Scotland and Wales through the eyes of a 18th century travel writer

Published: 1 November 2023

Thomas Pennant was a Welsh naturalist, writer, and antiquarian, who today is increasingly being credited for pioneering the ‘home tour’ of the British Isles,

Thomas Pennant oil by Thomas Gainsborough. Public Domain via Wikicommon 650

A great traveller and travel writer, he played a pivotal role in stimulating the birth of tourism in Scotland and Wales in the later 18th century and romantic period. No – not Dr Samuel Johnson, but Thomas Pennant!

Pennant was a naturalist, writer, and antiquarian from Wales. Today, although hardly a household name, he is increasingly being credited for pioneering the ‘home tour’ of the British Isles, for ‘discovering’ parts of the country previously unknown to outsiders, inspired by the Pacific travels of his contemporaries Captain Cook and Sir Joseph Banks.

Pennant’s travel books, describing his tours if Scotland in 1769 and 1772, and of Wales between 1778 and 1785, were essential guide-books for tourists who followed in his footsteps. They outlined the first tourist itineraries, and provided ‘national descriptions’ of the cultural, economic, and environmental condition of both countries, the first extensively illustrated documentation of Scotland and Wales.

And now researchers from the University of Wales, Trinity St David, the University of Glasgow, and Natural History Museum hope that people today can follow in Pennant’s footsteps with a new digital edition of Pennant’s Tours which will enable them to examine ‘contemporary landscapes’ through the eyes of a 18th century travel writer.

The tours influenced many contemporary writers like Dr Johnson, James Boswell, Robert Burns, Hester Thrale, Dorothy and William Wordsworth, and Sir Walter Scott, as well as painters like J.M.W. Turner, all of whom travelled in Pennant’s footsteps, even if they didn’t always admit it. Pennant offers a major, and still largely untapped, resource for modern scholarship.

Although reprinted over the years, Pennant’s Tours of Scotland and Wales have never been properly edited. Now the research team will provide free, searchable, digital editions of these texts in the second phase of their Curious Travellers project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The tours will be linked to interactive maps as well as contemporary drawings and paintings associated with the tours, many held in the National Library of Wales. They will also include an edition of Pennant’s earlier tour of Ireland, which remained unpublished and has never before been printed.

Speaking on the University of Glasgow’s College of Arts & Humanities ‘Stories from Glasgow’ Podcast, launched this week, the project leaders discussed this exciting second phase of their interdisciplinary Curious Travellers project, now with the additional collaboration of the Natural History Museum, London.

Professor Nigel Leask, Regius Chair of English Language and Literature at the University of Glasgow said: “Pennant tours Scotland twice in 1769 and 1772. He publishes different tours which are related to each other with the second tour of the Hebrides being much more ambitious and extensive. On this second tour, he was accompanied by a young Welsh artist, Moses Griffith, as well as by botanists, an ornithologist, and a Gaelic scholar. The artwork published in his Tours was a new sensation for readers in the 18th century. The two tour books are published with over 90 engraved plates which creates the first travel book of Scotland to have visual documentation. This is because Pennant believes in the visual image as a means of describing places and natural history objects and specimen. Because of Pennant we have this fantastic visual sense of Scotland, it is a kind of multi snapshot of Scotland in 1769 and 1772.”

Professor Leask added: “The output of the Curious Travellers project is open access, searchable online texts of the tours. Anyone can click onto the tours and hopefully if you are in a place visited by Pennant (say Glasgow, or Bute, or the Isle of Skye) you will be able to get it on your phone, signal permitting, and you will be able to connect to what Pennant said in the 18th century.”

Curious Travellers Principal Investigator, Professor Mary-Ann Constantine works on Welsh Romanticism and is based at University of Wales’s Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, said: “This new second phase of the Curious Travellers we will be working hard on editing the tours. But we also have a lot of events and exhibitions lined up that explore the themes we are interested in including natural history and indeed environmental history looking at the environmental crisis from an 18th century perspective.

“One of the great pleasures of this project, is that everybody can relate to place and most people are interested in travel. People are also very keen to walk parts of Pennant’s itineraries and we would encourage people who take some time to explore Pennant’s tours and landscapes and indeed write to us and let us know about their experiences.

“We are particularly interested in the layering of history – having the experience of walking through a contemporary landscape with an 18th century guide – to see the world through the eyes of what it is like 250 years ago and think about the extraordinary and indeed deeply tragic changes that have occurred since then. It is a measure and speed of the society of which Pennant was on the cusp.”

Pennant travelled on horseback, on foot, and, in the Western Isles, by boat, and it is this immediacy of experience combined with his many and varied interests which make these tours such fascinating reading. Much of the information was gathered from local experts, to whom he circulated an extensive questionnaire.

They are rich in observations and descriptions which bring the vibrant complexities of eighteenth-century Britain to life. His long-standing patronage of the artist Moses Griffith and others such as John Ingleby and Paul Sandby ensured that these written descriptions were matched with a superb range of landscapes and miniatures, many pasted directly by Pennant into lavish extra-illustrated versions of the tours, now held in the National Library of Wales.

The College of Arts & Humanities Stories from Glasgow podcast

Listen to the Curious Travellers project podcast 

The Curious Travellers project

The Curious Travellers project explores travel and tourism in Britain and Ireland in the late 18th and early 19th century. It does so through the writings of the Flintshire naturalist and antiquarian Thomas Pennant (1726-1798), and of others who followed in his footsteps.  Focused primarily on tours of Scotland and Wales, the project has been funded in two phases by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and is supported by numerous partners. It is a collaboration between The University of Wales Trinity St David, the University of Glasgow and the Natural History Museum

Learn more here on the project website 

First published: 1 November 2023