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Issue 66 - Letters from the Bishop

Scotland Magazine Issue 66
December 2012


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Letters from the Bishop

In a new series, John Hannavy follows an Anglican bishop through 18th Century Scotland

Travellers in 18th and 19th century Scotland loved to write about their experiences and share them with those unable to enjoy the experience personally by taking the tour.

Regular readers of Scotland Magazine will be familiar with the travels of Daniel Defoe and Thomas Pennant, whose journeys I have recreated in recent years, but Bishop Richard Pococke’s account is very different, focusing less on the people than the places, and him being a cleric, churches understandably figure greatly. Unlike Defoe or Pennant however, Pococke, while recognising that his account of his travels was potentially important, never got round to publishing it.

Like Daniel Defoe before him, Pococke’s exploration of Scotland was compiled as a series of letters, in his case addressed to his mother and his sister, but unlike Defoe, however, Pococke’s travels would not appear in print until long after his death.

He was born in Southampton in 1704, trained for the ministry, and served as a Vicar, an Archdeacon, eventually being appointed to a succession of Bishoprics in Ireland. His enthusiasm for travel first manifested itself in the early 1740s, when he decided to visit Egypt and the Holy Land; a considerable undertaking in the first half of the 18th century, especially for someone with no prior experience of travel. A successful publication followed, and Reverend Pococke decided to follow it up with a more modest undertaking: a tour of Scotland.

Plans for his tour, the first of three which he would undertake, had initially been drawn up in 1745, but the turmoil north of the border which culminated in the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in April 1746 had put his plans on hold for a time. As a result, it would the autumn of 1747 before he crossed the border into south-east Scotland.

When they eventually appeared in print, the published account of his tours was a compilation of letters from all three journeys, selected, assembled and edited in 1887 by Daniel William Kemp, and produced as the first publication of the newlyestablished Scottish History Society.

Pococke had bequeathed all his papers to the British Museum at the time of his death in 1765, including copies of his letters from Scotland, and there they had lain for more than a century. Undoubtedly, there would have been some duplication of descriptions across all three tours, and Kemp’s selection of which to publish was presumably made to minimise such repetition. Thus, the first letter is the only one referring to the 1747 journey, made while he was serving as Archdeacon of Dublin. There are a couple of letters from the second tour in 1750, but the main narrative covers his third and longest tour in 1760.

In his first journey, Pococke travelled to Edinburgh, where he did a bit of preaching, visiting Roslin Chapel along the way. Then he went to Glasgow and Drymen, where, he told his mother, “rid to Buchanan Castle”, not the ruin which overlooks the golf course today, but its predecessor which burned down in 1825.

This was clearly a short tour and of limited scope, as he headed south from Glasgow to Kilmarnock, Ayr and to Castle Kennedy where he saw “Lord Stair’s improvements” before continuing to Port Patrick for the five hour sail back to Ireland, landing at Donaghadee. Three years later, he returned to Scotland in mid-July, part way through a lengthy tour which would embrace the north of England and Scotland’s border country. During that journey, he visited the south-west abbeys, Sweetheart, Glenluce and Dundrennan, and the ancient site of Candida Casa at Whithorn, before making his way to Drumlanrig Castle.

Along the way, in elegant prose, he described to his mother the quality of the roads, the variety of local trades, and the nature of the countryside. Again, however, Kemp reproduced only one letter from that second trip.

Pococke’s third tour, the one I will be following, was his longest and most ambitious, and from that we have, in effect, the complete narrative. By this time he was an Anglican Bishop, so a significant and quite important figure to be touring Presbyterian Scotland with his two servants.

In Letter III, written from Dumfries on May 6th 1760, he told his mother, whom he always addressed as “Dear Madam”, that he landed safely at Port Patrick on April 30th, and was, at the time of writing, in Dumfries.

Returning to Castle Kennedy, he wrote that it “did not meet my expectations. It is on a small lough, and laid out in walks planted on each side with high hedges, and is in a country where nothing is seen from it but hills and mountains covered with heath.” Readers of his journal today might be surprised by his reaction, as that description sounds beautifully peaceful.

His second visit to Glenluce Abbey was much more detailed than his first, as was his description of his return to the Isle of Whithorn, where he told of ships of ‘300 tuns’ coming into the harbour, bearing pig iron from Gothenburg, and exporting barley. Here, too, his skill as an artist proved invaluable, for his letters were illustrated with detailed drawings of the ancient Romanesque architecture of the simple priory-cathedral church.

Just a few days later, he reported that he had crossed the River Cree at Tongland “on a fine bridge built out of the abbey where the Parish church now is” and was en route for Kirkcudbright before revisiting the great abbeys he had seen briefly 13 years earlier. But instead of continuing round the south west coast, he retraced his steps, crossed the border, and wrote his next letter from Penrith in Cumbria. He spent the following two weeks touring the Lakes, before returning to Scotland and travelling to Moffat on May 20th where he wrote Letter VII, and Leadhills the following day, from where he reported on a visit to the sulphurous springs which fed the spa at Moffat.

I love the archaic and sometimes completely arbitrary spellings, on many occasions the same place is spelled three or four different ways in the course of his narrative.

“The old Spaw” he wrote, “was found above a hundred years agoe by Bishop Whiteford’s daughter. It comes out of a rock over a rivulet that runs down the rocks in a deep glyn adorned with wood in a very romantick manner. For this mineral water, strongly impregnated with sulphur, I refer to the treatises writ on the mineral waters of Scotland, and printed in Edinburgh. There are two springs.

One comes out of the top of the rock, and is the strongest of sulphur, which settles on the rock. This is carried to Moffet to bathe in, and may be drank.” Continuing on his journey, he reached the source of the Clyde, having been told, slightly inaccurately, that the “Anan, Clyde, and Tweede rise within a mile of each other”. In fact they rise within about six miles of each other.

At Leadhills, he was fascinated by the mining industry, commenting on the juxtaposition of industrial plant and the thatched cottages.

“They do not smelt in a furnace”, he wrote, “but in smelt mills on common hearths blown with bellows. They smelt it with coal, turf, and lime–a horse load of coal, twelve stone, two loads of turf, and one load of lime of eight bushels. They use the coal of Douglas eight miles off. But for their houses they burn a lighter coal, than of the Sanchar at the old family castle of the Duke of Queensborough.” By the time he sat down to write Letter IX, he had progressed a long way, and was staying at Luss on Loch Lomond.

In just eight days since writing Letter IX to his mother, he had travelled to Irvine, visited the ruins of Kilwinning abbey, Bothwell, Hamilton, Lanark and Paisley, and seen the celebrated Falls of Clyde. He had made his way across Glasgow, and followed the north shore of the Clyde to Dumbarton. With so much to report, this was a long letter, and beautifully illustrated.

The pace of the man was remarkable, yet his observations suggest he had not necessarily limited his time at any of the places which interested him. Just three days later, June 2nd, he was at Inveraray, where he reported that the “the old town which is to the east of the castle, is to be pulled down and a new town built to the south of a little bay.” Work on that started just twelve years later, and by 1800 the new town was complete. Today it survives as one of the best examples of a small 18th century town in Scotland.

By June 7th, six weeks into his 25-week odyssey, Dr. Pococke had reached the Isle of Mull, where we will catch up with him again next time.

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