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.



A Victorian Era Time Capsule

Two weeks ago my family and I wandered westward for a family reunion and to visit some of my husband’s childhood haunts. On the way there my husband suddenly turned off the road into the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge. Turns out he spent many happy hours exploring there when he was a kid, and when he saw the entrance he impulsively decided to stop to see how it had changed in the last 40 years.

The Missouri River

It was a fortuitous detour, at least for this history geek, because on the land owned by the Refuge, the wreck of a steamboat rested in the mud for 100 years.

On March 18, 1865, the Steamboat Bertrand set off down (up?) the Missouri River from St. Louis, Missouri for the newly discovered gold fields in Fort Benton, Montana Territory. It carried 250,000 pounds of cargo as well as many passengers.

On April 1, 1865, the ship hit a submerged log on the treacherous Desoto Bend of the Missouri River, about 25 miles upstream from Omaha, Nebraska, ripping a hole in the ship’s hull bottom. It sank in 12 feet of water in under ten minutes. Although all the passengers were saved, almost all of its cargo was lost. The Bertrand joined over 400 boats that sank on the Missouri during the steamboat era.

The ship sank into the mud and stayed there until 1967, when the search for the wreck began, spurred on in part by the fact that the Bertrand was reputed to be carrying 30,000 pounds of mercury, which was to be used in mining operations in Montana. The excavation was completed in 1969, and all artifacts were turned over to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Crate filled with indigo

Most of the cargo was held in crates, barrels, and burlap sacks, which were almost immediately covered with thick clay, thus preserving it. When the wreck was discovered the cargo was in nearly the same pristine condition it had been when the vessel sank a century before. For a writer whose time period is the 1860s, it was a treasure trove indeed.

There is SO MUCH stuff they don’t have all of it on display, but there is enough to give you an excellent idea of what people wore, what kinds of things they used for cooking, working, playing, and relaxing. Some of my favorites are posted below. I apologize for the picture quality–all I had was my phone, and I had to be quick because the battery was dying. . .

This shows how the Missouri River has moved since the sinking. 
A passenger’s account of the sinking. 
A silk overcoat belonging to Annie or Fannie Campbell
Lice combs, as well as combs made of rubber.

Bottles of French champagne and brandied cherries. 

Ironstone pottery from England and glassware.
The second shelf holds tins of powdered yeast.

From top left, counter clockwise: Yeast powder, nuts,
lemonade cans and flavoring, and what look like gold bars but aren’t. . . 

Candle holders, a griddle that looks very like the one I have,
irons, fireplace tools, and salt cellars. 

The top shelf holds a lady’s shawl, and the bottom holds men’s ties.
I think. I neglected to photograph the identifying card.
Socks and boots.

Sorry, this pic is particularly bad, but it
explains the munitions that were found.

There’s an interesting article, with photos from the excavation, at http://www.nebraskahistory.org/publish/publicat/history/full-text/NH1970Bertrand.pdf.
The Bertrand collection also has a Facebook page, at https://www.facebook.com/SteamboatBertrandMuseam, with way better photos than the ones I took, including pictures of items not on regular display.

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