Falls of Foyers, Great Glen: The Smoking Falls

Falls of Foyers is a spectacular waterfall that featured prominently as a visitor attraction in the development of tourism in Scotland in the 19th century

The Falls of Foyers. Image: John Gordon.

The River Foyers plunges over two sets of waterfalls known as the Falls of Foyers (in Gaelic, Eas na Smùide, the Smoking Falls) on its descent through a dramatic gorge to Loch Ness. The upper falls comprise 3 cataracts – large, powerful falls – around 14 metres high. The lower falls, around 30 metres high, form “a vast cataract, in a darksome glen of a stupendous depth … the foam, like a great cloud of smoke, rises and fills the air” according to Thomas Pennant (1771, p. 170). They cascade into a rock amphitheatre, described as a “horrid caldron” and “dim-seen through rising mists” of spray by Robert Burns when he visited in 1787.

The Falls of Foyers became a popular tourist destination in the late 18th and 19th centuries at the time of the Romantic movement and the development of landscape aesthetics. The perception of natural wonders, such as waterfalls, caves and unusual rock formations, changed from places to be feared and avoided to places to be appreciated through the aesthetics of the sublime, inspiring feelings of awe and admiration. The Falls were promoted by writers, poets and artists and popularised in travel journals and illustrated guidebooks (e.g. Beattie, 1838; Hill et al., 1840; Black & Black, 1845). As well as Pennant and Burns, eminent visitors included Dr Johnson, James Boswell, the Wordsworths, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and J.M.W. Turner. Like the Falls of Clyde and Staffa, the Falls of Foyers became an essential visitor destination on the ‘Scottish Romantic tour’ and were widely regarded as pre-eminent among the waterfalls of Scotland. By the mid-19th century, the development of the railways and steamships allowed travel at an affordable cost for greater numbers of people, and steamers called at Foyers pier to enable passengers to visit the Falls.

In the late 19th century, however, the Falls became an early example of the conflicts between conservation and industrial development that now compromise many waterfalls worldwide (Hudson, 2016). The British Aluminium Company proposed to take water from the river above the Falls to power a hydro-electric scheme for an aluminium smelting works on the shores of Loch Ness. Objections were raised and although visitors complained that the spectacle of the Falls would be ruined, the scheme went ahead in 1895. Prominent in the campaign was local artist and conservationist, Mary Rose Hill Burton, who produced numerous sketches and paintings of the Falls before the development occurred (Helland, 1997). The smelter closed in 1967, and the river is now part of a pumped-storage hydro-electric scheme at Loch Mhòr. Nevertheless, the Falls remain impressive particularly after heavy rainfall, even if the flow of water is diminished in comparison with Victorian times.

The Falls also have an interesting connection with the demonstration of a type of ‘motion aftereffect’, known as the ‘waterfall illusion’, described by Robert Adams at Foyers (Addams, 1834; Verstraten, 1996). This is an illusion experienced after staring at a moving medium and then focusing on a fixed object; the latter appears to move in the opposite direction.

Text contributed by John Gordon

Find out more
Addams, R. (1834). An account of a peculiar optical phenomenon seen after having looked at a moving body. London and Edinburgh Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, 5, 373–374.
Beattie, W. (1838). Scotland Illustrated in a Series of Views Taken Expressly for this Work by Messrs. T. Allom, W. H. Bartlett and H. M’Culloch. 2 vols. George Virtue, London.
Black, A. & C. (1845). Black’s Picturesque Tourist of Scotland. 4th edn. Adam & Charles Black, Edinburgh.
Helland, J. (1997). Artistic advocate: Mary Rose Hill Burton and the Falls of Foyers. Scottish Economic and Social History 17, 127-147.
Hill, D.O., Wilson, J. & Chambers, R. (1840). The Land of Burns, A Series of Landscapes & Portraits Illustrative of the Life and Writings of the Scottish Poet. Blackie & Son, Glasgow.
Hudson, B.J. (2016). Waterfalls and the Romantic traveller. In: Hose, T. A. (ed.) 2016. Appreciating Physical Landscapes: Three Hundred Years of Geotourism. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 417, 41–57.
Pennant, T. (1771). A Tour in Scotland; 1769. John Monk, Chester.
Stott, L. (1987). The Waterfalls of Scotland. Aberdeen University Press, Aberdeen.
Verstraten, F.A.J. (1996). On the ancient history of the direction of the motion aftereffect. Perception, 25, 1177-1187.

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