By Nigel Leask

Before the great Covid upheaval it was estimated that the number of tourists visiting Scottish sites featured in the TV series Outlander had risen by 67% since 2013, from 887,000 to a staggering 1.5 million in 2019. Based on the best-selling novels by Diana Gabaldon, scenes were filmed at locations across Scotland, including Doune Castle (also a location for Game of Thrones), Blackness and Drumlanrig Castles, Newtonmore and Glen Coe in the Highlands. Gabaldon received an International Contribution to Scottish Tourism award at the Scottish Thistle awards, while VisitScotland published a paper describing the soaring numbers of Outlander “set-jetters”.

The new tourist boom wasn't all due to Outlander (or Game of Thrones or Harry Potter – let's not forget the Glenfinnan viaduct). Lonely Planet's Best Travel 2019 ranked the Highlands and Islands “fifth in the world”, describing the region as “one of the wildest, least inhabited, and most scenic parts of Europe”, a judgement wrapped in ironies for students of Highland history. In 2015 the launch of the North Coast 500 route saw the opening up of the northern Highlands to mass tourism, bringing economic benefits but also problems for residents, as single-track roads became jammed with campervans and tour buses. Visitor numbers to the Fairy Pools on the Isle of Skye doubled between 2015 and 2019: islanders complained of congested roads, as well as litter and human waste dumped on roadsides, partly due to lack of toilet facilities. It was reported that the proliferation of Airbnb and rental cottages caused a hike in property prices, squeezing out locals.

While the pandemic (and Brexit) have put the brakes on international tourism, the easing of lockdown restrictions in the summer of 2020 saw Scots from the Central Belt fleeing from months of urban confinement to beauty spots in the southern Highlands, while English tourists poured across the Border for Scottish “staycations”. In June 2020 police had to close congested B-roads on Loch Lomond and Callander, while double yellow lines were painted on roads in the Trossachs and elsewhere to prevent parking on the verges.

Yet this influx of visitors clogging up the Scottish roads infrastructure is not a modern day phenomenon as can be seen in Old Ways New Roads: Travels in Scotland 1720-1832, a book I co-edited with John Bonehill and Anne Dulau Beveridge. The book accompanies a virtual exhibition hosted by The Hunterian at the University of Glasgow which opens later this spring, with a programme of public events and talks.

Our title refers to a “tourist paradox” whereby access to Scotland's “old ways” was only made possible by the 18th-century infrastructure of “new roads”, many constructed by the military to contain the Jacobite threat. Before then, intractable terrain, especially in the Highlands, had made many areas inaccessible and frustrated the movement of troops and supplies. The Welsh traveller Thomas Pennant claimed that Scotland had been previously “as little known to its southern brethren as Kamtschatka”: but once his own tours in 1769 and 1772 proved the country “might be visited with safety ... it has ever since been [inundated] with southern visitors”.

Pennant was the first to describe tourists following two main itineraries, the “long tour” from Edinburgh to Inverness and down the Great Glen to Fort William, Skye and Mull, or else the “petit tour”, a fortnight circuit of the military roads through Perthshire and Argyll in a horse chaise. Highlights of the latter were the scenic, landscaped Breadalbane, Atholl and Argyll estates.

As early as 1759, Lord Breadalbane noticed that “all the world is travelling to Scotland”, and like other landowners weary of putting up fashionable visitors armed with letters of introduction, he opened an inn in the village of Kenmore as a base for visiting local attractions, such as the picturesque “Hermitage” he had constructed overlooking nearby Acharn Falls.

However the improvement of Highland roads and inns was only relative: in 1817, an anonymous English tourist anticipated today’s Tripadvisor phenomenon by complaining in his travel journal that Kenmore Inn was “dirty cold and damp and beds hard and uncomfortable”, and that his party had arrived too late to view the scenery thanks to “the bad state of the roads”. Off the beaten track, it was even worse – in 1818, the English Romantic poet John Keats had to live off eggs and whisky, sleeping in damp shepherds' bothies, on his walking tour along Loch Awe and across Mull to Iona and Staffa.

The closure of Europe during the war years of 1793-1815, and the rise of a new British middle class, did much to stimulate “domestic” tourism in the Romantic period: intrepid women now joined men in exploring remoter parts of the country, keeping journals and sketchbooks, while celebrated artists like Turner and Alexander Nasmyth were among the many portraying its scenic splendours. (Old Ways New Roads presents over 200 colour images by these and other artists, many of them never seen before in print.)

Nonetheless, anticipating the age of Outlander, the Scottish tour was a profoundly literary phenomenon, as tourists sought out the settings of Scottish poet James Macpherson's Ossian, the poems and songs of Robert Burns, or the romances of Sir Walter Scott. Landowners capitalised on such literary landscapes: in the early 1780s, the Duke of Atholl rebranded his Dunkeld Hermitage (overlooking the picturesque Black Linn Falls) as “Ossian's Hall”, and from his base on Ulva, Ranald Macdonald Steuart-Seton, “the Laird of Staffa”, supplemented his rentals by managing tourist access to Fingal's Cave, the “jewel in the crown” of the Highland tour. John Keats couldn't afford to take a boat from Oban to Staffa because the going price was an astronomical seven guineas. “Tis like paying 6d for an apple at the playhouse,” he complained.

Nowhere attracted tourists quite like the Trossachs, relatively accessible from Glasgow and Stirling. This was largely Scott's doing, having chosen the Trossachs as a setting for his 1810 poem The Lady of the Lake.

Scott himself first visited as a tourist, plundering the guidebooks consulted by his friends Dorothy and William Wordsworth (who had recommended the Trossachs to him after their own visit in 1803) in the poem's notes. It sold 30,000 copies in the first year of publication, and, like Scott's later poems and novels, was rapidly adapted for popular theatre, opera, panoramic displays and even wallpaper designs. Seldom read today, the poem features a romance between the stag-hunter “Fitz-James” (King James V in disguise) and the exiled Ellen Douglas (the “Lady of the Lake”), who dwelt on a romantic island still known as Ellen's Isle on Loch Katrine.

Scott gave a new resonance to Highland landscape in describing his hero's view from the Trossachs: “Loch Katrine lay beneath him roll'd; / In all her length far winding lay;/ With promontory, creek and bay, / And islands that, empurpled bright, /Floated amid the livelier light ...”

Just like Outlander “set-jetters” today, Scott's fans quickly made the Trossachs one of the most popular tourist sites in Europe. One female tourist estimated that more than 500 carriages had reached this “far-famed spot” in the summer of 1810: no doubt many were parking on the verges. In 1818 an angry Loch Lomond boatman was heard complaining that “ever since [Scott] wrote The Lady of the Lake ... everybody goes to that filthy hole Loch Catrine, than comes round by Luss, and I have only had two gentlemen to guide this blessed season ... The devil confound his ladies and his lakes, say I!”

An enterprising local farmer converted his dwelling into overnight accommodation for tourists, known as Ardcheanochrochan Inn: it was rebuilt in 1849 as the baronial Trossachs Hotel by Lord Willoughby d'Eresby. Poet laureate Robert Southey, visiting in 1819 with Thomas Telford, snidely observed that “if the owner of the house has a proper sense of his obligations, he will set up the sign of Walter Scott's head”. But just five years later, the geologist John Macculloch complained that tourism was destroying Highland romance: “the mystic portal has been thrown open, and the mob has rushed in, dispersing all these fairy visions ... barouches and gigs, cocknies and fishermen and poets, Glasgow weavers and travelling haberdashers, now swarm in every resting place”.

Scott's literary fame may have dipped, but his recently refurbished Abbotsford House in Melrose still makes a substantial contribution to Scottish tourism, although not on the scale of the National Trust for Scotland's Robert Burns Birthplace Museum at Alloway, Ayrshire: a 2019 Government-commissioned report calculated Burns's annual value to the Scottish economy as around £203 million, with an additional “brand value” at around £139 million.

“Set-jetting” has greatly boosted these traditional literary attractions, with overall tourist spending for 2017 estimated at a staggering £2.3 billion. Old Ways New Roads demonstrates that the appeal of premier tourist sites like the Trossachs had as much to do with investment by canny landowners and local residents as with poetic genius. There's a lesson here for Scottish tourism in the era of “staycations” and Outlander. Namely, the need for more investment in roads, parking and toilet facilities; as well as accommodation and hospitality that create jobs in the underpopulated Highlands, without depriving locals of affordable homes, not to mention peace of mind.

Nigel Leask is Regius Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Glasgow and an expert on Romanticism, empire and travel writing

Old Ways and New Roads: Travels in Scotland 1720-1832, edited by John Bonehill, Anne Dulau Beveridge, and Nigel Leask is published by Birlinn, £20, and available from the publishers or

It's linked to an upcoming online exhibition at the Hunterian museum, Glasgow