The Ethnology of the Old Ways

Travels in Scotland c. 1720-1830.

Cattle being driven to Lowland markets. ‘Droving’ roads cover most of the Highlands.

The Hunterian Museum in the University of Glasgow organized an exhibition in the summer of 2020, under the title ‘Old Ways and New Roads: Travels in Scotland c. 1720-1830’, presenting the results of a lengthy research project based in Glasgow University under the leadership of Professor Nigel Leask, Dr John Bonehill and Dr Anne Dulau. The Hunterian is Scotland’s oldest public museum and boasts superlative collections signified under their mantra of ‘meteorites to mummies and Mackintosh’, and the Museum and Art Gallery sustains a very active and varied exhibition programme (1).

The coverage of this exhibition, ‘Old Ways and New Roads’, starts in the early 18th century with one of our vital early sources for the Highlands of Scotland, Edward Burt’s Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland to His Friend in London (1754), and closes just before the coming of the railways. Within this period, travels into the Highlands and ‘tourism’ begin and proliferate, and we learn from a gathering store of prose, poetry and art how the Highlands of Scotland were ‘discovered’ and ‘revealed’ to an enthusiastic readership and the world. This was the period to which we apply the label ‘Romanticism’ and a key component of this movement and fashion was the publication in 1760 of the poetry of ‘Ossian’, a putative Gaelic poet of the early Christian era (2). In very general terms, the view of the 18th century traveller was that they were in a primitive nd exciting landscape inhabited by people who could not be understood – or who might speak English only with difficulty. The travellers’ views were informed by Edmund Burke’s treatise on aesthetics which defined the ‘frisson’ experienced when confronting the ‘sublime’, and of all the then accessible landscapes (with its growing network of ‘New Roads’), Ossian’s homeland was undeniably the most sublime!

Highlanders moved on foot over long distances, for example, going to the Lowlands for seasonal harvest work.

In his early Letters in the 1720s, Edward Burt, who was said to be a surveyor or roads engineer (but may in fact have been another sort of civil servant), dismissed the roads and means of communication that he found in the Highlands of Scotland as ‘the old Ways, for Roads I shall not call them …’; but any such prejudice is understandable since his job was to work with the government in laying out a network of ‘Military Roads’ being built following the Jacobite Rebellions of 1715 and 1745. Being in a strange land, he concluded with a rhetorical flourish which bears scrutiny:

‘The Highlands are but little known even to the inhabitants of the low country of Scotland ……. But to the people of England, excepting some few, and those chiefly soldiery, the Highlands are hardly known at all.’

Significantly, the garrulous Dr Samuel Johnson made much the same point a generation later:

‘To the southern inhabitants of Scotland, the state of the mountains and the islands is equally unknown with that of Borneo or Sumatra. Of both they have only heard a little, and guess the rest. They are strangers to the language and the manners, to the advantages and wants of the people, whose life they would model, and whose evils they would remedy.’

The ‘New Roads’ are what we know about and which are still for the most part there in the landscape. As part of the research for the exhibition, I was asked to look at the topic of the ‘Ethnology of the Old Ways’ in order to explore movement and axes of communication and to dispel the notion that ‘roads’ did not exist in Gaelic Scotland (pace Edward Burt) before the ‘improvements’ of the Enlightenment. The historiography of roads has depended on conventional sources, and an accepted premise, forever repeated, has been Burt’s claim that the ‘Old Ways’ were of no practical use and that the Highlands of Scotland were a more or less trackless waste. A modus operandi on what preceded the ‘New Roads’ seems to have faded into insignificance in the historical record; equally, travel and transport in the eras and zones of foot traffic and pack animals has not attracted the same attention apart from in ethnological studies. Furthermore, it might be said that the topic has been approached through a narrative of ‘English national history’ which customarily glorified ‘progress’ and from a point of view located in the East and South of these islands. If we change our stance towards the Western Isles of Scotland – the Hebrides – and adopt a viewpoint from the West and North and looking the other way, a different picture emerges. Equally, if we draw into our studies language and literature that is rooted in the North and West of Scotland, we add to our repertoire the considerable evidence of the voices of the people of the ‘Old Ways’.

Edward Burt includes views of sledges and carts in the Highland ‘capital’ of Inverness in his Letters of the 1720s

Burt’s Letters distract us from other sources such as the survey work of Timothy Pont c. 1583-1596 and the vivid impressions of the Atlas Novus of 1654 with detailed insights into landscape and settlement patterns in late 16th and early 17th century Scotland. We know that ‘roads’ pre-existed and the literature, in terms of routes customarily followed or ‘old ways’, speaks copiously of routes followed by travellers and traders, ‘traditional’ routes of pilgrimage and ‘coffin roads’, routes taken by raiders and armies and, of course, the waterways and sea-ways. The significance of the sea cannot be overstated and Scottish Gaelic is rich in litanies of names in oral tradition of features that marked voyages. Historians have been notorious (in our terms) for pleading paucity of documents and sources for Highland history, but it might be said that such an excuse should no longer be offered. In terms of evidence to hand (and arguably neglected), we are blest with an ancient language with a ‘history’ pre-dating other European languages, and a language fully explored by the grammarians and philologists of Indo-European but not by our historians who have tended to treat Gaelic as something outside domains of scholarship in the Humanities.

I take up my stance in the North and West and project a different perspective. Far from being a backward and barbaric people, Highlanders of old were highly mobile and civilised with a pragmatic attitude to travel, whether at home or overseas. We can challenge the stereotype of the inheritance of a tribal and kin-based society behind the mountains. Highland society was not wholly patriarchal even if it was not wholly commercial, although it was both those things. The Highlander was well-travelled, with education on the Continent for the social elite and a healthy acquaintance with Scandinavia, Germany, France, Spain and Mediterranean lands such as Turkey and the Near East. At home, a vignette from a still-famous song, Bothan Àirigh am Braigh Raithneach, goes over the ‘shopping-list’ of the girl in the shieling in Rannoch (in the Central Highlands) around 1600, and the expectation that her lover would readily access a cosmopolitan selection of high-fashion and costly commodities! An anglophone literature has ignored such insights in favour of ‘trackless wastes’, a region remote and unknown, and a people self-absorbed and sunk in ignorance.

Mary Macpherson going up the hill to get peat or turf for fuel. Typically, she spins as she walks on the hill tracks.

The exhibition, which displayed a rich selection of objects and visual material, was accompanied by a lavish book in which the themes and sections of the exhibition are captured in chapters which also offer a ‘catalogue’ of images (3). My chapter explores past geographies and the ‘Old Ways’, and looks in some detail at their uses and the views of Highlanders on a status quo ante.1 This study offers an historiography drawing on cultures on both sides of the ‘Highland Line’ – with preferential treatment for Gaelic sources in this instance – and challenges the reader also to consider the ‘material culture’ of travel in a land without ‘roads’.

Author: Hugh Cheape, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig / Ionad Nàiseanta Cànan is Cultar na Gàidhlig / National Centre for Gaelic Language and Culture


(1) Visit The Hunterian here:

(2) The literary and linguistic phenomenon of ‘Ossian’ is now being more closely studied, having long been neglected or dismissed by what would stand for ‘serious scholarship’; a consequence of Ossian being ignored in university study was that the wider public knew nothing about it and the name ‘Ossian’ was largely unknown.

(3) John Bonehill, Anne Dulau Beveridge and Nigel Leask, Eds., Old Ways and New Roads. Travels in Scotland 1720-1832. Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd. Forthcoming June 2020 (ISBN  978 1 78027 667 0).

1 See Chapter 2. “There’s another road near the highway”: the ethnology of the ‘Old Ways’ in Gaelic Scotland.