The Highlands and Islands of Scotland in the 18th century were a very different prospect to the sophisticated cities of continental Europe. It was an intrepid traveller who would venture to the far north for no purpose other than curiosity.
In his book “A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland” published in 1716, Martin Martin wrote that “the Isles described here are but little known or considered, not only by strangers, but even those under the same Government and climate” and described the inhabitants as natives and vulgar throughout his journey.
Throughout his travels in the Western Isles and across to Orkney and Shetland, Martin clearly enjoyed the hospitality of his hosts and described several social occasions where poetry and music were shared and enjoyed, but mindful of his readership, he focused his attention on “the Advantages the Isles afford by Sea and Land” outlining the opportunities for exploitation of the land for agriculture, mining or quarrying and the seas and yet, tucked in among the long list of business opportunities, he mentions that “if any man be disposed to … withdraw from the noise of the World, he may have a place of retreat … where he may enjoy himself, and live at a very cheap rate”.
Much changed in the region after Martin’s time, before the Battle of Culloden, a seminal moment in Highland history. Despite the Disarming Acts, the banning of Highland dress and the imposition of the English language, travellers at the turn of the 18th century still found the Gaelic language and traditional ways of dressing prevalent across the rural Highlands and Islands.
During the 1760s, the publication of “The Poems of Ossian” by James MacPherson brought the Highlands to the awareness of the intellectual elite of Europe. MacPherson was a poet in his own right and of some reputation, and he claimed that he had collected these poems directly from locals by word of mouth and anglicised them for a wider audience. Describing these people in the preliminary dissertation to his second edition, MacPherson wrote: “Such are the inhabitants of the mountains of Scotland. Accordingly, we find that they differ materially from those who possess the kingdom’s low and more fertile parts. Their language is pure and original, and their manners are those of an ancient and unmixed race of men.”
The poems themselves are reminiscent of old Norse sagas with a lot of heroes, a generous dollop of tragedy and of course, plenty of violence and warlike behaviour with a little bit of romance to add spice, for example:
Such were his words, resolved to fight. The soft sigh of Utha was near! She had followed her hero in the armour of a man. She rolled her eye on the youth, in secret, from beneath her steel. She saw the bard as he went; the spear fell thrice from her hand! Her loose hair flew on the wind. Her white breast rose with sighs. She raised her eyes to the king. She would speak, but thrice she failed.James MacPherson – The Works of Ossian
This sort of material probably inspired later literary visitors, including Thomas Pennant in 1769, followed by Boswell and Johnson in 1773.
By the end of the 18th century, the Highlands and Islands were far more accessible to the sophisticated urban classes. According to Thomas Pennant, the residents were “hospitable to the highest degree, and full of generosity”.
The latter half of the 18th century brought a sudden outpouring of scientific and philosophical work with the Scottish Enlightenment that took Scotland to the forefront of European thinking and fashion. The books of Sir Walter Scott and poetry of Robert Burns were as popular in the bourgeois salons of London as they were in Edinburgh, and a revised romantic image of the Highlands came to the fore. A further consequence of the Enlightenment was the rise of the keen amateur, which led to curious tourists visiting the Highlands and Islands to document ancient archaeology or traditional customs and folklore.
These travellers’ tales and the more academic papers that continued to emerge into the early 19th century and into Victorian times all fed into the continuing creation of a cultural myth. Perhaps at the cost of historical accuracy, as in the case of the depiction of Rob Roy in Walter Scott’s novel of the same name having little to do with the character of Rob Roy MacGregor that made for a very effective brand to attract more visitors – a trait that that has been continued in literary fiction and on film to the present day.
Queen Victoria first toured Scotland in 1847 and loved the country so much that just four years later, Prince Albert bought Balmoral for her. Victoria certainly loved the Highlands despite the unreliable weather and recalled one morning in her diary (published as Leaves from our Life in the Highlands):
Alas! a very wet morning. We were ready long before nine o’clock, but had to wait, as our carriages were not ready. At last we all landed at Fort William, where there was a great gathering of Highlanders in their different tartans, with Lord Lovat and Mr. Stuart Mackenzie at their head.Victoria – Leaves from Our Life in the Highlands
The landscape of the Highlands and Islands that the Victorians saw had changed radically in the hundred years from the 1750s as forests were commercially harvested, the land was turned over to sheep, and traditional “runrig” methods of agriculture fell out of use. By Victorian times it was a tamer, more managed landscape and suited to the new leisure sports of hunting and fishing. The growth in popularity of these activities among the landed gentry and their friends led to vast tracts of the Highlands being turned over to grouse shooting and deer stalking.
The railways arrived in Scotland over the course of the 19th century, eventually reaching the far north in 1874 and nearly reaching Skye in 1897, opening up the region to far greater numbers of visitors, particularly to the estates of Sutherland for hunting and shooting.
By documenting their journeys, these literary tourists made an important contribution to the Highlands by planting the seeds of the story known around the world today and providing a record that would be used by future artists and creators to enhance further and embellish the Highlands and Islands brand.
Image: Queen Victoria at the Laggan Highland Games 1844. Illustrated London News. Reproduced under license.