Index  Dorothy Wordsworth

Tour in Scotland

Sweet Highland Girl in the ferry house of Inversneyde

An ode to innocence and beauty

In her Recollections of a Tour in Scotland, Dorothy shows special interest in the Scottish huts, houses and inns in which she and her brother spent the night. She describes in detail the exterior and interior, the state of maintenance, the quality of beds and food. At home, in Grasmere, she spent a lot of time and energy in the household, in the care of the house and garden. She seemed extra sensitive to the care that Scottish women gave to housework and their dedication to the home. She hated indifference and sloppiness, and praised women who tried to make the most of their poor circumstances.

The first thing Dorothy noticed when she and her brother set out into the Highlands was the poor construction of the huts in Luss, the hamlet on the west bank of Loch Lomond.

Here we first saw houses without windows, the smoke coming out of the open window-places; the chimneys were like stools with four legs, a hole being left in the roof for the smoke, and over that a slate placed upon four sticks - sometimes the whole leaned as if it were going to fall.  

The conditions were often outright miserable, with huts admitting the rain at the door, and retaining it in the hollows of the mud floor. When asked why they did not improve their dwellings, the residents answered that if they made improvements 'the laird would conclude that they were growing rich, and would raise their rent'.

Noisy and dirty
Dorothy and William slept in inns and in cottages during their journey. Many inns were dirty and noisy and the food was poor. They did not often complain, though. After a day on the road they were easily satisfied Dorothy wrote this about their shelter in Lanark:

The New Inn is a handsome old stone building, formerly a gentleman's house. We were conducted into a parlour, where people had been drinking; the tables were unwiped, chairs in disorder, the floor dirty, and the smell of liquors was most offensive. We were tired, however, and rejoiced in our tea.

Dorothy was not very demanding. She was aware of being a guest in a foreign country whose inhabitants had trouble keeping their heads above water. Only a few times it became too much for her, such as in the ferry house at Loch Creran, where she found an indescribable mess.

We found only women at home at the ferry-house. I was faint and cold, and went to sit by the fire, but, though very much needing refreshment, I had not heart to eat anything there - the house was so dirty, and there were so many wretchedly dirty women and children; yet perhaps I might have got over the dirt, though I believe there are few ladies who would not have been turned sick by it, if there had not been a most disgusting combination of laziness and coarseness in the countenances and manners of the women, though two of them were very handsome. It was a small hut, and four women were living in it: one, the mother of the children and mistress of the house; the others I supposed to be lodgers, or perhaps servants; but there was no work amongst them. They had just taken from the fire a great pan full of potatoes, which they mixed up with milk, all helping themselves out of the same vessel, and the little children put in their dirty hands to dig out of the mess at their pleasure. I thought to myself, How light the labour of such a house as this! Little sweeping, no washing of floors, and as to scouring the table, I believe it was a thing never thought of.


How different was Dorothy's judgement of the two girls in Inversneyde's ferry house. They had impressed her five days earlier by their kindness and helpfulness. The contrast with the women at Loch Creran could not have been greater. The same is true of Dorothy's account of this meeting. Rather than an indictment of laziness and rudeness, this is one great ode to both girls' pleasant ways, and especially to the appearance and radiance of one of them.

When beginning to descend the hill towards Loch Lomond, we overtook two girls, who told us we could not cross the ferry till evening, for the boat was gone with a number of people to church. One of the girls was exceedingly beautiful; and the figures of both of them, in grey plaids falling to their feet, their faces only being uncovered, excited our attention before we spoke to them; but they answered us so sweetly that we were quite delighted, at the same time that they stared at us with an innocent look of wonder. I think I never heard the English language sound more sweetly than from the mouth of the elder of these girls, while she stood at the gate answering our inquiries, her face flushed with the rain; her pronunciation was clear and distinct: without difficulty, yet slow, like that of a foreign speech.  

The girls told Dorothy and William that they might wait in the ferry house for the boat to return and dry their wet clothes by the fireplace.

We were glad to be housed, with our feet upon a warm hearth-stone; and our attendants were so active and good-humoured that it was pleasant to have to desire them to do anything. The younger was a delicate and unhealthy-looking girl; but there was an uncommon meekness in her countenance, with an air of premature intelligence, which is often seen in sickly young persons. The other made me think of Peter Bell's 'Highland Girl':

As light and beauteous as a squirrel,
As beauteous and as wild.

She moved with unusual activity, which was chastened very delicately by a certain hesitation in her looks when she spoke, being able to understand us but imperfectly. They were both exceedingly desirous to get me what I wanted to make me comfortable. I was to have a gown and petticoat of the mistress's; so they turned out her whole wardrobe upon the parlour floor, talking Erse to one another, and laughing all the time. It was long before they could decide which of the gowns I was to have; they chose at last, no doubt thinking that it was the best, a light-coloured sprigged cotton, with long sleeves, and they both laughed while I was putting it on, with the blue linsey petticoat, and one or the other, or both together, helped me to dress, repeating at least half a dozen times, ‘You never had on the like of that before.’ 

In the meantime, the two girls also managed to put a solid meal on the table for twelve people - all residents of the house, including grandmother and two children, plus four guests. It took a lot of effort and it took a long time before everyone could sit at the table, but 'the way they, and especially the older of the two, did their job was extremely graceful'.

Sweet Highland Girl
Dorothy concludes her report of the stay in the ferry house with the following note:

…and at this day the innocent merriment of the girls, with their kindness to us, and the beautiful figure and face of the elder, come to my mind whenever I think of the ferry-house and waterfall of Loch Lomond, and I never think of the two girls but the whole image of that romantic spot is before me, a living image, as it will be to my dying day.  

Finally, this note is followed by an ode - Sweet Highland Girl - that William, shortly after returning home in Grasmere, wrote to the beauty and innocence of the oldest girl. The poem is somewhat pompous and sentimental, and lacks the atmosphere and telling details of Dorothy's account, but it does end with five nice lines:

For I, methinks, till I grow old,
As fair before me shall behold
As I do now, the Cabin small,
The Lake, the Bay, the Waterfall,
And thee, the Spirit of them all.