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Significant Scots
William Lithgow

LITHGOW, WILLIAM, a well known traveller of the seventeenth century, was born in the parish of Lanark, in the year 1583. Nothing is known of his birth or parentage, or of the earlier period of his life. He seems to have attracted very little general notice prior to the publication of his travels in 1614; and even the celebrity which these acquired for him, does not appear to have suggested any inquiry into his previous history.

There is no reason, however, to believe otherwise than that he was a person of rather mean condition, and poor circumstances, though evidently possessed of an education very far surpassing what was common among the vulgar at the period when he lived. The motives which induced him to leave his native country, to perform a painful and dangerous pilgrimage through foreign lands, are not more obvious than some of the other particulars of his early life. He himself, in the strange and almost unintelligible jargon in which he frequently indulges in the work which records his adventures, obscurely assigns two: the oppression of enemies,—but who they were, or what was the cause of their enmity, he does not say—and an irresistible desire to visit strange lands. It would, indeed, appear that this last was the ruling passion of his life, and that, together with a roving, unsettled, and restless disposition, it was the principal agent in compelling him to undertake the formidable journeys which he accomplished, and enabled him to bear up with such a series of hardships and bodily sufferings, as perhaps no man ever before or since has endured.

From the obscurity in which his early life is involved, it is not, therefore, until he has assumed the character which has procured him celebrity, namely, that of a traveller, that Lithgow is introduced to us.

In his youth, while he was, as he himself says, yet a stripling, he made two voyages to the "Orcadian and Zetlandian Isles." Shortly after this, he proceeded on a tour through Germany, Bohemia, Helvetia, and the Low countries. From the latter he went to Paris, where he remained for ten months. William Lithgow nowhere gives the slightest hint regarding the source whence he derived the funds necessary to defray the expenses of these journeys; but there seems to be some reason for believing that he trusted in a great measure to chance, and to the casual assistance which he might receive from any of his countrymen whom he might encounter, in the different places he visited. This applies only, however, to the first part of his career; the latter was provided for by a piece of good fortune which shall be noticed in its proper place.

On the 9th of March, 1609, Lithgow again started from Paris on another roving expedition, and, on this occasion, proceeded, in the first instance, directly to Rome. He was escorted several miles on his way by three or four of his countrymen, with whom he had picked up an acquaintance while in Paris, and who, not improbably, supported him during the time of his residence in that city. These persons he describes as gentlemen, and one of them, at any rate, certainly had a claim to this character on the score of rank. This was Hay of Smithfield, esquire, of the king of France’s body guard.

Although thus associating himself, however, with these gentlemen, Lithgow does not speak of them as equals, but in a marked tone of inferiority; leaving altogether an impression that their kindness and attention proceeded from the circumstances of his being a countryman, a man of talent, and of a singular, bold, and adventurous disposition. Having bid adieu to his companions, he trudged onwards to Rome on foot; for such was his usual mode of travelling. He made it a rule, and strictly adhered to it, never to avail himself of any conveyance during a journey when he could accomplish it on foot, and his only deviation was in the cases of crossing seas, rivers, or lakes. During all his travels he never mounted a horse, or put his foot into a carriage, or any description of vehicle whatever.

While in Rome he made a narrow escape from the inquisition; the most sanguinary and ferocious of whose members were at that time, singular to say, Scotsmen. Two of these were from St Andrews. There were besides, one of the name of Gordon, one Cunningham, born in the Canongate of Edinburgh, and several others, and it was from the eager pursuit of these, his own countrymen, that poor Lithgow found the greatest difficulty in escaping. This, however, he effected by the assistance of a domestic of the earl of Tyrone, who was then residing at Rome. This man, whose name was Megget, concealed him for three days and nights on the roof of the earl’s palace, and, on the fourth night, conveyed him secretly out of the city, by aiding him to scale the walls, as the gates and streets were all carefully guarded by persons appointed by the inquisition to apprehend him.

From Rome Lithgow proceeded to Naples, and from thence to Loretto. On his way to the latter place, he overtook a carriage, in which were two young gentlemen from Rome with their mistresses, all proceeding joyously on a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Madonna. This lively group insisted upon the lonely pedestrian’s stepping into their carriage, but, adhering to the rule he had laid down of never availing himself of any such conveyance, he obstinately refused. Finding that they could not prevail upon him to take a seat beside them, the good-natured pilgrims descended from their carriage, and insisted on keeping him company on foot, and, thus associated, the whole party jogged merrily on for Loretto. Here he fell in with another of his countrymen, of the name of Arthur, with whom he had been formerly acquainted, and who seems to have been imbued with some portion of his own restless and rambling disposition. Having spent some time in Loretto, they proceeded together to Ancona, and thence by sea to Venice. Here his companion left him to cross the Alps, while his own "purpose reached for Greece and Asia." Arthur, it appears, had been a domestic servant of the earl of Glencairn. The circumstance, therefore, of Lithgow’s making him a companion, would seem to be an additional proof that he did not assume, or pretend to, the character of a gentleman traveller.

Lithgow now proceeded to visit the various islands in the Mediterranean, and thereafter wandered through Greece and Asia, encountering innumerable dangers and difficulties; now shipwrecked, now attacked by banditti, now plundered and maltreated, and, with all this, frequently exposed for days and nights together to the inclemency of the weather; his religion excluding him, in several places, not only from the hospitality of the natives, but even from the shelter of their houses. During his peregrinations through Greece, he met with two gentlemen from Venice, who entertained him kindly for ten days, and, on his departure made him a present of fifty zechins in gold; the first gift, he says, he received in all his travels, and, it may be added, that this is also the first allusion he makes to any pecuniary matters relating to himself. He now proceeds to declare, that if some such instances of good fortune had not befallen him he should never have been able to accomplish his "sumptuous peregrination."

Not contented with the adventures in which he was unavoidably, on his part, involved, there were others which he sought. Like another Don Quixote, he released captives, or at least assisted them to effect their escape, and came to the aid of distressed damsels. Altogether, he appears to have been a singularly benevolent and kind-hearted man; ready at all times to peril his life, for the injured or oppressed, whenever he thought such a risk could be of service to them.

From Greece Lithgow proceeded over-land to Egypt, and finally reached Grand Cairo. During his journey thither, he had the good fortune to fall in with three Dutchmen at Jerusalem, who were journeying with a caravan in the same direction. These he joined, and kept by them until they reached the Egyptian capital. Here his three companions speedily killed themselves by drinking "strong Cyprus wine without mixture of water." Each as they died left the survivors all his property, and the last bequeathed the whole accumulated amount to Lithgow. He had, however, some difficulty in rescuing his legacy from the grasp of the Venetian consul; but by sacrificing a part he obtained possession of the remainder, which amounted to nine hundred and forty-two zechins of gold, besides rings and tablets.

Thanking God for his good fortune, he now proceeded, quite at his ease as to money matters, to inspect every thing that was curious in the city. From Cairo he proceeded to Alexandria, where he embarked for Malta. From thence he sailed for Sicily, walked afterwards to Paris, and finally came over to England, where he presented to king James, to queen Anne, and to prince Charles, "certain rare gifts and notable relicks brought from Jordan and Jerusalem."

After remaining in London for about a year, Lithgow’s propensity to roving again became too strong to be resisted, and he set out upon a second expedition. He now traversed the Netherlands and Switzerland, and from thence proceeded to Calabria. Here another windfall came in his way, but it was one of a much more questionable nature in point of morality than that which met him at Cairo. Between Saramutza and Castello France, he found the dead bodies of two young barons lying in a field, who had just killed each other in a duel. Seeing that they were richly clad, Lithgow, "to speak the truth," as he himself says, searched their pockets, and found two silken purses well filled with Spanish pistoles. These, together with certain rings which they wore on their fingers, he carried off, and appropriated to his own use; and he thus moralizes on the fact, "Well, in the mutability of time there is ay some fortune falleth by accident, whether lawful or not, I will not question. It was now mine that was last theirs; and to save the thing that was not lost, I travelled that day thirty miles further to Terra Nova."

Lithgow now visited Africa, traversing Barbary, Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. Then, crossing over to Italy, he perambulated Hungary, Germany, and Poland, and finally reached Dantzic, where he embarked for England, and once more arrived in safety in London. He was now an object of curiosity and interest, and, while he remained in England, was frequently admitted to familiar audiences of his majesty, and was at all times a welcome guest at the tables of the first nobility and gentlemen in the kingdom, where he repaid their civilities by relating the story of his adventures.

Lithgow’s spirit of adventure and singular restlessness of disposition, however, were still unsubdued; and neither all that he had seen, nor all that he had suffered, could induce him to settle at home. In 1619, he again set out on another roving expedition, but on this occasion he was furnished with letters of recommendation from king James, addressed to "all kings, princes, and dukes." Provided with these documents he proceeded to Ireland. From thence he sailed for France, travelled through Portugal and Spain, and finally arrived at Malaga. Here he was apprehended as a spy, and accused of giving intelligence to some English ships which were then on the Spanish coast, respecting the return of the Plate fleet.

All poor Lithgow’s proofs and asseverations of innocence availed him nothing. He was subjected to the most dreadful tortures. His limbs were mangled and crushed, and his body torn and lacerated with tightened cords and other engines of torture. His innocence as a spy was ultimately established to the satisfaction even of his persecutors; but he was then handed over to the Inquisition, which inflicted upon him a fresh series of tortures not less horrible than the first.

Maimed and mutilated, Lithgow was at length liberated by the interference of the English consul and of several English residenters in Malaga, from whom all knowledge of the unfortunate traveller’s fate had been carefully concealed until it was discovered to them by accident.

Shortly after his release he was carried on board of an English ship, for his person was so fearfully mangled that he was not only wholly unable to walk, but was apparently beyond hope of recovery. In this state, on his arrival in England, which was in 1621, he was exhibited, lying on a feather bed, to the king and the whole of the court, all the persons of whom it was composed, crowding to see him. His miserable situation excited universal sympathy, and might under a more spirited prince have become the ground of a national quarrel with the country in which the cruelty and injustice had been inflicted. If his majesty, however, failed in avenging the unhappy traveller’s injuries, he was not wanting in compassion for his sufferings. He was twice sent to Bath at the royal expense, and maintained by the same hand for seven and twenty weeks, until he had in a great measure recovered his original health and strength, "although," he says, "my left arm and crushed bones be incurable."

Soon after his arrival in England, Lithgow was carried, by the king’s direction to the residence of Gondomar, the Spanish ambassador at the English court, for the purpose of endeavouring to procure some redress of his grievances. By this celebrated person he was treated with characteristic duplicity. Lithgow, finding the case hopeless, accused the Spaniard, in the presence chamber, and before a crowd of courtiers, of deceit and ungentlemanlike conduct. This charge he followed up with an act of violence on the person of the ambassador, for which, though his spirited conduct was much applauded, he was sent to the Marshalsea, where he was confined nine weeks. Lithgow after this made several attempts to procure some sort of redress or compensation from the house of commons, by a bill of grievances, but none of these were successful. The last effort of this kind which he made was in 1626. In the year following he returned to Scotland; and still under the influence of that spirit which had urged him to roam through the world for so many years, he undertook a tour through the western isles. He speaks of himself as having been in the island of Arran in the year 1628; but from this period little more is known regarding him. He finally, however, and probably soon after this, returned to his native parish, where he remained till his death; but when this took place is uncertain. He was interred in the church-yard of Lanark, and is yet familiarly spoken of in that part of the country, where it is said several of his descendents still exist. The place of his sepulture is unmarked by any memorial, and cannot therefore be pointed out.

The first edition of his travels was printed in 1614, 4to. This work was again reprinted in the reign of Charles I., with a dedication to that monarch. He also published an account of the siege of Buda in 1637, a circumstance which shows that he had attained a considerable age; as in 1637, he would be in his 54th year.

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