Morvern Lines – 2.6.22

Old Ardtornish House where Tennyson stayed when visiting Morvern. The house was demolished in 1910. Photograph: Iain Thornber

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Not long ago I wrote in this column about a piece of land above Loch Aline called The Field of the Hawthorn Trees, which was reclaimed from the surrounding hillside at the time of the Highland Clearances by starving men, women and children in return for a few handfuls of meal.

It and Morvern’s empty landscape speak volumes of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’, as Robert Burns so aptly put it.

This week I am writing about another landmark on the same side of Loch Aline called Tennyson’s Waterfall, made famous throughout the Highlands for its association with the Poet Laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson.

In the summer of 1853 Tennyson paid a four-day visit to Morvern and stayed at Ardtornish as a guest of the Sellar family. Mrs Eleanor Sellar, his hostess and daughter- in-law of estate owner and the ‘improver’ Patrick Sellar during his short stay at Ardtornish, gives an interesting account of the visit in her book, Recollections and Impressions (1907), in which she says: ‘I can see him, as distinctly as if it had been yesterday, sitting by the clear river side (the River Aline below Acharn) beside a beautiful avenue of lime trees, planted by a cousin of Flora MacDonald’s, and repeating, Ye Banks and Braes o’ Bonnie Doon, saying no more simple or beautiful love song had ever been written.  On Sunday he attended Kiel church, where the Reverend Dr John Macleod preached and of whom the poet remarked, “What a well-borne head!”.’

Tennyson planned to use Morvern as a stepping stone to Skye but, prevented by poor weather and greatly taken by the landscape and the association with Sir Walter Scott’s setting for his epic poem, The Lord of the Isles, he decided to stay on at Ardtornish.

His disappointment was not very heart-breaking to judge from the following playful lines:

“If he did not see Loch Coruisk

He ought to be forgiven;

For though he miss’d a day in Skye,

He spent a day in Heaven!”

Tennyson’s waterfall on the south shores of Loch Aline, morvern.

One fine day Tennyson and a party set off for a walk on the hills between Old Ardtornish and the head of Loch Aline. Mrs Sellar recorded that they ended up at a waterfall that fell over a cliff, hollowed out, ‘under which we were able to creep; and we sat with the water falling before us like a silver veil. Mr Tennyson said it was a great pity we had not brought food with us, and so need not have hurried home; and then, almost immediately, he chanted:

“We had smoke, but we hadna wine,

And we had nothing whereon to dine;

But there was Denninstoun’s daughter;

And Crosskin sang a song of mine

Behind the falling water”.’

From local tradition and Mrs Sellar’s description, there is little doubt that the locally unique, double waterfall on the Allt na Samhnachain is indeed that visited by Lord Tennyson in 1853. Further proof, if any is required, is a sign-post by the roadside on the south side of Loch Aline and a series of way-markers leading up to the site, erected by the local landowners to help visitors find this fascinating site. There cannot be many estates in the Highlands, or in the whole of Scotland for that matter, who can boast of having such a beautiful, natural landmark so closely linked with the country’s best known Victorian poet, who lies in Westminster Abbey alongside some the greatest historical figures of the civilised world.

Several months ago I wrote about the number of commissioned and non-commissioned officers of two Highland regiments who took part in the Battle of Waterloo. I omitted to mention, in addition to Colonel John Cameron of Fassiefern and Major-General Sir Alexander Cameron of Inverailort, Ensign Donald Cameron Ygr of Lochiel who fought with the Grenadier Guards and succeeded his father as 23rd Chief in 1832.

There is a telling account of the state of lawlessness that prevailed in Lochaber in the mid-19th century, when an old clansman on hearing that Lochiel was returning to Achnacarry after many years absence, said in Gaelic, ‘Our own great God of the Camerons is coming home, and the theft will begin again, as it always was before.’

It is worth recalling that in the Peninsular War Skye alone produced no fewer than 21 Lieutenant-Generals and Major-Generals, 48 Lieutenant Colonels, 600 non-commissioned officers, 10,000 foot-soldiers, four Governors of British Colonies, one Governor-General, one Adjutant-General, one Chief Baron of England and one Judge of the Supreme Court of Scotland. In Mull and Morvern, during the same period, more than 100 local men held commissions, many of whom became distinguished, rose to high rank and prospered in peace time.

I wonder if so many Scotsmen from humble backgrounds would have done so well throughout the Empire had there not been a United Britain?