"The Immeasurable Wilds: Travellers to the Far North of Scotland, 1600 - 1900" by Alastair Mitchell is a fascinating book that will be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in the north of Scotland. For the modern traveller, Scotland's far north has a mystique and an allure that sets is apart from just about anywhere else. If you avoid times of the year likely to be most attractive to followers of the North Coast 500 (and also, coincidentally, to midges) it is still possible to appreciate a landscape that is spectacular, awe inspiring and often very beautiful. It is even, in places, possible to catch glimpses of the shadows of those who lived here in times past: despite modern development and, rather further back, the Highland Clearances.
We have always found it impossible to travel in the north of Scotland without wondering how it came to be as it is today and what it used to be like. Fortunately the modern traveller's fascination with northern Scotland has long been reflected by others who came for many different reasons. Even more fortunately, many of those earlier travellers wrote about their experiences or left evidence of what they had discovered in other forms, such as maps.
Alastair Mitchell's book is a wonderful and superbly-researched distillation of the travels and discoveries of three centuries of earlier visitors to the area: three centuries during which this part of Scotland emerged from the shadows cast by the ignorance of the wider world to take its place as a fully studied, mapped and recorded place. And three centuries during which northern Scotland changed utterly.
You get a good sense of the book from the publisher's blurb about it: "Towards the end of the 18th century the attention of mapmakers, explorers and travellers turned to the north of Scotland. The mountains that rise north of Stirling formed a formidable barrier for anyone wanting to visit the Highlands, and travellers to the Far North were even rarer: there were no roads at all into most of Sutherland, and Ross and Cromarty until the early years of the 19th century. Who did go there, and why?
"This book follows the early mapmakers who gradually revealed the area, including Timothy Pont and Alexander Bryce who published the first accurate map of the north coast. General Roy covered the whole of Scotland for his remarkable 'Great Map', and later, the indomitable and energetic General Colby dragged his reluctant Ordnance Survey team across much of the north. With the new roads came the tourists, flocking to sites like Loch Katrine, in search of signs of Sir Walter Scott's heroes and heroines. Yet few ventured further north than Inverness. The book follows this story, which has barely been mentioned in popular literature, and delights in choice anecdotes from all these accounts, touching on a number of disciplines: cartography, early geology and botany. But above all, it gives a picture of this unknown region, as it seemed to those exploring it, an area of astonishing beauty, with inhabitants that showed notable warmth and generosity in spite of their poverty."