Over the Sea to Skye

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you may remember my last post, in which I mused about which of several settings I should choose for the next book. Perhaps subconsciously influenced by this year’s RITA historical finalists–many of which seem to have involved dukes and Scotland–I did opt to send my duke to the Isle of Skye. In case you were wondering, it’s off the northwest coast of Scotland, very far away from the ballrooms of London:

One of the things I like best about setting my books in the Victorian era is that it is very easy to get my characters from one place to another, compared to the Regency period. Trains criss-crossed the country, allowing people to move with relative ease from London to Glasgow, Perth to Cornwall.

Unfortunately, trains did not get anywhere near Skye until 1897, so the other day I spent hours trying to figure out how my intrepid hero–a city boy who hates to travel–would journey from southern Scotland to Skye. The almighty Google revealed two guidebooks: Black’s Picturesque Tourist of Scotland, Ninth Edition (1851), and Anderson’s Guide to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (1850).

Although it was possible to take a steamer from Glasgow directly to Skye (a fact I discovered only after a day spent mapping the picturesque route, naturally), the guidebooks recommended the following route to Skye (in the summer, of course) for those who wanted to take in the scenery:

Loch Lomond. Photo by Patrick Mackie, via Wikimedia Commons.

Day 1:  Starting in Glasgow, he’ll board a steamer and sail up (down?) the River Clyde to Dumbarton, about 14 miles.  At this point, our traveler has two options: Either a brisk 5 mile walk north to the foot of Loch Lomond, then a steamer across the loch (another 14 miles) to Tarbet. This is followed by a 1.5 mile walk to the west to Arrochar, where an inn rests on the shore of Loch Long. Alternatively, he could board a steamer at Dumbarton and sail up Loch Long directly to Arrochar, a distance of about 25 miles.

Ben Arthur, or The Cobbler. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Day 2: Being a sensible sort, our hero will ask the innkeeper to pack a nice lunch for him (unlike when my friend Helen and I set off up a mountain in Keswick, England last fall, because we were so sure we’d be done well before lunch–we weren’t). He’ll then hike around the base of The Cobbler to Cairndow on Loch Fyne, a distance of 12 miles. From there, he could hop on a ferry across the loch to Inveraray (6-1/2 miles), or walk around the head of the loch (9 miles).

Inveraray Castle. Photo by DeFacto, via Wikimedia Commons.


Our hero will spend the night at an inn in the shadow of Inveraray Castle, the seat of the Duke of Argyle. (Of the castle, Black’s guidebook notes, “in one of the rooms is some very beautiful tapestry, which the old lady who exhibits it, states to have been ‘made by the goblins, wha’ are a’ dead now.'”) On Day 3, our hero will continue his journey overland, perhaps carrying two meals this time and a couple of snacks, for this part of the journey begins with a 9 mile hike across rugged terrain to Cladich on Loch Awe.

Loch Awe. Photo by Chris Heaton, via Wikimedia Commons.

If he is anything like me and Helen, he’ll get lost and it will take six hours rather than three, so he’ll spend the night there. If not, he’ll walk for two hours or so along the banks of the loch to Dalmally and stay there instead.

On Day 4 (or 5), he’ll set out from Dalmally on the hardest part of the journey, a 24-mile walk to Oban. Being a pathetic city-dweller, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d have to stop somewhere along the way–fortunately there is an inn about halfway across in Taynuilt. It sits not far from the base of Ben Cruachan, the highest point in the County of Argyll.

Ben Cruachan. Photo by Grinner, via Wikimedia Commons.





From Oban on Day 6, 7, or possibly 8 (I admit I’ve lost track at this point), he’ll buy some fabulous Oban whisky and then board a steamer which will make its way up the coast, a trip that will take one or two days (possibly three, as getting through Kyle Rhea requires high tide) to Broadford on the Isle of Skye.

Broadford, Skye. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Easy peasy.

Nowadays, of course, you can travel by train nearly the entire way, then cross a bridge or hop on a ferry over the sea to Skye. I just might be inclined, however, to try to retrace the journey undertaken by thousands of adventurous Victorian tourists on my next trip across the Pond. Perhaps Helen would come with me, if I remember to bring snacks. And a good map. 🙂

Since I have mentioned my hike with Helen, I thought I’d share a couple of photos. I look far more exhausted, but in my defense I should like to point out that my picture was taken just after we hauled our middle-aged butts to the top of Walla Crag, while Helen’s was ever so kindly taken as we made our way down the other side.



Summer Vacation, Victorian-Style, AND Two Giveaways!

We’re starting our weekend early at the blog today, just because–it’s summer! I always think of summer as a lazy, quiet time, with long evenings spent on the patio with a glass of wine, vacations in locales exotic, familiar, and somewhere in between, and schlepping the kid to day camp. Naturally, his favorite camp is a 25 minute drive.

I tend to think of Victorian era summers as similarly lazy and quiet, although I have no idea if they truly were. I’ve written before how affordable train travel revolutionized the way middle-class Victorians spent their leisure time, and summer was a popular time to take that vacation they’d saved for all year. Victorians traveled a lot, including women on their own, and their travels took them not just to the Continent, but to the Middle East, Asia, India, Australia, and America.

Brighton, Frederick William Woledge. 1840.

But for those less adventurous souls, a trip to the seaside was just the thing. For those who wished to stay fairly close to London, Brighton was only fifty miles away, easily accessible by train. Sometimes called “London-by-the-Sea,” Brighton was a mini-London without the smog. Bradshaw in his 1863 Railway Handbook writes of the traveler’s first view of Brighton from the train station: The twang of saltiness that greets the lip, and the freshening invigorating tone of the breeze, are agreeable proofs, on your first entrance, of the bracing bleak atmosphere that characterises the climate, though in various portions of the town, more shelter, the air will be found adapted to the exigencies of the most delicate invalid. The panoramic view that first bursts upon the eye is so striking of itself, that it may be worth while glancing at it in detail, for the benefit of the visitor’s future peregrinations.

Brighton, from the Pier, ca 1890. Source: Photochrom Print Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

He also notes,

Bathing establishments, too, are almost as numerous [as accommodations], whilst, for amusements, there is no provincial town in the kingdom that can offer such a variety of assembly and concert-rooms, libraries, bazaars, and other expedients for slaughtering our common enemy–Time.

The more things change…

Blackpool Promenade, 1898




Brighton, of course, wasn’t the only seaside destination. For those in the North, a popular resort was Blackpool, on the northwest coast. When the cotton mills in Lancashire closed for a week every  summer, the town was inundated with factory workers seeking a respite from their usual lives.

Southend Pier, date unknown. By Snapshots Of The Past (Wikimedia Commons).



On the east coast, holidaymakers sought their summer break in Southend-on-Sea, situated at the mouth of the Thames in Essex, famous for its pleasure pier and miles of sandy beaches. Currently the longest pleasure pier in the world at over a mile long, in 1848 it was the longest pier in Europe at 7,000 feet long. Our friend Mr. Bradshaw notes of Southend in 1863, “The company that assemble here in the season will be found more select than at Margate, but it suffers severely in its climate when an easterly wind prevails…[Its pier] forms besides a pleasant promenade for those who love to enjoy the salubrity of the sea-breeze…”


Woman in bathing suit, 1893.

There were countless other resorts dotting the English coast–Margate, Ramsgate, Tynemouth, Dover, etc.–and at most of them you could find the ubiquitous bathing machine. These cabanas on wheels would be pushed out in the water, where bathers could descend into the sea, modesty intact, via a set of stairs.

Many of these resorts remain popular today–minus the bathing machines.

What’s your favorite summer vacation spot? If you comment below, you’ll be entered in a drawing to win a $10 Amazon gift card OR an autographed copy of one of my books, your choice. (I will use a random name generator to pull the name of a commenter on July 31, when the Summer Blog Hop has concluded!)

And now that you’ve finished taking the seaside air with me, click here to visit my fellow Wild Rose authors on their summer blogs. Each blog offers another glimpse at summer–and possibly another giveaway–so be sure to check them all out. You can also enter to win a Kindle Fire from Wild Rose Press using the Rafflecopter below. Thanks for visiting and happy Summer!!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Bradshaw’s Descriptive Railway Hand-Book of Great Britain and Ireland (1863).

Writing History: Trains

A week or two ago, I spent the better part of an afternoon attempting to find out what time a particular train left King’s Cross in 1866, and how much it cost to ride said train to Durham. I did find out–sort of–and added two sentences to my novel. So in honor of this tremendous accomplishment, I thought I’d focus on trains today.

I never thought all that much about trains. Growing up in Cleveland I never rode one; the Amtrak train passing through our fair city only stops here once in each direction, quite literally in the middle of the night, making it a rather inconvenient mode of travel. I did ride the rails when I was in Europe and when I lived on the East Coast, and my son was completely obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine when he was younger (a fascination I credit, in part, for his impressive vocabulary and his Ringo Starr-ish pronunciation of certain words). This, however, is the extent of my experience with trains. Nevertheless, they are one of the many reasons I set my novels in the Victorian period.

Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway J. M. W. Turner, 1844

The Victorian era saw the start of the great age of the railway in England–and just about everywhere else. The railway changed everything. More people than ever began to move. A journey that took a week in a carriage could be done in a day. Food traveled more quickly, allowing for a greater variety in diet. The middle class expanded as new industries were built, and Victoria’s empire grew ever larger.

Trains were not without opposition, of course, as change never is. Tracks cut through ancestral lands, scarring the landscape and destroying valuable farmland. Towns that had grown prosperous serving on carriage routes were left empty when the trains went through other villages. There is an interesting article comparing modern railway opposition to that of over a century before; the more things change, the more they stay the same.

But railways were wondrous as well. Jack Simmons, in his 1991 book The Victorian Railway, quotes the letter of a Wiltshire clergyman, who in 1841 took his parish clerk to watch the passage of one of the first trains along the Great Western main line: “The novelty of the sight, the strangeness of the sounds, the marvellous velocity with which engine, tender, carriages, and trucks disappeared, the dense columns of sulphurous smoke, were altogether too much for the reason of my simple dominie, and he fell prostrate on the bank-side as if he had been smitten by a thunderbolt! When he had recovered his feet, his brain still reeled, his tongue clove to the roof of his mouth, and he stood aghast, unutterable amazement stamped upon his face. It must have been quite five minutes before he could speak, and when he did it was in the tone of a Jeremiah. ‘Well, Sir, that was a sight to have seen; but one I never care to see again! How much longer shall knowledge be allowed to go on increasing?'” [Simmons, The Victorian Railway, pp. 15-16.]

The railway blurred societal boundaries more than ever before, forcing the societal elite to mingle with the lower echelons, but it was also the railway that gave us the more concrete distinctions between classes–first, second, and third.

The Railway Station, William Powell Frith, 1860

Railway accidents were not uncommon, although as with air vs. car travel today, the likelihood of death or injury when traveling by train was less than than that for coach travel. Charles Dickens was in the Staplehurst rail crash of June 1865, in which ten people died. He wrote a rather harrowing account of the aftermath in a letter to a friend. It was only after he had helped to rescue passengers and aid the wounded that he returned to the train for his manuscript, Our Mutual Friend.

Dickens was by turns fascinated, frightened, and disgusted by railways, and he featured them in his writing more than any other Victorian era writer. In a short story entitled “Mugby Junction,” written in 1866 after an experience at the railway station in Rugby, he wrote,

A place replete with shadowy shapes, this Mugby Junction in the black hours of the four-and-twenty.  Mysterious goods trains, covered with palls and gliding on like vast weird funerals, conveying themselves guiltily away from the presence of the few lighted lamps, as if their freight had come to a secret and unlawful end.  Half miles of coal pursuing in a Detective manner, following when they lead, stopping when they stop, backing when they back.  Red hot embers showering out upon the ground, down this dark avenue, and down the other, as if torturing fires were being raked clear; concurrently, shrieks and groans and grinds invading the ear, as if the tortured were at the height of their suffering.  Iron-barred cages full of cattle jangling by midway, the drooping beasts with horns entangled, eyes frozen with terror, and mouths too: at least they have long icicles (or what seem so) hanging from their lips.  Unknown languages in the air, conspiring in red, green, and white characters.  An earthquake accompanied with thunder and lightning, going up express to London.

Now, all quiet, all rusty, wind and rain in possession, lamps extinguished, Mugby Junction dead and indistinct, with its robe drawn over its head, like Cæsar.  Now, too, as the belated traveller plodded up and down, a shadowy train went by him in the gloom which was no other than the train of a life.  From whatsoever intangible deep cutting or dark tunnel it emerged, here it came, unsummoned and unannounced, stealing upon him and passing away into obscurity.  Here, mournfully went by, a child who had never had a childhood or known a parent, inseparable from a youth with a bitter sense of his namelessness, coupled to a man the enforced business of whose best years had been distasteful and oppressive, linked to an ungrateful friend, dragging after him a woman once beloved.  Attendant, with many a clank and wrench, were lumbering cares, dark meditations, huge dim disappointments, monotonous years, a long jarring line of the discords of a solitary and unhappy existence.

And because I am apparently in a literary mood today, I give you a contrasting view, that of Thomas Hardy in his poem “The Waiting Room,” written perhaps 50 years later:

On a morning sick as the day of doom
With the drizzling gray
Of an English May,
There were few in the railway waiting-room.
About its walls were framed and varnished
Pictures of liners, fly-blown, tarnished.
The table bore a Testament
For travellers' reading, if suchwise bent.

I read it on and on,
And, thronging the Gospel of Saint John,
Were figures--additions, multiplications -
By some one scrawled, with sundry emendations;
Not scoffingly designed,
But with an absent mind, -
Plainly a bagman's counts of cost,
What he had profited, what lost;
And whilst I wondered if there could have been
Any particle of a soul
In that poor man at all,

To cypher rates of wage
Upon that printed page,
There joined in the charmless scene
And stood over me and the scribbled book
(To lend the hour's mean hue
A smear of tragedy too)
A soldier and wife, with haggard look
Subdued to stone by strong endeavour;
And then I heard
From a casual word
They were parting as they believed for ever.

But next there came
Like the eastern flame
Of some high altar, children--a pair -
Who laughed at the fly-blown pictures there.
"Here are the lovely ships that we,
Mother, are by and by going to see!
When we get there it's 'most sure to be fine,
And the band will play, and the sun will shine!"

It rained on the skylight with a din
As we waited and still no train came in;
But the words of the child in the squalid room
Had spread a glory through the gloom.

Googling “railway history” will give you 150 million results, so here are just a few of the better ones:
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_rail_transport#Britain
The Railways Archive: http://www.railwaysarchive.co.uk/
National Railway Museum: http://www.nrm.org.uk/

Also check out Great British Railway Journeys, a BBC TV series which uses the 1863 Bradshaw’s Handbook to explore Britain, comparing and contrasting modern times with the Victorian features described in the book. You can find many of the episodes on YouTube. Bradshaw’s Handbook is available from Amazon, but consider buying a magnifying glass at the same time–the print is tiny!

If you can find it, do read (okay, skim–it’s over 375 pages) The Victorian Railway for a fascinating overview of the impact on railways in Victorian society.

If you’ve read this far, thanks. I got a bit carried away. . . 


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