Thursday, 25 July 2013

Doctor Johnson's 'Journey to the Western Islands'.

 The  Editor's command has made me get down from a top shelf a little squat duodecimo which I have not opened for many a year.   I presume my copy is the first edition; at any rate it was issued in the year of the first edition, and though it is wrongly paged and bears an Irish imprint, the bookplate of the first Lord Sheffield would seem a guarantee of authenticity.    I can scarcely think that a noted bibliophile like Gibbon's friend and editor would content himself with a pirated version.    I read the book years ago in a fishing inn in Argyll, and it is, perhaps, scarcely a work which calls for frequent re-reading. 

The truth is that Johnson's “Journey to the Western Islands compares ill with Boswell's " Tour to the Hebrides."  Johnson was no picaresque chronicler of wayside humours, and he had not the art of that delightful form of literature which the French call  camets de voyage.  He is no Borrow or Stevenson to reproduce for the fireside reader the glamour of travel, and, unlike Boswell, he is too modest, too dignified, to give us gossip.  He tells of his adventures as the leader of an advance party might report to his commanding officer—an accurate but colourless itinerary'.   Indeed, it was as a leader of an advance party that he thought of himself, a scout sent forth from the coffee-houses of Town to report on the outer darkness of the North.   If you want a parallel you will find it in that desiccated narrative, the" Anabasis " of Xenophon. 
Johnson was inspirited to risk the journey, Boswell tells us, by reading Martin's “Description of the Western Islands of Scotland." Martin was a Skye man, and his exceedingly dull work was first issued in 1703. The world about 1770 was banning to talk about the "life of nature," and speculate on sociology. Johnson's purpose was more than half-scientific. The Highlands were the nearest approach to the free and barbaric natural existence about which eighteenth-century literati talked wisely and knew nothing. The honest old Doctor had a conscience beyond his contemporaries; he determined to go and see. So at the age of sixty-four he packed his bag, hoisted his huge body on a horse, and set off like a boy on his first expedition, sacrificing all the comforts of Fleet Street, agreeable and admiring ladies, and innumerable cups of tea. Who can withhold admiration from a spirit so candid and indomitable?

But even if the purpose of the journey had been less courageous, the record of it might merit our attention for its own sake. It is a masterpiece of pure and stately English, I do not know any work in which the style is a finer example of Augustan prose at its best. Then, again, Johnson's was an intelligence of the first order, and his comments are never negligible. He might be lacking sometimes in knowledge, but, like Alan Breck, he never failed in “penetration." So we may welcome the inspiration in the Lochaber glen which prompted the work. Here is his own account:—

        I sat down on a bank, such as a writer of romance might have delighted to feign. I had indeed no trees to whisper over my head, but a clear rivulet streamed at my feet. The day was calm, the air soft, and all was rudeness, silence, and solitude. Before me, and on either side, were high hills, which by hindering the eye from ranging forced the mind to find entertainment for itself. Whether I spent the hour well, I know not; for here I first conceived the thought of this narration.

Boswell has described for us the traveller. " He wore a full suit of plain brown clothes, with twisted hair buttons of the same colour, a large bushy greyish wig, a plain shirt, black worsted stockings, and silver buckles. Upon this tour, when journeying, he wore boots, and a very wide brown cloth greatcoat, with pockets which might have almost held the two volumes of his folio 'Dictionary' and he carried in his hand a large English oak stick." We can imagine that after a debauch of Edinburgh intellectual society he was not sorry to get on the road again. He travelled light, and had no reason to regret it in a land where " that which is not mountain is commonly bog." 

 John Buchan
"It is not to be imagined without experience," he tells us, '' how in climbing crags, and treading bogs, and winding through narrow and obstructed passages, a little bulk will hinder and a little weight will burthen; 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."

What the doctor's baggage consisted of we are not told ; Boswell, we know, was accompanied by a volume of sermons, a map of Scotland, and a Bible.
We may pass rapidly over the earlier stages of the journey among the sour corn lands of Fife and the Mearns. At St Andrews they had a spate of professors and much meditation among ruins. At Montrose, to Johnson's surprise, they found an English chapel with an organ ! In Aberdeen the Doctor was given an honorary degree, and observed that the women of the lower classes were " visibly employed " knitting stockings. He visited the Bullers of Buchan, and considered that Slains Castle might be a good place to realise the Lucretian situation, " Suave mari magno," & The treelessness of Scotland oppressed him. “I had now travelled two hundred miles in Scotland and seen only one tree not younger than myself." Another saddening fact was that the windows in the houses seemed to be designed not to open. " He that would have his window open must hold it with his hand, unless what may be sometimes found among good contrivers, there be a nail which he may stick into a hole, to keep it from falling." He still complained of crumpled rose leaves, for he had not sampled Highland shielings and the Outer Isles.

At Nairn, according to his own view, he entered the Highlands, for there he first saw peat fires and heard Gaelic. Thence by way of Inverness he traversed the Great Glen, amazed at the multitude of waters, and, like a true Southron, apprehensive of the barrenness of streams that did not flow deep.    " Such capricious and temporary waters cannot be expected to produce many fish," he writes, with perhaps the Loch in his mind!    His night's lodging was now a matter of adventure; in an inn he might have to enter a couch new vacated by “a man black as Cyclops from the forge," or in a gentleman's house find a bed of fine linen standing in a puddle on the bare earth.  On the whole he was a philosophical traveller, and he seems to have been lucky in the way of food.    He tasted the delicacies of a Scots breakfast.    “If an epicure could remove by a wish, in quest of sensual gratification, wherever he had supped he would breakfast in Scotland."  In the islands, however he was disgusted by the spectacle of cheese at the morning meal!  Whisky he did not like, and only once tasted it —at   Inveraray.  He  records with admiration’ that the inhabitants of the Hebrides begin the day with a dram. Let it be added that Boswell and he attempted, and succeeded in, the pious task of making some English soldiers very drunk on the road to Glenelg.
The mountains made a strong impression on this traveller to whom Primrose Hill had hitherto done duty for a height. They saddened and solemnised, but they did not terrify him. He notes that they deserved, like the Homeric Ida, the epithet "abundant in springs," but by no means the phrase used of Pelion, “waving their leaves." His orderly and cultivated tastes were depressed by the " wide extent of hopeless sterility," and like every English traveller of his day he disliked the heather- "one sullen power of useless vegetation." He loved the classic line, and the evidences of civilisation and art. Here is his comment on Loch Lomond: “The islets, which court the gazer at a distance, disgust him at his approach, when he finds, instead of soft lawns and shady thickets, nothing more than uncultivated ruggedness." But at any rate he perceived the quality of the wilds, even if he did not welcome it. He was oppressed with a sense of the littleness of man. Unlike his modish contemporaries, Johnson could realise the sublimity of the deserts, of wild lochs and lonely seas. He fled from it to an inn or a tea-table, but he took off his hat to it all the while. He is immeasurably beyond the townsman, who, having ascended a few hundred feet of Helvellyn, was horrified by the sight, had blood let, and was carried home ; or even Burt, to whom the mountains were only " a dirty purple, but most disagreeable when the heath is in bloom."

The real adventures began in Skye. There he was taken to the hearts of the lairds, and saw island life from the inside. He was full of fine notions of chieftainship and their duties, and fell foul of Sir Alexander Macdonald at Armidale for being more of an Etonian than a Highlander. Sir Alexander rackrented his tenants and aped urban gentility. Raasay was more to the Doctor's liking, and a very pleasant ant picture he draws of his entertainment there —" nothing but civility, elegance, and plenty "—good food, books, and dances of an evening. Thence he journeyed to Dunvegan, visiting Flora Macdonald on the way. Though the mighty ridge of the Coolin must have been continually before his eyes, there is no sentence to hint that he saw anything in it more remarkable than in the more commonplace hills of Lochaber.

At one spot only was he struck with awe. Talisker had not then its convivial associations. "Talisker," he wrote,  "is  the place beyond all that I have seen from which the gay and the jovial seem utterly excluded; and where the hermit might expect to grow old in meditation without possibility of disturbance or interruption." " What must be the solicitude of him," he asks, " who should be wandering among the crags and hollows, benighted, ignorant, and alone ? " Let it be a comfort to the members of the Club when they are next travelling on a starless night the long road between Glenbrittle and Sligachan that Dr Johnson foresaw and pitied their fate.

From Skye the travellers went south by Coll, where to their joy they found a shop at which Boswell purchased writing-paper. They next landed at Tobermory and pushed southward through Mull to visit lona. On this stage the lexicographer's mind envisaged the subject of afforestation. The objection, he thought, was the poverty of the people.

       Plantation is naturally the employment of a mind unburdened with care, and vacant to futurity, saturated with present good, and at leisure to derive gratification from the prospect of posterity. He that pines with hunger, is in little care how others shall be fed. The poor man is seldom studious to make his grandson rich.

  They visited Ulva, and at Inchkenneth found Sir Allan Maclean, the chief of the clan, who accompanied them to lona. Every schoolboy knows, and has turned into Latin prose, the famous passage which ends in the typically Augustan declamation: " That man is little to be envied whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of lona." Less often quoted is the delightful account of the Doctor's arrival at Lochbuie—"where we found a true Highland laird, rough and haughty, and tenacious of his dignity; who, hearing my name, inquired whether I was of the  Johnstones  of Glencoe or of Ardnamurchan." This is in teresting, for it tells us that the Maclans—that sorrowfully fated clan—were accustomed to translate their name into  'Johnson' and thence, and most incorrectly, to the Lowland Scottish  Johnstone,

The purpose of the journey was sociological—how Doctor Johnson would have condemned Comte's bastard word!—and the "Journal" is full of reflections upon the transition of the Highlands from patriarchalism to a modern society. Emigration was the Doctor's pet aversion, for he did not believe in any law of supply and demand for human souls. He set out with a prejudice, for, as he told Sir William Forbes in Edinburgh, “it  spreads mankind, which weakens the defence of a nation and lessens the comfort of living. Men thinly scattered make a shift, but a bad shift, without many things. A smith is ten miles off; they'll do without a nail or a staple. A tailor is far from them; they'll botch their own clothes. It is being concentrated which produces high convenience." Again and again he returns to the subject, how to find some means

 " to  stop this epidemic desire of wandering." Some of his reasoning will not appeal to us. He conceived of no future before the colonies ; a " nation scattered in the boundless regions of America" seemed to him destined to remain a scattered nation—like rays diverging from a focus, the rays remaining but the heat gone. Nevertheless there is much in his argument, which the world, having forgotten the truth for a hundred years, is now preparing to recognise. Take such a passage as this :—

       In more fruitful countries the removal of one only makes room for the succession of another; but in the Hebrides the loss of an inhabitant leaves a lasting vacuity; for nobody born in any other part of the world will choose this country for his residence; and an island once depopulated will remain a desert. . . . Let it be inquired whether the first intention of those who are fluttering on the wing and collecting a flock, that they may take their flight, be to attain good or to avoid evil. If they are dissatisfied with that part of the globe which their birth has allotted to them, and resolve not to live without the pleasure of happier climates; if they long for bright suns, and calm skies, and flowery fields, and fragrant gardens, I know not by what eloquence they can be persuaded, or by what offers they can be hired to stay. But if they are driven from this country by positive evils, and disgusted by ill-treatment, real or imaginary, it were fit to remove their grievances and quiet their resentment.

The observations on Scotland and the Scots are gentler than one might imagine from a reading of Boswell. Doctor Johnson had a sense of decency; he was not prepared to repay hospitality by acrimonious comment, and he had a proper traveller's modesty. " I cannot but be conscious," so runs the last sentence of the book," that my thoughts on national manners are the thoughts of one who has seen but little." Yet there are some delightful notes. "The conversation of the Scots," he says, " grows every day less un-pleasing to the English ; their peculiarities wear fast away ; their dialect is likely to become in half a century provincial and rustic, even to themselves." It is only too true. In good company, he records, Scots is seldom heard, “except now and then from an old lady." To-day we should have to go far to find that old lady. Here is perhaps the least amiable comment, though who shall say it is wholly undeserved ? "A Scotchman must be a very sturdy moralist, who does not love Scotland better than truth. He will always love it better than inquiry, and if falsehood flatters, his vanity will not be very diligent to detect it." Lastly, let me quote a passage which is an excellent example of the Doctor at his best:—
        Men bred in the universities of Scotland cannot be expected to be often decorated with the splendour of ornamental erudition, but they obtain a mediocrity of knowledge, between learning and ignorance, not inadequate to the purpose of common life, which is, I believe, very widely diffused among them, and which, countenanced in general by a national combination so invidious that their friends cannot defend it, and actuated in particular by a spirit of enterprise so vigorous that their enemies are constrained to praise it, enables them to find or to make their way to employment, riches, and distinction.

Augustan prose has its limitations. It can be unintentionally comic, with its sonorous epithets, as when, describing the " tail" of a chief, he laments that this " animating rabble" is now no more. When it is playful it suggests the mountains leaping like rams, as in a note about a girls' school at Inverness. "Hither the young nymphs of the mountains and valleys are sent for education, and as far as my observation has reached, are not sent in vain." But it has its own dignity and beauty, and it suited well with the character of one who, though not among our greatest writers, is assuredly among the greatest figures in our literature. My last quotation shall be a sketch of the minister of Coll, which seems to me the most self-revealing passage in all Doctor Jonson's works :—

His conversation was not unsuitable to his appearance. I lost some of his good-will by treating a heretical writer with more regard than, in his opinion, a heretic could deserve. I honoured his orthodoxy, and did not much censure his asperity. A man who has settled his opinions does not love to have the tranquillity of his convictions disturbed, and at seventy-seven it is time to be in earnest.

John Buchan: Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal: 1913