A 19th century guide to travelling Scotland – tips for your summer staycation from a Victorian

Set aside your glossy Lonely Planet or Rough Guides and tap into the wisdom of travelling ancestors

The John Murray published guide recommends visiting Fingal's Cave on the Isle of Staffa when seas are calm (Getty Images)

In 1838, a year after the crowning of Queen Victoria, publisher John Murray released the first of its travel books.

The publisher’s guides were released in response to a growing demand for travel as steam rail networks sprawled across the nation, continent and beyond. Travel for leisure was no longer reserved for the super wealthy and the nation’s burgeoning middle class had their sights set on destinations at home and abroad.

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It wasn’t until 1875 that the publisher, founded by an Edinburgh-born Royal Marines officer, would release its first travel guide for Scotland.

The 450-page tome, bound in a rich red - synonymous at the time with Murray’s Handbooks - is a blend of practicality and romanticism, overspilling with tips for every coroner of Scotland from the Borders to the Outer Hebrides, many of which still hold true today.

Getting around

The unnamed author is noticeably impressed by Scotland’s transport infrastructure, noting that Scotland’s once cut-off beauty is now reachable by horse and cart.

He muses: “A perfect revolution has been effected in Scotland in favour of the tourist, whether vehicular, equestrian, or pedestrian. In place of the rugged fastnesses which guarded the romantic scenery of the Highlands, we have, generally speaking, good roads and swift conveyances on them.

The, presumably English, author adds: “Even the once dreary solitudes of Sutherland and Caithness are, for practical purposes, as well off for roads as many an English county.

Hospitality

Praise is also reserved for the proliferation of conveniently located inns.

He says: “At every point good Inns, sometimes rising to the magnitude of palaces, have been erected for the tired and thirsty tourists, while, where possible, railways and steamers convey their patrons into the very heart of the mountains.”

Despite this, the author is critical of the location of these inns, which in the centre of grand scenery, are with rare exceptions placed in the worst situation, just where no view is to be had.

He adds: “the windows are small, and the walls thick to resist the weather, but there is general comfort.”

Despite reservations about overnight stays, the author is content with the quality of food and drink on offer.

He notes: “a pedestrian may travel and live cheaply in the North and North West. It is true he may frequently have to put up with a bowl of Scotch broth, a fresh herring, and a jug of whiskey [sic] toddy to wash it down with; but if that dinner is not fit for a prince, it certainly is for a pedestrian tourist.”

A warning is in place, however, for “Southerners and Cockneys” who may struggle with “national dishes of Haggis and singed sheep’s head, cold”.

Tips for travelling Scotland

Edinburgh

On the country’s capital, the author is unwavering in his praise.

He describes the city as follows: “No one will deny to Edinburgh the praise of extreme natural beauty of situation.

“In this she is surpassed, perhaps, by only two other cities in Europe.

“The grandeur of the black rocky pedestal on which the Castle stands, the majestic bulk and picturesque outline of Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags, and other hills which overlook it on the South and the lovely blue of the Firth of Forth backed by the hills of Fife, are features of romantic beauty hardly to be surpassed.”

Princes Street is recommended as the start of any tour, which he describes as “a long Terrace of Row of fine buildings, gay shops and inviting hotels, unrivalled in Europe for the view it commands.”

From there it is suggested that a tourist embarks on “One of the finest drives, commanding the most extensive and varied views” by travelling “to Lothian road, to Morningside, and round the Braid Hills to Liberton, and back by Newington.”

Glasgow

On Glasgow, the author is also complimentary, albeit with less flowery praise.

Contrasting the two cities he says: “Glasgow, the commercial metropolis of Scotland, and the most important seaport, stands on the River Clyde, 60miles from the sea. Although, after the romantic position of Edinburgh, that of Glasgow must seem flat and monotonous, it is in reality very advantageously, and to a certain extent, picturesquely situated on either bank of the Clyde.

On the town centre he notes where one can find a dram, highlighting “the older part of Glasgow is at the east and north east where the visit will find the old college and the cathedral and an incredible number of whisky shops that crowd the lower class of streets”.

A detour south of the Clyde is also recommended:

“On the south side of the Clyde, about a mile from the river on the outskirts of the suburb of Strathbungo and Crossmyloof, the avenue of Eglinton Street conducts to the Queen’s Park, a pleasant area for the recreation of 160 acres, well planted and laid out.”

On Loch Lomond: “Rowardennan, whence the ascent of Ben Lomond, 4 miles, can be made in little more than 2 hours, with all convenience the path being so gentle that those who choose can ride up the whole way.

“The beauty of Ben Lomond, which is covered with grass to the top, is much enhanced by contrast with The Cobbler and the mountains of Arrochar on the opposite side of the lake.”

On Loch Awe: “Loch Awe is one of the largest and most beautiful of Scottish lakes, although the characteristics of most lakes, of possessing the finest scenery at the head, is here reversed, the head being comparatively tame, and foot being magnificently grand.”

On Dunoon: “Dunoon is one of the best patronised of the Glasgow watering places, and from its position, commanding the whole sweep of the Firth of Clyde, most deservedly so. One of the best points for enjoying this view is the top of the conical rock, at the angle of West Bay, which bears traces of the foundations of an ancient castle which plays a considerable part in the history of the olden time. “

On Glencoe: “It is hard to say under which aspect Glencoe is finest - whether with the shifting lights of cloud and sunshine or when the storm is breaking over its precipitous black jagged rocks. In the latter case the innumerable torrents that tumble down the rifted walls form not the least remarkable feature of the scene.”

On the Isle of Staffa: “Leaving behind Ulva dark and Colonsay which adjoin the mainland [of Mull] pretty closely, the steamer soon approaches Staffa, a small uncultivated island, little more than 1 ½ mile round… the island is penetrated by several caverns, but the most famous of these and usually the only one visits, is Fingal’s Cave.... when the sea is calm the tourist can proceed to the end of the cave in a row-boat, peer down into the deep clear water below, alive with medusae, and polyps, and watch the shimmer of the sunshine reflected from the waves upon the high roof.”

On Ben Nevis: “The charge for a guide is from 8s to 10s. The necessity for taking him depends entirely on the weather, and on the tourist’s acquaintance with mountains. For some a compass and a map are all that is necessary, but the greater number will be all the safer for a guide, as Ben Nevis is famous for mists, and the precipices on the NE side are very dangerous.

“Ladies may easily ride as far as the lake, which is 1700ft above the sea.”

On Fife: “At Burntisland the traveller lands in Fifeshire, one of the richest and most productive of all the Scottish counties. Its soil is fertile, and it has great wealth in coals and large manufactures, and abundant population.”

On St Andrews: “cheerful as a residence and watering-place, and highly interesting from its historical associations and numerous remains of ancient buildings”.

On the Isle of Skye: “As the tourist approaches the coast of Skye, nearing the promontory of Sleat, superb views are gained of the rifts and black precipices of the Coollin [sic] Hills and of Blaven, which, if the evening be fine, are lighted up by the setting sun with magical effect.”

On Dundee: “The town of Dundee bristles with nearly 100 stalks of tall chimneys, and abounds in great Mills, all built of freestone. In these are carried on the staple manufactures of the place — Flax and Linen.”

On Ballater: “In the summer Ballater is very full of visitors, who resort to it partly for the sake of the mineral waters of Pannanich (which are good for dyspepsia), but still more for the purity of its air and the beauty of its situation.

On Loch Maree: “The most striking object in the scenery is Ben Slioch or Sliabhoch (4000 ft.), which rises up in such an uninterrupted mass, nearly straight from the water's edge, that the tourist can scan its rifts and gullies from base to summit at one glance.”

On Assynt: “The singular scenery of Assynt, extending from Loch Broom, derives its character from the geological composition and modifications of " a group of sandstone hills unique in the British Isles " — to use the words of Hugh Miller, who spent his youth among them. They rise abruptly as pyramids or columnar masses to a height of 2000 to 3000 ft., and include Suilven, Canisp, Quinaig, Coilmore, Ben More, Benilie ; all forms of peculiar grandeur in the landscape.”