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Johnson & Boswell in Scotland, Part 5

Continued from last week’s post: Boswell: Wednesday, 1 September

Boswell: Thursday, 2 September.

I
had slept ill. Mr Johnson’s anger had affected me much. I considered that, without any bad intention,
I might suddenly forfeit his friendship. I was impatient to see him this
morning. I told him how uneasy he had made me by what he had said. He owned it
was said in passion; that he would not have done it; that if he had done it, he
would have been ten times worse than me. That it would indeed, as I said, be
‘limning in water’, should such sudden breaks happen (or something to that effect); and said he, ‘Let’s think no
more on’t.’ BOSWELL. ‘Well then, sir, I shall be easy. Remember, I am to have
fair warning in case of any quarrel. You are never to spring a mine upon me. It
was absurd in me to believe you.’ JOHNSON. ‘You deserved about as much as to
believe it from night to morning.’ Mr MacLeod of Drynoch, to whom we had a
letter from Kenneth Macaulay, breakfasted with us.

A
quarter before nine we got into a boat for Skye. It rained much when we set off, but cleared up as we advanced. One
of the boatmen who spoke English said that a mile at land was two miles at sea.
I then said to him that from Glenelg to Armadale in Skye, which was our sail
this morning and is called twelve, was only six miles. But this he could not
understand. ‘Well,’ said Mr Johnson, ‘never talk to me of the native good sense
of the Highlanders. Here is a fellow who calls one mile two, and yet cannot
comprehend that twelve such miles make but six.’ It was curious to think that
now at last Mr Johnson and I had left the mainland of Scotland and were sailing to the Hebrides, one of which was close in our view; and I had besides a
number of youthful ideas, that is to say, ideas which I have had from my youth
about the Isle of Skye. We were shown the land of Moidart where Prince Charles first
landed.* That stirred my mind.

As we sat at Sir
Alexander’s table, we were entertained, according to the ancient usage of the
North, with the melody of the bagpipe. Everything in those countries has its
history. As the bagpiper 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 only records of a nation that has no historians, and afford the most genuine representation
of the life and character of the ancient Highlanders.

Under
the denomination of ‘Highlander’ are comprehended in Scotland all that now
speak the Erse language, or retain the primitive manners, whether they live
among the mountains or in the islands; and in that sense I use the name, when
there is not some apparent reason for making a distinction.

In
Skye I first observed the use of brogues, a kind of artless shoes, stitched with
thongs so loosely, that though they defend the foot from stones, they do not
exclude water. Brogues were formerly made of raw hides, with the hair inwards,
and such are perhaps still used in rude and remote parts; but they are said not
to last above two days. Where life is somewhat improved, they are now made of
leather tanned with oak bark, as in other places, or with the bark of birch, or
roots of tormentil, a substance recommended in defect of bark, about forty
years ago, to the Irish tanners, by one to whom the parliament of that kingdom
voted a reward. The leather of Sky is not completely penetrated by vegetable matter,
and therefore cannot be very durable.

My
inquiries about brogues gave me an early specimen of Highland information. One
day I was told that to make brogues was a domestic art, which every man
practised for himself, and that a pair of brogues was the work of an hour. I
supposed that the husband made brogues as the wife made an apron, till next day
it was told me that a brogue-maker was a trade, and that a pair would cost half
a crown. It will easily occur that these representations may both be true, and
that, in some places, men may buy them, and in others, make them for
themselves; but I had both the accounts in the same house within two days.

Many
of my subsequent inquiries upon more interesting topics ended in the like
uncertainty. He that travels in the Highlands may easily saturate his soul with
intelligence, if he will acquiesce in the first account. The Highlander gives to
every question an answer so prompt and peremptory, that scepticism itself is
dared into silence, and the mind sinks before the bold reporter in unresisting
credulity; but, if a second question be ventured, it breaks the enchantment;
for it is immediately discovered, that what was told so confidently was told at
hazard, and that such fearlessness of assertion was either the sport of
negligence, or the refuge of ignorance.

If individuals are thus at variance with themselves, it can
be no wonder that the accounts of different men are contradictory. The traditions of an ignorant
and savage people have been for ages negligently heard, and unskilfully
related. Distant events must have been mingled together, and the actions of one
man given to another. These, however, are deficiencies in story, for which no
man is now to be censured. It were enough, if what there is yet opportunity of
examining were accurately inspected, and justly represented; but such is the
laxity of Highland conversation that the inquirer is kept in continual
suspense, and by a kind of intellectual retrogradation, knows less as he hears
more.


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: Johnson: Edinburgh

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