Strathard Heritage Archive

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Stronachlachar – then and now

By Duncan McDiarmid

GAELIC: SRON A CHLACHAIR   –   The Mason’s Nose (or Point)

Unlike the more scattered nature of Inversnaid, the settlement at Stronachlachar was much more compact with most of the buildings situated at, or near, the pier on the west shore of Loch Katrine.   The Superintendent’s house, which we had moved to in 1950 from Loch Arklet was, in fact, slightly smaller than the house at Loch Arklet but, being built in a raised position, had a magnificent view down the length of Loch Katrine to the peak of Ben Venue and the equally imposing, if slightly smaller, peak of Ben A’an to the south-east.   This particular house, named Invergyle, had been built in the mid-1930s, the name Invergyle, originally having been applied to a hotel which was situated near the pier. This hotel was purchased by Glasgow Corporation for the sum of £5,500 when the level of Loch Katrine was raised in the 1890s.   The proprietor of the hotel then erected a new hotel on an adjoining higher site with the old hotel renamed as Invergyle House, and was utilised by the Corporation until the level of the Loch was again raised in 1919 when it was demolished.   The new hotel was purchased by the Corporation in 1920 along with most of the watershed lands around the Loch.   The new hotel, thereafter, was never used in that capacity – but of that building more later!

Oddly the Invergyle, which was to become home for the next four years, was a semi-detached dwelling, which was unevenly divided, with the half in which the McDiarmid family lived having an extra room.   In the 1950s the population of Stronachlachar numbered anything between 25 and 30, this depended to some extent on the number of workers who were accommodated in the bothy during the week, but who then went home at the weekends.   A number of names spring to mind during this period of time – our next door neighbours were the Munros:   John, the Assistant Superintendent, was a forester by trade and retired to Aberfoyle shortly after we moved in to the other half of the house; the post of Assistant Superintendent was then filled by Donald Ferguson who, with his wife and two sons, Garry and Duncan, moved from what was the electrician’s house to the other half of Invergyle; the other Fergusons – Alex and Bob;   Bob Cant, the blacksmith, who mended everything from bikes and chains to replacing horseshoes;  Willie Galloway and Geordie Laurie the painters who, in many ways were a slightly smaller version of Laurel and Hardy; Johnny Balderstone the joiner, the sweep and general factotum; Archie Macfarlane; the Stewarts, Davie and Ronald, who could turn their hands to anything; Duncan and Andrew Menzies, and Norman McDonald, the lorry driver;   Duncan Reid and Alistair King, who assisted in the Estate Office, which occupied two rooms carved out of the now closed hotel, made up most of the other workers.  The vacancy for an electrician, which arose when Donald Ferguson became Assistant Superintendent, was then filled by Tommy Grant who, with his wife and small son, Stanley, moved into the electrician’s house.

The number of workers occupying the bothy varied during the year – there was Bill Robertson who lived in Fairlie and went home by motor bike during most weekends;   Eddie, the odd-job man, whose reading material was sometimes lurid in the extreme and Hugh, the postmaster, a somewhat inscrutable figure who always dressed in black and, even when presiding behind the counter at the post office, the wooden building not far from the bothy, always wore a bonnet.   Come Saturday afternoons Hugh would be seen trudging the five miles from Stronachlachar to Inversnaid Hotel for his weekly refreshment, a strange character indeed.

Although, as at Inversnaid, provisions could be delivered by the Co-operative or D. & J, McEwan’s vans, the supply of milk was always assured through the operation of the dairy at Stronachlachar where the herd of cows was ably looked after by the untiring efforts of Mr. and Mrs. John Sinclair.   The milk was sold on a daily basis to the local community.  On occasion a treat was available in the form of unsalted butter – a delicacy indeed.

The differing levels of Lochs Arklet and Katrine, with the difference between the two being about a 100 foot drop, Loch Arklet being the higher of the two, was put to good use.   The water from the upper loch was fed by pipes to the power house situated on the loch shore a short distance from Stronachlachar.  From there electricity was generated which was used to power most of the houses in the area – the one restriction being that the power supply was Direct Current and, therefore, could only be used sparingly in each house. 

With the purchase of the lands around Loch Katrine in 1920 Glasgow Corporation had also acquired four large houses and several farms.   The houses were the new Hotel which was subsequently split into two – the Lodge and the House – Royal Cottage, from where the outlet pipes conveying water for the city of Glasgow, led for a distance of 26 miles to the reservoirs at Mugdock and Craigmaddie; and Brenachoile Lodge on the south east shore of Loch Katrine.  During wartime these houses were used to store artefacts from the Burrell Collection – tapestries, wall hangings, paintings etc in the knowledge that they would be safe from the effects of enemy bombing.  After the War these four houses were let out to City Councillors for the princely sum of £5 per house per week.

It was not just idle curiosity which occasionally halted us in our tracks when we recalled the names of some of the Councillors as, for example, McCrone, Henderson, Meldrum, Galpern and, particularly, the Warrens, Alex and John, who owned the Albert Ballroom in Bath Street, Glasgow, but the fact that young ladies would accompany the councillors’ party and brighten the scene, albeit for a brief period of time!   The visit of the Warrens was particularly welcomed as they would often provide the prizes for either a whist drive and/or a dance being held in what was always known as the Committee Room, one of the larger rooms in the House.

Each year, usually in spring time, the Annual Inspection of the Water Works would take place.   This consisted of members of the Water Committee travelling by bus to what was then the Trossachs Hotel at Loch Achray, staying overnight, and then travelling by the motor launch ‘Otter’, or by the larger cargo boat from the Sluices at the southern end of Loch Katrine to Royal Cottage, inspecting the works there and thence returning to the hotel, for another overnight stay, having satisfied themselves that everything was in working order.

The combined job of Superintendent and Estate Manager included, not only ensuring that all the trades people were clearly aware of the tasks they had to undertake but also ensuring that the welfare of the 7000 + Blackface sheep and sundry cattle which grazed the hillsides, was looked after.   The completion of the road from Stronachlachar to Glengyle by

Messrs. Kings, contractors, using stone quarried from the quarries above Aberfoyle in the late 1940s and early 1950s made access to the farms of Dhu of Glengyle, Portnellan, Strone and Letter much easier, as it meant that the entire road around Loch Katrine was now complete.   It is worth noting that when the level of Loch Katrine had previously been raised on two separate occasions, the original road on the eastern shore of the Loch had to be relocated at a higher level.   This raising of the loch by a further twelve feet also necessitated the building of a protective dyke around the old McGregor burial ground at Portnellan and the replacement of the gravestones in the same position at a higher level.

By 1919 Glasgow Corporation had acquired practically the entire watershed and farms around Lochs Arklet and Katrine with the interesting exception of one farm, Edra, on the north-eastern shore of Loch Katrine inhabited by the large and cheerful presence of Bob Fisher who managed to run the farm despite having lost his left leg some time previously.   One other proprietor retained the small area around Trossachs Pier and, with others, his interest in the steamer ‘Sir Walter Scott’ which sailed between Trossachs Pier and Stronachlachar.   It was not until 1953 that the opportunity arose to purchase the land on which a tearoom had been erected at Trossachs Pier and the steamer, along with navigation rights, for £35,000.

Life at Stronachlachar never seemed to be dull – but that was alright for someone who only returned home at weekends from either attending school or, latterly, University in Glasgow.   By now the football season was in full swing and, although it was 35 miles to Stirling where the local Albion, reformed after the war after the demise of King’s Park, were performing wonders in the Scottish League Division ‘A’; the McDiarmid males were to be found there on many occasions.   As an aside, the full Scottish International football team was based at Forest Hills Hotel at Kinlochard before each home fixture in Glasgow, although this did not seem such a good idea as they managed to lose four such matches in succession against England immediately after the War.

The arrival of the Ferguson family as our next door neighbours certainly enlivened proceedings.   Garry, the elder son, was an accomplished pianist who also ran a small shop at the pier selling soft drinks, tartan souvenirs and sweets, although as sweet rationing was still in place this caused a certain amount of confusion amongst visitors to the shop.  Duncan, on the other hand, was a gifted amateur footballer who, after playing for local side Aberfoyle Rob Roy, moved on to Campsie Black Watch and then, in 1952 joined Queen’s Park   for whom he played on a number of occasions against the major teams in the top league.   The fact that both brothers owned motor-bikes, a Norton then AJS, enlivened proceedings even further!

The fact that it was about 11 miles to Aberfoyle by road, which in winter could be extremely hazardous, was brought home in a personal way in February 1951 when, after having listened to the match commentary on the radio of the rugby international at Murrayfield, when Scotland defeated Wales 19-0, a most uncomfortable feeling developed in my stomach.   Twenty fours later, and after several telephone calls to the doctor in Aberfoyle, an ambulance was despatched and, after an eventful journey through snow and ice to Glasgow, I ended up in the Royal Infirmary – acute appendicitis.   One interesting feature of my stay there was the fact that, with the scarcity of eggs for hospital meals, friends or relatives of the patients would bring in an egg which would then be marked with indelible ink so that it was not purloined by another patient, or even a member of staff.

Most households in Stronachlachar depended on deliveries of coal to provide heating or, in our case, fuel for the trusty Rayburn stove which occupied pride of place in the kitchen, that is until one unforgettable Saturday evening in July of 1951 when one particular delivery of coal contained a detonator which had been undetected in the screening process on leaving the coal pit.   The resultant explosion blew the entire hotplate off the stove through the kitchen ceiling, the kettle, which had been sitting on the hotplate, ended up halfway through the hallway;   miraculously our cairn terrier, Morag, asleep in her basket beside the stove, survived unscathed.   Thanks to the herculean efforts of several of the workers at Stronachlachar the mess was quickly and efficiently cleared up;   this was just as well as the entire family was going on holiday to Wales the next day!

On a personal basis 1952 saw a switch from school to University and, with that, the prospect of longer breaks from study although, truth to tell, study was not quite at the forefront of one’s mind at that point.   The chance to earn some much needed cash presented itself when a temporary job was secured with Glasgow Corporation as a general labourer, although there was always the added incentive of a pleasant mid-morning and mid-afternoon break which involved catching the ropes of the Sir Walter Scott as it did its twice daily return trip from the Trossachs pier to Stronachlachar.   Those travellers, who disembarked to continue their round trip journey to Inversnaid and down Loch Lomond, entrusted themselves to a rather battered Bedford bus driven by Willie whose skill at navigating the road back to Inversnaid depended more on the quantity of ‘refreshments’ he had consumed before leaving the hotel rather than on his driving skills.

And so to Glasgow University in September 1952, but not before a trip by   road to Inverness gave us the opportunity to witness early one morning an attempt by John Cobb in his jet-powered boat, ‘Crusader’ to break the world water-speed record on Loch Ness.   On that occasion he narrowly failed in his quest.   His next attempt ended in disaster when his craft disintegrated and Cobb himself lost his life in the attempt.

For a variety of reasons, 1953 turned out to be a much more memorable year than the previous one.   During the Easter break from studies the three of we students (Garry Ferguson, his brother, Duncan, and myself) took advantage of the fact that a national film company had set up its headquarters in the Covenanters’ Inn in Aberfoyle and were engaged in shooting the outdoor scenes for the latest film adaptation of ‘Rob Roy’, in this case starring Glynis Johns and Richard Todd.   A mock-up of a fort was built in the hills above Kinlochard and, with extras required to take part or to provide assistance, the three of us set out on a daily basis, three on the AJS, to seek our fortune.   Our dreams of stardom were quickly shattered when we were assigned to the catering company providing sustenance to the battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, based at Stirling Castle, who provided troops for both the Government and for the Highland sides taking part in these scenes.   Our journey to Kinlochard each morning was with the strains of the No.1 hit at the time – Lita Roza singing ’How much is that doggie in the window’ ringing in our ears.

June 1953 was, of course, the month of the Queen’s Coronation in London.  Stronachlachar was the focal point for all the festivities in the area.   Unlike London, where the weather was dismal and wet, the Loch Katrine area enjoyed beautiful weather.   TV had not long arrived in Scotland and, courtesy of Bailie Roy Cuthbertson, who owned a music shop in Sauchiehall Street, a black and white 14 inch television set was installed in the Committee Room which, on the morning of Coronation Day, was packed, mostly with the ladies of the area, watching avidly the royal on-goings.   The men, on the other hand, demonstrated their prowess at clay pigeon shooting on the raised area beside the road which led down to the pier, with the clay pigeons being despatched from the traps by Alex Buchan and myself, suitably sheltered from the odd stray volley of pellets by a rather flimsy looking sheet of corrugated iron.   Lunchtime was then followed by the sports’ afternoon, this taking place on the old practice rifle range at the foot of Strony Brae with good use being made of the old cannonball which we had unearthed from the schoolhouse burn some time previously and which served as an excellent shot for ‘putting the shot’!   Occasionally proceedings had to be curtailed when participants announced that they had to go and feed the animals or to make the tea.   The evening was marked by a most successful dance in the Committee Room – that is once some ladies, who were determined to see TV repeats of the Coronation Ceremony, were removed from the scene.  A most enjoyable and successful day.

In July 1953 Stronachlachar enjoyed its own Royal visit.   One of the foreign dignitaries at the Coronation in London was Queen Salote of Tonga who endeared herself to the crowds by driving to the ceremony in an open topped coach, in spite of the inclement weather.   Not content with being confined to the capital Queen Salote expressed a wish to visit Scotland.   Accordingly, a trip was arranged for her on board the Sir Walter Scott from the Trossachs Pier to Stronachlachar.   Again the weather was, in fact, very warm.   The fore part of the steamer, which was covered by an awning, was reserved for the Royal Party with the curious passengers limited to the stern area.   Those at Stronachlachar watched with keen anticipation as the steamer, which was notorious for being slow to answer the wheel, especially in any kind of wind, approached the pier.   However, everything went perfectly and, as the Queen stepped from the steamer on to the pontoon pier, some onlookers were of the opinion that, not only did the pier sag under her weight, but that the bow of the steamer lifted perceptibly out of the water. Queen Salote was, to say the least, a well built but extremely pleasant lady.   From there, after a brief respite, she continued her journey to Inversnaid and from thence the sail down Loch Lomond.

From the high of the summer to an event which almost ended in tragedy.   It was the custom during the Christmas and New Year period for the Sir Walter Scott to be hauled out of the water near Stronachlachar for an inspection by a marine surveyor and to be repainted in time for the new season.   Imagine the shock which greeted the workers one morning on reaching the steamer, to find a fire had been smouldering all night from work done the previous day and several of the plates had been scorched and badly buckled.  With the survey due in three days’ time a herculean effort was required to repair the damage.   This was effected just in time thanks to the work done by Messrs. Scott, shipbuilders, of Bowling under the personal supervision of Mr. Scott himself.

And so to 1954 and a time of mixed emotions as the family moved to Glasgow in May of that year.   No more sheep clippings (and ticks), lamb and ram sales at Stirling, fishing and bowling competitions, the hard fought summer ice matches on a highly polished table marked out like a miniature rink, it was off to further study and tramcars and, certainly for my mother, the ability to go shopping without being dependent on vans, or on the goodness of neighbours.

Plus ca change!