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Issue 61 - South to the Border

Scotland Magazine Issue 61
February 2012


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.

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South to the Border

John Hannavy recreates a 1772 journey

The Ochil Hills,” wrote Thomas Pennant as he approached Stirling, “begin beyond Alloa to approach very near to the Forth, between which is a narrow arable tract, well-cultivated and adorned with woods.” A century later he would have told a very different story, for the area had rich seams of coal which were by then being voraciously exploited to meet the growing demands of the age of steam.

After a cursory exploration of Stirling, where he found much to commend in Cowane’s Hospital “for decayed merchants” which had been “richly endowed”, and Spittal’s Hospital “for the relief not only of merchants but also of decayed tradesmen,” Pennant ventured south towards Falkirk and the Carron Ironworks.

Given his enthusiasm for the eccentric and the eclectic, he might have been expected to make a slight detour towards Airth, where he could perhaps have enjoyed the hospitality of the Earl of Dunmore and witnessed the growing of a crop previously unknown to Scotland, pineapples. More than a decade before his journey, Lord Dunmore had successfully raised his first crop of the fruit in his newly built hothouses.

Today, atop the entrance to the hothouse, stands what has been described as the most bizarre building in Scotland: the Dunmore Pineapple, a small summerhouse built to celebrate the Earl’s first success in growing the fruit. On the Pineapple is the date ‘1761’ which has long been assumed to be the year the building was completed. Some sources, however, suggest that although the hothouses were in use before 1761, the Pineapple itself was not built until after Lord Dunmore returned from America in 1776. The fact that Pennant does not mention it probably points to the later date being correct. The name of the building’s architect has been lost in the mists of time, as have the names of the highly skilled stonemasons who executed the intricate design. Today, should you wish, you can rent the Pineapple from the Landmark Trust as a holiday home!

Pennant spent a night in Falkirk, which he described as “a large, ill-built town” before moving on to the Carron Ironworks and then visiting what was the greatest construction project in Scotland at the time. Regular readers of Scotland Magazinewill recall Daniel Defoe’s idea of building a canal between the Forth and the Clyde – well, by Pennant’s day, the idea was becoming a reality, and the project fascinated him. Instead of Defoe’s suggestion that such a canal could be built without locks and only eight miles long, John Smeaton’s design, on which work had started in 1768, would be more than four times that length and require thirty-nine locks. Sadly, Pennant did not report on what progress had been made after four years of excavation and construction. He described the route it would take, and moved on to Linlithgow.

The splendour of Linlithgow Palace and its place in Scottish history impressed Pennant. He noted that in one of the upper rooms “the unfortunate Mary Stuart first saw light”, and that in another “James V, then dying, foretold the miseries that impended over her and the kingdom. ‘It came’ he said, with a lass, and will be lost with one.’” Edinburgh must have occupied several days of Thomas Pennant’s time, for he describes the city in detail, not all of it accurate, before moving on to what he described as “a work of art, not less admirable than those of nature which we had so lately quitted.” That ‘work of art’ was Roslin Chapel, the most lavishly decorated example of Gothic architecture anywhere in Scotland. It was, he concluded “in all parts a profusion so exquisite, as seem even to have affected with respect the barbarism of Knox’s manual reformers, so as to induce them to spare this beautiful and venerable pile.”

Continuing south, he visited Crichton and Borthwick Castles, before putting up for the night at “a good inn at Blackshields.” The next day, he climbed Soutra Hill, Soutry to him, and enjoyed the view across the Firth of Forth to Fife, before continuing his journey south towards Melrose, crossing the Leader Water and entering the little town. From there to Dryburgh and then Kelso, before striking south again towards the border, the Scottish part of his long journey almost at an end.

“Cross the river, turn almost due east, and, after a ride of three or four miles, find myself at the extremity of the kingdom. I look back to the north, and with a grateful mind acknowledge every benefit I received from the remotest of the Hebrides to the present spot: whether I think of the hospitality of the rich, or the efforts of unblameable poverty, straining every nerve to accommodate me, amidst dreary hills and ungenial skies. The little accidents of diet, or of lodgings, affect not me: I look farther than the mere differences of living, or of customs; to the good heart, and extensive benevolence, which softens every hardship, and turns into delicacies the grossest fare.” More than a century and a half later, the wonderful H. V. Morton would end his journey In Search of Scotland with comments in similar vein.

The Scots welcome, clearly, is an enduring one.

For his readers, Pennant ended his account with a description of his journey back through Northumberland, Yorkshire and Lancashire and, like any traveller, remarked at the end that, however much he had enjoyed the experience, he was glad to be home.

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