This weeks presentation is about William Lithgow - Scotland`s greatest traveller of the early 17th century. He covered 18,000 miles on foot.
The story of William Lithgow
It was a good friend of mine the late Alex Morrison, a lecturer in historical geography , who alerted me to one of the most fascinating stories about a Lanarkian. The name of this man was William Lithgow better known as Lugless Will, who wrote an autobiography about his travels. The title of this work is “The total discourse rare adventures and painful peregrinations of long nineteen years travels”, which was published in 1632. This book was to be the most celebrated book on travelling through Europe, the Middle East and Africa of the early 17th century.
Who was William Lithgow and where was he born. He is thought to have been born in 1582 to a wealthy burgess James Lithgow of Lanark whose house was near the Tolbooth. Though some have suggested that he was related to the Lithgows of Boathaugh near Bonnington. The evidence for this relationship is flawed.
His mother was Alison Graham who is thought to have been related to James Graham, Marquess of Montrose. She died in 1603 and left William with a house, two and a half acres of land plus two hundred merks. It seemed that the young William was set for life however his predilection for a certain young lady was to cost him dear. The are two ladies names in the frame – one a Cunningham and the other a Lockhart. However, on the balance of evidence, it seemed that he decided to seduce the young and attractive Miss Lockhart, not a good idea. Her four brothers caught him in the act and cut bits off his ears and had him cast out of the town. From this time he was known as ‘ Lugless Will.’
After he left Lanark, Lugless Will decided that he would become an itinerant merchant. He first went in 1609 to Shetland and thereafter to Switzerland and Bohemia. For him it was a good time to go to these countries because the Thirty Years War had not started; it began in Bohemia – modern Czech Republic in 1618. The Thirty Years War was to be worse for casualties in Germany than World War I. This was the start of three major journeys which were chiefly on foot. It is estimated that he covered 36,000 miles, more than twice the circumference of the entire world. Perhaps this Lanarkian should be in the Guinness Book of Records!
In March 1610 he went to Paris then went off to Rome on foot. It was on his way to Rome that he was apprehended by some robbers near Nimes. The robbers found Lugless down on his luck with no money to speak of, so they took pity on him and gave him money instead! This is one of the amazing stories that make reading his story, so entertaining .
Being a typical Scottish Presbyterian, one might think that Lugless Will was always prejudiced against Catholics, but this is not so despite occasional rants about the Papacy. He did strike up several friendships during his journeys with people of all religions and Italy was no exception.
On his voyage from Italy via Athens to Constantinople, he was shipwrecked. However, he had the unusual foresight to put everything he owned in a coffin which floated off the ship and drifted to a nearby island. There he recovered his possessions before boarding another ship for Istanbul.
Istanbul, Jerusalem, Cairo and Tunis were all places that Lugless Will enjoyed visiting and he got on well with the Muslims though he did not speak Arabic. However he did speak French, Italian, Spanish and Latin. Certainly, his education at Lanark Grammar in Latin was to stand him in good stead.
It was while in Istanbul that Lugless Will became the first European to sample coffee. He also describes eating currants on the island of Zante, but he was not so keen on them. After Istanbul, he went on to Aleppo in Syria where he found out about the use of pigeons for carrying messages between Aleppo and Baghdad.
He was fascinated by the Holy Places that he visited including the river Jordan in Palestine. Here he decided to get some bulrushes for James VI. He stripped off his clothes apart from his turban and plunged naked into the river. Coming out of the river, a robber had stolen his clothes, so he had to run naked after the caravan heading to Jerusalem!
Going to Cairo , he was told a rather unusual story by his guide about the construction of the Pyramids. The guide told him that Cheops was short of money to construct his pyramid that he asked his daughter to become a prostitute and charge her clients for one stone each. Apparently, she was so popular that not only did she help her farther to erect his own pyramid but she raised sufficient funds for another smaller pyramid!
The next major journey undertaken by Lugless Will was to Tunisia and Libya. This journey spanned the years 1614-1616 as he went from North Africa to Eastern Europe. It was while in North Africa that he proved himself as a man of incredible strength and resourcefulness. The party he was with got lost in the Libyan desert and it was thanks to Lugless Will’s survival skills that the party survived.
In his final journey that spanned the years 1619-1621 , he went to Ireland and Spain. Lugless Will, though not fond of the Catholics, thought that the Irish people were being treated abominably. The visit to Spain was to have a major effect on Lugless Will. In Malaga he was imprisoned as a spyand endured many weeks of captivity and torture, unitl the British ambassador in Madrid secured his release.
On his return to Britain, he went to the court of St James in London to seek redress for false imprisonment. Unfortunately, the Spanish Ambassador was there. Lugless Will attacked him which caused a diplomatic incident which was resolved by placing Lugless Will in prison for nine weeks.. For the rest of his life, this rankled with him. This might account for him joining up as a military engineer with the Parliamentary army.
However, before the Civil War he published his book about his travels in 1632 prior to going to take part in the siege of Breda by Frederick Henry of Orange. He wrote an account of this in 1637 and then in the Civil War he did a survey of the defences of London for Parliament in 1643. His final work was an account of the siege of Royalist Newcastle in 1645.
After 1645, we do not know what happened to Lugless Will but it is thought that he came back to Lanark and that he lies buried somewhere in St Kentigerns graveyard.
What is beyond doubt Lugless Will was one of the greatest Lanarkians and I hope to get backing for a feature film on this remarkable man sometime in the future.
Ed Archer

Comment by Lynn Jackson:
Very interesting
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Suzanne Laidlaw
It’s interesting how history presents things through what may be a slightly rose tinted lens. I can imagine the young women’s brothers might batter him for making unwanted advances to their sister but cutting off his ears, surely implies that Lugless … See more
· Reply · · 10 h
Thomas William Dunlop
Fascinating, but would the Scots still have an ambassador to Spain at the time? The union of parliaments didn`t occur until 1707? Or maybe it was the English one
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May Hume
A relative of my dad`s side of the family
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Alister Stewart
Who would be your first choice actor to play him, then Ed?