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Excerpts from Across the Sea: Journal of a Trip to Scotland and England in 1884

Robert Gillies


This journal, kept by Robert Gillies during his 1884 trip to Scotland and England with his father, Alexander, is a wonderful document on several levels. First, it’s a great family history resource. Second, it is a literate and often humorous example of nineteenth-century travel writing – but unlike most published examples of this genre, it’s written not by an upper-class adventurer, but by a middle-class immigrant returning to the native land he left as a small child. Third, the journal brings to life the immigrant experience, and the lasting emotional impact of immigration on a family. And, finally, the journal introduces us to Robert, a thirtysomething Scots-American who is – at least in his diary – by turns funny, well-read, sarcastic, gentlemanly, cheap, and terribly sentimental.

The whereabouts of Robert’s original manuscript are unknown. The passages that follow are taken from a photocopy of a typescript which was apparently prepared by Walter Gillies, William’s son, and given to his sister, Jessie Gillies Kane, during the early years of the twentieth century. The typewriter used had some serious defects which make it impossible for modern character-recognition software to interpret the typescript. Therefore, what follows has been transcribed from the typescript. In this transcription I have elected to retain typographical errors; however, I am not sure which errors are original to the journal and which may be credited to the first transcription. I have liberally added paragraph breaks, which are entirely missing from the typescript.

Jean Kane Crawford, Jessie Gillies Kane’s daughter, prepared photocopies of the journal as a Christmas gift for relatives in 1984. During a 1988 trip to Scotland, Bruce and Esther Gillies (Colin’s uncle and aunt) visited and photographed many of the locations described in the journal.

Sara Palmer Gillies
October 28, 2004

Ever since I was old enough to read and appreciate the history of my native country I have had a great desire to see it again – I was but six years of age when I left it – and know of it for myself. Therefore when in May last my father signified his intention of going there I thought it my opportunity and decided at once to accompany him.

Aside from the advertised rates of passage I was ignorant of the cost of such a trip and for some time this ignorance gave no little trouble of mind. I sought in many ways for information, but to no purpose. I talked the matter over with my wife and my friends. I consulted books of travel but could not learn the cost. However, the more I talked and read on the subject the more determined I was to go cost what it would.

As father left all the arrangements to me I had to decide as to which “Line” we should take and whether we should go “Saloon” Second cabin or steerage. Before deciding I visited some of the steamers of the various lines, took the testimony of those who had “gone before,” and finally, on June 14, secured “Second Cabin” passage in the S.S. “State of Indiana” of the State Line sailing between New York and Glasgow. The steamer was advertised to sail Thursday, July 3d. As we intended to visit London we availed ourselves of the offer of the S.S. Co. to forward passengers to Liverpool and were “booked” for that city.

It may not be out of place here to state some of the reasons that guided me in my choice: I was told by several acquaintances who had crossed more than once that the State Line provided better food and accommodation than its rival the “Anchor Line,” and so far as I could judge by ovservation [sic], made less distinction between its first and second cabin passengers, than any other line – no slight matter to a sensitive mind. The one objection was its being a slow “line,” but as to that I did not attach much importance. I thought the time spent on shipboard would prove restful for the body. Most of us who go on these journeys pretent [sic] to go for that purpose.

Father left Troy, N.Y., July 1st, arriving here on the 2nd, and together we made the final arrangements necessary, buying our drafts on Glasgow and London from Mr. Koch, Agt. Of the Inman Line for the E.D. at $4.85. At one o’clock P.M. we went aboard the steamer, lying at her dock, foot of Canal St., N.Y. She was to sail at 2 o’clock and therefore presented a scene of great animation and interest. There are but few thing[s] in this world that present a greater contrast than a steamer at her dock a week before sailing – deserted and motionless, and her appearance and hour before her departure – her decks thronged with gaily dressed people, some laughing and chatting in the liveliest manner, others in more serious mood, giving and taking advice as to future plans. Others still, casting wistful and tearful glances toward the shore from which they are about to take leave and to which they expect never to return.

From the immence [sic] funnels thick black smoke is curling upward. Now a whistle is blown and then the cry “all ashore” is heard, someone in authority orders the lines cast off, the “bridge” is hauled in, the last hawser that secures us is cast and drops with a splash into the water and we move slowly but surely from the pier. We have said good-by once, twice, thrice to friends and loved ones on the shore, but they still linger in view if our tears do not hide them. Again we hear a hundred prayers in our behalf for a safe and pleasant voyage, and we are on our way.

How many preventatives, how many cures one hears of for sea sickness while on land. To be sure every steamer carries a Doctor, but, bless you, he doesn’t pretend to cure of that disorder. The books tell us that sea sickness brings on prostration so great that the victim is regardless even of his life. Now, just imagine yourself in that condition and have the Doctor, whom some kind friend has brought to you, tell you it is only sea sickness – only sea sickness. No, you must bear it the best you can. You may evade it to some extent by taking to your bed, but it will last the longer. The proper thing to do if possible is to eat a little, vomit whenever you feel like it. Go about in this way, you will the sooner get accustomed to the rolling motion of vessel, and master the situation. Although the man seasick is of all the men, the most miserable, there is no ailment that he so quickly forgets, and most people, I believe, agree he is the better for it.

July 5. During the night we could hear Jim Smith expostulating with the bugs, who he said, were trying to make a meal off him, and more than once he arose and chased imaginary foes the whole length of the cabin. As I lay there listening to Jim’s remarks and antics, which all seemed to enjoy, I could not help contrasting the way we treat discomforts in traveling with those we suffer at home. How much more philosophically we treat the former. Here, we were making merry over a condition of things that at home would be intolerable. The Minister actually sat up in bed and wrote a parody of Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.” It began, “Bugs to the right of us, Bugs to the left of us. Bugs to the rear of us, pestered and plundered.” Now we all know that were he troubled that way at home he would seek not Tennyson, but the nearest druggist for a charge of Persian powder.

Noon. July 15th. We are lying off Greenock, waiting for the customs officers to finish their work. It is going on very slow, owing to the careful inspection they give every article. This extreme carefulness is rendered necessaret [sic] by reason of dynamite having been brought on these vessels by “Dynametiards.” Each passenger is furnished a circular naming articles liable to duty. They are: Cologne, spirits and tobacco. Our spirits passed so also did our box of cigars. There has been but one seizure made by the officers; that was a quantity of cigars in the possession of a Saloon passenger.

A steamer has just come along side from the city, containing newsboys, an official who announces in stentorian tones that he has a letter from Glasgow for A. Gillies. That individual does not respond and I claim it. I see that it is for A. Gillies or Robt. Gillies, and open it. It contains the gratifying information that Uncle Walter and Cousin Katie are in Glasgow awaiting us.

[Alexander and Robert Gillies land at Greenock and travel by rail to Glasgow, where they meet Uncle Walter and his daughter Katie. They take a series of day trips by boat and rail to scenic areas near Glasgow. They then visit a cousin, Robert Yule, in Irvine.]

We arrived in Irvine about four in the afternoon and went direct to Robert Yale’s house, which was not very far from the station. We received a warm welcome from him and his family, consisting of wife and three children. Mr. Yule is a cabinet-maker and builder. He owns the property on which his house and carpenter shop stand. We spent the night with them in the pleasantest manner possible. They are very fine people and I shall remember our visit with whem [sic] with pleasure. The church which Cousin Robert attends adjoins his property, is a beautiful structure built of stone and was designed by the Pastor.

[Robert and cousins visit Robert Burn’s birthplace in Ayr. Robert quotes repeatedly from Burns’ works throughout the Journal. Robert, Alexander, Walter, and Katie then proceed to Edinburgh.]

One cannot very well help being favorably impressed with the grand city, and as it has been one of the fondest ambitions of my life to see it, I am delighted with it. We went, on our arrival, to Mrs. Lows, a sister of Robert Yule, where we sat down to a pleasant tea, which we enjoyed very much. I think Mrs. L. a very fine woman, noble in appearance, original in manner and conversation, and very modest. After tea, Father, Uncle Walter and myself set out to find lodgings. We applied to a number of places advertised, but owing to the large number of strangers in the city at present, drawn hither by the Forestry Exhibition, now open and the great annual cattle show, we found it very difficult to get accommodations. But, we finally secured a room in the St. Cuthbert Temperance Hotel on the Lothian Road, cor Gridley St. – a nice neighborhood, and a very decent house with moderate prices. Uncle and Cousin Kate are staying with Mrs. Low.

The more I see of Edinburgh, the better I like it. The streets are kept scrupulously clean, and are use [sic] considerably by pedestrians. Though the weather is rainy, one can walk about in the streets without soiling the feet as much as would be done in fair weather in most American city’s sidewalks. Then, its interesting history and magnificent location make it the most beautiful city I have ever seen. Innumerable statues adorn the Street squares and public gardens. Walter Scott’s monument, of course, is the finest work of this kind – it is a grand work and is prominent in every direction from which it is seen. Burn’s monument is also fine. The public gardens and the Common which front Princess St., and are overlooked by the castle on the opposite side are beautifully laid out with flowers, grasses and shrubs. The gardens are in the very heart of the city. Thousands of people can be seen enjoying the flowers, the walks and music; – it is one of the chief ornaments of the city. There are many other attractions about the city which I hope to see.

July 22nd. Yesterday morning we visited the castle. At the entrance we found guides stationed anxious to conduct us through the famous ground. These guides are mostly old soldiers and one encounters them at various points of the city, attesting the popularity of Edinburgh as a resort for tourist. They are officially appointed, and a badge is worn by them attesting to the fact. Their charges are moderate, and their services are really beneficial. Ours seemed well up in the historical and traditionary [sic] lore of the old castle, and in relating it proved very efficient and interesting. The castle is well worth a visit, and we saw much, including the crown jewels and ancient regalia that was interesting. The view of the city from the castle walls is magnificent.

[The travelers also visit Holyrood Palace, an abbey, and the Antiquarian Museum (“Contains many objects of interest, including statuary, geological specimens, old armor, instruments of torture used by our good old ancestors, and many other things worth seeing.”) Leaving Edinburgh, they go to Kirkaldy and visit with a cousin, William Yule, and his family. The Gillieses continue to Leslie, where William and Alexander were born.]

Tea was awaiting us on our arrival, and when we had done with that we set out to call on two cousins of Father’s, very old maiden ladies; both are names Janet – they are cousins and are very poor, and have been living on the parish for many years – one lives alone, the other has a young woman who works in the factory nearby board with her. The first we called on so moved me by her condition, though she uttered no word of complaint – God bless her – and by her references to my Mother, that I almost broke down. I could not restrain the tears until we left the humble abode. I am glad to say their Cousin James Gillies of Chicago, who is well off will help them in the future. Opposite the residence of one of the old ladies stands the house in which Father was born. It is known as the “barracks.”

Leslie was the home of all of Father’s brothers and sisters until they set out for America, except Uncle Walter, who left there for the army. When we arose next morning the weather seemed unpropitious for the work laid out – a visit to Auchtermuchty – especially as Father wished to walk it; and for two reasons he wanted to go through Falkland for the purpose of calling on an old friend of thirty years ago, whom he hoped might be alive yet, and also to give me a better idea of the country near my birth place. Neither of these objects could be carried out traveling by rail, yet we did not fancy the task of walking nine miles of mountain road in a rain storm. The dilemma lasted until nine o’clock at which hour I purchased a morning paper and read the weather predictions for the day; they were to the effect that the showers would be short alternating with sunshine. We decided to walk, i.e., Father and myself did, Uncle decided to ride. So it was decided that he should start later and meet us in Auchtermuchty in the afternoon. And off we started, over the same road that I remember walking when five years of age with my mother.

The walk from Falkland to Auchtermuchty was comparatively easy and very pleasant. The farms looked fine and the weather clear and sunny. We reached Auchtermuchty about two o’clock in the afternoon. I cannot describe to you my feelings as I approached the place of my birth. Memories of my Mother and of my childhood crowded upon me in an almost overpowering manner. I tried to recall memories to assist me as to localities, but t’was in vain. When I reached that part of the village called “the cross,” I recognized it, but in a faint way; the rest was all strange to me.

We called on Francie Gillmour, a cousin of Fathers. Father put Francie’s powers of memory to a test which they were unequal to and had to announce who he was and whence he came, before Francie knew him. But that done, we received a hearty welcome from Francie and his wife. Francie and Father were chums in their young days, and glad they were to see each other. While they sat and talked o’auld lang syne, I went out for further exploration.

I found the “Town House” in which I was born. The town clock still adorns it and the same old bell swings in its belfry. I stepped into a stationers next door to the Town House to learn something of interest in the town’s history but he, the proprietor, was not a native and had not been in the place many years so after a few minutes chat I purchased a pocket ink bottle and left him.

“Muchty” as it is commonly called might very aptly be termed a deserted village; one-half or more of its houses are empty, many of them windowless, giving the village an air of desolation. Property is for sale at a price equal to the yearly tax. I saw but one factory in the town and that a small one. The village was once a thriving place and almost every house contained a loom, and fairly good wages were earned thereby. I remember well my Father weaving at his loom here, but with the introduction of the power loom, Auchtermuchty’s fortunes began to wane and nothing has replaced the hand loom to bring back prosperity. This condition of things had a depressing effect on me and made me anxious to get away from the place and into some place with life and stir about it. How much at this time I would have appreciated the companionship of my dear Mother or of my dear brother, Will, with whom it had been my ambition for many years to visit this very spot – how much more enjoyable it would have been. How we would have delighted to go over some of the ground and visited some of the scenes of our earliest days. But I must not linger on that.

After an hour’s wandering about, I returned to Francie’s. He and Father had gone out. I then started out to find them, but just as I got out, I spied them with Uncle coming back. Together we set out again. We spent half an hour in a hotel nearby where, over a glass of spirits we had a pleasant talk. That over, Uncle and myself decided to go call on Mrs. William Gillies. We wanted Father to go with us, but he chose to remain with his cousin, Francie, and also to remain in Auchtermuchty over night. As I was determined to start for London the next morning and to do that would compel me to return to Leslie that evening. Uncle decided to return with me. So, after spending an hour very pleasantly with Mrs. William Gillies, where we were treated to some more whiskey, we started by railway to Leslie.

[Robert continues his journey, traveling to London, where he meets his cousin Kate and stays with his friend Mr. Smith. He attends religious services, visits Greenwich Observatory, the Tower of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral (“I have felt no inclination for climbing, nor, in fact, for anything laborious on this side, so I did not ascend to the whispering gallery, nor go to the top of the dome. I was satisfied that they were very high.”), sails up the Thames past the Houses of Parliament, seesWestminster Abbey, the Albert Memorial, and enjoys Princess Ida, a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Robert finds London rather overwhelming: “Though I begin to feel a little acquainted with the main thorofares, I really feel appalled at the magnitude of the place.”

Alexander and Walter Gillies arrive from Scotland, and the family visits the Crystal Palace. Robert is very pleased to visit a session of the House of Commons, where he hears Gladstone and Parnell speak during a debate about Ireland.

On August 6, the travelers go to Sheerness, in Kent, and visit Uncle Walter’s home. They visit Canterbury Cathedral and Dover Castle and go boating. Alexander returns to Scotland to visit Aberdeen and Dundee. Robert decides to remain in Kent for a few days. He makes several visits to London on the train, shopping and visiting the zoo, but spends the night at Uncle Walter’s. Several passages in this section of the journal look as though they may have been transcribed from letters – for example, Robert addresses the reader directly as “you.”

In mid-August, Robert goes up to Scotland to meet his father in Edinburgh, where they visit with William Gillies “of the Grassmarket,” and Mrs. Gilmour and her sons, who are cousins. Parts of this section appear to have been composed as part of a long letter to Robert’s wife. Robert mentions his stepmother, indicating that Alexander has remarried. At the end of the month, Robert and Alexander take ship for home.]

I said a hasty good-bye to the friends I had made during the voyage, and joined the loved ones who were awaiting me, and at half past five in the evening was at home, well in body, my heart full of gratitude for the kind Providence that had attended me throughout all my journeyings, and that had made my trip across the sea one of the happiest and most memorable events of my life.

This page last modified Saturday, April 30, 2005

Created by Sara Palmer Gilles and Colin Gillies