What to write – and what NOT to write – in a visitors’ book

From silken sunsets and golden eagles to homemade jam and nudists, Colin Freeman shares some of the gems he’s stumbled upon in holiday visitors’ books.

Last month, after a stay at a cottage in the west of Scotland, my family and I came back with that rarest of Scottish holiday souvenirs: a suntan. The sun had shone all week, the village shop had run out of barbecue sets and, for once, my photos of the Ardnarmurchan coastline really did look like the Greek islands, rather than the Falklands.

For me, the other great pleasure of the trip was one I enjoy on nearly every country break, fair weather or foul. This is to sit in the lounge and flick through that big, leatherbound tome that usually sits on top of a bookshelf full of old Dick Francis novels. Yes, that’s right: the visitors’ comments book.

They’re as much a part of the routine as the jar of complimentary chutney left by the owner or the baffling instructions for the cooker and, in the view of some people I know, about as interesting to read. Personally, I always find them a quirky window into the minds of my fellow holidaymakers, even if that does mean the purple prose of Mr and Mrs Pearson from Ipswich, writing about how they enjoyed the ‘silken sunsets’

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First made popular in country houses in the 18th century, visitors’ books are arguably one of the earliest forms of social media, in which the public can air their views unedited and see the views of others. However, in the age of TripAdvisor, Facebook and Twitter, when rude complaints are par for the course, they remain a throwback to a politer, more reserved world.

In the book at my holiday cottage in Scotland, nobody in the past five years had complained about anything, not even the midgies. There wasn’t a trolling in sight. Instead, like most visitors’ books, flicking through it was rather like going on holiday with the Famous Five: a world full of wholesome families from Middle Britain enjoying splendid walks and hearty meals. Nobody talks about getting drunk or how they enjoyed an afternoon’s energetic congress on the settee. This isn’t Love Island.

Nevertheless, given that the Facebook generation may one day be cottage owners themselves, might it now be time for a formal visitors’-book etiquette, to preserve its charm for posterity? Strangely, Debrett’s doesn’t address this topic in its House Guests section. So here, in the meantime, are my own dos and don’ts.

Don’t use exclamation marks or capital letters

There is a marked tendency to talk about the ‘Lovely Views!’ or the ‘DELICIOUS Home Made Jam on sale in the Village Shop!’. Perhaps this is to inject a sense of drama into otherwise anodyne homilies, but it’s NOT NECESSARY! Sorry – not necessary.

Don’t sound too competitive

Like those round-robin letters that some families still send out every year, there’s a temptation to brag in the visitors’ book about how much you got up to, especially when it comes to spotting local wildlife. In the visitors’ book in Scotland, in which I proudly recorded seeing some red deer nibbling the garden hedge, another family claimed to have seen a sea eagle, a golden eagle, an otter, some dolphins and a pine marten. All in the space of a week. Next year, they’ll no doubt claim to have spotted Nessie, too.

Hotel visitors' book

Don’t be like Mr Rogers from Birmingham and miss the bigger picture

His name sticks in my mind from an entry in a visitors’ book at a campsite in New Zealand, a place with beautiful views of the Tongariro National Park. All lost on Mr Rogers, who appeared to be a mix between Victor Meldrew and Alan Partridge. He chose instead to highlight several ways in which parking and vehicular access could be improved, so that ‘motorists could approach with confidence’. He sounded as if he’d have been happier if the entire thing had been concreted over. Mortified, numerous other Britons in the book denounced him as ‘the original whingeing Pom’.

Don’t overshare

It’s fine to be entertainingly irrelevant, for example: ‘The cottage would have been perfect if my husband hadn’t snored/got drunk/worn his embarrassing red shorts.’ Don’t, however, be like the chap from Worcester who stayed just before us at a villa in Crete, who felt obliged to mention his disapproval at the nudists ‘exposing themselves’ on the local nudist beach. I say local – it turned out the beach was at a secluded spot some drive away, on the other side of the island. He had, quite literally, gone out of his way to be offended.

Don’t ever complain in the visitors’ book

No, not even if the place you’re staying at is a dump. Not only will you end one of the last great outposts of the British stiff upper lip, think about the floodgates it would open. ‘The bedroom decor is off-the-scale chintzy.’ ‘Pictures of dogs playing snooker are no longer cutting-edge.’ ‘Some magnificent examples of Portuguese tourist art.’

It might make it more entertaining for connoisseurs of the genre such as me, but I suspect that, pretty soon, there’d be no visitors’ books around for us to leaf through. To borrow the words of the Pearsons from Ipswich, that would draw a ‘silken sunset’ on a great holiday tradition.