How Scotland discovered tourism – thanks to the English


The roads were bumpy and some of the inns a bit basic, but pioneer tourists were certainly intrepid in their quest to explore Scotland.

“The whole world travels to Scotland and Ireland,” wrote Elizabeth Diggle in July 1788, after leaving her Kent home to embark on the 18th century equivalent of today’s NC500 route.

“We are in the heart of the Highlands, I am very in love with them and would not like to live near London again.”

Her two-week tour left her clothes almost in shreds – and almost ended in disaster when her horse-drawn carriage crashed – but as a new exhibit explains, the intrepid Elizabeth was not as one of the countless 18th century tourists who headed north to explore the lochs of Scotland. and valleys, to soak up the heritage, see the antiquities of the nation and even admire its foundries, mines and ferocious mills.

These pioneer tourists along with enterprising estate owners who knew a good thing when they saw it, and the military roads the English built to keep the Highlanders at bay, were the catalyst for what is now a tourist industry of 11 billion pounds sterling.

The story of Scotland’s early days of tourism is now told in a fascinating exhibit and accompanying book that explores Scotland’s rapid development into a must-see tourist destination.

Just like today’s visitors who check off tourist spots by following travel routes like the NC500, many intrepid 18th-century tourists also followed routes plotted by other visitors: a “little tour” that took off. taken to Glasgow, the military routes through Argyll and Perthshire, and Edinburgh – and a more demanding grand tour that included island hopping tours.

While sharing their experiences of accommodation, dining, and the sights they encountered in reviews and publications – much like Tripadvisor – they were able to alert fellow travelers to what to expect.

Scottish estate owners were fortunate enough to live close to the newly constructed military roads and quickly seized the opportunity presented by an influx of visitors.

Some commissioned leading artists of the time to paint ‘postcard’ scenes of stunning landscapes, construct viewpoints for tourists to enjoy the best views, and then recoup their investment by introducing a fee. entry.

Old Ways New Roads was originally planned for the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow with a selection of exhibits and paintings – some of which had never been seen in public – showing how early tourism was.

Now live due to the pandemic, it covers a dynamic time that saw travelers take a path north, some to see the scenery, others anxious to witness a particular way of life at dawn. ‘a radical change due to industrial and agricultural progress, Highland Clearances and the encroachment of a more modern way of life.

According to Dr John Bonehill, co-curator of the exhibition, the military roads built by General Wade and his successor, Major William Caulfeild, not only provided English troops with easy links between forts and barracks, but also also opened the Highlands to trade and a rich new source of income – tourism.

By the mid-18th century and just a few years after the Battle of Culloden, Scotland’s new tourist industry was booming.

“In the 20 years since the Battle of Culloden, tourists have found their way along these roads,” he says.

“By the end of the 1750s we already have landowners like the Earl of Breadalbane complaining about the number of tourists and the Duke of Atholl in Dunkeld charging entrance fees to prevent the kind of person he does does not want to trample on his floor. ”

Savvy estate owners spotted the economic potential and hired top artists to showcase their grand homes and estates, sometimes building facilities for visitors keen to see the most breathtaking views or historic sites.

“Many paintings showed Scotland in its best light – not as it really was, but more as it should be,” adds Dr Bonehill.

“The earls very quickly developed areas as scenic places of interest, like in Dunkeld, where an observation station was built in front of the waterfalls so that visitors could take in the views.”

Some tourists have traveled specifically to visit sites related to history, literature or geology. While others wanted to crowd together as much as possible, travel in horse-drawn carriages and cover large areas in relatively short periods of time.

Thomas Pennant, who visited Scotland in 1769, and the 1773 voyages of Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell popularized two favorite tourist routes, the “small” and the “long” tour. While William Gilpin’s scenic tour of 1766 was particularly attractive to middle-class women, tourists like Elizabeth Diggle.

In Dunbar, she noted “women … without shoes and without stockings and without hats or caps, giving them respect and the idea of ​​France”.

Edinburgh, she writes, was “the most beautiful city in Europe”, and the “Ossian’s Hall” of the Duke of Atholl near Dunkeld “a fairy palace”.

Her visit included an “ink (or ribbon) factory” in Glasgow where she was impressed with the machinery and dexterity of the workers, and Carron Iron Works near Falkirk where she found “a whole town of smoke and smoke. fire and a thousand people at work, stoves blazing on all sides ”.

According to Dr Bonehill, Scotland then – as today – offered an array of attractions for a variety of tourists.

“The soldiers who built the roads were very quickly followed by people interested in antiques, the natural heritage of the landscape, literature, poetry and then by the scenic tourist.

“Tourists were as likely to visit the Iron Forges at Leadhills to enjoy the excitement of watching the industry in action or touring the factories in New Lanark as they were looking for a cottage on the Islands.

“As they recorded their observations, there is a sense of a world in transition, where traditional lifestyles meet new forms of social life, new ways of living, new agriculture and different ways of working.”

Still, some have found the tourism boom and the flood of travel stories a bit boring.

“At the start of the 19th century Sir Walter Scott wrote about how fed up he was of people writing books on their tours, going to the same old places and saying more or less the same thing,” he adds. .

Of course, he played his own role in the tourism industry: his poem, The Lady of the Lake transformed the Trossachs almost overnight.

The exhibition period ends in the year of his death in 1832, as a new wave of tourism driven by train travel, Queen Victoria and Balmoral looms on the horizon.

Dr Bonehill says the exhibit shows tourism in Scotland dates back much further than the Victorian era, triggered by military roads meant to help keep the Highlanders in check.

“The fascination with Scotland’s past, its wonderful natural wonders, its bens and its mysterious islands has only become possible thanks to this new transport infrastructure.”

Old Ways New Roads: Travels in Scotland 1720-1832 can be viewed at

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