A Tour Through the Island of Great Britain:

   Daniel Defoe's Description of the North

Daniel Defoe's description of the complete British Isles was first published 1724 - 1727. It consisted of three volumes, the one concerned with Scotland being the last. It is thought that he did not visit everywhere that he described, and certainly not just before the book was published: it does not describe a particular tour. It seems that he did not visit the far north-west, for on page 17 (of my edition), his list of the notable mountains of Scotland includes those in Caithness, Ord, but makes no mention at all of anything in Sutherland or Ross-shire.

The edition I am using is the eighth, published in four volumes in 1778. The fourth volume is devoted to Scotland, and Defoe's work has been "continued by the late Mr. Richardson...and brought down to the present Time by Gentlemen of Eminence in the Literary World." It therefore gives a picture of the country at the time when travellers such as Pennant and Johnson were visiting. It is accompanied by an attractive, small map.


Within houses, "I have seen their children...full of smallpox, and, at their height, they have been walking and lying in the wet, and dirt, the rain at the same time beating violently through the thatch: yet they seemed hearty, drinking whey and butter-milk, and generally do very well." (page 24). 

"The smell of cattle's dung (which is generally very thick about the house) and their peat fire, I believe, keeps them in health, but not free from the itch, which is as common as their oatmeal." (page 168).


Along Loch Ness there is "for near twelve miles...a road made with the greatest difficulty, by blowing up monstrous rocks, which in many places hang stooping over passengers, and higher than houses, so that it is a little frightful to pass by them. We find many of these dreadful passes, with water dripping out from every part of the fractured rock." (page 206). 

Pages 209-212, there is a good description of the construction work overseen by General Wade:

The survey was carried out in 1724.

The work carried out between 1726 - 1727.

500 soldiers were employed.

"These roads are all now fit for wheel-carriages, or a train of artillery, being about 250 miles in length and 20 to 24 feet in breadth, including aquaducts and side-drains that preserve them from the injuries of violent rains...Where the hills permit, they run in right-lines, notwithstanding the rocks and bogs which often interposed. The huge stones, raised out of the ground by engines, are set up by the road's side, and serve as guides in deep snow; and at every five measured miles are pillars to inform the traveller how far he has proceeded...When the miners blasted with gunpowder the black rock on the side of Loch Ness, they were obliged to hang by ropes till they bored into it....

"There are  40 stone bridges built upon these roads...The ease and convenience of these roads has induced several of the Highland gentlemen to make good ways at their own expence, from their homes to the main road; and where there were nothing but turf huts for 100 miles together, there are now at 10 or 12 miles distance from each other, houses of stone and lime for the accommodation of travellers. The English drovers, who used to attend the fairs of cattle on the borders of the Highlands, now go into the heart of the country; and the soldiers, many of whom were husbandmen, taught the inhabitants a better manner of tilling their ground; and many other advantages have accrued to the Highlanders, and the kingdom in general....

"This work, though so stupendous and beneficial as might have well added lustre to the Roman name, was effected by a handful of men, comparatively speaking, and at a small expence." 


Defoe does not approve of the plaid, "as everything which creates a distinction is hurtful to every kingdom" (page 25).

"The women have disused them [plaids] for garments, they are only worn by the dregs of the people." He notes that "their greatest trade for their woolen manufactures and other commodities, has for many years been in the United Netherlands...The Scots have been always well esteemed in those provinces; and the states allow them churches, and maintenance for their ministers." (page 15). He also mentions that the Scots "most resemble the French, occasioned by the long league between the two nations, the mutual commerce, frequent inter-marriages, and custom of travelling into France to study the law, and other sciences, and by their affecting to serve in the French armies." (pages 25-26).

Animals, Fishing and Farming:

Hogs are generally "not in plenty, except in the north." Also, there is "a great number of goats, particularly in the north and Highlands, though even there they are now comparatively scarce, owing to their disbarking the trees."(page 12). But on page 201 "Swine are seldom seen about the Highlands..."

Goats: "I was informed here [Dunkeld] that those animals will eat serpents, as is well known that Stags do." (page 167).

At Aberdeen, "The adjoining sea not only furnishes them with plenty of fish, but reproaches them with their negligence, when they see the Dutch fleets continually fishing on the coasts, from whence they reap great gain, but it is the humour of the inhabitants to apply themselves to the salmon-fishing, and to neglect that of all other sorts." (page 180).

Finds "the temperature of the air more softened" in the Murray country, so that "the harvest there, and in the vale of Strathbogy, and all the country of Inverness, is observed to be more early than in Northumberland, nay, than in Derbyshire and even some parts of the more southerly counties in England...[They] begin with the harvest in the month of July." (page 190).


Defoe lists the "Precious Stones and other Valuable Commodities" on pages 22-25. The list includes Coral, "fine shells, which pass in Africa for money", "Mines of gold in Craufurd [Crawford] Moor", silver "three miles south of Linlithgow", and "Free stone, slate, lime-stone, marble in great plenty, all over the country."


On a Sunday, all he could get at a post-house for refreshment was "an egg or two, with some wine or thick Scots Ale...for their seeming strictness in religion will not let them do any labour...till night, when Sunday is over." (page 186).

"Their [ministers'] manner of preaching is with a whine, which they call the fough(?); and as they pray extempore, they are often betrayed into ridiculous absurdities. They do not drink so much as a dram, without saying a long grace over it; and one was suspended for riding on horseback on the Sabbath, though it was occasioned by his not being able to pass a ford on a Saturday evening, in his way to the kirk....By the general tenor of their preaching and their proceedings as a synod, a stranger would be inclined to think that they had nothing to be a sin but fornication, nor a virtue but keeping the sabbath...in the highlands, there are a set of fellows, who, if they see two persons of different sexes walk out to take the air, make it their business to dog them from place to place, still keeping themselves concealed; and, if they see any intimacy, will march up and demand money; upon a refusal of which they will inform, and if they will confirm their information by an oath, the parties must either quit the country, or do public penance." He adds in a note "Public penance for the sin of fornication is now abolished in Scotland where the people are at present no chaster than their southern neighbours." (pages 201-202).

Marriage: "In their marriage, they do not use a ring, as in England; but the bride, if she is of the middle class, is conducted to church by two men who take her under the arms, and hurry the poor, unwilling creature along the streets, as a pickpocket is dragged to an horse-pond in London, having been attended the evening before by the bride-maids, who with great ceremony wash her feet.

"When a servant-maid has behaved well in a place, her master and mistress make what they call a penny wedding for her when she marries. They provide a dinner and supper, and invite all their relations and friends; and in the evening, when there is music and dancing, the bride must go round the room, and salute all the men, during which ceremony, every person in the company puts money into a dish, according to their inclination and ability; and by this means the new-married couple often procure a sum sufficient to begin the world with very comfortably for persons in their position." (page 202).

Christening: "The moment a child is born, it is plunged into cold water, though it should be necessary first to break the ice. At the christening, the father holds it up before the pulpit, and receives a long extemporary admonition concerning its education." (page 202).

Burials: "The people are invited to ordinary burials by a man who goes about with a bell, and, at certain stations, declares aloud the death of the party, the name, and place of abode; this bell is also tinkled before the funeral procession. To the burial of persons of higher rank, an invitation is usually given by a printed letter signed by the nearest relation; but sometimes it is general by beat of a drum.

"The company, which is always numerous, meet in the street at the door of the house; a convenient number of whom (strangers are always the first) are then invited into a room, where there are pyramids of cake and sweet=meats, to which some dishes, with pipes and tobacco, are added, merely because it is an old custom; for it is rare to see any smoaking in Scotland.

"Each of the nearest relations present wine to every individual of the company, and, as it is expected the guest, when he has accepted the favour of one, should not refuse it to any of the rest, he is in danger of drinking more than he can conveniently carry. When one sot(?) has been thus treated, others are introduced, and, when all have had their turn, they accompany the corpse to the grave, where it generally arrives about noon.  The minister is always particularly invited, though he performs no kind of service over the dead, of whatever fortune or rank. Part of the company is selected to return to the house, where wine is filled as fast as it can be drank, til there is scarce a sober person among them. In the end, however, some sweet-meats are put into their hats, or thrust into their pockets, with which they afterwards compliment the women of their acquaintance. This ceremony they call the dradgy, which perhaps is a corruption of dirge. No fees are paid to the minister or parish, for either christening, marrying, or burying." (pages 202 -203)


"Dumbarton is the lock of the Highlands, and Stirling Castle keeps the keys." (page 127).

"The pass into the Highlands is awfully magnificent: high, craggy and often naked mountains present themselves to view, approach very near each other, and in many parts are fringed with wood overhanging and darkening the Tay, which rolls with great rapidity beneath." (page 166).

Some of Cromwell's English soldiers stationed at Inverness chose to settle in the region, bringing with them good husbandry, and keeping their English way of life intact. So "at this time they speak perfect English, even better than in the most southerly provinces of Scotland; nay, some will say as well as at London itself. And indeed their tongue is not only Anglicised, but their palate is too; their way of eating and cookery, dress and behaviour, is pretty much according to the southern mode". In Inverness they speak English, but understand Gaelic. Within a mile of the town "there are few who speak English at all." (page 196-197). [See Carr and Murray for their comments on the accent at Inverness].

At Inverness, "by the side of the river, and indeed all over Scotland, are to be seen numbers of women with their coats tucked up, stamping in tubs upon linen, to wash it, and, in this place, not in summer only, but in the depth of winter, for the river never freezes." (page 198).

He describes Sutherland and Ross-shire on pages 212-219, calling it "this frightful country."

Stroma: "is much spoken of as dangerous for ships: but I see no room to record anything of that kind, any more than the report, that it is haunted by witches and spirits, which draw ships on shore to their misfortune. The cheeses made on the island are remarkable for their excellent taste, and for their diminutive size." (pages 218-219).

At Tain "we could understand no more of what the people commonly said, than if we had been in Morocco." (page 222).

In Perthshire, contrary to what they are told, he finds "the inhabitants any thing so wild, untaught, or untractable, as we have been made to believe; and as are to be found in the north-land division, that is to say, in Strathnavern, Ross, Tayne, eyc." (page 227).


On a Sunday, all he could get at a post-house for refreshment was "an egg or two, with some wine or thick Scots Ale...for their seeming strictness in religion will not let them do any labour...till night, when Sunday is over." (page 186).

He describes the General's Hut as "a small and pitiful house of entertainment (yet the only one on the road)." (page 207).


"The Highland houses hereabout [Dunkeld] are very oddly built, and look most miserable and desolate, they being composed of clods of peat, stones and broom. As to chimnies, they are little acquainted with them: there is sometimes a little hole left open for them at the top for the smoke to go out; other times it is in the end; and most frequently, the door performs this office. Nay, what is more odd, in coming into this town, I saw in one house a chimney made of a cart-wheel, and out of the hollow of the axle passed the smoke." (page 167-168).

At Inverness the houses are "mostly low, because the town is exposed to sudden and impetuous gusts of wind...The back part, or one end of the house, is generally turned towards the street, and there is a short alley which leads into a kind of yard, from whence the stairs ascend that lead to the first floor; for the ground floor is generally a kind of shop or warehouse...The walls are built of stones that greatly differ both in size and shape: many of them are pebbles, and, being almost round, there must necessarily be large gaps between, which on the outside, they fill up, by driving in flat stones of smaller size, and afterwards face the work all over with mortar thrown against it with a trowel, which they call a harling. Before the Union, the houses were neither sashed nor slated, and, to this day, the ceiling of one room is nothing more than the identical boards which serve for the floor of another; of the same kind are the partitions bteween rooms on the same floor, so that, as the planks dry, there is a chink between each, through which it is easy to see all that passes; but this is not all, for the floors are full of holes about an inch diameter. One of the holes is bored on each plank, at some distance from the end, when they are taken from the saw-mill; and through these holes they put a cord, or, as they call it, a woodie, to keep them flat on the sides of the horses, which drag them to the place where they are to be used, with the corner of the other end on the ground. These holes indeed are filled up with pegs, when they are first laid, but, as the wood shrinks, the hole becomes wider, and the peg less, till it drops out, and is seldom afterwards restored. The windows that remain unsashed have two shutters for the lower half, and the upper half only is glazed; so that when it is necessary to keep out the weather, nothing can be seen in the street. This manner of constructing their windows is not altogether the effect of penury or parsimony; for in the clan quarrels, many were shot from the opposite side of the way, who were discovered sitting in their chambers through the glass.

Such are the houses of the principal streets of Inverness: those of the middling sort are yet lower, and have generally a close [closed?] wooden staircase before the front, which is lighted by small round, or oval holes, just big enough for the head to come through; and in summer, or when anything in the street excites the curiosity of those without, they look like so many people with their heads in the pillory. The extreme parts of the town consist of wretched hovels, faced and covered with turf, with a bottomless tub or basket in the roof for a chimney." (pages 199-200).

At Maryburgh (Fort William) "The houses are all, by special appointment, built of timber and turf, that they may be easily and suddenly burnt up by the commandant, when in danger of becoming a lodgement for an enemy." (page 205).


They drink aquae vitae "of their own extraction from ale-dregs and spices...a bottle of this liquor, and some cheese, will make a Murray man undertake the longest winter journies, without wishing for any other provision." (page 190-191).

On leaving the General's Hut, "we are surprised by a parcel of almost naked boys and girls, coming upon sight of us, down some craggy rocks of a mountain, to sell us whortle-berries, or the vaccinia nigra of Virgil, which they gather in almost every part of these mountains in prodigious quantities...They chiefly live on the fruit, when they are gathering them on the mountains. By means of the great stain they give, their mouths and hands are dyed in a frightful manner." (page 207). 

Other Observations:

"It is rare to see any smoaking in Scotland." (page 203).