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Issue 78 - Setting Out

Scotland Magazine Issue 78
December 2014


This article is 3 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Setting Out

John Hannavy walks in the most celebrated of footsteps

James Boswell and Dr. Samuel Johnson’s separate accounts of their tour of Scotland in the autumn of 1773 are amongst the most famous travel books ever written about Scotland. They have been researched and analysed by generations of scholars, keen to develop an insight into their very different characters.

There can seldom have been a more unlikely friendship – Johnson, the somewhat straight-laced pillar of the pro-union English establishment, known for his quick and acerbic wit, and Boswell, the young Scots lawyer with sometimes insatiable appetites for several of the seedier aspects of Georgian life.

Johnson’s enduring claim to fame is his pioneering
Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, which contains several definitions which are less than complimentary to Scotland and the Scots. Boswell, who became more Scottish as the British government and English society increasingly promoted Englishness as the essence of Britishness, and marginalised the Scots tongue and Scottish lifestyle as uncivilised, set out to counter this with a dictionary of the Scots Language. Sadly it was never completed and survives only as a partial manuscript copy. He would, however, later write his most enduring work, his acclaimed Life of Samuel Johnson, published in 1791.

They were an unlikely couple – Johnson already 64 years of age, and Boswell just a little over half his age at 33 – and their expectations of the experience of travelling in Scotland must have been very different. Certainly their accounts of visits to particular places differ considerably in both tone and enthusiasm.

For Johnson, who had long dreamed of travelling into the wilds of Scotland, it was something akin to bandit country – a strange foreign land with alien customs, populated by people who spoke a language he could barely understand, and whose diet, as he pithily defined it in his dictionary, was largely made up of the oats which a civilised Englishman would feed only to his horses. He must have hoped Scottish horses were as well fed, for much of the journey would be on horseback.

Boswell, on the other hand, was the Scots-born son of Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck, an eminent judge at the Court of Session in Edinburgh, with a fine house in Ayrshire. His family had occupied lands in the Cumnock area since the 14th century – his father was the 8th Laird – so, despite the attractions of the bright lights of Georgian London, he was Scottish through and through. As he grew older, his love for the traditions, the dialect and the heritage of Scotland became more intense, and his obvious sympathies for the failed Jacobite cause regularly surfaced.

The two men wrote individual travelogues of their journey together – Boswell’s
Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides was not published until 1785, while Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland appeared ten years earlier. While Boswell had had a decade in which to read, and perhaps comment upon his companion’s account of the journey, his own book was not subject to any such close scrutiny as Johnson had died in 1784 at the age of 75, the year before it was published.

Their writing styles were very different, but both their books are erudite and observant, always engaging, at times amusing, and at other times world-weary and scathing. While the titles of their accounts would seem to clearly define their scope, their accounts actually embrace Lowland and Highland Scotland as well, and their travels took them to only a very few of the inner islands – Skye and Raasay, Coll, Mull, Iona, Ulva, and Inchkenneth, sailing past Eigg and Muck on their journey south. The Outer Hebrides did not figure at all.

Having decided to undertake the tour together, the two men met up in Edinburgh, and their route led them along the east coast through Kirkcaldy, Dundee, and Aberdeen, and Johnson started his account with a declaration that, in undertaking the trip, he was fulfilling a long-held ambition.

‘I had desired to visit the Hebrides, or Western Islands of Scotland, so long, that I scarcely remember how the wish was originally excited; and was in the Autumn of the year 1773 induced to undertake the journey, by finding in Mr. Boswell a companion whose acuteness would help my enquiry, and whose gaiety of conversation and civility of manners are sufficient to counteract the inconveniences of travel, in countries less hospitable than we have passed.’

Boswell, in his introduction to his
Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, offered a little more in the way of an explanation.

‘Dr. Johnson had for many years given me hopes that we should go together and visit the Hebrides. Martin’s Account of those islands had impressed us with a notion that we might there contemplate a system of life almost totally different from what we had been accustomed to see, and to find simplicity and wildness, and all the circumstances of remote time or place, so near to our native great island, was an object within the reach of reasonable curiosity. Dr. Johnson has said in his Journey that he scarcely remembered how the wish to visit the Hebrides was excited; but he told me, in the summer of 1763, that his father put Martin’s account into his hands when he was very young, and that he was much pleased with it. We reckoned there would be some inconveniences and hardships, and perhaps a little danger; but these we were persuaded were magnified in the imagination of everybody. When I was at Ferney in 1764,
I mentioned our design to Voltaire. He looked at me as if I had talked of going to the North Pole.’

The book referred to was Martin Martin’s
Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, published in 1703, but however magnetic it had been in drawing Johnson to Scotland, the scope of the island journey which he undertook was more limited than that undertaken by Skye-born Martin. A natural Gaelic speaker, Martin was clearly less than comfortable with pen in hand writing in English, and while both Boswell and Johnson had read and enjoyed his book, neither thought it well written.

By 1773, Boswell had, it seems, started to despair that Johnson’s much talked about trip to Scotland would never actually happen. It had, after all, been first mooted nine years earlier when Johnson was a younger and fitter man, perhaps more able to deal with the trials and tribulations of such an undertaking.

However, in August 1773, Johnson travelled north to Edinburgh – via Newcastle where he met an old friend, the advocate Sir Robert Chambers – and met Boswell in Edinburgh. He despaired the lack of ancient trees, claiming that between Berwick and St. Andrews, he had not seen a single one which had not been planted within little more than his lifetime. The absence of the centuries-old oaks of his native England was, he asserted, a first black mark against Scotland. Those trees which he did see, he put down to the beneficial effects of the 1707 Act of Union, writing ‘yet it may be doubted whether before the Union any man between Edinburgh and England had ever set a tree’.

In his 1885 account, Boswell put a slightly different interpretation on Johnson’s view of trees or the lack of them, writing instead that the good doctor had thought it ‘wonderful to see a country so divested, so denuded, of trees.’

While Boswell, obviously sensitive to the fact that Johnson was a revered and recently deceased figure, spent several pages discussing the great man’s journey north to meet him in Edinburgh, Johnson himself, writing a decade earlier, had said nothing of the city, before starting his narrative of the journey.

‘On the eighteenth of August,’ he wrote, ‘we left Edinburgh, a city too well known to admit description, and directed our course northward, along the eastern coast of Scotland, accompanied the first day by another gentleman, who could stay with us only long enough to shew us how much we lost at separation.’

Boswell, on the other hand, keen to show his friend Scotland’s capital city, took him on an extensive tour around the old town on Monday 16 August, and reported on it in detail in his own account. They visited St Giles, Holyrood Abbey, and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, described by Boswell as ‘that deserted mansion of royalty,’ which Hamilton of Bangour in one of his elegant poems describes as ‘A virtuous palace, where no monarch dwells.’

He also noted that they would have just one servant to attend to their needs during their travels, writing ‘Dr. Johnson thought it unnecessary to put himself to the additional expense of bringing with him Francis Barber, his faithful black servant, so we were attended only by my man, Joseph Ritter, a Bohemian, a fine stately fellow above six feet high, who had been over a great part of Europe, and spoke many languages.’

They crossed the Forth from Leith, landing briefly on Inchkeith, before reaching Fife at Kinghorn. Their journey took them round the coast to Kirkcaldy and Dysart, then up to Cupar – ‘Cowpar’ in their accounts – and on to St. Andrews. Of the many sights along the way Johnson gave little detail, but Boswell reported on what they had for lunch and tea before what he described as a ‘dreary drive’ to St. Andrews. The drive to St. Andrews dreary? Never!

Their plan had been ‘that we should go together and visit the Hebrides’, but, initially at least, it seemed to be more of an exploration of Scotland, its people, and their dress and customs.

If, on their travels, they missed anything of importance, it was, Boswell was at pains to point out to his readers, not their fault. Of their time in St. Andrews, he wrote ‘Since the publication of Dr. Johnson’s book, I find that he has been censured for not seeing here the ancient chapel of St. Rule, a curious piece of sacred architecture. But this was neither his fault nor mine. We were both of us abundantly desirous of surveying such sort of antiquities, but neither of us knew of this. I am afraid the censure must fall on those who did not tell us of it.’

As a writer and former academic myself, it is a delight to read of two such eminent figures excusing their less-than-rigorous research by blaming someone else. Not even I have dared use that escape clause!

They did claim to have explored St. Andrews – where St. Rule’s tower is impossible to miss – but wrote mainly of how they dined with the principal of the University’s New College, James Murison, describing in detail the fare he had laid before them. They must have seen St. Rule’s however, simply not mentioning it by name, as Johnson made a clear reference early on to walking ‘among the ruins of various religious buildings.’

They were invited to visit St. Salvator’s College, where, Johnson was told, there was a better library than could be found anywhere in England. Alas, when they got there, the library door was locked and the key could not be found.

The two men’s accounts of the same journeys, while essentially parallel, were often quite different in character and content. Johnson was usually interested in the antiquities which lay along their route, the people he met, their lifestyles and their customs, while Boswell’s narrative described the landowners and nobility with whom they dined, and often additionally gave detailed accounts of what they had eaten.

On several later occasions, however, he did indeed seem to regret the journey – occasions which we will encounter next time.