Plate XXXIX., Hermitage at Dunkeld, pp.77-79.

[Scotland Illustrated Contents]


THERE is not a more picturesque stream in Perthshire than the Bran. This turbulent and impetuous tributary of the placid Tay issues from the eastern end of Loch Freuchie, and flowing through Strathbran in a north-east direction, falls into the Tay, a little above Dunkeld bridge, after a course of about fourteen miles. In the upper part of its course, the volume of water which it bears from the parent-loch is augmented by numerous tributaries, which descend on either side from a wild tract of immense extent, composed of hills, moors, and glens; and which, after heavy rains, pour an immense and sudden flood of water into its rugged channel. On the peninsula formed by the junction of the Tay and its tributary, stands the village of Invar; and about half-a-mile from the ferry of Invar, is the scene our artist has attempted to depict.

Proceeding up the banks of the Bran, we soon reach an extensive enclosure, with walks winding through shrubbery, and intersecting an elaborate, flower-adorned parterre. One of these leads to the small Summer-house or Hermitage – as it is somewhat inappropriately named for the style of building – represented in our sketch as abutting on the precipitous verge of the river-bank, and here the guide introduces us into a small circular vestibule, lighted from the top, where a large painting of Ossian, singing the songs of ancient times to the accompaniment of his harp, arrests our attention. While engaged ourselves at the entrance of a second and larger apartment, of an oblong form, terminating at the further end in a large bow window, and the walls and roof of which are covered with mirrors, wherein are multiplied and reflected in all directions the flashing waters of a noble cataract formed by the Bran, after it has rushed, in a continued rapid, for two or three hundred yards over a narrow rocky bed. “The two rocky cheeks of the river,” says Gilpin, “almost uniting, compress the stream into a very narrow compass, and the channel, which descends abruptly, taking also a sudden turn, the water suffers more than common violence through the double resistance it receives from compression and obliquity. Its efforts to disengage itself have, in a course of ages, undermined, disjointed, and fractured the rock in a thousand different forms; and have filled the whole channel of the descent with fragments of uncommon magnitude, which are the more easily established, one upon the broken edges of another, as the fall is rather inclined than perpendicular. Down this abrupt channel the whole stream in foaming violence forcing its way, through the peculiar and happy situation of the fragments, which oppose its course, forms one of the grandest and most beautiful cascades we had ever seen. At the bottom it has worn an abyss, in which the wheeling waters suffer a new agitation, though of a different kind. This whole scene and its accompaniments, are not only grand, but picturesquely beautiful in the highest degree. The composition is perfect; but yet the parts are so intricate, so various, and so complicated, that I never found any piece of nature less obvious to imitation. It would cost the readiest pencil a summer-day to bring off a good resemblance. My poor tool was so totally disheartened, that I could not bring it even to make an attempt. The broad features of a mountain, the shape of a country, or the line of a lake, are matters of easy execution; a trifling error escapes notice; but these high-finished pieces of Nature’s more complicated workmanship, in which the beauty, in a great degree, consists in the finishing, and in which every touch is expressive – especially the spirit, activity, clearness, and variety of agitated water – are among the most difficult efforts of the pencil. When a cascade falls in a pure unbroken sheet it is an object of less beauty indeed, but of much easier imitation.” The Hermitage is placed on a point of the rock forty feet above the bottom of the fall, and is constructed in such a manner that the spectator, in approaching the cascade, may remain entirely ignorant of his vicinity to it, until it is made to burst at once upon his vision by the artifice now described, – the good taste of which, however, is at least questionable. Wordsworth has denounced the whole affair in a very lofty and indignant strain:

“What He – who, mid the kindred throng
Of heroes that inspired his song,
Doth yet frequent the hill of storms,
The stars dim-twinkling through their forms!
What! Ossian here – a painted thrall,
Mute fixture on a stuccoed wall;
To serve – an unsuspected screen
For show that must not yet be seen;
And, when the moment comes, to part
And vanish by mysterious art, –
Head, harp, and body, split asunder,
For ingress to a world of wonder;
A gay saloon, with waters dancing
Upon the sight wherever glancing;
One loud cascade in front, and lo!
A thousand like it, white as snow,
Streams on the walls, and torrent-foam
As active round the hollow dome,
Illusive cataracts! of their terrors
Not stripped nor voiceless in the mirrors,
That catch the pageant from the flood
Thundering adown a rocky wood.
What pains to dazzle and confound!
What strife of colour, shape, and sound
In this quaint medley, that might seem
Devised out of a sick man’s dream!
Strange scene, fantastic and uneasy
As ever made a maniac dizzy,
When disenchanted from the mood
That loves on solemn thoughts to brood!
“O Nature! in thy changeful visions,
Through all thy most abrupt transitions,
Smooth, graceful, tender, or sublime –
Ever averse to pantomime,
Thee neither do they know nor us
Thy servants, who can trifle thus;
Else verily the sober powers
Of rock that frowns, and stream that roars,
Exalted by congenial sway
Of spirits, and the undying lay
And names that moulder not away,
Had wakened some redeeming thought
More worthy of this favoured spot,
Recalled some feeling, to set free
The Bard from such indignity!”

On the other hand, a traveller of undisputed taste and high genius, considers the device of the Hermitage one of the most ingenious and pleasing ornaments to rural scenery he ever beheld. “If it be objected” – says Dr. E. D. Clarke – “that machinery-contrivance of this sort wears too much the appearance of scenic representation, I should reply, that as scenic representation I admire it, and as the finest specimen of that species of exhibition, which doubtlessly, without the aid of such deception, would have been destitute of half the effect it is now calculated to produce.” It is not for us to decide the controversy here raised; though we could have wished, with the tasteful and high-souled bard whose verses we have quoted, that some less noble form than that of the reputed father, real or imaginary, of Scottish heroic song had been made

“Mute fixture on the stuccoed wall.”

And this part of the exhibition, too, is of recent device: the junction of the apartments having been formerly effected by the simple expedient of suddenly throwing open a large door. The introduction of the mirrors appears to us of much less questionable taste; and few will regret the removal of the red and green coloured panes of glass with which the window of the larger apartment was at one time ornamented, and which afforded at best but a childish amusement in the effect they produced of turning the water into “a cataract of fire, or a cascade of liquid verdigris.”

Our painter appears to have thought with Gilpin that the cascade itself was “beyond the reach of art;” but he has chosen a very pleasing point of view on the Bran, a little below the Hermitage, where the stream glides through a chasm of the rocks across which a simple but pleasing arch is thrown, which, in the artistical treatment of the subject, is made to form a link in the composition of the picture, – connecting the breadth of light that is preserved upon the rocks which receive the sunshine with the mass of shadow on the opposite bank.

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