Minutes after docking at Stronachlachar Pier for passengers to disembark or come aboard, the steamship Sir Walter Scott, was again sailing serenely down Loch Katrine, completing the 16 miles round trip that starts at Trossachs Pier. Meanwhile, much less serenely, my wife and I were pedalling a mountain bike built for two along the traffic free road that runs along the north side of the loch.
We’d been acquainted with the tandem on Trossachs Pier about an hour earlier at the bicycle hire station. The mechanic had judged our leg lengths, made necessary adjustments to the bike, then watched with practised eye as we took a few tentative turns around the car park. He then allowed us away and we pushed the shiny blue machine up the gangplank of the SS Sir Walter Scott.
We found the boat busy with visitors from various countries. Safety announcements in English, French and German sounded before we set sail. Then, with bagpipe music playing softly in the background, we were on our way. Every few minutes a commentary over the loudspeakers described features of the passing scene. Tales were told of this pure water, source of Glasgow’s supply since 1859.
We heard about cattle rustlers, secretive whisky distillers and smugglers who once plied their trades in the surrounding hills.
As the steamer’s engines rumbled rhythmically, our passage rippled the calm loch. Small waves fleetingly disturbed the perfect reflections then died away. Mirrored images of larch trees and birch trees, gold-coloured in their autumn splendour, reformed in the ship’s wake.
The passengers were captivated. Through binoculars, some of them scanned the mist wreathed mountains. Cameras clicked on all sides.
We were informed that the Sir Walter Scott is driven by the original 3-cylinder triple expansion engine and has two locomotive–type boilers that have been converted to run on biofuel. She is the last of many such steamers that plied their trade on Scotland’s beautiful lochs.
She was built in 1900 at William Denny & Brothers, once a well - known shipbuilding firm on the River Clyde. The sections of the ship were prefabricated and bolted together at Dumbarton then dismantled and transported by barges up Loch Lomond to Inversnaid. From there they were taken overland by horse and cart to Stronachlachar. The ship was then reassembled - this time with rivets in place of bolts.
We left the ship at Stronachlachar Pier.
After a wobbly start, and having to get off the tandem when we met our first hill, we were now travelling in the same direction as the ship. We had never been on a tandem before, but as the cycling became easier, we began to relax, to enjoy that good-to-be-alive-feeling from breathing the fresh mountain air.
Leaves were falling as we passed through the woodland sheltering Glengyle House where Rob Roy MacGregor was born in 1671. It’s a beautiful spot. Loch Katrine shone like polished silver in front of the house.
Rob Roy grew up to become a respected farmer and cattle dealer but was involved in an unwise financial speculation in which he lost his own savings as well as money entrusted to him by the Duke of Montrose.
He was declared bankrupt and a warrant was taken out for his arrest. The cattle dealer became a cattle thief who also ran a protection racket. He was arrested more than once, but always managed to escape. Seen by some as a Robin Hood figure he died in his own home of old age, almost a national hero.
As we pedalled on, the air was full of birdsong. Perhaps the birds were rejoicing over an abundance of brilliant red rowan berries. Ferns were turning from green through yellow to russet near the roadsides. Against these autumnal colours, the small wild flowers still in bloom stood out like blue jewels. Fat, juicy blackberries begged to be picked.
There are easy stretches and some exciting downhill runs on this traffic free road skirting the north side of Loch Katrine. Where the hills are steep, we had no qualms about dismounting, taking time to marvel at the dramatic views.
Information boards along the route are good places to stop for a breather. From one of them, we learnt a little about the local wildlife and then attempted to discern where the roaring of a red deer stag might be coming from, far up the mountainside.
Further on, we stopped above a Clan Gregor’s cemetery on a man-made promontory extending out into the loch. Direct descendants of the MacGregors buried there have right of access to the graveyard to this day. After slogging up a particularly long incline we were glad to reach a popular picnic area. From this high point just off the road, we could see a few small islands poking out of the water, and away to the west, the peaks of distant hills.
Across the loch, surrounded by trees, Queen Victoria’s cottage looked like a doll’s house. With Prince Albert and other members of the Royal Family, Victoria stayed there on 15th October1859.During the day she had turned the silver handle which started a small hydraulic engine that primed the operation allowing the clean water of Loch Katrine to be pumped to the citizens of Glasgow 34 miles away.
Many famous people travelled here specifically to marvel at the beauty of Loch Katrine and the surrounding countryside. But it is Sir Walter Scott who is credited with starting the fashion for such visits, which were the beginnings of the tourism industry in Scotland.
His epic poem, ‘The Lady of the Lake’ was based on an older story and tells the tale of a young knight who, with his hounds, had been hunting a stag on these steep mountainsides. When his horse had an accident and died, the stranded knight was rescued by a young lady, the fair Ellen. In her boat, he rowed out across Loch Katrine to what is now known as Ellen’s Isle.
Today, at another viewpoint opposite Ellen’s Isle, there is a contraption known as a sound-store box. Turn the handle and you’ll be rewarded with a lovely voice singing ‘Ellen’s Third Song’, or ‘Ave Maria’, as it is better known. The music was composed by Franz Schubert, who was inspired by the words of Ellen’s prayer in Sir Walter Scott’s poem.
This is a popular trip with walkers and cyclists of all ages. But beware - if you haven’t been on a bike for twenty years, or in our case, on a tandem before - first consider the easy run from Trossachs Pier westwards. Of course, if you still don’t fancy all that sweaty effort, you could always stay on the boat for the return trip.
First published in The People’s Friend
Further Information: From Glasgow, a 60 minute drive along the A81 passes through pleasant rural countryside into the mountains of the Scottish Highlands. At Trossachs Pier there is an information centre, craft shop, bike or electric buggy hire and the Captain’s Rest restaurant.