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There’s no getting away from the importance of Scotland tourism to our economy. So when did the Scottish tourism industry start? It partly started as a result of the neo-classicism, the love of order and harmony that characterised what was good taste in the mid 18th-century, giving way to Romanticism. Yes, that’s pretty sweeping. But think about it. Before Scotland tourism could start, the place had to have a good image.
Fortunately, the Jacobite cause had finally run out of steam, after the Battle of Culloden in 1746. The Highlands had been seen as an uncouth and wild area, where the Highland clans lived according to their own rules. To Lowlanders - Saxon folk, (or ‘Sassenachs’) Scottish or English alike – they were a threat, even a hotbed of rebellion. All this changed as major economic forces – not just the aftermath of the Jacobite campaigns – emptied the glens. (It's easy to forget that the Highland Clearances were still going on when the early tourists were touring the Trossachs and Loch Lomond.)
At the same time, as part of a pan-European movement, the new spirit of the Romantics came about. Man in his natural state was considered to be uncorrupted – hang in there, I’m coming to the Scotland tourism connection. Wild nature itself was suddenly not a threat. The cult of the picturesque took root and it became fashionable to explore less ‘civilised’ parts of the world – including the Highlands. Even the Highland folk in their own costume had a cameo role at least, in the new Scotland tourism. Guidebooks and accounts of Highland excursions were available in some quantity well before the start of the 19th century. Thomas Pennant was influential, with his first Tour of Scotland 1769. The English Romantic poets showed interest.
William Wordsworth, accompanied by his sister Dorothy, and by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, first visited the Trossachs (and many other places) in 1803. Dorothy Wordsworth's Journal describes the interiors of some of the simple accommodation they found there. She often adopts a tone of patronising amusement that just makes you want to pour a bowl of porridge over her, to be honest.
Wait a moment, why were they all visiting the Trossachs. What is a Trossach anyway? Basically, the Trossachs are a chunk of Scotland that was the first bit of Highland scenery you reached if you set off north on horseback a couple of centuries ago. They are easy to visit if you're based in Edinburgh. The Trossachs had an important role in the development of Scotland tourism. Think of the Trossachs as a beginner's guide to the Highlands of Scotland.
After the Wordsworth treatment the tourism trade there got another huge boost, thanks to the commercial sense of one of Scotland's best-known writers. When Sir Walter Scott published his dramatic verse-narrative 'The Lady of the Lake' in 1810, it not only further enhanced the poet's fame, it assured maximum publicity for the shaggy Trossachs landscape on the edge of the Highland line.
Lockhart, Scott's biographer, quotes Robert Cadell on the impact of The Lady of the Lake. 'The whole country rang with praise of the poet; crowds set off to view the scenery of Loch Katrine....and as the book came out just before the season for excursions, every house and inn in that neighbourhood was crammed with a constant succession of visitors.'
It was like Rosslyn Chapel after Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’ or even the Wallace Monument in Stirling after the ‘Braveheart’ movie – just two of the other creative works that have impacted hugely on Scotland tourism. (Note to self: must go and see that cartoon-animated-thingie 'Brave' as VisitScotland, our national tourist board, seems awfully keen on it.)
In essence, Scott wrote a blockbuster poem and set it in a real landscape. The work was constructed in six cantos and covers six days, starting with a stag hunt, right across a great swathe of Perthshire countryside which leads via Ben Ledi and Loch Venacher to Loch Katrine in the heart of the Trossachs. (Hmm. I’m making Scott's epic sound like a kind of rhyming 'Watership Down', but without rabbits. Sorry.)
Anyway, they came in their droves thereafter - so that by the second half of the 19th century, the area was well served with 'visitor facilities' inns and coaches, railways and steamers. Even as late as 1914, a North British Railway Company brochure modestly declaimed 'To the tourist who undertakes the journey no surfeit of laudation is possible, for in the Trossachs the superlative reigns absolute.' This, you understand, was in an age when irony, as a copywriter’s tool, was comparatively underused.
In Scotland tourism terms, the Trossachs are, of course, quite nice. Don’t get me wrong. But it has always been their accessibility that has been important.
For some thoughts on what has been described as one of Europe's greatest railway journeys take a look at the West Highland railway to Fort William and Mallaig. Yes, it’s all about transport. The railways arrived and changed Scotland tourism for the better. Not just for previously sleepy Highland-edge places like Dunkeld or Pitlochry, but for little fishing towns, especially if they developed their golf courses – as, for example, at Nairn by the sunny Moray Firth. (Charlie Chaplin used to enjoy the golf here.)
The enterprising Scottish railway companies pretty soon tapped into the growing tourist market. The Caledonian Railway, with its bonny blue engines, developed Gleneagles Hotel, still a kind of traditional byword for hotel luxury in Scotland. The Glasgow and South-Western Railway went ahead with Turnberry on the Ayrshire coast, another exclusive establishment with a reputation that stretches back to the Victorians. Both have been associated with golf since their earliest days.
For similar reasons, the Great North of Scotland Railway, serving the hinterland of Aberdeen, was inspired to build the massive Cruden Bay Hotel, north of the city. No, not many people have heard of that one. Though the golf course still has a great reputation, the bracing airs of this bleak coast was a hotel too far. It was demolished after World War II. Still, there has to be one exception to prove the rule.
No canter through Scottish tourism can avoid reference to the impact of the industrial conurbation of west Scotland on the western seaboard. To put it simply, there were a lot of hard-working Glasgow folk who used to live only for their annual holiday somewhere on the estuary or Firth of Clyde. The great factories and mills that earned ‘the Workshop of the Western World’ label for Glasgow shut for an annual holiday called the Glasgow Fair, a high point and mass exodus in the Scotland tourism of years gone by.
Sailing off the south end of the Isle of Bute. Isle of Arran beyond.
Everyone climbed on to steamers and invaded towns like Dunoon, Rothesay and other places down the Ayrshire coast. They went down the water – ‘Doon the Watter’. Best place of all to glimpse something of this long-vanished age is in Rothesay, on the island of Bute. They have a visitor centre on the pier that tells you all about it.
And, in an account of life on the island, ‘Bute and Beauty’, published in 1881, the author asks a local how they survived the winter. The answer was ‘Tatties and herring’ – that is, the plain food of coastal folk all over Scotland. And as for the summer? ‘We’re all right then: we live on the Glasgow folk’. The better-off visitors meanwhile rented houses for the whole summer season, with their men-folk joining them at the weekend.
Crieff, Perthshire, in winter, with Crieff Hydro in the woods, background left, above the town. A historic establishment in the story of Scotland tourism.
The mass trip of the Glasgow multitudes was a million miles from the elegantly consumptive patrons of Scotland’s spas, another historic thread in Scotland tourism. There were (and still are) a number of springs with reputed healing properties and in this context you can safely use the deeply impressive word for iron-bearing: ‘chalybeate’. (The original spring in in the Perthshire town of Crieff, for example, still survives.) Hotels were founded to cater for this market: the ‘Hydros’ at Peebles, Dunblane and Crieff, for instance, that still prosper today, though the restrained quaffing of weird-tasting brown water is no longer on their leisure options list.
At least three other Scottish places got into healthy water cures in a big way: Moffat in the south of Scotland, Bridge of Allan in the middle and Strathpeffer in the north. All, in their time, became successful spas, to where the Victorians (and even earlier generations) came for their cures. At their peak they even published weekly guest lists or broadsheets, like a kind of Facebook for hypochondriacs, so you could look up your ailing acquaintances and compare symptoms.
Picture the scene in Victorian times. It’s the evening of the 11th August at Euston Station in London, England. There are several extra trains to despatch. The platforms are a riot of tweedy men braying at each other through their moustaches. Butlers are overseeing the loading of carefully-cased fishing rods and guns, and trunks full of more tweed suits, while first class gents are ushering their precious gun-dogs into first class seats and their women into special crates in the guards van. The grouse-shooting season starts the very next day – the ‘Glorious Twelfth’. And if that sounds like a parody of the toff heading north for the season, then, yes, it is.
But the importance of the shooting (and fishing) Highland estate remains to this day. Travel in upland Perthshire, Angus or Aberdeenshire in the spring and you’ll see the annual ritual of ‘muir-burn’, the columns of grey smoke rising when the heather is burned in strips and patches. This stimulates new young growth and the young shoots provide food for red grouse, the exclusive quarry of the moors. Like it or not, blood sports are still Scotland tourism, aren’t they?
Well, thank you for reading this far. Maybe you're thinking of visiting Scotland. Maybe you'll maybe need somewhere to stay. What about a country cottage in Scotland? Or somewhere for a romantic break? Alternatively, let me share my totally uncharacteristic worst Scottish tourism experience with you. Or, read about a very positive factor in Scotland tourism - the Moray Firth dolphins. (They work hard for the visitors.)
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Scotland in Three Days