George Borrow’s Scottish Tour

George Borrow, the Victorian writer and traveller, had links with Scotland long before he undertook his great tour of the country in 1858. As a boy he had studied at the High School in Edinburgh during the winter months of 1813-14, arriving in the city with his father’s regiment, the West Norfolk Militia, garrisoning the Castle towards the close of the Napoleonic Wars.

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Oban Harbour (c) John Bainbridge 2018

These were wild times for the young Borrow. When not at school he was caught up in boyish battles between the Old and New Towns. He made the acquaintance of the militia’s drummer boy, David Haggart, who deserted soon afterwards to become a notorious burglar and footpad, hanged in 1821 for killing his gaoler at Dumfries. Borrow spent much of his youth on the march with the regiment, giving him a taste for a life of vagabondage.

Despite an adventurous adulthood, spent living with Gypsies in England and touring Spain as a missionary – expeditions that inspired his books Lavengro and The Bible in Spain – he never forgot this youthful time in Scotland. In Lavengro he was to recall the excitement of crossing the Tweed into the northern kingdom and gaining a first view of the Highlands.

George Borrow visited Scotland in 1858, mourning the recent death of his beloved mother. He had found the grief difficult to cope with and his wife suggested a palliative walking tour ‘to recruit his health and spirit’. Even in middle age Borrow was an indefatigable tramper. In younger days he had walked the 112 miles from London to Norwich in a single day. In 1854 he had undertook a vast pedestrian exploration of Wales in search of that land’s ancient literature, immortalised in his classic book Wild Wales. This inveterate walker would often remark to his long-suffering wife ‘I’m just going for a walk’ and then disappear for weeks at a time.

Writing to a friend he was to recall that ‘in the latter part of the year ’58, I visited the Highlands and walked several hundred miles amongst them’. Borrow’s notebooks and letters suggest that he had thoughts of turning his experiences into a book, a companion to Wild Wales, but depression and the ill-fortune of a writing life meant the project was abandoned. It is, however, possible, using the notes he made, to recreate the route Borrow took during this extensive Scottish tour.

Borrow started out from his old stamping ground of Edinburgh, after coming much of the way by ship from Yarmouth. He was not particularly impressed. He wrote to his wife that the city was ‘wonderfully altered since I was here, and I don’t think for the better’. A winding route took him through Glasgow and on to Inverness.

These early days were not happy, for Borrow, argumentative at the best of times, had fallen foul of a ferryman whilst crossing the Firth. ‘The other day,’ he complained to his wife, ‘I was swindled out of a shilling by a villain to whom I had given it for change.’ Borrow had wanted to recourse to law but, he reported, the ferryman ‘had a clan about him…and I should have been outsworn’.

Once on the move, Borrow was much happier. He took a steamer from Inverness to Fort Augustus, amidst what he describes in his notebook as ‘a dreadful hurricane of wind and rain’. Despite the weather he was more in his element, meeting a woman from Dornoch who, though having no Gaelic herself, showed him a Gaelic book of spiritual songs by ‘one Robertson’ and talked to him about Alexander Cumming, ‘a fat blacksmith and great singer of Gaelic songs’. Borrow was a polyglot who could speak over twenty languages and had more than a nodding acquaintance with the Gaelic.

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Melrose Abbey (c) John Bainbridge 2018

He spent four days in Fort Augustus, exploring the locality. He records that ‘the first day I passed over the Corryarrick…nearly up to my middle in snow. As soon as I had passed it I was in Badenoch. The road on the farther side was horrible, and I was obliged to wade several rivulets, one of which was very boisterous and nearly threw me down’.

On October 22nd Borrow left Oban for Mull which in his own words he ‘traversed in every direction’, commenting that the scenery was ‘very wild country, perhaps the wildest in Europe’. From his notes and letters it is clear that he climbed Ben More, where he gathered some moss for his step-daughter Henrietta, and visited Salen, Iona and Tobermory, whilst staying with Ann Petrie at the Mull Hotel for a shilling a night. On the conclusion to this visit, Borrow noted that ‘the best Scottish Gaelic is said to be spoken in the Isle of Mull, which, however, is very thinly inhabited’.

According to his notes, Borrow left Oban for Greenock via the ‘Mull of Cantire’ (Kintyre) finally arriving in Glasgow, the whole journey accomplished in one day on November 3rd, though by what means of transportation is unclear. From Glasgow he returned to Inverness by train.

This journey was the occasion of another Borrovian argument. Stretching his legs during a ten minute break in the journey at Huntly, the train went without him. ‘Purposely,’ he complained to his wife, almost as though the locomotive had a life of its own.

He telegraphed ahead to Keith so that his luggage might be rescued. A reply came that it could not be found. ‘I instantly said that I would bring an action against the company, and walked off to the town, where I stated the facts to a magistrate. He advised me to bring my action. I went back and found the people frightened. They telegraphed again – and the reply came back that the things were safe’. Borrow in full ire could be a threatening prospect, over six feet tall and trained in the art of boxing.

By 21st November Borrow was in Thurso, writing to his wife that since his last letter to her he had walked 160 miles. ‘I have been to Johnny Groat’s (sic). I had tolerably fine weather all the way, but within two or three miles of that place a terrible storm arose; the next day the country was covered with ice and snow. There is at present a kind of Greenland winter, colder almost than I ever knew the winter in Russia’.

After having to wait impatiently for a steamer, Borrow crossed over to Orkney where he visited the cathedral in Kirkwall and Hoy. Here he had a chance to revel in his status as a famous author. ‘I have been treated here with every kindness and civility. As soon as the people knew who I was they could scarcely make enough of me’. On the 28th November he crossed to Shetland, buying ‘shawls, veils and hosiery’ in a shop in Lerwick, before returning by boat to Aberdeen, then back to Inverness.

Sending on his possessions, Borrow undertook one last magnificent tramp through the Highlands, from Inverness to Dunkeld and then to Stirling. ‘I never enjoyed a walk more – the weather was tolerably fine, and I was amidst some of the finest scenery in the world’. From Stirling he took the fashionable walking tour into the Trossachs to see Loch Katrine and Loch Lomond ‘thirty-eight miles over horrible roads’. He had read about the area in the novels of Walter Scott, whose books he admired even though Borrow couldn’t ever stomach the promotion of what he called ‘Charlie-over-the-waterism’, being a confirmed anti-Jacobite.

At the end of his long journey, Borrow wrote to his wife ‘I have now seen the whole of Scotland that is worth seeing, and walked 600 miles; a person here must depend entirely upon himself and his own legs’.

He died at Oulton in Suffolk in 1881, mostly forgotten and with his books out of favour. Only with the renewed interest in country walking at the turn of the 20th century did George Borrow become popular again. It is one of the tragedies of walking literature that Borrow did not write a book on Scotland to match Wild Wales. His interest in the Scottish people and the Gaelic language might have provided a classic of Scottish travel.

I’ve written a short eBook about my interest in George Borrow (out now for just 99 pence/cents.) Here’s a link if you want to have a look.


And do visit the website of the George Borrow Society for lots more about this fascinating author at


The Battle of Glen Tilt

I’ve written before about the Scottish land access battles which eventually led – in 2003 – to their splendid Land Reform legislation, which allows responsible access to almost all Scottish land and waters. When I walk there I feel envious. We English, though we value the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CRoW), very much recognise we are just – as usual – getting the crumbs from the table.DSCF0537

The Scottish land access was hard won over centuries.

I often think of it as we wander up Glen Tilt, one of our favourite Scottish glens. We were there the other day, a lovely fresh one for walking, passing the scene of the fight for Glen Tilt. Here are some extracts from the account in my book The Compleat Trespasser, which gives a history of the access battles on both sides of the border:

It was in Glen Tilt, a particularly scenic part of the Duke’s 200,000 acres, that one of the most memorable of Victorian access battles took place. The track through Glen Tilt, the only direct route from Blair to Braemar and Deeside, had been a drovers’ route for centuries and was much used by the growing number of recreational walkers, until the sixth duke began to forbid public access.DSCF0542

The first recorded conflict was in 1847 between the Duke and Professor Bayley Balfour and a party of botanical students from Edinburgh University, who were forced off the ancient track.

The professor and his students had set out from Braemar, observing the flora of the glen for some nine miles before they were challenged by a shooting party led by a Captain Oswald, a Captain Drummond and several ghillies and servants. The botanists were ordered to turn back to Braemar. They refused to do so and pointed out that the track was a public road. The walkers continued on their way until they encountered a locked gate at Tibby’s Lodge, where a ghillie evidently summoned up the Duke, who seems to have gone into a rage at their presence:

The Duke then said, “Well you must return; you don’t move an inch further, unless you break open the gate, which you may do, and take the consequences. Don’t spoil my walks with stamping. Come off that walk every one of you. Every step you take is a trespass – a new trespass. I shall not count it an additional trespass if you return on the main Walk.” Professor Bayley Balfour – “Oh, it’s a trespass then on the side walk, but not on the main walk.” The Duke – “I shall not waste any more words with you; you must return.”

Given that the passage through Glen Tilt is a considerable walking challenge, the trespassers refused to retreat back to Braemar, though they were forced off the track, as the press reported, and ‘in their desperation, they made their escape over a wall, hotly pursued by the Duke’s familiars.’DSCF0544

Unfortunately for Atholl, the case for access was taken up by the newly-created Edinburgh Society for the Preservation of Rights of Way, formed ‘for protecting the public against being robbed of its walks by private cunning and perseverance’. Three of its members, Alex Torrie, an advocate, Robert Cox, a Writer to the Signet, and Charles Law, a merchant, brought an action against the Duke in the Edinburgh Court of Session.

They argued that the road had been metalled a hundred years before and was kept in repair by statute labour. When the decision went against the duke, he appealed to the House of Lords, where he lost once again. While the case creaked through the Victorian legal system – mostly on Atholl’s argument that its pursuers had no right to bring the action – the Duke made headlines once more over a conflict with two Cambridge University students, who found themselves accosted by him and his retainers as they attempted to use the old drove road on a summer’s day in 1850. As one of the undergraduates told The Times:

On Friday, August 30th, we shouldered our knapsacks and left Castletown of Braemar with the intention of walking to Blair Atholl through Glen Tilt, a distance of thirty miles. We might have gone by another road through Blairgowrie and Dunkeld, but as this road was upwards of sixty miles in length, and we were informed by all persons of whom we inquired at Braemar that though the Duke of Atholl, in spite of the decision of the Court of Session, was still endeavouring to stop all who made use of the bridle-road or footpath through Glen Tilt, yet he would not dare use violence if one insisted on a right of passage, we determined to take the shorter road.

It was a decision that was to bring them into conflict with the Duke himself, as one of the undergraduates recorded in his letter to The Times:

“You must go back! Why didn’t you stop sir?” (The Duke yelled). I again took out my pocket book, and preparing to write, said “What is your name?” “I am the Duke of Atholl” he replied, upon which we immediately tendered him our card (which he read and pocketed) and stated that we wished to proceed to Blair Atholl.  However he insisted that we must “go back” to which we urged that the Court of Session had decided that there was a right of way through Glen Tilt, and, therefore we could not be stopped. He replied angrily “It is not a public way, it is my private drive! You shan’t come down; the deer are coming, the deer are coming!” upon which we expressed our willingness to retire behind the lodge till his sport was ended, but he said we had been impertinent, we claimed it as a right, and we should not go down an inch.

Hereupon I said that in that case I certainly would go down, and if he stopped me it would be at his peril, upon which he became impatient, seized my companion by the collar of his coat, and attempted to force him back, refusing to listen to anything we had to say. This unseemly scene took place before the Duchess and another lady, for whose presence he had so little regard as to use oaths and other violence such as you would scarcely expect to hear from the lips of a gentleman. Finding his strength was of little avail, he shouted for help to his unwilling grooms, who were evidently enjoying the scene from a distance, and my companion, seeing opposition was useless against four men, allowed ourselves to be led away by a servant.DSCF0547

The students remained behind the lodge, being advised by a sympathetic highlander to wait around until dark and then sneak down to Blair Atholl. An attempt to escape up the brae was met by pursuit by two ghillies who at first threatened to take the students up as poachers, and then ordered them back to Braemar:

They told us that we would be closely watched, and if we stirred from the path we would be prosecuted for trespassing. On parting, they took care to tell us that it was not their fault; and I will do them justice to say that they did their work very reluctantly. Well now, there was nothing to do but to take the old ghillies advice, and wait till dark. The hills on each side were very steep, so that, besides the danger of being taken up for trespass, it would have been no easy matter to find our way to a village distant 10 miles. For four long hours, then, we were forced to walk up and down this bleak vale in order to ward off the chill autumn evening. When it became dark we proceeded on our way, which gave us no little trouble and uncertainty, as the darkness of the night was increased by the black shade of the pine forests. However, by midnight we reached the hotel, and soon recovered from the fatigue of a day, which, after all, gave us a good deal of amusement.

But this was not the end of the matter. Two days later The Times published a leader about the event. The editorial voice thundered:

The public have as perfect a right of “way” through the Vale of Glen Tilt as the Duke of Atholl has to the possession of any acre of the property which constitutes his estate. The right in the one case, as the title in the other, is the mere creature of law.

In point of fact there was not, at that time, a ruling on the right of way itself, only on the right of the Edinburgh Society to bring the matter to law. However, the Duke appeared to lose interest in the quarrel, perhaps not least because his actions led to him being lampooned in the magazine Punch and criticised in the correspondence columns of The Times.The_Compleat_Trespas_Cover_for_Kindle

Now, you can walk where you like in Glen Tilt.

My book The Compleat Trespasser is out now in paperback and as a Kindle Ebook. Just click on the link for more details and sales offers:


Text and pictures (c) John Bainbridge 2018


Walking and Robert Louis Stevenson

I’ve been thinking a lot about Robert Louis Stevenson lately, not least because I’ve been re-reading Kidnapped, that great novel of the Scottish landscape. Stevenson’s essay on walking is one of the most inspiring ever written – do see it out, it’s online. Although Stevenson spent his final years in Samoa, Scotland was never away from his thoughts. It was the major subject for much of his writing. Even Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, though nominally set in London, gets its root inspiration from the streets, wynds and closes of Edinburgh.DSCF0569

Even after a hard day’s tramping, when we’re in Pitlochry, we usually walk up through the fields towards Moulin, taking the path past the Caisteal Dubh, the Black Castle, with such fine views up towards Ben Vrackie.

This time we extended the little ramble to Edradour (site of the smallest whisky distillery in Scotland – a bit lost on me as I only drink shandy!), so that we could follow the lane around to Kinnaird, where Stevenson lived for a while in the summer of 1881.

Stevenson’s Home at Kinnaird (c) John Bainbridge 2018

He enjoyed his time in Kinnaird. He wrote in a letter to Sidney Colvin:

We have a lovely spot here: a little glen with a burn, a wonderful burn, gold and green and snow-white, singing loud and low in different steps of its career, now pouring over miniature crags, now fretting itself to death in a maze of rocky stairs and pots; never was so sweet a little river. Behind, great purple moorlands reaching to Ben Vrackie. Hunger lives here, alone with larks and sheep. Sweet spot, sweet spot.

While staying at his cottage, Stevenson wrote two terrific short stories, Thrawn Janet and  The Merry Men. He also thought out aspects of a novel which, in time, became The Master of Ballantrae. In his essay Beggars, Stevenson tells us how he encountered a tinker down by the Kinnaird Burn. He wrote:

You should have heard him speak of what he loved; of the tent pitched beside the talking water; of the stars overhead at night; of the blest return of morning, the peep of day over the moors, the awaking birds among the birches; how he abhorred the long winter shut in cities; and with what delight, at the return of the spring, he once more pitched his camp in the living out-of-doors…

Rosebay Willowherb by a path Stevenson would have known.

It was delightful walking these paths he would have known so well, seeing scenes that are now so familiar to me. We walked down a path, through the gloaming, along a hedge filled with Rosebay Willowherb, looking at the broad view over that grand landscape.

Walking on Flodden Field

What I always remember from schooldays about the Battle of Flodden Field (9th September 1513) is that the English army fought with their backs to Scotland and that the Scottish army fought with their backs to England.Northumberland 267

And that the King of Scotland, James IV was killed in the slaughter, alongside about 10,000 Scots and 4,000 English – the vast majority of whom would have been pressed into fighting by Northumberland 268overlords who wouldn’t have given them much say in the matter.

In Northumberland, we went to walk the trail opened around the battlefield, now peaceful meadows and tree-lined hedges. It is a very accessible battlefield, pleasant to walk around with a number of informative noticeboards and a good leaflet and map available on site.

It is also an easy battle to understand.Northumberland 277

The hill of Flodden is high and steep and would have been relatively unassailable by the English if the Scots had remained there.

As with so many British battles, the losing side gave away the high ground, lured down, charging into a low-lying marshy centre Northumberland 275ground where they were so easily slaughtered.

Many of the dead lie in the churchyard at Branxton village, which would have been around the English left flank during the battle.

Now skylarks hover and their pleasant song is the only noise to break the peace of what is a lovely, pastoral stretch of countryside.

We visited in early evening and had the paths to ourselves. It is a deeply atmospheric place, no different to other stretches of grand countryside in the debatable lands that are still not quite English and not quite Scottish.

Except that a great tragedy was played out there.

Flodden Field is well worth a visit.Northumberland 271

If you want to find out more visit the Flodden Project website at