Five Questions: Nigel Leask on Stepping Westward

      Comments Off on Five Questions: Nigel Leask on Stepping Westward

Nigel Leask is Regius Chair of English Language and Literature at the University of Glasgow. He will be well-known to readers of this blog from his many publications in the field of Romantic Studies, including the monographs British Romantic Writers and the East: Anxieties of Empire, Curiosity and the Aesthetics of Travel Writing, 1770-1840 and Robert Burns and Pastoral: Poetry and Improvement in Late-18th Century Scotland; the edited collections Enlightenment Travel and British Identities: Thomas Pennant’s Tours of Scotland and Wales and Romanticism and Popular Culture in Britain and Ireland; and the first volume of the Oxford Edition of the Works of Robert Burns, Commonplace Books, Tour Journals, and Miscellaneous Prose. His latest monograph, Stepping Westward: Writing the Highland Tour c. 1720-1830, which we discuss below, was published by Oxford University Press in March. His plenary lecture from BARS’ 2017 conference in York was also recently published as Philosophical Vagabonds: Pedestrianism, Politics, and Improvement on the Scottish Tour.

1) How did you come to decide that you wanted to write a book on the Highland Tour?

There’s a parallel between the genesis of Stepping Westward: Writing the Highland Tour and my earlier book Curiosity and the Aesthetics of Travel Writing (2002). My interest in travel writing about the ‘antique lands’ of Egypt, India and Mexico developed while researching the footnotes and settings of orientalist poems by Lord Byron, Thomas Moore, and Robert Southey when I was writing British Romantic Writers and the East (1992). Before the 1980s, travel writing tended to be regarded as ‘background’ for social and cultural historians: reading the work of Mary Louise Pratt, Elizabeth Bohls, Ina Ferris or Peter Womack persuaded me to read travel as a distinctive literary genre, indeed one of the most successful and widely-read varieties of romantic literature. The emphasis on antiquarianism and natural history, as well the inclusion of maps and topographical engravings, also made it one of the most visually splendid and interdisciplinary genres in the period.

Correspondingly, Stepping Westward emerged from later research on Robert Burns (Robert Burns and Pastoral, and my Oxford edition of Burns’s Commonplace Books, Tour Journals, and Miscellaneous Prose). Editing Burns’s fragmentary Highland Tour journal of 1787 taught me that the poet was following an already well-established cultural practice in touring the Highlands, and one with a huge literary hinterland (I love Alec Finlay’s definition of the eighteenth-century tour as ‘a journey accompanied by a surfeit of books’!) A great many canonical literary, artistic and intellectual figures made the tour before and after Burns: Daniel Defoe, Dr Johnson, James Boswell, Thomas Gray, Elizabeth Montagu, Sir Joseph Banks, James Macpherson, Hester Piozzi, William Gilpin, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, S.T. Coleridge, James Hogg, Walter Scott, John Keats, William Turner, etc. etc. And while all wrote and/or published narratives of their tours, hundreds of manuscript tours by lesser-known travellers gather dust in libraries and archives in Britain and further afield, many of them full of original insights and wonderful writing. Whereas relatively few women published Scottish tours in the period, numerous manuscript tours survive written by women, all of which richly reward further study, further consolidating the importance of woman’s writing in this period.

Originally my research encompassed the Scottish tour in general, but I soon realised that there was simply too much material, and I decided instead to focus on travel to the Gaidhealtachd, the Highlands and Islands. The majority of Scottish tours made in the period were directed to the Highlands, even if travellers also visited and described the Scottish Borders, the Lowlands, or Orkney and Shetland. Another inspiration was a wonderful four-year collaboration with Mary-Ann Constantine on the AHRC-funded Curious Travellers project, focused on the Scottish and Welsh tours of the 18th century Welsh travellers Thomas Pennant and creating digital editions of Pennant’s correspondence, as well as unpublished contemporary manuscript tours. Although Pennant’s two Scottish tours of 1769 and 1772 were eclipsed by Dr Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (published in 1775), it was Pennant (not Johnson) who really established the paradigm for writing the Highland tour, informing the experiences (and writings) of travellers and tourists over the next century. That is why my chapter on Pennant is the keystone of Stepping Westward

Consolidating a lifelong interest in Highland culture and topography, around 2013 I had started learning Gaelic, which proved to be a major theme in the contemporary travel literature, and one that plays a central role in the book. Working on Pennant with Welsh-language researchers at CAWCS in Aberystwyth made the Highland tour especially interesting to me, because as in Wales (and in common with Ireland ‘beyond the pale’), tourists from England and the Scottish Lowlands were travelling in a different linguistic as well as cultural zone. This problematized a common notion of a ‘domestic’ or ‘home’ tour in the period, as travellers discovered that Britain was not a homogenous anglophone state. (In this respect collaborating with colleagues in Glasgow’s Gaelic and Scottish History departments was also a great learning experience.) And yet these tours of the Scottish Gaidhealtachd were a bit different from colonial tours that I’d addressed in Curiosity and the Aesthetics of Travel Writing. Military occupation, state-financed ‘improvement schemes’, linguistic repression and missionary activity, as well as forced clearance and emigration, certainly make the Highlands look distinctly ‘colonial’, at least more like Ireland than the Scottish Lowlands. Yet the indigenous Highland elites benefited massively from the colonial economy, and an ideology of ‘Highlandism’ knitted Gaelic tradition and military prowess into service of the British Empire. So I have tried to allow the interesting question of a ‘post-colonial Highlands’ to remain an open one in the book.

2) How did the Highlands change for tourists across the period that the book examines?

A great deal. The laying out of General Wade’s new roads to quell Jacobite resistance to the Hanoverian state opened up Scotland not only to the forces of British militarism but also to commerce and trade, as well as to philosophical and scenic tourism, as a recent theatre of war became imbued with aesthetic and topographical significance. Visiting sites of ‘improvement’ became a powerful ideological motive for many British travellers in the century after the 1707 Union, as they assessed its effects on a ‘primitive’ culture and environment that had been considered an intractable problem. Travellers like Richard Pococke and John Walker, and later Pennant and Joseph Banks ( as well as to a lesser extent Dr Johnson) were more engaged in ‘surveying’ the country than in leisure tourism. But that would change in the 1770s and ’80s as two distinct itineraries were opened up through the Highlands, described by Pennant as the ‘long tour’ and the ‘petit tour’ respectively. In general, the Highland tour was probably more ‘literary’ than any other variety of the British home tour in this period. Antiquarian travellers carried copies of Tacitus’s Agricola in their baggage and sought for the sites of Roman camps and Caledonian resistance: after 1760, the Poems of Ossian were a ‘must-have’ accompaniment for tourists, supplemented after about 1810 by the poems and novels of Walter Scott. In some respect Ossian was Scotland’s answer to Burke’s Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful, and it certainly imbued rugged Highland scenery (and challenging weather!) with sublime resonance. Gilpin and his picturesque disciples made the pursuit of scenery a motive in itself, thereby encouraging women tourists like Hester Piozzi, Sarah Murray, and Dorothy Wordsworth, as well as those boasting no particular antiquarian or naturalistic expertise, to travel and to write up their tours. Talking my title from Wordsworth’s tour poem ‘Stepping Westward’ underlines the close relationship between travel writing, poetry and the novel in the romantic period. By giving myself a ‘long duree’ (over a century from the building of Wade’s military roads in the 1720s to the death of Sir Walter Scott and the beginnings of railway travel in the 1830s), I had a great opportunity to explore the development of a specific genre of travel writing, during a century of massive change, especially in the Highlands.

3) To what extent did the Highland tour become a generic proposition (as knowledge of particular routes accrued and travellers were taught what to feel by the recorded experiences of their forebears), and to what extent did it provide space for idiosyncrasies and the articulation of difference, both on the ground and between book covers?

My book argues that the first significant Highland tour to be published was Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland (pub. 1754 but written in the 1720s and ’30s), almost certainly the work of Edmund Burt, an employee of the London government with the unenviable task of collecting rent from forfeited Jacobite estates. For Burt the solution to Highland backwardness was the construction of military roads by his friend and patron General Wade, and it was these roads (and subsequent transport networks built by Major William Caulfeild and Thomas Telford) that enabled tourism: both the long and ‘petit’ tours followed the military roads, except when travellers crossed to Skye or the inner Hebrides. But despite its extraordinary ‘thick description’ of Highland life, Burt’s book was so Scotophobic that Pennant, Dr Johnson, and subsequent eighteenth-century travellers anxious to make the tour an ‘act of union’ made no explicit reference to it.

By contrast, Pennant’s practice of circulating questionnaires to Highland ministers and gentlemen and incorporating ‘local knowledge’ into his travel books made his two Scottish tour narratives a compendium of miscellaneous knowledge, structured around his actual itineraries. For the first time they included numerous engravings, many of them based on the paintings and drawings of Pennant’s ‘artist servant’ Moses Griffith. For at least the next forty years the Pennantian model dominated both published and manuscript travel accounts of the Highlands, although from the 1780s the search for the Gilpinian picturesque made a great impact on both the practice and the writing of tours. I argue in the two final chapters of Stepping Westward that around 1810 the Pennantian model of the Highland Tour as (in Ina Ferris’s words) ‘a knowledge genre’ became exhausted, as proclaimed by Walter Scott in a devastating 1809 review of Sir John Carr’s Caledonian Sketches. There was simply nothing new to say about Scotland that hadn’t been already stated by Pennant and his legion of followers. So the Highland tour took a new literary turn: Scott’s verse romances Lady of the Lake and Lord of the Isles, as well as his novels like Waverley and Rob Roy created the conditions for a new wave of ‘romantic’ literary tourism to the Highlands. This was increasingly facilitated by organised tourist guides and steam boats to remoter destinations like Fingal’s Cave, and Loch Coriusk on Skye. 

4) If a modern reader asked you to recommend just three of the many eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Highland tours you’ve read as part of this project, which would you pick, and why?

Edmund Burt’s Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland (1754). The book captures the edgy feel of the Highlands in the 1720s and ’30s, in the interim between the two major Jacobite wars. Written in the ‘polite’ epistolary style of Addison and Steele, albeit displaying a deep cultural prejudice against the Gaels, it presents a unique ethnographic view of traditional Highland society on the eve of its destruction. No wonder Scott plundered it for his description of Fergus McIvor’s stronghold at Glennaquoich in Waverley.  I am fascinated by Burt’s struggle to describe the nature of Highland topography without the resources of sublime or picturesque aesthetics. 

Thomas Pennant’s Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides, 1772 (1774-6) Pennant’s reputation for being a ‘dry old stick’ is completely belied by the inventive, witty, and imaginative writing which distinguishes this travel account. Along with Gilbert White (whose Natural History of Selborne was addressed to him), Pennant deserves to be credited as a key influence on British nature writing, and there is lots more here besides. Because he was accompanied by Dr John Stuart, a native Gaelic speaker and expert on the culture, Pennant shows a nuanced and accurate understanding of the Gaels, and especially the social problems linked to ‘improvement’. His highly political ‘Vision at Ardmaddie’ at the end of the first volume describes a dream in which an Ossianic warrior denounces modern Clan chiefs for having degenerated into ‘rapacious landlords’.

Dorothy Wordsworth, Recollections of a Tour in Scotland, 1803. Like many travel accounts written by women, this was never published during the author’s lifetime. But in my view it is really the masterpiece of the whole genre, making a decisive break with the Pennantian ‘knowledge genre’, and successfully practicing a gendered version of her brother William’s poetics of ’emotion recollected in tranquillity’. Dorothy had learnt so much from Gilpin and his picturesque disciples, but her powerful gift for natural description enters new territory, as well as presenting a context for her brother’s superb tour poems like ‘Stepping Westward’ and ‘The Solitary Reaper’. Recollections also paints a moving and sympathetic portrait of a plebeian Gaelic world in a moment of deep historical crisis.

5) Now that this book’s finished, what new projects are you planning?

I’m currently co-curating an exhibition entitled Old Ways and New Roads: Travel in Scotland 1720-1830 with Glasgow art historian John Bonehill and curator Anne Dulau. It was to have opened in Glasgow University’s Hunterian Art Gallery in August of this year, but because of the pandemic, it has been postponed until the start of 2021. Although the show develops many of the themes discussed in Stepping Westward, it is more focused on paintings, topographical drawings, and maps relating to the tour, including a section on tourist satire. I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity of working with experts in visual culture and museum collections. We’re co-editing a book entitled Old Ways and New Roads to be published by Birlinn Press in Edinburgh to coincide with the exhibition, with nine essays by invited contributors, and nearly 200 illustrations.

Beyond that, I’m collaborating on an edition of the only travel account of this period written in Gaelic, Dugald McNicol’s manuscript ‘Barbados Diary’ (1809-13), and also have plans to produce an edition of Burt’s Letters from the North of Scotland with Gabriel Cervantes. I’m co-editing one of the volumes of Burns’ Correspondence for the Oxford edition, and there is a lot more work to be done on Ossian and the tour. Mary-Ann Constantine and I also have plans for another Pennant bid, with a view to editing his Scottish and Welsh Tours, so I will certainly be keeping busy during the lockdown and beyond.