As a travel writer, Thomas Pennant played a pivotal role in stimulating the birth of tourism in Scotland and Wales in the later 18th century and romantic period. 

Although hardly a household name, the Welsh-born naturalist, writer, and antiquarian is increasingly being credited for pioneering the ‘home tour’ of the British Isles and for ‘discovering’ parts of the country previously unknown to outsiders, inspired by the Pacific travels of his contemporaries Captain Cook and Sir Joseph Banks.

Pennant’s travel books, describing his tours of Scotland in 1769 and 1772, and of Wales between 1778 and 1785, were essential guide-books for tourists who followed in his footsteps. 

As the first extensively illustrated documentation of Scotland and Wales, they outlined the first tourist itineraries, and provided ‘national descriptions’ of the cultural, economic, and environmental condition of both countries.

Now researchers from the University of Glasgow, the University of Wales, Trinity St David and Natural History Museum hope that people today can follow in Pennant’s footsteps with a new digital edition of Pennant’s Tours which will enable them to examine ‘contemporary landscapes’ through the eyes of a 18th century travel writer.

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The tours influenced many contemporary writers like Dr Johnson, James Boswell, Robert Burns, Hester Thrale, Dorothy and William Wordsworth, and Sir Walter Scott, as well as painters like J.M.W. Turner, all of whom travelled in Pennant’s footsteps.

Although reprinted over the years, Pennant’s Tours of Scotland and Wales have never been properly edited. 

Now the research team will provide free, searchable, digital editions of these texts in the second phase of their Curious Travellers project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). 

The tours will be linked to interactive maps as well as contemporary drawings and paintings associated with the tours, many held in the National Library of Wales. 

They will also include an edition of Pennant’s earlier tour of Ireland, which remained unpublished and has never before been printed.

The Herald: Travel writer Thomas Pennant Travel writer Thomas Pennant (Image: Cardiff National Museum)

Speaking on the University of Glasgow’s College of Arts & Humanities ‘Stories from Glasgow’ Podcast, launched this week, the project leaders discussed this exciting second phase of their interdisciplinary Curious Travellers project, now with the additional collaboration of the Natural History Museum, London.

Professor Nigel Leask, Regius Chair of English Language and Literature at the University of Glasgow said: “Pennant tours Scotland twice in 1769 and 1772. He publishes different tours which are related to each other with the second tour of the Hebrides being much more ambitious and extensive.

"On this second tour, he was accompanied by a young Welsh artist, Moses Griffith, as well as by botanists, an ornithologist, and a Gaelic scholar. The artwork published in his Tours was a new sensation for readers in the 18th century.

"The two tour books are published with over 90 engraved plates which creates the first travel book of Scotland to have visual documentation. This is because Pennant believes in the visual image as a means of describing places and natural history objects and specimen.

"Because of Pennant we have this fantastic visual sense of Scotland, it is a kind of multi snapshot of Scotland in 1769 and 1772.”

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Professor Leask added: “The output of the Curious Travellers project is open access, searchable online texts of the tours. Anyone can click onto the tours and hopefully if you are in a place visited by Pennant (say Glasgow, or Bute, or the Isle of Skye) you will be able to get it on your phone, signal permitting, and you will be able to connect to what Pennant said in the 18th century.”

Curious Travellers Principal Investigator, Professor Mary-Ann Constantine, said: “This new second phase of the Curious Travellers we will be working hard on editing the tours. But we also have a lot of events and exhibitions lined up that explore the themes we are interested in including natural history and indeed environmental history looking at the environmental crisis from an 18th century perspective.

“One of the great pleasures of this project, is that everybody can relate to place and most people are interested in travel. People are also very keen to walk parts of Pennant’s itineraries and we would encourage people who take some time to explore Pennant’s tours and landscapes and indeed write to us and let us know about their experiences.

“We are particularly interested in the layering of history – having the experience of walking through a contemporary landscape with an 18th century guide – to see the world through the eyes of what it is like 250 years ago and think about the extraordinary and indeed deeply tragic changes that have occurred since then. It is a measure and speed of the society of which Pennant was on the cusp.”