Tuesday, 19th October 1773: Inchkenneth, Icolmkill (Iona)
After breakfast we took leave of the young ladies, and of our excellent companion Col, to whom we had been so much obliged. He had now put us under the care of his chief; and was to hasten back to Sky. We parted from him with very strong feelings of kindness and gratitude; and we hoped to have had some future opportunity of proving to him the sincerity of what we felt; but in the following year he was unfortunately lost in the Sound between Ulva and Mull; and this imperfect memorial, joined to the high honour of being tenderly and respectfully mentioned by Dr Johnson, is the only return which the uncertainty of human events has permitted us to make to this deserving young man.
Sir Allan, who obligingly undertook to accompany us to Icolmkill had a strong good boat, with four stout rowers. We coasted along Mull till we reached Gribon, where is what is called Mackinnon's cave, compared with which that at Ulinish is inconsiderable. It is in a rock of a great height, close to the sea. Upon the left of its entrance there is a cascade, almost perpendicular from the top to the bottom of the rock. There is a tradition that it was conducted thither artificially, to supply the inhabitants of the cave with water. Dr Johnson gave no credit to this tradition. As, on the one hand, his faith in the Christian religion is firmly founded upon good grounds; so, on the other, he is incredulous when there is no sufficient reason for belief; being in this respect just the reverse of modern infidels, who, however nice and scrupulous in weighing the evidences of religion, are yet often so ready to believe the most absurd and improbable tales of another nature, that Lord Hailes well observed, a good essay might be written Sur la credulite des Incredules.
The height of this cave I cannot tell with any tolerable exactness: but it seemed to be very lofty, and to be a pretty regular arch. We penetrated, by candlelight, a great way; by our measurement, no less than four hundred and eighty-five feet. Tradition says, that a piper and twelve men once advanced into this cave, nobody can tell how far; and never returned. At the distance to which we proceeded the air was quite pure; for the candle burned freely, without the least appearance of the flame growing globular; but as we had only one, we thought it dangerous to venture farther, lest, should it have been extinguished, we should have had no means of ascertaining whether we could remain without danger. Dr Johnson said, this was the greatest natural curiosity he had ever seen.
We saw the island of Staffa, at no very great distance, but could not land upon it, the surge was so high on its rocky coast.
Sir Allan, anxious for the honour of Mull, was still talking of its woods, and pointing them out to Dr Johnson, as appearing at a distance on the skirts of that island, as we sailed along. JOHNSON. 'Sir, I saw at Tobermorie. what they called a wood, which I unluckily took for HEATH. If you shew me what I shall take for FURZE, it will be something.'
In the afternoon we went ashore on the coast of Mull, and partook of a cold repast, which we carried with us. We hoped to have procured some rum or brandy for our boatmen and servants, from a publick-house near where we landed; but unfortunately a funeral a few days before had exhausted all their store. Mr Campbell however, one of the Duke of Argyle's tacksmen, who lived in the neighbourhood, on receiving a message from Sir Allan, sent us a liberal supply.
We continued to coast along Mull, and passed by Nuns' Island, which, it is said, belonged to the nuns of Icolmkill, and from which, we were told, the stone for the buildings there was taken. As we sailed along by moonlight, in a sea somewhat rough, and often between black and gloomy rocks, Dr Johnson said, 'If this be not ROVING AMONG THE HEBRIDES, nothing is.' The repetition of words which he had so often previously used, made a strong impression on my imagination; and, by a natural course of thinking, led me to consider how our present adventures would appear to me at a future period.
I have often experienced, that scenes through which a man has passed, improve by lying in the memory: they grow mellow. Acti labores sunt jucundi. This may be owing to comparing them with present listless ease. Even harsh scenes acquire a softness by length of time: and some are like very loud sounds, which do not please, or at least do not please so much, till you are removed to a certain distance. They may be compared to strong coarse pictures, which will not bear to be viewed near. Even pleasing scenes improve by time, and seem more exquisite in recollection, than when they were present; if they have not faded to dimness in the memory. Perhaps, there is so much evil in every human enjoyment, when present--so much dross mixed with it--that it requires to be refined by time; and yet I do not see why time should not melt away the good and the evil in equal proportions; why the shade should decay, and the light remain in preservation.
After a tedious sail, which, by our following various turnings of the coast of Mull, was extended to about forty miles, it gave us no small pleasure to perceive a light in the village of Icolmkill, in which almost all the inhabitants of the island live, close to where the ancient building stood. As we approached the shore, the tower of the cathedral, just discernable in the air, was a picturesque object.
When we had landed upon the sacred place, which, as long as I can remember, I had thought on with veneration, Dr Johnson and I cordially embraced. We had long talked of visiting Icolmkill; and, from the lateness of the season, were at times very doubtful whether we should be able to effect our purpose. To have seen it, even alone, would have given me great satisfaction; but the venerable scene was rendered much more pleasing by the company of my great and pious friend, who was no less affected by it than I was; and who has described the impressions it should make on the mind, with such strength of thought, and energy of language, that I shall quote his words, as conveying my own sensations much more forcibly than I am capable of doing:
We are now treading that illustrious island, which was once the luminary of the Caledonian regions, whence savage clans and roving barbarians derived the benefits of knowledge, and the blessings of religion. To abstract the mind from all local emotion would be impossible, if it were endeavoured, and would be foolish if it were possible. Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses, whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future, predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings. Far from me, and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery or virtue. That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona! [Footnote: Had our tour produced nothing else but this sublime passage, the world must have acknowledged that it was not made in vain. The present respectable President of the Royal Society was so much struck on reading it, that he clasped his hands together, and remained for some time in an attitude of silent admiration.]
Upon hearing that Sir Allan M'Lean was arrived, the inhabitants, who still consider themselves as the people of M'Lean, to whom the island formerly belonged, though the Duke of Argyle has at present possession of it, ran eagerly to him.
We were accommodated this night in a large barn, the island affording no lodging that we should have liked so well. Some good hay was strewed at one end of it, to form a bed for us, upon which we lay with our clothes on; and we were furnished with blankets from the village. Each of us had a portmanteau for a pillow. When I awaked in the morning, and looked round me, I could not help smiling at the idea of the Chief of the M'Leans, the great English moralist, and myself, lying thus extended in such a situation.
Wednesday, 20th October 1773: Icolmkill (Iona)
Early in the morning we surveyed the remains of antiquity at this place, accompanied by an illiterate fellow, as cicerone, who called himself a descendant of a cousin of Saint Columba, the founder of the religious establishment here. As I knew that many persons had already examined them, and as I saw Dr Johnson inspecting and measuring several of the ruins of which he has since given so full an account, my mind was quiescent; and I resolved; to stroll among them at my ease, to take no trouble to investigate minutely, and only receive the general impression of solemn antiquity, and the particular ideas of such objects as should of themselves strike my attention.
We walked from the monastery of nuns to the great church or cathedral, as they call it, along an old broken causeway. They told us, that this had been a street; and that there were good houses built on each side. Dr Johnson doubted if it was any thing more than a paved road for the nuns. The convent of monks, the great church, Oran's chapel, and four other chapels, are still to be discerned. But I must own that Icolmkill did not answer my expectations; for they were high, from what I had read of it, and still more from what I had heard and thought of it, from my earliest years. Dr Johnson said, it came up to his expectations, because he had taken his impression from an account of it subjoined to Sacheverel's History of the Isle of Man, where it is said, there is not much to be seen here. We were both disappointed, when we were shewn what are called the monuments of the kings of Scotland, Ireland, and Denmark, and of a king of France. There are only some grave-stones flat on the earth, and we could see no inscriptions. How far short was this of marble monuments, like those in Westminster Abbey, which I had imagined here! The grave-stones of Sir Allan M'Lean's family, and of that of M'Quarrie, had as good an appearance as the royal grave-stones; if they were royal, we doubted.
My easiness to give credit to what I heard in the course of our tour was too great. Dr Johnson's peculiar accuracy of investigation detected much traditional fiction, and many gross mistakes. It is not to be wondered at, that he was provoked by people carelessly telling him, with the utmost readiness and confidence, what he found, on questioning them a little more, was erroneous. Of this there were innumerable instances.
I left him and Sir Allan to breakfast in our barn, and stole back again to the cathedral, to indulge in solitude and devout meditation. While contemplating the venerable ruins, I reflected with much satisfaction, that the solemn scenes of piety never lose their sanctity and influence, though the cares and follies of life may prevent us from visiting them, or may even make us fancy that their effects are only 'as yesterday, when it is past', and never again to be perceived. I hoped, that, ever after having been in this holy place, I should maintain an exemplary conduct. One has a strange propensity to fix upon some point of time from whence a better course of life may begin.
Being desirous to visit the opposite shore of the island, where Saint Columba is said to have landed, I procured a horse from one M'Ginnis, who ran along as my guide. The M'Ginnises are said to be a branch of the clan of M'Lean. Sir Allan had been told that this man had refused to send him some rum, at which the knight was in great indignation. 'You rascal!' said he. 'Don't you know that I can hang you, if I please?' Not averting to the chieftain's power over his clan, I imagined that Sir Allan had known of some capital crime that the fellow had committed, which he could discover, and so get him condemned; and said, 'How so?' 'Why,' said Sir Allan, 'are they not all my people?' Sensible in my inadvertency, and most willing to contribute what I could towards the continuation of feudal authority, 'Very true,' said I. Sir Allan went on: 'Refuse to send rum to me, you rascal! Don't you know that, if I order you to go and cut a man's throat, you are to do it?' 'Yes, an't please your honour! and my own too, and hang myself too.' The poor fellow denied that he had refused to send the rum. His making these professions was not merely a pretence in presence of his chief; for after he and I were out of Sir Allan's hearing, he told me, 'Had he sent his dog for the rum, I would have given it: I would cut my bones for him.' It was very remarkable to find such an attachment to a chief, though he had then no connection with the island, and had not been there for fourteen years. Sir Allan, by way of upbraiding the fellow, said, 'I believe you are a CAMPBELL.'
The place which I went to see is about two miles from the village. They call it Portawherry, from the wherry in which Columba came; though, when they shew the length of his vessel, as marked on the beach by two heaps of stones, they say, 'Here is the length of the currach,' using the Erse word.
Icolmkill is a fertile island. The inhabitants export some cattle and grain; and I was told, they import nothing but iron and salt. They are industrious, and make their own woollen and linen cloth; and they brew a good deal of beer, which we did not find in any of the other islands.
We set sail again about mid-day, and in the evening landed on Mull, near the house of the Reverend Mr Neal M'Leod, who having been informed of our coming, by a message from Sir Allan, came out to meet us. We were this night very agreeably entertained at his house. Dr Johnson observed to me, that he was the cleanest-headed man that he had met in the Western islands. He seemed to be well acquainted with Dr Johnson's writings, and courteously said, 'I have been often obliged to you, though I never had the pleasure of seeing you before.'
He told us, he had lived for some time in St Kilda, under the tuition of the minister or catechist there, and had there first read Horace and Virgil. The scenes which they describe must have been a strong contrast to the dreary waste around him.
Thursday, 21st October 1773: Icolmkill (Iona), Lochbuie
This morning the subject of politicks was introduced. JOHNSON. 'Pulteney was as paltry a fellow as could be. He was a Whig, who pretended to be honest; and you know it is ridiculous for a Whig to pretend to be honest. He cannot hold it out.' He called Mr Pitt a meteor; Sir Robert Walpole a fixed star. He said, 'It is wonderful to think that all the force of government was required to prevent Wilkes from being chosen the chief magistrate of London, though the liverymen knew he would rob their shops, knew he would debauch their daughters.' [Footnote: I think it incumbent on me to make some observation on this strong satirical sally on my classical companion, Mr Wilkes. Reporting it lately from memory, in his presence, I expressed it thus: 'They knew he would rob their shops, IF HE DURST; they knew he would debauch their daughters, IF HE COULD, which, according to the French phrase, may be said rencherir on Dr Johnson; but on looking into my Journal, I found it as above, and would by no means make any addition. Mr Wilkes received both readings with a good humour that I cannot enough admire. Indeed both he and I (as, with respect to myself, the reader has more than once had occasion to observe in the course of this Journal) are too fond of a bon mot, not to relish it, though we should be ourselves the object of it.
Let me add, in justice to the gentleman here mentioned, that at a subsequent period, he was elected chief magistrate of London, and discharged the duties of that high office with great honour to himself, and advantage to the city. Some years before Dr Johnson died, I was fortunate enough to bring him and Mr Wilkes together; the consequence of which was, that they were ever afterwards on easy and not unfriendly terms. The particulars I shall have great pleasure in relating at large in my Life of Dr Johnson.]
BOSWELL. 'The history of England is so strange, that, if it were not so well vouched as it is, it would hardly be credible.' JOHNSON. 'Sir, if it were told as shortly, and with as little preparation for introducing the different events, as the history of the Jewish kings, it would be equally liable to objections of improbability.' Mr M'Leod was much pleased with the justice and novelty of the thought. Dr Johnson illustrated what he had said, as follows: 'Take, as an instance, Charles the First's concessions to his parliament, which were greater and greater, in proportion as the parliament grew more insolent, and less deserving of trust. Had these concessions been related nakedly, without any detail of the circumstances which generally led to them, they would not have been believed.'
Sir Allan M'Lean bragged, that Scotland had the advantage of England, by its having more water. JOHNSON, 'Sir, we would not have your water, to take the vile bogs which produced it. You have too much! A man who is drowned has more water than either of us'; and then he laughed. (But this was surely robust sophistry: for the people of taste in England, who have seen Scotland, own that its variety of rivers and lakes makes it naturally more beautiful than England, in that respect.) Pursuing his victory over Sir Allan, he proceeded: 'Your country consists of two things, stone and water. There is, indeed, a little earth above the stone in some places, but a very little; and the stone is always appearing. It is like a man in rags; the naked skin is still peeping out.'
He took leave of Mr M'Leod, saying, 'Sir, I thank you for your entertainment, and your conversation.' Mr Campbell, who had been so polite yesterday, came this morning on purpose to breakfast with us, and very obligingly furnished us with horses to proceed on our journey to Mr M'Lean's of Lochbuy, where we were to pass the night. We dined at the house of Dr Alexander M'Lean, another physician in Mull, who was so much struck with the uncommon conversation of Dr Johnson, that he observed to me, 'This man is just a HOGSHEAD of sense.'
Dr Johnson said of the Turkish Spy, which lay in the room, that it told nothing but what every body might have known at that time; and that what was good in it, did not pay you for the trouble of reading to find it.
After a very tedious ride, through what appeared to me the most gloomy and desolate country I had ever beheld, we arrived, between seven and eight o'clock, at Moy, the seat of the Laird of Lochbuy. Buy, in Erse, signifies yellow, and I at first imagined that the loch or branch of the sea here, was thus denominated, in the same manner as the Red Sea; but I afterwards learned that it derived its name from a hill above it, which being of a yellowish hue, has the epithet of Buy.
We had heard much of Lochbuy's being a great roaring braggadocio, a kind of Sir John Falstaff, both in size and manners; but we found that they had swelled him up to a fictitious size, and clothed him with imaginary qualities. Col's idea of him was equally extravagant, though very different: he told us, he was quite a Don Quixote; and said, he would give a great deal to see him and Dr Johnson together. The truth is, that Lochbuy proved to be only a bluff, comely, noisy old gentleman, proud of his hereditary consequence, and a very hearty and hospitable landlord. Lady Lochbuy was sister to Sir Allan M'Lean, but much older. He said to me, 'They are quite Antediluvians.' Being told that Dr Johnson did not hear well, Lochbuy bawled out to him, 'Are you of the Johnstons of Glencro, or of Ardnamurchan?' Dr Johnson gave him a significant look, but made no answer; and I told Lochbuy that he was not Johnston, but Johnson, and that he was an Englishman.
Lochbuy some years ago tried to prove himself a weak man, liable to imposition, or, as we term it in Scotland, a FACILE man, in order to set aside a lease which he had granted; but failed in the attempt. On my mentioning this circumstance to Dr Johnson, he seemed much surprized that such a suit was admitted by the Scottish law, and observed, that 'in England no man is allowed to STULTIFY himself.' [Footnote: This maxim, however, has been controverted. See Blackstone's Commentaries, Vol. II, p. 292; and the authorities there quoted.] Sir Allan, Lochbuy, and I, had the conversation chiefly to ourselves to-night: Dr Johnson, being extremely weary, went to bed soon after supper.
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