A new festival is celebrating Walter Scott's launch of the Scottish tourist industry. Brian Logan explains

Did ever a work of art make more of an impact on the tourist industry – or on a country's sense of itself? Before 1810, the Highlands were a no-go area for southern Scots and Sassenachs: a dirty, dangerous place populated by hairy cows and hairier cow-thieves.

Then Walter Scott published his narrative poem The Lady of the Lake. The poem, set on Loch Katrine in the Trossachs, sold a whopping 25,000 copies in its first eight months, and sparked a surge of romantic interest in the no-longer-wild north. Thus was the Highland tourist industry born and the shortbread-tin image that, even today, Scotland presents to the world.

In the years since, Scotland has enjoyed a vexed relationship with Scott. Once among the world's major writers (The Lady of the Lake inspired Schubert's "Ave Maria" and supplied lyrics for the US Presidential anthem "Hail to the Chief"), he fell far out of fashion – in part because of his tartan kitsch associations. The Lady of the Lake has long been out of print.

But this year – to mark the poem's 200th anniversary – a season of events commemorates Scott in the heart of the region he did so much to promote. The ScottsLand Festival, which begins this month and runs until September, organised by Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, will feature art and literature trails, music events, ceilidhs, and a new cycling and running event for sporty types and families, The Chase, following the route of the stag hunt that opens the poem.

It will also invite Scott himself (or at least, a convincing impersonator) on board the steamship that bears his name, which has plied Loch Katrine since 1899. The SS Sir Walter Scott, a gem of Clydeside shipbuilding, recently underwent an £850,000 refit. A plush cabin was added to its hitherto open deck, "because our passengers used to come off blue", as Gail Canaway, operations manager at Trossachs Pier, tells me. No such danger on my visit: it's a scorching weekend, and the boat trip does ample justice to Scott's swooning verse.

And thus an airy point he won,

Where gleaming with the setting

sun

One burnished sheet of living gold

Loch Katrine lay beneath him

roll'd.

Scott wrote his poem from a beach on the northern shore, the Silver Strand, which was submerged in the 1880s as part of an operation to supply Glasgow with water. From the beach, he looked across to Ellen's Isle, named for the chieftain's daughter who was fought over by no fewer than three chivalric Lotharios in the poem. Our boat chugs serenely by that wooded isle towards the Arrochar Alps, looming in the western distance. Ben A'an towers purple to our north. Far to the south-west, Scotland's southernmost Munro, Ben Lomond, nudges above the horizon.

Mountains that like giants stand

To sentinel enchanted land.

Scott is everywhere in this part of the world. In the handsome drovers' town of Callander – itself transformed by the tourist stampede Scott triggered – the private home he stayed in when first visiting the Trossachs, Cambusmore House, will be publicly accessible on ScottsLand's Doors Open Weekend (18, 19 September). In Balquhidder, at the tip of the mirror-like Loch Voil, lies the grave of Rob Roy, whose outlaw career played out in these glens and braes. (Loch Katrine derives from "cateran", Gaelic for thief.) Scott, right, was the writer who established Rob Roy's legend, in his 1817 novel.

But Scott was not the only artist to find inspiration in this "gateway to the Highlands". Wordsworth visited before it was fashionable to do so. "A laugh was on every face when we said we were to come to the Trossachs," wrote his sister, Dorothy. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins praised nearby Inversnaid; the Glasgow Boys artists' colony was formed at Brig O' Turk. In the same village, in 1853, the Pre-Raphaelite painter Millais made a cuckold of his mentor Ruskin with Ruskin's wife Effie. This notorious love triangle began when Ruskin summoned Millais to the Trossachs to teach him about landscape painting.

Sponsored by the ScottsLand programme, the artist Alexander Hamilton is displaying his Glenfinlas Cyanotypes (primitive photographs) in the Byre Inn in Brig O' Turk. (Two years ago, they were exhibited at the Edinburgh Festival.) Hamilton is a disciple of Ruskin, and, shortly after I disembark from the SS Sir Walter Scott, he leads me scrambling down a steep embankment, towards the place where Ruskin posed for his love rival, while Effie stood by, declaiming from Dante.

I plant my feet in a gushing brook, and make like Ruskin. This lovely glade, dense with the nature Ruskin revered, was long thought buried under the concrete of Glenfinlas Dam, and is still largely unacknowledged. Hamilton is lobbying for its establishment as a tourist attraction; a pilgrimage site, even. The artworks he's exhibiting are of plants and flowers found here, at what he calls "the most important site in the history of British landscape painting".

More than 150 years after Thomas Cook set up the world's first package holiday (his Tartan Towns tour ferried 50,000 travellers north between 1846 and 1862), the Trossachs remains a curious paradox. It is the acme of tourist Scotland, and yet largely undeveloped. (Around Loch Katrine, on the hottest day of the year, I encounter hardly a soul.) It has a twee reputation, which ScottsLand – by invoking the passion, the drama and the international profile that Wordsworth, Ruskin and Scott attached to the region – hopes to counter. It should succeed. To his countrymen, Scott left a complicated legacy. But those further afield, alerted by his work to this picture-perfect landscape, have plenty to thank him for.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Brian Logan travelled to Glasgow with Virgin Trains (08719 774 222; virgintrains.co.uk), from where it's an hour's drive to Loch Katrine. He stayed at Monachyle Mhor Hotel, Balquhidder, (01877 384622; mhor.net), an 18th-century farmhouse and steadings converted into a family-run hotel with 14 individually designed rooms. B&B in a double room starts at £128 per night.

Further information

The ScottsLand festival (scottsland.co.uk) runs from June to September. Alexander Hamilton will lead a Glenfinlas walk to the site where Millais painted Ruskin on 3 July. The Great Trossachs Forest Exhibition, with cyanotypes by Hamilton, is at the Byre Inn, Brig O' Turk (01877 376292; byreinn.co.uk) from July to September. The Chase event takes place on 25 September.

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