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Issue 44 - Land of the mountain flood

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 44
April 2009


This article is 9 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Land of the mountain flood

In the first of a new series, John Hannavy explores Scotland's most impressive lochs and landscapes.

Some phrases immediately conjure up just the right picture in our minds – and a master of just those phrases was Sir Walter Scott. He used ‘The Land of the Mountain and the Flood’ in his epic poem The Lay of the Last Minstrel, and it was also picked up in 1887 by Hamish MacCunn as the title of his orchestral overture – and his musical interpretation of Scotland’s landscape was applauded as being just as evocative as Scott’s poetry. As George Bernard Shaw said after its first performance at London’s Crystal Palace, it ‘carries you over the hills and far away.’ MacCunn was a precocious talent, writing his romantic tour de force at the age of only 18. He went on to compose much more music inspired by Scott – a piece entitled Lay of the Last Minstrel, and what has been described as the finest late Victorian opera Jeannie Deans with the central figure of Scott’s Heart of Midlothian as the eponymous central character.

Many composers have sought to interpret Scotland’s dramatic landscape in music – Mendelssohn perhaps being the best known with his Scottish Symphony and of course his Hebridean Overture Fingal’s Cave inspired by a turbulent sea crossing to Staffa – but MacCunn could claim to be the only one to have been born and brought up among the hills he celebrated in music.

The many written accounts of the country during the past centuries are a fascinating source of information about the land, its appearance, the people who lived there, and the work they undertook. The language of Thomas Pennant’s 1772 book A Tour in Scotland may be archaic in places, and his opinions often slewed by the comfort – or lack of it – experienced during his sea voyages and coach journeys, but his account is fascinating, genuinely being his ‘first look’ at the Highland landscape.

Today, we are inundated with photographs from childhood, pre-conditioning our expectations of what we are likely to encounter on any journey of discovery, so we rarely look at any landscape with truly ‘fresh’ eyes. But when Pennant disembarked from his ship at Dundonnell and set off on the long walk to Loch Maree in Wester Ross – telling the captain he would meet the vessel again at Gairloch – he recorded his reaction to the experience in his diary, capturing both the sights and sounds in the words of a true explorer.

This is one of the great descriptions of a landscape, written more than 250 years ago – long before today’s highly developed appreciation of natural beauty: ‘We found ourselves seated in spot equalized by few in picturesque and magnificent scenery. The banks of the river that rushes by the house is fringed by trees; and the course often interrupted by cascades. At a small distance, the ground begins to rise; as we mount, the eye is entertained with new objects, the river rolling beneath the dark shade of alders, an extent of plain composed of fields bounded by groves; and as the walk advances, appears a deep and tremendous hollow, shagged with trees, and winding far amidst the hills.

‘We are alarmed with the roar of invisible cataracts, long before their place is discovered; and find them precipitating themselves down narrow chasms of stupendous depths, so narrow at the top, that Highlanders in the eagerness of the chase will fearlessly spring over these barathra. They meander for miles amidst the mountains, and are the age-worn work of water, branch off into every glen, hid with trees of various species. Torrents roll over their bottoms often darting down precipices of a thousand forms, losing themselves beneath the undermined rocks, and appearing again white with the violence of the fall.

‘Besides these darksome waters, multitudes of others precipitate themselves in full view down the steep sides of the adjacent hills; and create for several hundreds of feet a series of magnificent falls. Above rises a magnificent hill, which as far as the sight can reach is clothed with birch and pines, the shelter of stags, roes and black game.’ Thomas Pennant’s experience is by no means unique – the lochs and mountains of Scotland have drawn writers and artists for centuries – and for the past 170 years, photographers as well.

By a coincidence of history, photography and the package holiday are about the same age – it was in 1840 that Thomas Cook organised his first package tour to Scotland – taking a group of holidaymakers on a tour of the Trossachs, and the many of Borders locations associated with the life and work of Sir Walter Scott.

In taking his travellers to the Trossachs, he introduced them to the most accessible glimpses of the Scottish Highlands – for within the Trossachs is Highland Scotland in microcosm. There, only a relatively short drive from the flat carse of Stirling, the traveller is suddenly and dramatically confronted by tall steep mountains, long deep lochs, and lush forests (see our regional focus on pages 27-33 for more on this area).

Within a few years, the new breed of professional photographers would make sure that, as Scotland was increasingly opened up to travellers in search of its rugged beauty, there were photographic mementoes for them to take home. By the 1870s, you could buy a photograph of just about every scenic view in the country.

While the Trossachs remain a tourist magnet to this day, few venture further north where, for the next 200 miles – with beautiful and infinite variations – the drama unfolds repeatedly.

Photographing Scotland is both a life’s work and a life’s pleasure – and despite one’s best efforts, the many guises adopted by the ever-changing light and climate will never all be captured. That is the pleasure of going back.

In the coming issues of Scotland Magazine we will be going back to some familiar places, and visiting some new ones – better to capture the infinite variety that is ‘The land of the mountain and the flood.’