Seeking inspiration in the land of rugged mountains, mist and rain  

Dorothy's recollections of a tour in Scotland

Dorothy Wordsworth's forte was imaginative prose. She wrote journals, letters and travel reports. Her Recollections of a Tour in Scotland in particular is considered an early highlight in travel literature.

Our road—the same along which the carriages had come—was directly under the mountains on our right hand, and the lake was close to us on our left, the waves breaking among stones overgrown with yellow sea-weed; fishermen's boats, and other larger vessels than are seen on fresh-water lakes were lying at anchor near the opposite shore; seabirds flying overhead; the noise of torrents mingled with the beating of the waves, and misty mountains enclosed the vale;—a melancholy but not a dreary scene.  Often have I, in looking over a map of Scotland, followed the intricate windings of one of these sea-lochs, till, pleasing myself with my own imaginations, I have felt a longing, almost painful, to travel among them by land or by water.

Dorothy liked to dream away over a map of the Scottish west coast, where the sea between mountains penetrates deep into the country. She and her brother had a fascination for Scotland. The lyrics of old songs and legends from that desolate land were among their favorite literature, as was the work of the Scottish poet Robert Burns. The mysterious Highlands especially drew them like a magnet.

Scotland, they had to go there. The Wordsworths were curious about the culture and life of the people in the sparsely populated glens, about the historical sites where the clans had fought each other and the English rulers. In this land of rugged mountains, mist and rain, William would certainly find new inspiration for his poetry. Dorothy was particularly interested in the daily life of the crofting communities. 

Six hundred miles in six weeks
In August 1803 it came about. On the 15th of that month, Dorothy and William set out on a six hundred mile tour for six weeks. They bought a horse for the occasion and a simple open carriage – a jaunting car, mainly for transporting their belongings. They knew that the many holes in the road and stones on the path would mean they would have to walk large parts of their tour beside cart and horse.

Dorothy recorded the experiences of that journey in a comprehensive day-to-day report filled with vivid descriptions of tranquil lakes, lonely farms and filthy inns, as well as captivating portraits of the poor and mostly hospitable Scots. Some scenes have the visual power of the spots of time that form the backbone of The Prelude, William's long autobiographical poem. For example, on the sixth day, past beyond the mining village of Leadhills, the Wordsworths drove through a dull valley of sparse moorland until they came to an 'mpressive' spot. 

But we soon came in sight of a spot that impressed us very much. At the lower end of this new reach of the vale was a decayed tree, beside a decayed cottage, the vale spreading out into a level area which was one large field, without fence and without division, of a dull yellow colour; the vale seemed to partake of the desolation of the cottage, and to participate in its decay. 

A little further on, they discovered a woman sitting in the middle of a meadow alone, wrapped in a gray coat or plaid.

She sat motionless all the time we looked at her, which might be nearly half an hour.  We could not conceive why she sat there, for there were neither sheep nor cattle in the field; her appearance was very melancholy. 

In the meantime, they had approached the cottage and saw that it was partly occupied. What they first thought of as one weathered tree turned out to be eight. There was also a small potato and cabbage field behind an earth wall.

No doubt, that woman was an inhabitant of the cottage. However this might be, there was so much obscurity and uncertainty about her, and her figure agreed so well with the desolation of the place, that we were indebted to the chance of her being there for some of the most interesting feelings that we had ever had from natural objects connected with man in dreary solitariness.

Windy slopes

The scene illustrates what the Wordsworths sought and found in Scotland: impressions of the unity of man and nature. Those were up for grabs in the Scottish Highlands. The unruly climate and unfriendly landscape forced the inhabitants to a poor existence. This is testament to Recollections of a Tour in Scotland on almost every page. The travelogue is full of encounters with people in villages, cities and the desolate landscape in between, from Dumfries to Loch Lomond and from Glen Coe to Edinburgh. Dorothy leads us into meagre little houses where the smoke from the peat blocks in the fireplace escapes through glassless window holes, and into cottages where the rainwater flows in under the door. She speaks to women who ramble through the sublime landscape, begging, with a child in their arms; meets children of miners who read Homer and Virgil; praises the hospitality she experiences almost everywhere; observes the appearance of the women, and comments on their diligence or laziness in doing the household work. And many times she finds the proper words to paint us an enchanting picture of sky and landscape down to the minutest details.

The afternoon had been exceedingly pleasant after we had left the vale of Arrochar; the sky was often threatening, but the rain blew off, and the evening was uncommonly fine. The sun had set a short time before we had dismounted from the car to walk up the steep hill at the end of the glen.   Clouds were moving all over the sky - some of a brilliant yellow hue, which shed a light like bright moonlight upon the mountains.  We could not have seen the head of the valley under more favourable circumstances.

The passing away of a storm is always a time of life and cheerfulness, especially in a mountainous country; but that afternoon and evening the sky was in an extraordinary degree vivid and beautiful.  We often stopped in ascending the hill to look down the long reach of the glen. The road, following the course of the river as far as we could see, the farm and cottage hills, smooth towards the base and rocky higher up, were the sole objects before us.

Finest fragments
Dorothy's Recollections of a Tour in Scotland is a travelogue, anthropological study and landscape treatise all in one. See the links opposite for a selection of some of the finest fragments, arranged by theme. Two other links lead to poems that William wrote about the trip and which Dorothy included in her journal. 

We often passed women or children who were watching a single cow while it fed uopon slips of grass between the corn. (...) It is indeed a melancholy thing to see a full-grown woman thus waiting, as it were, body and soul devoted to the poor beast; yet even this is better than working in a manufactory the day through.

Dorothy Wordsworth, Recollections of a Tour in Scotland, Saturday, 20 August 1803

   Tour in Scotland

    Finest fragments


     - Highland hospitality

     - Poor and homeless

     - Homer among the miners

     - Ode to innocence and beauty

     - Horse in shock and terror

     - Glorious city landscapes

     - Colourful people

     - Painting with words

     - The King's House