Ettrick shepherd a guest at Loch Sloy

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ONE of Scotland’s celebrated poets and novelists was the so-called Ettrick Shepherd . . . and he spent a night in a bothy overlooking Loch Sloy.

James Hogg (1770-1835) had a cousin who lived there in squalour, yet the very next evening he was wined and dined at Inveraray Castle as a guest of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll.

James-Hogg-sketch-wIt is a visit which Helensburgh Heritage Trust director and local historian Alistair McIntyre has researched extensively, he has provided the information which follows.

James Hogg was a remarkable man in many ways. However, his early days were far from favourable. Obliged to leave school after only six months of education, he was put to work on different farms, as the family needed the income.

There, he endured very harsh treatment from some of his masters, often suffering the pangs of hunger, and sometimes witnessing considerable violence. Yet despite such inauspicious beginnings, he managed to emerge as one of the leading literary figures of his day.

As well as his literary talents, Hogg was a great traveller, and undertook a number of long journeys across the country, often on foot.

Although there is no record of him visiting Helensburgh, he would certainly have seen the infant burgh, when he took passage on a flyboat from Glasgow to Greenock on his tour of 1804, crossing thereafter to Cowal and beyond.

His Loch Sloy and Inveraray visit was the previous year. To find out how he came to have such contrasting hosts, Alistair says that it is necessary to look at a significant moment in Hogg’s life that occurred early in 1802.

The young James Hogg had begun to compose and publish poems and ballads in the 1790s, and before long, people were beginning to sit up and take notice. 

Another literary figure, a near contemporary of Hogg and none other than Walter Scott, was by 1802 collecting material for a third volume of his “Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border”, when someone advised him to speak to Hogg.

So a meeting was arranged in Ettrick, where the two got on famously, laughing and swapping stories into the “wee sma’ hours”. Not long after, Hogg set off on the first of three Highland tours that he would undertake in 1802, 1803 and 1804.

He had journeyed north of the Central Belt on at least several occasions previously, but no detailed notes were kept of those earlier travels.

What is different about the later ones is that they were well documented, taking the form of a series of letters to Walter Scott, who was effectively acting as sponsor. Scott’s aim was to publish at least some of these letters, and subsequently he did so.

Crucially, too, Scott furnished Hogg with some letters of introduction, which opened the doors to some highly influential people.

Hogg also had some personal motivation for making the journeys. For several years beforehand, he had been helping and supporting his aged parents in running the small farm they leased at Ettrickhouse.

The lease was due to expire in 1803, and Hogg hoped that somewhere in the Highlands, he might find a suitable farm to which they might move.

Judging by the accounts of his tours, Hogg greatly enjoyed his Highland wanderings almost as an end in itself. That is just as well, since he never did find the farm of his dreams.

It was the tour of 1803 which led him to Loch Sloy.

A whole new dimension has been added to Hogg’s Highland tours by way of the recent publication of a book written by a great-great grandson, Bruce Gilkison.

The book was published under the title “Walking with James Hogg” (2016), and the author, a New Zealander, has produced an excellent read, drawing heavily on the biography “James Hogg: A Life”, written by Gillian Hughes.

On May 27 1803, Hogg set off from Ettrick on a journey which was to take him as far north as the Butt of Lewis.

He records: “I again dressed myself in black, put one shirt and two neck-cloths in my pocket, took a staff in my hand and a shepherd’s plaid about me, and left Ettrick, with a view of traversing the West Highlands on foot, at least as far as the Isle of Skye.”

One of the aims of Bruce Gilkison was to try to follow in some of his forebear’s footsteps, literally. But that was simply not practicable in its entirety, because of time constraints and other factors.

These included the degree to which many places described are now built up, while a good number of the highways and byways used by Hogg have become busy roads, where walking would be unpleasant and even dangerous.

Gilkison contrasts Hogg’s ability to travel light with his own high-tech gear and enormous rucksack, packed with all manner of life-support equipment.

So it was that in late May 1803 Hogg found himself entering Glen Falloch, at the head of Loch Lomond, having travelled across country from The Trossachs.

His intention had been to head north to Glen Orchy, where he aimed to lodge overnight with a cousin whom he had not seen for a number of years. But he learned that his cousin had moved recently to a dwelling at Loch Sloy, and so changed his plans.

On the way, he enjoyed a meal at the ‘Change-House of Glenfalloch’, which was probably close to the site of the present Inverarnan Inn at the County boundary.

Hogg’s travel writings are full of perceptive observations, and with his background in farming, it comes as no surprise that he makes frequent reference to the modes of agricultural practice that he encounters.

This was a time of major change in the economy of the Highlands, with traditional, labour-intensive subsistence farming giving way to intensive stock rearing, sometimes initially with black cattle, but soon to be replaced by flocks of hardy blackface sheep.

Where previously numerous hands would have been employed, the new system meant one shepherd could look after a flock of 600 sheep. So it was with Hogg’s cousin, who was employed in that capacity.

Loch-Sloy-wHe wrote: “My cousin’s cottage is situated by a small lake called Loch Sloy, in as savage a scene as can be conceived, betwixt the high rugged mountains Ben Vorlich and Ben Vane.

“He received me with all the warmth of the most tender friendship, lamenting that he could so ill accommodate me. Although it was almost June, much snow fell during the night.”

Anyone whose knowledge of Hogg is confined to a few of his poems and songs might be surprised to learn that he also had a keen sense of humour, and the account of his overnight stay in crowded circumstances brings out this side of him.

He continues: “The family had come but lately to that place, and had got no furniture to it, nor indeed was it any wonder, it being scarcely possible to reach on foot. The family consisted of eleven in all that evening, and we were curiously lodged.

“We slept on the floor with four or five cows and as many dogs, the hens preferring the joists above us.

“During the night the cattle broke loose, and came snuffing and smelling about our couch, which terrified me exceedingly, there being no rampart or partition to guard us from their inroads.

“I gave the dogs the hint, which they were not slow in taking, for they immediately attacked their horned adversaries with great spirit, obliging them to make a sudden retreat to their stalls.

“Add to all this confusion an old woman taken very ill the day before. Walter Bigger, the other shepherd, manifested great concern as to not knowing how it was possible to get her to a Christian burial place, should she die.”

Fortunately, all survived the night, and Hogg was able to proceed on his journey.

Scrutiny of the records reveals that a number of native farmers in the Highland part of Dunbartonshire did make the successful transition to sheep farming, but it would appear that these tended to be people who were already relatively well placed in the social hierarchy of the time.

Examination of the Old Parish Registers for Arrochar confirms the presence of the Hogg family at Loch Sloy. In 1805 a daughter Elizabeth was born to William Hogg and his wife Janet Henderson.

In 1807 another daughter, Jean, was born, followed in 1811 by Janet Wallace. A son, Thomas, was born in 1813, and daughter Mary was born in 1814.

Bruce Gilkison was unable to visit the site of the cottage — it disappeared from view in the late 1940s, when it was swallowed up by the rising waters of Loch Sloy, a victim of the dam serving the hydro-electric power scheme.

Taking leave of his cousin and their family, James Hogg does not describe his journey to Inveraray, only stating that he sent a message from the Inn there to Colonel Campbell at the Castle, along with his letter of introduction from Walter Scott.

He continued: “The Colonel was punctual to his time, and immediately took me with him to the Castle. His unaffected simplicity of manners soon rendered me quite easy and happy in his company.

“He led me through a number of the gayest apartments, and at length told me he was going to introduce me to Lady Charlotte. ‘By no means,’ said I, ‘for Heaven’s sake. I would be extremely glad if I could see her at a little distance, but you need never think I would go in amongst them.’ He exclaimed ‘You shall dine with her today and tomorrow’.”

In fact, the Duchess quickly put Hogg at ease, and his worries were soon set aside.

Hogg’s sense of humour comes to the fore soon after, when he happens to glimpse himself in a hall mirror: “My upper lip was curled up, my jaws were fallen down, my cheeks were all drawn up about my eyes, my face was extraordinarily red, and my nose seemed a weight on it.

“On being caught in this dilemma, I could not contain myself, but burst out a-laughing — the ladies looked at one another, thinking I was laughing at them.”

Hogg was not able to meet the Duke until later, as he seemed to be in poor health, but when they did come together, he was again soon able to relax.

One practice of the upper classes which bemused Hogg was dressing for dinner, and all the gentlemen were clad in black.

Once more, however, Hogg’s sense of humour rose to the occasion: “I was always in the greatest of perplexities, not knowing servants from masters. There were such numbers of them, and so superbly dressed, that I dare say I made my best bow to several of them.

“I remember in particular, of having newly taken my seat at dinner, when, observing one behind me, and thinking he was a gentleman, I offered him my seat.”

The Duke chatted to Hogg about various matters, including farming, and told him that next day, his superintendent of rural affairs would ride with him, and show him the cattle and sheep.

The meeting did indeed take place, but the aftermath was quite extraordinary, and reveals another facet of Hogg: his bluffness, bluntness, and apparent inability to give other than his honest opinion, even to the point of complete tactlessness, notwithstanding the company.

When the Duke enquired about the outcome of the tour with the superintendent, Hogg replied: “I did not rightly understand him; he was surely the worse for drink.”

“That cannot be,” the Duke said, “at this time of day, and besides, I conversed with him since your return. He is perfectly sober. You must surely be mistaken.”

“I certainly am not mistaken, my Lord, for I look upon him as the worst specimen of Your Grace’s possessions that I have seen about all Inveraray.”

The Duke seems to have taken the incident in his stride, and he proceeded to show Hogg some of his agricultural machines.

He came away with a very positive impression of the Duke, and he wrote: “How happy is the county of Argyll in having such a man placed in the middle of it.

“His venerable age, the sweetness and simplicity of his manners, with the cheerful alacrity showed by every one of the family to his easy commands, are truly delightful. He is indeed, in the fullest sense of the word, a father to his people.”

Hogg was likewise deeply impressed by Colonel Campbell, who went to much trouble in conducting him to various places, and he was always at pains to answer his many questions.

An interesting postscript to Hogg’s stay at Inveraray is that Bruce Gilkison was able to meet the present Duke, Torquhil Ian Campbell, 13th Duke of Argyll, at Inveraray Castle.

Like his ancestor, he was warmly received. They were able to discuss that earlier meeting, and Gilkison was shown the rooms that Hogg would have seen, and paintings of some of the people he had met.