Nicola here. It’s no secret that amongst the Wenches and our readers there are a lot of fans of all things Scottish. It’s a beautiful country, one of the places in the world I could never tire of visiting and I have had some amazing experiences there, from climbing mountains to swimming in the lochs, from sailing amongst the Northern Isles to wandering the cobbled streets of Edinburgh. I’ve fallen over in Scottish bogs, been bitten by midges, danced at a ceilidh and been marooned in every sort of weather you might imagine, flood, fog and snow. It’s been brilliant.
In making my frequent trips to Scotland I’m hardly unique. Nor is heading to the Highlands a recent phenomenon. Scotland was a tourist destination as early as the 18th century and in the later years of that century and in the early 19th century its popularity exploded. “It has now become fashionable to make a tour into Scotland for some weeks or months,” The Weekly Magazine commented in 1772, whilst Eliza Diggle observed in 1788: “All the world is travelling to Scotland and Ireland.”
Here are a few of the snippets I've picked up about the history of tourism in Scotland when I was researching the background to The Lady and the Laird (with a few of my own photos for illustration!)
The earliest authors who wrote about Scotland, including Martin Martin in 1698 and Daniel Defoe in 1724, were intrepid individuals whose writings inspired other travellers to venture into those wild lands. In 1771 Thomas Pennant published his Tour In Scotland, which was a vast success. He had previously written a similar guide to Ireland, which he admitted was very incomplete “owing to the conviviality of the country.” Visitors to Scotland were attracted by Pennant’s descriptions of landscape and his account of folklore. His enthusiasm for picturesque views and for nature was keen. He did much to inspire Dr Samuel Johnson’s travels and despite disliking Pennant’s politics Johnson said of him: “He is the best traveller I ever read; he observes more things than anyone else does.”
Dr Johnson and James Boswell followed swiftly in Pennant’s footsteps, travelling mainly through the Western Isles. Here they found the Highlands in a state of change. The clan system had been dismantled, the wearing of tartan was prohibited and the land was being cleared. Johnson wondered if he had left it too late to witness the “old” way of life of the Highlands. He did note, however, that illegal whisky distilling was common and that there was a custom called the skalk, whereby a man took a glass of whisky as an aperitif before breakfast. (My husband turned a bit pale when he heard that. He likes a wee dram but not before breakfast. I remember visiting the Talisker Distillery last year and doing some whisky tasting at about 11 in the morning. The rest of the day is a bit hazy.)
The Guidebook - An Insipid Tour
By the turn of the 19th century guide books to Scotland abounded. The Quarterly Review of 1806 complained: “There is Johnson’s Philosophic Tour, Pennant’s Descriptive Tour, Gilpin’s Picturesque Tour, Stoddart’s Sketching Tour, Garnet’s Medical Tour, Mrs Murray’s Familiar Tour, Newte’s Nautical Tour, Mawman’s Bookselling Tour, Campbell’s Crazy Tour, Lithie’s Insipid Tour…All those Caledonian memorabilia that the more desperate visit in person.” I must admit I am a keen reader of guidebooks. The guide book to Edinburgh I used last year was particularly good on helping me put my itinerary together even if it wasn’t called “An Insipid Tour of Edinburgh.” (Here is a photo of me consulting it in the famous Greyfriars church yard.)
It’s difficult to know how many of the 18th and 19th century travel guides were bought by people who simply had an interest in reading more about Scotland and were not actually intending to leave the comfort of their armchair. The tour guides definitely played a part in encouraging a growing interest in the country, its landscape, the rugged scenery, the geology, the literature and the legends. Perhaps some of those people who read about the country still saw it as too wild and dangerous to visit but reading about it at home made it seem safer.
At the same time the refurbishment of inns and the development of hotels does suggest that people were travelling in increasing numbers. The Napoleonic Wars certainly benefited travel in Britain as much of the continent was closed to tourists; one newspaper commented: “Edinburgh is as much visited by every dashing citizen who pretends to fashion as Margate or Tonbridge.”
An Opportunity for Tour Guides
With tourism came a need for people to show the visitors around. Guides could make a good income from fees and tips and some supplemented their talks by selling handbooks and souvenirs. By the 1790s the more entrepreneurial were designing advertisements offering their services. Towns such as Perth and Sterling appointed town guides and abbeys offered guided tours, as did stately homes. In 1814 the Duke of Atholl’s factor devised a set of guidelines for the people who showed visitors around the gardens at Dunkeld. They had to wear a badge for identification and they had to ensure that all visitors signed in. The tourists were not permitted to walk round on their own because some of them would help themselves to “souvenirs” of plant cuttings or carve their initials on the trees! The Head Gardener himself would show the more important guests around although on one occasion he made a mistake when two rich American visitors came posing as sailors. He took one look at their shabby attire and consigned them to an underling, thus missing out on a substantial tip.
The Visitor’s Book
In Scotland the visitor’s book started its life in the 18th century as “the album given to strangers.” Most people simply signed their names but a few made comments about the place and whether or not they had enjoyed their visit. From this developed the idea of feedback on the attractions which today manifests itself in Trip Advisor! I haven't found any rude comments in Scottish visitors' books but I was intrigued to read that the gardens at Nuneham Courtenay in England had a problem with people writing uncomplimentary comments in the visitors book in 1815. One visitor wrote: “Well does the dinner and the day agree; the food is cold and so are we.”
By Land and Sea
As tourism started to take off it gave a boost to Scottish hotels and inns. This was much to the relief of the nobility and gentry who had previously offered friends and acquaintances accommodation in their own houses. In 1773 Lord Breadalbane commented that: “We have had a good deal of company here this summer… Many of them from England, some of whom I knew before, others recommended to me. Sometimes it is a little troublesome…” Guest had to be fed and entertained, which could be expensive, and they all wanted to participate in some Scottish country dancing. Poor Lord Breadalbane found that he had barely a moment to himself before the next carriage load of visitors rolled up to the door!
Of the inns, the best were excellent but the worst had a name for being appalling. The Inchture Inn between Perth and Dundee was noted for serving a very poor breakfast of stale eggs, rancid butter and inedible bread. The well-organised tourist sent ahead to organise rooms, request fresh bedding and make sure there would be good food. The roads were equally mixed, some in excellent condition, others very poor. Whilst highway robbery was almost unknown by this period, other mishaps were all too frequent. Tourists frequently got lost because there were no road signs. Even Queen Victoria got lost in the hills above Dunkeld, and carriages could easily overturn and horses go lame. North of Perth the inns did not always provide horses for hire which meant that travellers had to rest their own teams until they were able to continue.
Travel on the water was even more perilous. The journey to see the famous Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa was considered extremely dangerous (and I have to admit that it was pretty rough the day we visited and our dog didn’t much appreciate being lifted in and out of the boat by two hefty sailors!) This is one of our photos showing the sea breaking over the entrance to Fingal's Cave.
The Medicinal Visit
The therapeutic value of sea bathing was not as quickly recognised in Scotland as it was in England, perhaps because it’s cold getting in the water in Scotland whatever the season. (There is a photo of me swimming in Scotland but it's censored because of my horrified expression when the cold water hits!) A saltwater bath was built at Peterhead in 1762 to augment the existing mineral spring treatments and in 1788 there were bathing machines for hire at Tynemouth and other resorts. By the turn of the 19th century there were a number of seaside towns near Edinburgh that offered sea bathing and this was generally recognised as being good for the health. Dr William Buchan recommended seawater as a cure for skin complaints and a preservative of general health. These towns also developed coffee rooms, circulating libraries and music chambers for those occasions on which the weather turned wet.
Scotland also offered other opportunities for a healthy holiday. Equestrian trips, pedestrian tours and mountain ascents were all on offer by the end of the 18th century. As the 19th century progressed the idea of a picturesque tour of Scotland to admire the scenery or a medicinal visit for exercise and sea bathing was joined by the sporting visit so beloved of Victorian and Edwardian aristocrats. Scotland’s popularity as a tourist destination hasn’t waned since.
Are you a planner or a pantser when it comes to taking a trip? Do you like to read the guidebooks beforehand or simply turn up and decide what to do when you arrive? And have you ever visited somewhere that was completely different from how you expected it to be? (For me it was Stonehenge - I expected it to be bigger!)