Leven (Loch), pp.258-260.

[Gazetteer of Scotland Contents]

   LEVEN (LOCH),1 a beautiful expanse of water, in the immediate neighbourhood of the burgh of Kinross, and in the south-east quarter of the small shire of that name. Its circumference is about 10 or 11 miles; and its bosom is studded with several little islands, which break the uniformity of its surface and increase its beauty. The general character of the scenery which surrounds it is soft and gentle, and not altogether deficient in variety. The vale of Kinross environs it on the west and north-west, with all its variety of plantations, arable and pasture-fields, pleasure-grounds and other materials of rural beauty. On this side, also, close to the margin of the lake, are seen the ancient town of Kinross, and Kinross-house, with its adjacent garden and grounds: see Kinross. About a mile east from this, also near the lake, are the ruins of BURLEIGH-CASTLE: which see. The plain of Orwell bounds the lake on the north; the western termination of the Lomond-hills on the north-east; and the hill of Bennarty on the south-east side. In this direction, lying between the West-Lomond hill and the low hill of Balbedie, is a level tract of carse-ground, about 3 miles in length and 1 in breadth, through which the Leven flows, after leaving the lake, towards the frith of Forth. “Loch-Leven,” says a statistical writer, “is popularly believed to be mysteriously connected with the number eleven, being eleven miles round, surrounded by eleven hills, fed by eleven streams, peopled by eleven kinds of fish, and studded by eleven islands. But some of these properties seem quite fanciful; others are untrue.” The chief islands in the lake are only two in number; the island opposite Kinross, on which the ruins of the castle stand, and the Inch of Loch-Leven, or St. Serf’s isle, near the east end, on which are the remains of a religious house. This religious house, it is alleged, must have been originally erected here upwards of a thousand years ago; but only a trifling fragment of the ruins is now left. A few sheep and cattle, which feed upon its grassy surface, are now the only inhabitants of St. Serf’s isle; but something has been done of late to improve the appearance of these islets, by transporting soil to them, and planting a few trees on them. The island on which the ruins of the castle stand is about 2 acres in extent; and here, it is said, a fortress was first built by Congal, the son of Dongart, king of the Picts. “In the wars which harassed Scotland, during the minority of David II., the castle of Loch-Leven was held in the patriotic interest by Allen de Vipont, against the troops of Edward III., who acted in behalf of Edward Baliol. John de Strivilin blockaded it, erected a fortress in the churchyard of Kinross, which occupies the point of a neighbouring promontory; and, at the lower end of the lake, where the water of Leven issues out of it, it is said, that he raised a strong and lofty bulwark, by means of which he hoped to lay the castle under water, and constrain Vipont to surrender. The water continued to rise daily, and the besiegers thought themselves certain of success, when, the English general and most of his troops having left the camp to celebrate the festival of St. Margaret at Dunfermline, the besieged, seizing the favourable opportunity, (June 19, 1335,) after much labour and perseverance, broke through the barrier, when the water rushed out with such impetuosity, as to overwhelm the English encamped on that side.” Loch-Leven, however, derives its chief historical interest from the fact of its castle having been the prison of Queen Mary, after her surrender to the confederated Lords at Carberry hill. In the reign of Robert III., a branch of the family of Douglas, had obtained a grant of the castle of Loch-Leven, with lands on the shore of the lake. In the middle of the 16th century, Sir Robert Douglas of Loch-Leven, the near kinsman of the famous James Earl of Morton, and stepfather to the equally well-known James Earl of Murray, natural brother to the Queen, was, in consequence of his connexion with the leaders of her disaffected subjects, selected as the jailer of the unfortunate Mary, who was imprisoned here on the 16th June, 1567. Here, on the 4th July following, she was visited by Lord Ruthven, Lord Lindsay of the Byres, and Sir Robert Melville, in name of the confederated lords, by whom she was forced to sign an instrument, resigning the crown to her infant son, who, a few days thereafter, was inaugurated at Stirling under the title of James VI. The scene which then occurred, as well as the subsequent escape of the Queen, have been made leading incidents, by Sir Walter Scott, in his novel of ‘The Abbot;’ and few descriptions in fictitious narrative can be compared, for graphic delineation and intense pathos, with his account of the unhappy lady’s resignation of the crown of her fathers. The leading features of his picture are, no doubt, historically true; but the filling up is entirely the work of his own creative fancy. Who that has read this narrative, and looks upon the ruins of the castle of Loch-Leven, can fail to recollect this admirable piece of historical painting – for so we are entitled to call it: the tears of the defenceless Queen, the determination of Ruthven, and the stern rudeness of old Lindsay of the Byres? On the 2d of May, 1568, after an imprisonment of about eleven months, Mary effected her escape from the castle, by the aid of a young relation of the family. A previous attempt, made on the 25th of April preceding, had been discovered, and George Douglas, the younger son of Sir Robert, was expelled the castle for being concerned in it. Nothing daunted, however, she still meditated her escape; and George Douglas, continuing to hover in the neighbourhood, was enabled to keep up a correspondence with her, and with others in the castle. “There was in the castle,” says Sir Walter Scott in a note to ‘The Abbot,’ “a lad, named William Douglas, some relation probably of the baron, and about eighteen years old. This youth proved as accessible to Queen Mary’s prayers and promises as the brother of his patron George Douglas.” This young man stole the keys of the castle from the table where they lay, while his lord was at supper.” He let the Queen and a waiting-woman out of the apartment where they were secured, and out of the door itself, embarked with them in a small skiff, and rowed them to the shore. To prevent instant pursuit, he, for precaution’s sake, locked the iron grated door of the tower, and threw the keys into the lake.2 They found George Douglas and the Queen’s servant, Beaton, waiting for them, and Lord Seyton and James Hamilton of Orbieston in attendance, at the head of a party of faithful followers, with whom they fled to Niddrie castle, and from thence to Hamilton.” Tradition still points out the spot on the south side of the lake where Queen Mary landed: it is at some distance from Kinross, in which town her opponents were quartered. Her subsequent defeat at Langside, and her immediate flight into England, were within a few days, the unfortunate result of her long-meditated, and well-executed escape from Loch-Leven.3 

   The castle of Loch-Leven with its court-yard occupied a considerable portion of the island: the remaining portion was chiefly occupied by the garden. It is now a mere waste, but it still exhibits a few fruit trees in a wild and decayed state. The court-yard, formerly rank with nettles and hemlock, was cleared out in the summer of 1840, and the accumulated soil removed from different parts of the buildings. The great tower, or keep, of the castle, stood in the north-west corner of the court-yard, on the side of the island next Kinross. It is of a square form, four stories in height, the walls being upwards of six feet thick. The entrance is in the second story, and must have been ascended to by an outside stair, having probably a drawbridge at top; but all vestiges of this stair have now disappeared. The door opened at once into the great hall of the castle, which occupied the whole of the second flat of the building. Immediately within the door-way, and at the entrance to the hall, is a square opening into the vaults below, which must have been covered with wood. The intention of this seems obviously to have been an additional means of defence; because, though after all the outworks had been gained by the enemy, and the defences to the door of the keep forced, the garrison, occupying the hall, could have thrown down this opening any of the assailants who might attempt to cross it. The two upper stories of the keep appear to have been occupied as bedchambers. The court-yard, which was of considerable extent, and surrounded by high walls flanked at the corners by towers, contained a variety of buildings for the accommodation of the family and the garrison. Among these, not the least important was the chapel, which stood west of the great tower, and on the west side of the court-yard. At the south-east corner is a round tower which flanks and must have defended the south and east walls, in which it is said Queen Mary was confined. Of course, there is only the authority of tradition for this; but if it was the case, the poor lady had but small accommodation during her imprisonment. The entrance to the court-yard was by an arched door-way in the north wall, immediately adjoining the great tower, by which it was consequently entirely commanded. The island on which the castle stands, is at no great distance from the western shore of the lake; and between it and the point of a promontory on that side, a causeway of large stones runs beneath the water, which is here so shallow, that, in dry seasons when the surface is low, a man can wade along this extraordinary pavement. How such a work was executed, or for what purpose, it is not easy to discover. The trout produced in Loch-Leven are of acknowledged excellence. The following remarks regarding this fish are from the Statistical report:- “The high flavour and bright red colour of the trout, seem evidently to arise from the food which nature has provided for them in the loch. A considerable part of the bottom is oozy and spongy, from which aquatic herbs spring up in abundance; and so vigorous are they in many parts as, towards the beginning of autumn, to cover the surface with their flowers. The trouts, especially when large, lie much in that kind of bottom; and gentlemen accustomed to make observations in angling, know well that, even in clear running rivers, where their course takes a direction through a long tract of meadow or oozy ground, the trout which feed on that ground, if of size, are generally more or less of a pink colour in the flesh. But what appears to contribute most to the rich taste of Loch-Leven trout, is the vast quantity of a small shell-fish, red in its colour, which abounds all over the bottom of the lake, especially among the aquatic weeds. The trouts, when caught, have often their stomachs full of them. These observations may account for a phenomenon of another kind. In Loch-Leven are all the different species of hill, or burn, or river-trout, that are to be met with in Scotland, evidently appearing from the different manner in which they are spotted. Yet all these different kinds, after being two years in the loch, and arriving at three quarters or a pound weight, are red in the flesh, as all the trout of every kind in the loch are, except, perhaps, those newly brought down by floods, and such as are sickly. The silver grey trout, with about four or five spots on the middle of each side, is apparently the original native of the loch, and, in many respects, the finest fish of the whole.” The fishing is alleged to have been considerably injured by a partial draining of the loch which has been effected at an enormous expense, but with a disproportionate beneficial result – the value of the land reclaimed amounting to little more than the cost of the works. The height of the loch being considerably reduced, it was feared at one time that the small island containing the castle, would become joined to the main land by the subsiding of the water, and would lose its classic associations by becoming a suburb of Kinross. The appearance of the island, by being raised higher out of the loch than before, is,’ however, much improved, while the dark and massy ruins of the castle still frown over the silvery waters of the lake as in days of yore. – The annual average rise and fall on the loch is about 3 feet; but in the autumn of 1839 it rose 15 inches within 48 hours. 

1  “The name, Lochleven, finely discriminates its gentle imagery, Llwc, BRIT., Loch, GAEL., signify ‘a lake,’ ‘an inlet of the sea,’ ‘a large diffusion of inland water.’ Llyvn, Llyvyn, BRIT., ‘smooth,’ ‘even,’ ‘level;’ Leamhain, GAEL., mh as v, ‘smooth,’ ‘plain,’ ‘even;’ Llwc-LIyvn, Loch-Leavain, ‘the lake of the tranquil or waveless water.’ Perhaps from Llwyven, BRIT., ‘an elm,’ or Llwyvin, ‘belonging to, or abounding with elm-trees,’ Loch-Leven may have been denominated ‘the Lake of Elms;’ and, probably, of old, these trees may have been numerous on its shores.” – Kennedy’sGlenochel,’ vol. i. p. 144. 

2  A bunch of large keys, supposed to be those thrown into the lake on this occasion, were discovered in the month of October, 1806, on the sandy shore of the lake, near Kinross-house. Another bunch of eight ancient keys were found, a few years ago, in the bed of the lake, between the old church-yard of Kinross, and a small island about half-a-mile from the castle. 

3  Queen Mary was not the only prisoner of eminence who had been confined in this castle. The Earl of Northumberland, after his rebellion in England, having been seized in Scotland, was confined in it for three years, from 1569 to 1572, when he was basely given up to Elizabeth, by whom he was executed. 

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