I rose, and wrote my Journal till about nine; and then went to Dr Johnson, who sat up in bed and talked and laughed. I said, it was curious to look back ten years, to the time when we first thought of visiting the Hebrides. How distant and improbable the scheme then appeared! Yet here we were actually among them. ‘Sir,’ said he, ‘people may come to do any thing almost, by talking of it. I really believe, I could talk myself into building a house upon island Isa, though I should probably never come back again to see it. I could easily persuade Reynolds to do it; and there would be no great sin in persuading him to do it. Sir, he would reason thus: “What will it cost me to be there once in two or three summers? Why, perhaps, five hundred pounds; and what is that, in comparison of having a fine retreat, to which a man can go, or to which he can send a friend “ He would never find out that he may have this within twenty miles of London. Then I would tell him, that he may marry one of the Miss M’Leods, a lady of great family. Sir, it is surprising how people will go to a distance for what they may have at home. I knew a lady who came up from Lincolnshire to Knightsbridge with one of her daughters and gave five guineas a week for a lodging and a warm bath; that is, mere warm water. THAT, you know, could not be had in Lincolnshire! She said, it was made either too hot or too cold there.’
After breakfast, Dr Johnson and I, and Joseph, mounted horses, and Col and the captain walked with us about a short mile across the island. We paid a visit to the Reverend Mr Hector M’Lean. His parish consists of the islands of Col and Tyr-yi. He was about seventy-seven years of age, a decent ecclesiastick, dressed in a full suit of black clothes, and a black wig. He appeared like a Dutch pastor, or one of the assembly of divines at Westminster. Dr Johnson observed to me afterwards, ‘that he was a fine old man, and was as well-dressed, and had as much dignity in his appearance as the dean of a cathedral’. We were told, that he had a valuable library, though but poor accomodation for it, being obliged to keep his books in large chests. It was curious to see him and Dr Johnson together. Neither of them heard very distinctly; so each of them talked in his own way, and at the same time. Mr M’Lean said, he had a confutation of Bayle, by Leibnitz. JOHNSON. ‘A confutation of Bayle, sir! What part of Bayle do you mean? The greatest part of his writings is not confutable: it is historical and critical.’ Mr M’Lean said, ‘the irreligious part’; and proceeded to talk of Leibnitz’s controversy with Clarke, calling Leibnitz a great man. JOHNSON. ‘Why, sir, Leibnitz persisted in affirming that Newton called space sensorium numinis, notwithstanding he was corrected, and desired to observe that Newton’s words were quasisensorium numinis. No, sir, Leibnitz was as paltry a fellow as I know. Out of respect to Queen Caroline, who patronized him, Clarke treated him too well.’
During the time that Dr Johnson was thus going on, the old minister was standing with his back to the fire, cresting up erect, pulling down the front of his periwig, and talking what a great man Leibnitz was. To give an idea of the scene, would require a page with two columns; but it ought rather to be represented by two good players. The old gentleman said, Clarke was very wicked, for going so much into the Arian system. ‘I will not say he was wicked,’ said Dr Johnson; ‘he might be mistaken.’ M’LEAN. ‘He was wicked, to shut his eyes against the Scriptures; and worthy men in England have since confuted him to all intents and purposes.’ JOHNSON. ‘I know not WHO has confuted him to ALL INTENTS AND PURPOSES.’ Here again there was a double talking, each continuing to maintain his own argument, without hearing exactly what the other said.
I regretted that Dr Johnson did not practice the art of accommodating himself to different sorts of people. Had he been softer with this venerable old man, we might have had more conversation; but his forcible spirit; and impetuosity of manner, may be said to spare neither sex nor age. I have seen even Mrs Thrale stunned; but I have often maintained, that it is better he should retain his own manner. Pliability of address I conceive to be inconsistent with that majestick power of mind which he possesses, and which produces such noble effects. A lofty oak will not bend like a supple willow.
He told me afterwards, he liked firmness in an old man, and was pleased to see Mr M’Lean so orthodox. ‘At his age, it is too late for a man to be asking himself questions as to his belief.’
We rode to the northern part of the island, where we saw the ruins of a church or chapel. We then proceeded to a place called Grissipol, or the Rough Pool.
At Grissipol we found a good farm house, belonging to the Laird of Col, and possessed by Mr M’Sweyn. On the beach here there is a singular variety of curious stones. I picked up one very like a small cucumber. By the by, Dr Johnson told me, that Gay’s line in the Beggar’s Opera, ‘As men should serve a cucumber,’ &c. has no waggish meaning, with reference to men flinging away cucumbers as too COOLING, which some have thought; for it has been a common saying of physicians in England, that a cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing. Mr M’Sweyn’s predecessors had been in Sky from a very remote period, upon the estate belonging to M’Leod; probably before M’Leod had it. The name is certainly Norwegian, from Sueno, King of Norway. The present Mr M’Sweyn left Sky upon the late M’Leod’s raising his rents. He then got this farm from Col.
He appeared to be near fourscore; but looked as fresh, and was as strong as a man of fifty. His son Hugh looked older; and, as Dr Johnson observed, had more the manners of an old man than he. I had often heard of such instances, but never saw one before. Mrs M’Sweyn was a decent old gentlewoman. She was dressed in tartan, and could speak nothing but Erse. She said, she taught Sir James M’Donald Erse, and would teach me soon. I could now sing a verse of the song Hatyin foam’eri, made in honour of Allan, the famous Captain of Clanranald, who fell at Sherrif-muir; whose servant, who lay on the field watching his master’s dead body, being asked next day who that was, answered, ‘He was a man yesterday.’
We were entertained here with a primitive heartiness. Whisky was served round in a shell, according to the ancient Highland custom. Dr Johnson would not partake of it; but, being desirous to do honour to the modes ‘of other times’, drank some water out of the shell.
In the forenoon Dr Johnson said, ‘it would require great resignation to live in one of these islands.’ BOSWELL. ‘I don’t know, sir; I have felt myself at times in a state of almost mere physical existence, satisfied to eat, drink, and sleep, and walk about, and enjoy my own thoughts; and I can figure a continuation of this.’ JOHNSON. ‘Ay, sir; but if you were shut up here, your own thoughts would torment you: you would think of Edinburgh or London, and that you could not be there.’
We set out after dinner for Breacacha, the family seat of the Laird of Col, accompanied by the young laird, who had now got a horse, and by the younger Mr M’Sweyn, whose wife had gone thither before us, to prepare every thing for our reception, the laird and his family being absent at Aberdeen. It is called Breacacha, or the Spotted Field, because in summer it is enamelled with clover and daisies, as young Col told me. We passed by a place where there is a very large stone, I may call it a ROCK—‘a vast weight for Ajax’. The tradition is, that a giant threw such another stone at his mistress, up to the top of a hill, at a small distance; and that she in return, threw this mass down to him. It was all in sport. Malo me petit lasciva puella.
As we advanced, we came to a large extent of plain ground. I had not seen such a place for a long time. Col and I took a gallop upon it by way of race. It was very refreshing to me, after having been so long taking short steps in hilly countries. It was like stretching a man’s legs after being cramped in a short bed. We also passed close by a large extent of sand-hills, near two miles square. Dr Johnson said, ‘he never had the image before. It was horrible, if barrenness and danger could be so.’ I heard him, after we were in the house of Breacacha, repeating to himself, as he walked about the room,
‘“And smother’d in the dusty whirlwind, dies.”’
Probably he had been thinking of the whole of the simile in Cato, of which that is the concluding line; the sandy desart had struck him so strongly. The sand has of late been blown over a good deal of meadow; and the people of the island say, that their fathers remembered much of the space which is now covered with sand, to have been under tillage. Col’s house is situated on a bay called Breacacha Bay. We found here a neat new-built gentleman’s house, better than any we had been in since we were at Lord Errol’s. Dr Johnson relished it much at first, but soon remarked to me, that ‘there was nothing becoming a chief about it: it was a mere tradesman’s box.’ He seemed quite at home, and no longer found any difficulty in using the Highland address; for as soon as we arrived, he said, with a spirited familiarity, ‘Now, COL, if you could get us a dish of tea,’ Dr Johnson and I had each an excellent bed-chamber. We had a dispute which of us had the best curtains. His were rather the best, being of linen; but I insisted that my bed had the best posts, which was undeniable. ‘Well,’ said he, ‘if you HAVE the best POSTS, we will have you tied to them and whipped.’ I mention this slight circumstance, only to shew how ready he is, even in mere trifles, to get the better of his antagonist, by placing him in a ludicrous view. I have known him sometimes use the same art, when hard pressed in serious disputation. Goldsmith, I remember, to retaliate for many a severe defeat which he has suffered from him, applied to him a lively saying in one of Cibber’s comedies, which puts this part of his character in a strong light. ‘There is no arguing with Johnson; for, IF HIS PISTOL MISSES FIRE, HE KNOCKS YOU DOWN WITH THE BUT-END OF IT.’
After a sufficiency of sleep, we assembled at breakfast. We were just as if in barracks. Every body was master. We went and viewed the old castle of Col, which is not far from the present house, near the shore, and founded on a rock. It has never been a large feudal residence, and has nothing about it that requires a particular description. Like other old inconvenient buildings of the same age, it exemplified Gray’s picturesque lines,
Huge windows that exclude the light.
And passages that lead to nothing.
It may however be worth mentioning, that on the second story we saw a vault, which was, and still is, the family prison. There was a woman put into it by the laird, for theft, within these ten years; and any offender would be confined there yet; for, from the necessity of the thing, as the island is remote from any power established by law, the laird must exercise his jurisdiction to a certain degree.
We were shewn, in a corner of this vault, a hole, into which Col said greater criminals used to be put. It was now filled up with rubbish of different kinds. He said, it was of a great depth. ‘Ay,’ said Dr Johnson, smiling, ‘all such places, that ARE FILLED UP, were of a great depth.’ He is very quick in shewing that he does not give credit to careless or exaggerated accounts of things. After seeing the castle, we looked at a small hut near it. It is called Teigh Franchich, i.e. the Frenchman’s House. Col could not tell us the history of it. A poor man with a wife and children now lived in it. We went into it, and Dr Johnson gave them some charity. There was but one bed for all the family, and the hut was very smoky. When he came out, he said to me, ‘Et hoc secundum sententiam philosophorum est esse beatus.’ BOSWELL. ‘The philosophers, when they placed happiness in a cottage, supposed cleanliness and no smoke.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, they did not think about either.’
We walked a little in the laird’s garden, in which endeavours have been used to rear some trees; but, as soon as they got above the surrounding wall, they died. Dr Johnson recommended sowing the seeds of hardy trees, instead of planting.
Col and I rode out this morning, and viewed a part of the island. In the course of our ride, we saw a turnip-field, which he had hoed with his own hands. He first introduced this kind of husbandry into the Western islands. We also looked at an appearance of lead, which seemed very promising. It has been long known; for I found letters to the late laird, from Sir John Areskine and Sir Alexander Murray, respecting it.
After dinner came Mr M’Lean, of Corneck, brother to Isle of Muck, who is a cadet of the family of Col. He possesses the two ends of Col, which belong to the Duke of Argyll. Corneck had lately taken a lease of them at a very advanced rent, rather than let the Campbells get a footing in the island, one of whom had offered nearly as much as he. Dr Johnson well observed, that, ‘landlords err much when they calculate merely what their land MAY yield. The rent must be in a proportionate ratio of what the land may yield, and of the power of the tenant to make it yield. A tenant cannot make by his land, but according to the corn and cattle which he has. Suppose you should give him twice as much land as he has, it does him no good, unless he gets also more stock. It is clear then, that the Highland landlords, who let their substantial tenants leave them, are infatuated; for the poor small tenants cannot give them good rents, from the very nature of things. They have not the means of raising more from their farms.’ Corneck, Dr Johnson said, was the most distinct man that he had met with in these isles; he did not shut his eyes, or put his fingers in his ears, which he seemed to think was a good deal the mode with most of the people whom we have seen of late.
Captain M’Lean joined us this morning at breakfast. There came on a dreadful storm of wind and rain, which continued all day, and rather increased at night. The wind was directly against our getting to Mull. We were in a strange state of abstraction from the world: we could neither hear from our friends, nor write to them. Col had brought Daille On the Fathers, Lucas On Happiness, and More’s Dialogues, from the Reverend Mr M’Lean’s, and Burnet’s History of his own Times, from Captain M’Lean’s; and he had of his own some books of farming, and Gregory’s Geometry. Dr Johnson read a good deal of Burnet, and of Gregory, and I observed he made some geometrical notes in the end of his pocket-book. I read a little of Young’s Six Weeks Tour through the Southern Counties; and Ovid’s Epistles, which I had bought at Inverness, and which helped to solace many a weary hour.
We were to have gone with Dr Johnson this morning to see the mine; but were prevented by the storm. While it was raging, he said, ‘We may be glad we are not damnati ad metalla.’
Dr Johnson appeared to day very weary of our present confined situation. He said, ‘I want to be on the main land, and go on with existence. This is a waste of life.’
I shall here insert, without regard to chronology, some of his conversation at different times.
‘There was a man some time ago, who was well received for two years, among the gentlemen of Northamptonshire, by calling himself my brother. At last he grew so impudent as by his influence to get tenants turned out of their farms. Allen the printer, who is of that county, came to me, asking, with much appearance of doubtfulness, if I had a brother; and upon being assured I had none alive, he told me of the imposition, and immediately wrote to the country, and the fellow was dismissed. It pleased me to hear that so much was got by using my name. It is not every name that can carry double; do both for a man’s self and his brother’(laughing). ‘I should be glad to see the fellow. However, I could have done nothing against him. A man can have no redress for his name being used, or ridiculous stories being told of him in the news-papers, except he can shew that he has suffered damage. Some years ago a foolish piece was published, said to be written “by S. Johnson”. Some of my friends wanted me to be very angry about this. I said, it would be in vain; for the answer would be, S. Johnson may be Simon Johnson, or Simeon Johnson, or Solomon Johnson; and even if the full name, Samuel Johnson, had been used, it might be said; “it is not you; it is a much cleverer fellow.”
‘Beauclerk and I, and Langton, and Lady Sydney Beauclerk, mother to our friend, were one day driving in a coach by Cuper’s Gardens, which were then unoccupied. I, in sport, proposed that Beauclerk and Langton, and myself should take them; and we amused ourselves with scheming how we should all do our parts. Lady Sydney grew angry, and said, “an old man should not put such things in young people’s heads”. She had no notion of a joke, sir; had come late into life, and had a mighty unpliable understanding.
‘Carte’s Life of the Duke of Ormond is considered as a book of authority; but it is ill-written. The matter is diffused in too many words; there is no animation, no compression, no vigour. Two good volumes in duodecimo might be made out of the two in folio.’
Talking of our confinement here, I observed, that our discontent and impatience could not be considered as very unreasonable; for that we were just in the state of which Seneca complains so grievously, while in exile in Corsica. ‘Yes,’ said Dr Johnson, ‘and he was not farther from home than we are.’ The truth is, he was much nearer.
There was a good deal of rain to-day, and the wind was still contrary. Corneck attended me, while I amused myself in examining a collection of papers belonging to the family of Col. The first laird was a younger son of the chieftain M’Lean, and got the middle part of Col for his patrimony. Dr Johnson having given a very particular account of the connection between this family and a branch of the family of Camerons, called M’Lonich, I shall only insert the following document (which I found in Col’s cabinet), as a proof of its continuance, even to a late period:
To the Laird of Col.
The long-standing tract of firm affectionate friendship ‘twixt your worthy predecessors and ours affords us such assurance, as that we may have full relyance on your favour and undoubted friendship, in recommending the bearer, Ewen Cameron, our cousin, son to the deceast Dugall M’Connill of Innermaillie, sometime in Glenpean, to your favour and conduct, who is a man of undoubted honesty and discretion, only that he has the misfortune of being alledged to have been accessory to the killing of one of M’Martin’s family about fourteen years ago, upon which alledgeance the M’Martins are now so sanguine on revenging, that they are fully resolved for the deprivation of his life; to the preventing of which you are relyed on by us, as the only fit instrument and a most capable person. Therefore your favour and protection is expected and intreated, during his good behaviour; and failing of which behaviour, you’ll please to use him as a most insignificant person deserves.
Sir, he had, upon the alledgeance foresaid, been transported, at Lochiel’s desire, to France, to gratify the M’Martins, and upon his return home, about five years ago, married: But now he is so much theatened by the M’Martins, that he is not secure enough to stay where he is, being Ardmurchan, which occasions this trouble to you. Wishing prosperity and happiness to attend still yourself, worthy Lady, and good family, we are, in the most affectionate manner,
Your most obliged, affectionate,
and most humble servants,
DUGALL CAMERON, of Strone.
DUGALL CAMERON, of Ban.
DUGALL CAMERON, of Inveriskvouilline.
DUGALL CAMERON, of Invinvalie.
Strone, 11th March, 1737.
Ewen Cameron was protected, and his son has now a farm from the Laird of Col, in Mull.
The family of Col was very loyal in the time of the great Montrose, from whom I found two letters in his own hand-writing. The first is as follows.
FOR MY VERY LOVING FRIEND THE LAIRD OF COALL.
I must heartily thank you for all your willingness and good affection to his Majesty’s service, and particularly the sending alongs of your son, to who I will heave ane particular respect, hopeing also that you will still continue ane goode instrument for the advanceing ther of the King’s service, for which, and all your former loyal carriages, be confident you shall find the effects of his Mas favour, as they can be witnessed you by
Your very faithful friende,
Strethearne, 20 Jan. 1646
The other is,
FOR THE LAIRD OF COL.
Having occasion to write to your fields, I cannot be forgetful of your willingness and good affection to his Majesty’s service. I acknowledge to you, and thank you heartily for it assuring, that in what lies in my power, you shall find the good. Mean while, I shall expect that you will continue your loyal endeavours, in wishing those slack people that are about you, to appear more obedient than they do, and loyal in their prince’s service; whereby I assure you, you shall find me ever
Your faithful friend,
Petty, 17 April, 1646. †
† [Note: It is observeable that men of the first rank spelt very ill in the last century. In the first of these letters I have preserved the original spelling.]
I found some uncouth lines on the death of the present laird’s father, intituled ‘Nature’s Elegy upon the Death of Donald Maclean of Col’. They are not worth insertion. I shall only give what is called his Epitaph, which Dr Johnson said, ‘was not so very bad’.
Nature’s minion. Virtue’s wonder,
Art’s corrective here lyes under.
I asked, what ‘Art’s corrective’ meant. ‘Why, sir,’ said he, ‘that the laird was so exquisite, that he set Art right, when she was wrong.’
I found several letters to the late Col, from my father’s old companion at Paris, Sir Hector M’Lean, one of which was written at the time of settling the colony in Georgia. It dissuades Col from letting people go there, and assures him there will soon be an opportunity of employing them better at home. Hence it appears that emigration from the Highlands, though not in such numbers at a time as of late, has always been practised. Dr Johnson observed, that, ‘the lairds, instead of improving their country, diminished their people’.
There are several districts of sandy desart in Col. There are forty-eight lochs of fresh water; but many of them are very small — meer pools. About one half of them, however, have trout and eel. There is a great number of horses in the island, mostly of a small size. Being over-stocked, they sell some in Tir-yi, and on the main land. Their black cattle, which are chiefly rough-haired, are reckoned remarkably good. The climate being very mild in winter, they never put their beasts in any house. The lakes are never frozen so as to bear a man; and snow never lies above a few hours. They have a good many sheep, which they eat mostly themselves, and sell but a few. They have goats in several places. There are no foxes; no serpents, toads, or frogs, nor any venomous creature. They have otters and mice here; but had no rats till lately that an American vessel brought them. There is a rabbit-warren on the north-east of the island, belonging to the Duke of Argyle. Young Col intends to get some hares, of which there are none at present. There are no black-cock, muir-fowl, nor partridges; but there are snipe, wild-duck, wild-geese, and swans, in winter; wild-pidgeons, plover, and great number of starlings; of which I shot some, and found them pretty good eating. Woodcocks come hither, though there is not a tree upon the island. There are no rivers in Col; but only some brooks, in which there is a great variety of fish. In the whole isle there are but three hills, and none of them considerable, for a Highland country. The people are very industrious. Every man can tan. They get oak, and birch-bark, and lime, from the main land. Some have pits; but they commonly use tubs. I saw brogues very well tanned; and every man can make them. They all make candles of the tallow of their beasts, both moulded and dipped; and they all make oil of the livers of fish. The little fish called cuddies produce a great deal. They sell some oil out of the island, and they use it much for light in their houses, in little iron lamps, most of which they have from England; but of late their own blacksmith makes them. He is a good workman; but he has no employment in shoeing horses, for they all go unshod here, except some of a better kind belonging to young Col, which were now in Mull. There are two carpenters in Col; but most of the inhabitants can do something as boat-carpenters. They can all dye. Heath is used for yellow; and for red, a moss which grows on stones. They make broad-cloth, and tartan, and linen, of their own wool and flax, sufficient for their own use; as also stockings. Their bonnets come from the main land. Hard-ware and several small articles are brought annually from Greenock, and sold in the only shop in the island, which is kept near the house, or rather hut, used for publick worship, there being no church in the island. The inhabitants of Col have increased considerably within these thirty years, as appears from the parish registers. There are but three considerable tacksmen on Col’s part of the island: the rest is let to small tenants, some of whom pay so low a rent as four, three, or even two guineas. The highest is seven pounds, paid by a farmer, whose son goes yearly on foot to Aberdeen for education, and in summer returns, and acts as a school-master in Col. Dr Johnson said, ‘There is something noble in a young man’s walking two hundred miles and back again, every year, for the sake of learning.’
This day a number of people came to Col, with complaints of each others’ trespasses. Corneck, to prevent their being troublesome, told them, that the lawyer from Edinburgh was here, and if they did not agree, he would take them to task. They were alarmed at this; said, they had never been used to go to law, and hoped Col would settle matters himself. In the evening Corneck left us.
As, in our present confinement, any thing that had even the name of curious was an object of attention, I proposed that Col should show me the great stone, mentioned in a former page, as having been thrown by a giant to the top of a mountain. Dr Johnson, who did not like to be left alone, said he would accompany us as far as riding was practicable. We ascended a part of the hill on horseback, and Col and I scrambled up the rest. A servant held our horses, and Dr Johnson placed himself on the ground, with his back against a large fragment of rock. The wind being high, he let down the cocks of his hat, and tied it with his handkerchief under his chin. While we were employed in examining the stone, which did not repay our trouble in getting to it, he amused himself with reading Gataker On Lots and on the Christian Watch, a very learned book, of the last age, which had been found in the garret of Col’s house, and which he said was a treasure here. When we descried him from above, he had a most eremitical appearance; and on our return told us, he had been so much engaged by Gataker, that he had never missed us. His avidity for variety of books, while we were in Col, was frequently expressed; and he often complained that so few were within his reach. Upon which I observed to him, that it was strange he should complain of want of books, when he could at any time make such good ones.
We next proceeded to the lead mine. In our way we came to a strand of some extent, where we were glad to take a gallop, in which my learned friend joined with great alacrity. Dr Johnson, mounted on a large bay mare without shoes, and followed by a foal, which had some difficulty in keeping up with him, was a singular spectacle.
After examining the mine, we returned through a very uncouth district, full of sand hills; down which, though apparent precipices, our horses carried us with safety, the sand always gently sliding away from their feet. Vestiges of houses were pointed out to us, which Col, and two others who had joined us, asserted had been overwhelmed with sand blown over them. But, on going close to one of them, Dr Johnson shewed the absurdity of the notion, by remarking, that ‘it was evidently only a house abandoned, the stones of which had been taken away for other purposes; for the large stones, which form the lower part of the walls, were still standing higher than the sand. If THEY were not blown over, it was clear nothing higher than they could be blown over.’ This was quite convincing to me; but it made not the least impression on Col and the others, who were not to be argued out of a Highland tradition.
We did not sit down to dinner till between six and seven. We lived plentifully here, and had a true welcome. In such a season, good firing was of no small importance. The peats were excellent, and burned cheerfully. Those at Dunvegan, which were damp, Dr Johnson called ‘a sullen fuel’. Here a Scottish phrase was singularly applied to him. One of the company having remarked that he had gone out on a stormy evening, and brought in a supply of peats from the stack, old Mr M’Sweyn said, ‘that was MAIN HONEST!’
Blenheim being occasionally mentioned, he told me he had never seen it: he had not gone formerly; and he would not go now, just as a common spectator, for his money: he would not put it in the power of some man about the Duke of Marlborough to say, ‘Johnson was here; I knew him, but I took no notice of him.’ He said, he should be very glad to see it, if properly invited, which in all probability would never be the case, as it was not worth his while to seek for it. I observed, that he might be easily introduced there by a common friend of ours, nearly related to the duke. He answered, with an uncommon attention to delicacy of feeling, ‘I doubt whether our friend be on such a footing with the duke as to carry any body there; and I would not give him the uneasiness of seeing that I knew he was not, or even of being himself reminded of it.’
There was this day the most terrible storm of wind and rain that I ever remember. It made such an awful impression on us all, as to produce, for some time, a kind of dismal quietness in the house. The day was passed without much conversation: only, upon my observing that there must be something bad in a man’s mind, who does not like to give leases to his tenants, but wishes to keep them in a perpetual wretched dependence on his will, Dr Johnson said, ‘You are right: it is a man’s duty to extend comfort and security among as many people as he can. He should not wish to have his tenants mere Ephemerae — mere beings of an hour.’ BOSWELL. ‘But, sir, if they have leases, is there not some danger that they may grow insolent? I remember you yourself once told me, an English tenant was so independent, that — if provoked, he would throw his rent at his landlord.’ JOHNSON. ‘Depend upon it, sir, it is the landlord’s own fault, if it is thrown at him. A man may always keep his tenants in dependence enough, though they have leases. He must be a good tenant indeed, who will not fall behind in his rent, if his landlord will let him; and if he does fall behind, his landlord has him at his mercy. Indeed, the poor man is always much at the mercy of the rich; no matter whether landlord or tenant. If the tenant lets his landlord have a little rent before-hand, or has lent him money, then the landlord is in his power. There cannot be a greater man than a tenant who has lent money to his landlord; for he has under subjection the very man to whom he should be subjected.’
We had some days ago engaged the Campbell-town vessel to carry us to Mull, from the harbour where she lay. The morning was fine, and the wind fair and moderate; so we hoped at length to get away.
Mrs M’Sweyn, who officiated as our landlady here, had never been on the main land. On hearing this, Dr Johnson said to me, before her, ‘That is rather being behind-hand with life. I would at least go and see Glenelg.’ BOSWELL. ‘You yourself, sir, have never seen, till now, any thing but your native island.’ JOHNSON. ‘But, sir, by seeing London, I have seen as much of life as the world can shew.’ BOSWELL. ‘You have not seen Pekin.’ JOHNSON. ‘What is Pekin? Ten thousand Londoners would DRIVE all the people of Pekin: they would drive them like deer.’
We set out about eleven for the harbour; but, before we reached it, so violent a storm came on, that we were obliged again to take shelter in the house of Captain M’Lean, where we dined, and passed the night.
After breakfast, we made a second attempt to get to the harbour; but another storm soon convinced us that it would be in vain. Captain M’Lean’s house being in some confusion, on account of Mrs M’Lean being expected to lie-in, we resolved to go to Mr M’Sweyn’s, where we arrived very wet, fatigued, and hungry. In this situation, we were somewhat disconcerted by being told that we should have no dinner till late in the evening; but should have tea in the mean time. Dr Johnson opposed this arrangement; but they persisted, and he took the tea very readily. He said to me afterwards, ‘You must consider, sir, a dinner here is a matter of great consequence. It is a thing to be first planned, and then executed. I suppose the mutton was brought some miles off, from some place where they knew there was a sheep killed.’
Talking of the good people with whom we were, he said, ‘Life has not got at all forward by a generation in M’Sweyn’s family; for the son is exactly formed upon the father. What the father says, the son says; and what the father looks, the son looks.’
There being little conversation to-night, I must endeavour to recollect what I may have omitted on former occasions. When I boasted, at Rasay, of my independency of spirit, and that I could not be bribed, he said, ‘Yes, you may be bribed by flattery.’ At the Reverend Mr M’Lean’s, Dr Johnson asked him, if the people of Col had any superstitions. He said, ‘No.’ The cutting peats at the increase of the moon was mentioned as one; but he would not allow it, saying, it was not a superstition, but a whim. Dr Johnson would not admit the distinction. There were many superstitions, he maintained, not connected with religion; and this was one of them. On Monday we had a dispute at the Captain’s, whether sand-hills could be fixed down by art. Dr Johnson said, ‘How THE DEVIL can you do it?’ but instantly corrected himself, ‘How can you do it?’ I never before heard him use a phrase of that nature.
He has particularities which it is impossible to explain. He never wears a night-cap, as I have already mentioned; but he puts a handkerchief on his head in the night. The day that we left Talisker, he bade us ride on. He then turned the head of his horse back towards Talisker, stopped for some time; then wheeled round to the same direction with ours, and then came briskly after us. He sets open a window in the coldest day or night, and stands before it. It may do with his constitution; but most people, amongst whom I am one, would say, with the frogs in the fable, ‘This may be sport to you; but it is death to us.’ It is in vain to try to find a meaning in every one of his particularities, which, I suppose, are mere habits, contracted by chance; of which every man has some that are more or less remarkable. His speaking to himself, or rather repeating, is a common habit with studious men accustomed to deep thinking; and, in consequence of their being thus rapt, they will even laugh by themselves, if the subject which they are musing on is a merry one. Dr Johnson is often uttering pious ejaculations, when he appears to be talking to himself; for sometimes his voice grows stronger, and parts of the Lord’s Prayer are heard. I have sat beside him with more than ordinary reverence on such occasions. †
† [Note: It is remarkable, that Dr Johnson should have read this account of some of his own peculiar habits, without saying any thing on the subject which I hoped he would have done.]
In our tour, I observed that he was disgusted whenever he met with coarse manners. He said to me, ‘I know not how it is, but I cannot bear low life: and I find others, who have as good a right as I to be fastidious, bear it better, by having mixed more with different sorts of men. You would think that I have mixed pretty well too.’
He read this day a good deal of my Journal, written in a small book with which he had supplied me, and was pleased, for he said, ‘I wish thy books were twice as big.’ He helped me to fill up blanks which I had left in first writing it, when I was not quite sure of what he had said, and he corrected any mistakes that I had made. ‘They call me a scholar,’ said he, ‘and yet how very little literature is there in my conversation.’ BOSWELL. ‘That, sir, must be according to your company. You would not give literature to those who cannot taste it. Stay till we meet Lord Elibank.’
We had at last a good dinner, or rather supper, and were very well satisfied with our entertainment.
Col called me up, with intelligence that it was a good day for a passage to Mull; and just as we rose, a sailor from the vessel arrived for us. We got all ready with dispatch. Dr Johnson was displeased at my bustling, and walking quickly up and down. He said, ‘It does not hasten us a bit. It is getting on horseback in a ship. All boys do it; and you are longer a boy than others.’ He himself has no alertness, or whatever it may be called; so he may dislike it, as Oderunt hilarem tristes.
Before we reached the harbour, the wind grew high again. However, the small boat was waiting, and took us on board. We remained for some time in uncertainty what to do: at last it was determined, that, as a good part of the day was over, and it was dangerous to be at sea at night, in such a vessel, and such weather, we should not sail till the morning tide, when the wind would probably be more gentle. We resolved not to go ashore again, but lie here in readiness. Dr Johnson and I had each a bed in the cabbin. Col sat at the fire in the forecastle, with the captain, and Joseph, and the rest. I eat some dry oatmeal, of which I found a barrel in the cabbin. I had not done this since I was a boy. Dr Johnson owned that he too was fond of it when a boy; a circumstance which I was highly pleased to hear from him, as it gave me an opportunity of observing that, notwithstanding his joke on the article of oats, he was himself a proof that this kind of food was not peculiar to the people of Scotland.
When Dr Johnson awaked this morning, he called, ‘Lanky!’ having, I suppose, been thinking of Langton; but corrected himself instantly, and cried, ‘Bozzy!’ He has a way of contracting the names of his friends. Goldsmith feels himself so important now, as to be displeased at it. I remember one day, when Tom Davies was telling that Dr Johnson said, ‘We are all in labour for a name to Goldy’s play,’ Goldsmith cried, ‘I have often desired him not to call me Goldy.’
Between six and seven we hauled our anchor, and set sail with a fair breeze; and, after a pleasant voyage, we got safely and agreeably into the harbour of Tobermorie, before the wind rose, which it always has done, for some days, about noon.
Tobermorie is an excellent harbour. An island lies before it, and it is surrounded by a hilly theatre. The island is too low, otherwise this would be quite a secure port; but, the island not being a sufficient protection, some storms blow very hard here. Not long ago, fifteen vessels were blown from their moorings. There are sometimes sixty or seventy sail here: to-day there were twelve or fourteen vessels. To see such a fleet was the next thing to seeing a town. The vessels were from different places; Clyde, Campbelltown, Newcastle, etc. One was returning to Lancaster from Hamburgh. After having been shut up so long in Col, the sight of such an assemblage of moving habitations, containing such a variety of people, engaged in different pursuits, gave me much gaiety of spirit. When we had landed, Dr Johnson said, ‘Boswell is now all alive. He is like Antaeus; he gets new vigour whenever he touches the ground.’ I went to the top of a hill fronting the harbour, from whence I had a good view of it. We had here a tolerable inn. Dr Johnson had owned to me this morning, that he was out of humour. Indeed, he shewed it a good deal in the ship; for when I was expressing my joy on the prospect of our landing in Mull, he said, he had no joy, when he recollected that it would be five days before he should get to the main land. I was afraid he would now take a sudden resolution to give up seeing Icolmkill. A dish of tea, and some good bread and butter, did him service, and his bad humour went off. I told him, that I was diverted to hear all the people whom we had visited in our tour, say, ‘Honest man! he’s pleased with every thing; he’s always content!’ ‘Little do they know,’ said I. He laughed, and said, ‘You rogue!’
We sent to hire horses to carry us across the island of Mull to the shore opposite to Inchkenneth, the residence of Sir Allan M’Lean, uncle to young Col, and chief of the M’Leans, to whose house we intended to go the next day. Our friend Col went to visit his aunt, the wife of Dr Alexander M’Lean, a physician, who lives about a mile from Tobermorie.
Dr Johnson and I sat by ourselves at the inn, and talked a good deal. I told him, that I had found, in Leandro Alberti’s Description of Italy, much of what Addison has given us in his Remarks. He said, “The collection of passages from the Classicks has been made by another Italian: it is, however, impossible to detect a man as a plagiary in such a case, because all who set about making such a collection must find the same passages; but, if you find the same applications in another book, then Addison’s learning in his Remarks tumbles down. It is a tedious book; and, if it were not attached to Addison’s previous reputation, one would not think much of it. Had he written nothing else, his name would not have lived. Addison does not seem to have gone deep in Italian literature: he shews nothing of it in his subsequent writings. He shews a great deal of French learning. There is, perhaps, more knowledge circulated in the French language than in any other. There is more original knowledge in English.’ ‘But the French,’ said I, ‘have the art of accommodating literature.’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, sir; we have no such book as Moreri’s Dictionary.’” BOSWELL. “Their Ana are good.’ JOHNSON. ‘A few of them are good; but we have one book of that kind better than any of them; Selden’s Table-talk. As to original literature, the French have a couple of tragick poets who go round the world, Racine and Corneille, and one comick poet, Moliere.’— BOSWELL. ‘They have Fenelon.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, sir, Telemachus is pretty well.’ BOSWELL. ‘And Voltaire, sir.’ JOHNSON. ‘He has not stood his trial yet And what makes Voltaire chiefly circulate is collection; such as his Universal History.’ BOSWELL. ‘What do you say to the Bishop of Meaux?’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, nobody reads him.’ † He would not allow Massillon and Bourdaloue to go round the world. In general, however, he gave the French much praise for their industry.
† [Note: I take leave to enter my strongest protest against this judgement Bossuet I hold to be one of the first luminaries of religion and literature. If there are who do not read him, it is full time they should begin.]
He asked me whether he had mentioned, in any of the papers of the Rambler, the description in Virgil of the entrance into Hell, with an application to the press; ‘for,’ said he, ‘I do not much remember them’. I told him, ‘No.’ Upon which he repeated it:
Vestibulum ante ipsum, primisque in faucibus orci,
Luctus et ultrices posuere cubilia Curae;
Pallentesque habitant Morbi, tristisque Senectus,
Et Metus, et malesuada Fames, et turpis Egestas,
Terribiles visu formae; Lethumque, Laborque. †
Just in the gate, and in the jaws of hell,
Revengeful cares, and sullen sorrows dwell;
And pale diseases, and repining age;
Want, fear, and famine’s unresisted rage;
Here toils and death, and death’s half-brother, sleep,
Forms terrible to view, their sentry keep. DRYDEN.]
‘Now,’ said he, ‘almost all these apply exactly to an authour; all these are the concomitants of a printing-house.’ I proposed to him to dictate an essay on it, and offered to write it. He said, he would not do it then, but perhaps would write one at some future period.
The Sunday evening that we sat by ourselves at Aberdeen, I asked him several particulars of his early years, which he readily told me; and I wrote them down before him. This day I proceeded in my inquiries, also writing them in his presence. I have them on detached sheets. I shall collect authentick materials for The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL. D.; and, if I survive him, I shall be one who will most faithfully do honour to his memory. I have now a vast treasure of his conversation, at different times, since the year 1762, when I first obtained his acquaintance; and, by assiduous inquiry, I can make up for not knowing him sooner. †
† [Note: It is no small satisfaction to me to reflect, that Dr Johnson read this, and, after being apprised of my intention, communicated to me, at subsequent periods, many particulars of his life, which probably could not otherwise have been preserved.]
A Newcastle ship-master, who happened to be in the house, intruded himself upon us. He was much in liquor, and talked nonsense about his being a man for ‘Wilkes and Liberty’, and against the ministry. Dr Johnson was angry, that ‘a fellow should come into OUR company, who was fit for NO company’. He left us soon.
Col returned from his aunt, and told us, she insisted that we should come to her house that night. He introduced to us Mr Campbell, the Duke of Argyle’s factor in Tyr-yi. He was a genteel, agreeable man. He was going to Inveraray, and promised to put letters into the post-office for us. I now found that Dr Johnson’s desire to get on the main land, arose from his anxiety to have an opportunity of conveying letters to his friends.
After dinner, we proceeded to Dr M’Lean’s, which was about a mile from our inn. He was not at home, but we were received by his lady and daughter, who entertained us so well, that Dr Johnson seemed quite happy. When we had supped, he asked me to give him some paper to write letters. I begged he would write short ones, and not EXPATIATE, as we ought to set off early. He was irritated by this, and said, ‘What must be done, must be done: the thing is past a joke.’ ‘Nay, sir,’ said I, ‘write as much as you please; but do not blame me, if we are kept six days before we get to the main land. You were very impatient in the morning: but no sooner do you find yourself in good quarters, than you forget that you are to move.’ I got him paper enough, and we parted in good humour.
Let me now recollect whatever particulars I have omitted. In the morning I said to him, before we landed at Tobermorie, ‘We shall see Dr M’Lean, who has written the History of the M’Leans.’ JOHNSON. ‘I have no great patience to stay to hear the history of the M’Leans. I would rather hear the history of the Thrales.’ When on Mull, I said, ‘Well, sir, this is the fourth of the Hebrides that we have been upon.’ JOHNSON. ‘Nay, we cannot boast of the number we have seen. We thought we should see many more. We thought of sailing about easily from island to island; and so we should, had we come at a better season; but we, being wise men, thought it would be summer all the year where we were. However, sir, we have seen enough to give us a pretty good notion of the system in insular life.’
Let me not forget, that he sometimes amused himself with very slight reading; from which, however, his conversation shewed that he contrived to extract some benefit. At Captain M’Lean’s he read a good deal in The Charmer, a collection of songs.
We this morning found that we could not proceed, there being a violent storm of wind and rain, and the rivers being impassable. When I expressed my discontent at our confinement, Dr Johnson said, ‘Now that I have had an opportunity of writing to the main land, I am in no such haste.’ I was amused with his being so easily satisfied; for the truth was, that the gentleman who was to convey our letters, as I was now informed, was not to set out for Inveraray for some time; so that it was probable we should be there as soon as he: however, I did not undeceive my friend, but suffered him to enjoy his fancy.
Dr Johnson asked, in the evening, to see Dr M’Lean’s books. He took down Willis De Anima Brutorum, and pored over it a good deal.
Miss M’Lean produced some Erse poems by John M’Lean, who was a famous bard in Mull, and had died only a few years ago. He could neither read nor write. She read and translated two of them; one, a kind of elegy on Sir John M’Lean’s being obliged to fly his country in 1715; another, a dialogue between two Roman Catholick young ladies, sisters, whether it was better to be a nun or to marry. I could not perceive much poetical imagery in the translation. Yet all of our company who understood Erse, seemed charmed with the original. There may, perhaps, be some choice of expression, and some excellence of arrangement, that cannot be shewn in translation.
After we had exhausted the Erse poems, of which Dr Johnson said nothing, Miss M’Lean gave us several tunes on a spinnet, which, though made so long ago, as in 1667, was still very well toned. She sung along with it. Dr Johnson seemed pleased with the musick, though he owns he neither likes it, nor has hardly any perception of it. At Mr M’Pherson’s, in Slate, he told us, that ‘he knew a drum from a trumpet, and a bagpipe from a guitar, which was about the extent of his knowledge of musick’. To-night he said, that, ‘if he had learnt musick, he should have been afraid he would have done nothing else but play. It was a method of employing the mind, without the labour of thinking at all, and with some applause from a man’s self.’
We had the musick of the bagpipe every day, at Armidale, Dunvegan, and Col. Dr Johnson appeared fond of it, and used often to stand for some time with his ear close to the great drone.
The penurious gentleman of our acquaintance, formerly alluded to, afforded us a topick of conversation to-night. Dr Johnson said, I ought to write down a collection of the instances of his narrowness, as they almost exceeded belief. Col told us, that O’Kane, the famous Irish harper, was once at that gentleman’s house. He could not find in his heart to give him any money, but gave him a key for a harp, which was finely ornamented with gold and silver, and with a precious stone, and was worth eighty or a hundred guineas. He did not know the value of it; and when he came to know it, he would fain have had it back; but O’Kane took care that he should not. JOHNSON. ‘They exaggerate the value; every body is so desirous that he should be fleeced. I am very willing it should be worth eighty or a hundred guineas; but I do not believe it.’ BOSWELL. ‘I do not think O’Kane was obliged to give it back.’ JOHNSON. ‘No, sir. If a man with his eyes open, and without any means used to deceive him, gives me a thing, I am not to let him have it again when he grows wiser. I like to see how avarice defeats itself; how, when avoiding to part with money, the miser gives something more valuable.’ Col said, the gentleman’s relations were angry at his giving away the harp-key, for it had been long in the family. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, he values a new guinea more than an old friend.’
Col also told us, that the same person having come up with a serjeant and twenty men, working on the high road, he entered into discourse with the serjeant, and then gave him sixpence for the men to drink. The serjeant asked, ‘Who is this fellow?’ Upon being informed, he said, ‘If I had known who he was, I should have thrown it in his face.’ JOHNSON. ‘There is much want of sense in all this. He had no business to speak with the serjeant. He might have been in haste, and trotted on. He had not learnt to be a miser: I believe we must take him apprentice.’ BOSWELL. ‘He would grudge giving half a guinea to be taught’ JOHNSON. ‘Nay, sir, you must teach him gratis. You must give him an opportunity to practice your precepts.’
Let me now go back, and glean Johnsoniana. The Saturday before we sailed from Slate, I sat awhile in the afternoon with Dr Johnson in his room, in a quiet serious frame. I observed, that hardly any man was accurately prepared for dying; but almost every one left something undone, something in confusion; that my father, indeed, told me he knew one man (Carlisle of Limekilns), after whose death all his papers were found in exact order; and nothing was omitted in his will. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, I had an uncle who died so; but such attention requires great leisure, and great firmness of mind. If one was to think constantly of death, the business of life would stand still. I am no friend to making religion appear too hard. Many good people have done harm, by giving severe notions of it. In the same way, as to learning: I never frighten young people with difficulties; on the contrary, I tell them that they may very easily get as much as will do very well. I do not indeed tell them that they will be BENTLEYS.’
The night we rode to Col’s house, I said, ‘Lord Elibank is probably wondering what is become of us.’ JOHNSON. ‘No, no; he is not thinking of us.’ BOSWELL. ‘But recollect the warmth with which he wrote. Are we not to believe a man, when he says he has a great desire to see another? Don’t you believe that I was very impatient for your coming to Scotland?’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, sir; I believe you were; and I was impatient to come to you. A young man feels so, but seldom an old man.’ I however convinced him that Lord Elibank, who has much of the spirit of a young man, might feel so. He asked me if our jaunt had answered expectation. I said it had much exceeded it. I expected much difficulty with him, and had not found it ‘And,’ he added, ‘wherever we have come, we have been received like princes in their progress.’
He said, he would not wish not to be disgusted in the Highlands; for that would be to lose the power of distinguishing, and a man might then lie down in the middle of them. He wished only to conceal his disgust.
At Captain M’Lean’s, I mentioned Pope’s friend, Spence. JOHNSON. ‘He was a weak conceited man.’ †
† [Note: Mr Langton thinks this must have been the hasty expression of a splenetick moment as he has heard Dr Johnson speak of Mr Spence’s judgement in criticism with so high a degree of respect, as to shew that this was not his settled opinion of him. Let me add that in the preface to the Preceptor, he recommends Spence’s Essay on Pope’s Odyssey, and that his admirable lives of the English Poets are much enriched by Spence’s Anecdotes of Pope. BOSWELL. ‘A good scholar, sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, no, sir.’ BOSWELL. ‘He was a pretty scholar.’ JOHNSON. ‘You have about reached him.’]
Last night at the inn, when the factor in Tyr-yi spoke of his having heard that a roof was put on some part of the buildings at Icolmkill, I unluckily said, ‘It will be fortunate if we find a cathedral with a roof on it.’ I said this from a foolish anxiety to engage Dr Johnson’s curiosity more. He took me short at once. ‘What, sir? How can you talk so? If we shall FIND a cathedral roofed! As if we were going to a terra incognita; when every thing that is at Icolmkill is so well known. You are like some New England men who came to the mouth of the Thames. “Come,” said they, “let us go up and see what sort of inhabitants there are here.” They talked, sir, as if they had been to go up the Susquehannah, or any other American river.’
This day there was a new moon, and the weather changed for the better. Dr Johnson said of Miss M’Lean, ‘She is the most accomplished lady that I have found in the Highlands. She knows French, musick, and drawing, sews neatly, makes shell-work, and can milk cows; in short, she can do every thing. She talks sensibly, and is the first person whom I have found, that can translate Erse poetry literally.’ We set out, mounted on little Mull horses. Mull corresponded exactly with the idea which I had always had of it; a hilly country, diversified with heath and grass, and many rivulets. Dr Johnson was not in very good humour. He said, it was a dreary country, much worse than Sky. I differed from him, ‘O, sir,’ said he, ‘a most dolorous country!’
We had a very hard journey to-day. I had no bridle for my sheltie, but only a halter; and Joseph rode without a saddle. At one place, a loch having swelled over the road, we were obliged to plunge through pretty deep water. Dr Johnson observed, how helpless a man would be, were he travelling here alone, and should meet with any accident; and said, ‘he longed to get to a country of saddles and bridles’. He was more out of humour to-day, than he has been in the course of our tour, being fretted to find that his little horse could scarcely support his weight; and having suffered a loss, which, though small in itself, was of some consequence to him, while travelling the rugged steeps of Mull, where he was at times obliged to walk. The loss that I allude to was that of the large oak-stick, which, as I formerly mentioned, he had brought with him from London. It was of great use to him in our wild peregrination; for, ever since his last illness in 1766, he has had a weakness in his knees, and has not been able to walk easily. It had too the properties of a measure; for one nail was driven into it at the length of a foot; another at that of a yard. In return for the services it had done him, he said, this morning he would make a present of it to some museum; but he little thought he was so soon to lose it. As he preferred riding with a switch, it was intrusted to a fellow to be delivered to our baggage-man, who followed us at some distance; but we never saw it more. I could not persuade him out of a suspicion that it had been stolen. ‘No, no, my friend,’ said he, ‘it is not to be expected that any man in Mull, who has got it, will part with it. Consider, sir, the value of such a PIECE OF TIMBER here!’
As we travelled this forenoon, we met Dr M’Lean, who expressed much regret at his having been so unfortunate as to be absent while we were at his house.
We were in hopes to get to Sir Allan Maclean’s at Inchkenneth, to-night; but the eight miles, of which our road was said to consist, were so very long, that we did not reach the opposite coast of Mull till seven at night, though we had set out about eleven in the forenoon; and when we did arrive there, we found the wind strong against us. Col determined that we should pass the night at M’Quarrie’s, in the island of Ulva, which lies between Mull and Inchkenneth; and a servant was sent forward to the ferry, to secure the boat for us: but the boat was gone to the Ulva side, and the wind was so high that the people could not hear him call; and the night so dark that they could not see a signal. We should have been in a very bad situation, had there not fortunately been lying in the little sound of Ulva an Irish vessel, the Bonnetta, of Londonderry, Captain M’Lure, master. He himself was at M’Quarrie’s; but his men obligingly came with their long-boat, and ferried us over.
M’Quarrie’s house was mean; but we were agreeably surprised with the appearance of the master, whom we found to be intelligent, polite, and much a man of the world. Though his clan is not numerous, he is a very ancient chief, and has a burial place at Icolmkill. He told us, his family had possessed Ulva for nine hundred years; but I was distressed to hear that it was soon to be sold for the payment of his debts.
Captain M’Lure, whom we found here, was of Scotch extraction, and properly a M’Leod, being descended of some of the M’Leods who went with Sir Normand of Bernera to the battle of Worcester, and after the defeat of the royalists, fled to Ireland, and, to conceal themselves, took a different name. He told me, there was a great number of them about Londonderry; some of good property. I said, they should now resume their real name. The Laird of M’Leod should go over, and assemble them, and make them all drink the large horn full, and from that time they should be M’Leods. The captain informed us, he had named his ship the Bonnetta, out of gratitude to Providence; for once, when he was sailing to America with a good number of passengers, the ship in which he then sailed was becalmed for five weeks, and during all that time, numbers of the fish bonnetta swam close to her, and were caught for food; he resolved therefore, that the ship he should next get, should be called the Bonnetta.
M’Quarrie told us a strong instance of the second sight. He had gone to Edinburgh, and taken a man-servant along with him. An old woman, who was in the house, said one day, ‘M’Quarrie will be at home to-morrow, and will bring two gentlemen with him’; and she said, she saw his servant return in red and green. He did come home next day. He had two gentlemen with him; and his servant had a new red and green livery, which M’Quarrie had bought for him at Edinburgh, upon a sudden thought, not having the least intention when he left home to put his servant in livery, so that the old woman could not have heard any previous mention of it. This, he assured us, was a true story.
M’Quarrie insisted that the mercheta mulierum, mentioned in our old charters, did really mean the privilege which a lord of a manor, or a baron, had, to have the first night of all his vassals’ wives. Dr Johnson said, the belief of such a custom having existed was also held in England, where there is a tenure called Borough-English, by which the eldest child does not inherit, from a doubt of his being the son of the tenant. † M’Quarrie told us, that still, on the marriage of each of his tenants, a sheep is due to him; for which the composition is fixed at five shillings. I suppose, Ulva is the only place where this custom remains.
† [Note: Sir William Blackstone says in his Commentaries, that ‘he cannot find that ever this custom prevailed in England’; and therefore he is of opinion that it could not have given rise to Borough-English.]
Talking of the sale of an estate of an ancient family, which was said to have been purchased much under its value by the confidential lawyer of that family, and it being mentioned that the sale would probably be set aside by a suit in equity, Dr Johnson said, ‘I am very willing that this sale should be set aside, but I doubt much whether the suit will be successful; for the argument for avoiding the sale is founded on vague and indeterminate principles, as that the price was too low, and that there was a great degree of confidence placed by the seller in the person who became the purchaser. Now, how low should a price be? or what degree of confidence should there be to make a bargain be set aside? a bargain, which is a wager of skill between man and man. If, indeed, any fraud can be proved, that will do.’
When Dr Johnson and I were by ourselves at night, I observed of our host, ‘aspectum generosum habet.’ ‘Et generosum animum,’ he added. For fear of being overheard in the small Highland houses, I often talked to him in such Latin as I could speak, and with as much of the English accent as I could assume, so as not to be understood, in case our conversation should be too loud for the space.
We had each an elegant bed in the same room; and here it was that a circumstance occurred, as to which he has been strangely misunderstood. From his description of his chamber, it has erroneously been supposed, that his bed being too short for him, his feet, during the night, were in the mire; whereas he has only said, that when he undressed, he felt his feet in the mire: that is, the clay-floor of the room, on which he stood before he went into bed, was wet, in consequence of the windows being broken, which let in the rain.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52