Sharing Stories at Kinlochard
Tioram Castle. Photograph by Dave Wilkie
by Eric D. Lehman
We took a wrong turn in Aberfoyle. Instead of heading toward Loch Katrine, the home of Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake, my wife Amy and I headed along a sketchy broken road to Loch Ard. The mists of the day were just clearing, with the high peaks of the Trossachs slowly rising into view, their steep green shoulders wet with the day’s hard rain. The road wound abreast a short stone wall, feet away from the swollen lake. Cars ached past each other, small under the pines. We passed the town and turned around, not finding the one thing marked on the map, a waterfall that Scott featured in two of his books, Rob Roy and Waverley.
This wasn’t even where we were supposed to be. The day before in Milngavie I had woken up at 1:30 am and did not sleep again. My sciatica had flared up, and as my wife and I dressed in the pale dawn light I could already feel shooting pains in my hip and back. A red fox flitted across the back yard, and I saw its tail disappear into a hedge – a symbol of bad luck among the Bedouin tribes. We left the guest house, splashed across the gray wet of the streets, and plunged across a car park onto the West Highland Way. Entering Mugdock Wood we were soaked through, and every left foot step came to me with a jarring shot of pain, sometimes from the hip down to the front of my knee, sometimes between the hip and the small of my back, and sometimes up my spine. Pain, step, pain, step. And it was not the good muscular pain of a well-earned hike, so to speak, but an evil pain that felt like permanent damage.
We made it over the Campsie Fells and the pain in my back increased, every step becoming a hellish nightmare. At lunch, we talked about the possibility of ending the hike, and though every atom of my heart and mind rebelled, my body did not. I was in good condition otherwise, my lungs and muscles having no problem carrying the pack or keeping a brisk pace up long hills. But the radiating pain had reached my foot now, and up into my neck. At the tavern in Drymen that evening I tried to get over my frustration at losing my childhood dream of hiking this iconic Scottish footpath. Amy tried to keep her own disappointment inside, not wanting me to hurt myself in order to please her. We failed, and mental anguish added to the physical aches, a black rage at my own failing body, at the inevitable triumph of age over desire.
And now, the next day, after renting a car and stopping at a whiskey distillery, we had come here with the taste of failure in our mouths, to see a spot that Sir Walter Scott had immortalized. I was here to escape, to forget, to lose myself in another author’s stories.
Sir Walter Scott, William Allan, 1771-1832
I’d enjoyed Scott since I had read Ivanhoe in junior high school, drawn by the pageantry and love story. Years later, on the third or fourth reading, I realized his genius as an author. He invented the historical novel, a formula of multiple points of view and small actions set within the sweep of history, that is still copied today, usually less successfully. Ivanhoe has political conflicts – a battle for the throne of England with multiple factions. It has social conflicts – the Normans versus the Saxons, peasants versus nobility, Christians versus Jews. It also masterfully interweaves the personal lives of its many characters, highlighted by the love quadrangle between Lady Rowena, Wilfred of Ivanhoe, Rebecca, and Brian de Bois Guilbert. It is complex and multilayered, but easy to follow, with interesting historical characters like Richard the Lionhearted and Robin Hood. I continued my way through his books, and they informed my feelings for the British Isles as perhaps no other single author ever has.
The waterfall we found ourselves searching for features in Waverley as the spot where the eponymous Captain Waverley meets Flora Maclvor, who sings him a song urging the “sons of the Gael” to wake. Scott described the stream “wheeling out from among the smooth dark rocks, which it had polished for ages, it wandered down the glen.” In Rob Roy, the fall becomes the site of an encounter between Ballie Nicol Jarvie and Helen MacGregor, and Scott describes it in more detail:
The brook, hurling its waters downwards from the mountain, had in this spot encountered a barrier rock, over which it had made its way by two distinct leaps. The first fall, across which a magnificent old oak, slanting out from the farther bank, partly extended itself as if to shroud the dusky stream of the cascade, might be about twelve feet high; the broken waters were received in a beautiful stone basin, almost as regular as if hewn by a sculptor; and after wheeling around its flinty margin, they made a second precipitous dash, through a dark narrow chasm, at least fifty feet in depth, and from thence, in a hurried, but comparatively more gentle course, escaped to join the lake.
Traveling down the narrow loch road toward this mythical fall, we began to think we had misread the guide, or that perhaps the site existed only historically, but suddenly I saw a sign through thick heavy growth and pulled into the berm of a farm road. The hidden placard read Ledard Estate, which had kept its name for two centuries. But there was no sign for the trail or the falls, no official markers at all, only a simple road for farm vehicles. We stepped over a fence stile and onto the slippery mossy path, heading up the hills. Views opened behind us to the clearing gray fells of Ben Lomond. The forests on each side dripped green with thick, wet ferns and moss.
The path wound up the mountain, and tired from a long hike the previous day, my back aching from injury, we faltered, searching in vain for the falls. Finally, I heard the rushing of water through a grove a pines. So we forded a small creek, ducked under the spiny branches, and emerged by a small waterfall, surrounded by fat, moss-heavy trees overlooking a small rushing rill, which stepped down the green clovered sward from side to side. A fence and field of thick bracken and the pine forest hemmed it in, more closely than in Scott’s day no doubt, but directly below we could see the ancient farm and the Loch and far fells peeking through.
Not even sure this was the actual falls, or if some larger, greater one existed farther up the mountain, we hesitatingly agreed that whatever the case, it was strikingly beautiful. And of course, we knew Sir Walter Scott had stood here. Now we did two hundred years later. Literary visitors had been coming here for hundreds of years for the same reason, to step into a story. It is profoundly satisfying to do this, to stand where characters from literature or film or history have stood, and to feel the connection to the tales that shape our world.
But as I rested there in this little slice of perfect Scotland, listening to the water burble over the stones, I began to feel differently, perhaps because we had come upon it so much by accident, on a day we were supposed to be hiking Conic hill along Loch Lomond, and then turning the wrong way from Loch Katrine to this tumbling brook without a sign that we weren’t even sure of. I had visited many literary sites before, but there was nothing literary about it to me. Instead, I had the feeling of luckiness, of exploration, and of a simple love of the small Gaelic landscape, one that Scott himself might have felt, with no prior literary piece of reference. The pain in my back remained, but had dulled, moving for the first time briefly out of my thoughts. Instead, I felt a deep love for my wife and her quiet strength, her unyielding support of me despite her own frustrations. I was a lucky man in many ways, to be here at all with the woman I loved at a waterfall in the Scottish highlands.
It was the beginning of coming back, the small rill carrying away some of the regret and anger, the rocky path back into the world. The hurt would not go away – both the loss of the dream and the sciatic horror would plague me for days and months afterwards. But I began to think of the other things I might see now that I was not walking the West Highland Way: Stirling Castle, Loch Ness, the Isle of Skye, a dozen distilleries, a hundred valleys. I had all of Scotland to explore now that I wasn’t fastened to the path beneath my feet. I began to plan anew, to see another future. And it all began right here, at this tumbling brook on a hillside above an ancient farm deep in the hills.
Was one a better feeling than the other? Perhaps, perhaps not. The joy of exploration, of finding your own landscapes, is the joy of creating your own life story, a completely different pleasure from living in someone else’s. Of course, no one else can enjoy your story, the way we may share and enjoy Sir Walter Scott’s. That is, unless we write it, as I have just done, and shared it with you.
About the Author:
Eric D. Lehman teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Bridgeport and his work has been published in dozens of journals and magazines. He is the author of twelve books, including Shadows of Paris, Homegrown Terror, and Becoming Tom Thumb. Follow him @afootinconnecticut, and visit his website at www.ericdlehman.org.