Thomas Wilkinson: Tours to British Mountains, 1824

Thomas Wilkinson (1751 - 1836) was an Englishman who lived at Yanworth, Penrith in the Lake District. He was a friend of, amongst others, Wordsworth and Coleridge and his writing is tinged with a Romantic spirit that saw him, for example, travelling with his handkerchief in his hand, "which I lifted to my eyes on looking back and beholding the lessening mountains of Cumberland." (Page 2). But, for him, the Highlands was "an imaginary point of excellence" in his quest for fine scenery, and he visited them early in the 19th century with his friend John Pemberton, a fellow-Quaker from Philadelphia. His book includes mountains throughout Britain, many of which he climbed (including on this trip, Ben Nevis), but the first 90 pages are devoted to the Highlands, as far north as Inverness. His account is a simple one, but he gives interesting detail, not least about Highland harvesting and agricultural tools. 

Women, dress and bare feet:

Shortly after entering Scotland, he observes "It was amusing to observe the different habits of different places not very remote from one another. It would appear singular in England for those who had their floors spread with carpets, and kept their carriages, to have their genteel daughters going bare-foot and bare-leg through the mud: yet when they sat with their friends in an evening, their dress was becoming and elegant." (Page 2).

Lowland dress: "The females in this part of Scotland dress very lightly: their clothing consists of a jacket, a petticoat, and a handkerchief; in common they wear nothing on their heads or feet; the hair on their forehead is turned over to behind, and fastened with a comb or clasp of metal, flows round their shoulders." (Page 5).

In Ayr, "the weather was now remarkably wet and cold, the road very miry, and the poor women in general without shoes or stockings. Remarking on these hardships I was told it is no uncommon thing in the severe frosts of winter  to see the road tinged with drops of blood from the naked feet of the inhabitants." (Page 7).

Highland Dress: for Males, it "consists of a bonnet, a very short jacket and waist-coat, checked with various colours, the trews, or philibeg, a sort of short petticoat, which must be very easy when climbing their mountains, and is made of the same quality and colours of the jacket: - their stockings are checked, and do not come to the knee; their shoes are the same as ours. The dress of the gentleman and peasant differs but in fineness. The poor women go without hats, or caps, or stays, barefoot and bareleg, yet preserve their modesty: but modesty is in the heart, not in the apparel." (Page 75).

Highlanders at work, harvesting etc.:

[Wilkinson at his most Romantic] A woman at Loch Lomond: "Passed a female who was reaping alone: she sung in Erse as she bended over her sickle; the sweetest human voice I ever heard; her strains were tenderly melancholy, and felt delicious, long after they were heard no more." (Page 12).

He joins some harvesters at work: "I found they knew nothing of either foot-cock or great-cock with the rake, so I shewed them that method, and found myself rising into consequence in coming to the Highlands and teaching them to make hay. Their rake is unhandy; its head is about fourteen inches long, with nine teeth thicker than my finger. The Highland scythe is about two feet and a half long, turned up at the point; and has a prodigious long shaft, which they hold in the crook of their left arm, and use it without bending their body; - when it wants sharpening, they take up a stone and whet it as we do a spade. The Highland spade is about four inches broad; a heavy, straight, flat piece of iron, with a socket, into which they drive a strong wooden handle; with a piece of wood on one side, by which they force it into the ground with their foot. The Highland Cart is of a very simple construction; no wheels, or iron, or leather about it or its harness: even what supports it on the horse's back is often twisted rods. The cart consists of two poles for the sides, with half-a-dozen or eight small cross-bars for a bottom, and four or five of the same standing up behind....It is dragged along the ground, and they heap hay upon it; when they want to bring home their peats, they add a hurdle." (Page 29).

Like Leyden, Wilkinson notices at Tarbet: "this is a region of rocks: yet it is admirable how cultivation spreads among them. Wherever a little soil has covered the rocks, it is turned up by the spade or the plough: narrow strips of corn turn up among them in every direction: many of these stripes, not above two or three yards broad, twining round rocks and turning among the woods." (Page 31).

Goats: Under Ben Nevis, " we saw fine flocks of the large , grey goat of the mountain. I rode towards a numerous group which I saw lying among the heath; when I believe fifty got up and set forward towards the hills." (Page 65).

Gathering corn at Fort Augustus: "The men with their ponies dragged it along the ground, but the poor women bore it on their backs." (Page 69). 


At Loch Lomond, "the roads were excellent...little boys would frequently run by our sides and hold converse with us a long way: tis the manner of the country." (Page 13).

A Highland By-road: "In setting forward again [from Drum] on our journey, we left the main road...and had now for perhaps ten miles, of ancient Highland road, which was rugged indeed; much of it was rock sticking through the soil, and sometimes rocks standing on edge. We were obliged to travel one before another." (Page 28).

A new road in Argyll: Some years ago, the country gentlemen, with the Duke of Argyle at their head, subscribed a considerable sum of money for making the public roads. Between Tarbet and Inverneil, at a great expense, they cut the road through a rock by the shore, to avoid a very rugged and mountainous passage. When the road was completed, two Highlanders from the same village were travelling together: when they came to the place where the two roads separated, one of them proposed going the new road; the other replied smartly, 'He would have none of their new road; he would go the way his fathers had gone before him', and so ascended the mountain." (Page 36).

The road from Tarbet to Inverneil: "is very remarkable; much of it cut through solid stone and along the shore; and at a vast expense, as in many places the passage of the rocks has been opened with gunpowder." (Page 38).


He climbs Ben Lomond, and at the top is joined by a party consisting of "twelve persons (six of either sex), two guides, a black servant, and a pony with provisions." (Page 16).

Highland houses:

At Drum: "I counted nineteen dwellings....No inclosures like gardens, no chimneys, in the whole village; and but six panes of glass; one light-hole to a hut; their roofs were composed of turf or heath, or a very poor thin cover of straw, tied down with ropes of the same...." (Page 25).

House details: "The interior of the Highland hut is oftentimes more comfortless than their exterior....The smoke arising from a small fire of peats, in the middle of the apartment makes it difficult at first to distinguish what it contains; it is indeed some time before one's eyes are accommodated to the medium. I have been in several huts where I neither saw bed, table, nor chair; sometimes, indeed, lay a little straw or a few rushes by the side of the hut, by way of a bed; sometimes in a morning I found three or four children standing naked round a dim fire, and they would come around me, gazing with looks of surprise; - dear children! Our surprise was mutual....I was sorry to find the inhabitants of any part of Great Britain thus poorly accommodated; - after all, these simple cottagers are , in some degree contented, and in a great degree, innocent." (Pages 26-27).

Huts beyond Fort William: "In this day's ride I saw many of as poor huts as surely covered human beings; they seemed entirely built of earth, and covered with the same...yet I met with elegant forms and cheerful countenances among the human habitations of poverty." (Page 67).

Huts at Loch Tarro: "We saw a vast number of little huts; in one place I counted fifty, and but one chimney in the whole that rose above the roof. They stood near together in a bottom, and their apparent equality seemed to exclude envy. I was inclined to suppose, that perhaps few places exhibit fifty families living together in greater harmony...." (Page 69). 

Huts along Loch Ness: "In some places we saw villages above the rocks and woods, scattered along the summits of the mountains: being covered with earth or heath, they might by strangers have been mistaken for ricks of peat...I observed a new house [in the district of Fort William] with five windows in front; and was told it had been built by an officer, who had taken a large tract of ground, comprehending a number of these huts, which, perhaps next year might be removed: and what would become of the families was not known. Perhaps they may take their few implements on their backs, and remove to the side of another hill, or to the border of another lake. This is one of the trials of the Highlanders." (Page 73).


The Corryvreckan Whirlpool: [between the islands of Jura and Scarba] Wilkinson's guide "pointed out where roared the fearful gulf of Corryvichan; where five tides meet making a dangerous whirlpool and a dreadful navigation." (Page 30).

Geology at Tynelane: "A little beyond Tynelane, by the sea-shore, I observed some remarkable rocks: many of them had more the appearance of the ruins of art than the works of nature. In one place, they took the appearance of a thick wall, running far into the sea..." (Page 31). 

Ferrywoman at Loch Etive: "We and our horses were rowed over by a woman. She plunged into the water to push off the boat, and then sprang on board, seized her oars, and raised her song..." (Page 56). 

Breakfast at The General's Hut: Wilkinson takes breakfast there, but makes no comment regarding either the building or the food! (Page 72). 

Impressions of Inverness: it "excited some surprise. Inverness has its modern improvements, and its treasures of antiquity; it has its lamps and its hotels, and its castle of Macbeth, and it has a number of genteel inhabitants....I was highly gratified at the elegant and interesting sweetness with which they spoke English at Inverness." [He agrees with Carr and Murray!] (Page 77).

He then returns to Edinburgh down the East Coast.