Memories Of Arrochar Before The Railway  > 

Memories Of Arrochar Before The Railway

By Barclay Henry of Glenloin House

Also see the following article 'Barclay Henry'  Barclay Henry was born in 1869 and died in Arrochar in 1946

Mrs. Galbraith, president, or ought I to say, Chairman and ladies of the Women’s Rural Institute, when I was asked to give this talk, I agreed with considerable misgivings as I realised that whatever I might say would of necessity be more or less a repetition of what I had already said to the YPA here a year or two ago.  In the first place I have to tell you so far as I know it, some of the ancient history of the district, for without that background I could not give you any sort of picture of the wonderful changes that have taken place down the years in this little corner of the Highlands.  Now this will perhaps be rather boring for those of you who may know it already; from those I would ask their indulgence for I am presuming that some of you may not know much about it.  I would like to say at once that, outside of books, I am indebted almost entirely to the one time minister of the Parish, the Rev James Dewar, and to his brother who was schoolmaster here and whose ancestors had lived in this district for generations.  When I tell you that Mr. Dewar the schoolmaster must have been nearly ninety when he died and his father, who was schoolmaster for a time before him, and also lived to a ripe old age, you will understand that he must have had an enormous fund of local lore.

But little did I think at that time that I would every have to try to pass any of it on for I was only a boy, and careless and missed much.  The parish of Arrochar like many other highland districts has no written history from which we could conjure up any real picture of what life must have been like when Glasgow was a few wattle huts and Dumbarton a Roman Town – some say Theodosea.  The very name of Arrochar is a matter of controversy among Gaelic-speaking authorities; the first authentic mention of it occurs in a Latin deed by the Earl of Lennox dated 1225 bequeathing to his youngest son Gilbert the lands of ‘upper Arrochar of Luss’.  What that may exactly mean I do not know.  The gift is quite distinct and that it is a portion of land.  But that does not help us with the meaning of the name, and it being spelt Arroquhar in the old archives of Dumbarton only makes it more difficult.  I will not give any opinion as there are so many theories.  In any case, this name probably obtained for this place hundreds of years before the document I mention was penned.

It was in this Gilchrist’s time that King Haer’s Norse invasion took place and history tells us that Olaf, King of Mau sailed up Loch Long with sixty ships and anchored them at the head of the Loch.  Of course, they were very small vessels as we understand ships and could have been hoisted to the havills of any of our liners.  But the small ones were detached and dragged through the valley and launched on Loch Lomond.  The whole incident is described in the Norwegian Chronicle which I believe is still preserved in Onslow.  Now, as I have told you, Gilchrist was the first resident laird or chief of the lands of Arrochar and the real progenies of the clan MacFarlane.  The tradition is that this Gilchrist had a grandson called Bartholemew, which in Gaelic is Parlan, and at this fight with the Norsemen, he, although really only a boy, so distinguished himself by his bravery that afterwards when in time he became chief, his followers all called themselves McParlan, son of Parlan – McFarlane as we have it.  Some of the history books, as does the Norwegian account, tell us however that the Norsemen bore through after a fight and they harried the lower reaches of Loch Lomond, evidently even then a fertile land.  But it was coming back with their booty that the Norsemen paid the price.  It was no longer an unexpected, sudden raid.  The Arrochar men were ready and the very elements seem to have aided them for there was a three day gale in which ten of their ships were totally wrecked and those who escaped promptly left Loch Long.  I rather think this would be the truth of the matter for in reliable history it is recorded that king Alexander of Scotland was deliberately parleying with King Haco’s fleet off Largs, for the purpose of gaining time for gales to come, which did come and rendered their anchorage impossible.  However, between that and their defeat at the battle of Largs, the Norse invasion ended in disaster.

The main part of the fighting here took place in the valley between Arrochar and Tarbet on this side of the Railway Embankment.  The dead were buried at Ballyhennan in what is now the churchyard there.  Now I wonder if it was merely an attempt to imitate the sound of the proper name with the usual result of being quite wrong.  It is really Loch Lougue, Lougue being a ship in Gaelic, hence the meaning ‘the Ship Loch.’  Well, so much for those early days – that is early days from our limited point of view.  Beyond that the history of this place is lost in the mists of antiquity.

But I have tried to indicate to you what was the beginning of the clan McFarlane who held and ruled the land of Arrochar for six hundred turbulent years, packed with adventure and romance.  The poet who wrote:

‘The breath o’moor and fell in it,
There souch a highland glen in it,
There legends old
O’heroes bold
And sound o’ marching men in it’.

may well have done so about old Arrochar.  The clan McFarlane, considering their small numbers and limited lands, occasioned more trouble to whoever tried to curtail their activities than almost any other.

When things began to take shape a bit in the way of central government, there are various documentary records of such attempts – one in 1593 where Lord Ogilvy, Warden of the West, is authorised – if he deems it expedient to remove the sentence of outlawry from Duncan McFarlane of Arrochar and his brother Walter of Ardleish if they pay the fines of Ł3,000 and Ł1,000 respectively.  Needless to say they were not paid.  Perhaps the Warden of the West did not deem it expedient to proceed further.  Then eight years later you find the chief and 58 of the clan summoned to Dumbarton to answer the charge of having made a raid and taken much booty from Sir Patrick Maxwell’s estate of Newart.  They did not appear, strange to say.  Shortly afterwards the chief’s son married Miss Maxwell.  Perhaps they fell in love at the raid.

Another rather illuminating change made is that there was always kept in Tarbet glen 100 armed men for the purpose of levying blackmail.  But I do not wish you to suppose that the men of Arrochar were just a band of lawless marauders.  When occasion demanded they were ready and willing to fight for the crown.  The clan fought gallantly against Edward I of England.  Meldrum, another chief, succoured and shielded King Bruce after his escape from the McDougal’s at Tynedrum in the winter of 1306.  Sir John McFarlane died at the head of his men at Flodden.  Truly they were grand fighters those McFarlanes.  It did not seem to matter which side or what it was about.  Cromwell’s troops burned down their castle at Inveruglas.  They played a leading part in the Battle of Bothwell Brig, and later the same chief was a strong supporter of the revolution.  The clan came to an end in 1784 at least so far as their lands were concerned.  They were sold at the instance of a lawyer in Edinburgh acting for himself and other creditors.  Afterwards the estates were bought by the Fergusons of Raith, who had them for about thirty years, and in turn sold them to the Colquhouns of that period; but the Stuckgowan part of the lands was sold to two brothers McMurrich, business men, I believe, in Glasgow.

In the statistical account of Scotland in 1790 the account of the parish as written by the minister of that time is very meagre about many things we would like to have been informed about.  According to him, the misanthropy and ferocity of manners which masked the character of the inhabitants was occasioned by their attachment to their chief.  But since the passing of the chief the sales of the estates, the making of the military roads and the settlement of the Graziers from the low country, had, in his opinion, contributed to extinguish the remains of that system of barbarity the civilization of Europe.  Splendid.  If that is to infer that the doings of this small clan had repercussions on the continent say in Berlin and St Petersburg we may be proud of them – but with all due respect I rather doubt it.  The writer then goes on to say that the people are now well-bred, honest and industrious and not addicted to the immoderate use of spirituous liquors.  Considering at the time (1790) there were six or eight recognised places of refreshment between Tarbet and the head of Glencroe, besides sheebeens all over the place I think the natives deserved a little more hearty commendation for their good behaviour, when you remember that this account was written just six years after the old order hand changed.  Probably there was a much larger crafting population than we have any idea of.  I recollect Mr Dewar telling me that he remembered when there were thirty different families on the Argyllshire side of the Loch from Succoth to Mark Point at the entrance to Loch Goil.  There is a romantic story attached to one of those taverns which stood at the rise in the road between the head of the Loch and the Torpedo Range, just above the stretch of grass now fenced in and where you could ‘a few years ago easily trace the foundation among the grass and bracken’.  It was during the Napoleonic wars, when the press gang were out in every port to get men to man our ships, that one John Meek living quietly in a village on the south coast of England was lifted and carried off to sea.  Now Meek was just about to get married, but nothing was allowed to stand in the way at that time, the need was urgent so he had to go, leaving his sorrowing betrothed behind.  The war dragged on and years passed, but never any news of the kidnapped bridegroom.  At length the girl grew hopeless and set out to wander the country alone making a living by selling small wares, which she carried in a basket!  At length the war ended and John meek returned to his home only to find his sweetheart had gone away.  No one could tell him where and he determine to search the land to find her.  He did, however, get trace of her and followed her to the north of England, then over the border into Scotland, on and on, till one evening he found his long, lost bride by the shores of Loch Long near Ardmay.  They made their way to Arrochar together and the old laird of Ardgartan – no doubt moved by the story – put them into the old tavern.  The neighbours henceforth called the place Alt-na-Gall – ‘the Low Lands Man’s height’ probably through someone having Gall and gale.  Another instance of the reverse meaning.

Naturally the plethora of places of refreshment and private distillation led to official activities and there were several excisemen or gaugers stationed in the district.  That they were unpopular is to state the case very mildly and seemingly the feelings of the private distillers were shared by the clergy.  Perhaps fifty four years after the statistical account had been written, Dr McFarlane was minister of this parish, into the 60s of the last century and of him this story is told.  The Reverend Doctor was coming home by coach up Loch Lomondside with a fellow passenger, a young man also bound for Tarbet.  On their arrival, the young man having taken stock of the reverend-looking old clergyman, and being a stranger to the place, thought it would be a wise move on his part to get local information and help from him.  So he quietly informed the doctor that he was an exciseman and had been sent from Glasgow; that the authorities had learned that a certain man in Morelaggan was commencing a brew; but he was uncertain how to get there or indeed precisely where it was.  The good old doctor got rather a shock but he never turned a hair but courteously told him exactly where it was and offered the gauger his company as far as the manse at Arrochar.  Now the journey had been long and the weather inclement, and Doctor McFarlane would not hear of the young man going on the way further, without some refreshment and rest, and the exciseman was no doubt quite pleased to accept.  Of course, whenever they got inside the manse, the old doctor told his housekeeper how things stood, telling her he would entertain the gauger as long as he could.  Immediately a messenger went off hot foot for Morelaggan to warn old McIntyre.  When the refreshed exciseman reached Morelaggan there was nothing of the questionable nature to be seen – just as the old doctor had told him, that he did not think he would find anything wrong in Morelaggan.  The doctor McFarlane was a friend of my parents, and was a humorous story teller, second to none, in his time.  In fact I have been told some of his clerical brethren suggested that it was his story-telling that got him his BD.

I’ll tell you another one to illustrate the same point; it was told to me by my mother. Remember it was not so much that the people of that time had any predisposition to the abuse of liquor, but just that they hated any outside official supervision.  Their minister was there for that purpose and any other was just a nosey parker and to be treated as such.  This particular minister had an exciseman in his congregation one day, and felt that he would dearly like to give him a piece of his mind, but knew he was debarred from outraging the proprieties by addressing anyone in person, so this is how he got round it: “When I was a young student in the great University of Aberdeen, the old woman use to ask me “Will this one be saved or will the next one be saved?” and I always said I did not know.  But one day an old woman asked me, “Would a gauger ever be saved?” and I said, “No, never as long as he is a gauger”.

And now something about the Arrochar Church and I must hark away back.  Proceedings were begun in 1648, by a commission appointed; but it was not until 1658 that the Parish of Arrochar was formed, ten whole years.  Times were a bit too strenuous for erecting kirks or making new parishes.  Cromwell’s soldiers were on the war path.  However, in 1658, the Rev Archie McLachlan was presented to the charge by the patron, the Chief John McFarlan, who had undertaken (probably under pressure) to provide a Kirk, Manse and glebe.  The Luss Church was really the church of the Arrochar folk, and had been for hundreds of years before that and it seems that they thought it was good enough.  (Whether they were good attenders or not is another matter).  At any rate, it was some 75 years afterwards that the first church and manse were built.  (You can see the date above the doorway of the old ivy-clad ruin: 1733).  As there were at least four ministers between 1658 and 1733 they must have been officiating without any kirk or manse.  There is something to be said for the unwilling heritor.  The Clan Castle had been destroyed by Cromwell’s men and they had been in the throes of building another castle.  Well from 1658 until the present year 1940, 282 years have passed and Mr Esselmont is the 19th in succession.

Now we must shift our point of view a bit in order to show you how our district grew and what energetic far-seeing men there were then.  In 1816 just four years after the launching of the comet – the first passenger steamer to ply on European waters – there was launched the steam packet – Marion – built to the order of David Napier, a Dumbarton man.  This vessel was tried out on the Clyde for one year.  By the way, she must have been a quaint-looking craft.  She was sixty foot long, wood built of course, twenty horse power engines, schooner bows; mast and sail for emergencies, and a funnel like a tremendous stove pipe, 25 or 30 feet high.  After the year’s trial running on the Clyde, she was taken up the Leven to Loch Lomond where she inaugurated the immense tourist traffic as we know it.  I say they were enterprising men in those days, in the very infancy of steam navigation to put a steamer on a Highland Loch – foreseeing the possibilities.

And now to something of the Arrochar of my childhood.  I suppose I see the old people through rose-tinted spectacles.  But they are very pleasant spectacles and I intend to stick to them.  It was a wee Highland Village then with many thatched cottages, primitive if you like, but they were picturesque, and there were strapping men and bonny lasses come out of them.  We were a small community and it has been suggested to me in our modern and up-to-date time, that we must have been in starvation then, what rubbish!  Wages were less than half what they are now, but so was living.  A man could get an ounce of tobacco for 3d that now costs 9d and 4d halfpenny for what is no 1s 2d and there was never anybody in real want, but they were looked after somehow.  Their fields were cultivated in rotation.  But, looking back on it, there must have been a cycle of good summers and hard winters, for there was always a period of curling.

The roads were, of course, very different.  There was no black tarmacadam; they were macadam all right, mostly punky yellow in colour.  In fact, I have often heard the roads remarked on for their colour.  Here and there on the foreshore were small stretches of turf.  One old woman told me that she had helped to gather a crop of potatoes on what is now pebble beach at Tighness, and an old man that he had cut hay on what is now the shore below the Post Office.  I do not remember myself when the whole head of the loch on the shore side of the road was one big sweep of good turf, where cows grazed regularly, and it was a stance of recognised resting place for the droves of highland cattle.  A thing I shall never forget, and most picturesque they were, is the old Oban Coach – a real old stage coach, red and yellow, as it came swinging down the road with the spanking four horses, to pull up with a flourish at the Hotel.  Believe me, you never saw a Rolls Royce that was a patch on it for appearance.  At that time, extending from the pier up to the small cottages on the shore – we called it Archie McKay’s cottage – was one long line of stances – that is poles and crossbars for drying nets, which were often festooned.

Loch Long was one of the best fishing Lochs in the West; several families did nothing else but follow the fishing, of course.  Like other fishing places it was sometimes poor and at others very successful.  A Tarbert Loch Fyne fisherman once, pointing to a rather fine villa there, said to me, “My father made the money to build that in a couple of winters fishing at Arrochar”.  Of course you can understand when such good catches occurred there was a general jubilation and proper celebrations in the Hotel.  Now it so happened that at such a time of prosperity my father sent a man with a horse and cart up to the village to get a cart of coal.  He was a long time returning, but at last he did come in at the gate, led his horse right round the house and couped a full cart of herring in Fascadail back yard, under the impression that it was a cart of coal.  I leave you to picture the result.  What a mess of slippery, sliding herring.  We were better served as regards water transport, with our own special steamer, the good old ‘Chancellor’, than we are now.  Visitors usually wanted to stay here for from a month or two to three months at a time, and every house willing to let could choose their tenants.  Of course, sometimes visitors from the south required humouring and often a little ingenuity in making things do.

Another that I must tell you, a story of what happened in such a case.  A gentleman from the south staying in one of the cottages, one morning announced to his landlady that he particularly wished a hot bath, this was a problem but resourceful woman that she was, she said she would see what could be done, and consulted her husband whose retort was – man-like – “Is the Loch not good enough?”  She in turn replying that the Loch was not heated; but then they both had a brainwave.  The boiler for barking and tanning the nets, a huge cauldron at the end of the house.  A bit syne out, a bit fire below it and there was his bath; no one would see him.  The gentleman, having had the whole situation explained to him, agreed that it might do, and it did do: he had a good hot bath.  But then, as the novelists say, a strange thing happened.  When he came out, he was tanned all over – a beautiful sun bronze.  You see the boiler had not been sufficiently syned, and the kalhan for the nets had done its work.  I draw a veil over the resultant row.  The colour would not wash off, but it gradually faded a bit and I have been told that on his return south the gentleman was congratulated on his bronzed appearance from his holiday in the wilds of the north.  The strange thing about this story is that a lady visitor to Kyleakin in Skye, where my mother and I were also visiting at the time, said to me, having discovered I came from Arrochar, “Is that village still as primitive as it used to be?”  I, of course, denied that it was at all primitive; on the contrary, it was quite up to date, and one of the beauty spots of the highlands.  She then, to my amazement, told me the story I have just told you.  Of course, I said that it must be a yarn, but she retorts, “It is no yarn.  It was my brother who was tanned!”.  And of course, I knew all the time it was true but I was not going to let Arrochar down.

There were more individual characters then today somehow.  I do not mean that they were any better or worse, but perhaps because they could mostly all speak Gaelic as well as English, their sayings had an originality – with, at times, a sting in the tail of them.  Here is a sample: Old Arrochar was a favourite haunt of artists, and one famous in his time, and who I knew well and who, by the way, was a rather handsome man, was painting about one of the bonny thatched cottages and became on very friendly terms with the old lady who was tenant.  He and his family had a house further down the village, when the time came for him to leave, he went to say goodbye, and this was the manner of his leave-taking: “Well goodbye, Mr McEwan, I wish you well.  You have a bonny wife and bonny daughter, and maybe in the great hereafter the Lord’ll make you bonny tae!”.

But by far the greatest change of all took place when the Railway was made.  It took four or five years to make and at times there were 1,000 men on the section, and four policemen had their hands full on a Saturday night.  Of course, when it was finished, so was old Arrochar.  We were no longer!  

See also  Barclay Henry 1869-1946 - Artist   and  See also  Tyvechtican Shoot