Glasgow, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs

Monday 10 to Saturday 15 August 1829

On 10 August, the day after they arrived in Glasgow, they explored the city, visiting a cotton mill. The cotton industry was flourishing in Glasgow around this time. By the mid-1830s there were over 100 steam-driven mills in or around the city and by the early 1850s these accounted for nearly 20% of the male workforce. It is typical of the enquiring minds of Mendelssohn and Klingemann that they should have spent time investigating this important aspect of contemporary Glasgow life.

Karl Klingemann – letter, Glasgow, 10 August 1829:

We have seen and admired Glasgow. This morning we were in a stupendous cotton mill, as full of maddening noise as the divine waterfall at Moness. What is the difference to the ear? One old work-woman wore a wreath of cotton, another had tied up her aching tooth with it. Hundreds of little girls toil there from their earliest days and look yellow. But there will ever exist poetry in it. Systematic order becomes sublime, and the whole swallows itself up in succession, like seasons and vegetation. I joke little and admire much. Times are not so bad, when everything irresistibly moves on, and motion is the best digestive. Time goes on at an alarming pace, and all the Highlands, broad and narrow, have yet to be described. We are too far before-hand, the best ingredients for thoughts and letters, and even better than the best, have necessarily been left behind in divers corners and nooks, and the Highlanders cannot appreciate them, whilst you, all of you, deserve our best and not our hastiest.

Felix Mendelssohn – letter, Glasgow, 11 August 1829:

How much lies betwixt my last letter and this! The most fearful sickness, Staffa, scenery, travels, people – Klingemann has described it all, and you will excuse a short note, the more so as what I can best tell you is contained in the above music

[ie the opening theme of the Hebrides Overture which he had written down and dated 7 August in Tobermory on Mull on the same sheet of paper that he continued this letter on 11 August in Glasgow].

On Tuesday 11 August they were off again to fulfil the final stages of their Scottish itinerary that Mendelssohn had described in his letter written from Edinburgh two weeks earlier: “to Ben Lomond, which with Loch Lomond forms the Highland Lion, to Loch Earn, Ben Voirlich, Loch Katrine.”  

We know from five further sketches that they saw Ben Lomond and Loch Lomond and went to the Trossachs, which are the mountains that border Loch Katrine, but there are no sketches of Loch Earn or the mountain just to the south, Ben Vorlich, and no mention of these places appear in their letters and, given the distance of a further 30 or so miles from the Trossachs, it is virtually certain that they did not make it to Loch Earn and Ben Vorlich.

Again, Mendelssohn’s sketches are a wonderful guide to their actual movements. On Tuesday 11 August, they boarded another Clyde steamer.

Steam ships on the Clyde 11 August.  Bodleian notebook.

Steam ships on the Clyde 11 August. Bodleian notebook. 30r

They travelled downriver to Dumbarton where they passed the impressive Dumbarton Rock on which sits Dumbarton Castle to which they paid a visit.

Ben Lomond from the Clyde

Ben Lomond from the Clyde [with Dumbarton Rock in the right foreground] 11 August 1829.  Bodleian notebook. 31r

There is a slight inconsistency in the dating of the sketch of Dumbarton Castle which is from the Beinecke Sketchbook and gives 12 August as the date, whereas it is far more likely, based on the dates clearly written on the two Bodleian notebook sketches, that they visited the Castle on 11 August.

Dumbarton Castle - sketch by Mendelssohn

Dumbarton Castle, 12(?) August 1829, Beinecke Sketchbook

Either on the evening of 11 August or the morning of 12 August, they will have travelled on to the southern shore of Loch Lomond. We do not know where they stayed on the night of 11 August; it could have been in Dumbarton, or in one of the towns, such as Balloch, near the shores of the Loch.

But from Felix’s two wonderful sketches, we know that they explored Loch Lomond on Wednesday 12 August. Anyone who is familiar with Loch Lomond, one of the most beautiful locations in Scotland, and the first of Scotland’s National Parks, will recognise these views which are unchanged in the 186 years since Mendelssohn recorded them. 

Loch Lomond 12 August 1829

Loch Lomond 12 August 1829.  Bodleian sketchbook. 30r

Loch Lomond 12 August 1829

Loch Lomond 12 August 1829. Bodleian sketchbook. 34r

The Beinecke copies of these two sketches are also worth seeing as they show two differences from the originals. In the first, a house has appeared, there is a steamer on the Loch, and a woman is seated on the shore, sketching the view while being served a drink by an attendant! Were these additional elements of the picture actually there, but not included, when Mendelssohn made his original sketch, or were they added later from his imagination?

In the second Beinecke sketch, the date has been changed from 12 to 13 August which, just as for the Dumbarton sketch, adds some confusion to exactly when this sketch was made.

Loch Lomond August 1829

Loch Lomond 13(?) August 1829. Beinecke sketchbook

At Loch Lomond

At Loch Lomond, 13(?) August 1829

From the second of the “Bodleian” sketches which, it is assumed, was made on the same day, we can see that the weather had deteriorated between the earlier and later sketch. The top of Ben Lomond is lost in cloud and the waters of Loch Lomond are choppy. With alternate light and shade on the hills either side of the Loch, and the scudding clouds above, it looks like the type of day with which we are all familiar: bright sunshine one moment, followed by pouring rain the next. The weather can change in an instant in this part of the world, as is borne out by something that Mendelssohn says in a letter a few days later:

Mendelssohn – letter, Glasgow, 15 August 1829

…on Loch Lomond we were sitting in deep twilight in a small rowing boat, and were going to cross to the opposite shore, invited by a gleaming light, when there came a sudden tremendous gust of wind from the mountain; the boat began to see-saw so fearfully that I caught up my cloak and got ready to swim. All our things were thrown topsy-turvy, and Klingemann anxiously called to me, “Look sharp, look sharp!” But with our usual good luck we got safely through. When on shore, we had to sit in a room with a cursing young Englishman, who was something between a sportsman, a peasant, and a gentleman, perfectly insufferable, and with three other individuals of a similar kind, and were obliged to sleep in the next house close under the roof, so that from sitting-room to bedroom we walked with umbrellas, cloak and cap.

This letter also confirms that they slept under a roof, probably on the night of 12 August, before setting off the for Trossachs on 13 August, but there is also a “Beinecke” sketch dated 13 August (but maybe it, too, was made on 12 August) which shows that they enjoyed at least a little al fresco life, cooking a meal over a camp fire:

Camping at Loch Lomond

Loch Lomond 13(?) August 1829.  Beinecke sketchbook.

The one sketch dated 13 August tells us that they were in the Trossachs on that day when they presumably also saw Loch Katrine, most famous today for being the source of the water which supplies the city of Glasgow and the surrounding area – a testament to the ingenuity and perseverance of the Scottish people in the Victorian area who were not daunted by the prospect of piping fresh water from the Loch to Glasgow along 26 miles of aquaducts and 13 miles of tunnel which are still in use today. However, this feat of engineering happened in the decades following Mendelssohn’s and Klingemann’s visit; to them the Loch would have been known as the fictional setting for Walter Scott’s poem, The Lady of the Lake

The Trossachs 13 August 1829

The Trossachs 13 August 1829. Bodleian sketchbook. 34r

The Trossachs 13 August 1829

The Trossachs 13 August 1829. Beinecke sketchbook.

Again, the Beinecke sketch differs from, and elaborates on, the original. A clump of deciduous trees has been replaced by a leaning fir tree, and more detailed shading is included in the Beinecke sketch.

We know from their letters, that they were back in Glasgow on 15 August, and both travellers put pen to paper in a joint letter to sum up their Scottish adventure. Their contributions to this joint letter, as well as acknowledging the wonderful experiences that they had had together and that they knew they would remember for the rest of their lives, describe the bleakness, greyness, primitiveness and melancholy nature of the Highlands. This was probably not just due to the bad weather that they experienced but the first four decades of the 19th-century saw towns and villages in the Scottish Highlands devastated by the “Highland Clearances” with whole communities north and south of the Great Glen being torn apart, villages burned to the ground, and former crofters being forced to emigrate or, if they stayed, pushed to the unfertile lands on the Scottish coasts to make way for the new practice of sheep-farming which was far more lucrative to the Lairds than allowing their lands to be Iived on and tilled by a human population. Klingemann, in typical expansive style, looks back on their Scottish journey as follows:

Klingemann – letter, Glasgow, 15 August 1829

Ever-memorable country! The mnemonic powers of the nose are well known, and…so the Highland smell will be remembered by us, a certain smoky atmosphere which every Highlander has about him. I once, while going along, closed my eyes and then correctly stated that five Highlanders had passed by – my nose had seen them. It is easy to determine the number of houses in the same way. As for the rest, the country is not as bad as certain people in great capitals would make out. It is almost exclusively a mountainous country, and as such it is remarkable. At night, when the storm rises, you find an inn with beds and rooms which you are not exactly obliged to share with cattle drovers, but with sporting John Bulls; if a fowl chances to run about the room or a pig squeaks under you, it is a proof that you may look forward to a new-laid egg and some pork next morning at breakfast; if the cart on which you travel jolts rather murderously, that is only the more temptation to get out and walk; if no officious fellow happens to be found to carry one’s things on foot, that is but a friendly invitation to make oneself comfortable and drive; if nothing is to be had but fresh herrings and beautiful rich cream, that indicates the patriarchal primitiveness which the modern world has so often on its lips; if the people make a clumsy effort at something better, with diluted wine and diluted bills, that show a pleasing disposition for culture. Altogether the inns, so few and far between, which on the map are marked as towns, perhaps represent nothing further than seeds of cities, here and there dotted over the broad moor, which by-and-by will swell and grow.

At last we issued from the Highlands, longing for the warm sun, which we had not seen for days, lounging in good carriages long unknown to us, driving through level country and cheerful villages, such as we had not been in for ages. The sun did really shine out here from the blue sky, only over the Highlands black clouds were hanging; but the longer and oftener we looked back, the bluer and more misty grew the mountains, at the feet of which we had been lying, all deep shades of colour mingled, and we might have become Highland-sick and wished ourselves back had we not known that the reality within that mountain land was grey, cold, and majestic. It was a sweet farewell to the heights which we at once abuse and love.

Mendelssohn’s own thoughts are also dated 15 August. These appear more reflective and poignant than Klingemann’s. We should remind ourselves that it was written by the 20-year-old Mendelssohn who, although of course he could not have known it, was over half-way through his short life. There is something in this letter which suggests an awareness that he might never again have such a carefree time, away from the immediate pressures of composing, performing or being the focus of attention in social circles.

Mendelssohn – letter, Glasgow, 15 August 1829

This, then, is the end of our Highland journey and the last of our joint letters. We’ve been happy together roaming round the country as gaily as if storm and rain had not existed. But they did exist. We had weather to make trees and rocks crash, and the newspapers have been full of its awfulness… To describe the wretchedness and the comfortless, inhospitable solitude of the country time and space do not allow; we wandered for ten days without meeting a single other traveller. What are marked on the map as towns, or at least villages, turn out to be just a few sheds huddled together, with just a single hole for door, window and chimney which has to serve for the entrances and exits of men, beasts, light and smoke. To any question the only answer you get is a dry “No!”.  Whisky is the only drink. There are no churches, no streets, no gardens. The rooms are pitch-dark in broad daylight. Children and hens lie in the same straw. Many of the huts have no roof and crumbling walls, and many houses have been destroyed by fire… It’s no wonder the Highlands have been called melancholy. But we two have been happy enough, laughing, rhyming, sketching, growling at each other and at the world…eating everything eatable and sleeping for twelve hours every night. We won’t forget it as long as we live.

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