Homer's Account: Observations on a Short Tour made in the summer of 1803 To The Western Highlands of Scotland

Philip Bracebridge Homer was an Englishman from Oxford, who travelled with a Mr S and his dog, Spot and who published privately the account of his travels in 1804. He comes across as a modest man, and his writing reveals as much about the events on his journey, and the people he meets, as it does about the topography of the country he passes through.

His book lacks any illustrations, but he inserts examples of his own poetry every now and again, one of which I have copied onto a blog page. It is not, I believe, poetry of the highest order, but it can be illuminating.

His account is one of a number that, for various reasons, did not feature in my book, and I intend here to highlight areas of agreement with other narratives, whilst noting events or observations that are of particular interest.

Observations that can be found in other accounts.

Many travellers to the Highlands at this time comment on the poverty and what they see as the indolence of the people, and Homer is no exception. At the end of his book, he writes "As to the manners of the Scotch in the lower orders of the people, it would be difficult for persons travelling with our expedition to form a correct opinion. But as far as we could judge, the labouring part of the community seemed to be very lazy and indolent. We seldom met a cart, where the driver was not stretched out at full length upon it, and sometimes asleep. The women are compelled to work hard in hoeing potatoes, and weeding the corn, while the men lie snoring in the furrows." However, he thought that "with proper encouragements to industry and with some prospect of advancing their circumstances in life, and reaping the due rewards of their labour, these people might become very active and industrious."

Similarly, like others, he could find no fault with the hospitality shown to his party by the people: "...nor is it in my power to speak more highly of the kindness we experienced where ever we went..." At Cladish, he was struck by the generosity of a woman who "though very poor, she gave Spot, Mr. S's dog, a considerable quantity of oat-cake...out of her poverty, she appeared to be willing to bestow liberally." Her generosity was "truly disinterested."

Regarding poverty, he thought "The life of the poor is here the most destitute and the most deplorable that the imagination can conceive. In supply of its necessary wants, it is not raised one degree above that of the savages of Otaheite." He was aware of emigration, which was occuring because "....the people are starved and oppressed at home...Men have been bartered for sheep." Rumours reached him that landowners had been luring their tenants into the army, "with the promise of enlarged farms or diminution of rent at their return." However, when the soldiers returned, they found that their families had been turned out of their houses, and emigrated. A whole village near Anoch was planning to emigrate to America. He also suggested that, by limiting the number of passengers allowed on each ship (presumably a safety measure), the government had increased the cost of emigration, hurting further the poorest. Later, he observed that "there are no poor rates at Clunie, nor, I believe, in any part northward of it in all Scotland. The poor are maintained by voluntary subscriptions, which are collected every Sunday."

Like others, his party experienced a poor ferry service, finding near Oban that loading was "...very inconvenient, with no key [quay], or the least attempt at facilitating the mode of conveying a horse and gig." Regarding boatmen in general, he comments on their "...thoughtlessness...in this part of the world. that they never think of furnishing themselves with a vessel to ladle the water out." At Loch Eil, he was told that a group of clergymen, having hired a boat, were threatened by the crew, and told that "they would dash the boat upon the rocks if they [the passengers] did not comply with their extravagant demands." 

He comments on the distances travelled by people to get to church on Sundays, "and the desire of obtaining religious instruction seems to encrease in proportion to the difficulty of obtaining it." Rather nicely, he adds that "there is something very pleasing in the idea of persons, who seldom can have an opportunity of seeing one another, meeting together at stated times, and feeling themselves connected by one common interest which obliges them to love and assist each other."

The party experienced the usual trouble with the state of the roads. "I will defy anyone to find a worse road than the one which we travelled this day..." wrote Homer. They were travelling from Cluony to Ratachan (Loch Duich). He notes that his guides in these parts "never thought of staying to pull off their shoes and stockings" when they came to rivers. On the subject of shoes, "I need not inform my reader that the lower classes of women all over Scotland seldom wear any shoes or stockings. In the politest and the most opulent families the maids wait at the tea-table without these refinements of English luxury."

He describes a Highland hut in some detail: "They are constructed of loose stones, with no upper chamber, no window that opens,or that is large enough to enlighten the rooms; there is no chimney, and no wall of partition in many of them. The smoke escapes by a hole in the thatch, if it escapes at all, which is often not the case; and the line of partition is often made by a blanket, or a piece of sail-cloth." At Blair Athol, he states simply that "their houses are certainly bad, and scarce fit for human creatures to inhabit."

New Observations.

Homer had a certain amount to say about food. He quoted a Lady's advice, that "...people who are travelling in the Highlands ought to secure a good breakfast, because it is uncertain where they may be able to procure a good dinner." He notes that grace is said at all meals, and that "if any breakfast deserves a peculiar acknowledgement of the divine bounty, it is certainly a breakfast in the Highlands of Scotland." He calls whisky "a nauseuos and abominable spirit" and at the end advises visitors "...before they set out to acquire a taste for Whisky and peat cookery. During my stay in the north, which was only a month, I was not able to conquer my aversion for either of these."

Homer is wary of a dish called 'flummery'. "It resembled paste that had been made for two or three days, and had stood in an upholsterer's shop. It was a prearation of oats." He noticed that it was popular with children. At Aviemore, he ordered some speldings, dried seafood that he remembered Dr Johnson had not liked. He should have followed the good Doctor's advice: "They are the last thing which I shall order in the future" writes Homer. "In the last extremity of a famine, one might, after some painful exercions, be able to get them down." Regarding paying for food and hospitality, Homer advises English visitors not to take 'English Provincial Notes.' Clearly, such money was not wanted north of the border.

I mention in my book that Walford's Scientific Tourist guide suggests that "if the tourist is fond of good living, a bottle of fish-sauce put into his portmanteau will be very useful." Homer, too, makes this suggestion, adding that "you get nothing but melted butter {with your fish], and that generally so rank that it would turn the stomach of Spot himself to eat it." Later, he again regrets the lack of sauce at Loch Cluonie, for "fish without sauce is an insipid sort of food."

Being a poet, Homer quotes some examples of window poetry - lines pencilled onto window shutters, etc. by travellers passing through. At Dalnacardoch, he found "Far as the eye can reach, no tree was seen;/ Earth clad in russet scorn'd her livlier green;/ The plague of locusts here the lands defy/ For in three hours, the grasshopper must die." At Gretna, he had spotted "Ten thousand beauties she could spare,/ And still be fairest of the fair", while at several places, he found these lines that summed up for some, Scotland: "All bleak are Scotland's mountains,/ And barren are her plains;/ Bare-legged are her maidens,/ And breechless are her swains."

Specific events on Homer's Journey.

Early on in the tour, Homer 'broke the shins' on both legs, whilst seeking out Mr S who had gone fishing. He followed the advice "of the heroic and frugal Mr Elwes; who, when he had met with a similar misfortune in both his legs, consigned one to the apothecary, and by way of experiment, left the other to take care of itself. Nature, on this occasion, got the start of the doctor; and the leg, which was abandoned to fortune, recovered before that which had been nursed with so much solitude."

At Gretna, after hearing how the marriages were so easily contracted sometimes by the blacksmith, and sometimes the cobbler, Homer reufully remarks "unfortunately we brought no ladies with us." At Dumfries, he was surprised to find no monument marking the grave of Rabbie Burns, and he composed two verses in his memory.

The party did attempt to climb Ben Lomond, but cloud descended, and they were forced to abort the mission.

Dark sits the cloud on Lomond's craggy height,

And veils his awful grandeur from my sight.

On his way to Cairn-dow, he is distressed to see a lady having to stoop down to gather water from a burn in her hand. "I could not help wishing that we had brought a tumbler with us, that I might have removed for her the difficulty of obtaining the water. Every body feels by instinct the desire to relieve a damsel in distress."

Unlike others, Homer thought the castle at Inveraray (seat of the Duke of Argyll) "a mean and paltry building."But he noted that the Duke is "much respected. he finds employment, and consequently happiness for a great many people."

He complained of the cost of the round-trip to Staffa, but was disappointed not to get there as the weather was a little unsettled. This was the only time on the journey when he expressed some irritation with his companion, Mr S, who was obviously unwilling to wait for an improvement. "I believe it is impossible that any two persons should set out from home upon so long an excursion with motives and wishes so totally dissimilar."

Ben Nevis was in cloud, so they were unable to make that ascent. Soon after they arrived at Fort Augustus, which reminded Homer of Oxford and Cambridge! From this point onwards, they needed to be mounted on 'shelties' rather than their larger horses, but were horrified at the hire charges being demanded. Eventually they secured some with a guide, a boy of about 13 or 14. They were asked to "be kind to him", on which Homer assured the hirer that they would not beat the guide, though he realised that it was really a request to pay for his food and lodging.

At Anoch, Homer had trouble with the pen with which he was provided: "I never wrote with such a pen in my life; the pen will not mark, and the ink, by the colour and stink of it, seems to be nothing but a composition of soot and whisky." Thirty-four years later, the Penny Magazine was still recommending that travellers take with them "a bramah ink-bottle, and a few steel pens...as Highland public-houses do not abound in the best stationery."

Homer enjoyed the hospitality of Mr. MacLaod at Ratachan, on Loch Duich. This was the same Mr MacLeod who entertained James Hogg in the same year, 1803. Hogg states that Donald MacLeod "received me with that open, unaffected cordiality which is a leading trait in his character, and without that state and ceremony which is certainly often carried too far by the Highland people, and which I hate above all things. His conversation was much confined to that which suited me best, namely, the sheep-farming....We had plenty of music and some dancing, his eldest daughter being a most charming performer on the pianoforte, and Mr Gordon, the family teacher, equally expert at playing on the violin."

Homer was less lucky: no one suggested music or dancing while he was there, though he spotted the instruments. "In all our travels," he states sadly, "we never had the pleasure of hearing one Scotch song, or seeing one Scotch reel." He also spotted MacLeod's daughter, who he described as being "of a very pretty countenance, his eldest daughter I suppose." He praised her "modesty and delicacy of character." In general, Homer experienced at MacLeod's house "all the hospitality which we had been taught to expect."

On his leaving, Hogg was lent a plaid by Mr MacLeod, which he intended to return on his way back. Whilst at Ochertyre, enjoying the hospitality of his new host, Mr MacDonell, Homer lost the plaid when it slipped from his horse unnoticed. MacDonell sent a woman to look for it: she found it and "accepts a trifle for her trouble." At Ochtertyre, Homer heard that the last two years have been very poor for Herring fishing. He learnt that "The Carnival of Venice is not a time of greater rejoicing in that part of Italy, than the return of the herring-fishery is to the Highlanders." He saw, for the first time a seal, and was disappointed when the man who took a shot at it missed. He gathered that if attacked, seals are capable of using their 'hands' to throw stones, etc. He also witnessed sheep shearing which he thought "a grotesque and laughable exhibition". High above the loch, he noticed a house on the edge of a precipice. he was told that the inhabitants had to travel the last bit up to it on a ladder! It will be "one of the last castles which will ever be beseiged by Bonaparte" he quips, reminding one of the ever-present threat from France felt at that time. 

On their way back south, Homer's company met a wedding party. "As those rugged rocks are not adapted exactly for wheels, we saw some of the goods conveyed in a singular manner by two horses. The goods were placed on a kind of hand-barrow, two of the poles of which were fastened to the saddle of the first horse, and the other two to that of the last; so that the burden was carried between them."

Some Final, General Observations

On clothing: "The men still wear the fillibeg, or plaid apron that goes round the waist and reaches to the knees. It has a martial appearance in the men, and makes them resemble the heroes of Greece and Rome. These distinctions of dress between the English and the Scotch are wearing away every hour."

"The Lowland and the Highland bonnet are both giving place to the hat; and the loose plaid will probably soon be unknown, and regarded only as a relic of ancient manners. The Lowland bonnet is very unbecoming, and seems to resemble in shape and in size those round patches, which the reader may find in the field where I keep my cow..." In other words, a cowpat!

Scottish washing: "The poor people in all parts fo Scotland wash their linen in the river, and dry it on the banks....Those who are washer-women by profession, and are too genteel to go down to the brooks, put the linen into a tub, and get into it themselves, and jump about in a very singular style, till they have danced all the dirt out of the garments, which they have trampled on. In order to avoid the inconveniences of splashing themselves, they are obliged to hold up their petticoats with both hands, and this they do several degrees above Honi soit qui mal y pense....The Scotch are not to be compared to the English in point of cleanliness; and even where there is neatness in one part of the domestic economy, it is often contratsed with great slovenliness in another.

Images of Scotch Washing
Images of Scotch Washing
Scotch washing was a celebrated phenomenon into the 20th century. The bare legs caused some offence, but then Alexander de la Rochefoucauld, travelling in 1786, was offended even by the sight of men's knees in kilts! This posed photograph was published by James Valentine in 1878.
A postcard dating from 1904.
Sanctimonious Tourist "Shocking!" Scotch Lassie: "Ye needna speak; ye havena sae guid a pair yersel'"
An early 20th century James Valentine postcard
A postcard sent in 1905.

Openness in Scotland: "In Scotland, people are not so shy of forming new acquaintances as they are in England. This will always be the case in a country where the communication between different parts is not easy."