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Serial Traveling: Johnson & Boswell in Scotland

Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western
Islands of Scotland
(1775); James Boswell, The Journal of a Tour
to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D.
(1773; ed. F. A. Pottle, 1961)


A 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. In his masterpiece of philosophical tourism Johnson analyses the disintegration of traditional Highland society and attacks the authenticity of James Macpherson’s translations of the Gaelic bard ‘Ossian’, which founded the Romantic image of Scotland as a lost world of ghosts and heroes. Boswell edited his journal of their tour after Johnson’s death (it was published in 1785), as a preview of the full-scale biography he was planning. While Johnson makes his travelogue the occasion for a wide-ranging inquiry into the nature of historical change, Boswell dramatizes a Scottish Enlightenment ethos of sociability and conversation. In the following excerpts, Johnson pauses on the verge of the Highlands to reflect on British imperial history; both travelers describe their encounter with an old woman on the banks of Loch Ness; Boswell narrates a quarrel and its sequel; Johnson deplores ‘the laxity of Highland conversation’; but finds an emblem of hope for the future in Edinburgh.

Johnson: ‘Inverness’

Inverness was the last place which had a
regular communication by high roads with the southern counties. All the ways
beyond it have, I believe, been made by the soldiers in this century. At
Inverness therefore Cromwell, when he subdued Scotland,* stationed a garrison,
as at the boundary of the Highlands. The soldiers seem to have incorporated
afterwards with the inhabitants, and to have peopled the place with an English
race; for the language of this town has been long considered as peculiarly

is a castle, called the castle of Macbeth, the walls of which are yet standing.
It was no very capacious edifice, but stands upon a rock so high and steep, that
I think it was once not accessible, but by the help of ladders, or a bridge.
Over against it, on another hill, was a fort built by Cromwell, now totally
demolished; for no faction of Scotland loved the name of Cromwell, or had any
desire to continue his memory.

what the Romans did to other nations, was in a great degree done by Cromwell to
the Scots; he civilized them by conquests, and introduced by useful violence
the arts of peace. I was told at Aberdeen that the people learned from
Cromwell’s soldiers to make shoes and to plant kail.

they lived without kail, it is not easy to guess. They cultivate hardly any
other plant for common tables, and when they had not kail they probably had
nothing. The numbers that go barefoot are still sufficient to show that shoes may be
spared. They are not yet considered as necessaries of life; for tall boys, not
otherwise meanly dressed, run without them in the streets; and in the islands
the sons of gentlemen pass several of their first years with naked feet.

know not whether it be not peculiar to the Scots to have attained the liberal,
without the manual arts, to have excelled in ornamental knowledge, and to have
wanted not only the elegancies, but the conveniencies of common life.
Literature soon after its revival found its way to Scotland, and from the
middle of the sixteenth century, almost to the middle of the seventeenth, the
politer studies were very diligently pursued. The Latin poetry of Deliciae
Poetarum Scotorum
would have done honour to any nation, at least till the
publication of May’s Supplement* the English had very little to oppose.

men thus ingenious and inquisitive were content to live in total ignorance of
the trades by which human wants are supplied, and to supply them by the
grossest means. Till the Union made them acquainted with English manners, the
culture of their lands was unskilful, and their domestic life unformed; their
tables were coarse as the feasts of Eskimos, and their houses filthy as the
cottages of Hottentots.

they have known that their condition was capable of improvement, their progress
in useful knowledge has been rapid and uniform. What remains to be done they
will quickly do, and then wonder, like me, why that which was so necessary and
so easy was so long delayed. But they must be for ever content to owe to the
English that elegance and culture, which, if they had been vigilant and active,
perhaps the English might have owed to them.

the appearance of life began to alter. I had seen a few women with plaids at Aberdeen; but at Inverness the Highland manners are common. There is I think a kirk, in
which only the Erse language* is used. There is likewise an English chapel, but
meanly built, where on Sunday we saw a very decent congregation.

were now to bid farewell to the luxury of travelling, and to enter a country
upon which perhaps no wheel has ever rolled. We could indeed have used our
post-chaise one day longer, along the military road to Fort Augustus, but we could have hired no horses beyond Inverness, and we were not so sparing of
ourselves, as to lead them, merely that we might have one day longer the
indulgence of a carriage.

At Inverness therefore we procured three horses for
ourselves and a servant, and one more for our baggage, which was no very heavy
load. We found in the course of our journey the convenience of having disencumbered
ourselves, by laying aside whatever we could spare; for it is not to be
imagined without experience how, in climbing crags, and treading bogs, and
winding through narrow and obstructed passages, a little bulk will hinder, and
a little weight will burden; or how often a man that has pleased himself at
home with his own resolution will, in the hour of darkness and fatigue, be
content to leave behind him everything but himself.

From Travel Writing 1700-1830: An Anthology, edited by Elizabeth A. Bohls.

Next week…Loch Ness

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