By Louis Stott
Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham’s first book Notes on the District of Menteith (1895), is a series of elegant, witty, and quite inimitable essays about the country he loved. His views about Menteith are neglected in comparison with those of, say, Scott, but they are more genuine, and as evocative.
His Notes… written “half in idleness and half out of that affection which is common to a man and trees for the soil in which they have been for ages rooted” is a highly unusual guide book. In this extract he describes some of the lochans of the district:
“Hard by Craig Vad is the desolate hill tarn known as Loch Reoichte. In the district there are many of these curious black hill-lochs, generally in peaty hollows, with the water black as jet, peopled with little muddy trout, and often overgrown with water-lilies. Each has its legend, as in duty bound. Loch Mac An Righ, close to the Lake of Menteith, is sacred to the memory of a king’s son, who, in the days when princes of the blood-royal perambulated the world at a loose end and unattended, almost lost his life whilst chasing wild deer, by his horse bogging down with him. Tradition hath it that one Betty or Betsy, for there is room for doubt on the forms of the name that the royal maiden bore, extracted him like a royal cork, from the mud and saved his life. The field is known as Achnaveity, said by Gaelic speaking men to mean the field of Betty.”
One of his most interesting Scottish books is Doughty Deeds , the biography of his ancestor Robert Graham, politician and poet, which begins with a fine description of the country between Gartmore and Aberfoyle:
“The silvery waters of the Lake of Menteith, dotted with its two dark wooded islands, shrouding the Priory of Inchmaholme and the Castle of Inch Talla, the fortress of the Earls of Menteith, the poet’s ancestors, and with the fir-clad promontory of Arnmauk cutting the lake almost in two halves, lay just below the hills. The moss that flowed right from the Hill of Gartrnore through the Carse of Stirling to the sea bounded the lake upon one side.1 Upon the other rose Ben Dearg and Ben Dhu. Between them ran the Pass of Glennie, an old Fingalian track, whose stones, polished of yore by generations of feet shod in deerskin brogues, even today show white amongst the heather in places now disused, that once it traversed like a dull silver streak. Only two miles away to the north-west by the hill-road behind the Drum, crossing the burn where the stones form a rude bridge, lay Aberfoyle with the change-house immortalised by Walter Scott, and half a dozen black Highland cottages, all thatched with rushes or with ling. A rough hill-track skirting the waterfall, known as the Grey Mare’s Tail, passing Craig Vadh and coming out upon the shore of Loch Achray, led to the Trossachs, in whose fastnesses lurked broken men from all the highland clans.
Graham’s Scottish Sketches (collected by John Walker in 1982) are more unusual and original, conscious efforts to achieve an effect. Most quoted is Mist in Menteith, evoking the way in which the district can resemble the sea it once was, when the Firth of Forth extended to the fringes of Gartmore. A Braw Day describes Gartmore House when Cunninghame-Graham was taking his leave of it. These stories and sketches ought to be recalled at the same time as the poetry of Wordsworth and the novels of Scott by visitors to the eastern parts of the National Park, but they remain relatively unknown. Salvagia  , for example describes a bathing pool on the Forth:
“A little river, in which, before the days of knowledge, kelpies were wont to live, flows past the town. Its glory is a pool (we call it linn) known as Linna-Hamish. Here the stream spreads out and babbling in its course wears the stones flat as proverbs in the current of men’s speech get broadened out. The boys delight to throw these flat stones edgeways in the air, to hear the curious sound they make when falling in the water, which they call a ‘dead man’s bell’. Alders fringe the bank, and in the middle of the pool a little grassy promontory juts out, on which the cows stand, swinging their tails, and meditate, to at least as good a purpose as philosphers. The linn lies dark and sullen, and a line of bubbles rising to the top shows where the under-current runs below the stream. In a lagoon a pike has basked for the last thirty years. In our mythology, one Hamish met his death in the dark water, but why or wherefore no one seems to know. Tradition says the place is dangerous, and the country people count it a daring feat to swim across.”
Lochan Falloch , describes Lochan Balloch, in the easternmost corner of the National Park. Graham has changed the name; ‘falloch’ means ‘hidden’:
Nature seems, now and then, to have suspected that a time would come when all her secrets would lie bare and open to the prying eye of vulgar curiosity, and to have hid away some of her chiefest beauties in places where they are in sanctuary, hallowed from human gaze, which at the same time worships and violates them. So she set this little gem, remote, hiding it as a hind conceals her young, deep in the heather, underneath the tallest bracken and in a wilderness of hills.
There are references in these pieces to Highland superstitions and it can be argued that Cunninghame-Graham’s most significant local work was his introduction to an edition of The Secret Commonwealth by Reverend Robert Kirk. Kirk’s work is a highly regarded, very detailed description of fairies in Scotland. RB, typically, referred to Kirk as “the astral vicar of Aberfoyle”.
These sketches describe what might be called The Cunninghame Graham country. It deserves exploration.