James Johnson.

The recess, or Autumnal relaxation in the Highlands and Lowlands; being the home circuit versus foreign travel, a serio-comic tour to the Hebrides online

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countrymen. Hercules prided himself on cleansing an Augean stable.
How much more difficult to cleanse was the Augean stable of Popish
superstition !

Honest JOHN stands on the brink of a deep and dark ravine that se-
parates him from the ancient and venerable CATHEDRAL of Glasgow.
He holds the " WORD" in his hand, and he averts his look from the
Gothic fane, in which he considered the " WORD" to be then perverted
from its true meaning, or veiled by monks from the universal examina-
tion, and consequent edification of mankind. But the sculptor, me-
thinks, might have permitted the statue of the Reformer to look, with
satisfaction, on the holy edifice no longer profaned by Papal rites or
superstitious ceremonies. Or has the monument swerved on its pedes-
tal, from some qualm of conscience ? " Colossal in its proportions (says
Chambers) and undistinguished by either likeness or costume, it seems,
like the spirit of the Reformer, come back to inveigh, with outstretched
arm, against the Cathedral, and, if possible, complete the work which
he left unfinished at his death." There is something like an insinuation
in this passage, that John Knox wished the completion of the work
the work of destruction to be performed by means more speedy in their
operation than those employed by that " edax rerum" the scythe of
TIME. That scythe will indeed ultimately mow down both the statue


and the temple but the spirit of the REFORMER appears to gain strength
by years, and draw nutriment from decay !

The colleges, museums, churches, exchanges, and public edifices in
Glasgow, are as well deserving of the traveller's attention as those of
most great cities. But with the sight of these lions, in various coun-
tries, my eyes have been so often dimmed, that 1 fairly confess they are
amongst the last objects which I am anxious to survey and, strange to
say, the least conducive to that silent reflection and solitary musing
which form the solace of the very few unoccupied hours of a life of
nearly incessant toil !

The HUNTERIAN MUSEUM, however, afforded ample materials for a
couple of hours' meditation especially as I was not cursed with the
prate of a CUSTOS, but left to the uninterrupted train of my own rumi-
nations. The collections of animals, of minerals, and of coins, would
excite thoughts in the blankest brains ; but to the zoologist, the geolo-
gist, and the antiquarian, the skins of wild beasts, the entrails of mother
earth, and the images of vain man, afford peculiar delight. In the mind
of the contemplative philosopher, these rare specimens excite various emo-
tions, more allied, I fear, to sadness than to joy to melancholy than to
pleasure ! When we see the lion and the lamb, the vulture and the
dove, the tiger and the fawn, the hyena and the kid the savage roamers
of the Libyan plains and the domesticated animals of civilized Europe,
all residing together in amity and peace, we are reminded of that pro-
mised Millennium which we are not destined to see on this terrestrial

The sparkling gems and ponderous ores, in a neighbouring apartment,
demonstrate the sagacity and industry of man, who has penetrated into
the bowels of the earth which he inhabits, and dragged forth its hidden,
treasures, to be converted into myriads of implements for the benefit or
the luxury of his species.

Farther on, ten thousand impresses of the " human face divine" on
the ductile metal, attest the manifold miseries that have resulted from
the fatal thirst of MAN for riches and power !

" Effodiuntur opes irritamentamalorum.''

It is to be feared that the Golden Age will not realize the anticipations
of the poets. Iron may rust, and brass may corrode but gold cor-
rupts !

The manufactories of Glasgow deserve the attention of the traveller,
while its industry and opulence will command his admiration. These,
however, are subjects on which I cannot dwell, in a tour of this kind.

188 AILSA.


If STAFFA can point the finger of contempt at the puny imitations of
her temples on lona, AILSA may well smile in pity at the Pyramids of
Egypt. Rising abruptly, yet conically, eleven hundred feet out of the
ocean, this magnificent rock seems much larger than it really is
partly from its insulated position, having no other objects of compa-
rison partly from the haze which gathers round its summit, and
greatly augments its height in the imagination of the spectator; Its
sides rise at an angle of about forty-five degrees and thus, with a fre-
quent cap of cloud, it resembles a gigantic pyramid, or rather a volcano,
like Strombolo, belching forth smoke. The interest of the scene is rather
increased than diminished by proximity to the object. " If it have not
(says a modern traveller) the regularity of Staffa, it exceeds that island
as much in grandeur and variety, as it does in absolute bulk. There is
indeed nothing, even in the columnar scenery of Sky, or in the
Shiant Isles (superior as these are to Staffa) which exceeds, if it even
equals, that of Ailsa. In point of colouring, these cliffs have an infi-
nite advantage : the sobriety of their pale grey tone not only harmo-
nizing with the subdued tints of green, and with the colours of the sea
and sky, but setting off to advantage all the intricacies of the columnar
structure; while in all the Western Islands, where this kind of scenery
occurs, the blackness of the rocks is, not only often inharmonious and
harsh, but a frequent source of obscurity and confusion. Those who
are only desirous of viewing one example of that romantic arid wonder-
ful scenery which forms the chief attraction of the more distant islands,
will be pleased to know that within a day's sail of Greenock, and with-
out trouble, they may see what cannot be eclipsed by Staffa, Mull, or
Sky, if even it can be equalled by any of them."

When the above lines were penned, steam had not become common
in vessels. /The Liverpool and Glasgow steamers now pass close to
Ailsa everf day ; yet so little is this wonderful craig known, that I had
great difficulty in persuading the' captain to steer close to the western
side of the rock, where all the wonder and beauty reside, not one of
fifty passengers assisting my prayer, or appearing to know or care any
thing about the matter ! At length I gained my point, and the VUI.CAN
steamer ranged within pistol-shot of the western precipice, presenting
magnificent ranges of basaltic columns, all perpendicular, and seeming
to support the island itself. A gun was charged on the forecastle by
the obliging captain of the steamer. MacCulloch's description of the

AILSA. 189

birds falling, like a shower of snow, is not correct a charge that is not
often applicable to this entertaining tourist. The moment the cannon is
fired, the whole rock appears animated with countless myriads of birds.
For a moment, they seem to be fluttering on the surface of the rock, as
if undetermined what to do ; but in less than a minute, they rise in a
cloud, and wing their way to the westward. It is at this instant that
they resemble a dense shower of snow in a hurricane of wind. They
all fly horizontally, like snow carried along by the rapid gale. They
are soon lost in the distance, and do not appear to fall at all. Mean-
while, the thunder of the cannon is reverberated a thousand times from
cliff to cliff, and from cavern to cavern, till it dies away in faint echoes
on the wondering ear. In a few minutes, however, the panic subsides,
and the living shower comes wafting along, in an opposite direction
at first sparingly, but gradually increasing, till the whole of the dispersed
myriads once more regain their rocky and airy habitations, led on in
squadrons or divisions, by their respective commanders. I passed Ailsa
at another time, by moonlight ; and the wild and varied screams of the
birds, disturbed by the fire and smoke of the steamer, formed the most
singular and interesting chorus I had ever heard. The whole pyramid
seemed like an encampment surprised in the night by the enemy, and
rushing to arms, in consternation if not in dismay.

AILSA produces a powerful effect on the senses. It unites the sub-
lime and the beautiful, by combining greatness of dimensions, simpli-
city of form, and variety of features all under the control of an almost
architectural regularity and all completely comprehensible by one
grasp of the eye. " There is nothing which we are obliged to infer or
conjecture no unattainable point to wish for, whence it might appear
to the greatest advantage ; but, at one view, we are overwhelmed with
its magnitude, and struck by its sublimity and elegance, while we are
entertained with the beauties of its natural and magnificent architec-
ture, with all the variety and playfulness of its details, and with the
exquisite harmony, both of its general and its local colouring."

On the eastern side of this remarkable islet there is a landing-place,
and a deserted house, erected by a late, but unsuccessful fishing com-
pany. About two hundred feet of easy ascent brings us to a terrace, on
which is a ruined tower, of unknown history and antiquity probably an
eremitical establishment. The ascent from this resting-place to the
summit is extremely laborious an endless labyrinth of fragments of
rocks intermixed with various tall plants of luxurious growth. The
nettles form a forest, nearly six feet high, and so dense that it is difficult
to get through them. All the plants on this singular rock are of gigan-
tic size. Two sparkling springs of delicious water are found near the

100 ATLSA.

summit of the rock. Even the very apex of this huge natural pyramid
is covered with fine grass intermixed with rocks. To the westward, the
eye dares hardly venture to look down the precipices. The goats them-
selves, who divide this domain with the rabbits, are shy of adventure
here. The birds, chiefly garmets, occupy the faces of the cliffs, and
the feathered population of these airy eminences is not exceeded even by
that of St. Kilda. In the breeding season it produces concerts of the
most wild and romantic kind. Gannets, puffins, cormorants, auks, and
gulls are the joint tenants of the place each tribe having its particular
allotment of rock and grass the international as well as private law of
property appearing to be preserved inviolate and in a manner which
their rivals in all but feathers the " animal implume bipes," might
copy with advantage !

As I said before, it is the western side of Ailsa that presents the most
magnificent scenery. On that side the rock rises almost perpendicularly
from the sea, and, throughout the greater part, is columnar. This
scenery is best contemplated in a boat or in the steamer, at some dis-
tance from the rock. In some places and aspects, as we sail along, the
regularity of the basaltic columns is little inferior to what is seen at
Staffa, with this difference, and perhaps advantage the far greater
elevation, and consequent repetition of fresh pillars rising in succession
above each other. The great peculiarities of the basaltic columns, in
Ailsa, are the absence of joints, and obliquity of fracture at the termi-
nation of each pillar. We rarely see a transverse fracture, as in Staffa,
Sky, and the Shiant Isles. The columns, too, appear to be more
blended together and inseparable in Ailsa than in the localities just
mentioned. The diameters of the Ailsa columns range from six to nine
feet, and these natural pillars are equally gigantic in their altitude. In
one place the basaltic cliff rises nearly four hundred feet perpendicular
the columnar regularity being sufficiently perfect. Here there is a
vast superiority over Staffa or the Shiant Isles. Staffa, however, has
been the subject of adoration, and justly so, since 1772; while Ailsa,
at our own doors, was not even known to be columnar, till Dr. Mac-
Culloch pointed out the fact, a few years ago !

The most beautiful part of Ailsa lies immediately north of the highest
cliff, where a succession of intricate parts form a picture, or rather series
of views, unequalled in any scene of the Western Islands. A cave
near the water's edge forms the leading mark for this interesting spot,
and is, in itself, the centre or eye of the principal picture. The dark-
ness of the aperture is of great value, in giving tone to the landscape
offering a point of repose and contrast to the surrounding minuteness of
ornament. This cave lies in a deep recess, between two columnar pro-


montories, the grassy acclivity of the mountain rising rapidly above
them, crowned aloft by a magnificent range of columns. I shall con-
clude with the words of a modern traveller who has examined this
singular spot with the eye of a painter, and the science of a geologist :

" To a scene so finely composed that scarcely any thing could be
altered with the effect of increasing its variety or grandeur, it is a singu-
larly happy addition that, in more lights than one, it is illuminated in a
manner so perfect as to leave nothing to be wished : the extremest
breadth and simplicity of general light and shadow being united on the
side of the light with a thousand minor shades and demi-tints, and, on
that of the shadow, with deeper tones of shades, and with reflected
lights of various intensity, which produce an effect no less splendid than
it is in harmony with the composition of the parts. The colouring is
no less fine and no less harmonious, the mild grey and green tones of
the hill aloft being softened and generalized with the sky by the air-tints
of the summit, then gradually increasing in force as they approach the
eye, but still preserving the same general colour, till, as they reach the
sea, the darker hues of grey and the rich brown of the sea weeds that
skirt the shore, unite them with the deep green of the water, serving at
the same time to throw into distance the soberer tints, and thus to aug-
ment incalculably the apparent magnitude of the whole*."

Many a traveller proceeding from Liverpool to Glasgow, will thank
me for this brief notice of Ailsa a notice which, I venture to say, will
not merely induce, but compel every captain of a steamer to steer along
the western front of one of the most sublime scenes in the united king-
dom. That skipper who refuses to gratify his passengers with such a
sight, ought to be marked as a GOTH or VANDAL; while on the sable
funnel of the steamer, each passenger should write with his pencil

" Hie niger est hunc tu, Romane, caveto."


The great lexicographer (Johnson) brought a tremendous swarm of
hornets round his ears by some observations in his celebrated journey
to the Hebrides. Yet it appears to me that the Scotch have been
unnecessarily sensitive on this occasion. The perusal of Johnson's tour,
long before I saw Scotland, impressed me with a most favourable
opinion of the Scotch, and generated an ardent desire to visit their
, _______ . . ,

* MacCullocli, vol. ii. p. 60.


country. I have no doubt that the same impression has been made
on most other readers ; and I was astonished that such offence could
have been taken at the lexicographer's remarks. It is true that
Johnson observed an abundance of rock, a scarcity of trees, and quite
enough of poverty, in many parts of Scotland. But a Scotchman need
no more be irritated at the notice of such things, than a Frenchman, on
being told that many of his countrymen wear wooden shoes, and some
of them eat frogs than a Swiss, on hearing that snow, rocks, and
glaciers, cover half his country than an Italian, on reading in the
journals of travellers, that Italy is infested with monks and malaria
than a Spaniard, on seeing an Englishman turn up his nose at black
bread and garlic than an Irishman, when the potatoes, the bogs, the
whiskey, and the misery of his country are described than a Yankee,
on seeing in print (what he had, perhaps, seen in reality) that his
countrymen are often smoking cigars, and sometimes spitting on the
carpets than a Russian, on being told that the Muscovites sleep on
their ovens, and drink train oil than a German, on seeing his head
painted square instead of round, with a great bump of ideality on the
vertex than a Mussulman, who is quizzed for chewing opium and
believing in Mahomet than a Dutchman, who finds himself classed
among the amphibia, for living half above and half below water.

He found that the country people answered readily, but not very cor-
rectly, the questions he put to them. The Irish do the same, from the
exuberance of their imagination ; and had Dr. Johnson travelled among
them, he would have reported accordingly. When the English boor
is interrogated, he gives a gruff and surly answer, if able and if not
able, he has neither poetry nor politeness enough to amuse and satisfy
the querist with a fiction of the fancy.

The Rev. Mr. MacNicol has written a book of commentaries on
Johnson's tour, as large as the original work ! The divine is certainly
somewhat hypercritical on the poor doctor, as well as supersensitive in
everything that relates to Scotland. But surely lie loses his temper,
and descends almost to the scurrilous, when, in revenge for Johnson's
inability to see a tree between Kirkaldy and Cupar, he informs the
doctor that, if Fame be not a liar, one of his (Johnson's) ancestors found
to his cost that there were trees in Scotland, inasmuch as he was hanged
on one of them ! Johnson has represented the upper classes in Scot-
land as hospitable and intelligent the lower classes as poor, but
honest the middle classes (the few that then were) as industrious
and frugal. There are few countries in the world of which so much
good can be said, not even excepting England. Dr. Johnson appears
to have taken little notice of the sublime, the picturesque, or the


romantic scenes through which he passed: and this is the more won-
derful, considering that he never, in all probability, travelled farther,
previously, than from Lichfield to London. Boswell's account of the
journey is infinitely more entertaining and instructive than Johnson's
and why ? because he has detailed the conversations of the literary
colossus, which the lexicographer could not do himself. It is very true
that these conversations, very often, had little connexion with the tour,
or any of the objects presented to the senses in the Highlands or islands :
they might have just as well, and almost as naturally, occurred in
Bolt-court, or the Rainbow tavern, in Fleet-street, as in Aberdeen, Inver-
ness, Mull, or Sky. The great man could not indulge in description, on
account of the shortness of his sight and the little one wisely confined
himself to the office of short-hand writer, by which he was able to pick
up all the crumbs that fell from the table during each intellectual banquet.

Dr. Johnson's incredulity respecting the authenticity of Ossian's
poems appears to have been the principal source of irritation on the
part of the Scotch. If a modern Dr. Johnson doubted on the same
subject, the offence would not be so highly resented.

Poor MAcCuLLOCH has fared far worse than JOHNSON ; for, being a
Scotchman himself, his strictures on his countrymen are infinitely more
galling than if from the pen of a stranger. It is not to be denied,
indeed, that the Scotch have some reason to complain of Dr. MacCul-
loch ; for he has often painted DONALD in the most ludicrous colours.
The gastronomy of Scotland seems to have attracted more attention
from both these travellers, than any other single object ; and the great
geologist loses no opportunity of satirizing the CUISINE of the Highlands.
Mrs. Trollope, indeed, has not said half so severe things of the Ameri-
cans, as Dr. MacCulloch has put on record respecting his own country-
men, and therefore we need not wonder at the burst of indignation
which has been raised against him on the north side of the Tweed.

But Dr. Johnson's tour is couched in very different language, and
deserved not the censure which it has met. The following is a
specimen of these censures :

" In performing this much-talked-of tour, the ' great moralist ' (as
it was once the fashion to call this scrofulous literary despot) was
necessitated to use the eyes of others, because he was blind himself.
Johnson came into Scotland, foaming like a bear about Ossian, and
predetermined to believe that the Scots were savages, and their country
uninhabitable. His book, accordingly, is full of grumbling, saucy, and
ill-natured observations, the spawn of a mind contracted and illiberal."
Critical Examination, &c., p. 8-9.

Hard words these, my masters, especially when applied to one of the


most learned, moral, and religious writers that England ever produced !
Dr. MacCalloch indulged his vein of satire and ridicule, he, therefore,
deserves the retort courteous or uncourteous. Not so the man whose
researches and lucubrations diffused more knowledge, morality, and
piety through the kingdom, than the writings of any individual what-
ever. The supersensitiveness of Scotchmen, in all things touching
national character, is a peculiarity, rather than a fault ; but the temper
of the reaction, as evinced by the northern retaliators, is, at the very
least, impolitic. The strictures of a traveller, if just, are calculated to
do good to the country through which he passes : if unjust, they will
do more injury to himself than to the people unfairly criticised.

The English are quizzed, misrepresented, and ridiculed, all over the
world by which they are greatly diverted seldom irritated. The
errors, the falsehoods, the caricatures of the GERMAN PRINCE, and the
BARON D'HAUSSEZ, caused a convulsion of laughter from the Thames
to the Tyne. Let the Scotch, who are amongst the shrewdest of the
human race, take a hint from this fact. Ridicule is said to be the test
of truth though I doubt the justice of this dogma. At all events, it is
certain that those who are censured wrongfully, ought to bear the cen-
sure with the greatest equanimity.

I don't think the Scotch now take any great offence at Johnson's
remarks ; and the testimony of Lord Hailes and Mr. Dempster, among
others, as adduced by Boswell, is a sufficient set off to Mr. MacNichol's
and Mr. Browne's asperity of criticism. Lord Hailes observes: " I
admire the elegance and variety of description, and the lively picture of
men and manners. I always approve of the moral, often of the political
reflections. I love the benevolence of the author." Mr. Dempster
asserts, that " there is nothing in this book, from beginning to end,
that a Scotchman need to take amiss." So say I. He gives the Scotch
a better character than he could have conscientiously given to his own

In the conversations of Johnson with the various persons who hospi-
tably entertained him, as recorded, and no doubt faithfully, by Boswell,
there is frequently an uncouthness not to say want of common man-
ners, which has greatly surprised me. Johnson was, no doubt, an
exceedingly moral and religious character ; but, in the social conversa-
tions detailed by Boswell, the literary despot was always conspicuous ;
and it is evident that the " COLOSSUS of LITERATURE " argued for
VICTORY as strenuously in the wilds of Sky and Raasay, with Highland
lairds and Presbyterian pastors, as at the TURK'S HEAD, with Burke,
Goldsmith, or any of the wits and literati of the age. This was a great
want of tact, as well as of common sense and sensibility in the lexico-


grapher. But some excuse may be made for a man who had rarely
wandered many miles from Fleet-street, and who was accustomed to
receive homage from the choicest spirits of the age, in the metropolis
of the British isles.

In these personal narratives of Johnson and Boswell, we cannot help
wondering at the impunity with which the unwieldy and infirm lexico-
grapher bore so much toil of body and exposure to the elements. He
had to travel most of the way on shelties often long journeys drenched
with rain lying in barns at night, or tossed about in open boats among
the islands, exposed to storms of wind and rain yet without any injury
to his health, which was far from firm, notwithstanding his figure and
size! It must be remembered, too, that Dr. Johnson was, of all men,
the least accustomed to travelling being a book-worm of the first
water, and rarely taking more exercise than an evening ramble from
Fleet-street to the neighbourhood of Soho-square. This circumstance
speaks volumes in favour of the salutary effects of travelling.

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Online LibraryJames JohnsonThe recess, or Autumnal relaxation in the Highlands and Lowlands; being the home circuit versus foreign travel, a serio-comic tour to the Hebrides → online text (page 22 of 28)