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Issue 54 - North from Carlisle

Scotland Magazine Issue 54
December 2010


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North from Carlisle

John Hannavy follows in the footsteps of Defoe's second tour of Scotland

Defoe had started his first journey into Scotland when he crossed the Tweed at Berwick. Despite his criticisms of aspects of Scots life and industry, he was generally impressed by what he found in what he called the ‘Louthians’ – the lands which he said were “deservedly call’d the best and most pleasant, as well as most fruitful part of Scotland”.

For his second journey, traveling north from Carlisle, he was less impressed. “It was but a dull welcome into Scotland to see, not only by this town [Dumfries], that the remains of the old devastations, committed in the time of the hostilities between the two nations, were so visible, so unrepair’d, and, as we might say, so likely to continue unrepair’d; whereas, tho’ there are remains also on the English side, yet, not so plain, and in many places things much restor’d, and in a way to be more so: But the poverty of the common people, and the indolence of the gentry, will fully account for the difference.” And when he got to Kirkcudbright – “or, as vulgarly call’d, Kirkubry” – he wrote “Here is a harbour without ships, a port without trade, a fishery without nets, a people without business; and, that which is worse than all, they do not seem to desire business, much less do they understand it.” His criticism was tempered by a little hope – “all the shores of Galloway must remain unnavigated; the fine harbours be unfrequented, the fish be secure and safe from nets till time and better opportunities alter the case, or a people better able, and more inclin’d to business, comes among them, and leads them into it.” A century would pass before his hopes would be realised.

But he tempered his criticism of the coastal folk by acknowledging that “The people of Galloway do not starve tho’ they do not fish, build ships, trade abroad, &. yet they have other business, that is to say, they are meer cultivaters of the earth, and in particular, breeders of cattle, such as sheep, the number of which I may say is infinite, that is to say, innumerable; and black cattle, of which they send to England, if fame lies not, 50 or 60,000 every year.” Further north, he praised the reputation for good seamanship enjoyed by the men of Greenock, and extolled the virtues of using the port of Glasgow – “in the expence of the ships, and especially in time of war, when the channel is throng’d with privateers, and when the ships wait to go in fleets for fear of enemies; whereas the Glasgow men are no sooner out of the Firth of Clyde, but they stretch away to the north west, are out of the wake of the privateers immediately, and are oftentimes at the capes of Virginia before the London ships get clear of the channel.” As he made his way from Glasgow to Stirling – or Sterling as he called it – Defoe was struck by how close the two great rivers, the Forth and the Clyde, passed each other. Building a canal between the two would be ideal, he suggested. “However, upon the whole, I brought it to this; that notwithstanding several circumstances which might obstruct it, and cause the workmen to fetch some winding turns out of the way, yet, that in the whole, a canal of about eight miles in length would fairly join the rivers, and make a clear navigation from the Irish to the German Sea.” He referred to the trading benefits of some of the canals which had been built in France, and concluded “I leave it to time, and the fate of Scotland, which, I am perswaded, will one time or other bring it to pass.” Defoe might have come up with some good ideas, but he was no engineer. He believed his canal could “be done without any considerable obstruction; so that there would not need above four sluices in the whole way, and those only to head a bason, or receptacle, to contain a flash, or flush of water to push on the vessels this way or that, as occasion requir’d, not to stop them to raise or let fall, as in the case of locks in other rivers.” Some forty years later, it did come to pass. John Smeaton designed a viable engineering solution to linking the two rivers, and work started in 1868.

The canal, however, would not be eight miles in length but thirty-five. And rather than no locks as Defoe was suggesting, the project would require thirty-nine of them! It would take twenty-two years to build and cost several lives, and because of financing difficulties, would not open for traffic until 1790. It was outgrown relatively quickly due to the increasing size of ships, and before traffic on it was brought to an end by the construction of central Scotland’s first motorways, it had become mainly used by coastal puffers seeking a short cut.

Today, thanks to the Millennium Project and the development of the amazing Falkirk Wheel, the canal is open again, albeit predominantly catering for leisure traffic.

After reading Defoe’s account of Glasgow, the limitations of his journeys start to become apparent, for he does not progress north towards Oban – although a passing reference is made to the Great Glen – but instead turns towards Stirling, back to Linlithgow, and then down towards the Borders. He carried with him a copy of William Camden’s Britannia acknowledged as the first-ever guide to the British Isles, and as Camden had largely ignored the impenetrable west of Scotland, perhaps Defoe simply decided there must be little there to warrant the effort!

Drawing a line between the Forth and the Clyde, he said of the line he had drawn “I shall speak of nothing beyond it till my next”, so perhaps he did intend to venture further. But apart from travelling up the east coast as far an Inverness, the northern counties remained unexplored.

So, turning south, “we pass’d the old Roman work a second time, which I still call Severus’s wall, because we are assur’d Severus was the last that repair’d it, though he might not make it; and more especially, because the men of learning there generally call it so; the remains of it are very plain to be seen.” Soon he was back in the borders, exploring Melrose, Kelso and their environs. At Traquair, he talked about the construction of Traquair House by “the late Earl of Traquair” as if he had died only recently, and it is at such moments that we suddenly remember he is talking to us from nearly three centuries ago.

Defoe’s Tour Thro’ the Whole ISLAND of GREAT BRITAIN is an engaging document, and while he may not always be completely sympathetic to the Scots, he gave his readers what they were promised – the chance to read an “account an Englishman shall give of Scotland”, and a very interesting one at that!