Loch Leven

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

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Leven, Loch ('lake of the leamhan' or elm-tree), a lake in the SE of the county of kinross and lying wholly in the parish of Kinross, though the parishes of Orwell and Portmoak skirt its N, NE, S, and SW parts. The general outline may be described as an irregular oval lying from NW to SE, and with a wide square-mouthed bay opening obliquely off on the SW side towards the burgh of Kinross, or it may be described as heart-shaped, with the broad end which has the right-hand lobe larger than the left-hand lobe to the NW, and the small end to the SE. The length from the extreme NW to the mouth of the river Leven is 35/8 miles, and the width at the broadest part, midway between Castle Island and St Serf's Island, is 2 miles. The bay already mentioned on the S W side measures ¾ mile on a line across the mouth due N of the point E of the burgh of Kinross, and extends the same distance to the W of this line. It probably occupies a rock basin with its true margin obscured by drift. The depth, except close inshore, varies from 10 to 20 feet, but reaches, in some places, 90 feet; the mean height of the water above sea-level is 353 feet; and the area is 3406 acres. It was formerly considerably larger, the length being 4 miles, the width 3, and the extent about 4506 acres, but, in 1826, an Act of Parliament was obtained in order to allow a depth of 9 feet to be dealt with, 4½ feet being drained entirely, and benefiting the surrounding proprietors, though principally on the E side, to the extent of about 1100 acres, while other 4½ feet was to be given up to the mill-owners along the river to form a reservoir entirely under their own control, and compensating them for the supply that might be lost by the drainage operations. The land reclaimed is sandy and not very valuable, but the storage operations prevent the excess of winter-rain from flowing off in heavy and destructive floods as was formerly the case. The quantity of water stored up when the surface of the loch is at its full height is about 600,000,000 cubic feet, and this, with what is constantly added by inflowing streams, is sufficient, except in very dry seasons, to provide a regular supply of 5000 cubic feet per minute. The loch receives the drainage of almost the whole of Kinross-shire, the basin of which it receives the rainfall being, above the sluices at the opening of the river Leven, 39,204 acres, over which the average rainfall is about 36 inches. The principal streams that enter it are the North Queich, at the N-W end; the Ury Burn, N of Kinross; the South Queich and Gelly Burn, S of Kinross; and Gairney Water, W of St Serf's Island; and the surplus water is carried off by the river Leven, which issues from the SE end. The drainage operations were carried out between 1826 and 1836 under the superintendence of the late Mr Jardine of Edinburgh, and the lowering of the level of the water was effected by cutting at a very low level a new course for the river Leven-this, known as the `New Cut,' extends from the end of the loch for 3 miles down the river in a straight line to Auchinmoor bridge, and the regulation of the flow of the stored water is managed by powerful sluices erected at the point where the river leaves the loch. The total cost was about £40,000. There are seven islands, of which the largest is St Serf's Island, ¾ mile from the SE end, which measures 5 by 4 furlongs at the widest part, and has an area of about 80 acres. The next largest is Castle Island, ½ mile E of the projecting point on which the old church of Kinross stands, which measures 2 furlongs by 1, and has an area of about 8 acres. Close to it are three small islands-Reed Bower to the S, Roy's Folly to the SW, and Alice's Bower NW, while about 3 furlongs N is Scart Island, and ¾ mile N by E of the latter is a small nameless island near the NW end of the loch. The island of St Serf receives its name from the ruins of a priory, the church of which had been dedicated to St Serf or Servanus, who lived about the beginning of the 8th century. The first foundation must have been made either by himself or by some of his followers soon after his death, for, according to the Register of St Andrews, the island was given by Brude, king of the Picts, in the early part of the 9th century, to God, St Servan, and the Culdee hermits serving God there; and the possessions of the community were increased by various grants from different kings and from some of the bishops of St Andrews between 1039 and 1093. Other benefactors also aided them till the early part of the 12th century, but in the course of the quarrels as to rule and discipline that then raged, they, like all the other bodies of the older Scottish church, had the worst of the battle, seeing that their foes were backed by all the weight of the royal power. Prior to 961 the brethren had given up the island to the bishop of St Andrews, so long as he should provide them with food and raiment; and in 1144, or shortly after, Bishop Robert handed the island and all their other possessions over to the newly founded order of Canons Regular of St Andrews. Some resistance was probably made to this arbitrary proceeding, since King David granted a charter conferring the island on the canons of St Andrews, that their order might be instituted in the old monastery. Any of the Culdees who chose to remain and live canonically were to be allowed to do so, but those who resisted were at once to be expelled from the place. Many of the brethren were probably driven out, and the canons of St Andrews held the place till the Reformation, and the lands passed into the possession of the Earl of Morton. A list of the books belonging to the Culdee community has been preserved in the Register of St Andrews. They were-a pastorale, a gradual, a missal, the works of Origen, the Sentences of St Bernard, a treatise on the sacraments, a portion of the Bible, a lectionary, the Acts of the Apostles, the Gospels, the works of Prosper, the Books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Canticles, a Gloss on the Canticles, a book called Interpretationes Dictionum, a collection of sentences, a commentary on Genesis, and selections of ecclesiastical rules. The priory is also known as the priory of Loch Leven, or the priory of Portmoak, the latter still being the name of the adjacent parish, and said to be derived from the first abbot, St Moak. The prior at the beginning of the 15th century was Andrew Wyntoun, author of The Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland, and the work was written here. The ruins were explored and the foundations laid bare in the end of 1877, when the remains of two bodies, supposed to be those of St Ronan and Graham (first bishop of St Andrews), were found within the area. The island is grassy, and affords pasture for a few sheep and cattle. The Castle Island was considerably increased in size by the drainage operations, and it was even feared that it would be joined to the mainland and lose its classic associations, more particularly as an ancient causeway extends from it under water to the shore. When or for what purpose this was formed is not known, but so continuous and high is it that in a dry season, when the lake is at its lowest, a man can wade along it from end to end. There is said to have been a stronghold here at a very early period, built by Congal, the son of Dongart, king of the Picts, and part of the present strength must be of considerable antiquity. During the minority of David II. it was held for him by Allan de Vipont and James Lamby, citizens of St Andrews, and was besieged by part of Baliol's forces under John de Strivilin. The English leader first erected a fort on the point where Kinross churchyard is, and tried thence to batter the castle; but, his efforts being in vain, he next tried by means of a bulwark of stones and trunks of trees to stop the narrow opening by which the Leven rushed out of the lake, so that the castle on the island might be laid under water. The water began slowly to rise, and success seemed certain, but, on 19 June 1335, while the English leader and the greater portion of his soldiers were at Dunfermline celebrating the festival of St Margaret, the defenders took advantage of the opportunity, attacked the barrier and broke part of it down, when the water rushed out with such force that it overwhelmed and whirled away a number of the English soldiers who were encamped on that side. The castle, however, derives its chief interest from its associations with Queen Mary, this being the place selected as her prison after the surrender to the confederate lords at Carberry. One of the Douglasses had obtained a grant of the lands and loch in 1353, and at this time the castle was held by Sir Robert Douglas, a near kinsman of the famous James, Earl of Morton, and stepfather of James, Earl of Murray, afterwards the regent. It was probably on account of this relationship that he was selected for such an important duty, and the Queen was consigned to his care on 17 June 1567. On 24 July following she was visited by Lord Ruthven, Lord Lindsay of the Byres, and Sir Robert Melville, in name of the Confederates, and was by them forced to sign a deed of abdication resigning the throne to her infant son, who was five days thereafter crowned at Stirling as James VI. The scene that then occurred, as well as the subsequent escape of the Queen, are graphically described in Scott's Abbot. On 15 Aug. it was again the scene of a stormy meeting, when Regent Murray, in a conference that lasted 'until one of the clock after midnight . . . did plainly, without disguising, discover unto the queen all his opinion of her misgovernment, and laid before her all such disorders as either might touch her conscience, her honour, or surety,' and still farther 'behaved himself rather like a ghostly father unto her than like a councillor. Sometimes the queen wept bitterly, sometimes she acknowledged her unadvisedness and misgovernment; some things she did confess plainly, some things she did excuse, some things she did extenuate.' In conclusion, the Earl of Murray left her that night 'in hope of nothing but of God's mercy, willing her to seek that as her chiefest refuge.' Next morning she 'took him in her arms and kissed him, and showed herself very well satisfied, requiring him in any ways not to refuse the regency of the realm, but to accept it at her desire. "For by this means," said she, "my son shall be preserved, my realm well governed, and I in safety, and in towardness to enjoy more safety and liberty that way than I can any other;"' and after he had accepted the fatal post 'she embraced him very lovingly, kissed him, and sent her blessing into the prince her son by him,' and they parted to meet again at Langside (see Glasgow). On 2 May 1568 Mary effected her escape by the aid of a youth of eighteen, named Willy Douglas, and possibly a kinsman of the family. A previous attempt concerted by George Douglas, a son of Sir Robert, and made on 25 April, had been frustrated; but George, who had early fallen under the power of the queen's fascination, and had been sent away from the castle, continued to hang about the neighbourhood, till, at last, the younger Douglas, having stolen the castle keys while Sir Robert was at supper, a fresh effort was made and was successful. '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. 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 ' (see Glasgow and Terregles). The boat, according to tradition, landed on the lands of Coldon on the S side. The keys were recovered during the present century and presented to the Earl of Morton. The Earl of Northumberland also, after his rebellion in England and his capture in Scotland, was confined in Lochleven Castle from 1569 to 1572, when he was delivered up to Elizabeth and sentenced to death The castle and courtyard occupied a considerable portion of the old area of the island; and the garden occupied most of the remainder. In 1840 the courtyard was cleared of weeds and most of the ruins of accumulated rubbish. The great tower or keep of the castle, dating probably from the beginning of the 16th century, stood at the NW corner of the courtyard, next Kinross, and was four stories high, with walls 6 feet thick. The entrance was on the second story, and had been gained by a temporary staircase that could be removed in time of danger. The door opened at once into the great hall which occupies the whole of this story, and within the doorway and at the entrance to the hall is a square opening leading to the dungeon below. The two upper stories seem to have been bed-chambers. The courtyard was surrounded by high walls, protected at the corners by towers. The turret on the SE is pointed out, though merely on vague tradition, as the place of Queen Mary's confinement. The chapel was on the W side to the W of the keep. The whole island is now prettily wooded. The scenery round the loch is very fine. Across the level ground to the NE rise the green Ochils, while on the E is Bishop Hill (1492 feet), and to the S the well-wooded Benarty Hill (1167), both rising steeply from the edge of the loch with a dignity not always seen even in much loftier mountains; while to the W of Benarty are the woods of Blairadam, where the idea of the Abbot occurred to Scott. The loch has long been noted for trout of a delicate colour and very fine flavour, for even in the time of Charles I. in 1633 an Act of Parliament was passed for the protection of fish spawning in any of the inflowing streams within five miles of their mouth; and Defoe, in his Journey through Scotland (1723), declares that the 'lake is full of fish, particularly the finest trouts in the world.' Previous to 1856 the fishing was by nets, the trouts not generally rising to fly, while now they do so readily, and are particularly noted for their gameness and spirit. The season used to be from the beginning of January to the end of September, but since 1811 it has ceased at the end of August, and rod-fishing, now the only method of capture employed for trout, does not begin till 5 Feb., but the length of the season is fixed by the proprietor. The average take of trout with nets was about 11,000 lbs. a year, and since rod-fishing began it has varied considerably. In 1873 it was 13,394 lbs., in 1877 as low as 6352 lbs., in 1880, 19,383 lbs., in 1882, 9018 lbs., and in 1883, 14,062 lbs. Last season (1882) 60,000 fry and 4000 two-year old trout, from Sir James Gibson Maitland's breeding ponds (see Howietoun), were placed in the inflowing streams. The trout average a little over 1 lb., but fish of 2, 3, 4, or 5 lbs. are not at all rare, and some years ago one of 10 lbs. was captured. Besides trout, the loch also contains perch and pike, the latter, some of which reach a weight of over 40 lbs., being destroyed by all means. The fishings are leased by the Loch Leven Angling Association (Limited), who keep twenty boats on the loch, the charge being 2s. 6d. per hour for a boat with one boatman. Curiously unlike most other places, fishing is best with an E wind, and almost blank when the wind is in the SW. From the Douglas family the property passed, in the time of Charles II., to Sir William Bruce, who erected Kinross House, and it is now in the possession of Sir Graham Montgomery.—Ord. Sur., sh. 40, 1877.

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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