wars in England and Ireland in which political and religious quarrels with the English, interventions in and then by the Irish, and the ongoing rivalries and mutual hatreds of the Highland clans all overlapped to produce some of the worst bloodbaths in all of Scottish history.

Even this, however, was not enough to resolve Scotland’s differences either with England or within itself. The song of Loch Lomond rises into the chorus:

O ye’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak’ the low road
An’ I’ll be in Scotland afore ye;
But me and my true love will never meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond.

The meaning of these verses has never been settled, but most interpretations have it refer to the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. By then the Stuart kings had been deposed in England, but continued to hold the loyalties of many Scots who launched a series of attempts to restore them. The defeat of the 1745 rebellion at Culloden was the final decisive act in this saga, and resonates with a special torment in Scottish historical memory for the relentless brutality with which the English then went around searching for those they suspected of supporting the rebellion and jailing, slaughtering or exiling them with a wanton yet systematic cruelty that today we would call ethnic cleansing. One of the more poignant readings of the Loch Lomond verses is that they are the last reflections of a Jacobite rebel taken prisoner by the English and awaiting his execution, his words perhaps meant for a fellow soldier or a lover; the ‘low road’ refers to the route through the underworld by which the souls of those who died abroad would return to Scotland, thus arriving there first, while the composer’s counterpart would go back by the slower ‘high road’ on the surface.

This was also the war that broke the back of the clan system, and set the stage for the final destruction of the Highland way of life. Amidst the butchery and forced migrations, the British government banned the wearing of tartan and Highland dress which so symbolized clan identity. The socially and economically dislocated Highlanders were increasingly driven out to the coasts and Lowlands, or further still to the US, Canada, the Caribbean and Australasia (where the descendants of Highland Scots, as the commonality of their surnames there today attests, now significantly outnumber those in the actual Highlands), while many of their clan warriors were integrated into the international armies of the emerging British Empire. Garrisons were stationed across the Highlands to control movement, and before long the full-scale enclosure of common lands and forced eviction of entire communities was underway.

The cultural genocide of what became known as the Highland Clearances remains the defining national trauma of modern Scotland – not least, needless to say, because it was largely driven by capitalists rather than racists. Counted among its villains were not just the old English oppressors, but also Scottish industrialists, landlords and aristocrats, including some clan chiefs themselves, who saw the end of the Highland world as an acceptable price to pay for what they would gain.

When we look at Scotland today, we see the product of a Scottish enlightenment remarkable in its progressiveness, but whose every component – rationalism, science, literature, industry, humanism – was nonetheless built out of the hole that the Clearances gouged into its national soul, and thus whose every expression echoes the shape that was left by that abject violence.

Thus the images conjured up by Loch Lomond at the start of this exploration reflect less the authentic ways of life of the people of these lochs and glens, and more the systematic construction of a certain image for the Highlands by the great Romantic revival of the nineteenth century. A new Scottish identity was manufactured with the Highland peaks as its overarching backdrop, given form in the poetry of Burns and the novels of Walter Scott as kilts, tartans and bagpipes were repopularised across Europe, Highland games and dances were brought into fashion, and high-profile figures from Queen Victoria down promoted Scotland as a fresh, wild tourist resort, an other country to contrast against the polluting, exhausting mechanized modernity of an industrializing England.

Spot the Highland Cattle.
This distinct Scottish identity has proven enduring, but so too has its limits and its continuities with a far older story. Now as then, it is a picture that leaves little room for Scotland’s deprived, alienated and left behind, those for whom to be Scottish is perhaps more a matter of Trainspotting than of Braveheart. Nor does it well conceal the continuing differences in vision for the national future that play out in Scotland, especially, as ever, in as far as concerns their relationship with England, whose own fate still inexorably shapes the Scots and is shaped by them in turn.

Persisting discontent with the Union gave rise to constant demands for Home Rule in the 18th and 19th centuries, then to two devolution referenda in 1979 and 1997, and finally to the present movement for full Scottish independence and the referendum of 2014, in which an 84.5% turnout was split almost straight down the middle with just under half of Scots in favour and just over half against. In the shadow of the collapse of the British empire, England’s own decimation by the free-market fundamentalism of the Thatcher revolution, and the crisis of the English relationship with Europe, the questions that Scotland has grappled with for a thousand years are still being resolved.

The Loch as a Mirror
So though Loch Lomond may appear a place of serenity in the hills well sheltered from these storms of contradictions, what it has become is a direct consequence of them. Popularized by the Romantic novelists, poets and painters, its location made it one of the most easily accessible Highland landscapes for the new crowds of tourists from the Lowlands, England and the world beyond, all eager to taste in this other world for themselves and conveyed there by the ever-faster miracles of industrialization: steamships, railways, the motor car. The loch is now a destination for a full range of leisure activities – walking, climbing, camping, cycling, boating and golf, among others – with a full roster of inns, campsites, marinas and other such facilities along its shores to support them.

There is no end of places in the world where the rise of this kind of tourism sector has spelt commercialized doom, or at least posed serious challenges for local people, but impressively, all this seems to be managed at Loch Lomond in such a way as preserves its natural beauty and ecological integrity. Indeed, some of its islands and surrounding hills and forests are among the most biodiverse in Scotland, and their rich variety of plants and animals have attracted great research and conservation efforts.

No shortage of wild Christmas trees either.

To a large extent this may be down to the work of the Friends of Loch Lomond and theTrossachs, which has campaigned to protect the area from privatization and industrial schemes since 1978. In 2002 it succeeded along with several other campaign groups in getting the loch and its surrounding mountains designated as one of Scotland’s first two national parks, with whose authorities it continues to co-operate in its planning, management and protection.

The approach feels quite different from the distant, top-down, commercially-motivated mentality we often find in places like this, not least in England. Visitor centres like the one in Balmaha, a village on the loch’s southeastern shore, not only present information on the nature, geology and history in an engaging and accessible way, but provide a full copy of the Local Development Plan for visitors to look through and actively invite people’s opinions on development decisions, such as whether to improve road access or allow hotels to be built at the cost of losing some of the local woodland, or whether walking trails should be shut to preserve endangered plant life. I cannot offer an informed perspective on how representative this is of Scotland more widely, but it would be nice to think that it speaks of a more caring and inclusive sense of democracy which has been better preserved on the north side of the border.

With the worldwide spread of Scottish migrants and culture, Loch Lomond’s reputation is now international. It is as beautiful as it sounds, and varied enough that anyone who goes there can find no shortage of potential adventures. But if you do, I would hope that you take the high road of responsible, curious and enlightened travelling, rather than the low road of merely noisily enjoying oneself and buying tons of stuff, and pause to appreciate the currents of history – of natural forces, of people, ideas, identities and all too often of blood and of tears – that have swept through these glens and done as much to shape it as the tectonics and glaciations of old.


  1. My time in Scotland in 2012 was far too short, at only 2 days, and I didn't make it to Loch Lomond, although I've long been told my family are descended from Clan Ross, and the words of the chorus to the Song of Loch Lomond were sung to me often as a child. Thanks for this detailed and fascinating summation of the evolution and cultural history of the area. :)

    1. You are welcome. :) I hope you have the opportunity to explore your potential Scottish heritage futher!

  2. I really love that place, I wish to visit again next time

    1. Thank you for your comment :) I hope you get the chance to as well.