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Johnson & Boswell in Scotland, Part 4

Continued from last week’s post: Boswell: Monday, 30 August 1773

Boswell: Wednesday, 1 September

We came to a rich green valley, comparatively speaking, and stopped at
Auchnashiel, a kind of rural village, a number of cottages being built
together, as we saw all along in the Highlands. We passed many many miles today
without seeing a house, but only little summer-huts or shielings. Ewan
Campbell, servant to Mr Murchison, factor to the Laird of MacLeod in Glenelg,
ran along with us today. He was a fine obliging little fellow. At this
Auchnashiel, we sat down on a green turf seat at the end of a house, and they
brought us out two wooden dishes of milk. One of them was frothed like a
syllabub. I saw a woman preparing it with such a stick as is used for
chocolate, and in the same manner. That dish fell to my share; but I put by the
froth and took the cream with some wheat-bread which Joseph had brought for us
from Fort Augustus. Mr Johnson imagined my dish was better than his, and
desired to taste it. He did so, and was convinced that I had no advantage over
him. We had there in a circle all about us, men, women and children, all
Macraes, Lord Seaforth’s people. Not one of them could speak English. I said to
Mr Johnson ’twas the same as being with a tribe of Indians. ‘Yes,’ said he,
‘but not so terrifying.’ I gave all who chose it snuff and tobacco. Governor Trapaud had
made us buy a quantity at Fort Augustus* and put them up in small parcels. I
also gave each person a bit of wheat-bread, which they had never tasted. I then
gave a penny apiece to each child. I told Mr Johnson of this, upon which he
called for change for a shilling, and declared that he would distribute among
the children. Upon this there was a great stir: not only did some children come
running down from neighbouring huts, but I observed one blackheaded man, who
had been among us all along, coming carrying a very young child. Mr Johnson
then ordered the children to be drawn up in a row, and he distributed his
copper and made them and their parents all happy. The poor Macraes, whatever
may be their present state, were much thought of in the year 1715, when there
was a line in a song,

And aw’ the brave McCraas is coming.

There was great diversity in the faces of the circle around us. Some were as black and wild in their appearance as any American savages whatever. One woman was as comely as the figure of Sappho, as we see it painted. We asked the old woman, the mistress of the house where we had the milk (which, by the by, Mr Johnson told me, for I did not observe it myself, was built not of turf but of stone), what we should pay. She said, what we pleased. One of our guides asked her in Erse if a shilling was enough. She said, ‘Yes.’ But some of the men bid her ask more. This vexed me, because it showed a desire to impose upon strangers, as they knew that even a shilling was high payment. The woman, however, honestly persisted in her first price. So I gave her half-a-crown. Thus we had one good scene of uncommon life to us. The people were very much pleased, gave us many blessings, and said they had not had such a day since the old Laird of MacLeod’s time.

Johnson was much refreshed by this repast. He was pleased when I told him he
would make a good chief. He said if he were one, he would dress his servants
better than himself, and knock a fellow down if he looked saucy to a Macdonald
in rags.* But he would not treat men as brutes. He would let them know why all
of his clan were to have attention paid to them. He would tell his upper
servants why, and make them tell the others.

rode on well till we came to the high mountain called the Rattachan, by which
time both Mr Johnson and the horses were a good deal fatigued. It is a terrible
steep to climb, notwithstanding the road is made slanting along. However, we
made it out. On the top of it we met Captain MacLeod of Balmeanach (a Dutch officer come from Skye) riding with his
sword slung about him. He asked, ‘Is this Mr Boswell?’ which was a proof that
we were expected. Going down the hill on the other side was no easy task. As Mr
Johnson was a great weight, the two guides agreed that he should ride the
horses alternately. Hay’s were the two best, and Mr Johnson would not ride but
upon one or other of them, a black or a brown. But as Hay complained much after
ascending the Rattachan, Mr Johnson was prevailed with to mount one of Vass’s
greys. As he rode upon it downhill, it did not go well, and he grumbled. I
walked on a little before, but was excessively entertained with the method
taken to keep him in good humour. Hay led the horse’s head, talking to Mr
Johnson as much as he could; and just when Mr Johnson was uttering his
displeasure, the fellow says, ‘See such pretty goats.’ Then whu! he whistled,
and made them jump. Little did he conceive what Mr Johnson was. Here was now a
common ignorant horse-hirer imagining that he could divert, as one does a
child, Mr Samuel Johnson! The ludicrousness, absurdity, and
extraordinary contrast between what the fellow fancied and the reality was as
highly comic as anything that I ever witnessed. I laughed immoderately, and
must laugh as often as I recollect it.

grew dusky; and we had a very tedious ride for what was called five miles, but I
am sure would measure ten. We spoke none. I was riding forward to the inn at
Glenelg;* that I might make some kind of preparation, or take some proper
measures, before Mr Johnson got up, who was now advancing in silence, with Hay
leading his horse. Mr Johnson called me back with a tremendous shout, and was
really in a passion with me for leaving him. I told him my intentions. But he
was not satisfied, and said, ‘Do you know, I should as soon have thought of
picking a pocket as doing so.’ ‘I’m diverted with you,’ said I. Said he, ‘I could never be diverted
with incivility.’ He said doing such a thing made one lose confidence in him who
did it, as one could not tell what he would do next. I justified myself but
lamely to him. But my intentions were not improper. I wished to be forward to
see if Sir A. Macdonald* had sent his boat; and if not, how we were to sail,
and how we were to lodge, all which I thought I could best settle myself,
without his having any trouble. To apply his great mind to minute particulars
is wrong. It is like taking an immense balance, such as you see on a quay for
weighing cargoes of ships, to weigh a guinea. I knew I had neat little scales
which would do better. That his attention to everything in his way, and his
uncommon desire to be always in the right, would make him weigh if he knew of
the particulars; and therefore it was right for me to weigh them and let him
have them only in effect. I kept by him, since he thought I should.

we passed the barracks at Bernera, I would fain have put up there; at least I
looked at them wishfully, as soldiers have always everything in the best order.
But there was only a sergeant and a few men there. We came on to the inn at
Glenelg. There was nothing to give the horses, so they were sent to grass with
a man to watch them. We found that Sir Alexander had sent his boat to a point
which we had passed, at Kintail, or more properly at the King’s house––that it
had waited several days till their provisions ran short, and had returned only
this day. So we had nothing to say against that Knight. A lass showed us
upstairs into a room raw and dirty; bare walls, a variety of bad smells, a
coarse black fir greasy table, forms of the same kind, and from a wretched bed
started a fellow from his sleep like Edgar in King Lear: ‘Poor Tom’s
a-cold.’ *

landlord was one Munro from Fort Augustus. He pays £ to MacLeod for the shell
of the house, and has not a bit of land in lease. They had no bread, no eggs,
no wine, no spirits but whisky, no sugar but brown grown black. They prepared
some mutton-chops, but we would not have them. They killed two hens. I made
Joseph broil me a bit of one till it was black, and I tasted it. Mr Johnson
would take nothing but a bit of bread, which we had luckily remaining, and some
lemonade which he made with a lemon which Joseph had for him, and he got some
good sugar; for Mr Murchison, factor to MacLeod in Glenelg, sent us some, with
a bottle of excellent rum, letting us know he was very sorry that his servant
had not come and informed him before we passed his house; that we might have
been there all night, and that if he were not obliged to set out early next day
for Inverness, he would come down and wait upon us.

took some rum and water and sugar, and grew better; for after my last bad night
I hoped much to be well this, and being disappointed, I was uneasy and almost
fretful. Mr Johnson was calm. I said he was so from vanity. ‘No,’ said he,
”tis from philosophy.’ It was a considerable satisfaction to me to see that
the Rambler could practise what he nobly teaches.

resumed my riding forward, and wanted to defend it. Mr Johnson was still
violent upon that subject, and said, ‘Sir, had you gone on, I was thinking that
I should have returned with you to Edinburgh and then parted, and never spoke
to you more.’

I sent for fresh hay, with which we made beds to ourselves,
each in a room equally miserable. As Wolfe said in his letter from Quebec, we had ‘choice of difficulties’.* Mr. Johnson made things
better by comparison. At Macqueen’s last night he observed that few were so
well lodged in a ship. Tonight he said we were better than if we had been upon
the hill. He lay down buttoned up in his greatcoat. I had my sheets spread on
the hay, and having stripped, I had my clothes and greatcoat and Joseph’s
greatcoat laid upon me, by way of blankets. Joseph lay in the room by me, upon
a bed laid on the floor.

Travelwriting_johnson_boswell_0192840517A young and enthusiastic James Boswell befriended Samuel Johnson (1709-84), England’s most famous man of letters, in London in 1763. Soon Boswell was urging Johnson to accompany him on a tour to the Hebrides, reviving the fascination inspired in Johnson by a childhood reading of Martin Martin. The two men went to Scotland in the late summer and autumn of 1773, riding north from Edinburgh to Inverness and then westward through the Great Glen and across the mountains to the coast. Johnson published A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland two years later. Johnson published A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland two years later. These excerpts from Travel Writing, 1700-1830: An Anthology, are presented here as part of our Serial Blogging series.Click here to read from the beginning of this series.

Next week: Boswell: Thursday, 2 September.

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