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Issue 75 - The Humble Birthplace of Genius

Scotland Magazine Issue 75
June 2014


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The Humble Birthplace of Genius

John Hannavy follows the great travel writer through Scotland

We meet up with H. V. Morton for the last time in Dunoon where, on the advice of one of the locals, he hired a motor-launch – abandoning his Bullnose Morris once again – and set sail for Glasgow.

There were, of course, dozens of paddle-steamer services in those days, linking the Clyde resorts and piers directly with the city centre, but Morton wanted to make his own private voyage. His thirty-mile journey took him across to Cloch Point and, four hours later, right into Glasgow’s maritime heart at the Broomielaw. He and the boatman – “a man with a red face, whose name was quite inevitably ‘Jock’” – kept up a lively conversation along the way.

Arriving at the Broomielaw, he immersed himself in the bustle of Glasgow and the Clyde. He thought the river could stand – or flow – as a metaphor for man’s perseverance, reminding his readers that “Ole man Clyde is not a river: he is an excavation. Those of you who think the Clyde was placed by Nature next to Glasgow for the building of ships are sadly wrong. Nature never meant the Clyde to be more than a shallow salmon stream! When Glasgow decided to build ships she had first to make the Clyde in which to launch them. She had to deepen it. She had to keep it deepened. For over a century she has dredged the channel. Probably on no other river in the world have men exercised such grim and relentless determination.” On the subject of shipbuilding, he added “A new keel is like a large glass of whisky on a cold day: it warms the very core of Glasgow’s heart.”

“If you have never seen the launching of a ship there is still a thrill in store for you.” he wrote in a lengthy but engaging account of the preparation for the launch of a large liner which, for the sake of his story, he called the SS Empress of the East. There was, of course, no ship of that name, but as the story of the launch stood for all launches into the Clyde, a fictitious name served his purpose better than focusing on just one ship. The ship was, most likely, the 8139grt SS Yoma, launched at the yard of William Denny & Brothers on September 2 1928, and if so, Morton’s chosen name for her was not quite randomly selected – Yoma was destined for the Far-Eastern route from Glasgow to Rangoon (Yangon) in Burma. She sailed the route for twelve years until being commandeered for war service in 1940. She was torpedoed on June 17 1943.

All that remains of the Denny yard today is the 100m long ship hull test tank, installed in 1881, and used to test the efficiency of hull design for over a hundred years.

“We see a wonderful thing! We see the great ship sliding backwards to the water. She makes no noise. The enormous thing just fades smoothly Clydewards, leaving behind her two broad wooden tracks of yellow grease. Silent as a phantom she is. Her stern takes the water, dips, dips, deep down. (Will she ever rise?) You watch her breathless as she dives into the Clyde to the distant sound of spray: and then her movement slows up as she meets the resistance of the water. She is almost afloat. She lies almost at the end of the two parallel grease tracks. She floats!”

Having seen a ship launched, Morton moved on to Coatbridge and Motherwell, where he met the men who made the iron and steel, and then, as if suddenly tired of the industry of it all, he went off in search of places associated with Robert Burns in Alloway, Ayr and Dumfries.

At Burns’s Cottage in Alloway, he paid homage to the bard, his reaction to the place one of awe mixed with just a little cynicism about the cult of celebrity.

But as so often with Morton, one of those little twists of fate dispelled his cynicism and made his visit much more poignant than he might ever have expected.

“How pitiful are the humble birthplaces of genius.” he wrote. “The little cottage which father Burns made with his own hands beside the road at Alloway stands now with an expression of mild surprise beside a modern building in which all manner of unconsidered trifles connected with the poet are piously preserved under glass.

I passed through a turnstile. An elderly man came with me and, removing the flannel coverings from showcases, pointed down to autograph letters and manuscripts. He could quote Burns backwards, and never have I heard the poet quoted with such meaning and sympathy. He gave value to every word.”

Someone came into the room while the man was reciting poetry to Morton, and he was left to his own devices, wondering that the poet would have made of the place, and suggesting “what a poem Burns could have written on the Burns Museum.

“After a while”, he wrote, “the man returned to conclude his recitation. I felt that he had lost interest in me.” The poetry was no longer recited with such passion, and Morton admitted he became impatient, before noticing that the man’s eyes were filling with tears.

“He stood there with his hand in a patch of late sunlight which slanted through the window and fell over a glass-case. He gripped himself and went on to the second verse, the third, and then the last; I think no man has ever put more pathos into this lament.”

When the man eventually broke down in tears, he turned to Morton and apologised “You must forgive me, I hae just had a message to say that my wife is dead.... There is something in Burns for every moment of a man’s life, good days and bad. I shall find his sympathy here. Burns would have known what I feel now.”

Morton returned to Scotland in 1932 gathering stories for his 1933 book In Scotland Again – which followed a very similar structure but a different route to In Search of Scotland.

This time he entered the country at Gretna where he paid sixpence for a guided tour of the famous Blacksmith’s Shop.

“This traveller” he wrote as he approached the Border, “was urged onward by two powerful and primitive emotions: hunger and anticipation. He had not eaten since daybreak and he had not visited Scotland for years.”

It was an autumn journey once again, and his route took him west towards Galloway. At Kirkcudbright he encountered what he described as one of the worst storms ever – even for Scotland – but felt the little town was robustly enough built to withstand anything. The castle which seemed a testament to that “looks as though it has weathered a hundred sieges and has drunk deep of the riot of blood and passion which is history”.

If he disapproved of one thing in Kirkcudbright, it was on the Dee nearby where “a villainous form of salmon poaching is a legal operation.” This involved what he described as ‘shoulder nets’ on long poles used to scoop the salmon out of the river. On one cast of the net, “inside it were four feet of desperation” which was then landed and dispatched with a mallet.

Clearly a man of more delicate sensibilities than his essays had previously suggested, he declared that this practice filled him with “a faint feeling of revulsion”. It was, he insisted “immoral” to take an eighteen pound salmon in this way, rather than, presumably, with a line, a fly and a hook.

Later in the book, when he went out to sea on an Aberdeen trawler, he clearly did not find net fishing on a commercial scale to be either revolting or immoral – although he did described the gutting of the fish on board “a monstrous slaughter”. Rather he marvelled at the exhausting hard work of the fishermen.

From Glasgow he travelled north to Mull and Iona, and on Mull encountered weather which gave him an opportunity to employ some of his hugely descriptive similes.

“Rain fell all day with the nagging persistence of toothache. There were moments when it would torment with a pretence of ending, only to resume with renewed vigour. The sky fell. The earth gushed water. Boulders shone like brown glass. Mists hung out of heaven to wrap the world in a grey wetness. Burns sprouted. Rivers rose to the bridges. Pools overflowed. New and unexpected streams were born out of a responsive earth. The wind joined in hurling the rain upwards in sudden mad gusts, so that in the magnificent sincerity of the storm the very laws of gravity were defied and, in other words, it was made perfectly clear why Scotland invented whisky.”

Morton continued north as far as Durness before turning east to John o’ Groats and down to Inverness. Then it was back to Aberdeen for his challenging experience on board of North Sea trawler in yet another storm. From there his journey followed a route generally very similar to his 1928 travels – down through Dundee and Perth, Stirling, Linlithgow and Edinburgh.

He stopped along the way at St. Mary’s Loch paying a visit to Tibbie Shiels’ Inn, and then down through the Ettrick and Yarrow valleys, back over Carter Bar and into England.

Morton had been just 30 years of age when he visited Scotland for the first time in 1928. He would go on to travel ‘In Search of...’ many other parts of the world in his illustrious career, completing In Search of the Holy Land the year before his death in 1979. He was ‘one of a kind’, his books an inspiration.


Henry Vollam Morton was born in Lancashire in 1892 and became the best known travel writer of his generation. Having achieved fame in 1923 with his coverage of Howards Carter’s discovery of the tom of Tutankhamon for The Times newspaper, his prolific travel books were subsequently translated into many languages.