A JOURNEY TO THE WESTERN ISLANDS OF SCOTLAND by Samuel Johnson
At an hour somewhat late we came to St. Andrews, a
city once archiepiscopal; where that university still subsists in which philosophy was
formerly taught by Buchanan, whose name has as fair a claim to immortality as can be
conferred by modern latinity, and perhaps a fairer than the instability of vernacular
We found, that by the interposition of some
invisible friend, lodgings had been provided for us at the house of one of the professors,
whose easy civility quickly made us forget that we were strangers; and in the whole time
of our stay we were gratified by every mode of kindness, and entertained with all the
elegance of lettered hospitality.
In the morning we rose to perambulate a city, which only history
shews to have once flourished, and surveyed the ruins of ancient magnificence, of which
even the ruins cannot long be visible, unless some care be taken to preserve them; and
where is the pleasure of preserving such mournful memorials? They have been till very
lately so much neglected, that every man carried away the stones who fancied that he
The cathedral, of which the foundations may be still traced, and a
small part of the wall is standing, appears to have been a spacious and majestick
building, not unsuitable to the primacy of the kingdom. Of the architecture, the poor
remains can hardly exhibit, even to an artist, a sufficient specimen. It was demolished,
as is well known, in the tumult and violence of Knox's reformation.
Not far from the cathedral, on the margin of the water, stands a
fragment of the castle, in which the archbishop anciently resided. It was never very
large, and was built with more attention to security than pleasure. Cardinal Beatoun is
said to have had workmen employed in improving its fortifications at the time when he was
murdered by the ruffians of reformation, in the manner of which Knox has given what he
himself calls a merry narrative.
The change of religion in Scotland, eager and vehement as it was,
raised an epidemical enthusiasm, compounded of sullen scrupulousness and warlike ferocity,
which, in a people whom idleness resigned to their own thoughts, and who, conversing only
with each other, suffered no dilution of their zeal from the gradual influx of new
opinions, was long transmitted in its full strength from the old to the young, but by
trade and intercourse with England, is now visibly abating, and giving way too fast to
that laxity of practice and indifference of opinion, in which men, not sufficiently
instructed to find the middle point, too easily shelter themselves from rigour and
The city of St. Andrews, when it had lost its archiepiscopal
pre-eminence, gradually decayed: One of its streets is now lost; and in those that remain,
there is silence and solitude of inactive indigence and gloomy depopulation.
The university, within a few years, consisted of three colleges, but
is now reduced to two; the college of St. Leonard being lately dissolved by the sale of
its buildings and the appropriation of its revenues to the professors of the two others.
The chapel of the alienated college is yet standing, a fabrick not inelegant of external
structure; but I was always, by some civil excuse, hindred from entering it. A decent
attempt, as I was since told, has been made to convert it into a kind of green-house, by
planting its area with shrubs. This new method of gardening is unsuccessful; the plants do
not hitherto prosper. To what use it will next be put I have no pleasure in conjecturing.
It is something that its present state is at least not ostentatiously displayed. Where
there is yet shame, there may in time be virtue.
The dissolution of St. Leonard's college was doubtless necessary;
but of that necessity there is reason to complain. It is surely not without just reproach,
that a nation, of which the commerce is hourly extending, and the wealth encreasing,
denies any participation of its prosperity to its literary societies; and while its
merchants or its nobles are raising palaces, suffers its universities to moulder into
Of the two colleges yet standing, one is by the institution of its
founder appropriated to Divinity. It is said to be capable of containing fifty students;
but more than one must occupy a chamber. The library, which is of late erection, is not
very spacious, but elegant and luminous. The doctor, by whom it was shewn, hoped to
irritate or subdue my English vanity by telling me, that we had no such repository of
books in England.
Saint Andrews seems to be a place eminently adapted to study and
education, being situated in a populous, yet a cheap country, and exposing the minds and
manners of young men neither to the levity and dissoluteness of a capital city, nor to the
gross luxury of a town of commerce, places naturally unpropitious to learning; in one the
desire of knowledge easily gives way to the love of pleasure, and in the other, is in
danger of yielding to the love of money.
The students however are represented as at this time not exceeding a
hundred. Perhaps it may be some obstruction to their increase that there is no episcopal
chapel in the place. I saw no reason for imputing their paucity to the present professors;
nor can the expence of an academical education be very reasonably objected. A student of
the highest class may keep his annual session, or as the English call it, his term, which
lasts seven months, for about fifteen pounds, and one of lower rank for less than ten; in
which board, lodging, and instruction are all included.
The chief magistrate resident in the university, answering to our
vice-chancellor, and to the rector magnificus on the continent, had commonly the title of
Lord Rector; but being addressed only as Mr. Rector in an inauguratory speech by the
present chancellor, he has fallen from his former dignity of style. Lordship was very
liberally annexed by our ancestors to any station or character of dignity: They said, the
Lord General, and Lord Ambassador; so we still say, my Lord, to the judge upon the
circuit, and yet retain in our Liturgy the Lords of the Council.
In walking among the ruins of religious buildings, we came to two
vaults over which had formerly stood the house of the sub-prior. One of the vaults was
inhabited by an old woman, who claimed the right of abode there, as the widow of a man
whose ancestors had possessed the same gloomy mansion for no less than four generations.
The right, however it began, was considered as established by legal prescription, and the
old woman lives undisturbed. She thinks however that she has a claim to something more
than sufferance; for as her husband's name was Bruce, she is allied to royalty, and told
Mr. Boswell that when there were persons of quality in the place, she was distinguished by
some notice; that indeed she is now neglected, but she spins a thread, has the company of
her cat, and is troublesome to nobody.
Having now seen whatever this ancient city offered to our curiosity,
we left it with good wishes, having reason to be highly pleased with the attention that
was paid us. But whoever surveys the world must see many things that give him pain. The
kindness of the professors did not contribute to abate the uneasy remembrance of an
university declining, a college alienated, and a church profaned and hastening to the
St. Andrews indeed has formerly suffered more atrocious ravages and
more extensive destruction, but recent evils affect with greater force. We were reconciled
to the sight of archiepiscopal ruins. The distance of a calamity from the present time
seems to preclude the mind from contact or sympathy. Events long past are barely known;
they are not considered. We read with as little emotion the violence of Knox and his
followers, as the irruptions of Alaric and the Goths. Had the university been destroyed
two centuries ago, we should not have regretted it; but to see it pining in decay and
struggling for life, fills the mind with mournful images and ineffectual wishes.
This comment system requires
you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an
account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or
Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these
companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All
comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator
has approved your comment.