Inns of the Highlands

I have written elsewhere about the variable quality of Highland accommodation. In 1699, Thomas Kirk wrote that "The Scots have not inns, but change-houses as they call them, poor small cottages where you must be content to take what you find." Writing in their Guide to the Highlands in 1842, the Anderson brothers seem to warn that things had not improved greatly 150 years later: "The tourist's patience is sometimes not a little taxed by the tardiness of the attendance...there is a lamentable inattention to cleanliness, at least in the staircase and passage, and about the doors. " They advise "to have the bedclothes aired", but at least promise that "the horse will be as well off as his rider, good stabling being seldom wanting."

Below are some accounts of travellers, with descriptions of inns as they found them.Not all are bad, but clearly the accommodation offered could sometimes be very basic.

Dorothy Wordsworth at the King's House, Glencoe. 

Throughout her tour of the Highlands in 1803, Dorothy Wordsworth found the general standard of hygene in the Highlands difficult to deal with. Here she is, at the King's House Inn at Glencoe:

"The house looked respectable at a distance...[there was] a small which were a few starveling potatoes, which had, no doubt, been raised by means of the dung left by traveller's horses: they had not come to blossoming, and whether they would either yield fruit or blossom I know not. The first thing we saw on entering the door was two sheep hung up, as if just killed from the barren moor, their bones hardly sheathed in flesh. After we had waited a few minutes, looking about for a guide to lead us into some corner of the house, a woman, seemingly about forty years old, came to us in a great bustle, screaming in Erse, with the most horrible guinea-hen or peacock voice I ever heard, first to one person, then another. She could hardly show us upstairs, for crowds of men were in the house - drovers, carriers, horsemen, travellers, all of whom she had to provide with supper, and she was, as she told us, the only woman there...the woman was civil in her fierce, wild way....

"Never did I see such a miserable, such a wretched dirty as a house after a sale on a rainy day, and the rooms being large, and the walls naked, they looked as if half the goods had been sold out. We sat shivering in one of the large rooms for three-quarters of an hour...She had no eggs, no milk, no potatoes, no loaf-bread....With length of time, the fire was kindled, and after another hour's waiting, the supper came - a shoulder of mutton so hard that it was impossible to chew the little flesh that might be scraped off the bones, and some sorry soup made of barley and water, for it had no other taste." Dorothy had some sympathy for the hostess, who had to endure "many masters, for they were always changing. I verily believe that the woman was attached to the place, like a cat to the empty house when the family who brought her up are gone to live elsewhere. The sheets were so long in drying that it was very late before we went to bed." But there were compensations: through the window, she observed "the huge pyramidal mountain [Buchaille] at the entrance of Glencoe. All between, the dreary waste was clear, almost, as sky, the moon shining full on it. A rivulet amongst stones near the house sparkled with light. I could have fancied that there was nothing else in that extensive circuit over which we looked, that had the power of motion."

Compare that account to this one by another traveller in Glencoe. Letters from the Mountain was published in 1807, 'The Real Correspondence of a Lady between the years 1773 and 1807.' She (Anne MacVicar Grant) found herself in "a little inn, thatched, and humbler than any of the former [inns]; we came very cold to it; we found a well-swept clay floor, and the enlivening blaze of peats and brushwood, two windows looking out upon the loch we were to cross, and a primitive old couple, whose fresh complexion made you wonder at their silver hairs....after the stupendous solitude through which we had just passed, the blazing hearth and kindly host had peculiar attractions.

Shall I tell you of our dinner?...On a clean table of two fir deals we had as clean a cloth; trout new from the lake, eggs fresh as our student's heart could wish, kippered salmon, fine new-made butter and barley-cakes, which we preferred to the loaf we had brought with us." Her companion was critical of the cooking, but she "feasted, and was quite entranced..."

Clearly, this was not the King's House, and, in addition, maybe it all depended on one's attitude. "Good travellers feel challenged rather than discouraged when they are exploring enthralled" was the positive approach of two European travellers in 1786 who had just been served, at the General's Hut, oatcakes by a maid who, like the rest of the family, had scabies! 

Travellers in Glencoe. Original oil, attr. to John MacWhirter

The only other reference to the King's House that I have come across is in Hall's Travels in Scotland by an Unusual Route. "Here," he writes, "provisions were as scarce and poor as at The General's Hut on Loch is a misearble, dirty hut; thought the landlord has this, with some pasture land rent-free, besides 10L per annum from government."

The General's Hut.

This was another famous inn, at a lonely spot on Loch Ness. The 8th Edition of Daniel Defoe's travels in Scotland ("continued by Mr Richardson") describes the General's Hut as a "small and pitiful house of entertainment (yet the only one on the road)." Such places of refuge were important for drovers, etc. travelling through these uninhabited regions. It was said to have been the building where General Wade stayed when directing road construction work in 1726. The present Foyer's Hotel is thought to have been built on the site of The General's Hut. Dr Johnson visited the Hut, and remarked simply that it was "not ill-stocked."

As noted above, Hall thought the building "miserable, dirty....". Like the two Europeans travelling in 1786 also mentioned above, Hall noticed that the landlady "had the itch". He was dismayed to discover that the maid's hands were likewise affected. "Thus from the idea of the mistress having made the cheese and butter, and the maid the cakes, I was so disgusted that I could not eat any more." He therefore set off for Fort Augustus, some 12 miles away.

Sarah Murray, travelling through the Highlands in the 1790s, peeped into the General's Hut, and finding it "not very inviting", did what she was accustomed to do: have her chaise "drawn to the best point of view...and there sat, whilst the horses rested, eating my own dinner." Dr Garnet in 1800 was more impressed with what he found at The General's Hut. The landlord treated him well, showing him the nearby Falls of Foyers, and then, after stabling Garnet's horses, cooking him a good meal.

Travelling a little later, in 1807, Sir John Carr also remarked on the "very civil innkeeper" at the General's Hut, adding he has "one of the prettiest women I saw in the Highlands for his wife." He admitted that the house was "a poor one" but he enjoyed "an excellent Highland dinner." 

By 1837, it had become "...a better public house", according to the Penny Magazine. 

Dr Thomas Garnet.

Dr. Garnet, travelling throught the Highlands in 1798 following the death of his wife in childbirth, gave good accounts of the inns at which he stayed. At Fort William, the inn was "wretched beyond anything we had met with, they had neither corn nor hay, the attendance was bad, and the bed abominable. Indeed, I found mine so uncomfortable that I was glad to rise at three o'clock in the morning. I am ashamed to say that this inn was kept by an Englishman."At Inverness, on the other hand, "there are some very good inns; that, where we took up our abode, is kept by a Mrs Ettles. Our accommodation was very good, we experienced much attention and civility, and were charged very reasonably."

At the Freeburn Inn on the Findhorn river, they found "a wretched looking mud hut [and] an appartment corresponding to the external appearance, where the wind whistled through the broken panes." However, they dined surprisingly well there. At Pitman [Pitmain, near Kingussie?], the inn  "had a better garden than ever I saw belonging to an inn [with] an abundance of fruit, of which we were invited to partake by our landlord, a good-natured man, and very fond of boasting of his intimacy with the nobility."

Another good one was found at Dalnacardoch. "Both this house and that at Dalwhinnie were built by the government, with part of the money arising from the fortified estates. In front is a stone with the following inscription: "Hospitum Hoc/ In Publicum canmodum/ Georgius III, Rex/ Construi insistis/ AD 1774/ Rest a little while/ Galehais fois cal tamvillbhig." In contrast, the inn at Dalwhinnie Garnet had found "exceedingly bleak and dreary, [but] by no means uncomfortable." The accommodation at 'Ballichellish' he had found "very uncomfortable" for both him and his horses, and at Balnegarde, he suggested action when the conditions were not up to scratch: they breakfasted at "a very indifferent public house...and were charged very exorbitantly, but which charge we thought proper not to pay. This is mentioned merely to show the impropriety of submitting to such charges on the road, whatever the fortune or condition of the traveller, it being a bad example, and highly injurious to the community."