SCOTLAND has produced many travellers and explorers, the best-known living during the period of the British Empire, such as Dr David Livingstone and Sir John Murray.

But Scots had a history of travel and exploration long before the Act of Union in 1707.

The Middle Ages saw Scots travel across Europe and beyond. Many went for religious reasons, on pilgrimages or Crusades, and the leading noble families, the Bruces, Stewarts and Douglases all produced crusaders.

The most important pilgrimage sites were Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, Rome, and of course Jerusalem and the Holy Land.

Pilgrims bought badges when they reached their destination, as proof or mementoes of their visit. Such badges from the shrines at Canterbury, Santiago, and Amiens in France have all been excavated in Scotland.

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We know that many Scots made their way to Jerusalem as well, and continued to do so long after the Crusaders were driven from the Holy Land in 1291.

In October 1366, the English promised safe conduct to two Scots travelling through England en route for Jerusalem, Walter Monynge and Laurence Gelybrand. They also gave the same protection to 12 Scots heading to the shrine of St John at Amiens.

Even kings could make these long journeys. Macbeth made a pilgrimage to Rome in 1050 and was praised for the money he gave to the poor there.

There are claims that Henry Sinclair, Earl of Orkney, travelled to the Faroes, Greenland, and North America in the late 14th century, although there is no historical evidence for this and these stories only arose centuries after his death.

But Scots did play an important role in Denmark’s exploration of Greenland in the early 1600s.

John Cunningham, born near Crail in Fife, was an experienced Arctic sailor when he joined the Danish navy in 1603, having been recommended to the Danish king Christian IV by the king’s brother-in-law, James VI of Scotland.

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Two years later, Cunningham was placed in command of an expedition to Greenland. Denmark had lost contact with its colony there in the 1400s. He was given three ships and ordered to find the lost colony.

They mapped the coast, found valuable mineral deposits including silver ore, and made contact with some of the native Inuit, as shown by a short English-Inuktitut glossary written by the expedition’s English pilot, John Hall.

But the explorers did not leave the Inuit peacefully. They kidnapped four of them, bringing them back to Denmark to display in Copenhagen.

Cunningham would return to Greenland the following year, captaining a ship on a second expedition sent to continue mapping the island and to search for more silver. This time, they also explored part of the coast of what is now Labrador in Canada and again captured kidnapped several Inuit from Greenland to take back to Denmark.

William Lithgow is the most famous of these early modern travellers. The son of a wealthy Lanark merchant, Lithgow first travelled across Europe before heading for Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean.

The National: British traveller William Lithgow (1582 - 1645), circa 1640. Engraving by Simpson.British traveller William Lithgow (1582 - 1645), circa 1640. Engraving by Simpson. (Image: Getty)

In 1612, he left Greece and went to Turkey, Cyprus, Syria, and Jerusalem. He visited Egypt and saw the Pyramids and the Sphinx before returning to Scotland via Italy.

His adventures included surviving a shipwreck, escaping capture by slavers and being saved from enslavement by a fellow Protestant who disguised him as a woman.

A second journey saw Lithgow visit Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, then travelling through Italy, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia before reaching Britain.

On his third expedition he visited Ireland, France, Portugal, and Spain, but was captured in Malaga in 1620 and tortured by the Spanish on suspicion of espionage. After he was freed, he returned home.

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Many Catholic exiles also left Scotland to travel the world during this period. James Hepburn, who took the first name Bonaventure when he became a friar, was born in Haddingtonshire. He grew up Presbyterian but converted to Catholicism after completing his university studies.

Hepburn then travelled Europe before heading for the Middle East, visiting Turkey, the Holy Land, Egypt, and Ethiopia and learning many languages on his journey.

Upon returning to Europe, he became a friar in the Order of Minims in Avignon and later moved to Rome. His linguistic skills led to him being appointed keeper of the Oriental collections at the Vatican.

Another Catholic exile was George Strachan. He was from a Kincardineshire family and was banished from Scotland by James VI after being tried for pro-Catholic espionage in 1602.

He spent most of the next decade teaching in Paris until, in around 1613, he left France for the Middle East, travelling through Greece, Turkey, Syria, and Palestine.

For two years he was the chief physician to Emir Feyyad, who ruled much of what is now Syria. Strachan even married the emir’s widowed sister-in-law and temporarily converted to Islam but fled to Baghdad after he realised his conversion meant he would have to be circumcised.

He then travelled through Persia and joined the East India Company for two years, making use of his language skills and Middle East contacts.

After this, Strachan settled in Isfahan, modern Iran, and taught Arabic, before eventually returning to Europe. During his travels he collected many Arabic and Persian manuscripts, most of which ended up in the Vatican library.

Some Scots travelled on less scholarly business. The Dundonian William Kidd, the infamous Captain Kidd, left Scotland as a young man and emigrated to New York. But by 1689 he was in the Caribbean as part of the crew of a pirate ship and soon became a captain.

He was hired by the English governor of the Leeward Islands as a privateer against the French. His privateering career eventually took him to the Indian Ocean, where he was to help fight the pirates operating there. Instead, he began to go rogue, raiding shipping in the Red Sea and off the coast of India.

He even began to consort with pirates at their bases in Madagascar. He was eventually captured, arrested, and executed by the English authorities.