"Caledonian Sketches" by Sir John A. Carr

The full title of Carr's account is Caledonian Sketches, or a Tour Through Scotland in 1807. It was published in 1809.

Sir John Carr (1772 - 1832) was an English Barrister who wrote various accounts of travels, mainly on the Continent. Sir Walter Scott wrote a devastating review of the Caledonian Sketches, and it is commonplace now to dismiss such accounts as Carr's because he dares to suggest that the land 'improvements' that led to the Highland Clearances would benefit both landlord and tennant. Carr dismisses those who "see with a microscopic eye...alive only to immediate feeling, [and who] cannot think that any future good can atone for present privation." Another such account is that by John MacCulloch. But many of these visitors from afar give wonderful details and insights into life in the Highlands at this time, and by observing those comments that recur in a number of accounts, the accuracy of their observations can be sensed. Here then are the particular observations that interested me, taken from Carr's Caledonian Sketches. He travelled up the east coast, then acroos to Inverness, and then south to Glasgow via Loch Ness and the Inner Hebrides. He did not venture into the far north.


Farming in Perthshire: Carr emphasizes the contrast with farming further north. In Perthshire, the farm workers get separate lodging, and "beside their wages, they have certain allowances of oatmeal, and money for salt; they have also an English pint of sweet milk, to breakfast, dinner and supper. The farmer also affords them fuel. Thus, while the Carse [of Gowrie?] resembles Arcadia in beauty, the simple food of her swains is Arcadian too. Pork and bacon, which used to be disgusting to the palate of the Highlander, form a greater portion of the food of the peasant here than in any other part of Scotland. The farmers in this district are very opulent and well informed. ...."(pages 271 - 272).

Labour in the Highlands: "The lesser boys take charge of the weaned lambs; the stronger attend the goats to the rocks and perilous precipices, upon which they love to browse: the young girls are employed at the distaff: the young men attend the cattle upon the mountains, whilst their father cultivates his little patch of ground, repairs his hut, of which he is the designer and builder, upon which occasion the knife, the axe, and the augur are his simple material....At evening fall the children return home, the bearers of fish which they have caught in some neighbouring stream, and of the alder-bark, and buds of heath and moss, with which her mother may stain her home-spun plaid. Amongst the Highlanders, both young and old, the season of 'summer-flitting', when they remove for the summer to the mountains with their flocks, is always hailed with a rapturous welcome." (page 412). [Carr paints here an idyllic picture that might not, I think be recognised in the far north, where women were expected to carry out much of the hard labouring. See below also].

Women at work: "Formerly, ,,,,,the masculine employments of the farm devolved to the women...However, upwards of twenty years have rolled away since the occupations of the farm were thus unsuitably divided, and a more sensible and natural system has followed, by which women of the Highlands are more confined to the discharge of those duties which peculiarly belong to their sex." (pages 464-465).

"Almost every piece of social labour is alleviated by singing." (page 438).

On the boat from Staffa to Ulva, "the piper...sat at the head of the boat, and played some merry and mournful tunes...When he ceased, the stokesman of our rowers commenced a spirited Gaelic song, the chorus of which ended up with 'Hatyin foam! foam, Hatyin, foam! foam, foam, Hatyin, foam! foam, eri!' in which the principal singer introduced some peculiarly shrill notes, beating time very smartly with his hand upon the oar, and producing a brisk and agreeable effect; this had such influence upon their comrades, that, to borrow a maritime expression, 'we flew through the water'." (page 482).

Tenants on the kelp estates: "Two classes:....the one consisting of well-informed, judicious men, commonly called gentlemen tacksmen, who occupy large districts of ground, and pay a rent to their landlord according to the quantity, quality , and value of their respective farms; the other of the small, or as they are called, operative tenants, who are generally employed with their families during the summer in manufacturing their landlord's kelp, during the harvest partly in fishing, and partly in securing their crops; during the winter, in making compost middens for manuring his farms, building and repairing houses, march-dykes, head-dykes, and sub-division dykes; and in spring in putting seed under ground." (page 491).

Carr, taking a positive view of the Clearances, suggests that many that chose not to emigrate abroad "have been obliged to find employment in the manufactories of Glasgow and Paisley, in the Caledonian Canal and other works, by which they acquire habits of active industry, their minds become more expanded, they are better able to maintain their families, and they have added more to the stock of wealth and industry elsewhere, than they have withdrawn from their native spot by their removal." (pages 463-464).

The Highland "vallies shall contain enterprising agriculturists and successful manufacturers." (page 468).

Roads in the Highlands:

"The road to Dundee is very good..." (page 272). On the other hand, the road to Kinross "is worse than any turnpike-road in Scotland, and the tolls are higher." (page 248). See also Southey on Perthshire roads (The Immeasurable Wilds, page 97).

"When General Wade, under whose inspection the military roads in the Highlands were made, first appeared in a carriage drawn by six horses, amongst these Alpine natives [i.e. Highlanders], they paid the greatest homage to the postilion and coachman, and wholly disregarded the General and his friends in the coach, whom they considered to be of no consequence, from their being shut up in the carriage." (page 395)

Carr observed that when constructing the roads in Scotland, "on the working days, each private had six pence extra, and a serjeant one shilling: many other national objects might have been achieved in the same manner, with great saving to the state, and an acceptable augmentation to the soldiers' pay, had the same policy been adopted in other parts of the United KIngdom."

The Road crossing Mull: "I now bade adieu to every vestige of tolerable road, and entered upon a track, which only the horses of the country could traverse without a fracture...The Duke of Argyll, when he visited these uncouth parts, promised to have a road constructed in this direction; when executed, future travellers, with cheerful gratitude, will unite the memory of his Grace to that of General Wade." (pages 473-474).

Learning in the North:

As Carr travels up the east coast, he is struck by the standard of education generally evident. "A lady of rank said that, seeing a shepherd of her father's lying upon the side of a hill reading, curiosity led her to ask him what he was reading, when she found it was a copy of The Spectator." (page 321).


As he heads further west towards Inverness, the poverty he witnesses in the true Highlands becomes more apparent. At Forres "Poverty seemed to hang over it as an evil spirit...The only chaise in the place was engaged, and it was with difficulty I procured a horse, and that appeared to be nearly half-starved." (pages 327-8).

Near Nairn, he encountered a "Black Town...consisting of some miserable turf hovels." Needing directions, he knocked on a door."A tall, athletic peasant...addressed me with the usual salutation 'What's u will'....With no other covering than a shirt, he insisted upon walking by the side of my horse till he had seen me out of the possibility of mistaking my road, which he did with the most perfect good humour, and at parting refused to accept a douceur for such extraordinary attention; indeed, he appeared hurt that I should have offered it." (pages 328-9).

"Nairn may be considered the eastern boundary of the Scottish language; upon my quitting it I found the Erse everywhere spoken. The male children wear philibegs [kilts], and the women and children go without shoes and stockings; the transition was not a little striking." (page 330).

At the inn at Letter Findley, "The children belonging to the house appeared to be smitten, or devoured with a cutaneous disease, called, from a false impression of its being almost peculiar to Scotland, the Caledonian Cremona, or Scottish Fiddle. This disorder is principally engendered by habits of filth; and...has been very much reduced of late years amongst the lower orders." (page 403).

Highland generosity and care:

Near Fort George, he enters "out of curiosity" one of the simple huts, and is struck by the care lavished by the inhabitant on two sisters "who in going to Banff on their way from Caithness about a week before,had both been seized with a fever...[The owner] was administering a little broth to one of them....I observed the fine eyes of this excellent woman brighten with pleasure. When I offered my mite, she declined it; but, upon my explaining, through my interpreter, that I wished to leave it for her poor patients, she received it with many thanks, mingled with much courtesy...." (pages 331-332).

"....In this sorry dwelling [a hut of branches and sods], the benighted traveller may rest in safety amid the howling storm; not a hand will be extended to him but in kindness, not a voice will be raised but to charm his ear with the song of other times, or, if he understands the language, to store his mind with the wild, romantic, and beautiful effusions of the Gaelic muse." (page 351).


"Nairn may be considered the eastern boundary of the Scottish language; upon my quitting it I found the Erse everywhere spoken." (page 330).

At Inverness, Carr notes "the pleasing softness with which the English language is here pronounced; it has neither the accent of the Highland nor the Lowland English language, but possesses a sweetness and purity of its own...It is very whimsical to find in this, as well as other towns in the West Coast, that frequently the inhabitants speak Gaelic on one side of the street, and English on the other. " (page 347). Regarding the accent at Inverness, see also Mrs Murray's account, and Leyden's.


At Fort Augustus, Carr finds the inn "tolerable."

The inn at Letter Findley is "as dirty and miserable as any venta in Spain; and worse, with regard to cleanliness and accommodation, as any other in Scotland that I have met with. The children belonging to the house appeared to be smitten, or devoured with a cutaneous disease, called, from a false impression of its being almost peculiar to Scotland, the Caledonian Cremona, or Scottish Fiddle. This disorder is principally engendered by habits of filth; and...has been very much reduced of late years amongst the lower orders." (page 403).

For Carr's comments on the General's Hut (pages 396....), see my sub-page on the Inns of Scotland under 'Random Observations'.

Inn, ferry house and chapel: At Ballachulish, "the [ferry] house united two rather opposite characters: that of inn and chapel; this is by no means an uncommon case in the Highlands...sometimes those ardent devotees are seen crossing shallow rivers upon stilts, bearing their parents on their backs to the church on the opposite side." (page 419).

"The Inns in the Highlands are much improved since Dr Johnson's tour amongst them. Boswell mentions that they scarcely ever had bed-sheets. I was at many of these resting-places, and almost always had them, though not disposed at all times to enter them." (page 447).

The Inn on Ulva is "a very humble one." There is much noise from downstairs , but "the merry peasants below, with the courteousness natural to their character, sent up to tell me, that, if their dancing disturbed me, they would dance no more; to which I could send no other answer, but to beg that if it so pleased them, they would dance till the dawn of day." (page 477).


Inverness: "There is a great appearance of industry and opulence, urbanity and refinement, amongst the inhabitants. The females are remarkable for their beauty...." (page 347).

Exports from Inverness include "the fish caught in the River Ness....the skins of hares, foxes, goats, rabbits, otters, roes, etc.....A ship-load of juniper berries used also, annually, some time back, to be sent to Holland from this place..." (pages 366-367).

Fort Augustus: While he thinks the inn "tolerable", he finds the fort "little more than a mere 'Uncle Toby' fortification." (page 399).

Fort William: "Nothing can be shabbier as a fortification than Fort William; it has neither strength, space, nor neatness...The farce of shutting the gate at the hour usual in fortified towns is still preserved in this travesty of a fortification." (page 415).


At Fort Augustus, he breakfasted with the Govenor, and noticed that the bread was mouldy. "This part of the county of Inverness-shire is so frequently exposed to rain that the peasants seldom depend upon saving their corn in the open air: 'drying houses' are therefore used by such as can afford them, in which the sheaves are simply hung upon a peg until they are dry enough to make room for others. The people are restricted to the most degenerate species of oats, with the hairy-bearded husk, a light small kind of beer, and potatoes." (page 400-401)

"Their [Highlander's] principal food is oaten or barley cakes. Oatmeal is used in various shapes, under the names of brochan, stirabout, sowins, etc. Sometimes the oaten cake is made of grannaded meal, that is, of meal separated from the husks, and roasted by the fire, instead of being threshed and kiln-dried. ...Milk also fields a principal source of subsistence...not only cows, but goats and ewes. It has been said, but I doubt the fact, that oatmeal is sometimes supped dry, undressed or baked, by putting a handful in the mouth and washing it down with water. I was told that the very poor Highlanders boil the blood of their cattle, when killed, with a quantity of salt, and that when it becomes cold and solid, they cut it in pieces and use it for food. At Inverness, I saw some poor people in the act of carrying blood in bowls, and upon my asking what they intended to do with it, they said 'to make puddings with it'...I saw few Highland huts which had not an adjoining little potato plot...A very favourite Highland dish, of the higher class, is composed of sour cream, sugar, whisky, curds, fresh milk, and flummery, a paste produced from a preparation of oats steeped in water." (pages 406-408).

"The butter in the Highlands is much improved; it used to be full of hairs, and it was a common saying that, if the butter had no hairs in it, the cow that gave the milk would not thrive. The butter in Scotland is, in general, I think, inferior to that in England, and perhaps a consciousness of this circumstance led to the introduction of honey, marmalades, and preserves upon the Scottish breakfast-table. The Highland honey is in high estimation, and is indebted for its peculiarly delicious flavour to the bloom of the heath. The Lowlanders call themselves the Land of Cakes, whilst the Highlanders proudly boast of inhabiting a land of milk and honey." (pages 411-412).

Whilst MacCulloch despaired at how little produce was grown in the Highlands, Carr records that on Ulva, "every small tenant...in general plants a quantity of cabbages, and of late turnips, which, with potatoes, are the principal vegetables...every tenant has a row-boat for himself." (pages 496-497).


One wag suggests "the climate of the west was composed of nine months of winter, and three of bad weather." (page 401).

"Rain, which continues in this neighbourhood [Fort William] for nine or ten weeks, is called by the natives by the gentle name of 'a shower.'" (page 416).

Highland Houses:

Carr gives some good descriptions of Highland Homes.

"At a distance they resemble a number of piles of earth....the walls are built of turf or stones, according to the nature of the adjoining soil, and raised about six feet high, on top of which a roof of branches of trees is constructed; this is covered with squares of turf, of about six inches thick, closely pressed together, and put on fresh from its parent moor, with the grass or heath upon it, which afterwards continues to grow, and renders it difficult for a traveller, unless he be very sharp-sighted, to distinguish at a little distance, the hut from the moor."

Inside: "Upon the ground, about the centre was the fire, the smoke of which escaped through a hole in the top of the roof, but not without first having blackened every part of it, till the rafters looked like charcoal: and unless the covering should be weather-proof, the rain must fall within as black as ink drops. In others, there was a little fire-place of iron bars, and a hob on either side, and above a crank, for holding the meikle pot. The only furniture I saw were some boxes, stools, pails, an iron pot, some bowls and spoons of wood, and also a cupboard or shelves for holding provisions."

The rooms of a "tolerable" hut: "A butt, which is the kitchen; a benn, an inner room; and a byar, where the cattle are housed. Frequently, the partition of the chamber is effected by an old blanket, or a piece of sail-cloth. In the kitchen, and frequently in the inner room, there are cupboard-beds for the family; or what is more frequent, when the fire on the ground is extinguished, they put their bed of heath and blankets upon the spot where it had burned on account of the ground being dry. A true farmer loves to sleep near the byar, that he may hear his cattle eat. These patriarchal dwellings frequently tremble, and sometimes fall, before the fury of the tempest. I was told that very far north, when a Highland peasant entertains his friends with a cheerful glass of whisky, it is usual, as a compliment to the host, to drink to his 'roof-tree', alluding to the principal beam, which by its weight enables the roof to resist the pressure of a mountain squall, and which forms the great protection of the family within from its fury."

"These mountaineers are so attracted to their peat or mud hovels, that, although he [the landlord] had erected for some of his tenants neat stone cottages, they continued to prefer their former dwellings, the workmanship of their own hands." (pages 403-406).

Dunghills: these "are constructed close to the doors. To such a pitch of fondness is this carried that, upon an order being issued that no one should raise their dunghill on the streets of Callander, one old lady is said to have expressed her joy that she was not deprived of hers by this clean and cruel decree, for she had made it in a back room." (page 406).

House on Mull: "This hut, like almost every other which I saw on the island, was very wretched: it was built of round stones, or large pebbles, without cement, and the door was composed of rude wicker-work. The thatch was fern, and kept together by ropes of heath, at the ens of which stones were fastened, which hung down the sides of the cottage." (page 473). 


"All over the Hebrides, rent is now paid in money, and not in kind." (page 493).

Highland Character:

"It appears that the distinguishing features of the Highland character are vanishing away....The present Highlanders appear to unite sentiment to serious habit: they are inquisitive, thoughtful, and intelligent, and they have a sort of melancholy sensibility, tempered with much natural courtesy, which renders them highly interesting.... I was always surprised to find great intellectual curiosity which the Highlanders displayed in their enquiries after our own manners and customs: they have frequently walked by the side of my carriage, or of my horse, for miles together, during which I had many a shrewd interrogatory propounded to me....When you look at his [the Highlander's] face and form, you will naturally say 'nothing sordid or selfish can be cherished there.'...In the midst of poverty and privation, such as the south never exhibits, he is, by a powerful moral sense, more than by reflection and education, preserved from mean and unworthy actions." (pages 435-437).


In cold, dry, windy weather, when mountaineers are obliged to sleep among the hills to attend their cattle, they soak their plaid in a burne or brook, in which, having rolled themselves, they select a spot of heath upon the leeward side of some hill for their bed, where they are kept quite warm by the wet, which prevents the wind from penetrating the stuff." (page 442).

"When an Englishman was walking with a Highland peasant, a violent storm overtook them, upon which the former buttoned his coat, and fastened the plaid which he had borrowed round him, while the latter stripped himself naked, and seated himself upon his tartan dress, which he had formed into a bundle, and, in this manner, contentedly waited until the rain was over, when he laughed at his companion on account of his clothes being wet, whilst his own, by this hardy contrivance, were dry." (page 452).

"Few gentlemen, except when they are sporting or farming, wear the kilt; the belted plaid is scarcely ever worn. The Scottish bonnet is also disappearing...The undress of the gentleman is generally a short coat of tartan, and trousers of the same stuff. The females of respectability dress precisely as our ladies do. The dress of the common people of both sexes, in most parts of the Highlands, is made of a thin, coarse woolen cloth, which they make and dye of indigo colour blue. The men generally wear waistcoats and sometimes trousers of the same stuff, or cloth, and beaver hats. They also frequently have a plaid in folds, part girt round the waist, to form a sort of short petticoat to reach half-down to the thighs, and the rest thrown over the shoulder, and fastened below the neck. Brogues and short tartan stockings are also much used. The very poor wear what are called mire-pipes, or stockings without feet, called also, in some parts of Scotland, huggers.

The women generally wear a petticoat and a sort of bedgown of the same stuff, and a cursche, or white mob cap, or a handkerchief thrown over the head, and tied under the chin. The married women wear lappits [a decorative flap], and the unmarried have their hair turned up, and fastened with a comb; they wear no caps. The Highland dress of a chieftain is now seldom presented to the eye, unless in the islands on a Sunday, or in a family picture." (pages 448-450).

"The colours of the plaid harmonise so well with the russet and healthy colours of the Highland mountains, that they much facilitate the Highlander in the destruction of game." (page 452).


"In some of the remote parts of the Highlands, a candle would produce as much sensation as a Chinese lantern. On account of the difficulty and expense of procuring tallow, they substitute dry slips of the birch and fir -tree, the stumps of which they find in the peat bogs, when they cut for fuel. The care of attending to these rude tapers, which burn quickly and brightly, is confided to those of the family who are too aged or too young to perform any very serviceable labour." (page 409).


Rope: "The materials which they adapt to useful purposes are frequently very simple. In different parts of the Highlands...straw is found a convenient substitute for ropes. The horse-collar and crupper are frequently made of straw. Sticks of birch twisted together are also frequently used for halters and harness, and are called 'woodies'." (page 413).

On Mull, he hired a pony, and is not impressed by the quality of the saddle. "However, I was fortunate in procuring this much-valued rarity, as I found that a large, fresh sod is generally used as an ingenious substitute." (page 471).


"The ridges of the mountains which characterize this part of the country [the West Coast] run nearly west to east, and they exhibit evidences highly corroborative of the deluge [Noah's Flood], which, it is fair to suppose, poured in from the south-west to north-east, and produced the vast and astonishing inequalities which are visible in this direction upon the summits of these and every other known mountain of the earth. The shepherds in the Highlands constantly observe that, whilst the south-west side of the hill is sterile, the north-east side is rich in soil and pasture, and exhibit traces of alluvial earth." (pages 410-411).

"In this valley [Glencoe], there is a very extraordinary appearance, produced by the superinduced stratum of rock on the south side, which has not yet been elucidated...Upon the shores of the lake [Loch Linnhe]...are some vast globular rocks, well worthy of notice." (page 425).


Dogs form "part of the family. The children romp with him; and in general, he is a great favourite." (page 406).


"It appears that the duty on spirits distilled in Scotland, exclusive of the duty on malt and malt liquor, imported spirits and wine, did not produce in the year 1777 the sum of £8,000, whereas in 1806, it produced £250,000." (page 408).


Carr is not a fan! "The bagpipe is amonst the very few remaining barbarisms of Scotland." (page 176).

But he is sad that "there is not now one harper to be found." (page 185)

On Ulva (like Necker de Saussure), Carr stays with the landowner, known as Staffa, and like Necker (see The Immeasurable Wilds, page 149), he comments on the Piper: "At breakfast, and after dinner, Staffa, I suppose out of compliments to his tenantry, was attended by his Piper. This surviving member of feudality used to strut  before the window with great solemnity, and in a dress extremely handsome." (page 479).

Mileage Assessment:

"My hostess assured me that Aros was only nine miles off; and what induced me to conceive that she meant English miles was that she accompanied it by another assurance: that I should reach it in two hours and a half; whereas the distance proved to be at least twenty miles, and I did not reach it in less than six hours." (page 472). [Many travellers complained of the natives inability to give accurate distance details. See The Immeasurable Wilds, page 104.]

"Our hostess at Taynuilt informed us that Dalmally was only eleven miles off, and the distance proved to be twenty." (page 506).

"beware the phrase 'a wee bit over the brae'....you will generally find this wee bit bear as great a proportion to the rest of the journey as the long tail of a comet does to the comet." (page 525).

Mercheta Mulierium:

"The extraordinary custom called mercheta mulierium is said to exist exclusively in this island [Ulva]. It is the right which the laird has of violating the seventh commandment with his tenant's wife on her wedding-night. Staffa...assured me he had never exercised his privilege..." (page 481).

Staffa (Island of):

On seeing Fingals Cave: "The impression which it produced on me and others was such as only sublimity and novelty could have effected." (page 482-483).

The Bishop of Derry at Staffa: "When the Bishop of Derry visited the island some years since, upon his entering the Cave of Fingal, he was so solemnly impressed with its sublimity, that he fell on his knees and prayed. He afterwards requested a Highland gentleman, who accompanied him, to ask in Gaelic what he [the shepherd who lived on the island] most wanted? To which the poor herdsman, with great simplicity and moderation, said 'a razor and some soap.' The Bishop ordered him three razors, several pounds of soap, and gave him a purse of ten guineas." (page 484).


Kelp "is used in the manufacture of glass and soap....After it is cut, or collected, it is exposed to the sun and wind; and before its moisture is exhaled, it is placed in troughs, or hollows, dug in the ground, about six feet long and two or three broad: round its margins is laid a row of stones, on which the sea-weed is placed, and set on fire within, and in consequence of continual supplies of this fuel, there is in the centre a perpetual flame, from which a liquid like melted metal drops into the hollow beneath, and when it is full, it is, in a state of fusion, raked about with long iron rakes...When cool, it consolidates into a heavy, dark-coloured alkaline substance, which undergoes in the glass-house a second vitrification, and assumes a perfect transparency." (page 490).

"The manufacture of kelp possesses an advantage, which is considerable in so remote a part of the kingdom as the Hebrides, of affording employment to children, as well as persons advanced in life." (page 492).

The chain found in the Caledonian Canal work:

On page 385, Carr confirms Southey's record of a chain being found during the Caledonian Canal excavations (see page 95 in The Immeasurable Wilds.)