George Borrow’s Tour of Galloway and the Borders in 1866

“George Borrow’s Tour of Galloway and the Borders 1866”
Edited by Angus Fraser
A Review

The late Sir Angus Fraser devoted much of his life to the careful study of the writer George Borrow, seeking out new sources of information and dismissing many of the myths that had grown up about this much-neglected author since his death in 1881. Borrow had a great moment of fame after his book “The Bible in Spain” became a bestseller, before his star went into its first decline. His autobiographical novels, “Lavengro” and “The Romany Rye” didn’t acquire the popularity of his earlier work until after their author was dead. And then there was a kind of Borrovian renaissance, fuelled no doubt by the desire of so many to explore the British countryside on foot by generations of literary ramblers. This second flowering of Borrow’s reputation lasted roughly until around the 1950s. Since then George Borrow has been neglected again.

Borrow wrote a really great walking book based on his travels, “Wild Wales”. Still to many readers the greatest book about exploring the Principality. But he undertook several other walking tours, and his notebooks suggest that he intended to write these up as similar volumes – sadly, he never did.

But many of his notebooks remain and they give a very good indication of just how he made notes about his various expeditions. Even if you are not a dedicated Borrovian, these are quite fascinating.

Sir Angus Fraser’s examination of the notebooks relating to Borrow’s tour of Galloway and the Scottish Borders, is now available in a splendid and lavishly illustrated limited edition of just 100 copies from The Lavengro Press, with a foreword by Dr Ann M. Ridler. It is sad that Borrow never had the will to create a book based on his travels north of the border. It would have made a significant contribution to Scottish topographical literature – and a waspish one too, for Borrow was not uncritical of some elements of Scottish life and learning. Only Borrow could admire and loathe Sir Walter Scott at the same time! At a time when the Victorians were embracing the cult of Balmorality and all the delights of Scotland – following the example of the Queen, and the huge late popularity of Sir Walter Scott’s romances – Borrow was looking at the same land with a much more jaundiced eye.

Borrow arrived in the Borders on the boat from Belfast to Stranraer. He wandered on through Newton Stewart, Castle Douglas and Dumfries. Then by a circuitous route to Kirk Yetholm, and then into the heart of Scott country, Melrose, Hawick and Abbotsford. On then to Kelso before making for Edinburgh.

The notebook entries reproduced here are quite fascinating. Not just snapshots of Scottish places and their history, but the people encountered. And Borrow is at his very best when describing locals and other travellers. For example, in the inn at Morebattle, he relates that there was ‘strange company’ – “old man master of the House – His sister 85 years of age – the maid – commercial traveller, in the grocery line – the man from (one undeciphered word) all drunk with the exception of the maid…” What grist to any writer’s mill!

Near to Lochmaben: “Evening – the fountain by the lake, the two boys – discourse – 9 lakes in all (?) Gypsies and tinkers occasionally came – worked and then got drunk and fought, a band had been there a week before, and one tried to choke a woman and broke a policeman’s shins; Vandies – a peculiar kind of fish caught in Lochmaben – a club of gentlemen meet every Tuesday during the season to catch them.”

Borrow had a great interest in Gypsies and other travellers, so he included Kirk Yetholm in his itinerary, where dwelt the Gypsy Queen. Being Borrow he tried to catch her out on her knowledge of Romanes. This entertaining encounter did find a place in a chapter on Kirk Yetholm in Borrow’s Gypsy word book “Romano Lavo-Lil”. It is reproduced in this volume.

Borrow was not just a reactive observer on his countryside travels. He very often throws out disputatious comments and often gets back as good as he gives. It was his nature to be challenging if not downright argumentative.

To read Borrow is always entertaining, and there are some quite wonderful encounters in this book. It is in so many ways a tragedy that these brief excerpts of a journey were not worked up into a book on the scale of “Wild Wales”. For in these pencilled notebooks we have the foundations of what might have been a considerable work of travel literature. This reprint comes with some excellent appendices, featuring Borrow’s correspondence relating to his travels, much on Borrow and Gypsies, notes on his earlier Scottish tour, Borrow on Robert Burns, and Borrow in Belfast. An admirable collection not just for the ardent Borrovian, but for anyone interested in Scottish travel and topography.

You can order the limited edition paperback for just £11.50 including postage and packing, or a PDF version for £3, from The Lavengro Press. Look at their website at: http://www.lavengropress.co.uk

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