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.
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.
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 http://georgeborrow.org/home.html