The 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 (http://burnsc21.glasgow.ac.uk/highland-tour-interactive/). 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.
“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.