Saturday 25th March, it’s a cold but beautiful bright morning. Evelyn and Flora are off to see the Tove Janssen exhibition in London (my daughter’s 17th birthday treat) so I am home alone with Max the cat. Its been an extraordinary heavy week, the final teaching sessions of the semester and a day in Edinburgh conducting a mock interview and talking to students from the Scottish Graduate School about applying for post-doctoral fellowships. Have been sleeping badly, end of semester exhaustion, so decide to head out to Loch Lomond and do something different with the day. My plan is to follow the tracks of Dr John Stuart of Luss (1743-1821), Pennant’s travelling companion on his second, 1772 tour of Scotland, Highland minister and co-translator of the first Scottish Gaelic Bible: also (perhaps less well known) he was a Linnaean botanist of some distinction.
As well as his Gaelic scholarship, Stuart contributed the entry on the ‘Parish of Luss’ to Sir John Sinclair’s Statistical Account of Scotland, 1793-99, so much of what we know about the 18th century village is derived from his pen, as well as from the many travellers who passed through Luss on the long or short tour of Scotland. Alex Deans is currently transcribing Stuart’s letters to Pennant from Warwick County Archives, so the time is ripe for us to do some more research on his life and works.
Traffic is still light as I drive out on the A82 towards Dumbarton, but I know that will soon change, and in fact on the way home at the end of the day I get stuck in heavy traffic between Arden and Balloch – the road (following the course of Gen. Caulfield’s military road between Dumbarton and Inveraray, constructed 1748-53) picks up all the travellers from Loch Fyne and Oban, as well as vehicles plying the Crianlarich-Fort William route. But instead of taking the fast dual carriageway between Dumbarton and Balloch, I decide first to check out another eighteenth century literary connection. I turn off through Renton and Alexandra in the Vale of Leven, through which the river Leven empties out Loch Lomond’s waters into the Clyde estuary at Dumbarton. Even on a beautiful day like this, its obvious that the village of Renton suffers badly from poverty, unemployment and social deprivation, although it is a lot better than I remember it twenty years ago. One of Scotland’s earliest industrial landscapes, comprising bleach fields, print works and cotton mills, eighteenth century travellers all commented on how neat and orderly it all was. Renton can also boast one of the first working class libraries in Britain, with its own reading and discussion club. Thomas Pennant describes the Vale of Leven (on his 1769 tour) as ‘unspeakably beautifull, very fertile, and finely watered by the great and rapid river Levin…there is scarcely a spot on its banks but what is decorated with bleacheries, plantations, and villas’. (Tour in Scotland, 1769, p. 226)
I don’t think anyone would reach for the words ‘unspeakably beautiful’ to describe modern Renton, but my eye is caught by a handsome neoclassical pillar topped with a funerary urn beside the war memorial, immediately on the left hand side of the main road.
It’s a monument to the novelist Tobias Smollett, born nearby and educated in Glasgow before heading south as a physician, editor and novelist, who later immortalized his birthplace in the ‘Ode to Leven Water’, and in his final novel, Humphry Clinker. Johnson and Boswell stayed with the novelist’s cousin ‘Commissary Smollett’ at Cameron House on 27th Oct 1773, where Smollett consulted Johnson on the Latin inscription he planned to place on the monument that he had erected near the banks of the Leven following the novelist’s death in Livorno in 1771. According to Boswell, Johnson ‘greatly improved it by several additions and variations’. (Black, p. 429) This failed to impress Coleridge, however, when he translated it for the benefit of Dorothy Wordsworth in 1803: ‘The Latin is miserably bad – as Coleridge said, such as poor Smollett, who was an excellent scholar, would have been ashamed of’. (Recollections of a Tour in Scotland, p. 81)
Unfortunately this fine monument to one of Scotland’s greatest writers isn’t as well known as it deserves, partly because it is no longer situated on the ‘high road’ to Dumbarton, as it was before the construction of the dual carriageway bypass.
Driving on past the huge Vale of Leven hospital, I see the gleaming snow covered peak of Ben Lomond towering over the urban scene, looking uncanny in the bright Spring sunshine – I remember Pennant’s description of the mountain as being ‘like Saul amidst his companions, overtop[ping] the rest’. (Tour 1769, p. 224) Rejoining the fast growing stream of Saturday tourist traffic heading for the hills and lochs at Balloch roundabout on this beautiful spring day, I make rapid progress to Luss, where Dr Stuart was minister for 44 years, and managed to find a parking space in the car park of one of Scotland’s most popular tourist spots, often called the ‘gateway to the Highlands’.
It’s a very pretty place, with breathtaking views over the Loch and its wooded islands, but maybe Ian Crichton Smith summed it up well when he described twentieth century Luss as ‘a picture of a village rather than a true village’. It’s certainly changed somewhat from Dorothy Wordsworth’s 1803 description as ‘a cluster of thatched houses among trees, with a large chapel in the midst of them’, although by then the village already boasted a slate quarry and small cotton mill. (Recollections of a Tour in Scotland, p. 84) It’s nice to see at least five Glaswegian Asian families warming up their barbecues on the sandy beach though, ready for a picnic of spicy delights in the sunshine.
I walk down towards the church, and cross the bridge to the Glebe. The water is transparent, and I can see schisteous pebbles gleaming on the shallow riverbed in the bright light. Luss Water runs through shady woods into the loch, and bonfire smoke drifts through the alder trees, while the mountains looming behind the village still show patches of white snow, despite the gathering warmth of the midday sun. The church faces me, not the building that Dr Stuart would have known, but a handsome Victorian structure erected in 1875 by Sir James Colquhoun of Luss to commemorate the tragic drowning of his father and four of his men when their boat was overturned in a winter storm.
The architecture of the kirk’s roof evokes the keel of the laird’s empty upturned boat, a moving memorial to a terrible accident. But the current church was built on the site of the earlier eighteenth century church (built in 1771 on the site of the pre-reformation one, and therefore a new construction when Dr John Stuart became minister in 1777) which, by all accounts, and the evidence of a single surviving photograph, was itself a fine building, in the austere 18th century neoclassical style. Because the kirk door was locked, I strolled around the graveyard, literally stumbled over another famous monument inspired by an upturned boat, this time a Viking hog-back sarcophagus,
dating from the time of the Norse occupation of the Earldom of Lennox, which ended with Vikings’ defeat by the Scottish king at Largs in 1263. It’s curious that Pennant, who visited Luss in 1769 (without John Stuart on this first visit, unfortunately) and commented on some of the other antiquities, didn’t mention this one, although he did describe a similar hog-back monuments at the ‘Giant’s Grave’ in St Andrew’s Church, at Penrith in England, as well as an illustrative plate. Dr John Stuart, writing in the Statistical Account, remark that ‘in the [Luss] church-yard [are] some stone coffins of considerable antiquity’, although he doesn’t seem to be specifically alluding to the hog-back here.
I hadn’t had time to do much homework for my John Stuart tour, but it turned out to be one of those lucky days. In the graveyard I quickly located Stuart’s handsome gravestone,
bearing the inscription ‘born at Killin in 1743 and successively minister of Arrochar, Weem, and Luss, whose Genuine Piety and Amiable Temper endeared him to his Family and his Flock’. It also records his greatest achievement, the first translation of ‘the Holy Scriptures into his native language’ of Gaelic. Crossing the road, I saw what looked like the manse, a handsome square building commanding a fantastic view over Loch Lomond, and speculated that this was the house (or its site) in which Stuart had lived. I recalled that he complained in the Statistical Account that although ‘the church is uncommonly good…the manse was built in 1740, is insufficient, and at present in need of repair’. (SAS ‘Luss’, p. 265)
The building before me, even if it looks a bit unlived in (Luss has no resident minister), showed signs of having been extensively refurbished and enlarged since Stuart’s time, probably by the Victorians, if the architecture is anything to go by.
Next door was the Luss Glass Studio, so entering, I asked the lady at the counter if the adjacent building was in fact the old manse. She told me that my guess was correct, and I explained my interest in Luss’s 18th century minister, Dr. John Stuart. I had really struck lucky – she introduced herself as Janine Smith, a stained glass artist who runs the studio, and who is also well versed in the history of the village community of which she has been a member for many years. Janine showed me into the adjacent Luss Pilgrimage Centre, which contains an informative display of the history of Luss.
It includes a panel dedicated to Stuart and the work of the Stuarts father and son in producing the first Scottish Gaelic Bible (John’s father, Dr James Stuart of Killin, translated the New Testament, which was published in 1767).
Janine was brought up a Gaelic speaker on Tiree before moving to the mainland, and so Stuart’s historical importance for Scottish Gaelic is of great concern to her. Finding that we shared views about Scottish history and culture (as well as indyref 2!) we agreed that too much hot air had been dedicated to warlords like Wallace and Bruce, and not enough to quieter, but nonetheless important historical Scots like John Stuart, a proud Gaelic speaker and a scholar of international importance. Stuart and his father struggled against the tide of ignorance and prejudice that did so much damage to the Gaelic language in the 19th and 20th centuries, and which is only now beginning to be turned back in the first welcome signs of a language revival.
Janine kindly offered to show me the interior of Luss kirk, and closing the studio for a few minutes, she took me across the road with the keys. The interior was stunning, not least as the bright sunshine showed up the magnificent stained glass to perfection, as she was quick to point out to me. I admired the three ancient Christian relics held in the church, memorials of the Celtic missionary, St Kessog, born in Ireland around 460AD, and thought to have arrived here in 510, bringing the Christian message, before his martyrdom at Bandry Bay, a mile or so south of Luss. The three relics are a stone baptismal font, a fine life-sized statue of St Kessog (dressed anachronistically in the robes and mitre of a medieval bishop, and what looks very like a false nose!),
and a powerful ‘primitive’ carved head of the saint in the style of early Celtic sculpture.
These monuments were reputedly removed from the old church by local people at the time of the Reformation and buried for safe keeping at the cairn-na-Cheasoig (St Kessog’s Cairn) on the loch side near Bandry, the site of his martyrdom.
There’s a nice eighteenth century connection, though – two hundred years later, in the late 1740’s, the relics were excavated by a squad of soldiers from Colonel Lascelles regiment who were constructing the military road from Dumbarton to Inveraray, when they opened up the cairn that was blocking the route of the planned road. They must have left much of the cairn intact, though, as Pennant writes ‘near the side of the lake, about a mile or two farther, is a great heap of stones in memory of St. Mac-Kessog, Bishop and Confessor, who suffered martyrdom there AD 520, and was buried in Comstraddan church’. (Tour 1769, p. 226) This jogged my memory, and I recalled a fascinating paper given by Prof Thomas Clancy of Glasgow’s Celtic Department at the first Thomas Pennant Workshop in 2013, describing the local important of St Kessog’s Cairn, and its disappearance from modern maps. I can’t believe that these striking relics of this important Celtic Saint are so little known in modern Scotland – I grew up in Strathblane, in adjacent Stirlingshire (where the local Catholic Church is called ‘St Kessog’s’, and there is also a ‘St Kessog’s Well’), but was completely unaware of their existence here in Luss, a village that I have visited many times since boyhood.
Blinking in the sunlight as we exited the dark church, Janine took me across to the manse, and showed me into the garden. This extensive space, like the manse now a bit neglected, must have been where John Stuart exercised his other great passion – botany.
Visiting Luss in the last years of the 18th century, the naturalist and traveller Dr Thomas Garnett (lecturer in Chemistry in Glasgow’s Andersonian Institute, the ancestor of Strathclyde University) described the garden in its heyday:
‘after breakfast we repaired to the manse, to visit Dr STUART, the minister, a man of great taste, and learning; he received us very politely, and shewed us his garden, which contains a variety of scarce plants, particularly British alpines, brought by himself from their native mountains. I found here most of the scarce plants which grow upon Benlomond and Benevis, as well as in the wilds of the Hebrides, but being removed into a milder climate, they flourish much more luxuriantly. Mr STUART has for some time been engaged in translating the Bible into Gaelic. (Thomas Garnett, Observations on a Tour through the Highlands, 2 vols, (London 1800), I, 37.)
Appropriately enough, a Chinese ‘Dawn Redwood’ (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) or ‘fossil tree’ has been planted in the manse garden, and is maintained by the community. This was clearly the site of one of enlightenment Scotland’s important botanical gardens – another reason for underlining Stuart’s importance, and of the village in which he ministered from 1777 until his death in 1821.
Having promised Janine that we’d be back in touch, and drawing her attention to the Curious Travellers website, I headed off for a late lunch and a hill walk, delighted that my unprepared visit to Luss had been so fruitful, and that I’d had the good fortune to meet, entirely by chance, someone who was so well informed about Dr Stuart, and so generous in sharing her information and enthusiasm. But the rest of the day had more delights in store, as I drove up the length of Loch Lomond to Glenfalloch, parked at Bein Glas farm and, following in the tracks of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, ascended the steep path to Bein Glas waterfall in the now blazing sun. Climbing further up, I followed the ridge southwards, gaining some magnificent views of the Loch and its wooded shores on a bright spring day, with the snow still gleaming on Stob-nan-Choinnich and Ben Vorlich across the glen.
Descending a steep but brackenless slope towards Cnap Mor, I joined the West Highland Way in one of its most beautiful passages, and walked back through early primroses, ruined black houses, and lengthening afternoon shadows as the sun sank behind the wall of mountains to the west.