Abominable Travel, 1888

lithograph, Joseph Pennell

In order to write So Many Windings, I had to research the history of tourism in Scotland around the turn of the twentieth century. That’s when I first discovered the Pennells. Joseph Pennell and Elizabeth Robins Pennell were an enterprising American husband and wife team who were pioneer travel journalists. Elizabeth did the writing and Joseph was a skilled etcher and lithographer who illustrated their books. In 1886 they had done a tour of France and Italy on a tandem tricycle and spun this into a series of articles for Harper’s Bazaar magazine. These were subsequently published as Our Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy.

Harper’s asked them to follow up with a similar book on the Scottish Highlands. The Pennell’s replied, “Couldn’t we do another book on France?”. And Harper’s said, “Scotland. Take it or leave it.” Without enthusiasm, the Pennell’s planned a tour to the Hebrides for the summer of 1888. They decided on walking instead of travelling by bicycle or by stagecoach and train. This would prove to be a mistake.

Elizabeth summed it up this way in the resulting book, Our Journey to the Hebrides. “We have no hesitation in saying that our trip to Scotland was the most miserable.” And she further said, “…let us say here, once and for all, that we found the whole country BEAUTIFUL and full of the most WONDERFUL EFFECTS; but we must also add that it is the most abominable to travel through, and its people are the most down-trodden on God’s earth.”

Walking was a misery. The weather was “vile”—cold, rain, fog, wind, sleet. Inns and hotels were sparse on the ground and often not within a day’s walking distance. Elizabeth was a proto-foody and found Scottish cooking to be almost inedible. There was only one meal on the whole trip that she admitted to enjoying. 

etching, Joseph Pennell

The one benefit of walking through the Highlands and Islands was that they tramped through more remote parts than tourists of the day would have travelled. They saw Highland life close up. Unwittingly, they had walked into the worst of northern Scotland’s land tenure crisis. One of the most significant incidents of this crisis occurred in 1887, the year before the Pennell’s tour. A group of crofters on the Isle of Lewis had entered their landowner’s deer park illegally and slaughtered over 100 of his deer both to feed their starving families and to protest the unfair rental conditions under which they were forced to live. The crofters rented small plots of land, called crofts, from the local estate owner. These plots had been subdivided so many times that often they were too small to sustain a family. The crofters usually had no written leases and the owner could throw them off their land at his/her sole discretion. In fact landowners had been doing this for most of the previous century in order to turn the land over to sheep, who were more profitable than small scale agriculture. Crofters would often be unable to pay their full rent and so they accumulated crippling amounts of debt. Attempts to supplement their income by fishing and seaweed harvesting were subject to the fluctuating conditions of fish stocks and the declining market for seaweed. By the 1880s, there was widespread privation in the Highlands and Islands. 

etching, Joseph Pennell

The Pennells saw these conditions and wrote about them in forthright terms. Their sympathies were with the crofters and they were particularly incensed that fellow Americans were buying up Scottish estates and perpetuating these feudal arrangements. The Scottish tourist industry was then just waking up to how much of a bonanza mass tourism, particularly by North Americans, could be for Scotland. Realizing the Pennell’s book would discourage trade, both the Scottish gentry and the Scottish press erupted with howls of outrage directed at these foreigners who dared to air Scotland’s dirty laundry in its most promising marketplace.

All of this makes Our Journey to the Hebrides a far more interesting book than it would have been had the Pennell’s produced the kind of treacly guide to castles and scenery that Harper’s was clearly expecting. Much to Harper’s credit, they published the book anyway.

etching, Joseph Pennell