Index  Dorothy Wordsworth

Tour in Scotland

You may lament with me that I have not been taught to exercise the pencil

A gallery of Dorothy's word paintings

At that time of the evening when, by looking steadily, we could discover a few pale stars in the sky, we saw upon an eminence, the bound of our horizon, though very near to us, and facing the bright yellow clouds of the west, a group of figures that made us feel how much we wanted in not being painters. Two herdsmen, with a dog beside them, were sitting on the hill, overlooking a herd of cattle scattered over a large meadow by the river-side. Their forms, looked at through a fading light, and backed by the bright west, were exceedingly distinct, a beautiful picture in the quiet of a Sabbath evening, exciting thoughts and images of almost patriarchal simplicity and grace. 

Recollections of a Tour in Scotland, Sunday, 4 September

Several times, both in her Recollections of a Tour in Scotland and in her Grasmere Journals, Dorothy feels the powerlessness of any writer trying to find the right words to express the colour and mood of a perceived scene. 'I cannot describe what I felt', she then writes, or similar. Actually, she would have preferred to be a painter rather than a writer, as she told a friend in a letter: 'You may lament with me that I have not been taught to exercise the pencil. It is indeed true that I scarcely ever take a walk without lamenting it'.

Anyone who reads Dorothy's detailed portraits of people and landscape cannot but disagree with her. The way she paints with words is as subtle and evocative as the way contemporaries like John Constable or William Turner speak in paint. Her 'shepherds in fading evening light', above, is one example , as are the fragments on other pages, but there are even more examples, too good not to show here. Therefore, below a small gallery with some of Dorothy's word paintings, with an intro and an appropriate title.

1. Fishing-boats near Cairndow

On departure from Cairndow, which consisted of a single house on the banks of Loch Fyne, a bright sun shone and a fresh breeze blew. The waves crashed to the side, the sun shone on the water, the Wordsworths occasionally passed a cottage or group of trees, here and there people were working the land.

But what most excited our attention was, at one particular place, a cluster of fishing-boats at anchor in a still corner of the lake, a small bay or harbour by the wayside.  They were overshadowed by fishermen's nets hung out to dry, which formed a dark awning that covered them like a tent, overhanging the water on each side, and falling in the most exquisitely graceful folds.  There was a monastic pensiveness, a funereal gloom in the appearance of this little company of vessels, which was the more interesting from the general liveliness and glancing motions of the water, they being perfectly still and silent in their sheltered nook.

Recollections of a Tour in Scotland, Tuesday, 30 August

2. Loch Katrine by the light of the first stars

In the third week of their tour, the Wordsworths had taken a boat trip across Loch Katrine. The atmosphere of the lake had made a deep impression on them, despite, or perhaps thanks to, the rain and wind. So much so that in the fifth week they once again circled the lake with the same ferryman. This time they drifted over dead-still and mirror-smooth water by the light of the first stars. Dorothy: 'Rarely have I enjoyed the majestic surroundings as much as during the short trip this evening.'

The stars were beginning to appear, but the brightness of the west was not yet gone; - the lake perfectly still, and when we first went into the boat we rowed almost close to the shore under steep crags hung with birches: it was like a new-discovered country of which we had not dreamed, for in walking down the lake, owing to the road in that part being carried at a considerable height on the hill-side, the rocks and the indentings of the shore had been hidden from us.  At this time, those rocks and their images in the calm water composed one mass, the surfaces of both equally distinct, except where the water trembled with the motion of our boat. Having rowed a while under the bold steeps, we launched out further when the shores were no longer abrupt. We hardly spoke to each other as we moved along receding from the west, which diffused a solemn animation over the lake. The sky was cloudless; and everything seemed at rest except our solitary boat, and the mountain-streams, - seldom heard, and but faintly. 

Recollections of a Tour in Scotland, Monday, 12 September 

3. An old woman bowed almost double at Dryburgh Abbey

Dorothy and William were happy to take a look at the castles, manors and abbeys they encountered on their route. Many of those sights were hidden behind a fence. They had to ring the bell for a visit, after which the porter showed them around. This also applies to their visit - immediately after breakfast and in the rain - to the ruins and gardens of Dryburgh Abbey, in the area south of Edinburgh.

We rang a bell at the gate, and, instead of a porter, an old woman came to open it through a narrow side-alley cut in a thick plantation of evergreens. On entering, saw the thatch of her hut just above the trees, and it looked very pretty, but the poor creature herself was a figure to frighten a child, - bowed almost double, having a hooked nose and overhanging eyebrows, a complexion stained brown with smoke, and a cap that might have been worn for months and never washed. No doubt she had been cowering over her peat fire, for if she had emitted smoke by her breath and through every pore, the odour could not have been stronger.  

Recollections of a Tour in Scotland, Tuesday, 20 September

4. A little boy in twilight near Tarbet

Another three miles Dorothy and William had to walk along the banks of Loch Lomond before arriving in Tarbet, where they would spend the night. It was just getting dark and raining lightly, 'all was solitary and huge - sky, water, and mountains mingled together'.

While we were walking forward, the road leading us over the top of a brow, we stopped suddenly at the sound of a half articulate Gaelic hooting from the field close to us. It came from a little boy, whom we could see on the hill between us and the lake, wrapped up in a grey plaid. He was probably calling home the cattle for the night. His appearance was in the highest degree moving to the imagination: mists were on the hillsides, darkness shutting in upon the huge avenue of mountains, torrents roaring, no house in sight to which the child might belong; his dress, cry, and appearance all different from anything we had been accustomed to. 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.

Recollections of Tour in Scotland, Sunday, 28 August

5. Cargo boat under sail on Loch Awe

Fishing boats huddled in a windless corner of a lake. A ferry stomping on the waves. A cargo boat under full  sail. Dorothy always paints such scenes in detail and clearly with great pleasure. As she and her brother ride through the valley of Loch Awe, they suddenly see the white sail of a ship come round the corner against the backdrop of steep, reddish-purple scree slopes.

We were now enclosed between steep hills, on the opposite side entirely bare, on our side bare or woody; the branch of the lake generally filling the whole area of the vale. It was a pleasing, solitary scene; the long reach of naked precipices on the other side rose directly out of the water, exceedingly steep, not rugged or rocky, but with scanty sheep pasturage and large beds of small stones, purple, dove-colored, or red, such as are called Screes in Cumberland and Westmoreland. These beds, or rather streams of stones, appeared as smooth as the turf itself, nay, I might say, as soft as the feathers of birds, which they resembled in color. There was no building on either side of the water; in many parts only just room for the road, and on the other shore no footing, as it might seem, for any creature larger than the mountain sheep, and they, in treading amongst the shelving stones, must often send them down into the lake below.

After we had wound for some time through the valley, having met neither foot-traveller, horse, nor cart, we started at the sight of a single vessel, just as it turned round the point of a hill, coming into the reach of the valley where we were. She floated steadily through the middle of the water, with one large sail spread out, full swollen by the breeze, that blew her right towards us.  I cannot express what romantic images this vessel brought along with her - how much more beautiful the mountains appeared, the lake how much more graceful. There was one man on board, who sate at the helm, and he, having no companion, made the boat look more silent than if we could not have seen him. I had almost said the ship, for on that narrow water it appeared as large as the ships which I have watched sailing out of a harbour of the sea. A little further on we passed a stone hut by the lake-side, near which were many charcoal sacks, and we conjectured that the vessel had been depositing charcoal brought from other parts of Loch Awe to be carried to the iron-works at Loch Etive.

Recollections of Tour in Scotland, Thursday, 1 September