Scottish Literary Tours

Literary tourism has a long pedigree. Wordsworth and Keats paid their respects at the tomb of Burns, and that eager tourist Queen Victoria noted in her journal, "Passed the Clachan of Aberfoyle, renowned in Sir Walter Scott's Rob Roy."

Now a new generation of literary tourists is learning that discovering Scotland's literary heritage can not only be illuminating but also fun. Visiting present-day Edinburgh pubs while hearing about the tavern exploits of Fergusson, Burns and Macdiarmid; dodging the traffic and passers by in Glasgow's city centre with lines from Edwin Morgan's poem 'Starlings in George Square' in your ears; this is literary tourism as offered by the Scottish Literary Tour Company.

Soon it is hoped, all of Scotland's landscape and literature will be covered by the company's lively flexible tours, scripted and performed by professional writers and actors, involving local talent, and utilising, as appropriate, theatre, poetry, cinema, music, and dance. The enterprise began in June 1996 with the Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour, which runs all year round, with extra performances at the height of the tourist season. The roisterer Clart and the intellectual McBrain (representing two sides of Edinburgh and Scotland) lead groups from the Grassmarket to Rose Street, discussing, quoting form and arguing about the Scottish writers who have known Edinburgh and, like the tourists, fancied a dram or two. The tour lasts for two hours with several pub stops on the way. In November 1997 this project received the Scottish Thistle Award for Arts and Tourism.

In preparation for the all-Scotland tours, 1997 saw several smaller pilot projects in different areas, with a New Town Tour during the Edinburgh Book Festival in August and short tours of the Borders and Speyside in connection with the International Scotch Whisky Festival in late autumn. A three-day tour of the Highlands was organised for delegates to the International PEN Congress held in Edinburgh that summer, indicative of the company's readiness to offer customised tours for groups and parties at any time.

In August 1998 passers-by in Glasgow's George Square found themselves laughing at a none-too-reverent discussion of the life and loves of Robert Burns as the first Glasgow Literary Tour took to the streets. Mungo and Jimmy, respectively a staid businessman and an ordinary punter, lead groups towards Glasgow Cathedral and the Merchant City, looking for the truth about Glasgow through the work of poets and novelists from Scott to Edwin Morgan, McGonagal to Alisdair Gray. This tour is now running throughout the summer.

Meanwhile, again at book festival time, a new one-hour Makars Tour celebrated the opening of Makars Court outside the Edinburgh Writers' Museum, where paving stones engraved with names, dates and quotations commemorate Scottish writers from the fourteenth-century John Barbour ("Ah! Freedom is a noble thing!" to the great twentieth-century Gaelic poet Sorely MacLean. At the end of October last year a pilot one day tour of the Borders offered an introduction to the rich literary connections of that area, starting with Scott but also including James Hogg, the traditional ballads, and earlier literary pilgrims like Wordsworth, the American Washington Irving, and the painter Turner.A major enterprise being planned at the time of writing is a Lowlands Tour, building on previous experience in the Borders and extending into Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway. Further Glasgow tours are planned, and the Makars Tour will return for the Edinburgh Book Festival in 1999.

Lovers of books and lovers of Scottish landscape, pensioners and sixth-formers all find their horizons widened by these relaxed, witty, well-informed tours. I have long been familiar with the story of how Scott's view, near Bermyside got its name: the horses pulling Scott's funeral cortËge halted there at the top of the hill where their master had always drawn rein. Hearing the story told by an actor in a saffron twilight above the Tweed, one evening last autumn proved to be something else again. It was a moment of pure magic.


Scottish Book Collector

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