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Scottish Highland Jaunt

The 'Highland Jaunt' of Boswell and Johnson from August to November 1773 was one of the strangest journeys ever made in Scotland. Samuel Johnson, the undisputed king of literary London, was notorious for his dislike of the Scots, although this was mainly political prejudice against the Hanoverians of the Lowlands. He was 63, corpulent and ungainly and his eyesight was poor. For a young and fit man, as his biographer James Boswell was at the time, travel in the Highlands by horse and small boat was strenuous and demanding enough. For a man in Johnson's condition it was an adventure bordering on the suicidal. They must have seemed an incongruous pair. Johnson was a pedant and a stern moralist. Boswell, then 33, was a sprightly Scottish advocate, fond of the pleasures of wine, women and song. When his wife saw him with Johnson, she said that she had heard of a man leading a bear, but it was the first time that she had seen a bear leading a man.

If it was a strange jaunt, it was also one of the most productive because it led to two of the best travel books ever written about Scotland, Johnson's Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. The two books are
as different as the two men. Johnson's is a measured, magisterial account of the reflections prompted by his observations of an unfamiliar society. Boswell's is a racy, gossipy diary of their experiences, the people they met and their conversations. For almost his whole life he was one of the fullest and frankest of diarists.  Most of his Journals had to wait until this century for rediscovery and publication, and the Tour to the Hebrides was the only one published in his own lifetime.

Johnson had in fact cherished an ambition to see the Hebrides for many years, ever since he had read Martin Martin's Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, first published in 1703. According to Boswell, Johnson wanted to see 'a system of life almost totally
different from what we had been accustomed to see'. Johnson's interest was heightened by his politics. He was a high Tory and a Jacobite and wanted to see the society that had risen in support of Prince Charles. He was almost too late; the ancient Highland way of life had already been nearly destroyed by the brutal subjugation that followed the '45.

Throughout their journey in the Highlands, Johnson and Boswell were struck by the contrast between the wildness of the country and the warmth and elegance with which they were received. Everywhere they found intelligent conversation and enough books in the houses to meet even Johnson's insatiable appetite for reading. One of the memorable events of the tour was the four days they spent in Raasay House as the guests of the laird of Raasay, John MacLeod. Here, wrote Johnson, 'we found nothing but civility, elegance and plenty.' They had good talk, Gaelic songs and music and dance by day and night. Somehow they also found time to explore the island pretty thoroughly on foot. Moray McLaren, who wrote a book about their famous journey, The Highland Jaunt, in 1954, thought that these days in Raasay were probably the happiest in the whole of Boswell's life. In his book Johnson wrote of the 'beauty and gaiety, the song and the dance'. The accounts of both men are among the warmest celebrations in print of the delights of Highland hospitality.

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