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The Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides

The Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides

3.3 3
by Samuel Johnson

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"I mentioned our design to Voltaire," wrote Boswell. "He looked at me as if I had talked of going to the North Pole …"

As it turned out, Johnson enjoyed their Scottish journey (although the land was not quite so wild and barbaric as perhaps he had hoped), and Boswell delighted in it. The year was 1773, they were sixty-three and thirty-two years old,


"I mentioned our design to Voltaire," wrote Boswell. "He looked at me as if I had talked of going to the North Pole …"

As it turned out, Johnson enjoyed their Scottish journey (although the land was not quite so wild and barbaric as perhaps he had hoped), and Boswell delighted in it. The year was 1773, they were sixty-three and thirty-two years old, and had been friends for ten years. Their journals, published together here, perfectly complement each other. Johnson's majestic prose and hawk eye for curious detail take in everything from the stone arrowheads found in the Hebrides, to the 'medicinal' waters of Loch Ness and "the mischiefs of emigration." Meanwhile, it is very lucky that as Johnson was observing Scotland, Boswell was observing Johnson. His record is perceptive, highly entertaining and full of sardonic wit; for him, as for us, it is an appetizer for The Life of Johnson.

For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.

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A rare example of two great writers presenting us with contrasting accounts of a shared experience, Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and James Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson recounts their tour of Scotland in 1773.  Johnson’s is a travel book, Boswell’s a travel book plus a lively memoir of his friend. But the books are complementary: to appreciate the Scottish tour one should read both of them. Together they form a complete account of a fascinating journey, two intriguing personalities, and of a society coming to terms with itself after a period of drastic upheaval.


When Boswell met Johnson on his arrival in Edinburgh on August 14, 1773, Boswell was at thirty-two years of age a moderately successful Scottish lawyer.  He was the son of an Ayrshire landowner and High Court judge, and proudly proclaimed his mother to be descended from Scottish kings.  Boswell combined a love of intellectual endeavor and a passion for books and the company of writers, actors, artists, and politicians, with a fervent devotion to the worldly, sensual pleasures of womanizing and drinking.  Whenever he could, he rushed off to London to indulge both sides of his nature.  Five years earlier, on his return from Europe after a somewhat eccentric version of the aristocratic Grand Tour, he became a spokesman for the cause of Corsica,the Mediterranean island which, under Pasquale Paoli, was fighting for its independence.  Boswell’s campaign reached its literary climax in his Account of Corsica, his first major work, another travel book that, like the later Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, combines a description of a journey and, in its account of Paoli, the memoir of a hero. To the general public, Boswell’s fame as a writer (not to mention his father’s status in the legal profession) ensured that he would be welcomed with generous Scottish hospitality as he traveled with his friend through the remote parts of his native country. 


The man getting out of the Edinburgh coach was equally celebrated. At sixty-three years of age, Johnson was a major London celebrity, a famous writer whose houses became a rendezvous for those who wished to benefit from his moral piety and worldly wisdom.  He was equally well known as a rich, many-sided personality. The son of a bookseller from the English Midland counties, he had been living in London for thirty-six years, at first struggling to make ends meet by his scholarship and literature. He eventually achieved fame and a measure of financial success with his Dictionary of the English Language, his novel Rasselas, and poems such as The Vanity of Human Wishes. Johnson’s literary and scholarly achievements led to a government pension of £300 a year which enabled him to spend less time writing and more in developing his social life.  His eccentricities, his fame as a conversationalist, his Christian piety, his political conservatism, his wit, and his love of food and friendship, concealed a dark, brooding interior.  Part of his fame came from his alleged prejudice against the Scots: his views and epigrams on Scottish barbarity, the Scottish invasion of English society, were notorious, notwithstanding the fact that several of his closest friends (including of course Boswell) were Scots.  The two men had been friends for ten years.


Johnson’s arrival in Scotland came at the end of a long process of negotiation and delays that went back to the earliest days of his friendship with Boswell. Although much of his life had been spent writing and studying, the notion of travel was one that appealed to Johnson. In his father’s bookshop he had come across a travel book about the Scottish islands, which had fired his imagination. Boswell had broached the idea of a trip shortly after their first meeting: commitments and perhaps a certain inertia on Johnson’s part had prevented him from making particular plans until he finally announced that he was coming up to Edinburgh in the autumn of 1773. Without Boswell’s prodding, as well as his charms and qualities as a traveling companion, it is unlikely that Johnson would have made what turned out to be—putting aside the discomforts, the odd row, the occasional dangers—the most enjoyable and intellectually productive journey of his life.


The Scotland around which Johnson and Boswell journeyed was recovering from the traumatic events of the previous one hundred years, events that had begun with the accession to the throne of King James II, who succeeded his brother Charles II in February 1685. James was a Roman Catholic in a nation that was predominantly Protestant and Anglican. Furthermore, Catholics and Protestant minorities such as Presbyterians and Quakers were excluded from positions of power in the state, local authorities, army, and universities. In his attempts to widen religious toleration to these non-Anglican groups, James assumed powers which (in the eyes of the Anglican establishment) seemed autocratic. The prospect of a continuing Catholic monarchy and a broken Anglican hegemony seemed confirmed when in June 1688, James’ queen, Mary Beatrice of Modena, gave birth to a son. Within three weeks, an influential group of peers had sent a coded invitation to Holland to invite William, the Protestant Prince of Orange, James’ nephew and son-in-law, to come to England. In effect, he was being invited to seize the English throne from Catholic James. His army landed in the West Country in November 1688 carrying banners proclaiming “For the defense of the Protestant religion and the liberty and property of the subjects of England.” In the last days of the year, James followed his wife and baby son into exile in France, and William assumed the throne of England, reigning with his wife, Mary, as a joint monarch. Neither Mary, nor her sister Anne, who succeeded her to the throne, had children, and on Anne’s death the crown passed to the House of Hanover, in the person of George I. The English monarchy (and the establishment it headed) remained resolutely Anglican, and the exclusion of Catholics and non-Anglican Protestants resumed.


But James II (like all English kings and queens) was also King of Scotland, where he ruled as James VII. Support for the exiled House of Stuart (as James’ family was known) was always stronger in Scotland than in England, even after James’s death in 1701, when its leadership passed to his son and grandson (the Old and Young Pretenders). Fears of Jacobitism (as support for the exiled House of Stuart was known) remained a powerful force throughout the first half of the eighteenth century, both in the form of invasion from abroad (probably through Scotland) and from its secret adherents in England (amongst whom, according to his enemies, could be numbered Samuel Johnson). These fears turned to realities in the Jacobite risings of 1715 when a Scottish army unsuccessfully invaded England and the dramatic events of 1745–46 when the British mainland suffered its last major invasion, from the forces of Prince Charles Edward Stuart (the Young Pretender). When the grandson of James II landed in Scotland, the clans divided between those staying loyal to the incumbent Hanoverian monarch, George II, and those Jacobites who threw in their lot with the invading army.


The story of the last Jacobite invasion, which ended in the catastrophic defeat on Culloden Moor, was a romantic narrative, which by 1773 could stir the hearts of even loyal Hanoverian visitors to the Highlands. Both Boswell and Johnson were capable of responding to traditional Highlands values with vague tender feelings for the doomed House of Stuart. Boswell’s attitude is more emotional: he includes an interesting, if irrelevant, account of the escape of Prince Charles Edward from Scotland in the Journal, though his sentimental Jacobitism existed alongside a fervent attachment to the Hanoverian establishment. Whatever commitment Johnson may have had in his youth to the Stuart cause, by the 1770s he had become reconciled to the House of Hanover and, though many of the people he met in Scotland had been rebels thirty years earlier, he records with pleasure that during his tour, “I never heard a health offered by a Highlander that might not have circulated with propriety within the precincts of the King’s palace.” More to the point, lairds who had been Jacobite supporters now seemed to be living harmoniously with those who had stayed loyal to the central government.


Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides is an edited version of one of a series of journals he kept throughout his life. Within a few days of Johnson’s death in December 1784, Boswell received a request from a publisher for some sort of memoir to be ready in six weeks. It was Boswell’s intention to produce a full-scale biography of his friend, but, tacitly ignoring the publisher’s deadline, he soon came to the conclusion that his journal account of the longest continuous period of time he had spent in Johnson’s company would be a useful way of testing the public reaction to this kind of Johnsonian biography. It would also be a test of his abilities to produce such a work. In March 1785, Boswell took himself off to London where he could work quietly on the journal away from his professional and domestic duties in Scotland. A friend to whom he had read the journal told him, “It might be printed with little variation,”[i] but Boswell was less certain. He discussed the subject with Edmond Malone, the distinguished literary scholar and editor. Boswell found Malone’s company and criticisms stimulating and together the two men put together a publishable text of the Scottish journal. Apart from his critical attentions to the text, Malone was the assiduous literary agent: keeping Boswell to the task in hand, even when his author was nursing a severe hangover. There was little dispute over proposed cuts in the manuscript. Boswell was aware that some of his material had to go, especially in its later sections, when the book was clearly getting too long.  Many of these excisions were Boswell’s descriptions of scenery.  He realized that Johnson’s earlier Journey to the Western Islands was superior as a travel book so he did not describe things that Johnson had already depicted. In any case, Boswell realized that description was not one of his strengths: “Whether it is owing to my not seeing with accuracy, or to my not having the use of words fitted to such sort of description, I cannot say.”[ii]  Some of the other omissions were diplomatic. Johnson and Boswell’s harsh comments on some of the lairds they met were toned down.  Several of Boswell’s more personal meditations were excluded. (“I had now got into the habit of taking a scalck or dram every morning. . . . I was glad to be in a country where fashion justified tasting them. . . . I thought with satisfaction when I got up that it waited me.”[iii]) Other passages, such as a lively discussion about the lack of what the eighteenth century called a “necessary house” on Raasay, did not conform to contemporary notions of propriety and were cut.[iv]


Even if we accept the view of one of Boswell’s more recent editors that Malone’s contributions are “not always to the advantage of the Tour . . . because Malone’s style was proper and Latinate where Boswell’s was uninhibited and direct,”[v] Malone was perceptive enough to realize that by excising Boswell’s more personal reflections and his effusions on Scottish scenery he was sharpening the focus on its central subject: the character and opinions of Dr. Samuel Johnson. Early on in the book, Boswell gives his readers a long description of the Johnsonian characteristics he had come to know well, and in many ways the following Journal is an amplification of the points he sets out in this initial character. He (and Malone) would leave in just enough Scottish topography, personal reflections, and descriptions of people met on the journey to create a background for Boswell’s brilliant presentation of his friend and hero. Boswell was a man keen to bring together opposites.  On several occasions, he shamelessly manipulated Johnson into situations where he would meet people with whom he expected Johnson to argue and in some ways the whole Scottish tour is inspired by Boswell’s love of contraries meeting; Boswell longs to see the city-loving, comfort-loving Samuel Johnson among the wilds of the mountains or tossing about on the waters of the Atlantic.  Boswell is sublimely indifferent to the fact that the joke was largely on him and that it is he who is more put out by the dangers and lack of creature comforts on their journey. The fact that the relationship between James Boswell, Samuel Johnson, and Scotland does not conform to what he initially expected merely allows Boswell to illuminate Johnson’s character more vividly. In probably the most dangerous point of the whole trip, sailing between Skye and Coll in very heavy seas, Boswell, in a panic, asks if he can help in any way. A sailor thrusts a rope into his hands and tells him to pull it when ordered to do so.  He never was, of course, and he discovered later that the rope was tied around a mast.  When Boswell went to look for Johnson he found him below deck reading, with one of the laird’s greyhounds at his back to keep him warm.


Though Boswell likes to give his readers glimpses of traditional Scottish society, he is even keener on presenting Samuel Johnson within that society. In Samuel Johnson’s own account the focus of the book is Scotland itself.  Johnson was clear about the sort of travel book he was composing. It would be based on the notes he had made on the journey and the long descriptive letters he had written back to his friend Hester Thrale in London. He also sent enquiries to experts on particular aspects of Scottish history and society, but, as he explained to Boswell, his book would deal “more in notions than in facts.”[vi] The Journey to the Western Islands is a rich source of factual information on the Scotland of the 1770s, but Johnson’s main concern is to draw conclusions from what he had observed. Johnson traveled in order to learn and pass on what he had learned. “To the southern inhabitants of Scotland,” he writes, “the state of the mountains and islands is equally unknown with that of Borneo and Sumatra. Of both they have only heard a little, and guess the rest.” One of the purposes of his book was to reduce some of that level of ignorance. At the age of sixty-three, he went to Scotland on an educative tour, not of the classical European countries, but northward to examine a race of people who shared an island with the English. In what is perhaps the most famous passage in the book—his feelings on landing on Iona, the island from which St. Columba and his Irish monks brought Christianity to Scotland—Johnson proclaims a non-classical cradle of civilization within the British Isles, and one which he consciously links with the dramatic history of classical Greece: “That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plains of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona.”


Johnson focuses on the economic and political changes brought about in Scotland by the ’45 and its aftermath, and, more broadly, on the deeper social developments which the country was undergoing.  Johnson does not dwell on the immediate bloody aftermath of the final defeat of the Jacobites; he concentrates on government legislation designed to break the power of the clans, their lairds, and the feudal system they supported. The Disarming Acts of 1746 denied the Highlanders their traditional dress and weaponry, but more important were the centralization of the legal system and the crown’s seizure of the confiscated estates of rebel Jacobites. Johnson realized these changes affected both the external appearance and the underlying structures of Scottish society. “There was perhaps never any change of national manners so quick, so great, and so general, as that which has operated in the Highlands, by the last conquest, and the subsequent laws. We came thither too late to see what we expected, a people of peculiar appearance, and a system of antiquated life.” However, rather than merely lament the decay of the older systems, Johnson analyzes the positive and negative effects of these profound changes.  There is little doubt, for example, that with a centralized legal system, the remoter regions of Scotland were safer. Johnson had some sympathy for the individualistic virtues of the old system, but ultimately “every government must be allowed the power of taking away the weapon that is lifted against it.” With all his sympathy for the Highlander’s sturdy independence, Johnson is realistic about the problems it raises. “A man, who places honor only in successful violence, is a very troublesome and pernicious animal in time of peace,” and Johnson is not shy of narrating stories of Highland atrocities in the old days of martial valor. Similarly, though breaking the autocratic power of the lairds had led to delays in administrating the law, under the old clan system, “it cannot be supposed that a rugged proprietor of the rocks, unprincipled and unenlightened, was a nice resolver of entangled claims, or very exact in proportioning punishment to offences.”


But there were even more deep-rooted changes transforming Scottish society than those effected by the English, changes which predate the Jacobite invasions of earlier in the century. Of all the gibes that Englishmen threw at the Highland Scots the cruelest were those that touched on their poverty. Many of the people Johnson and Boswell met in Scotland were certainly poor, and Johnson notes the capitalist system of money and small industries that was replacing the older methods of barter and payment in kind which would ultimately destroy the ancient feudal ties between laird and clansman, landlord and tenant. But the sight that saddened Johnson most on his journey was that of the ships taking Highlanders away from their islands and mainland homes. Though not yet reaching the huge proportions of the next century, Scottish emigration was already becoming a worrying feature of Scottish life: “There seems now . . . to be through a great part of the Highlands a general discontent. . . . He that cannot live as he desires at home, listens to the tale of fortunate islands, and happy regions, where every man may have land of his own, and eat the product of his labor without a superior.” In several passages Johnson confronts in a practical spirit the difficult problems this discontent throws up. The decay of Scotland, its buildings, its agriculture, its people, and possible lines of progress, are themes that bind the Journey together. Johnson is frequently surprised and saddened by both the lack of economic progress and what seems to be an unwillingness to effect any changes. Near Dunvegan on Skye, the travelers have to negotiate a large area of marshy ground, which, it appears to Johnson, “might without much expense or difficulty be drained.” But he concedes that “difficulty and expense are relative terms, which have different meanings in different places.”


Rather than examples of English insensitivity, as Johnson’s Scottish critics sometimes suggested, Johnson’s attitude to Scottish poverty and lack of economic prosperity is driven by a desperate realization that much was to be done as there were possible areas of progress but these were being blocked by everyday problems of poverty and depopulation. Johnson turns to a few brave individuals who were trying to improve the condition of the land and its people. Donald Maclean, “young Col,” is a hero of Johnson’s book. Son of the laird of Col, he has educated himself in English agricultural methods and “has a very laudable desire of improving his patrimony.” By schemes such as these, “the Hebrides may in time rise above that annual distress,” which grinds down any attempts at progress. Johnson’s other Scottish hero is the unlikely figure of Thomas Braidwood, a pioneer speech therapist, who had established a school in Edinburgh to teach the deaf and dumb. Johnson’s account of his visit to the school in the last pages of his book is a moving final testament to his passionate wish, a brief flash of hope, that some way may be found to break through the seemingly intractable problems he had encountered: “It was pleasing to see one of the most desperate of human calamities capable of so much help: whatever enlarges hope, will exalt courage; after having seen the deaf taught arithmetic, who would be afraid to cultivate the Hebrides?”


Both Johnson and Boswell’s accounts were popular successes; initial publication was followed in both cases by several reprintings. Some of both books’ popularity was presumably due to readers’ wishing to seek out examples of Johnsonian prejudice against Scotland. Some of Johnson’s factual inaccuracies were gleefully reviewed and some nationalist feathers were ruffled.  Boswell’s easy style, his entertaining use of anecdotes, his vivid characterization of Johnson (especially in his conversations), made his book even more popular with the general readership, though there were critics who were uneasy at his use of private conversations and tiny details of Johnsonian habits, the intrusion of Boswell’s own life and opinions, the lack of the conventional moral viewpoint expected in a biography. But Boswell was confident enough to ignore the critical tut-tutting: the popular response to his  pioneering biographical methods persuaded him that he could continue with a full-scale account of Johnson that would do justice to his friend and hero. Taken together, the two Scottish books are highly successful pictures of both a society at a crucial moment in its development and an extraordinary human being at what, he often told his friend, had been “the pleasantest part of his life.”


Graham Nicholls was Curator of the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum, Lichfield, from 1973 to 2000, and Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, England, working on an electronic version of Johnson’s Dictionary, from 2000 to 2005.

[i] James Boswell, Boswell: The Applause of  the Jury 17821785. Edited by Irma S. Lustig and F. A.

    Pottle. New York, Toronto, London: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1981, p. 277.

[ii] James Boswell, Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. Now First

    Published from the Original Manuscript. Edited by F. A. Pottle and C. H. Bennett. London: William

    Heinemann, Ltd., 1936, p. 220.

[iii] Op.cit., 240–41.

[iv] Op.cit., 147.

[v] Applause of the Jury, ed.cit., p.301.

[vi] Letters of Samuel Johnson, edited by B. Redford. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, II. 279.

Meet the Author

Samuel Johnson (1709 and died in 1784) lived long life, though one marred by depression and fear of death. His literary reputation rests on such a varied output that he defies easy description: poet, critic, lexicographer, travel writer, essayist, editor, and, with his good friend and fellow traveller James Boswell, a biographer.

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