Scottish Tourism

Scotland tourism started when things got peaceful. In the Trossachs, the visiting Romantic poets were charmed. The 'Cult of the Picturesque' took off.  Sir Walter Scott's blockbuster poem The Lady of the Lake helped, back in 1810 - and visitors have been coming here ever since.

There’s no getting away from the importance of tourism in Scotland to our economy. So when did the visitor industry start?

It partly started as a result of 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 tourism could start, the place had to have a good image.

This is how Scotland became a tourism magnet - starting a long time ago. First of all, the Jacobite cause as championed by Bonnie Prince Charlie 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.

Remember that the shameful episodes known as the Highland Clearances were still going on when the early tourists were discovering the Trossachs and Loch Lomond.

The Noble Savage – in a kilt?

A piper at Loch Katrine steamer pier, Trossachs
Instant Scottish atmosphere! A piper plays at the pier on Loch Katrine in the Trossachs. Actually, he's making a charity appeal but I cropped out his collecting bucket.

Basically, the Highlands began to be perceived as safe to visit in the latter half of the 18th century - though there was no such thing as ‘mass tourism’ as we know it today.

It was, after all, only the wealthy upper classes who could afford, say, the ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe, with their servants and coaches and such.

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 Scottish 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 Scottish 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.  Signficantly, the 'plates' or illustrations of his journey are mostly all of castles, grand houses and the sort of fine establishment a gentleman would be happy to lodge in.

Illustration from Thomas Pennant's Tour in Scotland 1769 (3rd edition 1774)
From Thomas Pennant's Tour in Scotland 1769. This waterfall the 'York Cascade' is close to Blair Castle in Perthshire.

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.

The Trossachs – wild, but not too wild

- the key area for early tourism in Scotland

Wait a moment, why were they all visiting the Trossachs? What is a Trossach anyway?

Basically, a couple of centuries ago, if you set off on horseback, then the Trossachs were the first bit of Highland scenery you reached. 

They are easy to visit if you’re based in Edinburgh. 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.

Lochs Achray and Venachar, the Trossachs
Lochs Achray and (more distant) Venachar from summit of Ben Venue, Trossachs - Scotland tourism heartlands.

The Lady of the Lake

- a Trossachs blockbuster

Scott’s romantic tale had a significant impact on the development of Scottish tourism - not just in the immediate aftermath of the works publication, but for generations afterwards.

John Gibson Lockhart, Scott’s biographer and son-in-law, 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’s tourist trade – only a bit more recently.

Come to think of it, Doune Castle after Outlander and the Glenfinnan Viaduct after Harry Potter and the Whatever it was Called Next movie are also in this category.

In essence, Scott wrote a blockbuster poem and set it in a real landscape.

The Lady of the Lake 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 Venachar 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.)

Steamship Sir Walter Scott at Trossachs pier on Loch Katrine.
Steamship Sir Walter Scott at Trossachs pier on Loch Katrine. Ben Venue on the skyline.

Anyway, they read the poem and 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 - they're worth a look.

But it has always been their accessibility that has been important.

Railways and Tourism

The railways arrived and changed Scottish tourism (and its economy) for the better, opening up the country and enabling resorts like Oban to develop.

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. (Even 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.

Tartan as visual cliché. Advertising material for the railways.
Tartan as long established visual cliché and shorthand for Scotland. Advertising material for the railways.

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. (Except that these days, Turnberry is part of the Caliphate of Trump.)

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.

Scotland, of course, took its share of the closures and contractions of its rail network in the 1960s and some 'scenic' mileage was certainly lost that would have been a boost to Scottish tourism today. (More on old Scottish steam, here - but only for the real enthusiast.)

As for the rail mileage lost to closures, I'm thinking here of, for example, the line that used to join Keith with Grantown on Spey along the River Spey, deep in malt whisky country.

As the Keith-Dufftown Railway, part of it is still open as a railway line in preservation, though they don't run steam locos on it!

And in the other direction the likewise preserved and famously scenic Strathspey Railway runs into the area from Aviemore.

Then there was the link between Stirling (actually Bridge of Allan) and Crianlarich via Lochearnhead and Glen Ogle. A rockfall finished that one off in 1965 just ahead of its 'official' closure. It was once noted for one of the finest views in Scotland possible from a railway carriage. See here...

Loch Earn and Lochearnhead
Looking east down Loch Earn, over Lochearnhead, from the old railway trackbed, now a walkway and cyclepath.

(Pictured here) Looking east down Loch Earn, over Lochearnhead.

Note the viaduct bottom left. That was another rail link, from Comrie to Balquhidder, that sadly ended in 1951. The old trackbed from where this picture was taken is now a much used walk- and cycle-way in Glen Ogle.

But how today's tourists would have loved that trip by train!

Doon the Watter

- the traditional Glasgow exodus of old

No canter through the historical background of Scottish tourism can avoid reference to the relationship between the industrial conurbation of west Scotland - the Glasgow area - and the adjacent 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.

View from the south tip of the Isle of Bute
View 'Doon the Watter' from the south tip of the Isle of Bute

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.

Health and Spa Tourism

Crieff in winter.
When it stops raining, it sometimes snows on Crieff in the winter. Crieff Hydro, left of centre, above the town with woodlands behind. A historic establishment in the story of Scotland’s tourism industry.

The mass trip of the Glasgow multitudes was a million miles from the elegantly consumptive patrons of Scotland’s spas, another historic thread in the story.

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’ - originally hydropthic establishments - at Peebles, Dunblane and Crieff, for instance, 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.

Sporting Tourism in Scotland

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 dispatch.

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. (Other way round…Ed.)

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.

Though today’s tourism promotional bodies still describe these landscapes as ‘unspoilt wilderness’  they are anything but.

The hillslopes look absolutely awful – bare, scarred and mottled. Naturally, it isn’t great for biodiversity but the traditional burn stimulates new young growth on the heather and the young shoots provide food for the annual crop of red grouse.

Intensively managed grouse moors still cover about 13% of Scotland’s land area while comprising a miserable 0.04% to Scotland’s economy. They have been for generations at the exclusive end of Scotland’s visitor industry.

Like it or not, blood sports are still part of Scotland’s visitor industry, aren’t they?

Well, thank you for reading this far. Take a look at this page, all about the Moray Firth dolphins. They work hard for the visitors.

Visitors to Scotland also enjoy listening to Scotland's music (though it can be hard to track down).

Dolphins of the Moray Firth
It's always exciting when the Moray Firth's dolphins put on a show