The Hermitage on the River Carron

The remains of the Hermitage (SMR 1250 – NS 7563 8438) located adjacent to the spectacular waterfalls on the River Carron known as Auchinlillylinn Spout can still be seen.  It was built as a retreat by Robert Hill of Edinburgh in 1801 and was described by the parish minster in 1841:

“In the division called Temple Denny, and within a mile of the new bridge over Carron, on the road to Fintry, about five miles west from Denny, there is a cascade called Auchinlilly-lin spout. In the first year of the present century, the wild natural beauties of the spot were transformed into a sort of fairy-land, by the genius of Robert Hill, Esq. W.S. Edinburgh, who had purchased the lands of Forrest Hill, of which it is a part. A rustic cottage of whinstone, with the angular points facing one in all directions, was built on the very margin of a deep fissure, through which the waters of Carron flow, to be tossed over the rock of Auchinlilly, within perhaps six yards of the heath-covered cottage. There were a kitchen, a cellar, and other apartments; and also a stable was dug chiefly out of the rock, below the level of the floor of the cottage. On that floor, were a handsome dining-room, drawing room, and two small bed-rooms. A spacious window in the dining room fronted, westward, the rushing waters as they fell over the rock into the fissure, in their course to the spout. The river was seen, for some way up its channel, diffused in comparative largeness of expansion, and studded with tiny rocks, which might be reached when the waters were low. At other times, the river, swollen by the rains around the Muckle Bin, from which it takes its rise, and by the various feeders of the Carron between the Bin and Auchinlilly, rushing forward in roaring majesty, presented a magnificent spectacle from the dining-room window.”

(Dempster 1941).

The setting is truly spectacular.  The name of Auchinlilly–linn Spout (“field of the overflowing torrent and pool”) is an old one.  When the river is in flood and a triumphant torrent sweeps down the glen this cascade is unsurpassed among Scottish streams for the grandeur of its storm of spray.

The heather for the roof was grown in Slamannan:

“Dear Sir, you will, I hope have the goodness to forgive me for the freedom I thus use in troubling you and I shall also consider it as a very particular favour if you grant me the liberty of pulling as much heather on a piece of moss part of your Estate of Callander near Slamannan as will thatch a small hermitage I am building in Carronside in Stirlingshire I have the honour to be with much respect Dr Sir Your most hbe St Robert Hill Edinr 13 May 1801″

[Forbes Papers 714/39]

The banks on each side of the river were planted; walks were made along their sloping sides, with resting places at proper stations, for enjoying the picturesque beauties of the scene. A carriage way from the turnpike, from Denny to Fintry, was formed down to the cottage.  A bridge of plank, close to the spout, was thrown over the fissure, which divides Denny parish from St Ninians, to give access to the garden on the other side.”

(Dempster 1841).

The romance of the location was enhanced by its association with Lady Randolph in John Hume’s play the ‘Tragedy of Douglas.’  This work was considered to be one of the triumphs of Scottish literature in the late 18th century and its fame continued for a century and a half.  The relevant section in which Lady Randolph represents the Hermitage as being haunted by the ghost of Douglas is:

“Lady Randolph:	Remember’st thou a little, lonely hut
			That, like a holy hermitage appears
			Among the cliffs of Carron?
Norval:			I remember
			The Cottage of the Cliffs.
Lady Randolph:		‘Tis that I mean,
			There dwells a man of venerable age,
			Who, in my father’s service, spent his youth.

The play was based upon Herbertshire Castle and its environs but was never meant to be a historical document.  It embellished existing stories and added new ones.

Hill leased the building out to tenants so that it would be maintained.  A series of letters by “S.B.” who resided at the Hermitage appear in the Stirling Journal about December 1822 (Falkirk Archives a1.114, pt 13).  Hill became insolvent in 1826 and his assets were transferred to his creditors.  The Lands of Foresthill in Denny containing about 160 acres of arable, pasture and haugh lands, including some thriving plantations and the COTTAGE OF THE CLIFFS and the woody banks of the Carron surrounding it, were put up for sale (Edinburgh Evening Courant 21 April 1828, 1). It was presumably during Hill’s ownership that the next incident mentioned in the Statistical Account happened:

On one occasion, the stream, having suddenly risen much above its usual elevation, struck the dining-room window with its surges and, increasing, burst through the window, and rushing into the kitchen and cellar, made a new cataract over the rock adjoining the spout, into the channel of the river. No lives were lost. The damage was speedily repaired, and to prevent future such accidents, a deep excavation in the rock was made in front of the cottage, through to its vast rocky banks, sufficient to receive any future overflowings. It was arched over, and thereby easy access, as formerly, to the entrance to the cottage was provided.”

It was by then a residence and continued as such for several years. 

For a time, it was the resort of the curious, who came even from a distance to see and enjoy the scenery of the Cliffs of Carron, the name by which it was known.  A mother’s fear for her offspring, amidst so many perils, soon made the amiable and accomplished lady of the property, a stranger to its beauties.  The last interesting inhabitant of this once enchanting and still beautifully wild place, was the widowed sister of the amiable Graham, the Sabbath poet [Rev James Grahame 1765-1811]. Since she left it, some dozen years ago, it has gradually decayed, and has at present only the ruins of its beauty remaining. It is now the property of Archibald Wishart, Esq. W.S. Deputy-Keeper of the Register of Sasines, Edinburgh.”

(John Dempster 1841, p.118-9)

It had thankfully already been abandoned when, in 1840, a reservoir near the Carron Bog broke through its embankments and the heavy down-rush of water carried away much of the masonry of the deserted house.  The reservoir had been erected by a collective of mill owners at Denny.

The remoteness of the spot meant that many people were unaware of the origins of the Hermitage and found it difficult to discern fact from legend.  In the mid-1860s a typically romantic poetic view was taken of it:

Far up the glen, upon a rock
Uncut by human hands,
‘Mid Carron’s waters rushing wild,
An aged ruin stands.

It cannot boast of storied towers, -
Of old ancestral halls;
No sculptured stone the story tells
Of these old ivied walls.

Yet, in that “little, lonely hut;”
A hermit once did dwell;
His days he spent in solitude,
But, why? I cannot tell.

There’s nought of Art adorns the place
Where the old man did live,
Yet there’s a beauty in that scene
Which Art can never give.

I’ve seen it on a summer’s day,
When Nature’s face was fair,
And Nature with a lavish hand
Hath scattered beauty there.

The birds sang wildly through the glen,
While weary hummed the laden bee,
And many a flower decked Carron’s stream,
As Carron murmured to the sea.

I’ve seen it on a winter’s day,
Beneath a stormy, troubled sky;
The wild winds sadly moaned around,
While Carron’s waters thundered by.

No music now doth cheer the glen,
No longer hums the laden bee;
There’s not a flower by Carron’s stream,
Which rushed wildly to the sea.

Ah, then, it was a fearful place;
For, with the water’s falling round,
It seemed as if some spirit free
Had thrown an awful charm around.

I wonder who that old man was?
And why he here did dwell?
And how he lived? And how he died?
But no! – I cannot tell.

[JBW, Dunipace]
Illus: the top of the Auchenlillylinn Spout.

Visitors at the period were few but enthusiastic.  Amongst them was Robert Gillespie who in 1879 published his book ‘Round About Falkirk’ in which he says:

The ruins of the Hermitage, too, are to be seen firm as any rock in the centre of the stream.  During the summer months, this secluded nook is naturally a great resort of local pic-nic parties… Opposite the Hermitage previously spoken of, the road for a short distance is pleasantly shaded.  The path, indeed, to the river ruins is through a sequestered wood-land, and as yet so rarely traversed that it lies completely concealed in grass. Nor is there any free entrance into the plantation. A stone dyke, or at best a rustic gate, must be mounted and overlegged.  But once down upon the Carron, the scene in its wild rocky grandeur must take many, as it did ourselves, by surprise.  It is, from river bank to river bed, a strikingly picturesque spot.  The Hermitage, now utterly desolate – roof fallen, windows gone, and crumbling gables ivy and lichen draped – …is a most romantic building, and was regularly occupied until 1840… Directly in front of the Hermitage ruins, westward, the waters of the Carron break off violently to the north and south, and, leaping over a rocky ledge in two splendid cascades, rumble and foam through a deep ravine for a spray-wreathed cauldron, from which, with deafening din, they speed on buoyantly in their seaward course

(Gillespie 1879, 95, 97-8).

From this time the site was much frequented by groups and societies from the Central belt in search of a picturesque picnic venue and by botanists.  In 1888 an otter was spotted at the site.  The tranquil, almost sacred, nature of the glen also attracted religious groups.  The Glasgow association of Spiritualists visited Hermitage; arriving by rail at Castlecary they then took three brakes to the Hermitage provided by D Anderson.  He was a relative of the local farmer.  Thirty gratefitters from Larbert Foundry visited and had refreshments at Anderson’s Farm followed by dancing in an old barn to the music of a piper and a fiddler.

Artists too sought out the rugged natural landscape.  One of their paintings, described as “valuable” came up for sale, also in 1888, at Dennyloanhead Cottage (Falkirk Herald 26 May 1888, 4).  One artist in particular had good reason to remember her visit to the mossy ruin.  Miss Jessie Young, mistress of the Muirmill School, under the St Ninians Board, had been sketching at the Hermitage accompanied by her sister.  She was crossing the river to return home when she fell over the Hermitage cliff, falling a distance of 20ft or so, breaking a leg and sustaining injury to her ribs.  Fortunately her fall was broken by coming into contact with a tree.  Her sister obtained assistance and the injured lady was removed with difficulty to a farmhouse where medical aid was called (Falkirk Herald 17 May 1893, 2).  Other potential hazards of the location were pointed out a few years later

All visiting the Hermitage should note that the cliff overlooking the fall and linn is breaking away, and decidedly dangerous.  Many people sit on the top.  Don’t, after this, as it may drop any time

(Falkirk Herald 13 May 1905, 5).

By the 1880s it had been realised that if this power was harnessed by a turbine to generate electricity, rather than a water wheel directly attached to machinery, it could be used remotely.  The power of the torrent of water cascading over the Hermitage falls “where sufficient power can be obtained to generate an electric current sufficient to light the entire district of Denny at a minimum cost” was also noted by the local industries.  Distance remained a factor in the economics of this possibility as also did the scenic value of the falls.  John Collins of Stoneywood and Herbertshire Paper Mills had clearly wanted to install a turbine at Auchenlillylinn Spout but instead settled in 1887 for a dam across the river near his works so that he could introduce electric light there (Falkirk Herald 5 February 1887, 5).

Illus: Ordnance Survey Map surveyed 1861, published 1885 (National Library of Scotland).

Description

The building is rectangular in shape, c12m by 10m, with its western wall set within a couple of metres of the rock precipice.  The walls are of whinstone laid as random rubble with eroded pink sandstone quoins. The north-east corner still (2006) survives to a height of c8m, but most of the walls are just under 1m high.  The sill of a large picture window overlooking the waterfall is still in place. The 1st edition Ordnance Survey map shows the building to contain four rooms and most of these walls can still be traced.  The interior of the NW room is cut into the bedrock to form a cellar.

The building is placed on an “island” in the river, with the narrow rock gorge of the main stream to its west, the wider river to the north and a smaller (overflow) channel to the south and east.  The smaller channel is clearly manmade and the chisel marks can be seen on its sides and square base.

The building is largely obscured by the growth of trees making photography well-nigh impossible.

Bibliography

Dempster, J.1841New Statistical Account for Denny.
Gillespie, R.    1868Round about Falkirk.

G.B. Bailey, 2022