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Issue 68 - A stately traveller: Letters from Bishop Pococke

Scotland Magazine Issue 68
April 2013


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A stately traveller: Letters from Bishop Pococke

John Hannavy follows the 18th century Anglican bishop from Orkney to Perthshire

He must have appeared a somewhat incongruous figure as the frock-coated Bishop made his way through Scotland’s northern landscape with his servant in tow, but he seems to have enjoyed a warm welcome everywhere he went.

Perhaps it was just the surprise at seeing an Anglican Bishop making his stately way across staunchly Presbyterian Scotland, but the highlanders seem to have been happy to greet him, to offer him the freedom of their burghs, to show him the sights and to answer his questions.

The port of Stromness, well known to today’s ferry-travelers to Orkney, was an important staging post in Pococke’s day.

Here vessels bound for Canada and America stocked up with fresh supplies before embarking on their long Atlantic voyages.

“There are above 200 families in the town;” he wrote, “the women are great knitters; most ships going Westward or Northwards touch here, but the chief are 4 large ships which goe every May to Hudson’s bay with all kinds of Sortments of goods, and bring back be[a]ver skins for hats, and Marten’s for Muffs and Tippets, which last are brought only by the Sailors & sell here for about five shillings a piece; the bevers for [and here Pococke left a blank, presumably intending to fill it in before sending the letter]. They also bring Sea horses teeth which are about eighteen inches long, and are very fine Ivory – of these, among other uses, they make artificial teeth – fish, oyl, the Skins of the Mouse, and of Deer, & Elk. The first of these I was assured answers to the description of the Urus: They are five weeks in their voyage to the Entrance of Hudson’s bay, and four weeks more to the furthest factory. When they arrive they fire a gun which is a notice to the Natives to bring their goods.”

We must presume – or at least hope – that the ‘Sea horses’ with the 18 inch teeth were walruses, and that the ‘Mouse’ was a moose.

The dating on Pococke’s letters is either completely arbitrary, or has been confused in transcription from his written manuscript to the printed page. On July 3rd 1760 he was still in Thurso – according to letter XXVII – but in a letter dated the following day, from Kirkwall, he wrote of having left Stromness to ride to Kirkwall on the 6th. His itinerary, appended at the end of his published account, however, says he travelled to the capital of the Orkneys on the 5th, spending some time along the way exploring the huge stone circle – the Ring of Brodgar – near Stenness.

A detailed description of St Magnus’ Cathedral – by then Kirkwall’s Presbyterian Kirk – was followed by his observation of the locals that “The wifes and Daughters of most of the better sort are of the Church of England, and do not go to the Kirk; but read prayers to themselves at home: And I found it would have been agreeable to them if I could have staid there some days.”

By July 8th, more than two months into his journey, he had left Kirkwall and returned to the mainland, and here we encounter that ever-present problem when writing down what has been spoken, where they visited “Johnny Grott’s house”.

A week later he was back in Wick, having returned to the mainland on July 11th, and was once again penning a lengthy letter to Dorothy. Between the 16th and the 20th, he seems to have been constantly on the move, visiting Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, Dunbeath Castle, Dunrobin Castle and Dornoch Cathedral before finally reaching Tain – “pleasantly situated, about a quarter of a mile from the sea. They have here a Manufactory for preparing Flax and for spinning—are mostly Country people and Shopkeepers, and it is but a poor town. I was met at the entrance by the Magistrate and Minister, who would have presented me with the freedom of the borough if I could have staid.”

Being offered the freedom of the burgh seems to have been a regular occurrence, having happened in several places, most recently Kirkwall. Of course, as he would have sought accommodation from local clergy and landowners, the Bishop’s itinerary would have been known well in advance, and, as a visiting Bishop was an uncommon occurrence, civic dignitaries and local clergy would have wished to extend an official welcome to him.

At the remains of Fearn Abbey, he recounted the disaster of 1742 when, during a severe storm – described as a great hurricane – the roof of the abbey church, still being in use as the parish kirk, collapsed killing nearly 50 of the 600-strong congregation. By the time Pococke visited, the stone from the abbey had been used to build a large barn-like church to replace the scene of the unfortunate accident.

Then, in Cromarty, he visited a house which had belonged to “one Mr. Urquhart who had commanded a Spanish Gally, and died a Convert to Popery; which slip his Son, now eighteen years old, has in some degree recovered, by conforming to the Church of England.”

Given his aversion to Presbyterianism, it is surprising Dr. Pococke was so warmly received throughout the highlands, and given his aversion to ‘Popery’, it is remarkable that so many of the places on his itinerary were the abbeys and churches of medieval Scotland.

Travelling along the Banffshire coast and then inland, Pococke visited Spynie Palace – he referred to it as a castle – the medieval residence of the Bishop of Moray, before visiting Elgin Cathedral and Pluscarden Priory. The priory was in ruins.

“It was a very grand Monastery”, he wrote, “The body of the Church is destroyed. There were fine Gothic windows to the Quire, and at the north end of the Transept a beautiful round window twenty feet in diameter.”

Were he to visit Pluscarden Abbey – as it is today – he would be very surprised to see the great church rebuilt, a monastic community returned, and the abbey looking forward to a long and secure future. Re-colonised by Benedictines in 1948, it has been restored almost to its former glory, and once again monks work the fields of Kail Glen – the name recalling the Valliscaulian monks from Val des Choux, or Vallis Caulium, who first occupied the site in the early years of the 13th century. It is, today, the only medieval monastic site in Britain still used for its original purpose.

Banff, Pococke remarked, was unusual in the number of members of the Episcopal Church who lived there – although he referred to them as ‘Church of England’ with which might have been less than happy. Religion, he said, split families – but, without apparent animosity, “the wife oftengoing one way and the husband another” – and the Episcopal Chapel in the town regularly drew attendances of “600 souls.”

His journey took him to Peterhead and on to Aberdeen, passing Old Meldrum and Pitmedden “Sr Wm Seaton’s House where there is a quarry of Marble resembling Cipilino; to the South is an old Castle with good improvements about it.” Of the ornate gardens, he made no comment.

At Restenneth Priory, Pococke found a monastery built on “a peninsula formed by a Lough and Morass: This Lough and that of Forfar abound in perch, Jack and Eel.” A few years after his visit, the loch was drained and turned to agriculture. He described the priory church as having “a fine Saxon Square tower” and that “an octagonal spire is practised on it, in a very peculiar manner.” The spire was a 17th century addition, although the body of the tower can be traced to no later than the early Romanesque period.

In medieval times, Pococke had been told, there was a drawbridge across the water, making the priory a secure place to store the official documents of Jedburgh Abbey.

Brechin’s cathedral with its ancient round tower fascinated him – which of course he likened to those with which he was familiar in Ireland – as did his next stop, Arbroath.

In addition to describing the abbey in detail, Pococke reported that the town consisted of “about 1000 houses built of red freestone which make one street half a mile long, and to other Small Streets: They have a great trade in linnen yarn, Sail Cloths, Osnaburgs and other linnens, and have formed a pretty basen by the help of three or 4 piers into which a vessel of 100 tons can come.”

Arbroath also had, he noted, “a Congregation of Seceders about 50 of them” – members of a community who broke away from the Church of Scotland before the 19th century Disruption.

From there he made his way to Blair Castle where he stayed some days as the guest of the Duke and Duchess of Atholl, the Duke riding out with him on several occasions to show him the local sights. As would be the case with many subsequent visitors, a visit to the Hermitage with its then mirrored viewing room overlooking the Falls of Braan would prove an especially enjoyable outing.

Generally speaking, however, the spectacular landscape through which he traveled interested him less than the historic sites he visited along the way.

By August 22nd 1760, he was writing the first of his letters from Drummond Castle, and during his brief stay there he was taken the couple of miles up to Crieff, down to the huge Ardoch Roman camps at Braco (see SM59), and then on to Tullibardine Chapel.

The energy of the man must have been formidable, for given the relatively slow pace of transport around Scotland two and a half centuries ago, the number of places he managed to visit each day is quite remarkable.

He still had a long way to go, and a great deal more to see. We will rejoin him for the last leg of his journey next time.

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