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Issue 63 - Picturesque Poetry

Scotland Magazine Issue 63
June 2012


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Picturesque Poetry

Ann Stewart looks at how Scotland inspired Dorothy Wordsworth

Dorothy Wordsworth accompanied her poet brother, William, on a ‘Tour in Scotland in 1803’. Like her brother she could string a few words together, in apt description of her travels, if not in verse. Her journal of that name was described as a classic of the picturesque.

She described the lands to the north and west of Loch Lomond as a different country. Enchanted by the scenery, she travelled into Argyll, by horse and two-wheeled jaunting car. Open to the elements, and with rough roads, it was not the most comfortable of conveyances. But for six weeks they travelled in search of the romantic in Scottish scenes.

On Loch Awe shore she wrote: “at the top came in view of a most impressive scene, a ruined castle on an island almost in the middle of the last compartment of the lake, backed by a mountain cove, down which came a roaring stream.” She had come across Kilchurn Castle, one of the most romantic of scenes anywhere in Scotland.

The castle was originally built around 1450 by Sir Colin Campbell, 1st Lord of Glenorchy. It started out as a five storey tower house with an outer wall defending a courtyard. Further development saw buildings enlarged with an added south range and hall.

By 1681, the then Lord, John Campbell was promoted to being the first Earl of Breadalbane. He then set about converting his castle into a military barracks capable of holding 200 troops. This added the L-shaped block on the north side, which was used during both the 1715 and 1745 Jacobite Rebellions to house government troops.

Viewed now, the castle shows signs of different periods of building, but from the medieval tower to the barrack walls, all are built of substantial stone and so these ruins have stood up to the worst that a Scottish winter can throw at it.

This is the configuration of buildings that we see today and one that Dorothy would recognise even more than 200 years later, except for one most obvious change, that of the loch itself.

Kilchurn Castle was built on an island and is now sitting on a peninsula. Accessed by a lowlying and water-covered causeway, it was seen as completely cut off from the mainland. It wasn’t until 1817, 14 years after Dorothy’s visit, that the outflow of the loch was cleared and the water level dropped to its current level.

Dorothy saw the castle in all its glory with water lapping on the castle walls. She wrote: “The castle occupied every foot of the island that was visible to us, appearing to rise out of the water.” but failed. However, 20 years later, it was struck and severely damaged by lightning. This caused it to be completely abandoned by the Earl; costs of repair would have been great and by then his interests lay elsewhere.

This was how Dorothy Wordsworth saw the castle. She described the setting as: “mild desolation in the low grounds, a solemn grandeur in the mountains.” Kilchurn itself she described: “the castle was wild, yet stately, not dismantled of its turrets, nor the walls broken down, though completely in ruin.”Her description, although more ruinous, we would recognise even today.

Had she been able to go into the castle courtyard she would have seen that at least one of the turrets had fallen. What looks like a stepped circular She later added: “its enchanting effect was chiefly owing to its situation in the lake, a decaying palace rising out of the plain of water!” It is now a dry-footed walk from the A85, Oban road, crossing under the railway line and over a grassed area with grazing sheep and the buzz of bees amongst the wild flowers. It is peaceful and almost idyllic on a warm, summer’s afternoon with only a few fluffy, white clouds in a blue sky. The reality of winter was, however, a different matter.

In the shadow of the surrounding mountains, with ice and snow on the ground and a bitter wind blowing down the glen, I imagine it would have looked and felt less romantic. A fact borne out when you enter the building and see the remains of huge fireplaces set into the walls on every floor.

The Earl of Breadalbane and his family moved to Taymouth Castle and his Perthshire estates in 1740. It would appear that he tried to sell Kilchurn to the government at the time as a military barracks podium is, in fact, the corbelled-out circular tower, blown off by the lightning strike, which landed up-side-down, in one piece, in the courtyard. This shows the extent of the strike and the damage it caused.

From their hilltop vantage point, Dorothy wrote: “looking on the castle and the huge mountain cove opposite, William addressing himself to the ruin, poured out these verses.” Child of loud throated war! the mountain stream Roars in they hearing; but thy hour of rest.

I come, and thou art silent in thy age.

This was the beginning of the poem Address to Kilchurn Castle which, although William wrote these three lines on that hillside, he did not finish until some years later.

But in these three lines he caught something of the place. Built for defence, a barracks in war, central to the governance of the region, now seen in old age, decaying and silent, just as he saw it.

Dorothy’s words, however, tell of the majestic mountains, the burns in spate, and the reflections on the loch and the romanticism of the castle. A state of mind that did not lose its enthusiasm for the Scottish landscape although her entire journey seemed to have been plagued by rain and poor weather.

To climb the narrow, twisting steps to the top viewpoint, on a clear day, and look out across Loch Awe is a treat. The clear waters of the loch, reflecting the mountains and the sky, prized by anglers for its large pike, its islands, where many others had built their defensive strongholds over the centuries. A view enjoyed by many generations of the Campbell family since medieval times, today enjoyed by its visitors.

Kilchurn is still that same romantic, ruined castle, set in a majestic, mountainous landscape as described by Dorothy Wordsworth of her travels of 1803.

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