Friday, March 19, 2010

The Lady Fern reads Samuel Johnson and tells me about Scotland

Marieke of The Lady Fern has been reading Samuel Johnson and doing something I wish I could:  comparing Johnson's view of Scotland with today's Scotland, with her own.  She helps me with something I have been thinking about in my own reading of Scottish literature, most of which is hardly Scottish at all. 

Of all the Scottish writers I came up with when I launched the Scottish Reading Challenge, I think exactly none are Highlanders.  The funny thing about Scottish culture - I mean Scottish culture now, Scottishness, like Marieke writes about here - is that so much of it is derived from the Highlands.  The tartans, for example, and the tree-throwing competitions are from the Highlands.  Or, what I really mean, Scottishness is now a blend of Highland and Lowland culture and institutions.  It was not always so.

Many of the key Scottish writers of the 18th and 19th century - here's what I find interesting, I guess - were actively stirring the pot, creating the blend.  I recently read Kidnapped (1886), one of Robert Louis Stevenson's four Scottish novels.  The basic story is about a Lowlander thrown into the Highlands, into Highland politics and legends and geography.  The Lowland norm is contrasted with the Highland extremes, some of which are admirable, some not.

Kidnapped is a boy's adventure novel, but it's entwined in a curious way with Scottish literary history.  The hero's Highland trek begins in the Hebrides, where he crosses paths with Boswell and Johnson (or, since the novel is set in 1751, they cross paths with him).  Stevenson borrows an actual inn that was also used by Walter Scott in The Antiquary (1816), which I hope to read soon, and one episode involves an encounter with a son of Rob Roy.  Scott's first novel, Waverley (1814), also includes some Lowland-Highland contrasts, so Stevenson is going back to the beginnings of the Scottish novel.

I don't want to say what I think Stevenson is doing with all of this - I had better read Catriona and The Master of Ballantrae first.  I just want to note that Lowlanders Scott and Stevenson are moving Highland history and culture into a more general Scottish culture. 

I've wandered off from The Lady Fern's posts.  She has a cluster of quotations of Johnson's, including his harping on the lack of trees and comments on the rain and the ubiquitous oats, and a most interesting comment on Johnson's fear of the Scottish landscape.  He was upholding the official aeshetic tastes of his time, that the Picturesque was admirable and untamed wilderness was scary.  Not just his time - almost 100 years later, Ruskin, throughout Modern Painters, assumes that mountains are terrifiying.  It's just around this time that mountain climbing becomes a lesiure activity.  Has anyone read Edmund Whymper's Scrambles Amongst the Alps (1871)?  Whymper essentially invents modern mountain cliimbing, in spite of - or is it because of - the multiple fatalities in his conquest of the Matterhorn.  Mountains are scary!


  1. Thank you for all the wonderful discussion! I still have so much to learn about Scottishness and all its present manifestations.

    It's kind of bizarre, I guess, that the only place in the UK I've lived is in a tiny tourist town in the west of Scotland. My whole understanding of British culture is colored by that fact.

    I haven't read the Boswell yet but I promise I will get back to it in a short while! I did enjoy Johnson's observations.

  2. My pleasure, Marieke. Every little piece helps. You certainly make me more interested in visiting Scotland myself.

  3. By the way, my interest has been piqued in Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which I hope to acquire soon... I'll let you know! Cheerio for now.

  4. I was with you all the way until you got to Whymper and the Alps. Yes, to Scrambles, but the better question is whether any one has read Leslie Stephen's The Playground of Europe. The "invention" of modern mountain climbing is a bit more complicated than you let on, and the literature surrounding it is very interesting, especially in the way it changed the thinking about those scary mountains. Great stuff on Stevenson and the books to come.

  5. zhiv - Sounds like I should read a book! Recommendations?

  6. Oops--forgot to get to this reply. All I can do quickly is send you to zhiv, Leslie Stephen and Mountaineering 10-01-08, which is too long, with a couple of books at the end. But I'll do a post--at some point.