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Issue 69 - Heading to the border - Bishop Pococke

Scotland Magazine Issue 69
June 2013


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Heading to the border - Bishop Pococke

John Hannavy follows the 18th century Anglican bishop from Braco to the Border

When last we saw Bishop Pococke, he was visiting the Roman camp at Ardoch. Arriving in Perth, the pace did not slacken.

He gave a detailed architectural account of St John’s Kirk, but in keeping with his Episcopal leanings, made no mention of the key role it played in Scotland’s Presbyterian Reformation.

Travelling into Fife, he stayed for some days in St Andrews, exploring the ruins of Lindores and Balmerino abbeys. He did not say who was his host in the town while he explored the cathedral, castle and university, but continued his journey around the coast in the company of a Dr. Simpson, at least as far as Crail.

Fife’s fishing villages fascinated him, as did the old churches and priories which he found there. At Pittenweem, he explored the remains of the priory, and visited the harbour where he noted that “Here they have a port that will receive a ship of 2 or 300 tons, and they have two ships that belong to the Whale fishery which is declining.”

Whaling ships had only started to use Pittenweem a few decades earlier – along with several other Fife ports – but as vessels got larger, smaller harbours were unable to cope, concentrating instead on the herring fisheries.

At Elie – or Elly as he wrote it – Pococke found “a harbour for large Ships, and on the East side of it is a rock of freestone in which they find Garnites; and being set with a foil they look like rubies, and are so called.” The bay is still known as ‘Ruby Bay’ and garnets, or ‘Elie rubies’, are still found in the fine gravel along the shoreline today.

The Bishop’s route took him right round the Fife coast and then inland to Falkland, onwards to Milnathort and Loch Leven, and then to Kinghorn, Burntisland, Kirkcaldy and Dunfermline, then on to Culross.

He made his way along the Forth valley to Clackmannan and up to Dunblane, where he found the beautiful cathedral partly in ruins – a condition in which it would remain for a further century and a half before restoration in the late 19th century.

Travelling south, he visited Sir William Stirling at Keir before exploring Stirling Castle, the site of the Battle of Bannockburn, where in true English style, he played down the whole affair – “We passed Bannock Burn, famous for the entire defeat of the English by the Scots under Robert Bruce, where Robert 2nd saved himself in a boat: And the Scots were quiet for a year or two after:”

From there he traveled to Linlithgow Palace, and Hopetoun House on the shores of the Forth. William Bruce’s original early 18th century house had been extensively remodelled by William Adam by the time Pococke visited. Adam had still been working on the house when he died in 1748, the interior work having been taken over by William’s two famous sons John and Robert. Pococke’s account, suggesting the work was still incomplete, reads “Lord Hopton has lately enlarged the hall and finished a grand apartment with plain wainscoating and plain paper, the pictures are all in white frames and scrued on to the wainscot, and it is to be hung with a crimson damark.” Then on to Blackness Castle and on to South Queensferry, before riding towards Cramond and Edinburgh.

It is when our traveller reached somewhere like Edinburgh that we really appreciate just how long ago he was writing. Pococke’s description of the city underlines this – “Edinburgh is most pleasingly situated, and consists chiefly of two streets, one up the ridge of a hill about a measured mile long finely built and paved, many of the houses being of hewn stone, and all with stone window Coins, and six or several stories high to the Street, and some of them more backward, even to 14 stories. It terminates at one end with the Esplanade before the Castle on the highest ground, which is a fine walk, commanding a view of the Frith and Leith and of the Country to the South. The other street, the Cowgate, is about half as long; at the end of which about the middle of the other, St Mary’s Wynd and Leith Wynd cross it at right angles. And there are several small streets to the south of the Cowgate.”

Edinburgh’s New Town, of course, did not even exist at the time. Indeed, plans for it were not even drawn up until six years after Pococke’s visit, despite the idea of a New Town having been discussed periodically since the reign of James VII in the late 17th century – the competition to design the new town was held in January 1766 and won by a 26-year old Edinburgh-born architect, James Craig, and the first building on the new site, Thistle Court, was completed the following year.

For Pococke, one of the the highlights of his time in Edinburgh – in addition to exploring the castle – was his visit to the Advocates Library, where, under the supervision of Assistant Librarian Walter Goodall, he took time to inspect many of their rare books and Bibles. Goodall, wrote Pococke “has writ much in defence of Mary Queen of Scots and affirms that some letters referred to in Robertson’s history of Scotland are spurious but this remains to be proved.” Two and a half centuries later, historians are still divided about the authenticity of the so-called ‘Casket Letters’ which were used to discredit Mary.

By the time Pococke left Edinburgh – travelling to Leith, Musselburgh, Dalkeith, Roslin and Haddington, he had written over sixty letters, the majority to Dorothy, and travelled over two thousand miles. His tour of Scotland had just two weeks more to run. He had landed in Scotland twenty-three weeks earlier and, remarkably, given the number of places he had visited, he and his servants had travelled an average of 100 miles every week since his arrival. That may seem a short distance in today’s high-speed world, but two and a half centuries ago, with poor roads and only a horse-drawn carriage for transport, it was indeed a significant undertaking. Some days they travelled only five or six miles to visit major sites, but on others, they achieved five times that. Half a century later. the Wordsworths would usually travel no further in a week.

The last two weeks were spent in the Borders. He briefly left Scotland to visit the battlefield of Flodden before returning to visit Floors, Mellerstain, and the four great abbeys at Kelso, Jedburgh, Melrose and Dryburgh.

After a journey of more than four months, he left Scotland on September 27th 1760 without – in his letters at least – even a summary or a farewell, and spent the next month touring northern England before travelling south to London.

Pococke kept meticulous records of his travels each day throughout his journey. He reckoned that his during his weeks in Scotland he had travelled 2,496 miles, but in the absence of accurate maps, or measured milestones on most of the roads, a certain amount of guesswork was involved as to the actual distances travelled. The 2,500 miles is, probably, a very conservative estimate.

After the Scottish tour, he embarked on one last major expedition to England in 1764, and on his return to Ireland, devoted his energies to serving the needs of his Diocese of Ossory. Early in 1765 he was appointed to the Bishopric of Meath, but had been in that office just a few weeks when he died suddenly at the age of only 61.

His letters remained unpublished for many generations, their importance only being recognised in the late 1880s, a century and a quarter after his death.