A JOURNEY TO THE WESTERN ISLANDS OF SCOTLAND by Samuel Johnson
As we were to catch the first favourable breath, we
spent the night not very elegantly nor pleasantly in the vessel, and were landed next day
at Tobor Morar, a port in Mull, which appears to an unexperienced eye formed for the
security of ships; for its mouth is closed by a small island, which admits them through
narrow channels into a bason sufficiently capacious. They are indeed safe from the sea,
but there is a hollow between the mountains, through which the wind issues from the land
with very mischievous violence.
There was no danger while we
were there, and we found several other vessels at anchor; so that the port had a very
The young Laird of Col, who had determined not to let us lose his
company, while there was any difficulty remaining, came over with us. His influence soon
appeared; for he procured us horses, and conducted us to the house of Doctor Maclean,
where we found very kind entertainment, and very pleasing conversation. Miss Maclean, who
was born, and had been bred at Glasgow, having removed with her father to Mull, added to
other qualifications, a great knowledge of the Earse language, which she had not learned
in her childhood, but gained by study, and was the only interpreter of Earse poetry that I
could ever find.
The Isle of Mull is perhaps in extent the third of the Hebrides. It
is not broken by waters, nor shot into promontories, but is a solid and compact mass, of
breadth nearly equal to its length. Of the dimensions of the larger Islands, there is no
knowledge approaching to exactness. I am willing to estimate it as containing about three
hundred square miles.
Mull had suffered like Sky by the black winter of seventy-one, in
which, contrary to all experience, a continued frost detained the snow eight weeks upon
the ground. Against a calamity never known, no provision had been made, and the people
could only pine in helpless misery. One tenant was mentioned, whose cattle perished to the
value of three hundred pounds; a loss which probably more than the life of man is
necessary to repair. In countries like these, the descriptions of famine become
intelligible. Where by vigorous and artful cultivation of a soil naturally fertile, there
is commonly a superfluous growth both of grain and grass; where the fields are crowded
with cattle; and where every hand is able to attract wealth from a distance, by making
something that promotes ease, or gratifies vanity, a dear year produces only a comparative
want, which is rather seen than felt, and which terminates commonly in no worse effect,
than that of condemning the lower orders of the community to sacrifice a little luxury to
convenience, or at most a little convenience to necessity.
But where the climate is unkind, and the ground penurious, so that
the most fruitful years will produce only enough to maintain themselves; where life
unimproved, and unadorned, fades into something little more than naked existence, and
every one is busy for himself, without any arts by which the pleasure of others may be
increased; if to the daily burden of distress any additional weight be added, nothing
remains but to despair and die. In Mull the disappointment of a harvest, or a murrain
among the cattle, cuts off the regular provision; and they who have no manufactures can
purchase no part of the superfluities of other countries. The consequence of a bad season
is here not scarcity, but emptiness; and they whose plenty, was barely a supply of natural
and present need, when that slender stock fails, must perish with hunger. All travel has
its advantages. If the passenger visits better countries, he may learn to improve his own,
and if fortune carries him to worse, he may learn to enjoy it.
Mr. Boswell's curiosity strongly impelled him to survey Iona, or
Icolmkil, which was to the early ages the great school of Theology, and is supposed to
have been the place of sepulture for the ancient kings. I, though less eager, did not
That we might perform this expedition, it was necessary to traverse
a great part of Mull. We passed a day at Dr. Maclean's, and could have been well contented
to stay longer. But Col provided us horses, and we pursued our journey. This was a day of
inconvenience, for the country is very rough, and my horse was but little. We travelled
many hours through a tract, black and barren, in which, however, there were the reliques
of humanity; for we found a ruined chapel in our way.
It is natural, in traversing this gloom of desolation, to inquire,
whether something may not be done to give nature a more cheerful face, and whether those
hills and moors that afford heath cannot with a little care and labour bear something
better? The first thought that occurs is to cover them with trees, for that in many of
these naked regions trees will grow, is evident, because stumps and roots are yet
remaining; and the speculatist hastily proceeds to censure that negligence and laziness
that has omitted for so long a time so easy an improvement.
To drop seeds into the ground, and attend their growth, requires
little labour and no skill. He who remembers that all the woods, by which the wants of man
have been supplied from the Deluge till now, were self-sown, will not easily be persuaded
to think all the art and preparation necessary, which the Georgick writers prescribe to
planters. Trees certainly have covered the earth with very little culture. They wave their
tops among the rocks of Norway, and might thrive as well in the Highlands and Hebrides.
But there is a frightful interval between the seed and timber. He
that calculates the growth of trees, has the unwelcome remembrance of the shortness of
life driven hard upon him. He knows that he is doing what will never benefit himself; and
when he rejoices to see the stem rise, is disposed to repine that another shall cut it
Plantation is naturally the employment of a mind unburdened with
care, and vacant to futurity, saturated with present good, and at leisure to derive
gratification from the prospect of posterity. He that pines with hunger, is in little care
how others shall be fed.
The poor man is seldom studious to make his grandson rich. It may be
soon discovered, why in a place, which hardly supplies the cravings of necessity, there
has been little attention to the delights of fancy, and why distant convenience is
unregarded, where the thoughts are turned with incessant solicitude upon every possibility
of immediate advantage.
Neither is it quite so easy to raise large woods, as may be
conceived. Trees intended to produce timber must be sown where they are to grow; and
ground sown with trees must be kept useless for a long time, inclosed at an expence from
which many will be discouraged by the remoteness of the profit, and watched with that
attention, which, in places where it is most needed, will neither be given nor bought.
That it cannot be plowed is evident; and if cattle be suffered to graze upon it, they will
devour the plants as fast as they rise. Even in coarser countries, where herds and flocks
are not fed, not only the deer and the wild goats will browse upon them, but the hare and
rabbit will nibble them. It is therefore reasonable to believe, what I do not remember any
naturalist to have remarked, that there was a time when the world was very thinly
inhabited by beasts, as well as men, and that the woods had leisure to rise high before
animals had bred numbers sufficient to intercept them.
Sir James Macdonald, in part of the wastes of his territory, set or
sowed trees, to the number, as I have been told, of several millions, expecting,
doubtless, that they would grow up into future navies and cities; but for want of
inclosure, and of that care which is always necessary, and will hardly ever be taken, all
his cost and labour have been lost, and the ground is likely to continue an useless heath.
Having not any experience of a journey in Mull, we had no doubt of
reaching the sea by day-light, and therefore had not left Dr. Maclean's very early. We
travelled diligently enough, but found the country, for road there was none, very
difficult to pass. We were always struggling with some obstruction or other, and our
vexation was not balanced by any gratification of the eye or mind.
We were now long enough acquainted with hills and heath to have lost
the emotion that they once raised, whether pleasing or painful, and had our mind employed
only on our own fatigue. We were however sure, under Col's protection, of escaping all
real evils. There was no house in Mull to which he could not introduce us. He had intended
to lodge us, for that night, with a gentleman that lived upon the coast, but discovered on
the way, that he then lay in bed without hope of life.
We resolved not to embarrass a family, in a time of so much sorrow,
if any other expedient could he found; and as the Island of Ulva was over-against us, it
was determined that we should pass the strait and have recourse to the Laird, who, like
the other gentlemen of the Islands, was known to Col. We expected to find a ferry-boat,
but when at last we came to the water, the boat was gone.
We were now again at a stop. It was the sixteenth of October, a time
when it is not convenient to sleep in the Hebrides without a cover, and there was no house
within our reach, but that which we had already declined.