The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopediaThe Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. is a travel journal by Scotsman James Boswell first published in 1785. In 1773, Boswell enticed his English friend Samuel Johnson to accompany him on a tour through the highlands and western islands of Scotland. Johnson was then in his mid sixties and well known for his literary works and his Dictionary. The two travellers set out from Edinburgh and skirted the eastern and northeastern coasts of Scotland, passing through St Andrews, Aberdeen and Inverness. They then passed into the highlands and spent several weeks on various islands in the Hebrides, including Skye, Coll, and Mull. After a visit to Boswell's estate at Auchinleck, the travellers returned to Edinburgh. Johnson published his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland on 18 January 1775.
It was widely read, discussed and criticised, especially for some skeptical remarks Johnson made questioning the authenticity of the Ossian poems, which were then all the rage. After Johnson's death in 1784, Boswell published his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. This work was based on a diary Boswell had kept during the 1773 tour and included detailed descriptions of where he and Johnson had gone and what Johnson had said.
The Journal served as a teaser for the longer biography Boswell was preparing for publication, his Life of Samuel Johnson, which would exhibit the same qualities. Boswell's Journal and Johnson's Journey make an interesting study in contrasts. Johnson considers things philosophically and maintains a high level of generality. Boswell's approach is more anecdotal, even gossipy, and succeeds in large part because of Boswell's keen eye and ear for detail. Both accounts are still widely read and admired today.
 See also
- The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, at Undiscovered Scotland (annotated HTML edition with cross linking to Johnson's book)
- The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides at Internet Archive (scanned books color illustrated original editions)
- The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides at Project Gutenberg (plain text)
- The Native Scottish Diet in Boswell's Tour to the Hebrides
Poetry Made Me Do It: My Trip to the Hebrides
Donald Milne for The New York Times
By JEFF GORDINIER
Published: October 7, 2011
I WAS about to slide down a hill when the strangeness of my situation struck me: A poem had brought me here.
Donald Milne for The New York Times
Donald Milne for The New York Times
Something was happening, and the poem that had made it happen was “Luing.” The poem, which opens “Landing Light” (Graywolf Press), by a Scottish literary star named Don Paterson, pays tribute to an obscure island cradled in the bosom of the Hebrides, a negligible nugget of land “with its own tiny stubborn anthem.” Luing, Mr. Paterson writes, is a place where a visitor might be “reborn into a secret candidacy” and where “the fontanelles reopen one by one.” Mr. Paterson’s poem is a 21st-century ode to regeneration (fontanelles are those soft spots on a baby’s head where the skull hasn’t fully fused yet), but it’s also about the deep satisfactions of disappearing. By the closing stanza, its narrator has succumbed to a sort of sweet obliteration: “One morning/you hover on the threshold, knowing for certain/the first touch of the light will finish you.”
The poem had stayed with me since I’d first encountered it. Where was this strange island that seemed to promise both renewal and erasure? Even in the age of Google Earth I could find out very little about Luing, other than that its name was pronounced “ling” and that it qualified as the international headquarters for a prized breed of cattle. Now and then I would walk into a bookstore and flip through travel guides; Luing didn’t appear on most of the maps.
What I found tantalizing about “our unsung innermost isle,” as Mr. Paterson put it, was the very obscurity of the place. It was obscure not because it was theatrically desolate and raw, but because it was the opposite of that. It was an island that just sat there and gazed out at all the more famous islands. Luing’s pretty-wallflower modesty meant that it could not compete with the grand gestures of alpha-islands like Mull and Skye, and, as I would learn, it had deferentially opted not to. It had no tourist industry to speak of. It had no pubs, no hotels, no restaurants, no blood-soaked battlefields. Luing was a place that you might spy in the distance as you traveled to somewhere else.
And that’s exactly what drew me to it — that and the poem, of course. My close friends, along with the owners of several independent bookstores in the New York area, know that for me, poetry qualifies as much more than a casual interest. I buy somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 books of poetry each year, and when I find a particular poem that moves me, I’ll hold that page open with a paperweight and meticulously type up the poem, line by line, comma by comma. So my friends weren’t surprised when I told them a Don Paterson poem had moved me so much that I had, on impulse, booked a trip to Scotland.
A few days before I left, I met Mr. Paterson for breakfast at a diner near Penn Station. He was scheduled to read his poems at the 92nd Street Y that week, and I figured I could make use of this serendipity to ask him what I was getting myself into.
“It’s a funny little place — you’ll like it,” he told me in a tone of voice that suggested I might not like it at all. When people in Scotland want to embark on some kind of vision quest, he said, they usually venture way out into the North Atlantic to St. Kilda, an isolated and storm-ravaged cluster of rocks that has become “very much a place of romantic pilgrimage for people.”
“You get there and it’s full of librarians from Glasgow trying to find themselves,” he said. “That’s not what you want.”
What you want, he continued, is a hidden gem like Luing, an island that’s “both protected and open,” close in distance to the mainland but eons away.
He paused and smiled: “I hope you have a good time. I’ll feel terrible if you don’t.”
Getting there, at least, was not as complicated as I’d expected. I flew to Glasgow, and followed that red-eye flight with a morning train north, through the shocking beauty of the western Highlands. Next I rented a car in the whisky-distilling port town of Oban, filled the trunk with groceries, bought a bottle of single malt and a new pair of Wellington boots, and drove south. I’d arrived in Scotland in late October, and the narrow, tangled route to Luing was flanked by a psychedelic canvas of rusts, ambers and greens. As I began to see the signs for the ferry, a song by the National came on the car stereo, a song whose chorus went “you’re so far around the bend.”
When I’d gone around the bend as far as I could, I got to a village where the road simply petered out into the water. Mr. Paterson had been correct in describing the ferry as a raft. It looked like the interior slab of a small house — maybe a kitchen floor with a pantry jutting out of it — that had broken loose in one of the Hebrides’ notorious storms and floated off into the channel.
A downpour strafed the wobbling boat. The trip was less than five minutes long, but the speedy way we were borne across the rain-spattered water intensified the feeling of passing through some forgotten Narnian portal. “Welcome to our Island,” proclaimed a sign on the other side. “A place to think ... a place to be.”
Luing has two main villages: the small fishing hub of Cullipool on the western flank, and a quaint scrum of houses on the southeast side, called Toberonochy. The rest is a walker’s utopia. Fewer than 200 people are said to live on the island’s 5.5 square miles. Some are fishermen and farmers whose families have been around since anyone can remember. Others are relatively recent exiles from the city seeking just what’s advertised on that sign: a place to think and be.
For me, the weather cooperated with that pursuit. On the first morning that I woke up in Creagard, a cottage I rented in Cullipool, sunlight was already warming the island’s stone walls and bracken. The tropical conditions lasted all weekend. Outside the cottage the air was ambrosial, laced with notes of coal smoke and kelp.
Upon my arrival I got some background from Cully Pettigrew, a Glasgow art dealer who had reconstructed Creagard from the ruins of a miner’s house that he had found perched on the lip of a flooded slate quarry decades ago. An obsessive sailor with melancholic blue eyes, Mr. Pettigrew was using Luing as a home base from which he and his boat explored the islands in the westward scattering of the Hebrides.
His house was full of maps. Before leaving and handing me the keys to Creagard, which he often rents out to visitors, he led me from one sailor’s chart to the next as he pointed out a few of Luing’s brassier neighbors. To the south was the whirlpool of Corryvreckan, an oceanic spiral that once almost pulled George Orwell to his doom. Across the water to the west was a spot on the Garvellachs where medieval monks used to live and pray in stone beehive cells. “This whole area,” Mr. Pettigrew said, “was a center of civilization when Glasgow and Edinburgh didn’t exist.”
In the intervening years, apparently, civilization had fallen out of favor on Luing, which had the delightful byproduct of making it more civilized. Soon after I’d arrived, the island’s inhabitants began inviting me into their homes for a glass of Scotch or dinner. (Since my groceries from Oban quickly began to run low, I was especially grateful for this gesture.) Many of them had fled more frenzied lives in Glasgow or London, and they were an inquisitive, cultured bunch. I found myself in conversations about Japanese poetry and the New York restaurant scene. And yet life on Luing seemed to be uncontaminated by the pressures and distractions of the global marketplace. There was a single store on Luing that sold staples like milk, eggs and bread, but that was as far as commerce went. If you wanted fresh lobster or langoustines, they were being hauled up from the sea a few yards away.
I began to feel, on Luing, like a man out of time. Somewhere out in the hills lay the remains of a couple of Iron Age forts, but Mr. Pettigrew told me they wouldn’t be easy to find unless I happened to be skilled at noticing the archaeological signals in a wet heap of rocks. (I was not.) “You’ll be walking on ancient roads,” he said. “You get the sense of walking into the past. If you’re attuned, you might pick it up.”
I put on my boots and set off. I went north, I went south, I went east; I wandered between the sheer stone cliffs of old quarries, and up grassy slopes that reminded me of central California, and through spongy pastures. Every now and then I’d come around the side of a ridge and find a reddish woolly cow fixing me with a merciless stare.
No matter where I went, my gaze kept being drawn back to the center of the island. A sort of mesa rose, flat-topped and alone, out of the middle of a field. There was something magnetic about this unassuming drumlin at the heart of Scotland’s most unassuming island. I decided to check out this long, lonely mound of glacial deposits, and that’s how I ended up getting snared in the bracken. I approached the drumlin from a lagoon near Luing’s western shoreline, but as I began walking straight up the side of the hill I realized that the slope was steeper — and sloppier — than I’d expected.
My boots began to slip away from under me in the mud. I groped around for what looked like the trunks and branches of olive trees. They were wind-gnarled and webbed with silver-green wisps of moss. It was slow going, but gradually I pulled myself up.
The climb was worth it. The top of the mesa felt like a sanctuary. Long grass covered the ground; above my head, the branches of trees were twined together like a trellis. I sat down. The rolling landscape of Luing was laid out below. Here it was — the “intimate exile,” the “secret candidacy” that Mr. Paterson had written about.
I can’t verify that any fontanelles reopened (that would have been distressing, anyway), but I lost track of time and let myself disappear for a while. I looked east and saw a hunter’s moon rising over a hill like a levitating scoop of ice cream. I looked west and saw sailboats drifting on the Firth of Lorn and a seemingly infinite array of islands floating out into the Atlantic. I decided to stay awhile to drink it in. There I realized that Auden was right after all. Poetry had made nothing happen. But that, in and of itself, was something extraordinary.
LuingA Poem by Don Paterson
When the day comes, as the day surely must,
when it is asked of you, and you refuse
to take that lover’s wound again, that cup
of emptiness that is our one completion,
I’d say go here, maybe, to our unsung
innermost isle: Kilda’s antithesis,
yet still with its own tiny stubborn anthem,
its yellow milkwort and its stunted kye.
Leaving the motherland by a two-car raft,
the littlest of the fleet, you cross the minch
to find yourself, if anything, now deeper
in her arms than ever — sharing her breath,
watching the red vans sliding silently
between her hills. In such intimate exile,
who’d believe the burn behind the house
the straitened ocean written on the map?
Here, beside the fordable Atlantic,
reborn into a secret candidacy,
the fontanelles reopen one by one
in the palms, then the breastbone and the brow,
aching at the shearwater’s wail, the rowan
that falls beyond all seasons. One morning
you hover on the threshold, knowing for certain
the first touch of the light will finish you.
“Luing” copyright 2005 by Don Paterson. Reprinted from
“Landing Light” with the permission of Graywolf Press.