Crossing the Debatable Land

The Perthshire minister William Thomson opens his Tour in England and Scotland in 1785 in a philosophical mood. ‘There is not one hour in the life of any man that is exactly the same with another, during the whole course of his existence, from the cradle to the grave,’ he declares. Published pseudonymously in 1788 as the work of ‘an English Gentleman’, Thomson’s tour is a good example of the diversity of focus and tone associated with Romantic travel writing. Digressive, subjective and often tangibly emotional, his tour forces us to consider the process of writing and the contingencies in any experience of place.

As I work through a host of travel accounts of Dumfriesshire & Galloway in the early stages of the fellowship, which are nothing if not varied, I’m looking for patterns in these texts across a 60-year window (1770-1830). In the simple matter of routes, there are certainly established lines of travel. Many tours enter Scotland around the Debatable Lands, before either heading up through Nithsdale or sticking further east on the way to Edinburgh. This area between the Esk and Sark rivers, which historically represented a politically ambiguous, semi-lawless territory between Scotland and England, remained a confusing boundary in the Romantic period. A number of important travel accounts fudge the question of where exactly the border lies.

A detail from Thomson’s itinerary, charting the first part of his journey into Scotland.

Equally, we often find this journey reversed on a route down from the central belt towards Dumfries, with a handful of tours heading deeper in Galloway. More ambiguously, there are a number of suggestive parallels in the actual observations of travellers, prompting the question of whether a certain point is objectively picked up in the field, or transmitted as a literary trope from earlier accounts, or a combination or both. It’s rewarding to find the richness of material on D&G and its constituent locales. The region appears in these texts as, variously, the most beautiful and flourishing part of Britain, a dreary wasteland that must be passed over on the way to the Highlands, a confounding area that doesn’t fit established modes of looking, or a nerve centre of the Romantic world.

As I develop my research on this material, I’m seeking out the most revealing episodes, that get to the heart of how the local figures in this context. While a diverse set of concerns for ‘improvement’ underpin much Romantic travel writing, the singular and the curious are almost equally important terms, raising a host of interesting questions about the status – whether exceptional or merely cognate – of place.


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