Ossian’s Hall

Ossian's Hall

Contributor: Jonathan Falla

Location: Old Military Road, by Dunkeld, Perth & Kinross PH8 0JR, Scotland UK

Overlooking a small but dramatic waterfall complete with leaping salmon, there stands this curious stone gazebo or folly, reached by a pleasant woodland walk. Originally named the Hermitage, as ‘Ossian’s Hall’ this became one of the most visited sites in all Romantic Scotland.

After the battle at Culloden ended the Jacobite risings in 1746, the Scottish Highlands began to attract tourists drawn to their stark beauty. Roads were so poor, however, that for many visitors it was enough to make a ‘Petit Tour’ from Perth fifteen miles north to the pretty cathedral town of Dunkeld, enclosed by forests. Much of the land here was owned by John Murray, future 3rd Duke of Atholl, who in the 1750s developed a pleasure park with magnificent trees around the Braan, a torrent which flows into the River Tay at Dunkeld.

No architect is identified for the ‘hermitage’ built there in 1758, but shortly afterwards William Wrighte published his Grotesque Architecture, or Rural Amusement, consisting of plans and elevations for huts, retreats, summer and winter hermitages… cascades etc. …many of which may be executed with flints, irregular stones, rude branches, and roots of trees. Wrighte’s pattern-book included a “Hermit’s Cell with two seating alcoves and a skull over the door as a memento mori”. So John Murray’s Hermitage was certainly fashionable.

The building of any hermitage begged the question: where’s the hermit? The vogue for the professional recluse had been established by the mid-18th century, and may be traced back to Queen Caroline at Richmond in the 1730s. Hermits were installed at fashionable landscaped properties, employed to go barefoot, to dress in sackcloth or leaves, and to pop out and shake a fist in order to thrill smart society visitors and frighten the ladies, while dispensing prophetic wisdom. Wealthy patrons would advertise the job, and contracts might specify a term of seven years with a handsome fee payable upon completion. Not all hermits were so austere: in 1756, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was installed in a comfortable ‘Hermitage’ outside Paris by his patron Madame d’Epinay, while in 1762 Frederick the Great contemplated building another hermitage especially for Rousseau. The hermit lived at a frontier where civilisation teetered dangerously into the wild, but in tasteful locations like the Dunkeld Hermitage, nature could be enhanced and thereby controlled even as it was made more imposing.

Then, in 1760, the craze for the bogus Highland bard Ossian and his verses swept Europe. In 1783 the building was renamed Ossian’s Hall, while nearby features became Ossian’s Cave and Ossian’s Seat. (Ossian’s supposed grave is in the Sma’ Glen, some seventeen miles away.) A visit became de rigueur for Romantic tourists, although a leading proponent of the picturesque, the Revd William Gilpin, visiting the falls in 1789, scoffed at the building’s effects:

… the panes of the windows are in part composed of red and green glass which to those who have never seen deceptions of this kind give a new and surprising effect, turning the water into a cataract of fire, or a cascade of liquid vertigrease [verdigris]. But such decorations are tricks below the dignity of scenes like this.

In 1801 J. M. W. Turner sketched the scene. Coleridge, storming around Scotland on foot in September 1803, missed the Hermitage by half a mile, but two days beforehand (September 8th) Dorothy and William Wordsworth had arrived in a ‘jaunting car’ driven by William. Dorothy was most amused by the visual gimmicks and sliding panels of Ossian’s Hall:

The waterfall, which we came to see, warned us by a loud roaring that we must expect it; we were first, however, conducted into a small apartment, where the gardener desired us to look at a painting of the figure of Ossian, which… disappeared, parting in the middle, flying asunder as if by the touch of magic, and lo! we are at the entrance of a splendid room, which was almost dizzy and alive with waterfalls, that tumbled in all directions—the great cascade, which was opposite to the window that faced us, being reflected in innumerable mirrors upon the ceiling and against the walls. We both laughed heartily, which, no doubt, the gardener considered as high commendation; for he was very eloquent in pointing out the beauties of the place.

Perhaps William’s laughter was somewhat forced. Returning in 1814, he wrote a withering ‘effusion’ criticising –

… the intrusive Pile, ill-graced
With baubles of theatric taste…
I mused; and, thrusting for redress,
Recoiled into the wilderness.

(An Effusion in the Pleasure-Ground on the Banks of the River Bran, Near Dunkeld.)

Date: 1757-8

Creator: built for John Murray, later 3rd Duke of Atholl, architect unknown. Renovated in 2007

Subject: Romantic landscapes

Media rights: Photo by Isabell Buenz

Object type: small stone building

Owner: National Trust for Scotland

References

Leask, Nigel (2016), Fingalian Topographies: Ossian & the Highland Tour, 1760-1805 in, Journal for Eighteenth Century Studies, 39 (2) June 2016, pp. 183-196.
Available at: www.researchgate.net/publication/303359442

Smout, T.C. (1982), Tours in the Scottish Highlands from the eighteenth to the twentieth century in, Northern Scotland (journal) vol.5 (first series), p.99-122. Jan 1982. Edinburgh University Press.

Wordsworth, Dorothy (1874), Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland AD 1803. ed. J.C.Shairp. Edinburgh, Edmonston & Douglas. Available at: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/28880/28880-h/28880-h.htm

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