Journal Of A Tour To The Hebrides With Samuel Johnson

Wednesday, 18th August

On this day we set out from Edinburgh. We should gladly have had Mr Scott to go with us; but he was obliged to return to England. I have given a sketch of Dr Johnson: my readers may wish to know a little of his fellow traveller. Think then, of a gentleman of ancient blood, the pride of which was his predominant passion. He was then in his thirty-third year, and had been about four years happily married. His inclination was to be a soldier; but his father, a respectable judge, had pressed him into the profession of the law. He had travelled a good deal, and seen many varieties of human life. He had thought more than any body supposed, and had a pretty good stock of general learning and knowledge. He had all Dr Johnson’s principles, with some degree of relaxation. He had rather too little, than too much prudence, and, his imagination being lively, he often said things of which the effect was very different from the intention. He resembled sometimes

The best good man, with the worst natur’d muse.

He cannot deny himself the vanity of finishing with the encomium of Dr Johnson, whose friendly partiality to the companion of his Tour represents him as one, ‘whose acuteness would help my inquiry, and whose gaiety of conversation, and civility of manners, are sufficient to counteract the inconveniences of travel, in countries less hospitable than we have passed.’

Dr Johnson thought it unnecessary to put himself to the additional expense of bringing with him Francis Barber, his faithful black servant; so we were attended only by my man, Joseph Ritter, a Bohemian; a fine stately fellow above six feet high, who had been over a great part of Europe, and spoke many languages. He was the best servant I ever saw. Let not my readers disdain his introduction! For Dr Johnson gave him this character: ‘Sir, he is a civil man, and a wise man.’

From an erroneous apprehension of violence, Dr Johnson had provided a pair of pistols, some gun-powder, and a quantity of bullets: but upon being assured we should run no risk of meeting any robbers, he left his arms and ammunition in an open drawer, of which he gave my wife the charge. He also left in that drawer one volume of a pretty full and curious Diary of his Life, of which I have a few fragments; but the book has been destroyed. I wish female curiosity had been strong enough to have had it all transcribed, which might easily have been done; and I should think the theft, being pro bono publico, might have been forgiven. But I may be wrong. My wife told me she never once looked into it. She did not seem quite easy when we left her: but away we went!

Mr Nairne, advocate, was to go with us as far as St Andrews. It gives me pleasure that, by mentioning his name, I connect his title to the just and handsome compliment paid him by Dr Johnson, in his book: ‘A gentleman who could stay with us only long enough to make us know how much we lost by his leaving us.’ When we came to Leith, I talked with perhaps too boasting an air, how pretty the Frith of Forth looked; as indeed, after the prospect from Constantinople, of which I have been told, and that from Naples, which I have seen, I believe the view of that Frith and its environs, from the Castle Hill of Edinburgh, is the finest prospect in Europe. ‘Ay,’ said Dr Johnson, ‘that is the state of the world. Water is the same every where.

Una est injusti caerula forma maris. [Footnote: Non illic urbes, non tu mirabere silvas: Una est injusti caerula forma maris.

Ovid. Amor. II. xi.

Nor groves nor towns the ruthless ocean shows; Unvaried still its azure surface flows.]

I told him the port here was the mouth of the river or water of Leith. ‘Not LETHE,’ said Mr Nairne. ‘Why, sir,’ said Dr Johnson, ‘when a Scotchman sets out from this port for England, he forgets his native country.’ NAIRNE. ‘I hope, sir, you will forget England here.’ JOHNSON. ‘Then ’twill be still more Lethe.’ He observed of the pier or quay, ‘you have no occasion for so large a one: your trade does not require it: but you are like a shopkeeper who takes a shop, not only for what he has to put into it, but that it may be believed he has a great deal to put into it’. It is very true, that there is now, comparatively, little trade upon the eastern coast of Scotland. The riches of Glasgow shew how much there is in the west; and perhaps we shall find trade travel westward on a great scale, as well as a small.

We talked of a man’s drowning himself. JOHNSON. ‘I should never think it time to make away with myself.’ I put the case of Eustace Budgell, who was accused of forging a will, and sunk himself in the Thames, before the trial of its authenticity came on. ‘Suppose, sir,’ said I, ‘that a man is absolutely sure, that, if he lives a few days longer, he shall be detected in a fraud, the consequence of which will be utter disgrace and expulsion from society.’ JOHNSON. ‘Then, sir, let him go abroad to a distant country; let him go to some place where he is NOT known. Don’t let him go to the devil where he IS known!’

He then said, ‘I see a number of people bare-footed here: I suppose you all went so before the Union. Boswell, your ancestors went so, when they had as much land as your family has now. Yet Auchinleck is the Field of Stones: there would be bad going bare-footed here. The lairds, however, did it.’ I bought some speldings, fish (generally whitings) salted and dried in a particular manner, being dipped in the sea and dried in the sun, and eaten by the Scots by way of a relish. He had never seen them, though they are sold in London. I insisted on scottifying [Footnote: My friend, General Campbell, Governour of Madras, tells me, that they make speldings in the East Indies, particularly at Bombay, where they call them Bambaloes.] his palate; but he was very reluctant. With difficulty I prevailed with him to let a bit of one of them lie in his mouth. He did not like it.

In crossing the Frith, Dr Johnson determined that we should land upon Inch Keith. On approaching it, we first observed a high rocky shore. We coasted about, and put into a little bay on the north-west. We clambered up a very steep ascent, on which was very good grass, but rather a profusion of thistles. There were sixteen head of black cattle grazing upon the island. Lord Hailes observed to me, that Brantome calls it L’isle des Chevaux, and that it was probably ‘a SAFER stable’ than many others in his time. The fort, with an inscription on it, MARIA RE 1564, is strongly built. Dr Johnson examined it with much attention. He stalked like a giant among the luxuriant thistles and nettles. There are three wells in the island; but we could not find one in the fort. There must probably have been one, though now filled up, as a garrison could not subsist without it. But I have dwelt too long on this little spot. Dr Johnson afterwards bade me try to write a description of our discovering Inch Keith, in the usual style of travellers, describing fully every particular; stating the grounds on which we concluded that it must have once been inhabited, and introducing many sage reflections; and we should see how a thing might be covered in words, so as to induce people to come and survey it. All that was told might be true, and yet in reality there might be nothing to see. He said, ‘I’d have this island. I’d build a house, make a good landing-place, have a garden, and vines, and all sorts of trees. A rich man, of a hospitable turn, here, would have many visitors from Edinburgh.’ When we had got into our boat again, he called to me, ‘Come, now, pay a classical compliment to the island on quitting it.’ I happened luckily, in allusion to the beautiful Queen Mary, whose name is upon the fort, to think of what Virgil makes Aeneas say, on having left the country of his charming Dido:

Invitus, regina, tuo de littare cessi. [Footnote: Unhappy queen! Unwilling I forsook your friendly state. DRYDEN]

‘Very well hit off!’ said he.

We dined at Kinghorn, and then got into a post-chaise. Mr Nairne and his servant, and Joseph, rode by us. We stopped at Cupar, and drank tea. We talked of Parliament; and I said, I supposed very few of the members knew much of what was going on, as indeed very few gentlemen know much of their own private affairs. JOHNSON. ‘Why, sir, if a man is not of a sluggish mind, he may be his own steward. If he will look into his affairs, he will soon learn. So it is as to publick affairs. There must always be a certain number of men of business in Parliament.’ BOSWELL. ‘But consider, sir; what is the House of Commons? Is not a great part of it chosen by peers? Do you think, sir, they ought to have such an influence?’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, sir. Influence must ever be in proportion to property; and it is right it should.’ BOSWELL. ‘But is there not reason to fear that the common people may be oppressed?’ JOHNSON. ‘No, sir. Our great fear is from want of power in government. Such a storm of vulgar force has broke in.’ BOSWELL. ‘It has only roared.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, it has roared, till the Judges in Westminster Hall have been afraid to pronounce sentence in opposition to the popular cry. You are frightened by what is no longer dangerous, like Presbyterians by popery.’ He then repeated a passage, I think, in Butler’s Remains, which ends, ‘and would cry, Fire! Fire! in Noah’s flood’. [Footnote: The passage quoted by Dr Johnson is in the Character of the Assembly-man. Butler’s Remains, p. 232, edit. 1754. ‘He preaches, indeed, both in season and out of season; for he rails at Popery, when the land is almost lost in Presbytery; and would cry Fire! Fire! in Noah’s flood.’

There is no reason to believe that this piece was not written by Butler, but by Sir John Birkenhead; for Wood, in his Athenae Oxonienses. Vol. II. p. 460. enumerates it among that gentleman’s works, and gives the following account of it:

The Assembly-man (or The Character of an Assembly-man) written 1647, LOND. 1662-3, in three sheets in qu. The copy of it was taken from the author by those who said they could not rob, because all was theirs; so excised what they liked not; and so mangled and reformed it that it was no character of an Assembly, but of themselves. At length, after it had slept several years, the author published it, to avoid false copies. It is also reprinted in a book entit. Wit and Loyalty Revived, in a collection of some smart satyrs in verse and prose on the late times. LOND. 1682, qu. said to be written by Abr. Cowley, Sir John Birkenhead, and Hudibras, alias Sam. Butler.’ For this information I am indebted to Mr Reed, of Staple Inn.]

We had a dreary drive, in a dusky night, to St Andrews, where we arrived late. We found a good supper at Glass’s inn, and Dr Johnson revived agreeably. He said, ‘the collection called The Muses’ Welcome to King James (first of England, and sixth of Scotland), on his return to his native kingdom, shewed that there was then abundance of learning in Scotland; and that the conceits in that collection, with which people find fault, were mere mode’. He added, ‘we could not now entertain a sovereign so; that Buchanan had spread the spirit of learning amongst us, but we had lost it during the civil wars’. He did not allow the Latin poetry of Pitcairne so much merit as has been usually attributed to it; though he owned that one of his pieces, which he mentioned, but which I am sorry is not specified in my notes, was ‘very well’. It is not improbable that it was the poem which Prior has so elegantly translated.

After supper, we made a procession to Saint Leonard’s College, the landlord walking before us with a candle, and the waiter with a lantern. That college had some time before been dissolved; and Dr Watson, a professor here (the historian of Phillip II), had purchased the ground, and what buildings remained. When we entered his court, it seemed quite academical; and we found in his house very comfortable and genteel accommodation. [Footnote: My Journal, from this day inclusive, was read by Dr Johnson.]