Curious Travellers are delighted to announce a major new publication. Here, Nigel Leask explains what this book sets out to do.
“Stepping Westward grew out of the wider research on Pennant’s Welsh and Scottish tours central to Curious Travellers: that’s why the chapter on Pennant’s Scottish tours is really the keystone of the book. It’s the first study of its kind dedicated to the literature of the Scottish Highland tour 1720-1830, which attracted writers and artists like Pennant, Johnson and Boswell, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott, Hogg, Keats, Daniell, and Turner, as well as numerous less celebrated travellers and tourists. Addressing more than a century’s worth of literary and visual accounts of the Highlands, the book casts new light on how the tour developed a modern literature of place, acting as a catalyst for thinking about improvement, landscape, and the shaping of British, Scottish and Gaelic identities. Special attention is paid to the relationship between travellers and the native Gaels, whose world was plunged into crisis by rapid and forced social change in the wake of Culloden. The best-selling tours of Pennant and Dr Johnson, alongside the Ossian craze and Gilpin’s picturesque, stimulated a wave of ‘home tours’ from the 1770s through the romantic period, including writing by women like Sarah Murray and Dorothy Wordsworth. The incidence of published Highland Tours (many lavishly illustrated), peaked around 1800, but as the genre reached exhaustion, the ‘romantic Highlands’ were reinvented in Scott’s poems and novels, coinciding with steam boats and mass tourism, but also rack-renting, sheep clearance and emigration.”
Within the first volume of Thomas Pennant’s
extra-illustrated Tour in Wales are
two drawings by the English artist Francis Place. Place was a member of the
York Virtuosi, a collection of largely independently-wealthy gentlemen, active
in York and the north of England during the late seventeenth and early
eighteenth centuries, with a shared enthusiasm for travel, antiquarianism,
natural philosophy, and the visual arts.
Place is known to have visited Wales twice. In 1678, he and
William Lodge, a fellow artist and member of the Virtuosi, journeyed around
South Wales, reportedly covering an impressive 700 miles on foot over a period
of seven weeks. Pen-and-ink sketches of this tour, which was combined with
leisurely episodes of fishing, are preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum,
and the National Museum of Wales. Yet it was not all art and angling: Place and
Lodge were, quite literally, ‘strangers’ as they travelled from Yorkshire as
far west as Pembroke Castle, and were reportedly arrested at Chester on
suspicion of being Jesuit spies, with friends having to vouch for their innocence
before they were released.
experience, Place found himself back in Chester, reluctantly or otherwise, in
1699. He was returning to his home in York from a further sketching tour, this
time having travelled in Ireland between Drogheda and Waterford. From Holyhead
to Chester, he continued to draw vistas and landmarks including St Winefrid’s
Well, just outside Flint. He also reproduced his sketch of this pilgrimage site
as a detailed etching which was then published in London by Pierce Tempest, a
fellow native of Yorkshire. This image was an enduring, and apparently
commercially-successful one, since it was republished several times during the
1750s by two further London printsellers, John Bowles and Robert Sayer.
Thomas Pennant acquired one of Sayer’s prints of St Winefrid’s
Well (with its original imprint, mentioning both Place and Tempest, firmly
erased and replaced with Sayer’s details) which was pasted into his
extra-illustrated copy of A Tour in Wales,
now held in the National Library of Wales.
Also included in the first volume of Pennant’s guide to
Wales are two original drawings by Francis Place, executed in pen and ink with
light washes of watercolour. One depicts the west side of Hawarden Castle with
a distant view of Chester, the other, of Flint Castle, has been annotated by
the artist to indicate specific landmarks: ‘West Chester’ ‘The West Side of
Flint Castle in 1699’ and ‘& Bestone [Beeston] Castle’.
Beneath the drawing of Flint Castle is a faint inscription
in pencil, written by Thomas Pennant himself: ‘Drawn by F. Place and presented
by D Perrot See Walpole’s Engravers’. Horace Walpole was an acquaintance and
occasional correspondent of Pennant’s, and his Catalogue of Engravers Who Have Been Born or Resided in England,
first published in 1764, would have been an essential reference book as the
illustrations for A Tour in Wales
were assembled. ‘D Perrot’ appears to be a misnomer for Francis Parrott,
Place’s grandson, who had inherited the artist’s personal collection of
artworks. Following Place’s death in 1728, the contents of what were termed in
his will as ‘the pictures in my house, pictures prints drawings & other
things belonging to my painting room’ had been kept and passed down through the
family, with the collection remaining largely intact until it was auctioned the
1930s. Thomas Pennant’s note in A Tour in
Wales, however, confirms that certain items had left the collection much
earlier, as gifts or donations. Francis Parrott’s ‘presentation’ of his
grandfather’s drawings of Hawarden Castle and Flint Castle to Thomas Pennant also
echoes the earlier activities of Francis Place, who donated a number of items,
including his own drawing of Tynemouth Castle, to the extensive cabinet of
curiosities established by his fellow York Virtuoso, Ralph Thoresby.
We know that Francis Place tended to draw his landscape
subjects, quite literally, on the spot, using small-scale, portable
sketchbooks, and although some of these drawings were subsequently revised into
prints, such as that of St Winefrid’s Well, many seem to have been made simply
for pleasure. Place represents a particularly early example of the artist as
tourist around Britain, exploring and visually recording parts of the country
which were slowly becoming accessible to outsiders. Having returned to
Yorkshire from Ireland via Wales, Place’s next sketching tour took him to
Scotland in 1701, where surviving drawings indicate that he visited Dunbar,
Stirling, Glasgow and Dumbarton, taking a particular interest, as he had in
North Wales, in castles and fortifications. The recording of a further, now
untraced drawing of ‘Highlands Scotland’ in the collection of Place’s drawings
which were handed down through his family, suggests that his artistic
activities as a curious traveller were, for the early eighteenth century,
remarkably novel and ambitious in their scope.
Richard Tyler, Francis
Place, 1647-1728, York: H Morley & Sons, 1971.
The air in general is temperate: no mists or thick rolling fogs from the sea, called in the North, a harle, ever infested this island. Snow is scarcely ever known to lie here; and even that of last winter, so remarkable for its depth and duration in other places, was in this island scarce two inches deep.
Thomas Pennant, June, 1772
Thomas Pennant disembarked from the Lady Frederic Hamilton, a ‘ninety tun cutter’, and arrived on the
Isle of Bute on a warm summer day in June 1772, during his second tour of
Scotland. Arriving by ship, Pennant described the dramatic views of the Firth
of Clyde, down towards the Kyles of Bute:
The view down the Firth now appears extremely great: the shire of Renfrew bounds one side: the hills of Cowal, sloping to the water edge, and varied with woods and corn lands, grace the other: in front are the greater and the lesser Cumbrays … the isle of Bute, with its fertile shores, lies oblique, and the stupendous mountains of Arran, soar at some distance, far, far above. 1
The view sailing into Rothesay Bay, on the isle of Bute,
today, is still dramatic. The short crossing from Wemyss Bay on the mainland,
by ferry, reveals some of the most beautiful features of Scotland’s West Coast,
as witnessed by Pennant. To trace the naturalist’s steps on Bute, our group (a
party of two adults, one child and a very excitable dog) drove from the centre of
Glasgow to Wemyss Bay, a journey of around 30 minutes on a warm, clear, July
day, with the ferry crossing only a further 30-40minutes. It is possible to recreate
a more romantic voyage to Bute in the summer months by stepping onto the
steamship, The Waverley, which
departs from moorings on the Clyde, in the city centre, and sails serenely down
the estuary, out to the Kyles of Bute, and beyond, passing the scenic, rugged,
Dumbarton Rock and Castle, on the way. However, for convenience, with a child
and a dog in tow, we opted to take the car along on this journey.
Pennant disembarked at Squlog (or Scoulag) and walked the short distance to Mount Stuart, the seat of the Earl of Bute. Scoulag forms a small inlet known as Scoulag Burn, which runs down to the beach, a natural landing point for access to the estate. Cheating, slightly, we drove from the ferry terminal at Rothesay to Mount Stuart, still the seat of the Earl of Bute, but now a Gothic Revival mansion, designed by Robert Rowand-Anderson (1834-1921), under the instructions of John Patrick Crichton Stuart (1847-1900), the philanthropist and third Marques of Bute. Mount Stuart has reinvented itself as a home of the arts, with a busy calendar of events and public arts programmes throughout the year. The house and gardens are incredibly attractive, comprising richly decorated interiors and lush, extensively cultivated grounds. When we visited, however, the house was closed for a wedding reception, even the café was packing up early. We walked down to Scoulag, from the house, trying to find the spot where Pennant would have stepped ashore. The Earl of Bute in Pennant’s day was John Stuart (1713-1792) the third Earl and great favourite of George III. As First Lord of the Treasury, this Earl of Bute suffered a very public humiliation when his close relationship to the court came under scrutiny during a particularly intense period of suspicion of Scots in London in the 1760s, following tensions after the defeat of the Jacobites in 1745.2 He was eventually forced to resign his position and lived the rest of his life looking after his estates at High Cliff in Hampshire and at Luton Hoo, in Bedfordshire. The Earl of Bute retained a strong interest in botany throughout his life and his Botanical Tables Containing the Families of British Plants, 1785, illustrated by John Miller (1715-1790), still considered to be one of the greatest contributions to botany, are held in the collections at Mount Stuart. When he died, he was buried at Rothesay. The house which Pennant would have witnessed, although he does not mention whether he entered it or not, was an earlier, classical revival mansion, commissioned by John Stewart (d.1723), the second Earl of Bute, which he describes as:
(A) modern house, with a handsome front and wings: the situation very fine, on an eminence in the midst of a wood, where trees grow with as much vigor as in the more Southern parts, and extend far beneath on each side. Throstle and other birds of song, fill the groves with their melody; nothing disturbs their harmony; for instinct often stronger than reason, forbid them to quit these delicious shades, and wander, like their unhappy master, into the ungrateful wilds of ambition. 3
The last line of this passage provides a commentary from
Pennant on the third Earl’s recent political demise. This house, built in 1716,
was destroyed by fire and replaced with Rowand-Anderson’s Gothic Revival manor.
Pennant writes that on Bute, ‘the
country rises into small hills, is in no part mountainous, but is highest at
the South end. The strata of stone along the shore from Rothesay to
Cil-chattan, (Kilchattan), is a red grit, mixed with pebbles; from the first,
transverse to Scalpay bay, is a bed of slate, which seems to be a continuation
of that species of stone, rising near Stonehive [Stonehaven?], on the Eastern
shores of Scotland, and continued, with some interruptions to this island; but
is of a bad kind at its origin and termination. In the South end is some
limestone: some spotted stone, not unlike lava, is found near the South End’.4 Walking
along the shoreline at Scoulag, this is evident in the colour and consistency
of the landscape (fig. 1).
Among the abundant cow parsley
and wild flowers, we came across the ruins of an old boat house, elaborate in
its construction, with castellated roof, heavy corner buttresses, and a fine
portcullis gate lying off its hinges and rusting on the floor. (fig. 2) This was clearly, at one time,
an important addition to the estate, perhaps contemporary with the
Rowand-Anderson rebuild. However, with obvious damage to its slipway and parts
of the internal workings of the house abandoned and decomposing, it seems that
this kind of industrial architecture is easily overlooked in historic conservation
enterprises such as Mount Stuart, and we were sorry for the little house as we
speculated on how it might be revived as a disembarkation site for smaller
boats sailing in and around Bute’s shores.
As the boat house is a feature of the landscape that belongs to a period after Pennant’s time, we decide to press on to Kilchattan, an area of the island that held a particular fascination for the naturalist because of its associations with the ancient people of Scotland and their religion. We hopped in the car to drive to Kilchattan bay but parked at the bottom of the hill, known as ‘Little Dunagoil’ and followed the signposts up a steady climb to the site of St Blane’s church and the remains of its ‘dark age’ monastery. As the weather stayed fine, warm with just a gentle breeze, we looked back toward Kiltachattan bay and the sun really did sparkle on the water. We could see the outline of the hills of Great Cumbrae, and, perhaps, a glimpse of the mainland beyond. (fig. 3) Pennant makes no mention of St Blane’s but writes of this part of the island:
Visit the south part of the island: ride to the hill of Cil-chatten, (Little Dunagoil) a round eminence from whence is a vast view of all around, insular and mainland. Observe, on the face of the hills, that rocks dip almost perpendicularly, and form long columnar stacks, some opposing to us their sides, others their angles; are hard and cherty, but not basaltic; a term I apply to the jointed columns resembling those of the giant’s causeway. 5
This feature of the landscape was not visible to us, as we
veered off to the left of the hill, (fig.
4) past some grazing sheep and, being careful not to disturb them, quickly
attached our highly energetic dog to his lead. Pennant’s ascent up the ‘hill of
Cil-chatten’ provided him with a comprehensive view of the surrounding area and
in this paragraph, he dismisses any evidence that the isle of Bute might extend
to form part of the subterranean basaltic structure that he imagined existed
from Ireland, beginning with the Giant’s Causeway, to the West Coast of
Scotland. Little Dunagoil is now recognised as an ancient hillfort that has been
surveyed in recent years to uncover many of its long-hidden artefacts that
evidence human life and habitation, including:
Part of a shale ring and 40 sherds of pottery from the rear of the ramparts on the SE; a fragment of a comb and five sherds of “grass tempered” pottery and unstratified fragments of a mould for a Late Bronze Age axe … from the W sector of the interior; and a pendant and armlet fragment of shale; a serpentine ring, and a whorl, an awl, a pin and a knife handle of bone from the northern sector … and two heavily worn shards of Samian ware. 6
Such findings were unknown to Pennant, of course, and so we
try to revert to his path through these fragments of earliest times, but while
Pennant explains: ‘descend to the ruin of old Kin-garth church’, with its two
separate cemeteries, before describing the ‘Devil’s Cauldron’, our path takes
us first to the ruins of St. Blane’s, then the Cauldron and further on to the
two cemeteries belonging to the old church. It feels like we are always walking
in the opposite direction to Pennant.
St Blane’s Church and an early Christian Monastery are well
signposted and labelled in the area. The information board now at the site
Tradition records that St Catan founded the monastery here at Kingarth in the later 6th century. The tradition continues that his sister Ertha became pregnant by an unknown man and she and her new-born child, Blane, were cast adrift in an oarless boat by the enraged Catan. The boat was eventually driven ashore on the Ulster coast where Blane spent the next seven years. On his return to Bute, Blane was reunited with his uncle and succeeded him as abbot of the monastery and bishop of the surrounding area. 7
Despite the information signs acting as reminders of the contemporary
world, the site around St Blane’s is remote, intensely peaceful and quiet,
sheltered by a circle of trees. A sign attached to a stone wall describes the
area surrounding the monastery as ‘vallum’, (fig. 5) indicating the spiritual division of the land between the
sacred monastery and the secular world beyond. There are remnants or religious
devotion scattered over the field, including a cross-base, ‘a stone base with a
socket to hold a tall upright cross’; all of which Pennant would have seen (fig. 6). Nestled within this grove is
the mysterious structure known to Pennant as the Devil’s Cauldron, an ancient
building removed from the main location of the monastery but clearly belonging
to it, now simply called ‘the Cauldron’. (fig.
7) Pennant remarks:
Near this place is a circular inclosure, called the Devil’s Cauldron: it is made of stone, of excellent masonry, but without mortar, having the inside faced with the most smooth and regular manner. The walls at present are only seven feet six inches high, but are ten feet in thickness: on one side is an entrance, wide at the beginning, but grows gradually narrower as it approaches the area, which is thirty feet diameter. 8
From Pennant’s description, the Cauldron appears to have
been in better shape in the 1770s, with an entrance and interior finish still
discernible. The walls of the Cauldron are not seven feet high any longer but
their width, at ‘ten feet’, mentioned by Pennant, can still be appreciated. (fig. 8) We sit in the Cauldron and
imagine, as many others have, what the purpose of this building might have
been. Pennant alludes to its use as a sanctuary of some kind, given its
location at Kingarth, ‘Kin-garth implies, Kin,
for chief or head, Garth, a
sanctuary; the common word for places of refuge, Girth, being corrupted from it’. It could not, he suggests, be a
defensive structure, ‘as it is situated beneath a precipice, from whose summit,
the inmates might instantly have been oppressed by stones, or missile weapons’.9 It
is difficult to imagine on a warm summer’s day, when the place offers some
welcome shade from the unusually hot Scottish sun, that the Cauldron might have
been a building designed for penance, for punishing the soul, hence the Devil
playing a role in its name. Others have speculated that the Cauldron was a
cell, entered voluntarily to experience self-inflicted punishment and
repentance. In 1893, James King Hewison, Minister of Rothesay, recognised this
function and described it in his book, The
Isle of Bute in Olden Time:
Tradition characterises it as a place of penance. It might thus be enumerated among those primitive structures called Clochans or Carcairs, which formed part of the Celtic monastic settlements, and were set apart for cells for undisturbed devotions, or for the suffering of punishment enjoined in terms of the monastic rule. It is a desert or solitude within the abbacy. 10
The original purpose of the Cauldron remains mystifying but
there is little doubt that it represents an impressive building type and its
presence has a similar effect on the visitor, as it seemed to have on Pennant,
to that of other ancient monuments as simultaneously remarkable, affective and
Unlike Pennant, we spent some
time exploring the ruined church of St Blane’s. (fig. 9) The nave of the church is dated to the twelfth century and
the information signs explain how these remains were preserved and conserved by
the architect Robert Weir Schultz (1860-1951) in 1896 who was commissioned by
John Patrick Crichton Stuart, the third Marques of Bute, as part of his project
to protect the island’s heritage. The architect used local slate and inserted
this material within the walls of the nave to indicate the old masonry from the
new stones. (fig. 10) St Blane’s was
once the parish church for the population of Kingarth and we noticed that some
visitors left their own devotional objects within the church’s walls. (fig. 11)
On Bute, Pennant does not remark
on the detail of the local flora and fauna; due, perhaps, to the similarity of
this with the other islands he described. Among the plants growing in and around St
Blane’s and the monastery, we cannot help but notice the number of common foxgloves
(Digitalis purpurea), and their
bright pinky-purple colour, appearing in sharp contrast to the predominantly
lush green grass, ferns and nettles. (fig.
Foxgloves appear to have been
common in Pennant’s time too. John Lightfoot (1735-1788), who accompanied
Pennant on his second journey through Scotland, describes the plants in Flora Scotica, 1777. They are found:
In rough mountainous places not uncommon, as upon the Corstorphyn hills near Edinburgh, and on the hills about Loch-Rannoch in Perthshire, and many other places … The flowers grow pendulous, in a long spike, all on the same side of the stalk. They are of a purple colour, very specious and marked internally with white flowers, but rarely. The plant has a bitter quality: six or seven spoon-fulls of the decoction is a strong emetic and cathartic. It has been found serviceable in scrophulous cases, taken internally for some time, and the bruised leaves or an ointment applied outwardly. 11
Medicinal use of the Fox-glove was revived in the
eighteenth-century, with physicians such as William Withers, based in
Birmingham, advocating its effectiveness as a purgative and diuretic. In An Account of the Foxglove, Withers
combines his case notes with botanical information on the origins of the plant
and its common name. Withers quotes naturalist John Ray’s (1627-1705)
description of the effects of ingesting Fox-glove: ‘It purges very violently
and excites excessive vomiting’, he writes.12 William
Curtis, of Chelsea Physic Garden, remarked in his book, Flora Londinensi, in 1777, thatFoxgloves were so common in Britain that their aesthetic qualities
were often overlooked:
Was it not that we are too apt to treat with neglect the beautiful plants of our own country, merely because they are common and easily obtained, the stately and elegant Fox-glove would much oftner be the pride of our gardens than it is at present. 13
Despite these fashionable reconsiderations of this
particular species, Pennant does not mention these plants in his assessment of
the kinds of landscape development or land management undertaken by the third
earl during this period. He does indicate that progress is visible in the
effects of enclosures, recently introduced: ‘… the hedges are tall, thick and
vigorous: the white thorns and wicken trees now in full flower; and about two
thousand acres have been thus improved.’ However, improvement exists for
Pennant alongside historical myth and legend of the island and one of the most
intriguing passages in Pennant’s description of this area is his retelling of
the story of two separate burial plots in the parish of Kingarth, (fig. 13) one for men and another for
Descend to the ruins of old Kin-garth church. Two cemeteries belong to it, a higher and a lower; the last was allotted for the internment of females alone because in old times, certain women being employed to carry a quantity of holy earth, brought from Rome, lost some by the way, and so incurred this penalty for their negligence, that of being buried separated from the other sex. 14
The legend is repeated in John Reid’s account of Bute in
Tradition asserts that the upper portion of the burying-ground was formed of consecrated earth, brought by St Blane from Rome; and it is added that the women having refused to assist in bringing the earth from the ships, or having spilled some of it by the way, their sex was denied the privilege of burial in the upper or consecrated portion of the ground; and it is recorded that in consequence of this superstition it was the practice to bury the males and females separately, and that this custom prevailed till 1661, when it was abolished by an order of the Presbytery. 15
Looking around the two cemeteries today, there is little
evidence of the gender divide, although it is satisfying to think of the
island’s women disobeying the church and behaving in such subversive ways; and
whether they would have considered their final resting places away from the men
as truly a punishment!
When Pennant visited, Kingarth Church, he would have seen
‘mid-kirk’, completed in 1680 and depicted on Roy’s Military Map (1747-1755)
but destroyed by a fierce storm in 1795. A new church, built in 1826, designed
by William Burn (1789-1870) and described as ‘an elegant and modern building’,
was also damaged by storms which blew its roof off and led to its eventual
demolition in 196816.
Unfortunately, there is nothing of either church visible today. (fig. 14)
Despite its temperate climate, which Pennant remarked upon,
Bute is renowned for ferocious and severe downpours: ‘The evils of this place
are winds and rains, the last coming in deluges from the West’.17
It is hard to imagine gales and rainstorms on the day we
visited, the sun was still shining when we set out for home. (fig. 15) Leaving Kingarth cemetery, we
walked onto the main road to find our car for the drive back to Rothesay to
catch the ferry. On the way, we stopped at a beautiful but small beach, at
Kerrycroy, the ‘model village’ designed by Maria Crichton-Stuart, (neé
North), wife of the 2nd Marquess of Bute and begun in 1803, some
years after Pennant’s tours. Perhaps he would have admired this improved
prospect, combining the benevolence of the Bute family with the natural
advantages of the landscape and climate. The scene appeared in contrast to the
portrayal of the island in Pennant’s time. The tumultuous years of John Stuart, the third
Earl of Bute’s political service in the later-half of the 1760s would have been
very fresh in the mind of Pennant when he visited the Earl’s ancestral seat, so
much so that the memory of the events generates a sympathy, of sorts, in the
naturalist’s portrayal of the darker aspects of the island’s history and
environment: religious intolerance, bitter plants, medieval barbarity, torrential
rain and powerful gales, all of which the Earl, as an ‘unhappy master’ seemed pitted
 Thomas Pennant, A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides, MDCCLXXII, 4th
Edition, Vol. II, Dublin, p.158.
 John Brewer, ‘The Misfortunes of
Lord Bute: A Case Study in Eighteenth-Century Political Argument and Public
Opinion’, The Historical Journal,
vol. 16, 1973, p. 6; See also: The Scots
Magazine, No. 25, October 1763, p. 533.
 Pennant, A Tour in Scotland, MDCCLXXII, p.158.
James King Hewison, The Isle of Bute in
Olden Time, with illustrations, maps and plans, 1893, p. 180.
 John Lightfoot, Flora Scotica: Or A Systematic Arrangement in the Linnaean Method of
the Native Plants of Scotland and the Hebrides, B. White, London, 1777, p.
 William Withers, An Account of the Foxglove and Some of its
Medical Uses, printed by M. Swinney, Birmingham; and G.G.J. Robinson,
London, 1785, p.xiv.
 William Curtis, Flora Londinensis, published and sold by the author; and B. White,
Bookseller, London, 1777, p. 71. Curtis dedicated the first volume of Flora Londinensis to John Stuart, 3rd
Earl of Bute, see Maureen H. Lazarus and Heather S. Pardoe, ‘Bute’s Botanical
Tables: Dictated by Nature’ in Archives
of Natural History, 36 (2) 2009, p. 279.
 Pennant, A Tour in Scotland, MDCCLXXII, p. 162.
 John Eaton Reid, History of the County of Bute, Thomas
Murray and Sons, Glasgow, 1864, p. 30.
This spring the TV drama ‘Gentleman Jack’ will introduce the
fascinating Anne Lister to a wider audience. Sally Wainwright’s drama focuses
on only a short portion of Lister’s life from 1832, after she had returned from
travelling in Britain and Europe to concentrate on the development of her
estate at Shibden Hall near Halifax, West Yorkshire. I have been studying
Lister’s diaries as part of my doctoral research into manuscript travel
journals recording tours of Scotland and Wales in the 1820s, and discovered
just how much they reveal about the aspirations and the emotional life of this
striking character at a period when she was contemplating her options for a
future alliance with a female partner.
The section of Lister’s diary covering the summer of 1828
which she spent in Scotland in the company of the Scottish noblewoman Sibella
Maclean is not well-known because it is not included in the extracts which have
been transcribed and published. I am very grateful to Helena Whitbread for
bringing the Scottish tour to my attention, as the only reference to it in
print is in Muriel Green’s edition of Lister’s letters (1992), which is long
out of print and hard to find. Only recently (2018) has the English translation
of Angela Steidel’s Gentleman Jack: A biography of Anne Lister, Regency Landowner, Seducer
and Secret Diarist highlighted Anne and Sibella’s relationship. Working
from digital photos from West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale, I read and
roughly transcribed the 100 or so pages (about 70, 000 words) which make up her
entries from late May to early August 1828.
Finding a life partner
What I soon realized was that by 1828 Anne Lister had come
to the difficult decision that she could no longer wait for the death of the husband
of her long-term lover, Mariana Lawton, allowing the pair to live together.
Lister approached finding a new female companion and lover in a typically pragmatic
and business-like manner. She fixed her sights on Sibella Maclean (Isabella
Jean Maclean, 1790-1830, daughter of
Alexander Maclean of Coll) whom she had met in York in 1820. Anne was
introduced to Sibella by the Norcliffes (Isabella “Tib” was Anne’s friend and
occasional lover), and they formed a friendship which was continued by
correspondence throughout the 1820s. Much of Sibella’s appeal for Anne lay in
her good breeding as a member of an ancient Scottish family and the opportunity
she offered Anne for social advancement. On Lister’s tour through Scotland with
Sibella Maclean the two women became lovers and Anne began to consider Sibella
as a life partner. Lister had confided in her diary as early as 1822 “I would
rather spend my life with Miss Maclean than any one”. The seriousness of the relationship
is attested to by the fact that Anne persuaded Sibella to buy her a ring at a
jewellers in Glasgow and recorded in
a coded passage in her diary on 11 June “Miss MacLean put on my finger the
little guard ring”. Visiting the Macleans at their home on the island of
Mull, Lister tried to persuade them that (presumably on the grounds of health)
Sibella should come and live with her in Paris. In the event, Sibella’s
deteriorating health would prevent her from going abroad, and she would die of
consumption in 1830.
In the course of my wider research I have found that tours could
often reinforce familial relationships (between father and son, husband and
wife, extended family) and be utilised as a means to cement social and business
relations. Lister’s tour can be understood in this context, but she subverts
the orthodox model by using the tour to develop the emotional and sexual bond
between the two women.
The Scottish Tour
Anne Lister arrived in Edinburgh on 19 May 1828 and she and
Sibella Maclean travelled together around Scotland finishing their tour at
Sibella’s home on the island of Mull on 22 July. After spending some time with
the family on Mull, Lister started out alone on her homeward journey to
Yorkshire, taking in more tourist sites in the Scottish borders, and arriving
back at Shibden on 15 August. During their tour Anne and Sibella visited many of
the usual tourist spots in the vicinity of Glasgow, including the Trossachs and
Loch Lomond, and around Tayside. They also made use of the new steamboat
services to travel round the East coast, visiting St Andrews, Elgin and
Inverness, and visit the Highland forts and the Western Isles.
For many years Anne Lister had used a code of her own
devising to record intimate details in her diary (such as sexual activity,
bowel movements, health, menstruation) and so her account of her tour in
Scotland has two parallel narratives running alongside each other: one recording
her personal journey towards a more intimate and more formal union (including
discussions of finances) with Sibella, and the other describing the
practicalities of the material journey through Scotland by coach and steamboat.
This supports Caroline
L Eisner’s suggestion that the diary enabled Lister to maintain two selves, through
the use of a code to divide, at least on paper, “her deviant self from her
public self”. Travel, I think, offered Lister a space where she could explore
the boundaries between those two selves.
Writing for posterity?
In Halifax and York society Lister was regarded as peculiar because
of her manners and dress. As Sibella’s travelling companion she had the
opportunity of moving beyond her normal social sphere. Many of the concerns expressed in Lister’s
diaries relate to how she was perceived by others and describe her desire for
social advancement and acceptance amongst her peers and superiors. She prided
herself on her observance of etiquette and strove to make a good impression in
Like others who have studied Lister’s diaries I share the
disconcerting sense that Anne Lister expected her diaries to be read one day.
Anne might be proud today that she is the subject of media attention, yet in
her own lifetime she sought to carefully conceal her lesbian relationships to
protect her social position. Whilst she wrote in her diary of how she felt her
love for women was natural, she was aware that roles such as landowner or
tourist were also facets of her identity which shaped how she was perceived by
her contemporaries. These personas might be used to signal an outward
respectability whilst gently pushing at the boundaries of what was socially acceptable.
It’s early October 2016. Bit by bit the space of Oriel Sycharth is shifting: first an empty white cuboid, now a heap of boxes and packages, then as if by artistic alchemy, a fully formed exhibition.
Barbara was there throughout, piecing together her works, which dealt so deftly with ideas of landscape, the politics of space, history, and feminism, in what I learned were ‘shallow space’ installations. Starting with a scythe, she looped photographs, drawings, and small paintings downwards, in a method inspired by the landmarks featured in early strip maps. In these works, Barbara was illustrating a walk around Mallwyd and Dinas Mawddwy, its beautiful landscapes, ancient associations with banditti, and ‘private’/’keep out’ warnings, all which she explained best in her own words in a blog post for our project about historical travel writing, and on her own website.
The works she made for the exhibition were colourful, provocative, and, in the hanging slates on which she’d engraved the outline of a mountain range, mesmerisingly (and deceptively) simple and pretty. She was the last to leave the gallery that day, quietly and methodically photographing all the assembled works long after everyone else had gone. This exhibition, and exhibitions of the same works in two other galleries, changed forever how I think about academic research; more than that they were enormous fun – events that celebrated women’s art and collectivity with so much wit and generosity because of the artists involved in them.
Driving up the last narrow lanes to Brondanw – it’s summer now, 2017, and the exhibition has moved west and north into the mountains; the mountains have become part of the exhibition, framed in the windows of the Plas. Here we fill not a shining white space but rooms of all sizes on many levels, and we are running up and downstairs looking for clips and ladders and lights. And laughing. Dylan is printing off labels as fast as he can. Marged’s practised eye judges heights and levels, light and shade. She has decided who goes where. More laughing. We lug Ali’s rocks in boxes out of the van, down the path, past the wisteria and up the curve of the stairs to be spread out on the dark wooden floor. Barbara is already there with her astonishing scythe – she hangs it, in perfect equilibrium, against a white wall. Her delicate printed-paper bowls each find their own space in the cabinet. The house fills up with stories.
In Aberystwyth’s Old College we have less room to play with but this time the sea joins us, framed in a big bay window. One evening some of the artists give talks about their work. Barbara tells us about the copper ladies, mentioned by early travellers, picking over the lumps of ore up at Mynydd Parys. She uses the pigments in her beautiful piece, ‘Quilt for a Copper Lady’, where the intensive, repeated gestures of different types of women’s work collide and surprise. Those bright colours. That bright laugh. A legacy.
It’s a pleasure to announce the appearance of a new Curious Travellers publication in the latest issue of Romanticism. This article, titled ‘A Kind of Geological Novel’: Wales and Travel Writing, 1783–1819’, is a particularly project-based piece that started out as a paper for our ‘Layered Landscapes’ symposium in Cardiff in 2015, which commemorated the bicentenary of William Smith’s pioneering geological map of (mainly) England and Wales. I became fascinated with Smith’s work, which is part map of the mainland ‘underscape’ and part pure work of art; it was all too easy to get lost in the colours and shapes running across the beautiful and somewhat epic object on display in the National Museum of Wales.
Reproduced by permission of the British Library (via Wikimedia Commons)
The map itself contains a compelling and long-running story that represents travel as much as any of the other texts we’ve been working with on the project. It became the starting point for an exploration of Welsh travel writing as a particularly sedimentary genre, a form in which material (research, first-hand observation, chance happenings) piles up and settles down in the course of a tour committed to paper. The title comes from Charles Darwin, who made some of his first geological observations in Wales, and who saw – as did Thomas Pennant before him – far-reaching narratives stored away in Snowdonia’s rocky landscapes.
The article is open-access and freely available to read here.
You can read other recent articles from the project via the following links: