|Journals of a tour in the Hebrides
||[Jun. 3rd, 2015|10:25 pm]
My travelling companions (and this is the first holiday on which all of my reading matter has been supplied by my Kindle) were James Boswell's Journal of his tour to the Hebrides with Dr Johnson, and, when I finished it (on the ferry across the Sound of Harris to Berneray and the Uists) Johnson's own account. I wrote most of what follows on the MV Clansman, sailing from Barra to Oban, and finished the post at home this evening.
In a sense, I was reading in reverse order, because although Boswell's book appears to be a straight transcription of the journal he kept during the trip, Johnson published first. (I have since read Martin Martin's Voyage to St Kilda, though not yet his Description of the Western Islands of Scotland which they both acknowledge as a predecessor, and an inspiration for their desire to see these wild and inaccessible regions for themselves. Aren't e-books a wonderful thing? The Martin, as I recall, was cheap, and the other two free.) But it worked out rather well this way round. Johnson's account feels like a distillation of Boswell's: Boswell writes about the trip, the process of travelling with the great man, Johnson writes about what they saw and learned. Johnson is interested in the world: Boswell is interested in people (Johnson, of course, but also the people to whom his companion and, to be fair, his own family connections, his father, allow him to secure an introduction) Amost incidentally, claiming he is content to reveal unflattering details about himself if they allow him to cast a light on some aspect of his hero, Boswell is interested in himself.
He would have made a great blogger. He has his subject, in his dedication to a total record of Dr Johnson's every last word and deed - and you thought that total recording of a life is a post-internet phenomenon! No detail is too trivial, no remark too banal - and not all of Johnson's witticisms are actually witty, not all of his brilliant perceptions are strokes of genius. On the island of Col, the travellers in their bedchamber debate who has the better bedding. Boswell admits that Johnson's bed has the better curtains, which are linen, but maintains his has the better posts: "Well," says the Doctor, "if you HAVE the best POSTS, we will have you tried to them and whipped." This, says Boswell, demonstrates how competitive his friend is, even in the most trivial matters. He is reluctant to take Johnson to visit his father, knowing they disagree on politics, but receives such a pressing invitation that he cannot decline. The visit goes well, but Boswell later learns that his father has taken to referring to Johnson as Ursa Major, which sums it up precisely the image of him I gained from Boswell's account. I suspect a degree of performance in his argumentativeness, his desire for the last word on all occasions. He can be charming, praising the company and flirting with the young women; but I notice that on those rare occasions when he is not the centre of attention, he declares himself tired and goes to bed.
It is not a sycophantic portrait. Boswell tells us Johnson is charming, lovable, but his narrative does not make so. Yet in Johnson's own book, something of this quality comes through: he is more congenial company than I had expected. He is still prone to declare that this must be so, this cannot be so, despite what local people say to the contrary - but he also admits that there are things he doesn't know, didn't measure, failed to make a note of at the time. Despite his famous witticisms at the expense of Scotland and the Scots, he praises almost everyone he meets, and makes allowances for things which he might have been expected to complain of (yes, he says, things might be better ordered, houses cleaner, but people cannot be expected to aspire to what they have never known).
He has a romantic attachment to the past glories of Highland Chieftains, and clan loyalties (as does Boswell: "The very Highland names, or the sound of a bagpipe will stir my blood, and fill me with ... a crowd of sensations with which sober rationality has nothing to do," but then Boswell is a Scot, albeit a Lowlander, and admits to a more emotional outlook than Johnson's stern rationalism). Johnson had hoped to observe and record the old way of life of the Highlands as it was, before the repression of the clans after Culloden. He argues that depriving the clan chieftains of their quasi-absolute powers in exchange for cash has introduced purely financial values to territories and relationships from which they had been absent: no doubt this is nostalgia for a golden age which never existed, but I remembered his words when I read at the Heritage Centre in Castlebay about the nineteenth century Clearances of Barra.
This wasn't ancient history for Johnson: he published his account in 1775, a generation after Culloden. Among the aristocratic Scots who were delighted to welcome this representative of literary London were people who had been directly involved in the uprising, and I was startled to discover they included Flora Macdonald. More startled than I should have been, I suppose - Boswell notes the political and geographical dissonance: "To see Dr Samuel Johnson, the great champion of the English Tories, salute Miss Flora Macdonald in the isle of Sky, was a striking sight," but I felt as if a historical figure had sat down to supper with a character from a fairy tale. Boswell's use of the title 'Miss' reflects her legendary status, for she had since married (though remaining a Macdonald). Johnson tempts her to tell her story, and remarks that this should be written down; Boswell obliges.
The concern that things should be written down, that they should not be lost, is central to Johnson's approach. There is an anthropological strand to his book: he is scrupulous in reporting, and makes a creditable effort not to judge. He notes, for example, that peat is the only fuel of the islands, and attempts to record scientifically what he has learned about it: he knows how it is obtained, but admits that he doesn't know what it is. Is it bituminous earth, which burns in its entirety, or is it just the vegetable fibres which burn? Local people tell him that peat grows again where it is cut, and he concludes that since it appears to be vegetable, this may be true: a notice at the Hebridean Smokehouse claims that peat is accummulating on the Uists faster than it is being used. A recurrent inquiry concerns the existence or otherwise of second sight. I was bemused by Johnson's interest in this subject, until I realised that he treats this, too, as a scientific investigation: what do people claim happens, and does it really? I'm not entirely clear what he concludes: it seems to be that what is claimed is so little and so vague that it may as well be true.
What I hadn't realised is that Boswell and Johnson did not visit the Outer Hebrides. They landed on several of the islands of the Inner Hebrides: Skye (which they refer to as 'Sky', throughout), Raasay, Mull, Coll (unintentionally), and a number of smaller islands, including Iona. Did they ever intend to go on to the 'long island'? Possibly not, as they were constrained by Boswell's professional commitments (it is Johnson, not Boswell, who spells this out: they are traveling later in the year than is ideal, to fit in with legal vacations). The outer islands are barely mentioned: "There is not," says Johnson, "in the Western Islands any collection of buildings that can make pretensions to be called a town, except in the Isle of Lewis, which I have not seen." Oddly, though he mentions Lewis only twice, and Harris not at all, there are three references to the most remote of all the islands of the Outer Hebrides, St Kilda. (Boswell refers to the notorious story of Lady Grange, which Johnson doesn't feign to notice). Much of their narrative is taken up with the journey through mainland Scotland to and from the islands, in which they followed a route complately different to ours, so our itineraries only coincided on the Isle of Skye, and even there, they spent much of their time enjoying the hospitality of the Macdonalds at Dunvegan, which we - didn't. In fact, the closest we came to the footsteps of out predecessors was at Talisker - but that's another story.