Not a member?
Register and login now.

Issue 79 - North by North-West

Scotland Magazine Issue 79
February 2015


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.

Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

North by North-West

John Hannavy walks in the most celebrated of footsteps

We resume our acquaintances with Boswell and Johnson on their way to Aberdeen where once again they would be welcomed by the world of academia. They had made their way there via Montrose, Laurencekirk and Monboddo – described by Boswell as ‘a wretched place, wild and naked, with a poor old house’ – where they were wined and dined by Lord Monboddo, the dinner menu comprising soup, ham, peas, lamb and moor-fowl. Boswell certainly did enjoy his food, remembering almost every aspect of it.

Boswell had been reluctant to detour to visit his old friend because, as he wrote ‘Lord Monboddo and Dr. Johnson did not love each other yet.’ The two men had already met – in London – but Johnson had been less than impressed, claiming Monboddo was ‘full of paradoxes.’ He did, however, say that he was willing to ‘go two miles out of his way’ to see the said Lord. Boswell did not elaborate on whether or not that was the maximum detour Johnson was willing to undertake! Monboddo, was delighted to meet him again.

Given that Boswell’s account of the visit had been published a decade after Johnson’s, the impression he gave is at odds with the good doctor’s own account. He had written ‘The magnetism of his conversation easily led us out of our way, and the entertainment which we received would have been a sufficient recompence for a much greater deviation.’

After leaving Monboddo behind, their route took them north to Cullen, where they arrived on 26 August. Already more than a week into their journey, they were still almost as far from the islands which they had set out to visit as they had been at the outset. Johnson says little of the place, while Boswell offers a brief description, and an account of Johnson’s aversion to his companion’s breakfast of kippers, insisting they be removed from the table immediately.

Elgin, however, engaged both of them to the full, exploring the ruins of the great cathedral. Boswell wrote that, ‘We dined at Elgin and saw the noble ruins of the cathedral. Though it rained much, Mr. Johnson examined them with a most patient attention. He could not here feel an abhorrance at the Scottish Reformers, for he had been told by Lord Hailes that it was destroyed before the Reformation by the Lord of Badenoch, who had a quarrel with the Bishop.’ Johnson had been misinformed. The Wolf of Badenoch sacked the cathedral when the bishop excommunicated him in 1370, but it had been completely restored long before the Reformation, only to be abandoned after 1560. The lead was stripped from the roof in the 17th Century, and the central tower collapsed, causing massive damage to the nave in 1711, just over 60 years before Boswell and Johnson visited.

Their journey then took them to Inverness, down the east shore of Loch Ness and on to Fort Augustus before veering west towards the coast at Glenelg.

Of their journey westwards, neither man reported very much, so we must assume that it was uneventful. We can also assume that, despite passing very close by them, they did not visit the great brochs of Dun Troddan and Dun Telve at Corrary near Glenelg which had so fascinated Pennant just a few years earlier. Yet, they had a copy of Pennant’s 1769 account of his first tour of Scotland with them, in which he devoted considerable space to their description and presumed origin. Indeed, Pennant had suggested that the brochs had been much higher until 1722, when ‘some Goth purloined from the top seven feet and a half under the pretence of applying them to some public buildings.’ The stone was, in fact, taken during the building of Bernera Barracks, which were completed in 1725 a few miles to the north.

The barracks were then still occupied by the military, and Boswell looked longingly at them as they rode past on their way to the inn at Glenelg – ‘I would fain have put up there; at least I looked at them wishfully, as soldiers always have everything in the best order.’ Today the ruins of the barracks are by far the largest buildings in the area. If they had read Pennant before they set out, surely both the brochs and the barracks would have been on their itinerary.

Johnson was, by this time, in an ill-humour, his distaste for being on horseback growing by the hour. When a local guide sought to ‘divert’ him by drawing his attention to passing scenery and animals – the way one would to a child – he became incensed, that someone of a lower order was presuming to try and humour him. Boswell didn’t help matters by showing interest in the ‘humble horse-hirer’s’ attempts at diversion, simply enraging Johnson even more. When Johnson tried to pacify him, the response was abrupt – ‘Sir, had you gone on, I was thinking that I should have returned with you to Edinburgh, and never spoke to you more.’

At Glenelg, they boarded a small boat and set sail for Skye. ‘In the morning, September the second,’ wrote Johnson, ‘we found ourselves on the edge of the sea.’ Their journey was not the short crossing to Kylerhea, but a sail of 12 miles down the Sound of Sleat to Armadale – ‘Armidel’ to Johnson – where they were met on the beach by Sir Alexander Macdonald. Their encounter was timely, for Macdonald was apparently ‘preparing to leave the island and reside in Edinburgh.’

At Macdonald’s table, they were regaled with local folklore and stories of clan traditions, accompanied by what Johnson described as the ‘melody of the bagpipes.’

While the piper was playing, ‘an elderly Gentleman informed us, that in some remote time, the Macdonalds of Glengary, having been injured, or offended by the inhabitants of Culloden, and resolving to have justice or vengeance, came to Culloden on a Sunday, where finding their enemies at worship, they shut them up in the church, which they set on fire; and this, said he, is the tune that the piper played while they were burning. Narrations like this, however uncertain, deserve the notice of a traveller, because they are the old records of a nation that has no historians, and afford the most genuine representation of the life and character of the ancient Highlanders.’

In his conviction that legend and history are often one and the same thing, and thus promoting the idea that the Highlander was a wild and vengeful barbarian, the good doctor did the Scots a considerable disservice.

He did an equal disservice to those who had already written histories of Scotland – and there had been several – from Scotichronicon written by Walter Bower in the 1440s to William Robertson’s seminal History of Scotland published in 1759.

Their stay at Armadale was brief, for within a few days of their arrival, news that they were on the island had quickly spread, and they were invited to visit Raasay – an invitation which required a long trek on horseback, and in increasingly inclement weather.

Johnson lamented the absence of inns on the island – ‘there are no houses where travellers are entertained for money’ except for one ‘by the seaside at Sconsor, where the post-office is kept’ – and recognised that while local hospitality was ever-welcoming, ‘the cottagers have little more for themselves: but if his good fortune brings him to the residence of a gentleman, he will be glad of a storm to prolong his stay.’ He would, just a chapter later, contradict himself by recalling how, on their return to Skye from Raasay, they dined at Portree – Port Re to him – ‘in a publick house, I believe the only inn of the island.’ ‘

Of the houses’ on Skye wrote Johnson, ‘Little can be said. They are small, and by the necessity of accumulating stores, where there are so few opportunities of purchase, the rooms are very heterogeneously filled. With the want of cleanliness it were ingratitude to reproach them.’

He added ‘The house and the furniture are not always nicely suited,’ and ‘We were driven once, by missing a passage, to the hut of a gentleman, where, after a very liberal supper, when I was conducted to my chamber, I found an elegant bed of Indian cotton, spread with fine sheets. The accommodation was flattering; I undressed myself, and felt my feet in the mire. The bed stood upon the bare earth, which a long course of rain had softened to a puddle.’

Luckily for them, their reputations preceded them, and invitations from numerous lairds and gentlemen ensured that their journeys across the Hebridean islands were usually accompanied by reasonably comfortable lodgings.

Back on Skye, the two men made their way up the the coast of Trotternish to Kingsburgh, where they were the guests of Alan Macdonald and his wife. Macdonald’s wife was Flora Macdonald – ‘a name that will be mentioned in history’ wrote Johnson, ‘and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour. She is a woman of middle stature, soft features, gentle manners, and elegant presence.’

The Jacobite uprising, less than three decades earlier, was still prominent in many people’s minds, especially on Skye.

Boswell’s account of the same journey is a little different from Johnson’s, and perhaps more colourful. From him we learn that the Portree inn was ‘half-finished’ and that the landlord was ‘James Macdonald, who is going to America.’ This was, of course, at the height of the highland clearances – seen as forced evictions by those who lost their homes, and ‘necessary improvements’ by many of the landowners.

We also learn from Boswell that, at Kingsburgh, ‘To see Mr. Samuel Johnson Salute Miss Flora Macdonald was a wonderful romantic scene to me.’ Flora and her husband would themselves emigrate to Carolina in the following year, 1774, returning to Scotland five years later. She died at Kingsburgh in 1790, and, fittingly, the epitaph on her memorial at Kilmuir quotes Johnson – ‘a name that will be mentioned in history and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour.’

While they were on Raasay, Boswell and Johnson had been introduced to the Chief of the Clan Macleod, who promptly invited them to visit him at Dunvegan Castle, so they crossed the island, were rowed across Loch Snizort, and then guided along the road to Dunvegan. Along the way they explored Dun Beag Broch – they may have missed the much more impressive towers at Glenelg, but at least they did see a broch on their travels.

Johnson was enchanted with Dunvegan, Boswell telling him that they had ‘kept the best of Sky [sic] to last.’ Johnson’s opinion was that they should have gone there first, declaring ‘Boswell, we came in at the wrong end of this island.’

Did Boswell know of Macleod’s part in the evictions? While staying at Dunvegan, he wrote that ‘In the morning I walked out and saw the ship, the Margaret of Clyde, fairly pass by with a number of emigrants on board. It was a kind of melancholy sight.’

Leaving Armadale, for the sail to Mull, their boat ran into a severe storm, and they awakened to find themselves driven well south-west and anchored off the shores of Coll. When the weather abated, they landed and spent several days exploring the island before eventually completing their journey to Tobermory. We will find them there next time.