Places of Interest, Schiehallion

By James Irvine Robertson

P

erhaps the most interesting and romantic mountain in Scotland, its name means either the Maiden's Pap which is most appropriate from the direction of Loch Rannoch, or the Seat of the Caledonian Fairies. During the last ice age, a great glacier had its seat on Rannoch Moor. From there it spread east gouging out the straths. Like an island, the peak of Schiehallion stood above the ice. The millennia of frost left the shattered boulders and scree that cover the summit ridge. The mountain is quartz but one large granite boulder near the top was carried like a cork on the surface of the glacier and deposited on the shore when the ice withdrew.

On the east side of the mountain lies the Maiden's Well fed by a crystal-clear spring of pure water that bubbles from the heart of the hill. Here on the dawn of Beltane, the first of May, the girls from the townships would dance and drink to bring health and good fortune for the coming year.

Long important in legend, Schiehallion achieved a unique distinction in the eighteenth century. Thanks to its isolated position and convenient shape the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne, selected it for his experiment of 1774 to measure the density of the planet and thus establish the universal force of gravity promulgated by Newton which underpins the science of astronomy. He spent a soggy season on the mountain, setting up observatories and complex scientific instruments to measure the minute amount that the mountain attracted a pendulum by comparing its angle to the stars. Amongst his assistants was William Mason who invented the contour line to assist his side of the work which fixed the position of Maskelyne's pendulum by triangulation. Mason gave his name to the Mason-Dixon Line which marked the boundary of the northern and southern states of America.

The Astronomer Royal employed a local gillie, Duncan Robertson, whose fiddle whiled away those frequent evenings when the mountain was shrouded in mist and cloud, preventing observation of the heavens. At the end of the first summer on Schiehallion, Maskelyne threw a ceilidh in the bothy on the mountain for those locals who had built it for him. Whisky was taken; the bothy caught fire; Duncan's fiddle was destroyed. The following spring the carrier brought a parcel from London containing a gift from the Englishman. It was a new violin resplendent in yellow varnish for which the recipient composed a song 'The Yellow London Lady'.

In the early nineteenth century the fiddle was broken and Duncan's descendant sent it to Manchester to be mended. There is some doubt if the repairer returned the correct instrument. Nevertheless the fiddle was handed down through the family, is still played and can be seen at the Clan Donnachaidh Museum at Bruar.

One winter in the late nineteenth century, a devout and pious girl named Margaret Ritchie vanished from her home in the strath below. Ten days later her body was found in her nightdress frozen solid right on the mountain peak. She was lying on her back, her arms crossed, and had a sweet smile on her face.