Scottish Travel Writers

'The Scots have made a greater Figure Abroad than any other nation in Europe,' he asserted; 'this hath been generally ascribed to the Barrenness of their Country, as not being able to maintain its Inhabitants: But this is a vulgar Error for its entirely owing to the Fineness of their Education.'

This quote, featured in David Armitage's essay on the Scottish Diaspora in Scotland: A History, is a fine introduction to any feature on the Scots Abroad. As Armitage reports, there are an estimated 25 million people of Scottish descent living outside Scotland. When Scots travel, as they have done for centuries, what do they report back? In this article, we look at some of Scotland's travel writers, from Boswell and Stevenson to Dalrymple and Kalder.

Journey To The Hebrides

In 1773, Dr Samuel Johnson's classic text of travel writing about Scotland, A Journey to the Hebrides, was published. Johnson had been influenced, in part, by the writings of Martin Martin (Màrtainn MacGilleMhàrtainn), an early 18th century writer from the Isle of Skye. Martin Martin's most famous work, A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, was published in 1703. Johnson felt, however, that Martin's book lacked sufficient understanding of the 'modern world' outside of the Western Isles, and so failed to report the more interesting aspects of island life.

Johnson's companion, James Boswell, was already highly regarded for his writing, in particular his An Account of Corsica, which was first published in 1765. The journal combines a history of Corsica with a debate over the identity and independence the Mediterranean island. Written with his home audience in mind, who will have had heard of Corsica and its struggle for independence, but known nothing of the details, An Account of Corsica combines scholarly research with a personal travelogue.

Tobias Smollett

In 1766 the Scottish doctor, author and satirist Tobias Smollett published Travels Through France and Italy. His two-year Grand Tour, taken after the death of his 15-year-old daughter Elizabeth, took Smollett to Nice, and then on to Genoa, Rome and Florence. Saddened by the death of Elizabeth, and himself sick with an intestinal disorder, his account of the travels is filled with prejudices, acerbic wit, and anger. Quarrelling with innkeepers, travellers and contemptuous of foreigners; Travels Through France and Italy reveals as much about Smollett as it does about the two countries. He was described by one publisher as 'the world's champion bad traveller', and fellow traveller Laurence Sterne nicknamed Smollett 'Smelfungus' in his own account, A Sentimental Journey.

Another 18th-century writer was mariner John Nicol, who travelled around Greenland, the West Indies, the South Pacific and Australia. When he returned to Scotland, he lived in poverty before publishing his memoirs. His writing is collected in The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner by Tim Flannery.

The Cévennes Massif

Robert Louis Stevenson, one of Edinburgh's greatest literary sons, is most famous for his swashbuckling tales of adventure such as Kidnapped and Treasure Island, and the seminal The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. But of his many books, the earliest still in print is the travelogue Travels With A Donkey in the Cévennes, written in 1878. Struggling with ill-health in Edinburgh, and longing to see his beloved Fanny Osbourne but without the funds to do so, Stevenson embarked on a 12-day, 120 mile hike through the Cévennes region in southern France. Still in his twenties, he was accompanied by his notebook and a stubborn donkey named Modestine.

The book begins with a description of the people of Monastier, his starting point:

"There are adherents of each of the Four French parties... - and they all hate, loathe, decry, and calumniate each other. " [Yet] "In the midst of this Babylon found myself a rallying-point, every one was anxious to be kind and helpful to a stranger."

Travel with a Donkey was a success; just a few months after publication, Stevenson had raised enough money to visit Fanny in the USA. His travels in America were recounted in The Amateur Emigrant, which was published in 1895. Stevenson's travels have been translated into a walking guidebook to the Cévennes region.

Mountain Writing

For some writers, Scotland's mountains and scenery are just not enough. Dunbar-born John Muir emigrated to the United States in 1849, where he studied in the "university of the wilderness", hiking across the American states. Muir is now regarded as the father of the environmental movement, and he founded the influential Sierra Club. Muir's journals have been collected in The Wilderness Journeys.

The Mountains Look on Marrakech

Although born in Sri Lanka, Hamish Brown is one of the best-known contemporary Scottish writers on mountaineering and the great outdoors. He has written numerous walking guides to the Scottish hills, but he is also the author of The Mountains Look on Marrakech, the story of a 900-mile trek through the Atlas Mountains in Northwest Africa. Another Scottish mountain writer is Cameron McNeish, author of The Wilderness World of Cameron McNeish.

See also: Scottish Mountaineering Books

Contemporary Travel Writers

What Peter Mayle did for Provence, Peter Kerr has done for the Spanish island of Mallorca. Escaping the recession of the early 1980s, Peter Kerr sold his East Lothian farm and moved his family to Mallora, intending to become an orange farmer. But when a freak snowstorm descended on his orange groves, he turned to writing. His Mallorcan experiences are recounted in Snowball Oranges, Mañana Mañana, Viva Mallorca!, A Basketful of Snowflakes and From Paella To Porridge, the final book in the series about Kerr's eventual return to Scotland.

City of Djinns

William Dalrymple is perhaps Scotland's finest contemporary travel writer, winning awards for each of his Indian travel books. He was only 22 when he wrote In Xanadu, already considered a classic of travel writing. Dalrymple moved to Delhi in the late 1980s, and his two years in the city inspired City of Djinns, book which not only explores modern-day Delhi, but also uncovers the history of the great city which has been capital of several ancient Indian empires as well as modern-day India. Other travel books by Dalrymple are From The Holy Mountain and The Age of Kali. Dalyrmple's work is praised equally in the UK and India; as David Robinson of the Scotsman has said, "What Edward Gibbon was to ancient Rome, William Dalrymple will be to the magnificent Mughals.".

Described by the Evening Standard as 'Bill Bryson with Tourette's', Daniel Kalder, from Dunfermline, was determined to be an 'anti-tourist', and the result is Lost Cosmonaut. Exploring the forgotten provinces of Russia, desolate cities and bleak deserts, Lost Cosmonaut is a black comic travel guide of the places most of us would chose to avoid.

Similarly off-beat is Angus Bell's Slogging the Slavs: A Paranormal Tour from The Baltic to the Bosphorus, in which the Scotsman travels round Eastern Europe, playing cricket with unheard-of national teams and MI6 secret agents.

Long Way Round

Star Wars actor Ewan McGregor, and friend Charley Boorman, travelled the Long Way Round the world by motorbike. Their adventures, from Kazakhstan to Canada, became a hugely successful TV series and one of the best-selling Scottish books of 2005.

Even musicians have got in on the act recently. Alex Kapranos, lead singer with Glasgow band Franz Ferdinand, started writing about the food he ate while on tour, and the essays were collected in Sound Bites.

Books featured in this article

  • Cover scan of An Account Of Corsica, The Journal Of A Tour To That Island; And Memoirs Of Pascal Paoli
    An Account Of Corsica, The Journal Of A Tour To That Island; And Memoirs Of Pascal Paoli - James Boswell - Hardback
    This first complete reprint of Boswell's book on Corsica since the 18th century contains both parts of the original text, comprehensive annotation, textual apparatus, & a critical introduction.
  • Cover scan of City Of Djinns
    City Of Djinns - William Dalrymple - Paperback
    Alive with the mayhem of the present and sparkling with William Dalrymple's irrepressible wit, City of Djinns is a fascinating portrait of a city.
  • Cover scan of From Paella To Porridge
    From Paella To Porridge: A Farewell To Mallorca And A Scottish Adventure - Peter Kerr - Paperback
    The Kerr family say goodbye to their farm in Mallorca after three years of hard work and return to Scotland. Their adventure begins with Peter exploring Scotland with fresh eyes, visiting such places as the 'Biarritz of the North', and giving us an insider's view of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo.
  • Cover scan of A Journey To The Western Islands Of Scotland A Tour To The Hebrides
    A Journey To The Western Islands Of Scotland A Tour To The Hebrides - Samuel Johnson - Paperback
    This text contains Johnson's descriptions of the customs, religion, education, trade and agriculture of a society that was new to him. Boswell offers an intimate personal record of Johnson's behavior and conversation during the trip.
  • Cover scan of The Life And Adventures Of John Nicol, Mariner
    The Life And Adventures Of John Nicol, Mariner - John Nicol - Paperback
    This work renders the story of a man whom history has nearly forgotten. In his many voyages the Scottish-born sailor John Nicol twice circumnavigated the globe, visiting every inhabited continent and participating in many great events of exploration.
  • Cover scan of Long Way Round
    Long Way Round: Chasing Shadows Across The World - Ewan McGregor; Charley Boorman - Paperback
    Fellow film actors and bike enthusiasts travel 20,000 miles around the world by motorbike encountering many challenges ranging from extreme weather to impenetrable terrain, caviar fishing in the Caspian, wrestling with the Mongolian Olympic team and riding with the Canadian Mounties.
  • Cover scan of Lost Cosmonaut
    Lost Cosmonaut: Travels To The Republics That Tourism Forgot - Daniel Kalder - Paperback
    'Lost Cosmonaut' documents Daniel Kalder's travels in the bizarre and mysterious worlds of Russia's ethnic republics. Profane yet wise, honest and yet full of lies, this book is a blackly comic tour of the most alien planet in our cosmos: Earth.
  • Cover scan of The Robert Louis Stevenson Trail
    The Robert Louis Stevenson Trail: A Walking Tour In The Velay And Cévennes, Southern France - Alan Castle - Paperback
    Robert Louis Stevenson's account of his 140 mile trek through the Massif Central of southern France has long captured the imagination of walkers and lovers of literature alike. This guide will prove indispensable to the holidaymaker planning to follow in the 19th century author's footsteps.
  • Cover scan of Snowball Oranges
    Snowball Oranges: One Mallorcan Winter - Peter Kerr - Paperback
    A Scottish family give up relative sanity and security to go and grow oranges for a living in a secluded valley in the mountains of Mallorca. However, it isn't long before they realise that they have been sold a bit of a lemon of an orange farm.
  • Cover scan of Sound Bites
    Sound Bites: Eating On Tour With Franz Ferdinand - Alex Kapranos - Paperback
    In September 2005, the author began writing about what he ate while touring the world with the rock band Franz Ferdinand. Whether it's munching donuts with cops in Brooklyn, swallowing bull's balls with the band in Buenos Aires or queuing for a saveloy in South Shields, this work includes snapshots of life on the road.
  • BDS Thumbnail Image
    Travels Through France And Italy - Tobias Smollett - Paperback
    Full of prejudice, grousing, sharp observation, and caustic satire, this is the first travel book in modern literature to go beyond the simple conveyance of information to reflect the writers state of mind.
  • Cover scan of Travels With A Donkey In The Cévennes
    Travels With A Donkey In The Cévennes - Robert Louis Stevenson - Paperback
    In 1878, Robert Louis Stevenson was suffering from poor health, struggling to survive on the income derived from his writings, and tormented by his infatuation with Fanny Osbourne, a married American woman. His response was to embark on journeys through Cévennes and America where he wrote 'Travels With a Donkey' and 'The Amateur Emigrant'.
  • Cover scan of The Wilderness World Of Cameron McNeish
    The Wilderness World Of Cameron McNeish: Essays From Beyond The Black Stump - Cameron McNeish - Hardback
    Cameron McNeish is one of Scotland's best-known hillwalkers and broadcasts regularly on TV and radio. Having walked, climbed, skied and backpacked throughout the world, he now takes the reader on a journey from the Cairngorms to Yosemite.