Sunday, September 26, 2010

Windings of the River Tummel

Inspired by a recent visit to Scotland, I have been reading the Yale edition of Dorothy Wordsworth's Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland.  The pleasures of this text are considerably enhanced by editor Carol Kyros Walker's atmospheric black and white photographs, taken as she retraced Dorothy's route.  Walker explains her decision not to use colour photography with reference to the process of writing an account of a journey. 'In calling up, and re-collecting the images of a place there must be a moment just before total illumination in the mind when what is there pauses for the final investment of the thinker.  For me, that instant is in black and white.'  The Recollections itself comprises two distinct sections and modes of recall: the first written in 1803 just after Dorothy's return from Scotland and full of daily detail, the second written in 1805 and prefaced with a note explaining that the style and tone had been affected both by the passage of time and the recent loss of her brother in a shipwreck.

The Recollections demonstrate an impressive willingness to endure physical discomfort in the search for Romantic scenery.  Dorothy Wordsworth travelled with her brother and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in an Irish 'jaunting car' - an open-air two wheeled cart that made the landscape more accessible than a chaise, and which provoked amused or suspicious looks at various points along the way.  Their poor horse had a miserable time of it, ending up frightened by even the suspicion of another awful loch crossing, and the travellers encountered dirt and inhospitality at many of the inns and homes along the way (not surprising given the prevailing poverty and resentfulness towards England and the ongoing Highland Clearances).  The terrain and roads could be difficult too and Carol Kyros Walker lists the distances travelled, along with the adjective Dorothy uses for that part of the route.  The resulting table reads to me like a Richard Long text piece, for example:

Killin (tolerable) 7
Kenmore (baddish) 15
Blair (bad) 23
Fascally (wretchedly bad) 18
Dunkeld (bad) 12
Ambletress (hilly - good) 10
Crieff (hilly - goodish) 11
Loch Erne Head (tolerable) 20
Callander (most excellent) 14

Dorothy Wordsworth used various means of evoking the landscape - topographical description, reference to earlier writers like Sir John Stoddard, quotation from Wordsworth's poems ('To a Highland Girl', 'Stepping Westward', 'The Solitary Reaper' etc.) She also made some sketches, like this one of the River Tummel, 'a glassy river' gliding through the level ground 'not in serpentine windings, but in direct turnings backwards and forwards.'  There is no doubt that she was influenced by writers on the Picturesque (Walker refers to a study on this by John R. Nabholtz which notes, for example, that her sensitivity to the absence of trees may reflect the aesthetics of Uvedale Price).  She remarks upon the landscape's 'inhabited solitudes' and sometimes sees isolated figures in pictorial terms, like the melancholy woman alone in a desolate field and an old man exhibiting 'a scriptural solemnity'.  These provoke the thought that in Scotland 'a man of imagination may carve out his own pleasures'.  Walking over the brow of a hill at twilight, she sees a boy wrapped in grey plaid, calling to his cattle in Gaelic. 'His appearance was in the highest degree moving to the imagination... It was a text, as William has since observed to me, containing in itself the whole history of the Highlander's life - his melancholy, his simplicity, his poverty, his superstition, and above all, that visionariness which results from a communion with the unworldliness of nature.' 

Both Dorothy and William Wordsworth noticed the changes being made to the landscape - deploring the felling of trees at Neidpath Castle, for example, and complaining at Douglas Mill that 'large tracts of corn; trees in clumps, no hedgerows ... always make a country look bare and unlovely'.  Carol Kyros Walker finds much of what Dorothy wrote about unaltered, with a few obvious changes (the photograph of a 'solitary reaper' shows a distant tractor).  Nevertheless, the 'astounding flood', as William described the falls of Cora Linn, appears less impressive now that hydroelectirc power has been introduced to the Clyde.  Dunglass Castle can still be seen on its promontory, where Dorothy, admired the view 'terminated by the rock of Dumbarton, at five or six miles distance, which stands by itself, without any hills near it, like a sea rock.'  However, the accompanying footnote explains that the castle, later home to Charles Rennie Mackintosh, eventually became a stationery store.  'It is now on the grounds of an ESSO oil terminal which is kept under strict security.  To visit the castle one must be escorted by an ESSO guard and agree to don a hard hat.'


Hels said...

Dorothy Wordsworth, her brother William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in a carriage - what a powerfully intellectual trio that must have been! I wonder if Dorothy gets fair credit for her contribution to the Romantic, Lake District school, even today?

Plinius said...

This reminds me of a nice comment by the poet Samuel Rogers, who encountered the party in Dumfries. He says "During our excursion we fell in with Wordsworth, Miss Wordsworth, and Coleridge, who were, at the same time, making a tour in a vehicle that looked very like a cart. Wordsworth and Coleridge were entirely occupied in talking about poetry; and the whole care of looking out for cottages where they might get refreshment and pass the night, as well as of seeing their poor horse fed and littered, devolved upon Miss Wordsworth. She was a delightful person, - so full of talent, so simple-minded, and so modest!'

Linda Cracknell said...

Hello Andrew, I wish Dorothy had been walking the 'Falls of Moness' tonight (just behind my house). After 24 hours of rain, the water is pouring down in a heaving brown froth. It was a bit more sedate when she visited I think. I loved her observation of a young man walking the paths there with his nose in a book! The path is now famous as 'The Birks of Aberfeldy' thanks to Burns. She made no mention of a single birch tree.

Also enjoyed your post on Hallaig, having finally got there myself recently. A hauntingly lovely place.