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Issue 73 - Never say 'never' again

Scotland Magazine Issue 73
February 2014

 

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Never say 'never' again

Following the great travel writer H.V. Morton through Scotland

I know I said after my journeys in the footsteps of Cuthbert Bede, that I was going to draw a line and do something different. “But you haven’t done H. V. Morton” said one reader, and you’ve been banging on about him for years.” “And what about Boswell and Johnson?” asked our illustrious editor. So, OK, walking boots back on, new camera on my shoulder (a Canon 5D MkIII should you be interested), and out on the road again!

In Search of Scotland was first published on August 1 1929. So immense and immediate was its popularity, that the book was reprinted no less than ten times before the end of the following year. By the end of 1931 it was already in its sixteenth edition.

Henry Canova Vollam Morton – H. V. Morton – its author, was already a very wellknown figure in the world of journalism, with a regular column in the
Daily Express. His first travel book The Heart of London had been published in 1925, but two years before that, his regular and illuminating reports on Howard Carter’s dscoveries on opening the tomb of Tutankhamun had ensured him worldwide fame.

In 1927, his account of his first tour of England driving his new bull-nose Morris had been published under the title
In Search of England, the first of a long series of books ‘in search of’ different parts of Britain and Europe. The travelling he undertook to gather material for In Search of Scotland began his enduring love-affair with the country, and resulted in some of the finest and most poetic accounts of Scotland’s people and the land in which they lived.

As a journalist, he had an easy manner when talking to the ‘locals’, resulting in some evocative accounts of contemporary life and culture.

The idea for the book grew out of a series of articles he had been commissioned to write for the new Scottish edition of the
Daily Express in 1928, but his engagement with the Scots he met along the way produced something rather special.

In typically modest manner, he noted in the introduction that his book had “all the defects of such books, all the omissions and other sins, and I am too close to it at the moment to say whether it has any of the vital virtues.” Ninety years later and people like me are still reading it, so we can confirm it has ‘vital virtues’ to spare.

Morton was an admitted
ingénu when it came to Scotland adding: “There is, I think, something to be said for books written by an explorer who admits frankly, as I do, that he knew nothing about Scotland when he set out, because then commonplace knowledge comes freshly with an air of discovery, and those readers who are also ignorant are possibly stimulated to go forth and perform the same trick of progressive absorption. The knowledgeable reader, on the other hand, will gain a certain amusement as he watches how a fresh mind approaches an old story; he will also perhaps enjoy quite a lot of fun as he notes how many good things a stranger can miss by a hair’s breadth. The less a man knows at the start of such a journey as mine the better. All he needs is restless curiosity.”

He crossed into Scotland at Carter Bar, and felt the romance and history of the place immediately. “There is a metal post with the word ‘Scotland’ written on it.”, he wrote, “it is a superfluous post. You do not need to be told that you have come to the end of England. Carter Bar is indeed a gate: the historic barrier between Celt and Saxon; it is the gateway of Scotland.”

Morton spent his first night in Scotland in a Jedburgh hotel – its tired
décor described in detail, as was the red-haried freckled-nosed maid who responded to his request for a bedside light by bringing him ‘a candle in a stick of blue and glossy enamel’.

He moved on to Kelso, where the main square reminded him of a French ‘
grande place’ – a fact he considered ironic, that the most French-looking town outside France had offered no support to Bonnie Prince Charlie during the ‘45.

The Borders landscape beguiled him and his constant companion during his meanderings was, what he described as the only book in the land worth carrying – Scott’s
Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. “Had Scott done nothing but gather these deathless ballads” he wrote, “he would have placed us forever in his debt.” Nobody, he suggested, should travel the Scottish Borders without a copy.

“The Border ballads come down to us with the wind and the rain in them, and with some quiet, approving gleam of firelight over them, and between their lines the thin echo of a harp.”

Many an author wishes their words could evoke such strong images in the minds of their readers, and Morton’s evocative use of language on almost every page of
In Search of Scotland conjures up romantic and enduring pictures as he seeks to pay homage to his muse.

“And as you go through this haunted country, now so peaceful, where the gaunt outline of the peel towers rise up from field or wood, you may see in imagination a solitary horseman, the presiding genius of this Borderland, reigning in his horse to gaze round him with eyes which see more of Scotland than any man has ever seen – Walter Scott.” Needless to say, a pilgrimage to Abbotsford was a highlight of those first few days and he marvelled at the house – which he thought could have been lifted out of any of the great man’s novels.

Inside, then as today, the house was filled with suits of armour, executioners’ swords and other relics of Scotland’s turbulent past. “It is like nothing so much as a studio” wrote Morton, “these were the lay figures from which Scott drew inspiration.” He was, therefore, surprised to hear an American visitor remark to the guide that “Scott must have had a lot of money to build this house and buy all this junk”.

From Abbotsford he travelled north, offering engaging anecdotes along the way. At Haddington he made an uncharacteristic error by repeating an earlier mistake made by the great Thomas Carlyle. Having read Carlyle’s memoir on the sudden death of his wife in 1866, Morton sought out Jane Welsh Carlyle’s grave in St. Mary’s church – “the lovely old abbey” as he mistakenly identified it – “In the ruined nave of St. Mary’s” echoing Carlyle’s own mistake, “lies that once lovely and brilliant women.”

The nave has, however, never been in ruins, and Jane’s grave lies between two pillars in the choir, an abandoned ruin in Morton’s day. Today the church is fully restored thanks to the vision of the local community and architect Ian Lindsay.

In Edinburgh he visited Holyroodhouse – where there was “nothing else except the worst picture gallery in the world. I have encountered few things so fascinatingly bad as these alleged portraits of 110 Scottish monarchs ‘who’ said Sir Walter Scott, taking the words out of the mouths of later critics, ‘if they ever flourished at all, lived several hundred years before the invention of painting in oil colours.’”

The artist who earned the opprobrium of both Scott and Morton was the Flemish painter James (Jakob) de Witt, who – on the instructions of Charles II while Holyroodhouse was being restored in 1684 – had been paid a salary of £120 per year for his two year contract to create the portraits. Out of that honorarium he had to provide his own paint!

Some 89 of the 110 paintings Morton saw still hang in the Palace’s north wing today.

After a few days in Edinburgh where, by his own admission Morton left “6,082 things which I had not done in, or in the neighbourhood of, Edinburgh” he drove to South Queensferry, after a short detour to Linlithgow, and crossed the river by “the iniquitous ferry which crosses the Forth where a traffic bridge should be” and made for Rosyth, a place, he found, which was almost deserted. It would be forty years before the ‘traffic bridge’ became a reality.

“The largest and best equipped naval base in the world was a city of the dead. It is the only dockyard in Great Britain in which every ship in the Fleet can anchor at any state of the tide. Millions went to the making of it, wide roads, straight as knives, lead to it, and all empty of traffic. Rosyth was ‘axed’ by Admiralty economics in 1925. Its army of cranes was silent. Its enormous workshops were locked.”

The huge dockyard complex at Rosyth, designed and built as part of Britain’s naval build up in the years immediately before the First World War, had only officially opened in 1915. It was just more than ten years old when it was mothballed, but a decade after Morton’s visit, as the storm clouds of war started to gather once again, it was reopened and modernised. The Royal Naval Base, Rosyth, finally ceased operation in 1995.

At Dunfermline, he told the story of the town’s great benefactor, Andrew Carnegie; at Stirling he wrote of Wallace and Bruce, and of Darnley, Mary Queen of Scots and others.

Waking after a good night’s sleep in St Andrews, Morton made his way to the Old Course, where his unerring skill at getting people to tell him memorable stories paid off once again.

Talking to locals about St Andrews, about golf, and about local stories and legends, he was advised to go to the Royal and Ancient clubhouse and meet ‘old Linskill’ who, he was told ‘is seventy-four and looks fifty’.

Linskill was William T, Linskill, celebrated author of several popular books – and in St.Andrews none more popular than his 1911 volume,
St. Andrews Ghost Stories. Linskill turned out to be the sort of character a journalist dreams of meeting, welcoming, erudite, witty, and above all keen to tell Morton many of his stories.

“Golf today”, he said, “is a ladies game compared with the golf I remember at St. Andrews half a century ago. I remember playing with hand-hammered guttapercha balls. Damned annoying things when they broke! The rule in those days was that you put the new ball on the place where the largest fragment of the old one fell! I was taught by ‘Young Tom’ Morris. By gad sir, in those days the daisies were so thick at St. Andrews that we never played with a white ball! I remember how the caddie used to say: ‘Red or yellow ball, sir!’” Linskell never had the pleasure of reading Morton’s account of their meeting, for he died just a few weeks before the first edition of
In Search of Scotland appeared in print.