3350. Robert Southey to John May, 13 September 1819

3350. Robert Southey to John May, 13 September 1819⁠* 

Inverness. 13 Sept. 1819

My dear friend

For the first time since the commencement of my northern expedition, [1]  I see leisure time enough before me to inform you at fair sheets-length of my proceedings. I left home on this day month at six in the morning, took the Glasgow Mail from Penrith to Carlisle, & the Edinburgh one from Carlisle, which deposited me safely in Edinburgh at an early hour the next morning. There I joined Rickman, having with him Mrs R. their two youngest children (a boy & girl of 7 & 8 years of age) & a young Lady, [2]  & there at noon on the same day Mr Telford [3]  joined us <from Glasgow> so that the whole party was assembled. His business delayed us in Edinburgh till Friday. The three days were well employed in seeing the most remarkable things in that fine city. [4]  I breakfasted one morning with Mrs Grantx <who is> quite as pleasing a woman as you would judge from her Letters. [5] Xxxx I saw a good deal of Dr Hope, whose brother [6]  is much connected with Rickman & Telford in the management of the Highland Roads & Bridges. And hunting the booksellers shops I had the good fortune to find two books relating to Brazil, of which I had long been in quest. [7]  On Friday we set out with a coach & four horses, hired at Edinburgh for the whole journey. That day we went by Linlithgow & Stirling to Callander. The next day was given to Loch Kattern, [8]  one end of which exceeds any thing of that kind which I have ever seen. But the rivers rather than the Lakes appear to be the glory of Scotland: in general there is a coldness & dreariness about the Lake scenery, very different from the habitable & inviting character which they wear with us. Our course was then by the head of Loch Earn to Killin at the head of Loch Tay. Taymouth at the end of that Lake, Dunkeld, Perth, Dundee & so along the coast to Aberdeen. Then across the country to Banff & along the coast again to Elgin. From Elgin we went a days journey inland to Grantown, & back to the coast at Forres the next day, entering the town at one end while Prince Leopold [9]  entered at the other, & the <a> “royal salute” in his honour was firing from – one gun, & two bells ringing as fast as the men could pull the ropes. Thence to Inverness – Dingwall (turning aside to see the fine scenery on the Beauly river). Tain – & along the coast as far as Fleet mound – one of Telfords great works – 990 yards in length, across an estuary. [10]  This was the northern limit of our journey – We returned to Dingwall, sent the Ladies & children to wait for us at Inverness, & crost the island by one of the new roads to Jeantown on the Western sea – Our chaise was the first carriage which had ever arrived at Strome ferry, – the new boat was not ready to carry it across, & we we were therefore obliged to return by the same route, instead of crossing over to the Glen Morriston road. – This has been our course up to the present time. On Wednesday we set off for Fort Augustus – business will detain my companions about two days there & about three at Fort William, & then we work our way to Glasgow & Keswick. [11] 

Telford as you probably know is the Engineer under whose direction the Caledonian Canal, & the Highland Roads & Bridges are making, & Rickman is Secretary to the Committee for both, – being in fact the person upon whom the whole parliamentary business of these great concerns has fallen. This is Telfords annual journey of inspection. & I have thus enjoyed the best possible opportunity of seeing in their progress & in a state very nearly approaching to completion, some of the greatest works which were ever undertaken by any Government for the improvement of its dominions, – not less than 1000 miles of the finest roads in the world thro countries which were before almost impassable, – 1500 bridges, – & harbours created or improved along the whole coast. The details of all this you will see in my Journal, – which is as minute as usual, & which I will put in my portmanteau for your perusal when I go to London in the winter. To day we have been examining this end of the Canal, – which is already in use.

The only unpleasant circumstance which has occurred upon the journey is likely soon to terminate well. A tumour on my head which had been inactive there for seven or eight years, became troublesome the day I left Edinburgh & suppurated on the third day. I had by good fortune some friends at Perth, where the head of the family was a physician [12]  – he told me how to proceed – Telford has dressed the wound for me morning & night, – it was shown to a surgeon at Aberdeen, [13]  & to another here, [14]  – this last has repaired all that was going on amiss, the tumour has now almost disappeared, & probably by the time I reach home the wound will have healed. It gives me no pain, – & little inconvenience, – except that I have not been able, till last night, to lie on my right side. – Telford is a man to whom I should delight to introduce to you, – for never did I fall in with a kinder-hearted creature. He will leave <behind> him works which when we look both at magnitude & utility may fairly be said to be unequalled, – this Canal – (the greatest in the world) – the aqueduct at Ponty Sylty, which carries the canal over the river Dee, – & the Menai Bridge. [15] 

You have here a brief history of my proceedings & adventures, – except that xx I must tell you that I have been made an honorary member of the Literary Society of – Banff, [16]  – & that T. & I were kept awake till two o clock one night by a cause which it would puzzle any person to guess. – The Free masons of Nairn had gone out that day [MS missing] procession to meet Prince Leopold. [17]  Two men of the town smitten by the pomp & glorious circumstance of that procession applied for admission into the mysterious society: a Lodge was forthwith convened, [MS missing] noises which we heard proceeded from an apartment over our heads, in which those poor miserable aspirants were undergoing the tremendous process of initiation.

Yesterday I had letters from home, telling me that all were well. In little more than a fortnight, – certainly I think in less than three weeks, I hope to be at Keswick – settled again to my usual occupations, & the better for this general shaking up.

– There should be a paper of mine in the QR upon the French Catacombs, – with some odd things in it, & some curious ones. [18]  And there might have been a more important one upon the Monastic Orders, [19]  – written with a view to Lady Isabella Kings establishment near Bath. [20]  – Ere this I hope you have received my third volume, – for surely it must be published by this time. [21]  The greatest pleasure which I feel as an author, is when I cut open the leaves of one of my own books for the first time, – & this pleasure I shall have on my return home. Then I shall speedily go to press with the Peninsular War. [22] 

Remember me to Mrs May, & your daughters, – there are no two faces of which I have a more clear & vivid recollection than of theirs. [23]  I shall hope to see Johnny [24]  in the winter. – Remember me also to John Coleridge

God bless you my dear friend

Yrs most affectionately

Robert Southey.


* Address: [in another hand] Inverness Fifteenth September 1819/ John May Esqre/ Richmond/ near Surry/ London/ Jn/ Rickman
Postmarks: 1 illegible; FREE/ 20 SE 20/ 1819; INVERNESS/ 15 SEP/ 1819/ 637-E; and SEP/ W 17 A/ 1819
Watermark: crown & anchor
Endorsement: 208. 1819/ Robert Southey/ Inverness 13 September/ recd. 20th do./ ansd. 1st Nov
Seal: [partial] red wax, design illegible
MS: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin. ALS; 4pp.
Previously published: Charles Ramos (ed.), The Letters of Robert Southey to John May: 1797–1838 (Austin, Texas, 1976), pp. 177–178. BACK

[1] Southey’s tour of Scotland, which lasted from 17 August until 1 October 1819. For his record of events, see Journal of a Tour in Scotland in 1819, ed. Charles Harold Herford (1929). BACK

[2] Susannah Rickman was accompanied by her two youngest children, William Charles Rickman (1812–1886) and Frances Rickman (dates unknown, she married Richard Brindley Hone (1805–1881), Vicar of Halesowen 1836–1881, in 1836); and their companion, Emma Pigott. It is difficult to be sure of Miss Pigott’s identity, but she might have been Emma Pigott (dates unknown), younger daughter and co-heiress of James Pigott (d. 1822) of Fitz-Hall, Iping, Sussex. Fitz-Hall was only five miles from Susannah Rickman’s home at Harting. Emma Pigott married, in 1824, Edward Brice Bunny (d. 1867) of Speen Hill, Berkshire. BACK

[3] This was Southey’s first meeting with the civil engineer Thomas Telford. BACK

[4] For Southey’s time in Edinburgh, see Journal of a Tour in Scotland in 1819, ed. Charles Harold Herford (London, 1929), pp. 3–18. BACK

[5] Letters from the Mountains; Being the Real Correspondence of a Lady Between the Years 1773 and 1807 (1807). A selection of Grant’s letters, this discussed, among other topics, life in the Scottish Highlands, contemporary writers and the excesses of the leaders of French Revolution. BACK

[6] Dr Thomas Charles Hope (1766–1844; DNB), Professor of Medicine and Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh 1795–1843 (he had taught Henry Herbert Southey). His brother was James Hope (1769–1842), a Writer to the Signet, who, as Law Agent of the Commissioners for Highland Roads and Bridges, worked closely with Rickman and Telford. BACK

[7] Marin le Roy de Gomberville (1600–1674), Relation de la Rivière des Amazones (1682), no. 7 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library; the book was a translation of Cristóbal Diatristán de Acuña (1597–c. 1676), Nuevo Descubrimiento del Gran Río de las Amazonas (1641). The second volume Southey purchased was Francois Cauche (1616–1699), Relations Veritables et Curieuses de l’Isle de Madagascar et du Bresil (1651), no. 2363 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. Both were purchased from the bookseller William Laing (1764–1832), father of David Laing. BACK

[8] i.e. Loch Katrine. BACK

[9] Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg (1790–1865; King of the Belgians 1831–1865; DNB), the widower of Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales, visited Scotland in 1819, reaching Forres on 2 September. BACK

[10] Fleet Mound was a massive causeway, commissioned in 1803, designed by Telford, and built between 1814–1816, to carry the road over Loch Fleet. It comprised an earthwork, and a bridge with self-regulating sluice gates that allowed the waters from the river to flow out, but prevented seawater from coming in. BACK

[11] Southey arrived home on 1 October 1819. BACK

[12] Southey arrived in Perth on 24 August to see Edward Collins (c. 1777–1841), Captain in the 21st Light Dragoons and the brother of Charles Collins, Southey’s old schoolfriend. Southey missed seeing him, as Collins had travelled south to deal with matters arising from the death of his father, William Collins (c. 1751–1819), naval engineer and inventor, on 23 April 1819 at his home in Maize Hill, Greenwich. Southey did see Collins’s wife, Margaret (d. 1852), and her uncle, James Wood (d. 1825), of Keithick, Perthshire. Dr Wood was ‘a delightful old man’ who ‘set me at ease concerning one of the tumours on my head’, Journal of a Tour in Scotland in 1819, ed. Charles Harold Herford (London, 1929), pp. 49–50. BACK

[13] The Aberdeen surgeon consulted by Southey was George Kerr (1771–1826), ‘who had formerly been attached to the army, and whom we found reading Aristotle in Greek’, Journal of a Tour in Scotland in 1819, ed. Charles Harold Herford (London, 1929), p. 71. BACK

[14] Fortunately for Southey, he was treated by one of the most eminent doctors in the north of Scotland: William Kennedy (c. 1761–1823), Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, first President of the Medical Society of the North and one of the founders of the Royal Northern Infirmary, Inverness. BACK

[15] The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct (1795–1805), which carries the Llangollen Canal over the River Dee; and the Menai Suspension Bridge (1819–1826), connecting Anglesey with North Wales. All these works were celebrated in Southey’s ‘Scotland, An Ode, Written after the King’s Visit to that Country’, The Bijou: Or Annual of Literature and the Arts (London, 1828), pp. 81–88. BACK

[16] The Banff Literary Society had been instituted in 1810 by five local youths. Its objects were to form a library, and to hold meetings at which essays could be read aloud and literary topics discussed. Southey received news of his election, along with a diploma and pamphlet containing the Society’s rules and a catalogue of its library, on 2 September 1819, Journal of a Tour in Scotland in 1819, ed. Charles Harold Herford (London, 1929), pp. 106–107. BACK

[17] Prince Leopold visited Nairn on 2 September 1819. For a fuller description of Telford and Southey’s disrupted night see Journal of a Tour in Scotland in 1819, ed. Charles Harold Herford (London, 1929), pp. 107–108. BACK

[18] ‘Cemeteries and Catacombs of Paris’ appeared in the Quarterly Review, 21 (April 1819), 359–98. The ‘odd’ and ‘curious’ things related to burial customs in France and elsewhere. These included the Frenchman who put ‘his park in mourning for his mother, and had barrels of ink sent from Paris’ so that the fountains ‘might be in mourning also’ (394). Amongst the ‘funeral freaks’ of the English, Southey listed an ‘old smoker’ who, dying at the age of 106, ‘desired that his pipe might be laid in his coffin’ (395). BACK

[19] Southey’s review of Thomas Dudley Fosbrooke (1770–1842; DNB), British Monachism; or, Manners and Customs of the Monks and Nuns of England (1817) in Quarterly Review, 22 (July 1819), 59–102. BACK

[20] Lady Isabella Lettice King (1772–1845; DNB) founded the Ladies’ Association at Bailbrook House, near Bath, in June 1816. It provided a home for orphaned gentlewomen with no income. Southey praised it in his article on ‘British Monachism’, Quarterly Review, 22 (July 1819), 59–102 (at 96–101). BACK

[21] The publication of the third and final volume of the History of Brazil (1810–1819) was delayed by a missing proof and did not appear until Southey’s return from Scotland. BACK

[22] The History of the Peninsular War (1823–1832). BACK

[23] Two of May’s three daughters, Mary Charlotte (b. 1804), Susanna Louisa (1805–1885) and Charlotte Livius (b. 1812). BACK

[24] May’s son John (1802–1879). BACK

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 2 times)