Dr. Johnson in Scotland – An Englishman in his Near Abroad

Cuilinns

DR. JOHNSON IN SCOTLAND – 

AN ENGLISHMAN IN HIS NEAR ABROAD

Samuel Johnson was nearly sixty-four when he made an unexpected journey. One day in 1773, the internationally-renowned lexicographer, essayist, poet, and novelist, who somehow combined being one of the great thinkers of Europe with being a personification of bluff Englishness, suddenly switched his great gaze north, in search of a dream of youth. His one good eye ranged restlessly beyond the metropolis whose intellectual life he characterised and whose very language he had helped codify, over the midlands from which he had emerged, across an echoing border and still further north and west, until it lighted at last on certain storm-swept islands he had never seen, but which had long ago taken hold of his heart. He avers in his 1775 account, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, 

I had desired to visit the Hebrides, or Western Islands of Scotland, so long, that I scarcely remember how the wish was originally excited.

How, indeed?

The expedition took many admirers and friends by surprise, because what could there be in such outlandish outcrops to engage the interest of so lambent an intellect? Furthermore, the Great Cham of English literature was noted for anti-Scottish squibs, such as calling Scotland “a worse England”, or chortling that

The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!

He had also been one of the first to doubt the authenticity of James Macpherson’s 1760 Ossian epic poem cycle, which purported to be translations of ancient Gaelic texts, but which Johnson dismissed as being “as gross an imposition as ever the world was troubled with” – a piece of brusquerie which earned him the resentment of many Scots seeking cultural compensation for political subjection.

Remote islands have an intrinsic fascination, and Johnson had read Pliny’s Natural History, the first text to mention the archipelagoes. In the course of a lifetime’s reading, he would have come across other allusions and references, ranging from Ptolemy’s Deucaledonian Sea to Thomas Pennant, author of A Tour of Scotland And Voyage to the Hebrides (1772). He may have read parts of the 14th/15th century fantastical-factual Scotichronicon, as well as recent historiographies – and had probably pored over the 1654 Blaeu Atlas, the first atlas of Scotland, but which drew on maps from 1583. If so, he must have been tantalized by The Westerne Iles’ convoluted coasts, scanty settlements, and evocative blue expanses broken only by tiny sloops, watched over by wind-spirits and bare-breasted Gaels propping up cartouches.

Johnson was always aware he had not travelled much, and which other locale within striking distance could be more divergent from modern England? What an adventure such an expedition must have seemed, for someone who always combined melancholia and gravitas with impishness – “frisking” through London in the smallest hours, exchanging abuse with Thames watermen, or rolling down a Lincolnshire hillside to the surprise of old friend Bennet Langton. Eldritch islands lost in mists of spray and tradition were the antithesis of well-lit salons. He was a man who clove to solidity – exemplified in his dismissal of Berkeley’s immaterialism (Johnson kicked a stone hard, and cried “I refute it thus!”).

He knew of scientific excursions by fossilists researching the new concept of “deep time”, and the 1772 trip of his botanist friend Sir  Joseph Banks, who had been awed by the basalt cliffs of Staffa. He also wanted to see something of “the ancient state of Britain” before it altered, and to hear Gaelic, long in decline and which most thought must soon disappear. For him languages were “the pedigree of nations”, that once lost could never be recovered. More specifically, as a young pamphleteer he had disparaged the Hanoverians and praised the Stuarts, so that some had thought him seditious. In 1739, he had published Marmor Norfolciense, which contained the lines,

Then o’er the world shall discord stretch her wings,

Kings change their laws, and kingdoms change their kings,

a sentiment interpreted dangerously by some as a “bloody Jacobitical pamphlet”.

The youthful Johnson was certainly not immune to what Henry James would call “the most romantic episode in the world”, but as Boswell noted shrewdly,

Mr. Johnson is not properly a Jacobite. He does not hold the jus divinum of kings. He founds their right on long possession, which ought not to be disturbed upon slight grounds.

James L. Clifford summed up Johnson’s contradictions in Young Samuel Johnson (1957),

Tradition, orthodoxy, strict legitimacy of succession, had powerful appeals. The Stuart cause aroused in him deep responses. But by temperament he was also rational and realistic, placing common sense high in the scale of human values.

Late in life, Johnson remarked to Boswell that if he could have held up his hand to secure the victory of Charles at Culloden he was uncertain he would have done so. But in 1773 he still contained a residuum of chivalry; his reservations about Scots were always tempered by admiration for the dedication of many to their lost cause, their “King over the water”. On top of this, he had heard about injustices meted out to Highlanders in the wake of the ’45 which offended against his sense of natural justice.

Johnson also knew his span was running out. He had always been robust, notwithstanding childhood tuberculosis and scrofula (which had badly scarred his face), his eyesight, partial deafness, and Tourette’s Syndrome, which made him twitch, claw the air and gesticulate uncontrollably at times, and “blow out his breath like a whale” at the end of sentences. But now he was losing strength and starting to have difficulty walking, so there would be few other opportunities to make so demanding a trip.

Providentially, he had to hand thirty-two year old Auchinleck aristocrat James Boswell – energetic, desperate to give Johnson a better impression of his homeland, and himself curious to see the Highlands, which even to many Scots seemed like a barbaric foreign country. He was also understandably eager to show off his celebrated friend to his North British acquaintance – and to have Johnson to himself for an extended period, because he was meditating writing his Life. So on 6th August, Johnson left London on what would be a eighty-three day trek. Thomas Trotter made a now-famous engraving to accompany Boswell’s 1786 Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides – the Doctor in travelling garb, a shambling, awkward, but imposing figure, a large, bushy, greyish wig, sturdy boots, and what Boswell describes as

…a very wide brown cloth great coat with pockets which might almost have held the two volumes of his folio dictionary,

leaning on an oak staff with nails driven in at intervals of a foot and a yard. (Johnson admonishes expeditionaries “no man should travel unprovided with instruments for taking heights and distances.”) His luggage contained an un-bookish brace of pistols – although he left these in Edinburgh, once his fellow-traveller had persuaded him the Highlands were not infested with bandits.

At Edinburgh, Boswell introduced him to some of the leading lights of the “Athens of the North”, and showed him Holyrood Palace, the university, libraries, and courts, while hoping he would not notice the smells wafting from wynds. They visited the church of St. Giles which had been knocked about by Presbyterians, about which Johnson was silent until they arrived at the Royal Infirmary, where a board instructed visitors “Clean your feet!” Johnson turned to Boswell and said slyly,

There is no occasion for putting this at the doors of your churches!

Johnson was always saddened by the destruction of churches, and at St. Andrews he stood bareheaded within the former precincts of the cathedral. When Boswell wondered where John Knox had been buried, the indignant Doctor answered,

I hope in the high-way: I have been looking upon his reformations.

But Johnson was never inconsolably nostalgic. Boswell asked why he ate heavily after viewing shattered antiquities, and received the superbly practical reply,

When comparing a worse present state with a better that is past, you cannot but feel sorrow. It is not cured by reason, but by the incursions of present objects.

They travelled via Dundee, Arbroath, Montrose, Aberdeen (where Johnson was made a freeman), Inverness and down the Great Glen. They examined a wayside hovel, asking the ancient, Gaelic-monoglot inhabitant where she slept, which made her fear they wanted to bed her. Only Boswell had the effrontery to insist on seeing her bed-chamber. They visited the eminent jurist Lord Monboddo – dressed, comically, in “a rustick suit” and little round hat, and holding a specimen of corn from his fields – and the military commanders at Forts George and Augustus. Military commanders were still thought a necessity. Apart from the usual problems of policing a remote region (still occasionally fallen upon by Barbary slavers), it was just twenty-seven years since the Young Pretender had last left for France. He was no longer a threat, nor even “Bonnie”, sunk into dipsomania in Rome, while his religiously-inclined sole sibling had no worldly ambitions. But redcoats were nonetheless needed to enforce palpably unjust laws onto a poor and proud people, still smarting from the severities of “Butcher” Cumberland’s suppression. Johnson despised these laws,

…which, though they cannot be called cruel, have produced much discontent, because they operate upon the surface of life, and make every eye bear witness to subjection.

Under the “Clan Act” of 1715, the estates of Jacobite nobles had been forfeited, while tenants who had supported the crown were given two years rent remission (the Act was mitigated later). Hereditary posts were abolished, and carpetbaggers advanced – many connected with the aggressive Campbells of Argyll, execrated for the Massacre of Glencoe, and furthermore Presbyterian. Some whose septs had dominated the Highlands since time out of mind were still in exile, while others were marginalized. Symbols of old allegiances were also forbidden, aiding cultural amnesia. Highlanders were forbidden to wear tartan, on pain of six months imprisonment or transportation to the colonies. There were disarming acts in 1716, 1725 and 1747 (these “arms” included bagpipes).

But the advance of Enlightenment ideas  – Edinburgh was home to Adam Smith and David Hume – and mercantilism also called time on the clans. Chiefs became land-owners instead of lords, and wardholder clansmen became tenants. Chiefs’ power had ended, although prestige lingered like old perfume. In any case, chiefs had fewer potential followers. Proto-agronomists were introducing less labour-intensive crops, and advocating agriculture that favoured sheep over people. The Highlands, inhabited since the Mesolithic era, were emptying as the uprooted sailed for new shores, some gulled by tracts like one Johnson mentions, which claimed the climate of Nova Scotia was like that of Italy. The Clearances had begun – an insidious dispossession, cloaked in cant, which would carry on well into the 19th century, memory of which still envenoms Scottish nationalism (although many clearers were Scots). Johnson was indignant,

To hinder insurrection, by driving away the people, and to govern peaceably, by having no subjects, is an expedient that argues no great profundity of politicks.

Once off the military roads, travelling became slower and more laborious, often along sinuous heathery lanes scarcely more than sheep tracks. It was also often dangerous, with steep slopes and precipices, and at times they had to dismount from their ponies – doubtless to the animals’ great relief, as Johnson was unusually heavy. This is not to mention the firths, lochs, sounds and straits separating the islands from each other and the mainland – notoriously windy and rocky, with unpredictable weather, complex currents and seething undertows, of which the Corryvreckan whirlpool, the “Cauldron of the Hag”, was only the most feared. The landscape did not beguile the time. Johnson was not an admirer of rugged scenery for its own sake. He frequently referred to the dearth of trees (he exaggerated this, and there has been subsequent afforestation), more apparent the further west they wended. He wrote of the fêted islands of Loch Lomond that they

…court the gazer at a distance, [but] disgust him at his approach.

As for the deep Highlands,

…the appearance is that of matter incapable of form or usefulness, dismissed by nature from her care and disinherited of her favours.

Dislike of this kind of countryside was the default setting of the 18th century; refined travellers sometimes closed the blinds of their carriages to avoid having to see such un-tailored topography. There was growing enthusiasm for “landskips” among artists and aristocrats, but for now  Johnson helped police the taste boundaries, once telling Boswell a mountain he had called “impressive” was only “a considerable protuberance”.

Had Johnson been dreamier, he might have liked it more. With a cultural geography combining trace elements of pre-Celtic ur-myth with Celtic Christianity, Pictish symbolism, Norse mythology, medieval Catholicism, and witch-suspecting Protestantism, the west was invested with uncanniness. Each tide-race was populated with fictive fauna, like the Mester Stoorworm sea-serpent, the seal-human hybrid silkie, or the tiny Blue Men of the Minch. Ashore, the eerie account was equally compendious, every lochan seemingly having its kelpie (water-horse), every tract of ling, rowan, or sliding scree its tricksy brownie or glaistig. Folk-tales were current of the People of the Hollow Hills, the Spirit of the Speckled Mountain, the Unseelie (unlucky) Court, the Little Weeper of Sorrow, the Washerwoman of Death, evil eyes, clan amulets, and midnight coronachs heard where no human piper could be playing. But although Johnson liked traditionary hazes on Tory principle, he treated superstitions with scorn. The only one he did not toss and gore was “second sight”, the supposed ability to see things from afar, or foretell the future. He quizzed believers (many educated) closely, and at last averred that disbelievers

presupposed more knowledge of the universal system than man has attained.

Duntulm

All along the way, and in whatever unlikely surroundings, Johnson emitted opinions and aphorisms on everything – defending Pope Sixtus IV for signing death-warrants on his death-bed, criticising Montesquieu for citing foreign practices to defend “strange opinions”, ridiculing Peter the Great for working as a shipwright to understand shipbuilding (“Sir Christopher Wren might as well have served his time to a bricklayer, and first, indeed, to a brick maker.”). Boswell was equally impressed by Johnson’s interest in medicine, distilling, milling, brewing, whey-making, coining, thatching, glazing, shoes, or potatoes. Eager to be informed – or to show off – Johnson interrogated everyone, to the extent some thought him a practitioner.

Much of the charm of Boswell’s book is showing Johnson in such unexpected guises – the literary lion un-proudly learning from the unlettered. Or the magisterial mind condescending into roguish wit or even clowning – Johnson astride a Shetland pony, brandishing a broadsword, wearing a large blue bonnet, or enjoying the bagpipes with his good ear pressed close to the drone. But he was always alive to indignity. Once, he was unguarded enough to say,

I have often thought, that, if I kept a seraglio, the ladies should all wear linen gowns, – or cotton…I would not have silk; you cannot tell when it is clean.

But when Boswell laughs, Johnson

…retaliated with such keen sarcastick wit, and with such a variety of degrading images, of every one of which I was the object…that I would gladly expunge from my mind every trace of this severe retort.

They came to Glenelg, on the mainland opposite Skye, after a day made tolerable only by having been informed there was an inn, “a house of lime and slate and glass”, which Johnson refers to wickedly as an “image of magnificence”. But they found a damp and dirty room, no food and only whisky to drink, and a smoke-blackened workman who leapt out of a “wretched bed” as the hungry travellers brushed past to their adjacent piles of hay. Johnson hated missing food (“He who does not mind his belly, will hardly mind anything else”). In Scotland, he liked the breakfasts, but shuddered at the slices of cheshire cheese which “pollute the tea-table”. Boswell teased him by telling a hostess that Johnson liked cold sheep’s-head for breakfast, knowing Johnson would be offended to be offered it.

The Cuillin hills dominate Skye, and from them radiate the peninsulas of Sleat, Minginish, Waternish and Trotternish. Johnson and Boswell landed at Armadale (which they spell Armidel) on Sleat, to stay with Sir Alexander Macdonald, head of a clan that came somehow out of those centuries when, narrates the 13th-century Norse chronicle Heimskringla,  “…the hunger battle-birds were filled in Skye with blood of foemen killed.” Later Macdonalds crimsoned themselves with equal enthusiasm (although the clan stayed at home in 1745), and in peacetime devised such pragmatic schemes as selling superfluous Skye and South Uist peasants into slavery. But Johnson’s host, the 9th Baronet of Sleat, was Eton-educated, married to a Yorkshire heiress, and “entirely anti-Celtic” in his tastes. He had raised rents, forcing many tenants onto emigrant ships, and clearly found his antecedents an embarrassment. He showed surprise at his guest’s boyish rhapsodizing. “The Highland chief”, Johnson said, only half-humorously,

…should not be allowed to go farther south than Aberdeen – in general, they will be tamed into insignificance…Were I in your place, sir, in seven years I would make this an independent island. I would roast oxen whole, and hang out a flag as a signal to the Macdonalds to come and get beef and whisky…Sir, I would have a magazine of arms.

When the baronet protested,  “Sir, they would rust”, Johnson responded,

Let there be men to keep them clean. Your ancestors did not use to let their arms rust!

Johnson saw an otter at Armadale – almost his only reference to the animal kingdom. He would probably have been surprised by modern eco-tourism – and scornful of my pleasure in seeing golden eagles, or standing in gentle rain in hills above Tobermory on Mull, listening to an intimate colloquy of nesting ravens, “hunger battle-birds” at home in an ash.

Their McKinnon host at Coriatachan provided Gaelic songs, copious whisky, and a “numerous and cheerful company”. Johnson retired early, but he had clearly been over-excited by the atmosphere, writing an ode, part of which runs,

I roam through clans of savage men,

Untamed by arts, untaught by pen

Or cower within some squalid den,

O’er reeking soil.

They stayed at Coriatachan (now vanished) again, giving a delightful image of Johnson at his most relaxed,

…one of our married ladies, a lively pretty little woman, good-humouredly sat down upon Dr. Johnson’s knee, and, being encouraged by some of the company, put her hands around his neck, and kissed him. – ‘Do it again (said he,) – and let us see who will tire first.’

Johnson distrusted ships, and en route over restive seas to Raasay, Boswell records him “high on the stern, like a magnificent Triton”, muttering an Horatian ode Otium Divos rogan in patent, Prensus Aegaeo (“Peace the sailor prays, caught in a storm on the open Aegean”). But unease turns into Odyssean imagery in Johnson’s words as they neared land,

The singing of our rowers was succeeded by that of reapers.

Johnson loved Raasay,

Without is the rough ocean and the rocky land, the beating billows and the howling storm: within is plenty of elegance, beauty and gaiety, the song and the dance.… nor did ever fairies trip with greater alacrity.

Boswell conjures it in detail –

Rasay himself danced with as much spirit as any man, and Malcolm bounded like a roe….much jovial noise…It entertained me to observe [Johnson] sitting by, while we danced, sometimes in deep meditation – sometimes smiling complacently, – sometimes looking upon Hooke’s Roman History, – and sometimes talking a little, amidst the noise of the ball, to Mr. Donald McQueen, who anxiously gathered knowledge from him.

There is a 1970s photo of that room, the stucco flaking, the lath showing through the plaster, taken shortly before the house was demolished. Raasay has melancholy associations for many, conveyed exquisitely in Hallaig by communist-sympathising islander Sorley MacLean,

Time, the deer, is in Hallaig Wood

There’s a board nailed across the window

I looked through to see the west

And my love is a birch forever

By Halal Stream, at her tryst

Between Inver and Milk Hollow…

Johnson respected the dead equally, Boswell recording his “striking appearance of horrour” at seeing uncovered human bones in a hypaethral chapel.

Back on Skye, Johnson met Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald. After Culloden, when the army was combing South Uist for the fugitive Charles, offering a £30,000 reward, Hugh Macdonald, captaining militia but secretly a Jacobite, put him in contact with his resourceful step-daughter. The voyage of Flora, the Prince (dressed as an unusually tall Irish maid), and several boatmen, “Over the sea to Skye” in an open boat has passed into song. Three miles out, a storm came up, but Charles helped maintain morale by telling stories and singing vainglorious anthems. Next day, they rowed for hours without making headway, the Prince’s offers to take his turn refused. They finally got ashore but were fired upon, and then Flora had to find a safe house. When at last they parted, Charles repaid money owed, gave her a miniature, and said he hoped to welcome her some day at St. James’s Palace – while holding four clean shirts, a chicken in a handkerchief, and a bottle each of whisky and brandy. Flora was questioned in the Tower of London, but no witnesses came forward, and she was reluctantly let go. She later went to America, where her sons fought for Britain, and her ship was attacked by the French, and she ruminated wryly that she had risked her life for both the Stuarts and the Brunswicks, for little return.

This was a high point for Boswell –

To see Dr. Samuel Johnson, the great champion of the English Tories, salute Miss Flora MacDonald in the isle of Sky, was a striking sight; for though somewhat congenial in their motions, it was very improbable they should meet there.

The following morning, Boswell found in Johnson’s room a slip of paper on which his friend had pencilled “Quantum cedar virtutibus aurum” (“with virtue weigh’d, what worthless trash is gold”). Another Johnson tribute is incised on Flora’s monument in Kilmuir, at the northern tip of Skye,

A name that will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour.

They stayed at Dunvegan Castle, hosted by Norman MacLeod, the 23rd chief of that ilk. The castle stands on the loch-shore, surrounded by lichened gardens, through which courses a cascade called Rory Mór’s Nurse, because the 15th chief couldn’t sleep unless he could hear its tumult. Inside can still be seen things Johnson inspected – the Great Sword, a 16th century claymore (Johnson decided he would prefer a dirk), and the Faery Flag, a tattered silk good-luck talisman of unknown origin, which always had an hereditary custodian to carry it into battles; photographs of the Flag were carried by MacLeod R.A.F. pilots during World War Two. The 23rd chief’s wife was a moderniser, considering quitting the castle altogether, but Johnson disconcerted her by energetically arguing against, saying it was

…the very jewel of the estate. It looks as if it had been let down from heaven by the four corners, to be the residence of a Chief.

Boswell also records her being aghast at Johnson’s appraisal of humanity.

Lady McLeod asked, if any man was naturally good? Johnson – No madam, no more than a wolf. Boswell – Nor no woman, sir? J – No, sir. Lady McLeod started at this, saying, in a low voice, This is worse than Swift.

Johnson was disinclined to leave Dunvegan, but perhaps his hosts were relieved when he departed for Armadale, and thence across to Mull. They ran into a storm, of which Boswell gives a vivid account –

…what I never saw before, a prodigious sea, with immense billows coming upon a vessel, so as that it seemed hardly possible to escape.

A sailor with one eye steered them, the gunwales at times within an inch of the waves, the sails almost splitting, sparks flying from a burning peat held aloft as a signal. The travellers were seasick, but even in the throes of nausea and terror, Boswell could admire his friend, lying belowdecks “in philosophick tranquillity, with a greyhound of Col’s at his back, keeping him warm.” They abandoned ideas of Mull and instead after a dangerous struggle Col got them to safety on his island. “Col” was Donald Maclean, eldest son of the Laird of Coll, striving to preserve his coming inheritance through innovation. He told them stories while they were “stormstayed” – 500 years of Macleans, shapeshifting hare-women, and the “Religion of the Yellow Stick” (the Laird’s 1715 conversion of the Romanist islanders by the expedient of hitting one of them on the head with a cane and driving them to the kirk) – also of his many plans to enrich the island and avert emigration. Sadly, Col drowned not long after they had left his unusually optimistic island.

They got to Mull at last – a place of fossil trees, red granites, caves, rockfalls and earthquakes, standing stones and circles – another Maclean domain marked by their castles, and trawled around by prospectors hoping to drag up Armada bullion. They went onto the nearby island of Ulva, where Johnson slept in “an elegant bed of Indian cotton, spread with fine sheets” standing in a puddle on an earthen floor. On Inch Kenneth, they stayed with Sir Allan MacLean, head of the clan, and his daughters. Johnson rejoiced to find a road marked by cart-wheels, and

…this little desart [sic.] in these depths of Western obscurity, occupied not by a gross herdsman, or amphibious fisherman, but by a gentleman and two ladies, of high birth, polished manners and elegant conversation.

As so often, the travellers were struck by contrasts – wilderness and worsening weather outside, while inside were Latin books, and a girl playing a 1667 spinet.

The last island on their itinerary was also the most illustrious. Johnson, tiring of travel, allowed Boswell to persuade him into the mile-long voyage from Mull to Iona – a ferry route in operation continuously since the 6th century. But having been persuaded, he threw himself into the idea – literally, because whereas Boswell and Sir Allan were carried ashore by the boatmen who could not bring their craft alongside, Johnson leapt into the water and waded to land. In 563, the Irish St. Columba had likewise landed on the west coast of this little island of white sand, coloured stones, and puffing-holes, probably in the Bay at the End of the Ocean. It was the perfect land apart, and he promptly raised the Cairn with its Back to Ireland, and a cell. From these would come an abbey, a monastery, and a newly proselytising Christianity.

Bish

Iona grew until the Synod of Whitby (664), when its child, the Northumbrian church, opted for Roman dating and tonsures. But even in long retreat Iona was synonymous with sanctity and scholarship. Some of Columba’s remains were carried in the reliquary called the Brecbennoch of Columba, which was brought into battle to bring luck to Scottish arms as late as Bannockburn. This palladium could not prevent Vikings raiding and robbing Columba’s island, nor the massacre of 68 monks in 806, and the relics were sent to other churches  – but still the aura remained, and for centuries kings’ corpses (including Macbeth’s) would be ported along the Sráid na Marbh (Street of the Dead) to St. Oran’s burial place. In 1549, the High Dean of the Isles saw tombs for “fortey-eight crouned Scotts kings”, “four Ireland kings” and “eight kings of Norroway” – but a decade later they were smashed by iconoclasts, who also unroofed the abbey and destroyed all but three of 360 wayside crosses. Johnson repined,

The inhabitants are remarkably gross, and remarkably neglected…The island, which was once the metropolis of learning and piety, now has no school for education, nor temple for worship, only two inhabitants that can speak English, and not one that can write or read.

But he was glad he was there, striding bareheaded among half-walls and outlines of old buildings, visualising that island-universe. It inspired his Journey’s most-cited segment:

 Far from me and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue. That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona.

He would have appreciated the 20th century re-roofing of the abbey and reinstatement of some old monuments.

Finally to Oban, news-sheets from Edinburgh, letters from friends, and eastwards and southwards on, easing again into England, but often looking back. It had been, Johnson assured Boswell, “the pleasantest part of his life”, and “I got an acquisition of more ideas by it than by anything I can remember”. His Journey is suffused with a sense of achievement; he was inspired to visit Wales and Paris, and even pondered a history of Skye. Although he would still occasionally be called anti-Scottish, the visit of so respected an arbiter undoubtedly also helped bring England and Scotland closer together.

Looking out an Armadale window one day, he had marvelled –

I cannot but laugh, to think of myself roving among the Hebrides at sixty. I wonder where I shall rove at fourscore!

In 1777, he was still prone to wanderlust –

I am a kind of ship with a wide sail, and without an anchor.

But he would never travel again (except to friends’ houses), or even get to fourscore, dying in London in 1784. Hopefully during his final frightened hours, he saw again images of his odyssey, and remembered sudden insights and Raasay nights – times when he had been supremely happy, when he bestrode an alien landscape and made it almost his own.

This article appeared in the August 2016 issue of Chronicles, and is reprinted with permission

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