On Samuel Johnson, Sorley McLean and Talisker Bay

Talisker House on Skye lies at the end of a long descent through Glen Oraid, probably about 5 miles beyond the turning to Carbost.  The weather on the day we visited was miraculous: sunny with brilliant colours, and not that much wind. Unlike two hundred and forty-three years ago, when Dr Samuel Johnson complained that “The weather was now almost one continuous storm”.

You have to leave the car well before the house and walk down a track that leads to the bay past the house and its garden, The house is very striking and, most unusually for these parts, it’s surrounded by mature trees. The building seems to have changed very little and the garden was beautiful looked after. Johnson was clearly very taken by the house and its setting too, as well as the occupants. As he wrote on 28 September 1773: “We passed two days at Talisker very happily, both by the perfectness of the place, and elegance of our reception.”

Talisker House dates back to the early eighteenth century, but in 1780, a few years after Boswell and Johnson visited, a new front wing was added with a ground floor dining room and a drawing room above. The ornate plaster ceiling in the drawing was said to be original in the Listed Buildings description of 1971.


We came by car, and then on foot, whereas on 23 September 1773, Dr Johnson and his travelling companion, James Boswell, left Dunvegan Castle to ride to Ullinish, and from there by boat to Talisker.

Even then the area had a reputation for making the best whisky on the island. A little aside here, Talisker Distillery would be built in Carbost in 1830, and fifty years after that another great writer, this time Robert Louis Stevenson (A Scotsman Returning from Abroad, 1880), listed this particular whisky among his favourite three: “The king o’ drinks, as I conceive it, Talisker, Isla, or Glenlivet!”


Commenting in general on his impressions of Skye, Johnson remarked that “The hospitality of this remote region is like that of the golden age. We have found ourselves treated at every house as if we came to confer a benefit.”

Johnson and Boswell landed at Ferinlea, on Loch Harport, and then rode about five miles to Talisker where they stayed with Colonel John Macleod of Talisker and his wife Mary Maclean of Coll.

Sept. 23. We removed to Talisker a house occupied by Mr. Macleod, a Lieutenant colonel in the Dutch service. Talisker has been long in the hands of Gentlemen, and therefore has a garden well cultivated, and what is here very rare, is shaded by trees. A place where the imagination is more amused cannot easily be found. The Mountains about it are of great height, with waterfalls succeeding one another so fast, that as one ceases to be hearrd another begins; between the mountains there is a small valley extended to the sea, which is not afar off beating upon a coast of very difficult access.

IMG_1256The photo above was taken on the day we visited when the sea couldn’t have been calmer. But in September 1773 matters were different. Johnson wrote:

Two nights before our arrival two boats were driven upon this coast by the tempest, one of them had a pilot that knew the passage, the second followed, but a third missed the true course, and was driven forward with great danger of being forced into the great Ocean, but however gained at last some other Island. The crews crept to Talisker almost lifeless with wet, cold, fatigue and terrour, but the Lady took care of them. She is a woman of more than common qualifications; having travelled with her husband, she speaks four languages.”

What’s fascinating about this diary entry is that Johnson refers to Macleod’s wife, Mary Maclean of Coll, as being a notable linguist. This unexpected talent is surprising, but Johnson puts it down to travelling with her husband.

What four languages might these have been? They might well have included English and Gaelic (or Earse, as Johnson called it), and probably Dutch and French.  After fighting for the government during the Jacobite Rebellion, Macleod joined the Scots Brigade in Holland, where he rose to the rank of colonel. In his Life, James Boswell also agreed that John Macleod and his wife, “in consequence of having lived abroad, had introduced the ease and politeness of the continent into this rude region”.


This is a really special corner of Skye and it was lovely to find that Sorley Maclean also wrote about Talisker Bay. Below is the English translation of Tràighean, thanks to the Scottish Poetry Library website (what a fantastic resource!). The basalt rocks of Preshal Mhor are visible in the photo above.

If we were in Talisker on the shore
where the great white mouth
opens between two hard jaws,
Rubha nan Clach and the Bioda Ruadh,
I would stand beside the sea
renewing love in my spirit
while the ocean was filling
Talisker bay forever:
I would stand there on the bareness of the shore
until Prishal bowed his stallion head.

There was no sign of white horses (whether on the hills or in the sea) when we were there – that must be a dramatic sight!  Below is the stack of Bioda Ruadh, at the south end of the bay, in fabulous sunlight.


Writing to Macleod of Macleod as he waited for a boat to leave Skye, Johnson also expressed his gratitude to all those he had met on the island, and particularly to his steed:

“Boswell grows impatient, but the kind treatment which I find wherever I go makes me leave with some heaviness of heart an Island which I am not very like to see again. Having now gone as far as horses can carry us, we thankfully return them. My Steed will, I hope, be received with kindness; he has born me, heavy as I am, over ground both rough and steep with great fidelity…”

We didn’t have trusted horses, but we can share the sentiment of the heaviness of heart when we left and the kindness of the lovely people we met on the Winged Isle. I hope we will be very likely to see it again!

Happy birthday, Samuel

I missed his birthday on 7 September, but there’s a chance for more cake and 300 candles on 18 September (apparently after the change of calendar in 1752 he celebrated his birthday on 18 September).

There’s been so many wonderful Johnson features on radio and in the press, but I just wanted to comment on a couple.

First, the excellent DNB entry which is available online.  Written by Pat Rogers, ‘Johnson, Samuel (1709–1784)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, May 2009.


Then a particularly vociferous and spirited Johnson on Johnson, or Boris on Samuel: London’s mayor on England’s literary colossus in Great Lives.

Another snippet from the BBC website highlights the enormity of Johnson’s task:

Johnson’s dictionary was intended to be the English equivalent of volumes produced decades earlier by Italian and French academies. A group of publishers contracted him to produce it in three years. When reminded that it had taken 40 French academics 40 years to produce theirs, Johnson apparently replied: “Forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.”

Having been contracted to compile the Dictionary on 18 June 1746, it in fact it took him nine years to complete this mammoth work. The effort of doing so is revealed in his definition of “dull”:  “To make dictionaries is dull work.”  The two-volume Dictionary appeared on 15 April 1755.

He reiterated this in the Preface to the Dictionary where he wrote:

Every other authour may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach, and even this negative recompense has been yet granted to very few.

His love of words was deeply felt and he writes that he “has endeavoured to proceed with a scholar’s reverence for antiquity, and a grammarian’s regard to the genius of our tongue”, especially with regard to orthography.  However, he realised that:

This recommendation of steadiness and uniformity does not proceed from an opinion, that particular combinations of letters have much influence on human happiness; or that truth may not be successfully taught by modes of spelling fanciful And erroneous: I am not yet so lost in lexicography, as to I forget that WORDS ARE THE DAUGHTERS OF EARTH, AND THAT THINGS ARE THE SONS OF HEAVEN. Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the signs of ideas: I wish, however, that the instrument might be less apt to decay, and that signs might be permanent, like the things which they denote.

“Words are the daughters of earth… the signs of ideas”  – a wonderful turn of phrase.

But Johnson also realised that English is a living language, in constant evolution – a subject that is still hotly debated today.  He wrote:

it must be remembered, that while our language is yet living, and variable by the caprice of every one that speaks it, these words are hourly shifting their relations, and can no more be ascertained in a dictionary, than a grove, in the agitation of a storm, can be accurately delineated from its picture in the water. […]
Total and sudden transformations of a language seldom happen; conquests and migrations are now very rare: but there are other causes of change, which, though slow in their operation, and invisible in their progress, are perhaps as much superiour to human resistance, as the revolutions of the sky, or intumescence of the tide.

In an interesting comment, Johnson also adds that his Dictionary does not include many “terms of art and manufacture” because he lacked the time (and inclination) to visit mines, merchants stores, workshops, etc. to “gain the names of wares, tools and operations”.  In this he envies the lexicographers of Italy’s Accademia della Crusca who, he says, could draw on Buonaroti’s La Fiera (Michelangelo Buonaroti il Giovane was the famous Michelangelo’s nephew):

To furnish the academicians della Crusca with words of this kind, a series of comedies called la Fiera, or the Fair, was professedly written by Buonaroti; but I had no such assistant, and therefore was content to want what they must have wanted likewise, had they not luckily been so supplied.

On a subject close to my heart, because he talks of translation and translators, Johnson becomes quite vitriolic – not, as I interpret it, against the act of translation per se, but the practice of contaminating language by introducing foreign phrases and words.

There is another cause of alteration more prevalent than any other, which yet in the present state of the world cannot be obviated. A mixture of two languages will produce a third distinct from both, and they will always be mixed, where the chief part of education, and the most conspicuous accomplishment, is skill in ancient or in foreign tongues. He that has long cultivated another language, will find its words and combinations croud upon his memory; and haste and negligence, refinement and affectation, will obtrude borrowed terms and exotick expressions.

The great pest of speech is frequency of translation. No book was ever turned from one language into another, without imparting something of its native idiom; this is the most mischievous and comprehensive innovation; single words may enter by thousands, and the fabrick of the tongue continue the same, but new phraseology changes much at once; it alters not the single stones of the building, but the order of the columns. If an academy should be established for the cultivation of our stile, which I, who can never wish to see dependance multiplied, hope the spirit of English liberty will hinder or destroy, let them, instead of compiling grammars and dictionaries, endeavour, with all their influence, to stop the licence of translatours, whose idleness and ignorance, if it be suffered to proceed, will reduce us to babble a dialect of France.

In 1773 Johnson and Boswell set off on a three-month journey to the then uncharted territory of the Scottish highlands and isles. The trip resulted in two books, Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, and A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland.

I have a book by Virginia Maclean, Much Entertainment. A Visual and Culinary Record of Johnson and Boswell’s Tour of Scotland in 1773, published in 1973 to mark the 200th anniversary of that journey.  The author retraces this journey and – as she says – sets out to disprove Johnson’s assertion that “women can spin very well, but they cannot make a good book of cookery”!!

I thought I’d just document his arrival in Edinburgh on 14 August 1773.  Boswell writes:

On Saturday the fourteenth of August, 1773, late in the evening, I received a note from him, that he was arrived at Boyd’s Inn, at the head of the Canongate.  I went to him directly.  He embraced me cordially and I exulted in the thought, that I now had him actually in Caledonia. … Dr Johnson and I walked arm-in-arm up the High Street, to my house in James’s Court: it was a dusky night: I could not prevent his being assailed by the evening effluvia of Edinburgh. I heard a late baronet, of some distinction in the political world in the beginning of the present reign, observe, that ‘walking the streets of Edinburgh at night was pretty perilous, and a good deal odoriferous’. The peril is much abated, by the care which the magistrates have taken to enforce the city laws against throwing foul water from the windows; but, from the structure of the houses in the old town, which consist of many stories, in each of which a different family lives, and there being no covered sewers, the odour still continues. A zealous Scotsman would have wished Mr Johnson to be without one of his five senses upon this occasion. As we marched slowly along, he grumbled in my ear, ‘I smell you in the dark!’


The National Library of Scotland have an excellent map collection available online.  William Edgar’s map of Edinburgh Castle and City dates from 1765. You can zoom into the map and take a closer look at it here.

edinburgh high street

One homely detail is that Johnson loved cats and Hodge, his favourite pet, is immortalised outside the house at number 17 Gough Square, London.hodge

And if you really want to celebrate Johnson’s birthday with tea and cakes, then pop inside Dr Johnson’s House where you’ll find an afternoon tea party on 13 September (you do need to book here!).