Sunny Memores of Foreign Lands

Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, first visited Scotland during her European trip of 1853. She wrote about her visit in the First volume of Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands (published in 1854).

She and her party entered Scotland by train on April 13, 1853, passing by Gretna Green. In Sunny Memories, Stowe comments on the famous Gretna Green marriages. As the first town across the Scottish border, it became a popular place in the eighteenth century for English minors to get married under the more liberal Scottish marriage laws. It remains a popular wedding destination today.

Entering Scotland was a big deal for the Beechers and Stowes, who had grown up on the poetry of Robert Burnes and the narrative poems and novels of Sir Walter Scott. The first Scott novel she and her party recalled was Redgauntlet (1824), which takes places during a fictional Jacobite uprising. Someone also quotes from Scott’s poem, “Lochinvar” (1808), which was once commonly memorized by British schoolchildren as a recitation piece. As Harriet writes:

Well, we are in Scotland at last, and now our pulse rises as the sun declines in the west. We catch glimpses of the Solway Frith [sic], and talk about Redgauntlet.

One says, “Do you remember the scene on the sea shore, with which it opens, describing the rising of the tide?”

And says another, “Don’t you remember those lines in the Young Lochinvar song?—

‘Love swells like the Solway, but ebbs like its tide.'”

I wonder how many authors it will take to enchant our country from Maine to New Orleans, as every foot of ground is enchanted here in Scotland.

The sun went down, and night drew on; still we were in Scotland. Scotch ballads, Scotch tunes, and Scotch literature were in the ascendant. We sang “Auld Lang Syne,” “Scots wha ha’,” and “Bonnie Doon,” and then, changing the key, sang Dundee, Elgin, and Martyrs.

“Take care,” said Mr. S.; “don’t get too much excited.”

“Ah,” said I, “this is a thing that comes only once in a lifetime; do let us have the comfort of it. We shall never come into Scotland for the first time again.”

“Ah,” said another, “how I wish Walter Scott was alive!”

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The train stopped in “Lockerby” (Lockerbie), infamous today for the 1988 terrorist bombing, when the wreckage of Pan Am Flight 103 crashed on the town. Keeping with the Walter Scott theme, Stowe notes that Lockerbie is where “the real Old Mortality is buried,” a reference to Scott’s 1816 novel, Old Mortality. The actual burial place of Robert Paterson, the stonemason who maintained Covenanter gravesites and was made famous as “Old Mortality” by Scott, is the Caerlaverock Parish Graveyard, south of Dumfries and not too far from Lockerbie.

Harriet Beecher Stowe

It was also in Lockerbie that for the first time in Scotland that Stowe was greeted by a crowd of people who had come to see the famous and lionized author. Their train soon made its way to Glasgow, as Stowe writes:

As we came towards Glasgow, we saw, upon a high hill, what we supposed to be a castle on fire—great volumes of smoke rolling up, and fire looking out of arched windows.

“Dear me, what a conflagration!” we all exclaimed. We had not gone very far before we saw another, and then, on the opposite side of the car, another still.

“Why, it seems to me the country is all on fire.”

“I should think,” said Mr. S., “if it was in old times, that there had been a raid from the Highlands, and set all the houses on fire.”

“Or they might be beacons,” suggested C.

To this some one answered out of the Lay of the Last Minstrel,—

“Sweet Teviot, by thy silver tide
The glaring bale-fires blaze no more.”

As we drew near to Glasgow these illuminations increased, till the whole air was red with the glare of them.

“What can they be?”

“Dear me,” said Mr. S., in a tone of sudden recollection, “it’s the iron works! Don’t you know Glasgow is celebrated for its iron works?”

So, after all, in these peaceful fires of the iron works, we got an idea how the country might have looked in the old picturesque times, when the Highlanders came down and set the Lowlands on fire; such scenes as are commemorated in the words of Roderick Dhu’s song:—

“Proudly our pibroch, has thrilled in Glen Fruin,
And Banmachar’s groans to our slogan replied;
Glen Luss and Ross Dhu, they are smoking in ruins,
And the best of Loch Lomond lies dead on her side.”

To be sure the fires of iron founderies are much less picturesque than the old beacons, and the clink of hammers than the clash of claymores; but the most devout worshipper of the middle ages would hardly wish to change them.

Dimly, by the flickering light of these furnaces, we see the approach to the old city of Glasgow.

The Lay of the Last Minstrel” is an 1805 narrative poem by Scott and “Roderick Dhu’s song” is a reference to another Scott poem, “The Lady of the Lake” (1810). Roderick Dhu is a Highland chief and the “Song of Clan-Alpine” from the poem begins with the words “Hail to the Chief who in triumph advances!” Lines from this poem were adapted to become the future presidential anthem “Hail to the Chief.” Ironically, “The Lady of the Lake” had an impact on a famous abolitionist leader and also inspired the KKK. Frederick Douglass took his last name from the character Ellen Douglas from the poem, which also depicts the burning of a cross which summons Clan Alpine to rise against King James.