3 inverness - glenelg

28–30 VIII 1773
5-6 IX 2013

31 VIII 1773
7 IX 2013



31 VIII – 1 IX 1773
7 IX 2013

1 IX 1773
3 VIII 2013

1 IX 1773
4 VIII 2013

 1 IX 1773
4 VIII 13

1 IX 1773
4 VIII 13

 1 IX 1773
10 VIII 2013

1–2 IX 1773
10 VIII 2013


The trip of luxury unpacks identity. We found the chocolate here in a state of translation.


Made in the Highlands

Our greatest luxury of the entire tour was opening a copy of the first edition of Johnson’s Dictionary, in Leakey’s bookshop. A bear of a book, filled with the ornamental knowledge of quotations, on this day we turned to read ‘journey’.

At Inverness Castle, where Shakespeare sets Duncan’s murder, Boswell takes ‘a romantick satisfaction’ in seeing Dr Johnson appear on this Scottish stage. He continues, ‘it perfectly corresponds with Shakespeare’s description’, though the castle was destroyed by Jacobite troops in 1746. Boswell and Johnson must have been visiting a near-contemporary building – and how many preceded that? – but even their stage was not one we could appear on, as the current building dates from 1834.



Outside the castle stands a late-Victorian statue of Flora Macdonald, her hand shielding her eyes in a weird pose, as she gazes to the west, perhaps towards Skye where she met Boswell and Johnson. As in her grave at Kilmuir, she is honoured here by Johnson’s praise, in English and a Gaelic translation – unimaginable in 1773.


Johnson, Samuel Dictionary of the English Language (1755)


A journey can never achieve everything. Our itinerary exchanged Boleskine and the Falls of Foyers, with its steep winding path, for a walk on the other (west) side of the loch, from Balchraggan to Drumnadrochit.





Here was a day for picking out detail in different views. A day for modelling thought to the landscape, following Johnson’s Dictionary, which gives ‘Flexánimous. adj.’ as, ‘the power to change the disposition of the mind’.





Our party followed the Great Glen Way. Morning rain clearing to sun, warm enough to allow us to appreciate the pinewoods’ coolness. Emerging, the loch lay to our left, the hills beyond still silvered with clouds; below, on a spit of land jutting into the water, was Urquhart Castle, ‘the cash cow of the Highlands’, as one of our number described it.

In the evening we read at the library in town, and were offered tea beforehand, along with fairy-cakes baked by the hospitality class. There we met Fiona who, when not working in the library, makes programmes for the BBC World Service, most recently about Papua New Guinea. The poet John Glenday walked with us in the afternoon, and we talked about his trip to Iraq earlier this year, when he worked with four Iraqi poets. If Johnson and Boswell were surprised by finding books in such a ‘remote’ place, perhaps we were equally surprised to find such well-travelled individuals here; and with as little reason as our predecessors.

We had an easier time of it than Moray MacLaren, another follower of the Tour, who in 1952 followed (as had Boswell and Johnson) the route of Wade’s old military road from Fort Augustus to Glenmoriston – on horseback. ‘Having been unused for over a century’, wrote McLaren, ‘[it] has for all practical purposes utterly disappeared.’ He and a friend hope to retrace it through a combination of reading old maps and making a recce in a light plane, before attempting it on the ground. The weather was foul, a gale, driving rain, visibility much restricted, but their hill ponies kept them right with ‘their footwork, so delicately feeling the way between swamps and rocks’, as if they could sense the traces of old hoof-prints, long lost to the human eye.

A day to consider the oddness of the writer's life.

    after Jenny Diski

    walk & think

    ambula et cogitationes



    talk & walk

    loquere et ambula



    talk & think

    loquere et cogitationes




Diski, Jenny On Trying to Keep Still (2007)

MacLaren, Moray The Highland Jaunt (1953)


Some time after dinner we were surprised by the entrance of a young woman, not inelegant either in mien or dress, who asked us whether we would have tea.  We found that she was the daughter of our host, and desired her to make it.  Her conversation, like her appearance, was gentle and pleasing.  We knew that the girls of the Highlands are all gentlewomen, and treated her with great respect, which she received as customary and due, and was neither elated by it, nor confused, but repaid my civilities without embarassment, and told me how much I honoured her country by coming to survey it. She had been at Inverness to gain the common female qualifications, and had, like her father, the English pronunciation.  I presented her with a book, which I happened to have about me, and should not be pleased to think that she forgets me.

That is Johnson’s account. Boswell has the detail; the book he gave, the better to be remembered by, was Cocker’s Arithmetic, purchased in Inverness at the Leakey’s of the day.

In Cawdor, a volume of Sallust was gifted to Reverend MacAulay’s young son. Another gift, on Skye, to Reverend McQueen: ‘“Have you the Idler?' M'QUEEN. No, sir. JOHNSON. Then I will order one for you at Edinburgh, which you will keep in remembrance of me.”’ In return, MacLeod offered him an island, if he would remain.

We made a palaver of offering our Cocker, in traditional Carry-On manner, at inns along the way, going so far as to purchase a brief life of Alan Turing, as our equivalent to remember us by. We have the book yet, being either too bashful (more Jim Dale than Sid James), or meeting no young ladies ‘with suitable qualifications’ (imagine Kenneth Williams enunciating that). Now the journey is over we will send it on to Kapka, our poet friend in Kilmorack.

As the travellers left Anoch, the mood changed. Their host, MacQueen, told them stories of the ’45, in which he had taken part; Boswell, moved, writes, ‘I could not refrain from tears’, recalling another who was moved by similar tales: ‘The story of their heroism… has come down, sleeve at my eyes’, wrote Basho.


Basho Back Roads to Far Towns, trans. Corman & Susumu (1968)

Cocker, Edward Cocker's Arithmetick: Being a Plain and Familiar Method Suitable to the Meanest Capacity for the Full Understanding of That Incomparable Art, As It Is Now Taught by the Ablest School-Masters in City and Country (1677)
Hodges, Andrew Turing (1997)
Sallust The Jugurthine War/The Conspiracy of Catiline (2002)


Johnson complains the wild mountains are ‘abundant in springs’, like Homer’s Phrygian Ida, but they lack leafage. 

waving their leaves
quassantes folia

leaving their waves
undas relinquentes

Ida, Mountain of the Goddess, sacred to the Cybele, Mater Idaea, The Idaean Mother, features in the Iliad and Aeneid. Rising in western Anatolia, it belongs within the river-mother goddess culture of Anaitis, whose supposed temple in Waternish, on the River Bay, the Reverend MacQueen would guide Boswell to in a few weeks time. Another shadow it casts as far as the Hebrides is the raspberry, whose Latin name, rubus idaeus, means ‘bramble of Mount Ida’.

Johnson disliked the desert drums of Glen Moriston and Glen Sheil, ‘wide expanse of hopeless sterility’.

M A T T 
E R W I 
T H N O 

(for Luke Allan)

A few miles further on, Boswell will point to a mountain ‘shaped like a cone’. Johnson’s reply is caustic: “No, sir. It would be called so in a book; and when a man comes to look at it, he sees it is not so. It is indeed pointed at the top; but one side of it is larger than the other.” The skyline changes, though it is by our doing.

The cone has a name. Sgurr na Ciste Dubh, ‘The Rocky Peak of the Black Breast’. She is one of the Five Sisters, cast in stone by the Grey Magician. A pap – like Beinn na Cailliach, Beinn Dorain, and Schiehallion – and therefore, a worthy hyperborean Mother Ida. Alec made a collection of cone-mountains along the way.

Soon Johnson’s mind would be freed by these hills, for now his eyes were hemmed by the horizon.


Finlay, Alec (ed.), The Way to Cold Mountain: A Scottish Mountains Anthology (2001)

Homer, The Iliad


Here lay our Shirakawa, gateway to the outlands. 

Johnson, in a letter to Mrs Thrale: ‘I sat down to take notes on a green bank, with a small stream at my feet, in the midst of savage solitude, with the mountains before me, and on either hand’. He wondered at not being ‘more affected, but the mind is not at all times equally ready to be put in motion’. The river of conversation is ‘parent of remarks and discoveries’, but where are his dearest friends? The writer has become talker, the undisputed magisterial performer of spoken thought in his era. The drama of his mind is prompted, and recorded, by his companion.



Romance’, flowed though the letter to Hesther, ‘sweet Thralia’, rippling the rivulet of experience into the river of conception. 

The day was calm, the air soft, and all was rudeness, silence, and solitude.  Before me, and on either side, were high hills, which by hindering the eye from ranging, forced the mind to find entertainment for itself.  Whether I spent the hour well I know not; for here I first conceived the thought of this narration.

The narration of the Journey was now in motion. Come late October, by which time the travellers had sailed out from and come safely back to the mainland, the river would be in flood.

Caochan Cam 



Glen Aray



A ‘narrow valley’, ‘high hills’, a ‘small stream’, but where precisely? In Peter Levi’s edition of the Journey, a waggish footnote confirms that the ‘exact spot’ has been identified by a number of scholars, though ‘not always in the same place’. Before the hydro dam was built, the radical liberal George Birkbeck Norman Hill searched this road, having dreamed the spot for years. Hill tramped too far – misled by Johnson’s reference to Glensheals – and, backtracking, found only ‘dried up watercourses’. Ian Simpson Ross records how the dam subsumed the burn in an inlet of Loch Cluanie, formerly Loch Lundie.

In early August we took our turn to stalk the spot, parking the car in sight of the dry island. This wild stretch has always been a place to pass through, but, stepping off the road, we scented an arrival.



Though everything was in flux – sun-patches came and went on rocky slopes, the foxgloves retained some purple bells, just, and an enormous caterpillar awaited its metamorphosis – our romance chose as the ‘exact spot’ not Allt Coire Lundi, or Allt Ruigh a’ Chreagain which flow down from the ‘narrow hills’, Creag Lundie and Creag na Mairt – but Caochan Cam. 

   the crooked burn

   hidden by herbage

   the rill purls

   like worts fermenting

   the little blind one

   found by the ear

(In Maclennan’s dictionary, caochan is given as ‘the little blind one; a streamlet hidden by herbage; a gurgling streamlet; a purling rill, purling noise, like worts fermenting’; cam means crooked.)

Rising a dozen steps above the highway we found a track, which we read as the old Wade military road. A band of rain marched down the glen.

Advice to Dr. Johnson Regarding his Enquiry into Second Sight

Bog myrtle is a powerful aid

in astral projection & lucid dreaming
and cure for ‘separation’ –
be it of people, issues, or places.

Protective of those planning long journeys,

and thought to ward off midges,
some say it has the power to steal words
from the lips of liars, revealing truths.


Darwin, Tess The Scots herbal : the plant lore of Scotland (1996)

Hill, George Birkbeck Norman Footsteps of Dr Johnson in Scotland (1890)
Levi, Peter (ed.) Journals of the Western Isles (1984)
Maclennan, Malcom Gaelic Dictionary (1925)
Ross, Ian Simpson, ‘Dr. Johnson in the Gaeltacht, 1773’, in Studies in Scottish Literature, vol. 35 (2013)


Acadh nan Seileach
Field of the Willows

Here horses stand

In flowers and graze.
The wind is glad
And sweet in its moving.

Sappho, translated by Guy Davenport

Towards the end of the glen of cones, we parked at Torrlaoighseach and walked down to the gentle river. Up close, mountain desolation translated into Boswell’s gale, or bog-myrtle (roid), rush, and a line of lush alder, reflecting willow.

The Allt na Carnach had spated an alluvial heap of stones which I mistook for the ruins of the township. Suddenly the field filled with pale horses, sylphs of the young woman who enchanted Boswell, ‘as comely almost as the figure of Sappho, as we see it painted’.


alders, rain, & memories

but no coin to trade in


In a rich green valley

we sat down on a green turf-seat
at the end of a house

one woman

a hyacinth in the mountains
a slender sapling

a sweet apple

on a high branch

was as comely almost

as the figure
of Sappho

standing out

in that rural village
just as once the sun

has finished setting

the moon surpasses
all the stars

spreading her light

on the narrow sea and over all
the prodigious mountains

after Boswell, and Sappho


Pretty. Frisky. Pale. Horses.

Grazing. Between. August. Alders.
Beside. Old. Ruined. Crofts

after Sappho, after Thomas Meyer

Sappho, incarnation of the goddess Anaitis, is concealed in Inverinate, a few miles beyond Acadh nan Seileach. Her haunt is close to Diarmid’s grave and, inevitably, by the site of a Grianan – sun-bower.

On the way to the site we were hoyed by a woman, wondering what we were doing in her field. Like a character in an Iain Crichton Smith short story, she turned out to be a Canadian, writing on Athene, here, for the past 6 years. She’d never been over to see the burn of the goddess. We found it by its sound, and collected water by the vulvic confluence, identical to the mound at the centre of Skye’s Temple of Anaitis.


Davenport, Guy, Seven Greeks (1995)

Meyer, Thomas At Dusk Iridescent: A Gathering of Poems 1972–1997 (1999)
Powell, Jim Sappho: A Garland (1993)
Smith, Iain Crichton, The Red Door and The Black Halo (both 2001)


The dividing mountains multiply enmities. At ‘Auknasheals Johnson found the folk to be of a ‘very savage wildness of manner’. He portrayed his feelings in a Latin ode, composed two days later at Armadale.

Pervagor gentes, hominum ferorum
Vita ubi nullo decorata cultu,
Squallet informis, tigurique fumis
Faeda latescit

[Through tribes I wander where barbarian clansmen
Live a rude life, unbeautified by culture,
Squalid, distorted, by but-and-ben's thick vapours
Eclipsed and filthy…]

Samuel Johnson, ‘Latin Ode to Thralia’ (Hesther Thrale)

The tribe were Macraes, ‘an indigent and subordinate clan’. ‘Secluded by rocks’, they were representative of mountain and sheiling cultures the world over, remote from trade and the law, isolated by their ancient languages. Johnson handed out coins and thought of Herodotus’ Scythia.

Boswell knew these to be the ‘brave M'Craas’, who had been of ‘considerable estimation’ in the 1715 Rising, and would later mutiny on Arthur’s Seat, when in the service of the Hanoverian King.

Once, long ago,

The Milesians were brave.

In the year of 1715
The Macraes were brave

Davenport’s Anakreon (87); after Boswell (1 September)


Davenport, Guy, Seven Greeks (1995)

Herodotus, Histories IV
Ross, Ian Simpson, ‘Dr. Johnson in the Gaeltacht, 1773’, in Studies in Scottish Literature, vol. 35 (2013)


Johnson was given to a constant fear that he was nearing the end of his share of bread.

On the way to Glenelg, ascending Bealach Ratagain, he was almost thrown by his steed. The London mind fretted to be nearing the threshold to the Hebrides. ‘This was the only moment of my journey in which I thought myself endangered’. (It helped that later he slept below deck all through the storm that blew them to Coll.)

After the near-accident, Hay, one of their guides, endeavoured to soothe him with the distraction of a herd of wild goats. Boswell then angers him by attempting to ride ahead, and they have their worst falling-out of the tour which lasts till the following morning.

From the bealach we looked east, back over The Saddle and the glen of cones. There was no quarrel to be had.

   everytime we come here

   we say we’ll have a fight

   everytime we come here

   there’s nothing to fight about


We came backwards to Glenelg, on the Kylerhea ferry, MV Glenachullish, with its celebrity collie, Nak, who herds the traffic. Named after the former Celtic player Shunsuke Nakamura, we first met him on The Road North, and he has his own facebook fan-page. We were lucky enough to see Orla the sea eagle, bride of Victor, high over Cnoc a’ Chomh-ruith.

    seeing the sea from the island    seeing the island from the sea

The travellers made the same crossing, Skyeways. For centuries this was the favoured route, and drovers would swim the cattle over the Narrows on their way to the Trysts of Falkirk and Crieff. Vyv Wood-Gee has a blog describing her journey south from Skye, taking a pony over the old drove loans in 2010.

Our friend, Eddie Stiven, happened to be onboard, and he showed us what he thought was the exact site – a few rocks hid by among bracken – of the ‘damp and dirty’ inn where Boswell and Johnson slept, on a pile of hay; the little man on sheets laid by his servant, the big man in his greatcoat of philosophy.

   lay on linen

   even in the hay

Eddie was puzzled by the location of the inn, so close to the ferry, when its main customers would have been drovers headed south. (It is located close to the northward footpath, marked on the OS, 200m south of the ferry; RCAHMS gives a different site, in the village).

Speaking of Ossian, Eddie tells us Macpherson gathered material from two men at a nearby house. As part of the controversy about the authenticity of the poems, the Rev. Donald Macleod, minister of Glenelg, writing to Dr Blair, of date 26th March 1764, says, it was in my house that Mr Macpherson got the description of Cuchullin's horses and car in Fingal, Book I, page 11, from Allan MacCaskle, schoolmaster, and Rory Macleod, both of this glen”.

That night we enjoyed our Tour Treat, a meal in Deirdre’s old haunt, the Glenelg Inn.

   As cosy to hikers

   Whose only desire
   Is to come in from a shower
   And pull up a chair
   Before the fireside.

   after Davenport’s Anakreon (86)



Brewster, David The Edinburgh Encyclopedia (1832)

Davenport, Guy Seven Greeks (1995)
MacNeill, Andrew Notes on the Authenticity of Ossian’s Poems (1869)
MacPherson, James The Works of Ossian (1765)