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Issue 30 - Scott in Mull and Iona (Sir Walter Scott)

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Scotland Magazine Issue 30
December 2006


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Scott in Mull and Iona (Sir Walter Scott)

The latest in our series by Ian Mitchell charting Sir Walter Scott's travels around the Scottish islands

Almost everything Scott had seen had been new to him, since he had left Edinburgh in 1814 on the vessel of the Northern Light-House Commissioners, sailing to Shetland and then to the Hebrides.

But coming to Iona he was on familiar ground. In 1810 he had been invited by MacDonald of Staffa, to visit. He had then seen Fingal’s cave on Staffa which Scott said was “the most wonderful place of the kind that imagination can conceive.” On Ulbha, where MacDonald had his house, Scott’s feudal romance was kindled.

“His people received us under arms, and with a discharge of musketry and artillery.

His piper was in constant attendance on our parties and wakened us with his music.” With MacDonald in 1810 he had also visited Iona, which belonged to the Duke of Argyll.

Though Scott was a snob and fervent believer in aristocratic rule, he was not slow to criticise those he felt neglected their duties. The Laird of Staffa he praised for looking after the welfare of his people. But “I wish I could say the same for the Duke of Argyll”, commented Scott in a private letter. On Iona in 1810 he saw the wretched state of poverty of the inhabitants and records “We were surrounded on the beach by boys and girls, almost naked, all begging for charity and some offering pebbles for sale.” On his return in 1814 he commented “my eyes, familiarised with the wretchedness of Zetland (Shetland) and the Harris, are less shocked with that of Iona.” Again Scott noted the double-edged sword of tourism, bringing income but destroying what it came to seek. Observing the gradual decay of the ecclesiastical remains on Iona, he observed that it was not only the weather which had brought down part of the tower of the cathedral since his previous visit, but also that “the step of the Sassenach visitants is fast destroying these faint memorials.” From Iona, the party landed on Staffa and on August 29, Scott visited “the celebrated cave” once again. He states that “I am not sure whether I was not more affected by this second, than by the first, view of it” – and he waxes eloquent on the columnar basaltic walls, stalagtites and booming of the ocean.

On his previous visit Scott had been regaled by the local boatmen as “the great bard of the Lowland border,” and they said they would name a pillar on Staffa after him, Clachan an Bhaird Sassenach mohr, concluding the ceremony by drinking a libation of whisky. Celtic romance which warmed his heart as much as the whisky.

Next stop was Mull itself, and the party landed at Torloisk where Scott and a companion landed to visit an acquaintance of the poet, Mrs Maclean Clephane. But paying calls on the islands was not without hazards in those days, as Scott noted. They landed in mist, could see no house and followed a cart-track in hope. After Scott and his companion being thoroughly soaked by falling in a burn, they stumbled on the house, “in darkness, dirt and rain.” The Light-House Commissioners’ vessel then passed down the Sound of Mull, Scott observing and commenting on the sights of antiquarian interest which were passed, till they arrived at Tobermory, the little capital of an island which had a population of more than 10,000 at that time; today it is about one-quarter of that number. Scott had noted the massive build up of population on Iona, the subdivision of holdings, and “the danger of a famine in case of a year of scarcity.” The same was the case in Mull.

Scott was a man of contradictions. As one critic noted, he may have been the Last Minstrel, but he was also the First Chairman of the Edinburgh Gas Street Lighting Company! Though he wished to uphold the old clan traditions of the Highlands, he was also a fervent believer in economic development to lessen the poverty of the Highlander. Like many he saw fishing as one of the solutions to poverty. Thus though he delighted at the beauty of the scene before him which would “almost justify the eulogium of Sachaverall who, in 1688, declared that the bay of Tobermory might equal any prospect in Italy,” Scott also waxed eloquent about the British Fisheries Society which had established a station in the town, built on a regular plan between 1787-8. “The houses along the quay are two and three stories high, and well built; the feuars paying to the Society sixpence per foot of the line of the front. The new part is reasonably clean and the old not unreasonably dirty... the place looked thriving and active,” Scott approvingly observed. However, the port was never a real success as a fishing centre, and declined rapidly after 1820, subsequent to which large parts of the island were cleared.

Scott attempted to visit the spring dedicated to the Virgin Mary, from which Tobermory takes its name. On this occasion, however, realism triumphs over romance, for he found that “no vestiges remain of the chapel and the spring rises in the middle of a swamp whose depth and dirt discouraged the nearer approach of Protestant pilgrims.” Entering Loch Linnhe, Scott as ever ponders on economic progress. The Caledonian Canal was being built at that time, and though approving of such developments, he observes that the plan was flawed. “Had the canal been of more moderate depth and the burdens imposed upon passing vessels less expensive, there can be no doubt that the coasters, sloops and barks would have carried on a great trade by means of it.” And indeed, Thomas Telford’s canal was never to fulfil the hopes of those who constructed it, after it opened in 1822.

The last island passed by Scott before landing at Oban on September 1 was Lismore, and again his realism is as much in evidence as his romance, when he comments, “The Catholic Bishop has established a seminary for priests, and, what is better, a valuable lime-work. Reports speak well of the lime, but indifferently of the progress of the students.” Scott’s vision of a Highlands under the protection of benevolent lairds and chieftans, who would promote economic development in the interests of their tenants, while sustaining the traditions of Gaeldom, were never fulfilled, and soon the Clearances were to be in full flood.

However Scott’s publicity work for the Highlands, in his poems and novels, probably did more than anything by a single individual to promote Highland tourism, which, though it may have brought an element of prosperity, has possibly encouraged the erosion of the qualities which differentiated the Highlands from the rest of Scotland in his own day.