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Issue 80 - Uncomfortable Beds in Highland Huts

Scotland Magazine Issue 80
April 2015


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Uncomfortable Beds in Highland Huts

John Hannavy continues his excursion in celebrated footsteps

James Boswell and Dr Samuel Johnson spent their first night on the island of Mull staying in an inn at Tobermory run by ‘Mr. Macarthur,' and they took time to explore the little town and remark upon its theatrical setting, surrounded by hills. Boswell recorded that there were a dozen or so sailing vessels moored in the bay, but that at times there could be seventy or more.

By the time they reached Mull, Johnson, Boswell feared, had once again lost his enthusiasm for the journey, and was concerned that he might abandon it. While Boswell remarked that they had now visited four of the Hebridean islands, Johnson lamented that the poor weather had stopped them visiting many more. ‘We thought of sailing about easily from island to island,’ he remarked, tongue firmly in cheek, ‘and so we should, had we come at a better season; but we, being wise men, thought it should be summer all the year where we were.’

While the express purpose of their visit to Mull appears to have been Boswell’s enthusiasm for visiting neighbouring Iona, Johnson noted, ‘That we might perform this expedition, it was necessary to traverse a great part of Mull.’

From Tobermory, to Fionnphort, it was indeed necessary to ‘traverse a great deal’ of the island, and their route, astride small ponies with the third employed to carry their baggage, took them west to Dervaig, skirting the southern end of Loch Cuan, past the tiny hamlet and pier at Croag – where there was an inn in those days – and across rugged country to Fanmore and Oskamull. Their plan had been to take a boat in Inch Kenneth at the west end of Loch na Keal, but their progress was much slower than they had unrealistically planned for.

So instead, they took up an invitation to spend a night on Ulva, crossing Loch Tuath, and riding to the house of a family whom Boswell identified as the MacGuaries of Ulva. Johnson, however, in his account, used the form of their name under which the family would later rise to prominence as the McQuarrys or Macquarries.

Their host was Lachlan Macquarrie, the last chief of the clan to live on Ulva before hard times forced him to sell up. Indeed, they may even have met his eleven year-old son – also Lachlan – who would later rise to senior rank in the army, and go on to become the first Governor of New South Wales in Australia.

'To Ulva,' wrote Johnson. 'We came in the dark and left it before noon the next day,’ quite certain that the island had little to interest them. The house they stayed in was described as ‘mean’, and Johnson complained that the earth floor of their bedroom was ‘a mire’ due to the rain coming in through a broken window. They left the island largely unexplored, sailing south to Inchkenneth instead, from whence, after a brief stay, they were ferried by four ‘able rowers’ south towards Iona.

Passing Staffa along the way, they were disappointed that the swell made it impossible to land on the island ‘so recently discovered by Mr. Banks’ and about which they had heard so much while staying on Coll.

Because of the shallow waters as they approached Iona, it proved impossible to get the boat close to the beach, so our two travellers were carried ashore by the oarsmen. Their host, while reportedly wealthy, was ‘ill-prepared for our entertainment’ and, noted Johnson, ‘We found a barn stocked with hay, and made our beds as soft as we could.’

When they set off to explore what Johnson described as ‘that illustrious island, which was once the luminary of the Caledonian regions, whence savage and roving barbarians derived the benefits of knowledge, and the blessings of religion,’ the reality which greeted them fell far short of their romantic expectations.

While fascinated by the ruins of the abbey and the convent, they were, like the travel writer Thomas Pennant before them, appalled that these sacred buildings were being used as cattle pens, and that straw and manure covered the floors.

‘It shocked one to observe,’ wrote Boswell, ‘that the nuns’ chapel was made a fold for carrel, and was covered a foot deep with cow-dung. They cleared it off for us at one place and showed us the gravestone of a lady abbess.’ He went on to report that, despite the magnificence of St. Martin’s Cross at the approach to the abbey door, the island – Icolmkill to him – did not live up to his expectations. Johnson, always one for the pithy rejoinder, said it had lived up to his, for he had taken his impression from an account of it subjoined in Sacheverell’s
History of the Isle of Man, where it is said there is not much to be seen.

From Iona they returned to Mull, sailing up Loch Scridian as far as Ardchrishnish before continuing east on horseback along the tracks which passed for roads. Along the way, Johnson announced for the first time that he planned to publish an account of their tour, but it had already become clear that while the antiquities of Scotland and her islands had drawn him north, the islands they had visited had, in some respects, fallen short of their expectations.

As they prepared to return to the Scottish mainland – the islands and ‘Scotland’ were seen as quite different countries in Johnson’s mind at least – the good doctor noted that, ‘Of these islands it must be confessed that they have not many allurements, but to the mere lover of naked nature. The inhabitants are thin, provisions are scarce, and desolation and penury give little pleasure’ – a far cry from the joyous anticipation with which they had set out a little more than two months before.

They left Mull with Duart Castle behind them, and approached the Scottish mainland, past Dunollie Castle, and into Oban, before starting their long journey back south.

Boswell noted on several occasions his concerns about Johnson’s mood swings – a casual comment taken wrongly here and there – and feared for their friendship. They were, in many respects, unlikely friends. Johnson was 63, Boswell 32, and they came from very different backgrounds and upbringings. You will recall that Boswell was a lover of his native Scotland and, initially, Johnson was a willing and eager travelling companion, but as their journey drew to a close, Johnson was becoming increasingly critical.

Indeed, by the time they reached Glasgow towards the end of their tour, Johnson’s growing dislike of just about everything about the Scottish way of life was rising to the surface. Perhaps the persistently bad weather, temporary periods of ill-health endured in remote outposts, and too many nights spent on uncomfortable beds in dank ‘Highland huts’ had taken its toll of his legendary good humour. That was not all.

While, for example, many thought Scottish education to be more highly developed and widely accessible than south of the border, Johnson dismissed it as inadequate. This he attributed to what he perceived as the lowly status of schoolmasters, and asserted that this inadequacy permeated up through all levels of education.

‘Men bred in the universities of Scotland cannot be expected to be often decorated with the splendours of ornamental erudition, but they obtain a mediocrity of knowledge, between learning and ignorance, not inadequate to the purposes of common life, which is, I believe, very widely diffused among them.’

That is a view which is hardly borne out by their accounts of their experiences, for, had they dined with men who had only ‘a mediocrity of knowledge,’ they would not have enjoyed the many animated, varied, and often philosophical conversations which they had documented in their journals throughout their tour. But then, Dr. Johnson’s opinions of people and places fluctuated with the winds.

Their books – certainly more ethnographical than topographical – have long been recognised as classics of early travel writing, running to countless editions. An 1803 edition of
Boswell’s Journal was even annotated by Sir Walter Scott.