After spending some time in Balquhidder Neil and I continued our drive to Inverness from Edinburgh. We had gotten caught up in the charm of the rural Scottish countryside so we decided to make a few more quick stops in Kenmore, Fortingall, and Glen Lyon where we hoped to further our family history quest. The locations we chose were largely spontaneous, and thus a lack of preparatory research meant that we didn’t turn up anything significant genealogically-speaking. But we still enjoyed the sunshine, the cute little villages, the beautiful scenery, and the friendly locals we met along the way.
While visiting the Parish Church in Balquhidder, Neil and I met a small group of friendly tourists who had also fallen under the spell of the local area. They were on a repeat visit. One of the women we spoke with loved this specific part of Scotland so much that she was wearing a gold locket that listed its geographic coordinates! When this group heard that we were driving north to Inverness, they told us that we should stop at a beautiful waterfall that could be found along our route. It wasn’t too far away, they advised us, and we would be able to see the waterfall from a stone Roman-era bridge that we would be driving by. The waterfall and the bridge both sounded appealing to me, so Neil and I kept a lookout for them as we set out from Balquhidder.
I should note that we didn’t have any data on our phones, so we were using a paper map for guidance. There were no waterfalls or bridges listed on the map, and nothing caught our eye as we made our way north. In retrospect, and with the assistance of Google Maps, I now realize that the people at the church were probably talking about the Falls of Dochart. The Falls are located about a 30 minute drive north of Balquhidder, near the town of Killin. Neil and I ended up driving over the stone bridge instead of by it as we were expecting, and so we continued north unaware that we had already passed what we were looking for. We’ll know better for next time! Meanwhile, an hour had passed since we left Balquhidder and we were getting hungry. We decided to stop in the town of Kenmore for lunch.
Kenmore is located at the east end of Loch Tay, along the south bank of the River Tay. The village dates back to the 16th century and was formerly situated 3 kms (2 miles) away from its present site on the opposite north bank of the river, where it was known as Inchadnie/Inchadney. The community was relocated in 1540 when Sir Colin Campbell of Glenorchy began to construct Balloch Castle, the principal seat of the Campbells of Breadalbane. The village was renamed after its new location on a prominent headland by the shores of Loch Tay: a’Cheannmhor in Scots Gaelic translates to “big/large head” (Kenmore is the anglicized version). Balloch Castle was later demolished in 1805 so that a larger residence, the present Taymouth Castle, could be built; Taymouth was completed in time for a visit by Queen Victoria in 1842.
We didn’t have time to visit Taymouth Castle itself, but below is a picture of Neil standing at one of the entrances to the estate grounds.
Kenmore was redeveloped as a planned estate village by the Earl of Breadalbane from 1755-1760. The present look of the town, with its white harled buildings, dates to to this time. (Harling is a rough-cast wall finish that uses lime and small pebbles to plaster over stonework; it helps to protect buildings against the wet Scottish climate).
Neil and I went to the Kenmore Hotel for lunch. The hotel was commissioned in 1572 by the same Colin Campbell responsible for the construction of Balloch Castle and the village’s relocation in 1540. The Kenmore Hotel claims to be Scotland’s oldest inn. One of its walls features a poem that was written onto its plaster by Robert Burns himself when he visited in 1787. I didn’t know this at the time so, sadly, do not have a picture of the poem—honestly, Scotland is so full of history that it’s hard to catch everything!
There is a beautiful parish church in Kenmore that was built in 1760. It reused elements from an earlier church that was built in 1669.
I took the photo below while we were driving into Kenmore. We were passing through the grounds of the Mains of Taymouth Country Estate on the north bank of the River Tay which, in addition to Taymouth Castle, now contains a golf course, restaurant, and hotel resort. We parked our car and checked out a small store, the Courtyard Shop & Delicatessen. It is the modern looking building that can be seen to the left in the photo below. To the right of that store there are some overgrown stone ruins, also shown below. I had thought at the time that these were the remains of another church similar to the one we had seen in Balquhidder. I later sent a message to the shop to ask about the ruins, and they advised me that “the building used to be a gas works. Coal was burnt and the gas produced used to heat the buildings on the Taymouth Estate. Just off to the right of this building there are some single-story buildings that are also ruins now; they were the blacksmith, and are amidst other buildings that were original to the estate farm. Now that they are in their current state, during the summer months they are home to a flock of swifts.” The castle and the estate grounds look like they would make an interesting place to stay, possibly for a future return visit to the area!
After leaving Kenmore, Neil and I drove to Fortingall. Fortingall is a small village that is renowned for an ancient yew tree growing in its churchyard. The yew is one of the oldest trees in Britain, with various estimates placing it at 1,500; 2,000-3,000; 5,000; and 5,000+ years old.
In 1769 it was noted that the yew tree had a massive trunk that measured 16 meters (52 feet) in girth. The size of the trunk has, unfortunately, deteriorated since then. Part of this is due to natural decay. But most of this is the result of human interaction and vandalism. Large parts of the trunk were carried off in order to make souvenirs such as wooden cups. A few local children then lit a fire in the hollow trunk to celebrate Beltane, causing further damage. Eventually, a stone wall was built to protect what remained of the tree. The trunk has since split into separate stems, giving the impression that there are several smaller trees. The loss of the main trunk and its heartwood rings is why it’s difficult to determine the yew’s true age. The markers in the picture below indicate the width of the original trunk in 1769. (Sorry for the poor photo quality: I left my main camera in the car and was using my phone instead).
Neil and I were originally interested in checking out Fortingall because it was the birthplace of one of his MacGregor ancestors. We went to the churchyard to see if we could track down a gravestone.
At this point in the day, I began to realize that gravestone hunting in Scotland can be a little hopeless due to the weathered condition that many of them are in (as can be seen in the photo below). But it was in this churchyard that we had the happy, unexpected surprise of seeing and learning about the ancient yew tree. Like I said, Scotland is so full of history that there is always something more to discover. While our original thread of interest did not yield a desired result, there were plenty of others available for us to pick up on. Fortingall, like Balquhidder and Kenmore before it, may be a small village, but its history packs a serious punch. The surrounding landscape has a rich concentration of prehistoric archaeological sites, including Bronze Age (3,000-1,200 B.C.E) burial mounds, standing stones, and Iron Age (750 B.C.E – 43 C.E.) ring-forts. There are also indications that there may have been an Iron Age (750 B.C.E. – 43 C.E.) cult centre that used the ancient yew tree as a focus of worship.
Fortingall’s present appearance comes from its redevelopment as a planned village in 1890-1891 for Sir Donald Currie, a shipowner and Unionist MP for Perthshire who bought the area in 1885 as part of the greater Glenlyon Estate. It was designed by architect James M Maclaren and built by John McNaughton in the Arts and Crafts vernacular style. The reed-thatched roofs of the Kirkton Cottages, shown in the photo below, are a highlight.
The Parish Church of Fortingall was rebuilt in 1900-1902 on a site that has been used for Christian worship since the 600s C.E., and even longer for pre-Christian worship. It is highly likely that this location was once the home of a monastery in the 700s, possibly a daughter monastery to the one on Iona.
The plaque below indicates that this stone wall was formerly the “Belfry of the Old Kirk, 1768.”
Neil and I hadn’t yet given up on our quest to find the famed bridge and waterfall that our friends had mentioned to us back at the church in Balquhidder. As I mentioned, we didn’t realize that we had likely already driven past it—if what they were referring to was the Falls of Dochart. In Kenmore we sought the advice of some locals on where to find “a waterfall near a Roman bridge” since we didn’t know the exact name of what we were looking for. They suggested that we continue west past Fortingall where there is, indeed, a packhorse bridge that crosses a tributary below a waterfall on the south bank of the River Lyon; it is known locally as “the Roman Bridge” although its construction actually only dates to the 1600s-1700s. This would have been really cool to see if we had actually spotted it! Again, we drove past where this bridge would have been located. This time, however, we didn’t make the mistake of driving over the bridge we were looking for as this one was designed for packhorses rather than vehicles, since its construction predates the invention of the latter.
Although our mission to find a waterfall near a Roman bridge had turned into a bit of a wild-goose chase by this point, Neil and I still enjoyed our experience touring through the beautiful Scottish countryside. Our drive took us through Glen Lyon, which is the longest enclosed glen in Scotland. Sir Walter Scott described it as “the longest, loneliest, and loveliest glen in Scotland.” I would wholeheartedly agree with that. Glen Lyon stretches 54 kms (34 miles) west of Fortingall to Loch Lyon, with its single-track road (shown in the picture below) closely following the twisting bends of the River Lyon.
Neil and I didn’t drive as far west as Loch Lyon. The day was getting late, and we had to get to Inverness in order to meet with someone who would provide us with keys to the apartment we were staying at. We drove about 30 minutes west of Fortingall before parking the car and going for a short walk along a small stream, which is listed on Google Maps as Alt Bali’ a’mhuilinn. The stream connects to the River Lyon a 3 minute drive southwest of the Bridge of Balgie (not the bridge we were looking for, sadly).
Although we had failed to find our Roman bridge, our short walk still felt a little magical. It’s easy to fall in love with Scotland, no matter what part of it you are exploring.
During our walk, Neil and I met up with a local who was out riding her horse. She asked us if we were lost, which we sort of were. We mentioned that we were looking for a waterfall. The woman kindly advised us to continue following the stream, and then she left to continue her ride.
Neil and I took the woman’s advice and, sure enough, we soon heard the tell-tale sound of cascading water.
At last, a waterfall!
Mission somewhat accomplished! No Roman bridge, but we’ll take what we can get.
Next stop, Inverness! Neil and I made it in time to pick up our apartment keys. But finding somewhere in this small city that was still serving dinner after 8:00 pm was a little trickier. We went for a short walk along the River Ness and, luckily, found a pub where we ordered a couple of pot pies. (Again, sorry for the poor quality of the photos below. Once again, I left my main camera behind and only brought my phone).
To my delight, the Ness Bridge was beautifully lit with pink, yellow, orange and green lights.
That’s it for now! It was definitely a full day, with lots of adventure. And the following day would turn out to be even busier… Thank you for reading!