Wednesday, February 3, 2010

It was wonderful how well time passed in a remote castle, and in dreary weather.

I've neglected the Scottishness of Boswell and Johnson's visit to Scotland.  The point of the trip was, after all, to see Scotland, romantic Scotland - clans and storms and two-handed swords and the like.

They visited at an interesting time, when parts of the Highlands were emptying out because of mass emigration to America, and when the English laws meant to prevent a repeat of the 1745 Jacobite uprising* had really done their job.  The political and military power of the Highlander chiefs had been destroyed, the modern world of laws and trade had penetrated the farthest Scottish outposts, and the old way of life was dying.  Johnson wanted to see feudal Scotland, but he only got a glimpse.  It was nearly gone.

But they did stay in Dunvegan Castle (see the post's title, from Boswell, 17th September), and met Flora MacDonald, one of the rescuers of Bonnie Prince Charlie.  Johnson in fact slept in the same bed as the Young Pretender.  They listened to Gaelic poetry, heard traditional songs, and watched traditional dances.  Actually, the corpulent Johnson watched - Boswell danced.

Johnson was famous for his endless curiosity.  He asked about everything - how shoes were manufactured, whether islands had rats or rabbits, why Scotland had so few trees (sort of a running joke with Johnson), how oat cakes were made.  This is just before his praise of Scottish breakfasts, which "must be confessed to excel us."  Unfortunately, "[t]hey pollute the tea-table by plates piled with large slices of cheshire cheese, which mingles its less graceful odours with the fragrance of the tea."

Plus, the travelers visited caves and ruined churches and Celtic stone circles and all of the stuff that any of us would visit.  They were tourists.  I've never been to Scotland, except in books.  Johnson's and Boswell's books are good ways - the only ways - to visit a part of Scotland that has vanished.

*  See Waverley (1814) for the details.


  1. I'm still waiting to find a copy of the journals (the library's copy is checked out) but I am chomping at the bit now to start reading Johnson & Boswell.

    I can't wait to compare their observations with my own. History feels very alive here, where clan grudges from the 1300s can come up in idle conversation, and where Gaelic language, culture and music is making a comeback.

    Porridge and oatcakes are still everyday foods. And don't forget the haggis.

  2. I'm intrigued--never read Johnson or Boswell's Life of...but this appeals to me and gives me a flavor of what the book is like. Thanks.

  3. I admit in when I read in Boswell's Journal of the Tour to the Hebrides of Johnson's limited interest in stone circles I was a bit saddened-maybe he was so commited to his own religious faith that he had no interest in contemplating anything that smacked of another religious conviction

    do we have more of an idea what was in those Scottish Breakfast?

  4. My impression - I'm on page 72 of the Penguin edition - is that what Johnson really loves about the Scottish breakfast is the variety of condiments: "not only with butter, but with honey, conserves, and marmalades." You know, Sam, you could have that back in England, if you want.

    I haven't said enough good things about the Penguin edition, Peter Levi, editor. Levi knows the Hebrides backwards and forwards and has the charming habit of arguing with Johnson. Footnote 148 is my favorite, in response to Johnson's claim that an island had no fish: "The lochs are full of brown trout. What is he talking about?"

    Marieke, I do not believe that a single haggis appears in either book! Boswell does goad one of his hostesses into serving Dr. Johnson a sheep's head.

    Jane - good, thanks. Just what I was trying to do.

  5. Marieke, you can download a copy of Life of Johnson, volume 5, Tour to the hebrides, at, Etext-No 10451. Perhaps there are other volumes of interest there also.

    I live near Dunvegan Castle and can identify closely with the locations described in the book.

  6. If you ever want to visit the Hebrides, be sure to click on Neil Gracie's name!

  7. Just received my Johnson + Boswell, ed. RW Chapman (1924) and am getting stuck in! Thanks for inspiring me to pick this up.

  8. Good, good. It was a pleasure to re-read it, too.