Not a member?
Register and login now.

Issue 58 - Highlands and Islands

Scotland Magazine Issue 58
August 2011

 

This article is 6 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2017. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

Highlands and Islands

John Hannavy recreates a 1772 journey.

Thomas Pennant was not a good sailor.

Throughout his account of his 1772 journey around Scotland’s west coast and islands are many references to sudden and dramatic changes in the weather, and the disquiet they caused him. How his traveling companions fared we are not told, but Pennant himself seems to have feared for his life on several occasions as violent storms buffeted the little Lady Frederic Campbell.

Approaching the Scottish mainland once again on the evening of July 25th 1772 did not cause him undue distress. “The wind chops about and blows very fresh”, he noted, “so that after many teasing tacks, about nine o’clock in the evening drop anchor under Isle Martin, in the bottom of the bay, which is here called Loch Kinnaird.” The following morning he added “Still on board. The weather very bad.” Eventually making the shore, the group ‘acquired’ horses and set off on their explorations, Pennant being appalled by the living conditions of many of the crofters, and remarking on the impact of the clearances. Returning to the boat that evening, bad weather again forced a change of plans, so Mr.

Thompson sought the calm waters of Loch Broom, and our travelers passed the time fishing. “For two hours” wrote Pennant, “amuse ourselves with taking with hand-lines abundance of cod, some dogfish, and a curious ray.” Whether the ray was inquisitive or oddlooking, we are not told! The respite from the weather was brief, and Pennant, in a masterful use of understatement, described their predicament as ‘disagreeable’. When the anchor was raised again the following day, they sailed back into a ferocious storm. Anchored once more, they rode out the storm, and when it abated, made the decision to ride to Loch Maree rather than sail there, and so ‘procured horses’ for a second time. Poor Mr.

Thompson, the skipper of the Lady Frederic Campbell, was told to sail the vessel up to Gairloch and meet them there! After a long ride, past lochs and ‘steeply wooded hillside’, Pennant wrote of the waters of the river they have been following “descending into a deep and darksome hole called Poolewe, which opens into the large bay of Loch Ewe.” With its mild micro-climate, Poolewe would, a century later, become the site of Osgood Mackenzie’s beautiful gardens, maintained today by the National Trust for Scotland.

Pennant used his visit to Gairloch as an introduction to an account of the herring trade.

“The parish of Gairloch is very extensive, and the numbers of inhabitants evidently increase, owing to the simple method of life, and the conveniency they have of drawing a support from the fishery. If a young man is possessed of a herring net, a handline, and three or four cows, he immediately thinks himself able to support a family, and marries. The present number of souls are about two thousand eight hundred.” Back on the boat, the party sailed round into Kyle Rhea – ‘Kilru to Pennant – and moored in the lee of Skye, taking a small boat ashore at Glenelg, “to visit the celebrated edifice attributed to the Danes” – the ruins of the Brochs of Dun Telve and Dun Troddan.

The brochs, much higher then than they are today, had been even taller just a few decades before Pennant’s visit, and he makes clear his disapproval of the fact that “in 1722, some Goth purloined from the top, seven feet and a half, under pretence of applying the materials to certain public buildings.” After a short stay at Arnisdale, enjoying the hospitality of the local Minister, they set sail again, intending to make for Mull, but the recurrent storms swept them west and they had to shelter off Skye once again – this time in the Sound of Sleat – before carefully making their way along the coast past Arisaig and then Loch Moidart, round Ardnamurchan Point, past Kilchoan and Mingary Castle and into the Sound of Mull Tobermory, it seems, did not hold Pennant’s attention for long.

The vessel dropped anchor in the bay at 9pm one evening, by 8am the following day, they were once more under sail, and by 10.30 they were enjoying breakfast at Aros, the boat anchored in the Sound beneath the ruins of Aros Castle.

Onwards, past Duart Castle, and in to Loch Linnhe – with a passing mention of Oban and a brief visit to Dunstaffnage along the way – Pennant’s party landed at the northern tip of Lismore, near Port Ramsay. The chief produce of Lismore, he remarked, comprised barley – referred to throughout his narrative as ‘bere’ – and oats, the first of which was “raised in great quantity, but abused by being distilled into whisky.” Now there I must disagree with him!

Bypassing Oban once again, they sailed to Easdale where Pennant marvelled at the skill of the slate-dressers, and observed that the cut slates – in three sizes – were loaded on to waiting ships, for which the quarry received “the price of twenty shillings per thousand. About two million are sold annually to England, Norway, Canada, and the West Indies”.

The boat finally dropped anchor in Ardmaddie Bay off Seal Island., and Pennant bade farewell to Mr. Thompson.

“Thus ended this voyage of amusement”, he wrote, “successful and satisfactory in every part, unless where embittered with reflections on the sufferings of my fellow-creatures.” The voyage was over, perhaps, but not the journey.

“I retired to my chamber” he recalled, “filled with reflections on the various events of my voyage; and every scene by turns presented itself before my imagination.” He would spend just one day at Ardmaddie enjoying the hospitality of his friend Captain Archibald Campbell, before setting off on the next leg of his tour.

Pennant’s arrival at Ardmaddie, however, brought the first published volume to a close, so we will pick up the story next time.