In the 18th century the Campbell family, Earls of Breadalbane, embellished the park around the family seat at Taymouth with temples and mock forts, complementing the natural beauties of the surrounding hills and the River Tay that flows through the estate. Just a couple of miles away, on the shores of Loch Tay, was a more dramatic feature, a rustic shelter and a roaring cascade, which added a sublime element to the beautiful policies of Taymouth.
An exact date for the construction of The Hermitage is not known, but it was extant in 1769 when the traveller and naturalist Thomas Pennant admired the ‘hermitage, the great cataracts adjacent, and the darksome chasm beneath’. Contemporary accounts suggest that the building was the creation of John Campbell (1738-1771), son of the 3rd Earl of Breadalbane, and his wife Wilhelmina (1741-1786), who were styled Lord and Lady Glenorchy. They married in 1761, so the Hermitage was most likely built soon after that date, and was quite new when Pennant saw it.
Most visitors arrived by carriage, but the more intrepid could hire a boat and sail down Loch Tay to a jetty close to the falls. A guide met visitors and led them along a wooded walk and then into a dark, rugged passage.
Senses suitably excited by the gloomy tunnel, the visitor could then gasp in awe as they entered the chamber and found a bow window framing the waterfall ‘in all its splendour’.
The Hermitage, as it has always been known, was built to appear as a cave hewn out of solid rock, although it is actually a carefully constructed sham, with thatch and moss originally disguising the mode of construction.
The earliest 18th century accounts give little mention of the interior, but by 1786 the Hermitage was decorated in a whimsical style as home to an (imaginary) hermit. The seats and bed were dressed with the pelts of wild animals, and the walls were covered in moss and ‘ornament’d with shellwork and plaister in imitation of fruit – which is supposed to be the Hermit’s food’. There was also a shelf of books, which the fictional solitary occupant could apparently peruse to enrich his mind. But this artifice was unconvincing, and in 1803 Dorothy Wordsworth was not fooled, noting that the volumes were wood wrapped with old leather covers. She did however admire the ‘quaint apartment’ and the ‘beautiful prospect’ from the window which took in not only the waterfall, but also the handsome village of Kenmore and Loch Tay (now blocked by trees, but visible from the paths up and down from the Hermitage).
Not everyone shared the general consensus that the building was ‘rural and romantic’. The Reverend James Plumptre was conducted to the Hermitage in 1799 and found the place ‘much too modern and magnificent’ to house a hermit retiring from the world, although he conceded that a ‘London Hermit’ might be quite at home. William Gilpin, the great exponent of the picturesque, was less critical, but felt the Hermitage unnecessary as the waterfall was perfectly capable of enchanting without it.
Many more visitors recorded their visit in poetry and prose, including the famed Robert Burns. On a tour of Scotland in 1787 he visited the Falls of Acharn and composed the poem originally called ‘Written in the Hermitage at Taymouth’, featuring the lines:
Poetic ardours in my bosom swell,
Lone wandering by the hermit’s mossy cell…
This poem was later published as ‘Verses written with a pencil over the chimney-piece, in the parlour of the inn at Kenmore, Taymouth’.
In the middle of the 19th century these lines could still be seen by guests at the inn (as indeed they can today), but for added drama visitors to the Hermitage could hear them recited by the guide, who whilst they were distracted by a first sight of the falls, had slipped into a mask and a costume and ‘came forth personifying an eremite’. Wearing a ‘dress of shaggy goatskin’ and a ‘long and venerable beard of lichens’ the guide appeared ‘to the amusement, and sometimes the alarm, of his visitors’.
The Marquis of Breadalbane was later reported to have wanted to instal a permanent hermit, but ‘no-one could be found bold enough to act out the part’, and anyway candidates would have known that it was much more lucrative to be a loquacious guide and extract tips from the many English visitors: in 1857 it was written that ‘Milk and honey flow abundantly from the lips of the genuine Celtic cicerone; and hard-hearted must the Sassenach be who does not feel the effects of the soft sawder in the most sensitive part of his person, his breeches pocket’.
In 1842 it was reported that the Hermitage had ‘undergone a scrubbing’ in preparation for a visit by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Sadly this work appears to have been in vain, for whilst the young queen recorded her pleasure at being rowed up Loch Tay with ‘the pipes playing, & boatmen singing old Gaelic songs’, she makes no mention of a visit to see the cascade.
The modern visitor approaches just as the early tourist did. A walk up a ‘steep and rugged path’, followed by a pause to get one’s breath back, and then a moment to gaze ‘with wonder and amazement at the ‘magnificent landscape’ before entering the Hermitage to view the cascade. Sadly, the Hermitage was damaged in a storm in the 1950s: the roof is long gone, and the shellwork interior lost, but this remains an enchanting spot.
Taymouth Castle is currently being renovated as an hotel, but visitors are free to walk in the park. There’s a delightful circular walk to the falls from the hamlet of Acharn.
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