Wednesday, 6 April 2016

A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland by Samuel Johnson | A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides by James Boswell.

In 1773, when Samuel Johnson was 63 and James Boswell was 32, the two embarked on a tour of Scotland. They had been friends some ten years by this point, and Boswell, a Scotsman, was eager to show Johnson the north east and west of the Scottish Isles. It had been something they'd talked about for a while, however, as Boswell wrote, there was some difficulty in 'launching' Johnson "from the metropolis", referring of course to London:
Dr Johnson had for many years given me hopes that we should go together, and visit the Hebrides. Martin's Account of those islands had impressed us with a notion that we might there contemplate a system of life almost totally different from what we had been accustomed to see; and, to find simplicity and wildness, and all the circumstances of remote time or place, so near to our native great island, was an object within the reach of reasonable curiosity. Dr Johnson has said in his Journey, 'that he scarcely remembered how the wish to visit the Hebrides was excited'; but he told me, in summer, 1763, that his father put Martin's Account into his hands when he was very young, and that he was much pleased with it. We reckoned there would be some inconveniencies and hardships, and perhaps a little danger; but these we were persuaded were magnified in the imagination of every body. When I was at Ferney, in 1764, I mentioned our design to Voltaire. He looked at me, as if I had talked of going to the North Pole, and said, 'You do not insist on my accompanying you?' 'No, sir.' 'Then I am very willing you should go.' I was not afraid that our curious expedition would be prevented by such apprehensions; but I doubted that it would not be possible to prevail on Dr Johnson to relinquish, for some time, the felicity of a London life, which, to a man who can enjoy it with full intellectual relish, is apt to make existence in any narrower sphere seem insipid or irksome. I doubted that he would not be willing to come down from his elevated state of philosophical dignity; from a superiority of wisdom among the wise, and of learning among the learned; and from flashing his wit upon minds bright enough to reflect it.
In the 18th Century Scotland was still viewed very much as a wild, strange, romantic, savage, and ancient place, hence, presumably, Voltaire reacting as though Boswell intended to take Johnson to the North Pole. Johnson's intellectual curiosity and Boswell's enthusiasm eventually motivated them and they went to explore the Highlands, though, as Johnson noted, they were a little too late: the Highlands had already changed considerably since the 1745 Jacobite Rising, a reaction to the union of Scotland and England in 1707. Savages, they found none, and the clan system had effectively collapsed due to new laws such as the Dress Act 1746 (prohibiting the Highland Dress; this was repealed in 1782), the Act of Proscription 1746 (a more rigorous imposing of the Disarming Act of 1716), and the Heritable Jurisdictions Act of 1746 (abolishing the judicial rights of a Scottish clan chief). Socially things were changing, and geographically too with the destruction of Scottish forests for ships' timbers, charcoal, and the like, though by 1773 the landscape and population hadn't changed so radically that it was unrecognisable. 

And so Boswell and Johnson started their trip in Edinburgh, and from there travelled to St. Andrews (30 miles north east of Edinburgh), St Andrews, Aberdeen and Inverness, and then up to the Hebrides, Hebrides, including Skye, Coll, and Mull, taking them from late summer through into autumn (83 days). It was a very productive and rewarding trip for the pair.  

Both Johnson and Boswell published an account of their trip: A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland by Samuel Johnson was first published in 1775 and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides by James Boswell was first published in 1786, eleven years later. Comparing the two books is very interesting indeed: they are in fact radically different.

Samuel Johnson.
Johnson's Journey to the Western Islands is largely anthropological. His account is carefully divided into sections of where they stayed, beginning with St. Andrews and ending with Inch Kenneth (Argyllshire, off the west coast of Mull), and he writes on the area - the geography, the people, the customs, the architecture, and any other curiosities or observations he found appropriate. In short, it is an account of what he saw and what he thought about it: very typically Johnson, I think. He is clearly impressed by Scotland, though the Journey is more academic in its approach (I felt his enthusiasm was a little reigned in). It makes for an interesting read, though I have to admit it is a tad dry. This is a book I've tried several times unsuccessfully for the past three years or so, and I think it's down to that ever so slightly clinical approach. Even so, well worth the read.

James Boswell.
Then there is Boswell's Tour. If Johnson wrote on Scotland, Boswell, it can be said, wrote on Johnson. Much of it seemed to be about 'funny things Johnson said'! His Tour was written five years before the publication of his biography of Johnson - The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791), it's almost a precursor, or an extension - 'Johnson in Scotland'. The tone of it is so very different: it's fresh, fun, and anecdotal, and at times very funny indeed. It is very much like The Life of Samuel Johnson in its conversational tone and I did enjoy it a great deal more than Johnson's account - I read both accounts of their trip not so much out of curiosity for Scotland, more out of curiosity for the authors. For that reason, because at times Scotland felt more like the setting as opposed to the purpose in Boswell's account, I did favour A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. If however the reader is more interested in Scotland's geography and customs in the late 18th Century, Johnson is very much the man for it. 

I am glad I've finally read these two books. For me, as I've said, they were fascinating to compare; I've learned about the two authors, their great friendship (Boswell's affection for Johnson is rather touching), and, as hoped, a little of Scotland. I do recommend these books, but, with regards to Johnson, his Journey is not the easiest of reads. 


  1. These sound like fun reads. I know you've read some Johnson before ...... was if helpful, or could one dive right into this story and still appreciate it without background on the authors? The very different accounts seem to complement each other. I have it on my shelf --- both in one volume ----- so perhaps I can get to it next year.

    1. I wouldn't say it was at all helpful to have read some Johnson before - you can dive right in! I do think it's an excellent excellent introduction to Boswell, and it's a good introduction to Johnson - all I'd say is it's not my favourite of his. I like his essays the best, and I do think you'd enjoy his preface to the works of William Shakespeare.

      BUT - that said - if you're also interested in a bit of Scottish history, Johnson's book would be very good indeed :)

      And they do compliment each other very nicely - aside from learning about Scotland, reading the two, we also learn a little about the authors, which I found pleasant :)

  2. I should really read this, it sounds like fun. In fact, I should re-read the biography....

    1. Do read it and let me know what you think :) I'd like to re-read the biography at some point myself. I enjoyed it very much but think I'd enjoy it all the more a second time around!

  3. Dive right in, says I! You'll know plenty about both by the time you're done.

    Boswell's book is essentially part of the biography. Boswell skips this episode in the big book because he covered it in this one.

    1. Yes, I remember that bit now! I did like that biography.

      Think this volume of the 'Scottish Tour' by Boswell and Johnson is a good introduction, but as I said to Cleo there are better (in my mind) Johnsons, or certainly more accessible ones. I'm biased towards the essays though, that's where I got my Johnson intro :)


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