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Northward Ho! – Scottish Review of Books
by Patrick J. Murray

Northward Ho!

May 30, 2015 | by Patrick J. Murray

TRAVELLING to Scotland has a long tradition in English letters. In 1803, for example, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge embarked upon an expedition north in the aftermath of their Lyrical Ballads. Similarly, their fellow Romantic poet John Keats carried out his own foray into the Highlands, exposing himself to a harsh climate which may have been the initial cause of his fatal tuberculosis. Daniel Defoe, albeit incognito, tread a similar path from south to north. The English novelist’s role as an agent provocateur of the pro-Union parliament from 1706 to 1708 remains one of the most fascinating aspects of his multifaceted biography. Perhaps most famous of all Anglo-Scottish jaunts, is the journey taken by Samuel Johnson and his amanuensis, biographer and friend James Boswell in 1773.

Such experiences proved fruitful grounds for literary harvests. Keats composed several sonnets on his travels, most notably ruminations on the sight of Ailsa Craig off the Ayrshire coast and the sublimity of Ben Nevis. Wordsworth and Coleridge’s trip was recorded by the former’s sister, their fellow traveller Dorothy. In Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, the lesser-known Wordsworth provides a vivid journal marked by a voice sensitive to the geography of rural Scotland and its inhabitants. Defoe’s activities in Edinburgh included the publication of what the author himself described as ‘plain, naked, and unbyasst accounts both of persons and things’ via politically-inflected titles such as An Essay at Removing National Prejudices Against a Union with Scotland (collected in 1731) and History of the Union of Great Britain (1709). Boswell and Johnson, meanwhile, would produce their own travelogues. Chronicled for posterity in Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and Boswell’s The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, their works testify again to the ability of travelling in Scotland to inspire writing that is lively and vibrant, subtle and sophisticated.

Nearly a century before Johnson was his near-namesake, the great Jacobean essayist, playwright and poet Ben Jonson. Jonson’s journey north in 1618 took the low road: setting out from London in July, the playwright and his companions (we are not exactly sure as to their identities, or indeed number) travelled though Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Durham before reaching the border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed in early September. Once in Scotland, they visited the castles and mansions of local prominent noblemen such as Sir John Home at Ayton,  before finishing his journey in Edinburgh on the 17th September.

The journey was in part inspired by an attempt to get back to his roots. During his trip, Jonson stayed with the poet and pamphleteer William Drummond at Hawthornden Castle for several weeks. One of the pre-eminent writers in Scotland at the time, Drummond’s fame had grown steadily in London in the 1610s, coming to the attention of prominent literary figures such as Jonson and Michael Drayton. Drummond recorded Jonson’s visit and their conversations, noting that his guest believed himself to be of Scottish lineage through a grandfather who he assumed came originally from Annandale in Dumfriesshire.

However, the trip also had a literary motivation. Jonson, it seems, had intended to produce his own versified literary travelogue relating the events of his trip: Drummond notes that Jonson ‘is to write his foot pilgrimage hither, and call it A Discovery’. Such an account, sadly, was probably destroyed in a fire in Jonson’s study in 1623. In the event, the venture was recorded by an anonymous author who accompanied the playwright on his journey. Entitled My Gossip Jonson His Foot Voyage and Mine Into Scotland, this interesting account has been published for the first time by Cambridge University Press. At a little over six hundred lines, it is, in comparison with its literary descendants, relatively short. Unlike Wordsworth’s Recollections or Defoe’s letters, it lacks any in-depth consideration of the country, landscape and socio-political circumstances. Instead, the style of the account is marked by a rapid ambulatory pace, with each mile covered by just over a line. In the narrative, the author and Jonson (‘my gossip’) move from place to place with alacrity. Little time is dedicated to elaborating on the sights and sounds of their experiences.

Yet even in its fast-paced narrative there are snatched glimpses of what it must have been like to travel from London to Edinburgh in 1618. In an incident redolent of the episodic picaresque of Don Quixote, Jonson’s party, barely ten miles into their trip, are accosted by a colourful band of wanderers: ‘Thence to Hogsdon, where a lunatic woman met us by the way and went dancing before us, and a humorous tinker of whom we could not be rid etc. There also three minstrels thrust themselves upon us, asking whether we would hear a merry song, which proved to be the life and death of my Lord of Essex.’

Such events, with their comical appearance and underlying reminder of the fraught politics of the age (the ‘Lord of Essex’ Robert Devereux had been executed in 1602 for a failed coup) are brief but entertaining impressions of the lively world of early-seventeenth century travel. In addition, and more interestingly, we get glimpses of Jonson’s amiable, impish character. In Leicestershire the party are confronted by a dipsomaniac parson whose pestering is quickly despatched by Jonson with ‘low courtesy to his red nose’. In an instance which demonstrates why he may be judged one of the best civic tourists alongside one of the finest writers in the language, the playwright invited the whole town of Pontefract ‘to his venison’. And then paid the considerable bar bill too. 

Similarly evocative are the descriptions of Jonson’s reception as a celebrity as he moves from town to town. In addition to provoking the local gentry to wine and dine him – copious amounts of alcohol are consumed on the journey – his visits brought out the crowds. In an amusing pastoral interlude in the Borders, Jonson, under the direction of a local aristocrat, goes out to visit some farmhands who had heard of his stopover and wanted to meet their famous visitor. ‘So he walked up into the fields where was a number of them with a bagpipe,’ notes the author, ‘who no sooner saw my gossip, but they circled him and danced around him.’ Comparable welcomes were encountered elsewhere – in Berwick for example, the local councillor ordered that the bells be wrung in the city upon Jonson’s approach.

The scenes greeting Jonson in Edinburgh were even more frenzied. On their way into the capital, the itinerant party was pursued, rock-star fashion, by women attempting to ply them with sugar, sack and whisky. The next day, with word having got around, the whole town seemed to turn out to catch sight of him. The crowd was ‘so thick in the street that we could scarce pass by them, they ran in such throngs to have a sight of my gossip’. As well as the streets, the buildings were teeming: ‘The windows also being full, everyone peeping out of a round hole like a head out of a pillory.’

It is difficult to imagine such a reception for a writer today. Yet Jonson was, even by the standards of his own extraordinary age, no ordinary writer. With the death of Christopher Marlowe in a bar room brawl some twenty years earlier, the passing of Shakespeare in 1616 and the publication of Jonson’s first folio in the same year, he had ascended to the esteemed position of the country’s premier playwright.  This ascension to something akin to a poet laureate perhaps explains why, alongside his literary and personal motivations, Jonson undertook the journey in the first place. In travelling north, he was not only visiting the land of his ancestors and seeking poetic inspiration, he was also visiting the first kingdom of his monarch, James I.

Primarily, the trip was no mean physical feat for Jonson, now in his mid-forties. Tall and lean in his youth, he had, to borrow a line from his delightful lyric ‘On Gut’, ‘made[…] himself a thoroughfare of vice’. Twenty stones and expanding, the litheness of his youth was being rapidly supplanted by a ‘Mountaine belly’ and ‘rockye face’. A walking trip of over 450 miles would have been an arduous undertaking, and Jonson’s course is telling. Apart from one or two deviations, it follows the same progress as the Stuart monarch’s own journey the year before. 

Ostensibly, this effort to follow James’s route reflects the habit of travellers to tread well-worn tracks – nearly four hundred years later, the way is marked by the current East Coast Main Line railway. More significantly perhaps, it suggests a conscious attempt on Jonson’s part to enhance his knowledge of his latest patron. In going to Scotland, and more particularly Edinburgh, he would have had the opportunity to acquaint himself with the environments which shaped the young king before his accession to the throne of England. Such awareness was important, for insensitivity to the reigning monarch’s sensibility could prove costly, as Jonson himself knew only too well. He had, after all, been imprisoned by the Elizabethan regime in 1597 for collaborating on the apparently treasonable play The Isle of Dogs. (This was Jonson’s first of two spells in Clink, the second provoked by the more weighty matter of his murder of the young actor Gabriel Spenser in a duel – perhaps appropriately for the son of priest, he was released by invoking the benefit of the clergy.) Maintaining position at the heart of the court required tact, especially with regard to his ruler and his background.

In reproducing the narrative, the editors James Loxley, Anna Groundwater and Julie Sanders have presented to a new audience this often overlooked affair in the life of one of these island’s most entertaining writers. The edition is given context by three informative essays which discuss the seventeenth century walk more generally, Jonson’s journey in particular and the various vistas of hospitality described in his account. Alongside this elucidatory editorial input is the copious annotation attending the travel narrative itself. Through this new publication, we gain an insight into Jonson’s experience, his popularity in the fluctuating socio-cultural landscape of Britain in the aftermath of the Union and also the eventful life of the early modern traveller.

Ben Jonson’s Walk to Scotland: An Annotated Edition of the ‘Foot Voyage’ 

Edited by James Loxley, Anna Groundwater and Julie Sanders


Cambridge University Press, £65,  iSBN 978 1107003333 0, PP256

From this Issue

Flower of Scotland

by Harry McGrath

Closet Correspondent

by Zoë Strachan

A Bridge Too Far

by George Rosie

Northward Ho!

by Patrick J. Murray

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