The Romance of Knives


Crystal Magic #7

Pat here:

As anyone who reads my Magic books knows, my characters are far more likely to wield a tarot card or a beaker of chemicals than a knife. But I’m researching a series I want to set in Victorian Edinburgh, and one cannot ignore the history of the sgian dubh, the traditional Scots weapon. If nothing else, my heroes would use it to whittle firewood, although I have a suspicion before I get too far, they’ll find better uses.

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Visiting Scotland in the Regency

Welcome_to_Scotland_sign_A1_roadNicola 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!)

Intrepid Travellers

The earliest authors who wrote about Scotland, including
Martin Martin in 1698 and Daniel Defoe in
Intrepid travellers 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

Edinburgh guide bookBy 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
Handbook 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

Taymouth_Castle_James_NorieAs 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
StaffaStaffa 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.

Nicola at the top of the mountainScotland 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!)