A Perverse Pleasure or “… the horrid islands of Harris”

The following advice to the traveller comes from The Light of Navigation, produced in Amsterdam in 1612; it was a guide for sailors to Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles and is quoted in Dennis Rixson’s The Hebridean Traveller (Birlinn, 2004):

He that falleth upon anie of these Ilands must looke well to him self, for the most part of them are inhabited by wilde and cruell men“.

In the 21st century, Stewart Bremner at https://indy-prints.com has produced calendars and cards which glory in online negative reviews of Scotland. I’m putting together here a historical version of that in which I take some iconic images of Scotland and delight in the memoirs of the travellers who found them wanting.

A recent review of Stac Pollaidh

What did visitors have to say in the past about our bens and glens?

Photo by Kieren Ridley on Pexels.com

” … those Highlands appear to me … wanting ornament, and destitute of cultivation ” so wrote Richard Franck in his Northern Memoirs of 1656 / 57 (quoted in Rixson 2004).

Edmund Burt revealed in his Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland, written in the late 1720s, that he was not impressed either, even by our bonnie purple heather:

” … the mountains … the whole of a dismal gloomy brown, drawing upon a dirty purple and most of all disagreeable when the heath is in bloom

and he details ” … their stupendous bulk, frightful irregularity, and horrid gloom ” (both in Rixson 2004)

In A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides, 1772 (quoted in Rixson 2004), T Pennant singles out Suilven in particular but at least he tries to spell it correctly:

” … among these aspiring heaps of barrenness, the sugar-loaf hill of Suil-bhein made a conspicuous figure: at their feet, the blackness of the moors by no means assisted to cheer our ideas.”

He was no more impressed by a view on Skye:

The prospect to the west was that of desolation itself; a savage series of rude mountains, discoloured, black and red, as if by the rage of fire.”

The French geologist, Barthelemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, made an attempt to climb Ben More on Mull but found that:

Almost impenetrable heather, above a soil saturated with water, covers the lower ground, the middle and the summit of the mountain.”

and he concluded:

Upon the whole, the mountain of Ben More, notwithstanding its height, and a kind of resemblance which it has at a distance to Mount Vesuvius, does not repay the trouble of ascending it.”

He was writing in his A journey through England and Scotland to the Hebrides in 1784 (from Rixson 2004) and I’ve quoted from him a couple of times before (see for example “Brother, let us breakfast in Scotland …” ). I’ve got quite fond of him.

( You can read Volume 1 of his book online at https://archive.org/details/travelsinenglan00stgoog/page/n14/mode/2up It was published in London in 1799 and has been digitized by Google from a book in the library of The University of Michigan. )

The skirl of the pipes did nothing for him either. The poor French man was deaved by a piper outside his window while staying at an inn near Oban where his bed “was hard, but clean“. (see Rixson 2004)

Photo by Kres Thomas on Pexels.com

He described the music in the most unflattering terms:

Will it be believed that music of a kind new to me, but very terrible to my ears, disturbed the repose I so much needed? …… On the day of our arrival, this man came before our lodging, walking to and fro with equal steps, and a bold and martial expression of face, deafening us with perpetual repetitions of the most unharmonious sounds, without any air or meaning.”

On the other hand, you won’t be surprised to read that our weather has also made an impression on visitors. John Taylor, author of The Pennyles Pilgrimage, 1618, wrote:

The next day I travelled over an exceeding high mountaine …. where I found the valley very warme before I went up it; but when I came to the top of it, my teeth beganne to dance in my head with cold …”. To make things worse “a most familiar mist embraced me round, that I could not see thrice my length any way“; this mist penetrated his clothing and succeeded in “wetting me to the skinne“. (quote from Rixson 2004)

Edmund Burt, in his Letters of 1737, noted the rain:

At Fort William …. I have heard the people talk as familiarly of a shower (as they call it) of nine or ten weeks, as they would do of anything else that was not out of the ordinary course.” (Rixson 2004)

Photo by Ave Calvar Martinez on Pexels.com

I’m giving the last word on Scottish weather to my old friend Monsieur Faujas de Saint Fond with a quote about Mull which I’ve used in a previous post: ” …. where it rains for eight months of the year, and where the sea, always in motion, seems to be in perpetual convulsions.” (Rixson 2004)

To my delight, visitors in Scotland have long been commenting on our food and here are two quotes from Lucy Bethia Walford – both of them recycled ( see Oats: still supporting the people and Give me the making of the scones of a nation * ) I’m not apologising for using them again.

Lucy lived from 1845 till 1915 and her recollections of a disappointing meal in the “little peat-reeking parlour” of a “solitary inn” are quoted in A Scottish Feast edited by H Whyte and C Brown:

” … and the oatcakes, hard as flint, dry, tasteless, and white as a dusty road in a March east wind

Then the scones. They were damp, flabby, and tough beyond power of thought to conceive: teeth could not rend them.”

The English writer Sydney Smith spent five years in Edinburgh from 1798 where he studied moral philosophy, medicine and chemistry. He was instrumental in setting up the Edinburgh Review and had wanted to use as its motto: ‘We cultivate literature on a little oatmeal’; unfortunately he was dissuaded from this. Anyway, he’s quoted in F Marian McNeill’s A Scots Kitchen reminiscing about his Edinburgh years:

When shall I see Scotland again? Never shall I forget the happy days I spent there amid odious smells, barbarous sounds, bad suppers, excellent hearts, and the most enlightened and cultivated understandings.”

F M McNeill, in one of her fascinating introductory chapters in The Scots Kitchen, quotes Dorothy Wordsworth describing a Scottish meal in 1803:

” … some sorry soup made of barley and water, for it had no other taste ….. a shoulder of mutton so hard that it was impossible to chew the little flesh that may be scraped off the bones “

McNeill also has a Joseph Taylor commenting on a hospitality experience in Moffat in 1705. He

met with good wine, and some mutton pretty well dressed, but looking into our beds, found there was no lying in them.”

Transport for visitors, especially in the Highlands, was a big issue. Rixson (2004) quotes from Edmund Burt in 1737 who was working on the new roads for General Wade; he was a bit scathing of the existing network:

The old ways (for roads I shall not call them) consisting chiefly of stony moors, bogs, rugged, rapid fords, declivity of hills, entangling woods, and giddy precipices “

There the rocks project over the lake (Loch Oich), and the path was so rugged and narrrow that the Highlanders were obliged, for their safety, to hold by the rocks and shrubs as they passed, with the prospect of death beneath them …… This was not the only dangerous part, but for three miles together … it was nowhere safe, and in many places more difficult, and as dangerous, as at the entrance; for the rocks were so steep and uneven, that the passenger was obliged to creep on his hands and knees. “

J Knox, author of A Tour through the Highlands of Scotland, 1786, planned to walk from Loch Broom to Durness and then on to Caithness:

Many persons had painted in strong colours, the difficulty of performing this journey at any season of the year, and much more so in October. They represented the country from Assynt to Caithness as one continued wild or desart, composed of almost impenetrable swamps and ridges of mountains, where I would find few inhabitants, no seats of gentlemen, no roads, inns, or conveniences of any kind … ” (Rixson 2004)

This photo was taken on a road in Ross & Cromarty about 1860 and is captioned “The Minister pays for his ponies”. No photographer is named for it though. Found in A Taste of Scotland in Food and in Pictures, Theodora Fitzgibbon 1970

Some travellers also had harsh words for the ferries. John MacCulloch who published The Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland in 1824 hoped to travel over the sea to Skye and was directed to Arisaig to get a ferry. Things did not go smoothly for him though:

The Arasaik road had been made on account of the ferry, or the ferry on account of the road; and though a carriage ferry, and a horse ferry, there was no boat that could hold a carriage, and no horse had ever dared to cross. Furthermore, the ferry-boat, if there really was one, was two miles from Arasaik, somewhere, among some rocks; and there was no road to it, nor any pier. Lastly, I at length found a ferry-boat, a mile from the sea, as fit to carry a camelopardalis as a horse, and a ferry-boat man who could not speak English.” (Rixson 2004)

John MacCulloch was not the only traveller to come across a language barrier. Thomas Kirk wrote in 1679:

The Lowland language may be well enough understood by an English man, but the Highlanders have a peculiar lingue to themselves, which they call Erst, unknown to most of the Lowland men, except only in those places that border on them, where they can speak both. Yet these people are so currish, that if a stranger enquire the way in English, they will certainly answer in Erst, and find no other language than what is enforc’d from them with a cudgel. ” (Rixson 2004)

Here, finally, I can find no humour in the situation.

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