"The roads are neither rough nor dirty; and it affords a southern stranger a new kind of pleasure to travel so commodiously without the interruption of toll-gates. The carriages in common use are small carts, drawn each by one little horse; and a man seems to derive some degree of dignity and importance from the reputation of possessing a two-horse cart." So wrote James Boswell and Samuel Johnon of their 1773 trip to the North of Scotland and the Western Isles. A couple of weeks ago my dh and I set off in our motorised carriage to follow in their footsteps!
Our first port of call on the journey up to the Hebrides from Glasgow was the town of Inverary. Inverary Old Town, a Royal Burgh, was swept away between 1753 and 1776 when the 3rd Duke of Argyll decided to replace his ancient castle with a beautiful new mansion complete with landscaped grounds and in doing so relocated the ancient town so he could have a bigger garden! Inverary New Town is absolutely charming, painted black and white with some impressive arches over the road and a gaol where you can experience the full eighteenth century prison regime. It struck me as a wonderful place to set a book. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell stayed at Inverary Castle on their travels. Johnson wrote: "At last we came to Inverary where we found an inn, not only commodious, but magnificent. The difficulties of peregrination were now at an end. Mr. Boswell had the honour of being known to the Duke of Argyle, by whom we were very kindly entertained at his splendid seat, and supplied with conveniences for surveying his spacious park and rising forests." We surveyed the spacious park under our own steam but have to agree that lunch in the pub at Inverary was excellent!
From Inverary we headed to Oban, where we embarked on the ferry for Mull. We were staying at "The Library" in Carsaig, a house which belonged to the MacLeans of Duart Castle, with whom Boswell and Johnson also stayed on their trip to Mull. The MacLean family crest, with its wonderful motto "Virtue Mine Honour" was on all the buildings at Carsaig, including this ancient boathouse. Of more modern note was the connection between Carsaig and the classic 1945 film by Powell and Pressburger "I Know Where I'm Going." In this photo I am channelling the heroine of IKWIG as she looks out to the island of "Kiloran" from the pier at Carsaig! In reality "Kiloran" was the Isle of Colonsay and it was visible from our window. I also persuaded my dh to retake other stills from the movie, including the iconic "telephone box beside the waterfall" shot. We wanted to visit Moy Castle, another of the sites featured in the film, but it is being restored and isn't currently open to the public. Instead we went to the ruin of Aros Castle which is extremely atmospheric. Two strange writing co-incidences occurred at Carsaig – one was that I discovered that the pier had originally been built by French prisoners of war in the early nineteenth century and the POWs in Britain during the Napoleonic Wars is the background to my current manuscript. The second odd co-incidence was that I read that Robert Louis Stevenson had written his classic adventure story "Kidnapped" just down the road at Erraig and I had brought with me a copy of my own book Kidnapped, which is set in Wester Ross and the Isles and is a "homage" to the RLS book.
Also on my "Castles tour" were Duart and Torosay. The picture is of the splendid formal gardens at Torosay. The two castles formed a perfect contrast to one another in my opinion, Duart being the classic sort of "ancient" castle with battlements and dungeons, and Torosay being a Victorian country house. I loved the friendliness of Torosay and the fact that you could leaf through the family albums and even sit down in their drawing room if you needed a rest from all the overwhelming Victoriana, the mounted stags' heads and stuffed birds that had been shot on the estate!
Later in the holiday we set off in the wake of Boswell and Johnson again, setting sail on the ferry for the Isle of Iona which was probably quicker and more comfortable than B & J's little sailing boat! Like our predecessors we walked along the pilgrim route to Iona Abbey, the Sraid Nam Marbh or "street of the dead." The wonderfully peaceful and beautiful abbey was a ruin when Johnson and Boswell visited. Both of them wrote at length about Iona, Johnson noting that the abbey ruins were full of rubbish and that the nunnery chapel was being used as a cow-shed! These days the abbey has been restored to glory and the nunnery ruins are set within a lovely garden.
After lunch we embarked for the Isle of Staffa. Johnson and Boswell had tried to land on Staffa to visit Fingal's Cave but had been beaten by heavy seas. We were luckier; we were able to spend an hour on land and approached the cave along the rather hair-raising walkway. It was one of the most amazing places I have ever seen with its vertical basalt cliffs. One of my fellow tourists was an expert on the romantic poets and the composers who had been inspired by the cathedral-like cave and the music of the crashing waves.
Samuel Johnson commented on the "unkind climate" of Mull but we had some lovely weather whilst we were there and if our holiday diary is not perhaps up to the standard of Boswell or Johnson's writings we have at least recorded our wonderful trip so that we can relive it in the future! I was struck anew by the beauty of the Scottish landscape. We've asked it before and no doubt we'll ask it again: Are there any other places that can rival Scotland as a romantic setting for historicals or does it win hands down on romance and history and pure rugged wildness? What do you think?