|1 How it All Began
In his Fantasies of a Hard-Headed
Sceptic, Charles Nodier offered posterity the following advice: "If there be
a Frenchman who has not wished to visit Scotland, or else not been able, I
would suggest that he travel instead to Upper Franche-Comté, for there he
will find compensation enough. The sky is perhaps less hazy, and the
erratic, capricious shape of the clouds less picturesque than in Fingal's
misty kingdom. That apart, however, the two realms resemble one another
almost as wished."
Jacques Lavaret thought long about the words of the elegant story-teller. At
first they flabbergasted him: his deepest desire had been to visit the
country of Walter Scott, to open his ears to the rough sounds of Gaelic, to
inhale the health-giving mists of Old Caledonia, in short to use all five
senses to absorb the poetry of this enchanted land. But now an intelligent
man, a conscientious writer, a paid-up member of the Académie française, was
telling him in fine and wondrous words: it's not worth it! Lons will stand
in for the wonders of Edinburgh, and the Jura mountains can cover for the
hazy crown of Ben Lomond!
But after the shock came reflection. Jacques realised that Nodier's advice
was ironic, that it is easier to get to Scotland than to Franche-Comté. To
want to go to Vesoul you clearly need a valid excuse, a strong motivation —
whilst a good mood, the need to change your life, a whim, a delightful
impulse, a bright idea getting up in the morning, are enough to carry you
well beyond the River Tweed and Firth of Clyde.
So Jacques smiled and closed the book; since his many occupations did not
permit him to visit Franche-Comté, he decided it might as well be Scotland.
What follows is the journey he made — and how it almost never happened.
In July 1859, Jonathan Savournon, Jacques's best friend and an
illustrious composer, asked him point-blank:
"My dear Jacques, a British company is putting at my disposal a commercial
steamer from Saint-Nazaire to Liverpool. I can take someone with me. Will
Jacques could hardly contain his emotion; the reply expired on his lips.
The musician tried again: "From Liverpool, we can head directly for
"Scotland, my Scotland! When are we leaving? Do I have time to finish my
"Calm down," said Jonathan, whose phlegm contrasted sharply with his
friend's excitability. "We haven't fired up yet!"
"But tell me, when can we leave?"
"In a month's time, about the 30th of July or 2nd of August."
Jacques couldn't resist throwing himself into his friend's arms — who bore
the collision like a man accustomed to braving salvoes from orchestras.
"And now, dear Jonathan, why this good luck?"
"Simple like all that is noble!"
"My brother works with a company that charters out ships to export goods to
Britain. These boats used to take passengers; they're still fitted out; but
now they're just used for business. We'll be the only people on board."
"We'll be like nawabs! We can travel incognito, under assumed names, as
crowned heads. I'll be the Count of the North, like Paul the First, and you
can be Mr Corby, like Louis-Philippe!"
"And do you know the names of the steamers?" asked Jacques, on board
"Yes, the Beaver, the Hamburg and the Saint-Elmot."
"What names, what magnificent names! Are they propeller-driven? If so,
heaven has nothing more to offer!"
"No idea. Anyway, what difference does it make?"
"What difference? Don't you understand?"
"Then I can't tell you! One doesn't explain such things!"
And that was how the famous Journey to Scotland began. Jacques's enthusiasm
is perhaps understandable given that until then he had never set foot
outside Paris, that dreadful hole. From this moment on, his whole life was
to revolve around the sweet name of Scotland.
There was not a moment to waste. He could not speak English; so he devoted
all his energies to defending this position; not wishing, as Balzac put it,
to acquire two words and lose an idea. But he re-read his French Walter
Scott. Arm in arm with the Antiquary he lived with Lowland families; Rob
Roy's horse carried him off to the Highlands, to the heart of the rebel
clans; and even the support of the Duke of Argyll was not enough to free him
from the Heart of Midlothian. That July was a month well-spent, although its
hours seemed as long as days, and its minutes, hours.
Fortunately Jacques's friend Charles Dickens entrusted him to the loyal
Nicholas Nickleby and the excellent Mr Pickwick, a close relation of the
philosopher Tristram Shandy; together they showed him the most secret
customs of the different castes of British society. If truth be told, Louis
Enault and Francis Wey had written their books on the British Isles with the
sole and exclusive aim of pleasing him. Jacques was expertly advised; his
imagination took off at these splendid pages, and he seriously wondered
whether he shouldn't become a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society of
It should perhaps be pointed out that the map of Scotland in his Malte-Brun
Atlas needs replacing. It is now totally covered with the holes of the
frantic stabbing of his pair of compasses.