Scotland: In the Footsteps of Johnson

and Boswell

This article first appeared in

the San Francisco Examiner

WE ARE tracking the dead around Scotland. Across white fields, their footsteps are black and in the shape of letters. They lead us to the forbidding Slains Castle, set on the very edge of a plain that falls abruptly into the fierce North Sea.

The footprints are letters. The white fields are the pages of journals written by British literary greats Samuel Johnson and his biographer, James Boswell, when they toured the country in 1773. The castle is now in ruins and we are its only visitors as the sun begins to set.

I imagine Lord Erroll greeting his guests, Johnson and Boswell, in the entrance way of this once palatial estate and marvel at how now we are the only souls here.

There is a sign at the edge of the cliffs mourning a child who fell to his death here and cautioning visitors to stay away from the edge. Yet it was along this same coastline that the rotund and very unathletic Johnson displayed a daring nature.

About two miles from the castle is the Buller of Buchan. By Johnson’s account:

"The Buller of Buchan . . . no man can see with indifference, who has either sense of danger or delight in rarity. It is a rock perpendicularly tabulated, united on one side with a high shore, and on the other rising steep to a great height, above the main sea. The top is open, from which may be seen a dark gulf of water which flows into the cavity, through a breach made in the lower part of the enclosing rock. It has the appearance of a vast well bordered with a wall. The edge of the Buller is not wide, and to those that walk round, appears very narrow. He that ventures to look downward sees, that if his foot should slip, he must fall from his dreadful elevation upon stones on one side, or into the water on the other." Then he concludes matter-of-factly, "We however went ‘round, and were glad when the circuit was completed."

This Dr. Johnson, the corpulent egg-head, sequestered in literary parlors, writing poems and dictionaries, became - at the moment he sauntered around a precipice that would make me quake - a real person. He became, for me, a person who lived, as well as wrote about life. And there was more.

From Boswell's account: "Mr. Johnson insisted to take a boat and sail into the Pot. We did so. As the entry into the Buller is so narrow that oars cannot be used as you go in, the method taken is to row very hard when you come near it, and give the boat such a rapidity of motion that she glides in. . . . There are caves of considerable depth."

This was something we did not do.


Some months before our journey, we decided to plot our course according, roughly, to Johnson & Boswell's (J&B) plan. What they did in two months, we would try in two weeks, taking automobiles and other shortcuts when necessary.

J&B began in Edinburgh in the east, and proceeded north on their counter-clockwise coastal tour. Our common stops would be Edinburgh, St. Andrews, Cruden Bay, Inverness, Loch Ness, the Isle of Mull, and Oban. It should be noted that the high point of the trip for Johnson was his time on the Isle of Skye. Since we had been there before, and time was short, we skipped Skye on this trip.

When J&B traveled through Scotland, they often stayed as the celebrated guests of local lairds. We attempted to do something like that. Rather than stay at conventional hotels or bed-and-breakfasts, we often found a way to stay in the homes of Scottish families. There are several confederations of such homes (many of them superb) that take paying guests. Each has a directory. One such association, the Wolsey Lodges, provided several friendly places to stay. The first was in Edinburgh.

"I shall tell you anecdotes about Dr. Johnson. Or, I shall invent some," declared David Ingram at breakfast, his twinkling eyes and Van Dyke goatee giving him a deservedly mischievous appearance. Ingram, an antique dealer, offers his multilevel, elegant Georgian townhouse to guests in Edinburgh. He had just served smoked salmon and scrambled eggs and sat down to fulfill my curiosity about Johnson.

"I often thought someone should do a fanciful play with Dr. Johnson and Dorothy Parker; the two masters of the put-down," he said. "Johnson is not universally liked in Scotland for that reason. He had many insulting things to say about the Scots."

"But his buddy, Boswell, was a Scot," I pointed out.

"Aye, but still . . . Boswell's wife called Johnson "a great brute,' and criticized her husband's idolatry of him. She said "I have seen many a bear led by a man, but never before a man led by a bear.' "

Ingram, as it turned out, provided a wealth of Johnson anecdotes, some not printable here. He told of various Johnson put-downs of the Scots such as Johnson's definition of oats as a food eaten by horses and Scotsmen. He also told of Margaret Duchess of Douglas whom Johnson described as "an old lady who talked broad Scotch with a paralytic voice and is scarce understood by her own countrymen." It seems that all night long, the Duchess was firing off her own put-downs of Johnson, which he could not make out. According to one witness, "The doctor missed the rebuffs of Lady Margaret, who could be uncommonly vulgar. . . . Numerous were the efforts of Boswell, as their go-between to translate the unintelligible gaucheries of her ladyship into palatable commonplaces for his guest's ear."

The most famous Edinburgh-Johnson anecdote is from Boswell's journal about Johnson being served tea at the White Horse Inn. "He asked to have his lemonade made sweeter, upon which the waiter with his greasy fingers lifted a lump of sugar and put it into it. The Doctor in indignation threw it out the window. Scott said he was afraid he would have knocked the waiter down."

We went directly to the White Horse on the famous Royal Mile. The Royal Mile runs from Edinburgh Castle at the top end of an ascending ridge of land, to Holyrood Palace at the bottom. Along it you will find, among scores of attractions, buildings whose cornerstones' dates are in the 1500s, shops, Boswell's apartment, cathedrals, Robert Burns' apartment, the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre, and taverns including the White Horse. Of those, the only thing you should miss is the White Horse. It is small and so smoky as to bring back Edinburgh's old nickname of "Auld Reekie."

What you might want to do instead is visit the city's various monuments to writers. One of them - an old spiraling tower dedicated to Walter Scott - can be climbed from within along passages so narrow that one's shoulders scrape the walls. At the top of that monument, looking at the city, Edinburgh Castle, and Robert Burns' monument, I wrote a postcard: "I am in a country that builds more monuments to writers than politicians, and whose national virtues are golf, fishing and whisky. I'm staying."

St. Andrews

    "Dr. Johnson seemed quite wrapped up in the contemplation of the scenes which were now presented to him. He kept his hat off while he was upon any part of the ground where the cathedral had stood." - Boswell.

The great cathedral of St. Andrews was the largest in Scotland when it was completed in 1318. It fell to ruin after the Reformation of 1560. Those ruins - the end towers, a wall, the cross-shaped outline of the foundation, and the numerous gravestones that surround the structure - are all that remain and yet they are awesome to contemplate. The remaining towers are about 100 feet high. They were one-third the size of the vanished central tower.

The destruction caused by religious fanaticism can be seen throughout St. Andrews. At the chapel of St. Andrews University's St. Salvatore College is a plaque dedicated to a Peter Hamilton, 24, who in 1528 was burned at the stake on that spot for teaching Lutheran doctrines. Irregularities of stone, high on the chapel's facing wall, suggest the image of a face; we were told that the face appeared the day after the burning.

Johnson, a very religious man, was moved and depressed by the ruins. He wrote that the ruins could not last long unless an effort were made to preserve them, but "where is the pleasure of preserving such mournful memorials?"

Johnson might have brought his spirits up if he had played golf. The famous Old Course at St. Andrews is a short walk along the coastline from the cathedral. People were playing on it
when Johnson was there, as they had 300 years prior to his visit. Home to the Royal & Ancient Club (established 1754), which oversees the rules of the game, St. Andrews is as famous for golf as it is for its university, and history.

Our host was a member of the Royal & Ancient Club. We stayed some 15 miles outside St. Andrews, at Cunnoquhie, the rolling, pastoral, countryside estate of Major Henry Hutchison and his wife Elizabeth. Cunnoquhie is another Woolsey Lodges recommendation and ours as well. We stayed in the 13-room, 18th-century manor house in which our host was born.

Early one evening, prior to a home-grown gourmet feast, Hutchison gave us a quick tour of the house and grounds.

Hutchison is a tall man, with large hands, a white mustache and who projects dignity and friendliness at the same time. He will not mention his Cambridge rowing trophies, nor a photograph of himself with the Queen, unless you bring it up. What he will do is take you past the kennels, stables and garden to an elaborate chicken-wire enclosure in the woods and enlist your help shooing the game pheasants he raises back into the coop. Though the pheasants can fly out the coop's top, they will only return to its protection by being herded along the ground through tunnels in the wire.

"They are strange that way," he acknowledged, demonstrating the herding technique. We got the hang of it and, in the process, came to feel more like old friends than guests.

Cruden Bay

About 80 miles north of St. Andrews, along a Sonoma Coast-like drive, and some 20 miles past the major urban center of Aberdeen, is the small coastal village of Cruden Bay.

Cruden Bay was, in the late 1800s, a thriving resort. But with the decline of its rail line, settled back to the fishing village it was originally. It has a long and beautiful crescent beach, a small harbor created by seawall, red fishing nets hung out to dry on poles looking like tattered circus tents, and a golf course placed within an amphitheater of dunes. Perched eerily on the edge of a plateau adjacent to the village is Slains Castle.

"My mother worked at Slains Castle," said Margaret Paton, 72. We met Mrs. Paton by accident, but (as we found throughout the country) though strangers, we were immediately offered unconditional welcome and hospitality. Mrs. Paton invited us into her harbor-side stone cottage, offered us tea, and told us all she knew about the castle and its various writer-guests.

"Bram Stoker used to vacation here," she said. "He used Slains as the model for Dracula's castle. . . My mother used to take me there when I was three years old. I remember being frightened by the sound of the waves crashing against the cliffs."

Mrs. Paton had a book on the castle which quoted some of Johnson's observations. She read aloud to us from it: "’. . . when the winds beat with violence (the eye) must enjoy all the terrific grandeur of the tempestuous storm . . . I may say . . . that I should willingly look out upon them from Slanes (sic) Castle.’"

The castle, like many throughout the country, was eventually torched, presumably to avoid "roof taxes" levied by the government. Many of the ruins' stones, recalls Mrs. Paton were used to build her grade school.

We left Cruden Bay and told Mrs. Paton we would see her on our next visit. "If I'm here," she smiled, and looked up at the blue heavens.


"(MacBeth's castle) the walls of which are yet standing. It was no very capacious edifice, but stands upon a rock so high and steep, that I think it was once not accessible, but by the help of ladders or a bridge." - Johnson.

An afternoon's drive along Scotland's north coast will take you to Inverness and through so many idyllic harbor towns and villages that you will be tempted to stop at each one (Banff, Cullen are just two). Or you may wish to drop south a few miles to Scotland's most concentrated whiskey-producing region, Speyside, to visit Macallan, Glenlivet or any of the other 13 distilleries there that welcome visitors.

Approaching Inverness, J&B opted to visit MacBeth's castle at Fores, paying homage to the historical figure and to Shakespeare's work. We, instead, visited Culloden, the battlefield which is to Scots what Gettysburg was to the Confederates. In 1746, English riflemen virtually annihilated the sword-wielding, rebellious clans, changing life in Scotland forever.

When they passed Culloden, Boswell wrote: "As (our guide) narrated the particulars of that unlucky but brave and generous attempt, I several times burst into tears. The very Highland names, or the sound of a bagpipe, will stir my blood and fill me with a mixture of melancholy, and respect for courage; and pity for the unfortunate, and (their) . . . inclination for war without thought. . ."

Today, the battlefield is colored deep red, not with blood but with heather; children run and play from one set of banners marking the English lines to another set marking the clans' positions.

We stayed outside Inverness, at Dower House, a small and charming cottage surrounded by rich gardens, near Muir of Ord. In a small restaurant near Dower House, we came across good and bad news. We discovered Glen Ord whisky, locally distilled, and to our tastes, the best single malt scotch (we've tasted most of them). The bad news: it was not yet exported to the U.S.

Loch Ness

"Natural philosophy is now one of the favorite studies of the Scottish nation, and Lough Ness well deserves to be diligently examined." - Johnson.

We followed J&B's path south along Loch Ness, stopping at Urqhardt Castle, and at pull-outs for picture taking. One wants to believe in the Loch Ness monster, but I did not know how much until then. "Catch Nessie on film and we'll be rich," I thought, then turned back toward the car. But I spun around quickly, my eyes wide with expectation, when I heard a tourist exclaim "Oh my God!" What I saw, however, was not Nessie, but a young boy, doubled over in laughter and pointing at me and my now-revealed wish to believe.

Isle of Mull

"Tobermory is a noble harbor. An island (Calve) lies before it; and it is surrounded by a hilly theatre. . . . There will sometimes be sixty or seventy sails here. . . . I went to the top of a hill fronting the harbour, and took a good view of it." - Boswell.

The hill Boswell probably meant is now a small golf course, woven into a sheep pasture. If you wish to play there, you pay at your hotel or in a local pharmacy and set off. There is no starter and payment is based on honor.

The town is as Boswell describes, a streetfront of shops, all painted in primary colors, hugging the harbor which is cupped in the bowl of a protective hillside. You get to Mull via car ferry from Lochaline on the mainland.

For accommodations, there are numerous inns along the harbor and the five-star Western Isles Hotel which commands the high ground. The adventurous may wish to follow J&B's lead and take a boat to the western side of the island to explore the off-shore rock formations and ocean caves that are barely accessible.

We skipped the Isle of Skye, having been there before. You should not. Skye is comprised of the rugged Cuillin mountains, rushing streams, fiords, meadows and the sea coast. A good place to stay is the Skeabost Hotel, a hunting-fishing lodge. Further down the road you can visit Dunvegan Castle, where J&B stayed and of which Johnson declared: "I had tasted lotus, and was in danger of forgetting that I was ever to depart."


"(We) reposed at a tolerable inn on the main land." - Johnson.

A $50 ferry ride will take you and your car down the eastern coast of Mull, past the formidable Duart Castle, back to the mainland town of Oban. In J&B's day, it was evidently not an impressive place and was damned by their faint praise. But it is a great place to stop now. A bustling, yet comparatively small harbor town, Oban is full of shops, restaurants, fine hotels, and a 200-year-old distillery.

Gregor MacGregor, a guide at the Oban distillery, told us that there was no "legal" whisky before 1794 and that which J&B drank was home brew. He also echoed Scottish sentiment about Johnson. "He is not very popular here. He never had good things to say about us." He then directed us to the site of the inn at which J&B stayed. Sure enough, near the town's central roundabout on Argyll Square, on a brown, four-story office building is a plaque that says petulantly: "On this site stood the ‘tolerable inn' where Dr. Samuel Johnson and his friend and biographer, James Boswell spent the night. . ."

We, however, stayed in a place that was far more than tolerable. The Knipoch Hotel, six miles south of Oban, is situated along the banks of an ocean inlet, Loch Feochan, and between verdant hillsides. Once a private residence, the three-story, sprawling Knipoch enables one to imagine living as a wealthy laird in the country. Rich woods, large fireplaces, art, leather reading chairs, gourmet cuisine, and the hotel's own smoked salmon would have caused Johnson to write a longer book.

In defense of Johnson, his "Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland" is generally complimentary to the country. His put downs of the people come primarily from the accounts of others. His account of the journey concludes, as perhaps all travel writer accounts should, with this simple caveat:

"I cannot but be conscious that my thoughts on national manners are the thoughts of one who has seen but little."