Journal of a Tour made in 1800, by John Leyden

John Caspar Leyden (1775 - 1811) is described as being a 'Scottish Indologist', which means he was interested in all matters relating to the Indian sub-continent. Indeed, in 1803 he set sail for Madras, and he never returned to Britain, dying in Java after three days of 'Batavian Fever.' However, his interests ranged far wider than matters Indian: he assisted Sir Walter Scott in collecting border ballads, and wrote an essay on Scottish folk music and customs for an edition of The Complaynt of Scotland. In 1800, he embarked on a tour of the Highlands and Western Islands of Scotland, the journal of which was not published until 1903. It is from this journal that I pick out the following details....

In general, he advises "The most necessary qualities for a traveller are courage and patience." (Page 272).

"Adventures and hardships, however disagreeable for the present, are extremely pleasant to recollect, as they elevate a person in his own imagination, and increase the idea of his own power." (Page 205).


Leyden and his party (2 German students) stumbled across the Hon Sarah Murray when in the vicinity of Loch Katrine, a meeting that confirms his interest in geology. In the 2nd edition of Murray's Companion and Useful Guide, she describes how she saw "three active pedestrians, skipping amongst the rocks, with hammers in their hands, striking here and there for curiosities." Apparently, Leyden's accomplices were "two young foreigners who had studied at Edinburgh the preceding winter...the youngest had ...early in his journey gotten his foot sadly cut by scrambling amongst the rocks, but his ardent spirit made him think lightly of his wound." It gradually dawned on her that he was the brother of another German she had met in Glencoe in 1796!

Leyden himself provides fewer details of this meeting, though he mentions that they met "as we came in sight of the lake. She conducted us to Murray Point, named from herself, the discoverer, whence we had an enchanting view of part of the Trossachs, and of the greater part of the lake.....The rocks on the side of Loch Katrine are chiefly alpine schistus indurated, often containing a considerable quantity of micaceous particles." (Pages 15-16).

Leyden constantly refers to the geology wherever he is. So, for example, on leaving Auchnacraig on Mull he records "the rocks...were almost invariable composed of basalt. We saw one white porous stone of considerable levity, friable like a burnt limestone. At Auchnacraig, the threshold and some part of the house was floored with blue limestone, dotted like pyrites, as if it had been stuck full of nails." (Page 34).

Similarly, they explored a 'citadel' near Oban. "The eminence on which the citadel seems to have been founded consists chiefly of limestone and schistus intersected with quartzose matter. About the middle of this eminence we found a considerable vein of pumice and vitreous scoriae emerging through a chasm of the schistic matter, excessively indurated at the sides where it touched these scoriae. The adjacent schistus induced us to think that this phenomenon was rather of volcanic origin than the effect of artificial vitrification. The scoriae had a strong sulphuric small, were frequently coloured green and gray and sometimes red, and contained masses of half-burnt limestone and indurated schistus."

Clearly, Leyden's interest in geology was deep It was a shame that bad weather prevented the party from entering Ross-shire and Sutherland. It would have been interesting to read what he made of the rocks up there.

He was not disappointed by Staffa: he found Fingal's Cave "almost grand beyond imagination." He reported that tradition had it that the island was originally three-times as large, but being founded on columns, parts were undermined and sank into the water. (Page 38 -).

At Glen Roy, Leyden studied the Parallel Roads in some detail: "Some have supposed that they have been formed by successive depressions of a lake which formerly occupied the whole valley. Not only are the passes or entrances of the glen at both extremities averse to this supposition - as they are both irregular, the ridges receding or folding away from each other - but other circumstances render it impossible. The level is not always accurately preserved through the whole extent of the same parallel...A more probable opinion is, that they were formed for the convenience of hunting when the Scottish court resided at Inverlochy, and the whole glen was a royal forest, as tradition reports.....I dug away the surface in various places to ascertain whether they had been paved, and am induced to think that they were paved very skillfully." (Pages 191-194).

Near Loch Crinan, "I saw an upright wall of basalt, standing alone like the fragment of a ruin, similar to that which I saw in Mull upon the shore of Loch na gaul. It had quite the appearance of an artificial structure from the horizontal position of the columns. Adjacent to it were various regular columns in an oblique position, seeming to have been thrown up violently through a chasm in the surrounding schistus, the sides of which were indurated and jagged where they touched the basalt...." (Pages 58-59).

At Loch na gaul, "we saw a natural wall of basalt, of the thickness of two feet or more, both the surfaces of which nearly resembled a natural wall in regularity, but its form was not columnar." (Pages 35-36).

At Dalmally, Leyden set out to visit the MacNab family, as visited by Faujas de Saint Fond....(Pages 85-90)


At Loch Crinan, "we reached a pitiful inn about a mile from its [the Crinan Canal's] commencement, and as I carried a few books under my arm and was partly dressed in sable, the landlady mistook me for an itinerant preacher, and the landlord, named MacFadzean, an ugly fellow with a hypocritical face, immediately obtruded himself upon us, and maintaining his post obstinately, told me his wife wished to have a lecture. As I declined officiating in this capacity, I soon found that no provisions were to be got. So we proceeded along the canal almost nine miles farther to a pretty good inn upon Loch Gilpin, an arm of Loch Fyne." (Pages 59-60).

They were told the next day that they had to leave the inn as the Sheriff was arriving with the "posse comitatus...." However, the Sheriff, Mr Campbell of Ashkenish, "with true Highland hospitality urged us to take up our residence at his seat, about six miles distant, on the side of Loch Fyne, named Loch Gair House...." (Page 62).

At Strontian: known as "the London House, having been originally constructed of wood in that city and conveyed to Strontian in a ship. The accommodation is very bad, as may be expected. The floor of my bedroom was rotten and full of large holes....the panes of the window were shattered..." (Page 143). The draft during the night blew his night-cap off his head!

Near Glen Roy, "we reached a miserable inn, where we could procure no species of accommodation....We were terribly disconcerted by learning that they had not a particle of bread, and had just finished all the potatoes which were dug." (Page 194).

The General's Hut: "A wretched Inn". (Page 202).


In the vicinity of Glen Roy "We saw one, of green sods. which a man might easily have leaped over, the entrance of which was not above three feet high, without any door; yet in this wretched hovel we found a woman and some children." (Page 195).

"The huts of the peasants in Mull are most deplorable. Some of the doors are hardly four feet high, and the houses themselves, composed of earthen sods in many instances, are scarcely twelve. There is often no other outlet of smoke but at the door, the consequence of which is that the women are more squalid than the men, and their features more disagreeable." (Pages 34- 35).


He does not agree with Mrs Murray (nor Carr - see their accounts): "I am not so much delighted with the Inverness pronunciation as a certain female traveller of redoubted intrepidity, and am still more inclined to deny their pretensions to the classical English idiom..." (Pages 206-7)


At Ballachulish, "we scrambled along the sands of the lake to the inn, as the mountain torrents had torn up so much of the road that at last every vestige disappeared in the darkness." (Page 125). 

They tackle Corryarick: "The side of the mountain is indeed steep, bleak and dismal, but neither great nor sublime. The soil over which the road passes along the declivity is wet and plashy, abounding in springs and void of canals and drains, which ought to have been formed in constructing the road." Leyden thought the view from the top "neither great, beautiful, nor picturesque..." {Pages 196-197).

At Strathbogie, their carriage got stuck in the mud, and "we at last got out of the chaise and resolved to walk till the roads became better."

Crinan Canal:

Work began on the Crinan Canal in 1795, under the supervision of John Rennie. The project on paper looked much simpler than that of the Caledonian Canal, but it encountered various problems before it was completed in 1801. Even then, it needed more work from Telford in 1816. Leyden observed progress in 1800: "A considerable part of the Crinan Canal is still unfinished. The locks to be employed are about fifteen in number, and their breadth is twenty-seven feet. The depth of the canal is about twelve and a half feet. About 800 or 900 people have been frequently employed upon it, though at present there are not above 300. It has already cost about £110,000, and will require about £10,000 more. It is five years since it was begun, and it will probably be finished in another year." (Page 61).


At Taynish, we had an opportunity of hearing various species of music performed with grace and execution on the harpsichord. The most characteristic which I have heard are Lochiel's and Duntroon's March. With respect to the latter, we heard various anecdotes...particularly a kind of unintelligible story about a piper of one of the hostile clans who was hanged by his friends for betraying them to the Campbells by playing this march. We wished to hear the Mach Lormondh March, but were disappointed." (Pages 66-67).

Food & Agriculture:

On Mull, "The food of the lower classes consists chiefly of potatoes, in the culture of which they are very expert." (Page 35).

At a disused quarry at Easdale, he is "surprised to find every foot of ground in a state of high cultivation, and beds of potatoes at the bottom of open pits as well as on the surface, which vegetate amazingly in the warm soil produced by the crumbling schistus." (Page 56).

In the Taynish district, "the district promised to be extremely rocky , mountainous, and wild, but which to our surprise we found well sheltered with wood, romantic, and highly cultivated. Ridges of potatoes appeared on the steepest eminences, and green streaks of corn emerged on the summits of the hills amid clusters of white rock. Almost every spot of arable land appeared cultivated, even where no plough could possibly be employed. On enquiry, we found that the spade was used in tillage where the country is very rocky and irregular." (Page 65).

"On the shores of Knapdale, Jura, and various parts of Argyleshire, the manufacture of kelp has been carried on the great advantage during the war with Spain. It is sold at present for twelve guineas per ton, but in time of peace, it is only worth five, as it is almost superseded y the Spanish barilla." (Page 78).

Illegal whisky industry: "This distillation has had the most ruinous effects in increasing the scarcity of grain last year, particularly in Isla and Tiree, where the people have subsisted chiefly on fish and potatoes." (Page 79). 

Harbours and Ferries:

"The ferryman at Inishail is in the twenty-first generation of his race that have served the MacConachies in that capacity during twenty generations." (Page 94).

At Loch Ness, "we experienced a terrible disappointment here when we found that no boat could be procured to ferry us over to Urquhart; and I hardly know if we derived any consolation from being informed that the dead swell of the waves was so great that no boat could possibly venture on the lake." (Page 203).

At Inverness, he suggests "The quay might be considerably improved, though the shore is too flat and the water too shallow  to admit of a good harbour being formed." (Page 209). Telford had terrible trouble when constructing this end of the Caledonian Canal, needing to construct a passage through the mud out into the firth for some 200 yards.

At Aberdeen, he notes that the harbour has a "new quay....but lately finished at a vast expence." (Page 237).


On a boat back to Oban from Staffa, they overnight at Carsaig Bay. "During the night the fishermen amused us with singing concerning Oscar MacOshin, who, as they translated the stanza, was so dreadfully gashed at the Battle of Ben Eden that the cranes might have flown through him, yet he was cured by Fingal.  The common phrase of making the sun and wind shine through a person is nothing to this." (Pages 48-49).

The slate quarries at Easdale: "Three man commonly work abrest in a space nine yards broad, and in a year generally quarry 120,000 slates, which are sold at thirty shillings per 1000, the one half of which accrues tom the proprietor and the other to the labourer; so that every industrious labourer is able to clear about £30 per annum." (Page 57).

At Ballachulish quarries, "the workmen are chiefly from Cumberland." (Page 128).

Glencoe: "The view at the entrance of Glencoe is extremely sublime. The savage grandeur of the prodigious hills which encircle the valley impresses a degree of devotional feeling on the mind; but the scene is not dead and uniform, but pleases with its variety, though a person feels as if he were placed among the ruins of the world." (Page 130).

The treeless landscape between Glenelg and Fort William inspires Leyden to quote: 

"Where belly timber above ground

Or under was not found." (Page 169).

He is impressed with Maryborough: "...our eyes were agreeably relieved by the view of an elegant village, much superior to Oban in regularity and beauty. It contains about 1600 inhabitants, and is at present named Gordonsburgh, but was formerly denominated Helensburgh, till it was reclaimed by the Duke of Gordon , not long ago." (Page 182).

Leyden ascended Ben Nevis. One in the party, a Mr Grant, struggles: "He plied the whiskey bottle with considerable alacrity, but notwithstanding, found the descent more perilous and difficult than the ascent....Captain Cameron and I desired him to take hold of us firmly and we would soon whisk him to the bottom, but he assured us he preferred being upon his own parole." (Pages 188-189).

Fort Augustus: "It is rather an elegant village than a town, but the buildings are extremely neat. The fort consists of a great square flanked with bastions. It is of no strength either from the works - which are very trifling - or from the situation, being commanded by numerous heights in the vicinity." (Page 198).

He also climbed Craig Phadrick, which overlooks Inverness, and studies the vitrified fort that lies at the top. "I was somewhat sceptical on the subject of vitrified forts, and therefore examined the remains with considerable attention at two different times. The first time, having only carried a hammer with me, my doubts were not removed; but afterwards, having procured as man with a mattock and shovel to dig, I was satisfied concerning the artificial vitrification of the walls." (Page 211). He calls the process "an art unknown to the moderns." (Page 209).

Leyden finds the East Coast "insufferably flat and tame" after the West.


"I may now congratulate myself on a safe escape from the Indians of Scotland, as our friend Ramsay denominates the Highlanders." (Letter to Dr Anderson, Page 252).