Stephen McGinty: Visiting a fairytale world

Tranquil now: Loch Lomond and the Maid of the Loch with Ben Lomond in the background. Picture: Allan Milligan
Tranquil now: Loch Lomond and the Maid of the Loch with Ben Lomond in the background. Picture: Allan Milligan
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Scotland, not least the Loch Lomond area, offers more beauty for the visitor than Hans Christian Andersen could shake a stick at, writes Stephen McGinty

Among the canon of fairytales created by Hans Christian Andersen there is a gap where The Magic Walking Stick should be. The Danish author and poet never developed the idea beyond a throwaway line to a little boy while on a walking tour of Scotland.

In August 1847, Andersen set out to explore Loch Lomond in the company of the Hambros, a wealthy family of Danish bankers. They had travelled by steamer up the Firth of Forth to Stirling, where the group visited the castle before ticking off Callander, from where they caught a horse-drawn coach to Loch Katrine where the heather was in full bloom.

The young son of Mr and Mrs Hambro was among the party and as they walked down towards Inversnaid, on the banks of Loch Lomond, Andersen lent the boy his stout wooden walking stick. As they walked the boy would point the stick at the surrounding scenery and ask what the stick could see. “Can you see the highest hill in Scotland?” the boy quizzed as he lifted it up towards Ben Lomond and then as the grey waters of the loch came into view: “Can you see the Great Lake?”

Andersen then promised the boy that on his return to Naples, where the walking stick was bought, the stick would be sure to tell all his friends of his adventures in this strange distant land of mists and mountains.

In the excitement of reaching Inversnaid, where the group boarded the steamer for a tour of the loch and its many islands, the walking stick was forgotten and left behind. It is worth the wonder if, 160 years ago, on that walk into Inversnaid, the little boy lifted the stick and said: “Can you see the wild goats?” Chances are that he probably did, for these gimlet eyed, feral beasts have been picking their way around the hills of Inversnaid and the banks of Loch Lomond for centuries but the question now is, for how much longer? This week the goats wandered into the cross-hairs of the RSPB who are planning an extensive cull in a bid to stop them destroying the woodland habitat of the charities’ principal concern, namely birds.

Robert Coleman, the area reserve manager for the RSPB, who have the support of Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish Government’s wildlife conservation agency, said the number of goats was higher than previously thought and that a cull was necessary to reduce them to a sustainable level. He said: “Inversnaid is a temperate rainforest. Five per cent of all the world’s moss species are represented in Scotland and this habitat is an excellent example of that diversity. The issue here is that we have a native woodland that has European and International protection placed upon it through law. We as landowners have an obligation to ensure that designation will protect this special place for the people of Scotland and the wildlife.”

Yet, the cull has angered members of the local community who fear that the numbers will be reduced so low that a few harsh winters could wipe them out entirely.

Andre Goulancourt, who runs a photography centre in Inversnaid, and is the community councillor for Strathard said: “These goats have been here for a long time and represent an asset to the tourist industry that Inversnaid depends on. It would be a great loss if the goats were to disappear.”

Few would argue with him, but one assumes that Scottish Natural Heritage and the RSPB are taking a holistic view and an approach which, however harsh it may seem to lovers of woolly goats, should be to the benefit of all. The fact that the headlines about the goat cull on Loch Lomond even caught my eye is a testament to the Year of Natural Scotland which is now drawing to a close.

The decision to highlight Scotland’s beauty in a series of advertising campaigns has, at last, prompted me to better explore my native country. Don’t misunderstand me, over the past 20 years as a journalist I’ve travelled the length and breadth of Scotland but not at the most hospitable time of year or for the most pleasant of reasons.

The Outer Hebrides are certainly among the most beautiful spots in Scotland, some would argue the world, but the long swathes of golden sandy beaches on Harris, are perhaps best avoided in January when I choose to visit to follow the antics of Castaway 2000, the BBC reality show that bequeathed Ben Fogle to the world. I even made a cameo appearance on an episode after a group of us hired a fisherman to drop us, uninvited, onto Taransay. In contrast, the principal attraction of the town of Brora, on the north-east coast, is the celebrated links golf course, but for me it was the masked gunmen who were terrorising local neds and going by the name, The Disciples of the Fiery Cross. I had a midnight meeting with them in a deserted graveyard.

Yet this year I decided not to wait for a disaster or an ugly incident to send me to a beauty spot but to finally go of my own volition. I didn’t go far, and, frankly, I didn’t need too.

Loch Lomond is a little over 30 minutes by car from my home on the south side of Glasgow. Clydebank, where I was born, is even closer and when I was a child we’d often go as a family to Balloch Park, where generations of children have run full pelt down the sloping hill towards the banks of Loch Lomond. And yet I’d forgotten about the whole area for over 25 years, sure I’d driven along the banks bound for Tyndrum and beyond, but I’d never thought of visiting for a day of leisure. The sheer convenience of its location, meant it was constantly overlooked, for places further afield.

Then, on a snowy day last January we set off for the Drover’s Inn, which for the past 300 years, has stood just past the head of the loch, and after a fine lunch, we wound our way back, stopping off at Luss whose thatched roofed cottages were draped in an idyllic dusting of snow.

Too cold to linger, I promised myself I’d return on a warmer day and so in early October we booked into a pretty little one bedroom cottage, “Riversedge” run by Luss Estates, which overlooks the swift flowing river and for a day or so sank into a green world of peace.

Since then I’ve been educating myself on the history of the area, courtesy of P J G Ransom’s book, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs in History and Legend (John Donald) and can now appreciate that Luss and the loch wasn’t always so sleepy. In the winter of 1602, the chief of Clan Colquhoun hanged two McGregors who, having been refused shelter, stole and cooked a sheep, a form of rough justice that prompted a pitched battle between the two clans at Glen Fruin.

Roll further back to the autumn of 1263 when King Haakon of Norway sent Viking longboats up the sea loch Loch Long. They were then dragged overland from Arrochar to Tarbet, where they set about pillaging the islands of Loch Lomond and their inhabitants.

Dr Johnson may have dismissed Loch Lomond and the surrounding area for lacking in “the arts of embellishment”, he found the landscape too harsh, when he visited in October 1773, but 30 years later, William Wordsworth, his sister, Dorothy and Samuel Coleridge all fell in love with the place, beginning with Luss, in whose inn they spent a few nights. The inn, now the Loch Lomond Arms Hotel, has recently been the subject of a £3 million refurbishment and to judge by the quality of the cranachan I would encourage anyone to follow Wordsworth’s example and visit.

After their stay in Luss, Wordsworth and his party travelled over the loch to Inversnaid (during the crossing the poet dropped their dinner, two chickens, into the inky water) and though it has not been recorded whether or not they saw a wild goat, Wordsworth did meet a 14-year-old girl so beautiful that he composed the poem To the Highland Girl of Inversnaid which opens with the lines ‘Sweet Highland Girl, a very shower/Of beauty is thy earthly dower!”

As for Hans Christian Andersen and his walking stick, although he never wrote about it, the stick did indeed possess powers, if not of magic, then persuasion.

For just as he was preparing to board a train at Waverley Station bound for London, he was approached by a railway guard who handed him the stick on which was attached a label that read: “Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish Poet.”

As the guard said of its solitary journey by steamer, horse-drawn coach and finally train: “It has travelled quite well on its own.”