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Another place I have yet to get to: the Falls of Foyers

32972The Falls of Foyers near by Loch Ness was a popular tourist destination in the late eighteenth century. It had romantic grandeur, the splendours of nature, it was remote from cities with their expanding smoke and industries. Ah! the romance of nature. Oh Caledonia stern and wild!

Samuel Johnson clambered over rugged crags to see the waterfall in 1773 but due a spell of dry weather, found only a disappointingly small trickle of water. He and Boswell then continued on to Fort Augustus where he was welcomed by the long-serving governor of the fort, Alexander Trapaud.
Robert Burns visited the falls in 1787 on his tour of the Highlands and indeed reached for paper and pencil to compose a poem ‘Written with a Pencil, standing by the Fall of Fyers, near Loch Ness’. The University of Glasgow has put an interactive map of Burns’ highland tour online as part of its Editing Burns for the 21st Century project ( This will also help to envisage the jolly summer daytrip described below.
It would seem that Johnson and Burns reached the falls by land. However I first came across an early account of them in a letter, written roughly ten years after Burns’ visit, by the daughter of one of the officers serving at Fort Augustus. On 1 July 1778, Anne MacVicar wrote to her friend Miss Jane Ewing describing a ‘grand party of pleasure’ up Loch Ness.


Fort Augustus: note the galley at top right

“There was the Governor [this was still the Alexander Trapaud who had welcomed Johnson] and his new espoused love, who, by the bye is very well considering, frank and cheerful, and so forth; and there were the two Misses Campbell, Duntroon, blithe bonny lasses; and there was the noble Admiral of the lake, and his fair sister; and the Doctor, and another beau, whom you have not had the honour to know. We went on board our galley, which is a fine little vessel, with a commodious and elegant cabin.
“The day was charming, the scene around was in itself sublime and cheerful, enlivened by sunshine and the music of the birds, that answered each other loudly from the woody mountains on either side of the Loch. On leaving the fort we fired out swivels, and displayed our colours. On our arrival opposite Glenmoriston, we repeated this ceremony, and sent out our boat for as many of the family as chose to come on board. The Laird himself, his beautiful daughter, and her admirer, obeyed the summons: they dined with us, and then we proceeded to the celebrated fall of Fyres.
“I had seen this wonder before, but never to such advantage. Strangers generally come from the high road, and look down upon it; but the true sublime and beautiful is to be attained by going from the lake by Fyers house, as we did, to look up to it. We landed at the river’s mouth, and had to walk up near a mile, through picturesque openings, in a grove of weeping birch, so fresh with the spray of the fall, that its odours exhale constantly. At the foot of the rock over which the river falls, is a small circular bottom, in which rises, as it were, a little verdant hillock of a triangular form, which one might imagine an altar erected to the impetuous Naiad of this overwhelming stream: this rustic shrine, and the verdant sanctuary in which it stands, are adorned by the hand of nature with a rich profusion of beautiful flowers and luxuriant hernage…”

Miss MacVicar’s account goes on to mix reference to … this sacred solitude … the showery prism bending its splendid arch … with a matter of fact explanation of how the torrent in winter probably brought down rocks and sediment on which the plants have grown. Then she comes back to the river being tamed: from thundering and raging above, ‘rolling rapidly over steep rocks, like steps of stairs, till at last it winds quietly through the sweet peaceful scene at Fyres House, and loses itself in Loch Ness.”
She ends by asking, ‘Now to what purpose have I taken up my own time and yours with this tedious descrition?’ And readers might ask the same of me. What I like about this letter is the account of the ‘pleasure’ party as a whole. Admiring the splendour of the waterfall, Burns’ ‘roaring Fyers’ pouring his mossy floods, was the sublime highpoint of the outing. It descended into farce as the party returned home.

“When we returned on board, our spirits, being by this time exhausted with walking and wonder, and talking and thunder, and so forth, began to flag. One lady, always delicate and nervous, was seized with a fit, a hysterical one, that frightened us all. I cut her laces, suppressed her struggles, and supported her in my arms during the paroxysm, which lasted near two hours. What you must allow to be very generous in the company, not one of them seemed to envy my place, or made the smallest effort to supplant me. We drank tea most sociably, however; landed our Glenmoriston friends, and tried to proceed homeward, but adverse fate had determined we should sup there too, and so arrested us with a dead calm four miles from home. Now midnight approached, and with it gloomy discontent and drowsy insipidity. Our chief took a fit of the fidgets, and began to cry Poh, Poh! his lady took a fit of yawning; his little grandson took a fit of anger; the Doctor took a fit of snoring; even the good-natured Admiral took a fit of fretting, because the sailors had taken a fit of drinking. All of a sudden the Misses C. took a fit of singing, to the great annoyance of the unharmonious groupe; when I went to the deck, fell into a fit of meditation, and began to say, ‘How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank.’ Indeed nothing could be more inspiring; now silvery calmness slumbered on the deep, the moonbeams quivered on the surface of the water, and shed a mild radiance on the trees; the sky was unclouded, and the sound of the distant waterfall alone disturbed the universal stillness. But the general ill humour disturbed my rising rapture, for it was now two o’clock, and nobody cared for poetry or moonlight but myself. Well, we saw the wind would not rise, and so we put out the boat, some growling, other vapid, and the rest half asleep. The gentlemen, however, rowed us home, and left the galley to the drunken sailors. You may judge how gaily we arrived.”

I have known happy days gone sour but nothing like this. How much more hysterical the participants would have been had they known of Nessie. And good for Anne MacVicar Grant for making such a lively tale so that these people of the past return from the shades. Her friends must have looked forward to hearing from her.

[Grant, Anne] Letters from The Mountains; being the real Correspondence of a lady, between the years 1773 and 1807. Vol 1. 5th edition. London: Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, & Orme, Paternoster-row; Letter 27: To Miss Ewing, Glasgow; Fort Augustus, June 5th, 1778, pp210-216. Online via Hathi Trust Digital Library

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February 12, 2017 · 4:34 pm

Tin saucepans: a brief rumination at the bus-stop

P1060172I had an old (price 95p) copy of 1984 in my bag before meeting newspeaks (or maybe duckspeaks?) ‘mumbod’ and ‘dadbod’ made me realise that it was time to enter Orwell’s distopia again, this time with brain engaged.

Why had I been carrying it about? Simply because one day it had come to hand as a slim (therefore light in weight) alternative to those copies of Saga and Hello which accompany a wait for the attentions of doctor, dentist or hair-stylist. I am one who can’t be without a book and who curses any guest who wantonly carries off my reading matter from the lavatory.

This morning at the bus stop I found that previous sittings had taken me to page 59 of the Penguin edition which, according to the book-plate at the front, came from the library of my elder daughter. (Way back that must have been since it was before she changed the spelling of her name.)

To recap: Winston works in the Ministery of Truth (‘Minitrue’) ‘rectifying’ malreports and malquotes so that they fit in with ‘the thing which had actually happened’. He hardly dares to think for fear of the Thought Police. He wonders, as he reworks events and speeches, if he is the only one who remembers the past, a past which is being rewritten out of history. He has just begun, in great secrecy to entrust his thoughts to a diary…


If there is hope, wrote Winston, it lies in the proles

   If there was hope, it must lie in the proles, because only there in those swarming disregarded masses… could the force to destroy the Party ever be generated. The Party could not be overthrown from within. … But the proles, if only they could somehow become conscious of their own strength, would have no need to conspire. They needed only to rise up and shake themselves like a horse shaking off flies. If they chose they could blow the Party to pieces tomorrow morning. Surely sooner or later it must occur to them to do it? And yet–!

He remembered how once he had been walking down a crowded street when a tremendous shout of hundreds of voices – women’s voices – had burst from a side-street a little way ahead. It was a great formidable cry of anger and despair, a deep, long ‘Oh-o-o-o-oh!’ that went humming on like the reverberation of a bell. His heart had leapt. It’s started he had thought. A riot! The proles are breaking loose at last! When he had reached the spot it was to see a mob of two or three hundred women crowding round the stalls of a street market… But at this monent the general despair broke down into a multitude of individual quarrels. It appeared that one of the stalls had been selling tin saucepans. They were wretched, flimsy things, but cooking-pots of any kind were always difficult to get. Now the supply had unexpectedly given out. The successful women, bumped and jostled by the rest, were trying to make off with their saucepans while dozens of others clamoured round the stall, accusing the stall-keeper of favouritism and of having more saucepans somewhere in reserve. There was a fresh outburst of yells. Two bloated women, one of them with her hair coming down, had got hold of the same saucepan and were trying to tear it out of one another’s hands. For a moment they were both tugging, and then the handle came off. Winston watched them disgustedly. And yet, just for a moment, what almost frightening power had sounded in that cry from only a few hundred throats! Why was it that they could never shout like that about anything that mattered?

He wrote:

   Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.


Orwell continues to elaborate on how the despised proles are managed (‘Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbours, films, football, beer, and above all, gambling, filled up the horizon of their minds’).


To keep them in control was not difficult. A few agents of the Thought Police moved always among them, spreading false rumours and marking down and eliminating the few individuals who were judged capable of becoming dangerous; but no attempt was made to indoctrinate them with the ideology of the Party. It was not desirable that the proles should have strong political feelings. All that was required of them was a primitive patriotism which could be appealed to whenever it was necessary to make them accept longer working hours or shorter rations. …..

Now I am certainly not labelling the mass of my compatriots (however defined) as proles but Orwell should not be remembered only for Big Brother (aka Facebook which persists in suggesting I make a friend of people whom I have reason to believe are no friend to me or my perceived interests). Texts, Twitter and Newspeak? The Two-Minute Hate and the election orgies we have just gone through?

Just ruminating. MaybP1060173 - Version 2e things are changing? The book was published almost 70 years ago, indeed Winston, who thought he was born in 1944 or 1945, would be 70ish today. Anyway I have moved 1984 from my bag to the pile by the bed. Timely to read on from page 61. In hope.

And perhaps put Animal Farm in my good-for-your-back bag? I suspect this thought is not unconnected by the bunnies on my daughter’s book-plate.

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Just do it!

When it comes to doing family history I prefer the thrill of the chase.

I am not good at getting round to collating and filing bits of information, especially if they come in various formats such as computer files, photos, certificates, notes and thoughts on the backs of envelopes. Paper can be tucked into a file (if big enough) but how to integrate this with what’s on the computer? Scan all the paper and concentrate on identifying and bringing together all this electronic mass (and buy a big screen on which to view it)? Or, print out all the stuff on the computer and commandeer the sitting room floor? But even this is a way of avoiding getting down to making sense of the material and thinking about what might be missing, about the things unsaid, unrecorded.

Photo of section of a very large OS map

For the past few months I’ve been attending a writing workshop entitled ‘Blood Lines: Creative Memoir’. It’s been an experience I have approached with caution. Having poor recall of past events I am keen to hang on to what I do have and am reluctant to create false memories. Dredging our memories for matter to write about is also a trifle unsettling for all participants in that it stirs up feelings, not all, indeed it would appear very few, happy.

One of the premises of the course is that ‘each family has its fund of tales’  which further implies that these are passed on, often by grandparents, and that the recipients listen. Would this were so.

I have no memory of one grandmother who lived in another part of the country and who died when I was six. Fortunately the grandfather on that side was part of a female-dominated line who hung on to scraps of paper which enable some reconstruction of the family’s history. He was also interested in family trees. My mother, moreover, did a sterling job, collecting information and writing about her relations once she realised that not only were there years of family life and background of which her own children were ignorant but that her younger sisters were also strangers to much of it. Among the things she discovered was that one of her grandfathers had abandoned his children after the death of his wife and later died in a poorhouse. The children were rescued from threat of the orphanage by an uncle, brother of the absconding parent, who took them in. Mother had not known any of this before the researcher located death and census records; her own mother had never mentioned it. Nor were the younger sisters happy that my mother made public family information.

The other, Irish, side of my ancestry, is The Challenge. My father’s knowledge of his ancestors seemed to stop

Helpful Blackrock taxi driver tries but fails to find an ancestral site via a snip of a 19th century OS map

with his grandparents, and of them he chiefly recounted that his grandfather, Zeno Sloan, had introduced the tonic sol-fa into Ireland and that his grandmother ran a school and continued to do so with the assistance of her daughters until retirement age. Father and all his brothers bar one moved away from Ireland, seas and oceans then separating us grandchildren from grandparents who might have told us that fund of tales. Our visits were brief and not occasions for bonding or story-telling. I have spent the last couple of years trying to track down members of the family to see if I could get further back but even our combined memories and delvings into archives have not got very far, or gone very far… Photos and emails on the computer. Letters and photocopies in a file. Maps? Clippings? Must make a start on bringing some of it together.

This is not a new thought.Once of the reasons I signed up to the Creative Blood Lines course was to force myself to write regularly. Write what? Well anything, at least anything readable.  Same reason I started these blogs and it is evident from how few I have published that solo creation is not one of my strengths.

Also in the pursuit of, or let’s face it as a diversion from, my first novel I have put in time reading lists of tips provided by various authors. This was not the result of googling ‘top tips’. I do google the names of authors whose work I enjoy. Sneaking up on Rose Tremain online produced the first of these lists.

I have also been reading my way through Muriel Spark, first her short stories and then the novels, most recently The Abbess of Crewe, in the hope that some of her vivid style will rub off on me. And because her books are a joy to read as she is a brilliantly inventive writer with a lashing acerbic wit.

One of these lists produced from Muriel Spark the following advice:

“For concentration you need a cat…And the tranquility of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give you back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence is enough.” 

I have made a start on improving my concentration. He looks like this (but if he steps across in front of me, where his eyes are pointing, he becomes a writer’s block):

The Aide-Memoire waiting for food


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