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Issue 53 - Daniel Defoe's Scotland

Scotland Magazine Issue 53
October 2010

 

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Daniel Defoe's Scotland

John Hannavy journeys along Scotland's east coast in the footsteps of the creator of Robinson Crusoe

High on a wall in the little Fife village of Lower Largo, the statue of a roughly-dressed and bearded man stands with his flintlock in the left hand, his right hand shielding his eyes as he looks out to sea. Erected in 1885, and set in the wall of the house in which he lived, this is a statue of Alexander Selkirk, whose four years as a selfimposed castaway on a remote Pacific island are said to have inspired Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719.

However interesting Robinson Crusoe might be – and it is certainly an excellent early example of the modern novel – it is another of Defoe’s publications which has set me off on my travels this month – and it is not a novel, but a travelogue.

“HITHERTO”, he wrote in the introduction to the Scottish chapters of A Tour Thro’ the Whole ISLAND of GREAT BRITAIN, “all the descriptions of Scotland, which have been published in our day, have been written by natives of that country, and that with such an air of the most scandalous partiality, that it has been far from pleasing the gentry or nobility of Scotland themselves, and much farther has it been from doing any honour to the nation or to the country.

Defoe undertook a series of extensive journeys through Scotland – probably in 1724 – gathering material for the third volume of his acclaimed three-volume travelogue. Just a few years after publishing Robinson Crusoe, the author had embarked in 1722 on a project about as different as could be from his epic account of life on a desert island!

The first edition of A Tour Thro’ the Whole ISLAND of GREAT BRITAIN did not bear his name, the credit on the title page identifying the author simply as ‘A Gentleman’. The published ‘Tour’ was never intended as a guidebook, although it did set out to offer “useful observations” on the “Principal Cities and Towns, their Situation, Magnitude, Government and Commerce; The Customs, Manners, Speech, as also the Exercises, Diversions, and Employment of the People; The Produce and Improvement of the Lands, the Trade, and Manufacture” and “The Public Edifices, Seats, and Palaces of the NOBILITY and GENTRY”. And some of his observations are very ‘useful’ indeed, and highly illuminating about life in Scotland nearly three centuries ago.

His tour was compiled as a series of “Circuits or Journies”, and his account of the country was split up into chapters he described as “Letters”. Scotland is to be found in Letters 11, 12 and 13.

The introductory paragraphs Defoe continued “The world shall, for once, hear what account an Englishman shall give of Scotland, who has had occasion to see most of it, and to make critical enquiries into what he has not seen.” As Scotland at the time was treated very much as a second-rate part of Britain – a Britain already dominated by the English less than two decades after the 1707 Act of Union had removed the governance of Scotland to London – I am sure many Scots would have taken Defoe to task over the inclusion of ‘for once’ in that opening remark.

But Defoe’s account of the country is highly illuminating, despite its concentration on the gentry. While we learn very much less about the Scots people than, say, in the later accounts of Thomas Pennant, or Boswell and Johnston, both published in the 1770s, Defoe does tell us a great deal about Scotland’s imports and exports, and its maritime trading with western Europe. With well established links with Norway, Sweden, Netherlands, France, Spain and the northern ports of present-day Germany and Latvia – listed by Defoe as Bremen, ‘Hambrough’, ‘Dantzick’ and Riga – Scotland’s ports were both busy and successful. Exports included coal, salt, lead, corn, woolens, ‘linnen’, and both dried and pickled herring.

The ports of Aberdeen, Dundee and Leith already had well-established European trading links, while Culross was already exporting large tonnages of coal from Sir George Bruce’s mines, with the coal ships returning empty save for the orange pantiles, used as ballast, which gave the Fife coast its unique character. The Earl of Wemyss was also exporting coal from his Fife coalfields, and developing the port of Methil – or ‘Methuel’ to Defoe – to cope with it.

Imports were considerable and varied even in the early 18th century, with linseed oil and ‘East-India goods’ from Holland, pitch, tar and timber from Norway, timber, iron and copper from Sweden, and a wide range of other products from Germany, Latvia, Russia and elsewhere.

“And all these put together,” wrote Defoe, “if I am rightly inform’d, do not balance the lead, coal, and salt, which they export every year: So that the balance of trade must stand greatly to the credit of the account in the Scots commerce.” Then he offered some pertinent suggestions, which others would bring into being a century or so later.

“Why might not the wool, which they send to England, be manufactur’d in Scotland?” he asked, adding “But here is a plain scheme, let the Scots gentlemen set but their stewards to work to employ the poor people to spin the wool into yarn, and send the yarn into England; ‘tis an easy manufacture, and what the Scots are very handy at, and this could never be difficult.

They may have patterns of the yarn given them here, a price agreed on, and good security for payment: This can have no difficulty; the Irish are fallen into this way, to such a degree, that 40,000 packs of wool and worsted yarn are brought into England now every year, and sold here, where, about thirty years ago, not a pound of it was imported ready spun.” As he moved north, Defoe found himself less and less welcome! “We did not find so kind a reception among the common people of Angus,” he wrote, “and the other shires on this side the country, as the Scots usually give to strangers: But we found it was because we were English men; [and] it was on account of the Union, which they almost universally exclaim’d against tho’ sometimes against all manner of just reasoning.” Now, there’s a surprise!

Defoe’s insistence that much of what was good in Scotland owed its success to English intervention would probably not have endeared him to the locals either.

Observing how good agriculture was in Moray and Nairn, he proclaimed, without any qualification, that this was all down to ‘English soldiers’ who had settled in the area when their regiments were disbanded after the 1715 rebellion, and who had turned their talents to farming. To have revolutionised Scottish farming practices in only nine years would, indeed, have been remarkable!

But he was just being true to his promise that “The world shall, for once, hear what account an Englishman shall give of Scotland.”