Having ignored Book Week Scotland for the last few years due to the clash with #germanlitmonth, I decided to challenge myself to find a book that satisfied the demands of both events. Et voilà!
Translated from German by Brian Battershaw
At the age of forty, twenty years before turning his pen to fiction, Theodor Fontane travelled to Scotland with his friend, Bernard von Lepel, like many others enticed by the romantic historical novels and ballads of Sir Walter Scott and entranced by the figure of Mary, Queen of Scots. Their journey was a pilgrimage of sorts, and, I must admit, well-planned. I’m not entirely sure how long it lasted – matter of months I suspect – but they accomplished more that I have managed in 28 years of living here!
The map on the right shows the route, and those in the know, will realise that it takes in sites that are still major tourist attractions today. Most of which I have visited too, and I found it interesting that the places Fontane describes are often as they appear today. (The places around them will have changed beyond all recognition and so I challenged myself to spot the details that Fontane didn’t mention: so no Nessie in Loch Ness (the story only began to spread in 1933), no McCaig’s tower in Oban (erected 1897) and curiously no mention of the bird colonies on the Isle of Staffa (and they must have been there when Fontane visited.) Neither did he visit a distillery, or if he did he didn’t tell us about it – perhaps the many temperamce preachers he met imfluenced him after all!
But enough of things, Fontane and Lepel didn’t see. Here are some of the things that they did.
Fontane’s travelogue is detailed amd multi-faceted with fastidious descriptions of places and people, historical anecdotes (lesser known as well as milestone events), translations of Scottish poems, retellings of Scottish legends, interspersed with personal experiences. These latter show the realities of travel in the mid-19th century. Remind me never to take the end seat on the outside of a stage-coach.
passengers at the ends of each row … sat with only one cheek on the bench, so that the outer half of each individual dangled and swung to and fro together with hat-boxes and portmanteaus. I need hardly say that such a minimum of travelling comfort would have been unbearable over a stretch of 75 miles, but for the fact that at every stage the flanking passengers on the outside changed places so that their right and left halves, alternately rested at the last stage, constituted fresh reserves to put into line.
The sketches of his travelling companion Lepel complement the text. 3 of these are reproduced on the book jacket. (From top to bottom: Loch Leven Castle, Isle of Staffa, Edinburgh) The book was intended to be a travel guide, and, for the most part, it could still serve that same purpose today (modes of transport excepted, of course.) I enjoyed Fontane’s keen observations and I learnt much about Scotland too. A couple of examples shall suffice.
1) Of Edinburgh and Stirling castle (Page 100)
Edinburgh Castle is like a recumbent lion while Stirling Castle resembles a sitting one.
2) Of the British Army (Page 102 doubtless a sly swipe at the Prussian Army and possibly not true today.)
We make a great mistake if we think of the British Army as a machine that removes the last vestiges of freedom and independence from the individual.
I will say, however, that there are very few references to the weather – from this I shall assume that the late summer of 1858 must have been a good one!
9 of the 27 chapters are devoted to Edinburgh. Glasgow is lucky to get 9 lines! How so? One look at the 300 foot-high factory chimneys of which a number were to be seen rising into heaven like pillars of petrified steam sufficed to make Fontane and Lepel rush for the next train back to Edinburgh.
Fontane’s most scathing comments, however, are reserved for Abbotsford, Walter Scott’s self-designed ‘Romance in Stone and Mortar’.
There is a rhyming party game in which the participants write a line, then turn the paper down save for the last word, so that there can be no possible connection between what the next man writes and what has been written before him.
Abbotsford is like that. It has been built for the sake of some forty or fifty catchwords.
No-one is more mortified than Fontane himself that he cannot adopt that tone of love and reverence to which one’s lips have almost become accustomed when they utter Sir Walter’s name. Lest we forget, visiting the places that Sir Walter Scott had written about was the primary reason for Fontane’s journey. Scott’s ballads were also the inspiration for Fontane’s early writing, who gave a number of his own ballads Scottish settings. So to find his hero guilty of such poor taste was devastating. (Incidentally I disagree with Fontane here – I find Abbotsford quite charming and Scott’s novels unreadable.) Regardless, the disappointing visit to Abbotsford, which lies on the Tweed, is the final stage on this journey and signals a change of direction for Fontane. When he finally publishes his debut, the historical novel Before the Storm in 1878, there is no trace of Scott’s romantic style and chivalric flourishes. He has become the realist writer on which his fame is based.
His love affair with Scotland had not ended, however. Some 30 year later he wrote that this journey was one of the most beautiful in my life, at all events the most poetic, more poetic than Switzerland, France, Italy and everything that I saw later on.
As a Sassenach in Scotland, I’d better not argue with that!!