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Johnson And Boswell

Johnson and Boswell's visit to the Isle of Skye


Samuel Johnson

James Boswell

Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784) was the most celebrated writer of his day. His most famous work was the first Dictionary of the English Language; but he was famed also as an author, playwright and general commentator and society figure.

James Boswell (1740 -1795) had become a close friend and companion of Johnson, and was ambitious to become a great literary figure himself. His own masterpiece was his Life of Johnson (written after his friend’s death).

Boswell was Scottish and was keen for his older, English friend to visit the Highlands where they might see another way of life. In 1773 they set off for a tour lasting 83 days – with almost half of this time spent on the Isle of Skye.

Both men wrote now classic books about their journey. Johnson’s ‘Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland’ is a highly readable and learned account of what they found during their travels and how people lived. Whilst Johnson was studying the Highlands, Boswell was studying Johnson, and his book ‘Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides’ is a more light-hearted account as well as being something of a portrait of Johnson. It is well worth reading both books together (the text of both is included in the edition of Johnson's 'Journey' top right); they are considered amongst the greatest works of travel writing.

The two set off from Edinburgh and after an appalling night at the GlenelgInn (this was subsequently demolished and unconnected to the inn at Glenelg today!) crossed to Skye on the 2nd September. They stayed first with the chief of Clan Donald, Sir Alexander MacDonald though his seat at Armadale (walk) was being renovated and they instead were entertained by the chief in one of his tenants’ cottages. Neither men enjoyed staying with the chief, who they found to be mean and inhospitable – and his wife was cruelly criticised by Johnson in his book. The chief did however lend them horses (Skye had no roads at all at this time) to take them as far as Broadford – and Boswell and Jonhson didn’t both to return them until they secured more in far-away Dunvegan!

Their next stop was at Coirechatachan with the chief of the MacKinnons was much more enjoyable though the house had only four rooms. The house has since been demolished, but it stood at the start of the Beinn na Caillich walk.

From here they visited the MacLeod of Raasay chief in Raasay House - this still survives today, much extended, and is now an outdoor centre and café. From here, Boswell climbed Dun Caan with their host (the older and unwell Johnson stayed in the house), where Boswell danced a jig on the summit. The MacLeod chief’s son James eventually spent so much money on the house and estate that he was eventually ruined and forced to sell the island.

In Portree they visited MacNabs Inn, one of only two on the island at that time - the original building was destroyed by fire in 1963. They continued to Kingsburgh to stay with Flora MacDonald and her husband, Flora being famous by that time.

From Kingsburgh they headed to Dunvegan Castle to stay with the main MacLeod Chief; they remained there for a week before moving on to Ullinish House to stay with the MacLeod of Ullinish. Ullinish House (near the start of the Oronsay walk) is now part of the Ullinish Lodge Hotel.

From Ullinish they headed to Talisker House (visited on the Talisker Bay walk) to stay with yet another MacLeod; Boswell made an early scramble ascent of Preshal Mor from here, accompanied by the Laird of Coll. After Talisker they returned to Corriechatachan and their outward route.

They left Skye for Coll on the 3rd of October. The books they wrote about their trip ensured Skye and the Highlands featured increasingly in the Grand Tour's undertaken by the well-to-do.


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