The World in Print: Borrowings of Voyages and Travels

Engraving of Fingal’s Cave on Staffa, from Pennant’s Tour in Scotland 1772. Original drawing by James Miller.

Voyages and travels were among the most borrowed books from Scottish libraries in the eighteenth century and Romantic era. Travel narratives and works of geographical description could encompass an almost limitless range of subjects, reflecting a period that was characterised by colonisation and war, as well as a burgeoning interest in natural history, antiquity, and aesthetics. Travel books offered the chance to explore the world (or even the local area) without going further than the library—a form of tourism we’ve all become very familiar with in 2020!

The Voyages of James Cook and African Travels of Mungo Park frequently appear in Mark Towsey’s lists of the books most borrowed from Scottish libraries in this period.[1] But borrowers were also interested in places much closer to home. Jill Dye has shown that the Welsh traveller Thomas Pennant’s Tours of Scotland made up the fourth most borrowed holding at Innerpeffray library between 1747-1855.[2] There’s a nice connection here, in that Pennant mentions the library during his Tour in Scotland 1772, where he briefly describes it as ‘a good room, with a library, for the use of the neighbourhood, founded by David Lord Madderty, which still receives new supplies of books.’[3] As well as catering to the Innerpeffray borrowers’ general partiality for works about Scotland, Dye suggests that the popularity of Pennant’s Tours may have been due to its large number of copper plates.[4] As an illustrated quarto, Pennant’s works were normally more at home in the libraries of landed gentlemen, and far out of reach for the vast majority of eighteenth-century readers. It’s a strong example of the way in which library borrowing could widen the accessibility of expensive books.

African explorer Mungo Park (1771-1806)

Of course, the appetite for travel literature extended beyond Innerpeffray. The borrowing records of Selkirk and Westerkirk, two libraries in the Scottish Borders, also show the popularity of voyages and travels. This partly reflected a boom in domestic tourism in the later eighteenth century, as sublime sightseeing in Wales, the Lake District or the Scottish Highlands became an accessible and increasingly fashionable alternative to the Alpine scenery of the aristocratic ‘Grand Tour’ of the continent .

In the early 1810s, Westerkirk’s  borrowers were very keen on William Mavor’s The British Tourists; or Traveller’s Pocket Companion (1798-1800). In his introduction, Mavor summarises the shift in attitude towards home tourism that had taken place in the late-eighteenth century, rejoicing that ‘we have, of late years, seen some of our most enlightened countrymen, as eager to explore the remotes parts of Britain, as they formerly were to cross the Channel, and to pass the Alps.’[5]

Mavor’s work is an anthology which abridges the travel narratives of several popular authors, raising some interesting questions about reception, and how writers were actually encountered by broader readerships. The first volume­ of British Tourists—Westerkirk’s favourite according to the data so far—happens to be entirely taken-up by the aforementioned Scottish tours of Thomas Pennant. This overlap with the borrowings at Innerpeffray isn’t obvious from book titles alone. Although the title of Mavor’s Traveller’s Pocket Companion pitches it as a guidebook for tourists on the road, its popularity at Westerkirk suggests that it was also commonly used as a more general source of information about the geography of Scotland and Britain.

Map of London from Mavor’s British Tourists. Courtesy of British Library.

Representing a very different type of exploration, and popular at both Westerkirk and Selkirk, were the West-African Travels of Mungo Park.[6] Although best-selling in their own right, Park’s Travels may have had extra appeal to readers in the Scottish Borders, where he was born and educated—in fact, his brothers were members of the Selkirk Subscription Library.[7] Paradoxically, local and personal connections may have played a role in the popularity of foreign travel accounts, borrowings of which reveal more than a simple taste for the exotic.

[1] See Mark Towsey, Reading the Scottish Enlightenment: Books and Their Readers in Provincial Scotland, 1750-1820 (Leiden: Brill, 2010).

[2] Jill Dye, Books and their Borrowers at the Library of Innerpeffray c. 1680–1855 (Doctoral Thesis, University of Stirling, 2018), p.135.

[3] Thomas Pennant, A tour in Scotland 1772, part II (London: 1776), p.90.

[4] Dye, p.136.

[5] William Mavor, The British Tourists; or, Traveller’s Pocket Companion through England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Comprehending the most celebrated tours in the British Islands, 5 vols (London:1798-1800) I, vi.

[6] Towsey, p.71.

[7] See T. Craig Brown, ‘Selkirk Subscription Library’, in Southern Reporter, 23 May 1901, and Scottish Borders Archives and Local History Centre S/PL/7/1 and 2, Selkirk Subscription Library Registers, 1799-1808 and Daybook, 1808-1814.