A JOURNEY TO THE WESTERN ISLANDS OF SCOTLAND by Samuel Johnson
As we knew sorrow and wishes to be vain, it was now
our business to mind our way. The roads of Scotland afford little diversion to the
traveller, who seldom sees himself either encountered or overtaken, and who has nothing to
contemplate but grounds that have no visible boundaries, or are separated by walls of
loose stone. From the bank of the Tweed to St. Andrews I had never seen a single tree,
which I did not believe to have grown up far within the present century. Now and then
about a gentleman's house stands a small plantation, which in Scotch is called a policy,
but of these there are few, and those few all very young. The variety of sun and shade is
here utterly unknown. There is no tree for either shelter or timber. The oak and the thorn
is equally a stranger, and the whole country is extended in uniform nakedness, except that
in the road between Kirkaldy and Cowpar, I passed for a few yards between two hedges. A
tree might be a show in Scotland as a horse in Venice. At St. Andrews Mr. Boswell found
only one, and recommended it to my notice; I told him that it was rough and low, or looked
as if I thought so. This, said he, is nothing to another a few miles off. I was still less
delighted to hear that another tree was not to be seen nearer. Nay, said a gentleman that
stood by, I know but of this and that tree in the county.
Lowlands of Scotland had once undoubtedly an equal portion of woods with other countries.
Forests are every where gradually diminished, as architecture and cultivation prevail by
the increase of people and the introduction of arts. But I believe few regions have been
denuded like this, where many centuries must have passed in waste without the least
thought of future supply. Davies observes in his account of Ireland, that no Irishman had
ever planted an orchard. For that negligence some excuse might be drawn from an unsettled
state of life, and the instability of property; but in Scotland possession has long been
secure, and inheritance regular, yet it may be doubted whether before the Union any man
between Edinburgh and England had ever set a tree.
Of this improvidence no other account can be given than that it
probably began in times of tumult, and continued because it had begun. Established custom
is not easily broken, till some great event shakes the whole system of things, and life
seems to recommence upon new principles. That before the Union the Scots had little trade
and little money, is no valid apology; for plantation is the least expensive of all
methods of improvement.
To drop a seed into the ground can cost nothing, and the trouble is
not great of protecting the young plant, till it is out of danger; though it must be
allowed to have some difficulty in places like these, where they have neither wood for
palisades, nor thorns for hedges.
Our way was over the Firth of Tay, where, though the water was not
wide, we paid four shillings for ferrying the chaise. In Scotland the necessaries of life
are easily procured, but superfluities and elegancies are of the same price at least as in
England, and therefore may be considered as much dearer.
We stopped a while at Dundee, where I remember nothing remarkable,
and mounting our chaise again, came about the close of the day to Aberbrothick.
The monastery of Aberbrothick is of great renown in the history of
Scotland. Its ruins afford ample testimony of its ancient magnificence: Its extent might,
I suppose, easily be found by following the walls among the grass and weeds, and its
height is known by some parts yet standing. The arch of one of the gates is entire, and of
another only so far dilapidated as to diversify theappearance. A square apartment of great
loftiness is yet standing; its use I could not conjecture, as its elevation was very
disproportionate to its area. Two corner towers, particularly attracted our attention. Mr.
Boswell, whose inquisitiveness is seconded by great activity, scrambled in at a high
window, but found the stairs within broken, and could not reach the top. Of the other
tower we were told that the inhabitants sometimes climbed it, but we did not immediately
discern the entrance, and as the night was gathering upon us, thought proper to desist.
Men skilled in architecture might do what we did not attempt: They might probably form an
exact ground-plot of this venerable edifice. They may from some parts yet standing
conjecture its general form, and perhaps by comparing it with other buildings of the same
kind and the same age, attain an idea very near to truth. I should scarcely have regretted
my journey, had it afforded nothing more than the sight of Aberbrothick.