See Scotland through the eyes of an 18th-century travel writer

01 November 2023
The work of naturalist, author and writer Thomas Pennant is now available to members of the public, thanks to a new research project.

Welsh-born Pennant has increasingly been credited for pioneering the ‘home tour’ of the British Isles, and for ‘discovering’ parts of the country previously unknown to outsiders, inspired by the Pacific travels of his contemporaries Captain Cook and Sir Joseph Banks. 

Pennant’s travel books, describing his tours of Scotland in 1769 and 1772, and of Wales between 1778 and 1785, were essential guide-books for tourists who followed in his footsteps. They outlined the first tourist itineraries, and provided ‘national descriptions’ of the cultural, economic, and environmental condition of both countries, the first extensively illustrated documentation of Scotland and Wales. 

And now researchers from the University of Wales, Trinity St David, the University of Glasgow, and Natural History Museum hope that people today can follow in Pennant’s footsteps with a new digital edition of Pennant’s Tours which will enable them to examine ‘contemporary landscapes’ through the eyes of a 18th century travel writer.

Pennant's tours

The tours influenced many contemporary writers like Dr Johnson, James Boswell, Robert Burns, Hester Thrale, Dorothy and William Wordsworth, and Sir Walter Scott, as well as painters like J.M.W. Turner, all of whom travelled in Pennant’s footsteps, even if they didn’t always admit it. Pennant offers a major, and still largely untapped, resource for modern scholarship. 

Although reprinted over the years, Pennant’s Tours of Scotland and Wales have never been properly edited. Now the research team will provide free, searchable, digital editions of these texts in the second phase of their Curious Travellers project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The tours will be linked to interactive maps as well as contemporary drawings and paintings associated with the tours, many held in the National Library of Wales. They will also include an edition of Pennant’s earlier tour of Ireland, which remained unpublished and has never before been printed. 

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Speaking on the University of Glasgow’s College of Arts & Humanities ‘Stories from Glasgow’ Podcast, launched this week, the project leaders discussed this exciting second phase of their interdisciplinary Curious Travellers project, now with the additional collaboration of the Natural History Museum, London. 

Professor Nigel Leask, Regius Chair of English Language and Literature at the University of Glasgow said: “Pennant tours Scotland twice in 1769 and 1772. He publishes different tours which are related to each other with the second tour of the Hebrides being much more ambitious and extensive. On this second tour, he was accompanied by a young Welsh artist, Moses Griffith, as well as by botanists, an ornithologist, and a Gaelic scholar. The artwork published in his Tours was a new sensation for readers in the 18th century. The two tour books are published with over 90 engraved plates which creates the first travel book of Scotland to have visual documentation. This is because Pennant believes in the visual image as a means of describing places and natural history objects and specimen. Because of Pennant we have this fantastic visual sense of Scotland, it is a kind of multi snapshot of Scotland in 1769 and 1772.

“The output of the Curious Travellers project is open access, searchable online texts of the tours. Anyone can click onto the tours and hopefully if you are in a place visited by Pennant (say Glasgow, or Bute, or the Isle of Skye) you will be able to get it on your phone, signal permitting, and you will be able to connect to what Pennant said in the 18th century.”

Find out more on the project website.

Report courtesy University of Glasgow, image copyright Wellcome Collection.

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