Lochearnhead to Comrie via the Ross

Around Loch Earn, (Loch Ern, Loch Eyrn, Loch Eireann, Loch Erin, or Loch Heryn), whose surface lies at less than 70 metres above sea level, are many wee places of now forgotten, but interesting clachans, farmtouns and houses. We will record them as we will revisit many when we look at some of the events which occurred there a long, and not so long, time ago. At the head of the Loch lies the little village of Lochearnhead (Ceann Loch Eirann). By following the loch side to the south and east along the wee road that hugs the loch side, we find the beautifully restored Edinample Castle, complete with its proud Saltire flying. It was originally a Campbell-fortified house built by Colin Campbell in 1603 (the year of the unification of the crowns).

Edinample Castle

Further to the east we pass the ancestral home, also a fortified house, of the Stewarts of Ardvorlich and at the roadside there is a stone commemorating the killing of seven McDonalds of Glencoe who were harrying the house in 1620. It was said that six were slain with a gun of which only the butt remains. Nearby there is another stone marking the spot of the temporary internment of James Beag Stewart, murderer of Lord Kilpont, and known as the “mad major.” The road is flanked by steep mountainous slopes on the south side and the immediate waterside on the north. It wends its way between a fine stand of Norwegian Larches which were introduced in the eighteenth century. At nearby Ardrostan the rusted remains of the old steamer, “The Queen of Loch Earn” which plied her trade in the Loch many years ago, disintegrated. In full flight, she was an impressive vessel as this photograph shows.

The Queen of Loch Earn at Full Steam, Lochearnhead

Neish Island hoves into view with its magnificent back drop of mountains and hills with, at its foot, the little village of St. Fillans. The loch is the source of the River Earn.

St. Fillans

In the old days St. Fillans was called variously Lochearnend, Meikleport, Portmore, or Littleport. It was an estate village owned by the Drummonds of Drummond Castle, near Muthill. The Drummonds also owned the town of Crieff, the village of Comrie, and all the land immediately to the north of Loch Earn from, and including, Dunira, Meovie, Easter and Wester Glentarken and Derry, in addition to all of the clachans located in Glen Artney. St Fillans was given its new name, St. Fillans, by the owner, Lord Gwydyr, in 1817. He believed that the cherished Irish Saint lived there during his ministry – he probably did. Tradition says that the people who lived here, like most folk in Highland Strathearn, thought the place abounded with fairies, water sprites and goblins so a bit of the Old Testament, no doubt, offered by the Saint, probably went a long way! The village is entered by a wee humpty-backed bridge of great age and beauty and it was here that the first rejuvenated Highland Games were held in 1819 by the then newly created St. Fillans Society.

Coming back to Lochearnhead and taking Lord Melville’s road on the northern side of the Loch towards St. Fillans we pass by thatched cottages on our way to Derry (Irish - doire - little wood or oak copse) whose name may provide a clue to some of the early inhabitants of Strathearn) - a soothsayer lived here and she will appear in our story about Neish’s Island. Above us on the hill side lies the ruins of easter and wester Glen Tarken and through many a turn on the twisty route we come to that picturesque of places, St. Fillans. This was a traditional route for the droving of cattle who had come over from the Lix Toll and Strath Tay via Glen Ogle to be taken to the great cattle market at Crieff. To jump ahead a bit a Canadian I knew a few years ago, and who was staying at the Drummond Arms hotel in St. Fillans, saw a fisherman approaching him in the gloaming from the loch side and to be friendly said to the fisherman, “Any luck?” to which the fisherman replied “Aye, being here!” Yes, it’s that kind of place!

Having circled the Loch we must press on into the main part of Strathearn and as we leave notice a peculiar shaped stone on the north side of the road which has been painted to represent a crocodile. Someone, in the far distant past, must have seen a crocodile in order to replicate and name it – possibly a wandering Roman soldier? It is not called the Serpent Stone or Dragon Stone. It is the Crocodile stone and tended by the G…!

Shortly, to the south of our road, and across the River Earn, lies the ancient burial site of Neolithic man at Kindrochat and behind it the steep slope of the hill of Dundurn comes into focus. It was once a major stronghold of the Caledonians and its original name Dunduirn means the “the fort of the fist” – the Scottish National motto springs to mind “Nemo me impune lacessit!” As a fort it commanded high ground and was a traditional rallying point for many tribes and in addition, due to the narrowness of the strath at this point, was an ideal defensive position. When Christianity came into the area in the seventh century many an expedition of conversion of the local tribes in the area was planned and enacted at it. St. Fillan is said to have sat upon the flat stone at the top of the hill and considered! Hopefully the weather in those days was a wee bit drier than today otherwise he must have got soaked quite often!

Close by is the ancient chapel to the Stewarts of Ardvorlich.

The Ancient Stewart Chapel and Cemetery

St Fillans Golf Course and Dundurn

At Dalchonzie we note a small road over a wee interesting bridge over the river going off to the east. This road crosses the clear and sparkling water of the Altanish (Allt Tamhaisg-the burn of the ghost or spectre) Burn, leads past Aberuchill Castle and parallels the river on the south side. It is known as the Back road and continues to the Ross Bridge at Comrie.

In the Aberuchill estate there is an old graveyard for the Drummonds who once possessed it, and nearby there are two very old oak trees, the King and the Queen Oaks. They were said to have been planted in the early 17thcentury and may have been planted to commemorate either the accession of King James the Sixth of Scotland and First of England, (the unification of the Crowns in 1603), or possibly to commemorate the coronation of his son, Charles in 1625. In addition part of the Spruce woods bear the name Sevastapol (Sebastapol) after the disastrous siege during the Crimean war.

Aberuchill Castle

In the old days several roads, now classified as rights of way, came together here. The high road over by Montillie (mon-silent, tilly (tulach) upland with a knoll) and Tominour (tomanor-Toum e Noir-hillock of gold) passing over the shoulder of Ben Halton to Glen Artney was a summer route and in the winter people passed through a lower road which passed right in front of the Castle door. This lower road leads to the Ross. There is a further cut-off path at the Pooch gate (now a fire break) which leads to the banks of the Ruchill at Renecroi and the White City. Both lie close to the Linn a’Chullaich (linne-pool below a waterfall, hulloch – a’chullaich-of the boar). Here the river was forded.

Continuing our sojourn along the riverside we find there are several north to south paths connecting the Back Road to the Ross. The first is called the Sawdust Road. It was so named after the amount of sawdust that lay on its surface from spillage from carts taking felled trees to the Bobbin Mill nearby. The other leads from the Back Road to the House of Ross and then continues on south past the Earthquake House on the left and Old MacDonald’s house on the right where it meets the Ross at Castle Folly just down from the Bog.

In 1914 the House of Ross was set on fire by the Suffragettes and my grandfather helped put out the inferno. His son, the author’s father, when a boy, got his first job there as fourth gardener to the then owners, the MacLaggans. This family was very highly regarded and they sleep in the “Happy Valley” near the Milton Burn.

In time the Forteviots lived in the House of Ross for many years and were not popular. They had made their money in the booze business. One of the things they did was to put up a sign at the entrance from the Back Road which read “Private Road to House of Ross”. The local people felt they were being excluded from this right of way so they chopped it down. Lady Forteviot then built a gate across the path with a stern warning on it. This too was chopped down. This created tension and a Mexican stand-off occurred. She then put up a new sign which read “To Private Road to House of Ross” and all parties were grudgingly, satisfied.

She employed a man to be her chauffeur and he showed up for work. On his second day he received a lawyer’s letter saying that he should shave off his moustache if he wanted to keep his job! She did not like us children who played cricket on the Ross side of her small estate. One of my favourite visits in more recent years to the House of Ross, was to see a llama from far away South America. It was very friendly and always came out to greet the passersby. It too sadly has passed on to that great Comrie in the sky destination.

Thereafter the back road passes on to meet the Ross at the Ross Bridge passing the prickly monkey puzzle tree set in its beautiful garden. Its Latin name is Araucaria araucana and is native to Peru and Argentina.

Returning to our starting point at Dalchonzie and proceeding further east we come to Tullybannocher (the great horned bend in the river). It has an interesting history and contains cup marked stones and standing stones of ancient antiquary. During the late 17th and into the 18th century there was a large distillery here - one of our tales concerns it. Here, under a tree Cecil Francis Alexander (1818-95) wrote the beautiful hymn 154 - “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”

On our left we pass the Twenty Pence wood but for obscure reasons is now known as the Twenty Shilling wood. The reason it was called the Twenty Pence wood was due to the fact that local people were employed to cut down its trees for kindling and the rate for the job was twenty pence a day! On the right at the river’s edge lie the Bulwarks which were built in the late 19thcentury to protect the land from flooding.

We enter the Village of Comrie from its west end at the Ross Bridge which was built in 1792. It is a solid stone structure, beautifully arched, and designed to match the surrounding area and which carries the road to the village of Ross which once was a weaving village in its own right. Before the bridge was built it was forded just down river at a place called Ath Nan Sop (the ford of the wisps of hay). Near here was the Plane tree which overlooked a superb spot on the Earn for salmon. If one wishes the river can still be forded, but look out for the eelie pies!

Detouring from our path and crossing the river takes us into the weaving community known as the Ross. The Ross (peninsula), after its junction with the Back road, continues to the south-west and is bordered by several weaving cottages. They are quite noticeable with several having two small windows on one side of the door and one on the other. The reason for this was to afford more light for the weavers who worked at one end of the house. The windows were small due to the high cost of glass and the tax imposed on it. Aye, even then there were taxes! The earthquake house was constructed in the middle 1800’s and Comrie can claim to be the original place for the study of seismology. It never ever was called the Shakey or Shaky Toun as some would suggest! That name came from a local short-wave radio operator whose call sign was the “shaky toun!” And incidentally the road going through the Ross is not called the “Dalrannoch Road” – it is just known as the Ross! When people try to change traditional place names then confusion reigns! Continuing on this road we come to the junction at the Ross farm bulldozed to the ground by the Aberuchill estate within weeks of the last farmer passing on. Continuing on to the west we enter the Aberuchill estate to the Pooch gate and thence in the old days by the castle door to rejoin the Back road to Dalchonzie at the western gate.

By taking the other road to Dalrannoch (dal-meadow and raineachfern or bracken) towards the south-west we pass the site of Craggish (creag-crag-innis, haugh land) farm which too was demolished by the Aberuchill estate – the Morrisons and their relatives farmed here for 300 years or so.

The Morrisons of Old Craggish

Beyond we come to Renecroi and the White City. This was an early fording point on the Ruchill and a great camping area for itinerant seasonal workers called tinkers. Many were dispossessed highlanders who scratched a living providing mainly manual services such as helping in the planting, bringing in of the harvest crops and doing other odd jobs around the farm helping local farmers. Some of their descendants are nowadays known as travelling people.

Beyond we pass by the Cuilt (nook, secluded place) farm and thence the Linn e Chullaich and Dalrannoch and up the northern side of the Water of Ruchill into Glen Artney. An old hunting lodge belonging to the Drummonds is viewed near Dalclathick and it also perhaps betrays the past. The servants’ quarters are located in a different building opposite the main lodge – the main lodge has no windows on the north side so that the gentry could not be viewed by the estate workers…and vice versa! Caution is required round about here as the shy adder lives close by and one would not like to stand on one of their tails! They are not very happy when one does that! Beyond and crossing over Allt and Strath a’ Ghlinne we approach Auchinner (field at the junction of two streams) and Gleann an Dubh Choiren at the head of Glen Artney. But at this point we must return to our entry into Comrie (Cuimrigh, comar-meeting of the waters, a ruith-flowing).

At the Ross Bridge, and above it, is the Crag o’ Ross wood. It provides a spectacular view most times of the year as the plain of Strathearn and the Aberuchill Mountains are viewed from east to west. Again caution is called for, but for a different reason. Here on the summit is the Giant’s Footstep and to put one’s foot inside it is to risk disaster or misfortune. The original road from Comrie to St. Fillans acts as a median between the Crag o’ Ross wood and Willie Bain’s wood and pond. No-one knows who Willie was but apparently he hanged himself from a tree – maybe he put his foot into the Giant’s own! A middle-sized boulder called Samson’s Stone which was left over from the ice age sits precariously balanced on a lip, overlooking a shallow marshy place.