Dr Johnson at the inn at Glenelg, 1 September 1773
Of the provisions the negative catalogue was very copious. There was no meat, no milk, no bread, no eggs, no wine. We did not express much satisfaction. However, we were here to stay. Whisky we might have and I believe they caught a fowl and killed it. We had some bread and with that we prepared ourselves to be contented, when we had a very eminent proof of Highland hospitality. Along some miles of the way, in the evening, a gentleman's servant had kept us company on foot with very little notice on our part. He left us near Glenelg, and we thought on him no more till he came to us again, in about two hours, with a present from his master of rum and sugar. The man had mentioned his company, and the gentleman, whose name, I think, is Gordon, well knowing the penury of the place, had this attention to two men, whose names perhaps he had not heard, by whom his kindness was not likely to be ever repaid, and who could be recommended to him only by their necessities.
We were now to examine our lodging. Out of one of the beds, on which we were to repose, started up, at our entrance, a man black as a Cyclops from a forge. Other circumstances of no elegant recital concurred to disgust us. We had been frighted by a lady at Edinburgh, with discouraging representations of Highland lodgings. Sleep, however, was necessary. Our highlanders had at last found some hay, with which the inn could not supply them. I directed them to bring a bundle into the room and slept upon it in my riding coat. Mr Boswell being more delicate, laid himself sheets with hay over and under him, and lay in linen like a gentleman.
Boswell's account of the same experience
There was no provender for our horses: so they were sent to grass, with a man to watch them. A maid shewed us up stairs into a room damp and dirty, with bare walls, a variety of bad smells, a coarse black greasy fir table, and forms of the same kind; and out of a wretched bed started a fellow from his sleep, like Edgar in King Lear, 'Poor Tom's a-cold.' –
Our bad accommodation here made me uneasy, and almost fretful. Dr Johnson was calm. I said, he was so from vanity. Johnson: 'No, sir, it is from philosophy.'
Faujas de St Fond, French scientist, at the inn at Dalmally, 1792
We sat down to table. Our supper was composed of two dishes of excellent game, one of grouse, the other of gelinottes [grouse], a cream, fresh butter, country cheese, a pot of conserve of vaccinium, a wild fruit which grows in the mountains, and port, all served at once. –
Our host, naturally well-mannered, and who further took us for great folk, because he had seen us arrive with three carriages and four servants, wished to render us, in spite of our protests, the same honour as to Scottish lairds. He himself put the dishes on the table, and stood behind one of us so as to be within reach to serve us and receive our orders: but wishing to treat him in a more friendly manner, we begged him to sit down with us. He refused, and would only accept a single glass of wine to drink our health.
Dorothy Wordsworth at the King's House, Glencoe, 3 September 1803
The house looked respectable at a distance – a large square building, cased in blue slates to defend it from storms, – but when we came close to it the outside forewarned us of the poverty and misery within. Scarce a blade of grass could be seen growing upon the open ground; the heath-plant itself found no nourishment there, appearing as if it had but sprung up to be blighted... The first thing we saw on entering the door was two sheep hung up, as if just killed from the barren moor, their bones hardly sheathed in flesh. After we had waited a few minutes, looking about for a guide to lead us into some corner of the house, a woman, seemingly about forty years old, came to us in a great bustle, screaming in Erse, with the most horrible guinea-hen or peacock voice I ever heard, first to one person, then another. She could hardly spare time to show us up-stairs, for crowds of men were
in the house – drovers, carriers, horsemen, travellers, all of whom she had to provide with supper, and she was, as she told us, the only woman there.
Never did I see such a miserable, such a wretched place, – long rooms with ranges of beds, no other furniture except benches, or perhaps one or two crazy chairs, the floors far dirtier than an ordinary house could be if it were never washed – as dirty as a house after a sale on a rainy day, and the rooms being large, and the walls naked, they looked as if more than half the goods had been sold out. We sat shivering in one of the large rooms for three quarters of an hour before the woman could find time to speak to us again; she then promised a fire in another room, after two travellers, who were going a stage further, had finished their whisky, and said we should have supper as soon as possible. She had no eggs, no milk, no potatoes, no
loaf-bread, or we should have preferred tea.
With length of time the fire was kindled, and, after another hour's waiting, supper came, – a shoulder of mutton so hard that it was impossible to chew the little flesh that might be scraped off the bones, and some sorry soup made of barley and water, for it had no other taste.
J J Bell on Scottish hydropathic holidays in the 1880s
The Recreation Room, which would make a splendid ball-room, has a piano that once was grand, and upon its willing notes a lady 'of uncertain age' is performing 'The Irresistible Quadrilles,' which begin with 'A frog he would a wooing go,' while no less than eight persons, none older than forty, are gliding through 'figure 4.' This quadrille business, as many excellent Hydropathists will tell you, is just the thin end of the wedge. In ten years it will be the Polka, and after that the wicked Waltz. What are Hydropathics coming to? Bless their good old-fashioned souls! Well for them that they cannot peep into the future – Hydropathics becoming licensed hotels and subsisting on frivolity!
Ivor Brown on the same experience, somewhat later
The meals were served at long tables; one had to mix with one's fellows and make the necessary genteel conversation. There was a fine, full breakfast followed by a fine, full midday dinner. There was a good plain tea at half-past five, with scones and cookies and 'fancy bread' abounding. Those who had just arrived, and had missed their dinner, had to be given value for money and so got eggs to their tea or cold meat. At half-past nine a service of milk, bread, butter, and cheese was laid on in the dining-room. Those late for meals were confronted by a money-box into which, for charity's benefit, they paid one penny per (unpunctual) person, thus atoning for sin. There was always grace before meat and at 9.45 prayers in the drawing room. At
ten o'clock or so one withdrew, possibly hoping for a nice read in bed. Vain expectation unless you had brought your own candles! The lights were officially turned off at 10.30.
Poster for a Highland hotel, late 19th-century
MACDONALD'S STATION HOTEL
Patronised by their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales and other Members of the Royal Family, and by most of the Nobility of Europe
Parties travelling from South to North, and vice versa, will find the very large and handsome Hotel adjoining the Station, whereby they can arrive at, or depart from, the Hotel under cover. The house was specially built for a Hotel, is elegantly furnished with all modern improvements, and contains numerous suites of Private Rooms, including
LADIES' AND GENTLEMEN'S COFFEE ROOM, SMOKING ROOMS, BILLIARD-ROOMS, BATH-ROOMS, ETC
Over 100 beds can be made up
Parties leaving this Hotel in the morning can go over the grand scenery along the Skye Railway, or visit either Lochmaree, Gairloch, Dunrobin, and Golspie, and return same day
Table d'Hote at 5.30 and 7.30
FRENCH, GERMAN AND ITALIAN SPOKEN
An Omnibus attends the Steamers. Posting.
H V Morton in a hotel by the Caledonian Canal, late 1920s
It is rather a Spartan hotel. Draughts tear through it from back door to front. The hall is as full of walking sticks as Lourdes of discarded crutches. Abnormal and improbable fish which seem to have been blown up with a pump by a reckless taxidermist lie in glass cases, suggesting to the generous and fair-minded that perhaps all fish stories are not apocryphal. There are deer slots mounted on wall brackets. The mild, slightly indignant eyes of stags gaze down at guests beneath perfect hat-racks of antlers. And there is no escape from them. Their glassy stare presides even over bedroom corridors.
In such hotels the casual guest feels himself to be an incidental nuisance, rather like the man who finds himself in an alien club while his own club is in process of redecoration. Conversation has a habit of lapsing in his presence. He feels that he is intruding. He is not in the secret. He is not a deer-slayer or a salmon-killer; he is merely an unpleasant reminder of the outside world.
Letter from Virginia Woolf to Vanessa Bell, 28 June 1938, during a
visit to the West Highlands
We had a terrific drive yesterday in one of the worst known gales, over the wildest passes. Trees were hurtling; rivers simply cataractous, but very beautiful, if the rain had stopped, but it didn't. Our petrol gave out; and the oil clogged the engine. But miracles happen, and suddenly an Inn appeared, in a black gorge; and on opening the door, there were 20 tables with cloths laid diamond shape, maids in white aprons, and 7 different cakes; including the best shortbread I've ever eaten. We were warmly welcomed by the 20 old fishing men and women – they're practically sexless, and I've often taken one for a dog and vice versa: Some had been fishing in the rain for days and caught one trout.
Dinner menu in a Highland hotel, c. 1950
Brochan Buntata agus Unnan (Scotch Leek and Potato Soup)
Bradan Bruich (Boiled Tay Salmon, Sauce Hollandaise)
Marag, Snep Pron (Haggis, Mashed Turnip)
Cearc Bruich (Boiled Chicken Supreme)
Fiadh Rosd (Roast Venison, Redcurrant Jelly)
Buntata Rosd agus Bruich (Roast and Creamed Potatoes)
Pessar Bruich (French Beans)
Dearcan agus Bar (Raspberry Melba)
Spoinse agus Bar (Scotch Trifle)
Aran agus Ubh (Scotch Woodcock)
Paul Theroux at Cape Wrath, summer 1982
I walked back through the sandy cliffs, among the rabbit holes, to Keoldale and the Cape Wrath Hotel, and had my first good meal for days. There were a number of English anglers at the hotel. They blustered when the national news came on. They were all Tories. They called the Prime Minister 'Maggie'. Her nonsense suited their nonsense. One said he wanted to shoot the man being interviewed, who claimed he had known all along that the Falklands were going to be invaded. 'Too many bloody people giving advice!' Another said that half the Labour Party should be shot for treason. One thing about anglers, though. They went to bed early.
Kenneth Roy at Mallaig, summer 1987
In the lounge upstairs, one of the bicycling Englishmen sought my help. He too must get the 6.50am train; the next train was hours later, and he had an urgent appointment in Cheshire. But when he had tried to book an early morning call at reception, he had been told that the hotel's only alarm clock was already claimed by a Mr Roy in Room 14. Could I give him a knock in the morning? I agreed.
The hotel's only alarm clock, set for six o'clock, lay with my continental breakfast of rice crispies, stale morning roll, packet of marmalade and tea bag. I tried it: it didn't work. But I was pretty sure that I would be awake in this dreary little room long before the required hour.
In the morning I gave Room 18 a knock, and left the hotel early to see if Mallaig looked any better. Without people, there was a marginal improvement.
The 6.50am was unheated; it had not been cleaned since the day before, and was littered with filthy coffee cups and old newspapers. Its loco was called Oor Wullie.
Room 18 joined me. He wished to thank me for the early morning call, but his news was grim indeed. He had had his bicycle stolen from the foyer of the hotel; the proprietor had noticed it gone at about 2am.
He was fairly philosophical about the loss of the bike. Though of some sentimental value, it was fairly elderly, and he supposed he would have had to buy a new one fairly soon anyhow. What depressed him was the thought of it being stolen in the West Highlands, where he had heard people did not bother locking their doors at night. The experience had sickened him; Mallaig in general had sickened him. In the hotel he had asked for bath towels, and been offered hand towels; even in the Amazonian jungle, where he had spent part of last summer, they had heard of bath towels.
One thing was sure, he would not be returning in a hurry. 'Goodbye Scotland,' he said bitterly. I tried to cheer him up and said he should allow us a second chance. But he was inconsolable. I came to the sad conclusion that there was no cure for Mallaig.
Photograph, top from left: Dorothy Wordsworth, James Boswell, Samuel Johnson and Faujas de St Fond. Bottom from left: H V Morton and Virginia Woolf