H.V. Morton, and a vanished Scotland

One of the things I really like about books is that they can transport you. Ever since I was a child, I found that a good book could take me far away from Glasgow, to distant parts of the world, different times, even different worlds. I was a graduate student in Newcastle, when a friend of mine, Pauline, introduced me to an author whose works I would come to cherish. So much so, in fact, that I treasure my old battered volumes more than the clean fresh paperbacks (of the same books) that also sit on my shelf. The writer? H.V.Morton.

When I first read “In search of Scotland”, I had no idea who this person was. All I knew was that the book in my hand was published in 1929, and had a lovely “old-book” smell, faintly musty. The book is an account of Morton’s journey by car around Scotland, with descriptions of the people and places he saw. His first point of entry to Scotland was one of my favourites, the Carter Bar. He describes the view this way:

“The heathery moors slope down to a distant valley. The sun is setting. The sky above the Lammermuirs is red and troubled. The wind drops. The autumn mists far below are creeping from wood to wood. The smoke from chimneys hangs motionless in the air. Thin veils of grey wrap themselves round the foot-hills. Faint white serpents of mist twist above the greenwood, outlining the course of stream and river. It is a study in blue. In the foreground, like a promise of the Highlands, and as notable as a ship at sea, rise the tall peaks of the Eildon Hills, blue as hothouse grapes, standing with their feet among the woodlands of the Tweed. To the far sky lie hills, always hills, fading in graduated subtleties of blue; ahead the long slopes of the Lammermuirs merge westward in the outline of the Moorfoot and the Pentlands. And it is quiet and so still. I can hear a dog barking miles off in the valley”

I have crossed that border many times, in all seasons, by car, bus, or on foot, and have yet to find a better description. Just reading that paragraph takes me back there. Of course, Morton was writing this many years ago, before the turmoil of the Second World War. His Scotland and mine are doubtless very different, but there are many things that remain the same now. Aberdeen after a rain shower, grey granite becoming almost silver where it catches the sun. Sunrise in Edinburgh, with mist filling the hollow between the Castle and Princes Street, the Cuillin changing colour by the minute.

One of the pleasures of reading this author is finding that I have been to many of the same places. In some cases, we have almost shared footprints, such as in Skye, where he walked down Glen Sligachan, into Harta Corrie, and over to Loch Coruisk.

“The end of my walk was a long climb into the heart of the mountains above Loch Coruisk. This is surely the grandest and most gloomy view in the British Isles. Mountains all round me, the sinister Coolins forming a gigantic barrier to the west, and below, like some deep, dark jewel, the rock-bound waters of the loch, pale green at the edges and green-black in the depths, fretted by wind into a million ripples. Away out over the waters of Loch Scavaig and the open sea lay those islands which sound like a new cocktail – Rum, Eigg and Muck – but I could see only the vague shape of Rum like a blue whale in the sea-mist. I clambered still higher in the hope of finding among the great boulders some place free from icy wind, and turning a corner, I came to a level ledge on which an eagle had just finished a meal. We were both surprised and both a little startled. He was not thirty yards from me. He acted first, but he was too heavy with food to rise, and I was surprised to see him run some distance, just like an aeroplane taking off, before he could launch himself. Then with a beat of enormous wings, wonderfully curved at the tip, he lifted himself, circled near me, so that I could hear the wind in his feathers, and slowly flapped his way below me into the gorge, to become lost in the black fastness of the jagged peaks and the splintered terraces”

For someone born in Lancashire (Ashton under Lyne), he understood the spell of Skye well, and put it into words better than ever I could. I have stood high above the entrance to Loch Coruisk in the grip of winter, with snow mantling the Cuillin right down to the black sea, and it was a frightening place. In the deep dark of winter, a grim and forbidding place, but still my favourite in the world. Sorry Boston, sorry Gibraltar, sorry Luxembourg, but the shattered peaks of peridotite have it. Once Skye gets into your heart, that’s it.

Another thing I love about H.V. Morton is the way that his knowledge of history helps to bring it alive. I learned quite a bit about the history of my own country from this author, and he inspired me to both read more, and also visit places. What more could you want from a book? It is clear that he loved Scotland, otherwise why would he have spent so much time there? I love Scotland, but wouldn’t consider going out on a trawler from Aberdeen. He did. At the same time, the Scotland he was portraying was a reflection of something that probably didn’t exist, a romantic construction. Do you know what I think? I don’t think that it matters that it never existed. He managed to create something comforting and familiar, while painting very clear portraits of the places he visited.

If you get the chance, you should pick up this book. My copy cost £8.99, and I will read it until it falls apart. He treats England the same way, and his volume on London is particularly interesting. My only regret is that I will never be able to tell him how much his writing changed my life. He died in 1979, when I was a lad of 8.

If anyone is interested in learning more about this inspiring writer, I would recommend buying his “In search of…” books for Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales without hesitation, but free information is available at the H.V.Morton society, which can be found here.

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2 Comments on “H.V. Morton, and a vanished Scotland”

  1. Niall Taylor says:

    Excellent article and many thanks many thanks for the link to the HV Morton website. “In Scotland Again” was the first Morton I ever read and, like you, I was smitten.

    You might enjoy my Burn’s Night article – Morton + whisky (http://hvmorton.wordpress.com/2013/01/25/hv-morton-on-whisky/), it doesn’t get much better than that.

    Lang may yer lum reek!

    Niall

    • foinaven says:

      Thanks Niall, glad you liked it. Your HV Morton and whisky post is great. Talisker is one of my favourites too – I try to keep a small bottle in my rucksack when bothying. Again in keeping with your comments, whisky is so widely available that I can usually get a decent bottle here in western Canada. Still, I can hardly complain about that!

      All the best,

      Dave


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