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Issue 23 - Illuminating landscapes

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 23
October 2005


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Illuminating landscapes

The fifth part of our series walking in the footsteps of Scott. Written and photographed by John Hannavy

In the introduction to the first edition of The Bridal of Triermain, Scott wrote a brief essay on the role of the poet, the different styles of poetry, and the expectations of the reader.

In it, he suggested that “in a word, the author is absolute master of his country and its inhabitants, and everything is permitted to him, excepting to be heavy or prosaic, for which, free and unembarrassed as he is, he has no manner of apology.” Scott was master of his country in more ways than one. As a literary giant from the earliest days of his story-telling – even before he admitted that he was the ‘author of Waverley’ – he held his readership’s undivided attention, and as a scene-setter, his descriptive powers were unrivalled.

Ask the average Scot about him, and he or she will probably mention the Waverley Novels – probably adding the fact that Edinburgh has, so it is said, the only railway station named after a novel – and perhaps even mention some of the better known of the epic poems. In this short series so far, we have already touched on the ways in which Scott painted his native landscape in epics such as The Lady of the Lake and Lord of the Isles But Scott was a prolific writer of shorter verses – verses which captured in a few lines the turmoil and pain of some of Scotland’s violent past – and of descriptive verses in his longer poems which make the Scottish landscape almost tangible. As a photographer, the challenge of capturing the essence of these verses in pictures is irresistible.

In many of these verses, a few well chosen lines cement and reaffirm his rewriting of Scotland’s history, strengthening the link between the rugged landscape, and his own vision, those tartan-clad chieftains, once in command of all they surveyed, are threatened by the advance of the new London-led ‘civilising’ order. In the short 14-line Lines Addressed to Ranald Macdonald Esq of Staffa, written in 1814, we read “Mountains which the grey mist covers, Where the Chieftain spirit hovers, Pausing while his pinions quiver, Stretch’d to quit our land forever!” And in The Lord of the Isles, the reader is reminded of the archetypal Scottish landscape in which the epic is set. On a recent visit to take pictures for this series, we were staying at the wonderful Kilcamb Lodge hotel on the banks of Loch Sunart – wonderful hospitality and a phenomenal loch-side view – and driving back one evening, in late spring sunlight, the loch itself epitomised Scott’s backdrop.

At the opening of the fourth canto, he reminded his readers of that wonderful and constantly changing interplay of landscape and weather: “Stranger! If e’er thine ardent step hath traced The northern realms of ancient Caledon, Where the proud Queen of Wilderness hath placed By lake and cataract, her lonely throne; Sublime but sad delight thy soul hath known, Gazing on pathless glen and mountain high, Listing where from the cliffs the torrents thrown Mingle their echoes with the eagle’s cry, And with the sounding lake, and with the moaning sky” Elsewhere, he took fewer lines to capture the essential feeling of the place.

The 1692 massacre of Glencoe is etched onto every Scot’s mind from schooldays, and has long been one of the most redolent of stories from Scotland’s past, so it is hardly surprising that Scott wrote a few well-chosen lines on the event.

It is one of his shortest poems – a mere 48 lines embrace the outrage that such an act of treachery still generated in the early 1800s, more than a century after the bloodshed.

Few places is Scotland can show as many different faces as Glencoe, and few people who visit the visitors’ centre are unaware of the glen’s place in ignominy.

In some views it is the epitome of the beauty of the Scottish Highlands, but from other viewpoints, even under bright sunlight, it is a place where the doing of evil deeds still seems entirely likely.

The contrasts to be found within the glen are captured by Scott in a mere four lines: “But those for whom I pour the lay, Not wildwood deep, nor mountain grey, Not this deep dell, that shrouds from day, Could screen from threach’rous cruelty” In the nearby village, a simple monument remembers those who died from “The hand that mingled in the meal,” and “At midnight drew the felon steel”.

Scott never tired of his native landscape – and nor will I.

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