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Johnson & Boswell in Scotland

Continued from last week’s post: Johnson: ‘Inverness’

Johnson: ‘Loch Ness’

Near the way, by the water
side, we espied a cottage. This was the first Highland hut that I had seen; and
as our business was with life and manners, we were willing to visit it. To
enter a habitation without leave seems to be not considered here as rudeness or
intrusion. The old laws of hospitality still give this licence to a stranger.

hut is constructed with loose stones, ranged for the most part with some
tendency to circularity. It must be placed where the wind cannot act upon it
with violence, because it has no cement; and where the water will run easily
away, because it has no floor but the naked ground. The wall, which is commonly
about six feet high, declines from the perpendicular a little inward. Such
rafters as can be procured are then raised for a roof, and covered with heath,
which makes a strong and warm thatch, kept from flying off by ropes of twisted heath, of which
the ends, reaching from the centre of the thatch to the top of the wall, are
held firm by the weight of a large stone. No light is admitted but at the
entrance, and through a hole in the thatch, which gives vent to the smoke. This
hole is not directly over the fire, lest the rain should extinguish it; and the
smoke therefore naturally fills the place before it escapes. Such is the general
structure of the houses in which one of the nations of this opulent and
powerful island has been hitherto content to live. Huts however are not more
uniform than palaces; and this which we were inspecting was very far from one
of the meanest, for it was divided into several apartments; and its inhabitants
possessed such property as a pastoral poet might exalt into riches.

When we entered, we found an old
woman boiling goat’s-flesh in a kettle. She spoke little English, but we had
interpreters at hand; and she was willing enough to display her whole system of
economy. She has five children, of which none are yet gone from her. The eldest,
a boy of thirteen, and her husband, who is eighty years old, were at work in
the wood. Her two next sons were gone to Inverness to buy ‘meal’, by which
oatmeal is always meant. Meal she considered as expensive food, and told us
that in spring, when the goats gave milk, the children could live without it.
She is mistress of sixty goats, and I saw many kids in an enclosure at the end
of her house. She had also some poultry. By the lake we saw a potato-garden,
and a small spot of ground on which stood four shucks, containing each twelve
sheaves of barley. She has all this from the labour of their own hands, and for
what is necessary to be bought, her kids and her chickens are sent to market.

With the true pastoral hospitality,
she asked us to sit down and drink whisky. She is religious, and though the
kirk is four miles off, probably eight English miles, she
goes thither every Sunday. We gave her a shilling, and she begged snuff; for snuff is the luxury of a Highland cottage.

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: Monday, August 30, 1773”

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