In the Wake of Dr. Johnson

Where They Drink Whiskey in the Morning
A cruise around the Hebrides, the Scottish islands that inspired Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

In 1773, Samuel Johnson–poet, essayist, and London’s literary light–and his biographer, James Boswell, passed through the rugged, starkly beautiful Hebridean Islands just off Scotland’s western coast. Their famous tour produced not one but two waspish journals that remain in print today.

Dr. Johnson, who was 64 and had completed his monumental Dictionary of the English Language, was a bit of a whiner, complaining occasionally of bad food and uncomfortable lodgings. No such suffering for us aboard the Glen Massan, one of two luxuriously converted 82-foot wooden-hulled, double-ended trawlers that originally fished the western coast of Ireland and now take passengers on cruises through the Hebrides.

The trawlers make up the entire fleet of Majestic Cruises, a small-ship line that is at the opposite end of the cruising universe from Carnival or Royal Caribbean. Not unlike the gulets that ply Turkey’s Turquoise Coast, the boats include six comfortable cabins, each with a private bath; a roomy main saloon for meals and lounging; outdoor decks fore and aft; and a spacious wheelhouse where all are welcome. The crew consists of a skipper, an engineer, a boatswain, and a chef.

Our floating house party consisted of six couples, all longtime sailing friends. We split the cost of 17,000 pounds ($27,300) for the week, which included superb meals and wines with dinner–not cheap, but nothing in Scotland is these days.

As Dr. Johnson noted, there is no such thing as bad weather in the Hebrides, only inadequate clothing. So we brought our fleece and foul-weather jackets, and we used them every day. We also had periods of warm sun, and in late May, beautiful sunsets that lingered past 9 p.m.

To find the history, mythology, and literary legend that are around every corner in the Hebrides, we anchored just off Erraid Island, where the shipwrecked teenage hero of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 18th-century adventure story Kidnapped washed ashore. We stopped at Iona, the soft, green island where an Irish scholar and monk, Saint Columba, arrived in the sixth century to Christianize the pagan Scots; the abbey he established is still extant and well worth a visit.

The chief attraction on the Isle of Staffa is Fingal’s Cave, dark and dramatic, on the southeastern face of the steep island. Water rushes in and out of the cathedral-size opening–a sound that inspired Felix Mendelssohn to compose his Hebrides overture. The cave, named for a mythical Irish warrior and giant, has been an adventure destination for years, attracting notable visitors, including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Sir Walter Scott, John Keats, and, of course, Robert Louis Stevenson.

Tradition holds that good fortune comes to those who touch the back wall of the deep cave. Johnson and Boswell approached Staffa by boat, but, as Boswell noted, they “could not land upon it, the surge was so high on its rocky coast.” We had better luck. With relatively smooth water and a low tide, we could take the tender–the crew called it the “jolly boat”–inside the towering cave, motor carefully up to the back wall, and, one by one and gingerly, put a hand on it.

Climbing Staffa is a great experience. Over the centuries, wind and rain have eroded basalt formations into intricate columned and stepped perches that make perfect nesting niches for a large colony of seagulls. The view from the windblown, grassy summit, looking across the smaller islands scattered off Mull, is stunning. (A set of steep steps has been carved into the cliffs by the National Trust, which, being Scottish, invites donations to be dropped into a hole in a rock.)

Not surprisingly, the weather dictates the itinerary in the Hebrides. Dr. Johnson and Boswell had to change their route when the weather turned, and so did we. One morning the marine forecast included gale-force northwesterlies, so instead of heading north to the island of Skye, we stayed in the more protected waters around Muck and Mull.

When Dr. Johnson visited Muck 240 years ago, he took precise notes in what became his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland:

This little island, however it be named, is of considerable value … Half of this little dominion the laird [lord] retains in his own hand, and on the other half, live one hundred and sixty persons, who pay their rent by exported corn. What rent they pay, we were not told and could not decently inquire.
Today, the population is 27, plus hundreds of woolly sheep. The MacEwen family, which owns the island now, is placing advertisements asking young couples to move to Muck to help keep the island school open. We were not told and could not decently inquire about the rent, but the welcome package includes beautiful open spaces and all the peace and quiet you could ask for.

Honesty seems to be the prevailing policy on Muck. The one shop, which features handmade tea cozies, coasters, and beautiful wool rugs that sell for 97 pounds ($150) each, is open all day in the summer months, untended. Drop your money in the honor box.

We had several more days of cruising and hiking and refining our collective taste for single-malt scotch, which seems to be the principal product of the Hebrides. In Journey, first published in 1775, Dr. Johnson notes the local custom:

A man of the Hebrides … as soon as he appears in the morning, swallows a glass of whiskey. Yet they are not a drunken race, at least I never was present at much intemperance; but no man is so abstemious as to refuse the morning dram.
Perhaps that’s the magic of the Hebrides, just as Dr. Johnson said.


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