Tuesday, 5th October
I rose, and wrote my Journal till about nine; and then went to Dr Johnson, who sat up in bed and talked and laughed. I said, it was curious to look back ten years, to the time when we first thought of visiting the Hebrides. How distant and improbable the scheme then appeared! Yet here we were actually among them. 'Sir,' said he, 'people may come to do any thing almost, by talking of it. I really believe, I could talk myself into building a house upon island Isa, though I should probably never come back again to see it. I could easily persuade Reynolds to do it; and there would be no great sin in persuading him to do it. Sir, he would reason thus: "What will it cost me to be there once in two or three summers? Why, perhaps, five hundred pounds; and what is that, in comparison of having a fine retreat, to which a man can go, or to which he can send a friend " He would never find out that he may have this within twenty miles of London. Then I would tell him, that he may marry one of the Miss M'Leods, a lady of great family. Sir, it is surprising how people will go to a distance for what they may have at home. I knew a lady who came up from Lincolnshire to Knightsbridge with one of her daughters and gave five guineas a week for a lodging and a warm bath; that is, mere warm water. THAT, you know, could not be had in Lincolnshire! She said, it was made either too hot or too cold there.'
After breakfast, Dr Johnson and I, and Joseph, mounted horses, and Col and the captain walked with us about a short mile across the island. We paid a visit to the Reverend Mr Hector M'Lean. His parish consists of the islands of Col and Tyr-yi. He was about seventy-seven years of age, a decent ecclesiastick, dressed in a full suit of black clothes, and a black wig. He appeared like a Dutch pastor, or one of the assembly of divines at Westminster. Dr Johnson observed to me afterwards, 'that he was a fine old man, and was as well-dressed, and had as much dignity in his appearance as the dean of a cathedral'. We were told, that he had a valuable library, though but poor accomodation for it, being obliged to keep his books in large chests. It was curious to see him and Dr Johnson together. Neither of them heard very distinctly; so each of them talked in his own way, and at the same time. Mr M'Lean said, he had a confutation of Bayle, by Leibnitz. JOHNSON. 'A confutation of Bayle, sir! What part of Bayle do you mean? The greatest part of his writings is not confutable: it is historical and critical.' Mr M'Lean said, 'the irreligious part'; and proceeded to talk of Leibnitz's controversy with Clarke, calling Leibnitz a great man. JOHNSON. 'Why, sir, Leibnitz persisted in affirming that Newton called space sensorium numinis, notwithstanding he was corrected, and desired to observe that Newton's words were quasisensorium numinis. No, sir, Leibnitz was as paltry a fellow as I know. Out of respect to Queen Caroline, who patronized him, Clarke treated him too well.'
During the time that Dr Johnson was thus going on, the old minister was standing with his back to the fire, cresting up erect, pulling down the front of his periwig, and talking what a great man Leibnitz was. To give an idea of the scene, would require a page with two columns; but it ought rather to be represented by two good players. The old gentleman said, Clarke was very wicked, for going so much into the Arian system. 'I will not say he was wicked,' said Dr Johnson; 'he might be mistaken.' M'LEAN. 'He was wicked, to shut his eyes against the Scriptures; and worthy men in England have since confuted him to all intents and purposes.' JOHNSON. 'I know not WHO has confuted him to ALL INTENTS AND PURPOSES.' Here again there was a double talking, each continuing to maintain his own argument, without hearing exactly what the other said.
I regretted that Dr Johnson did not practice the art of accommodating himself to different sorts of people. Had he been softer with this venerable old man, we might have had more conversation; but his forcible spirit; and impetuosity of manner, may be said to spare neither sex nor age. I have seen even Mrs Thrale stunned; but I have often maintained, that it is better he should retain his own manner. Pliability of address I conceive to be inconsistent with that majestick power of mind which he possesses, and which produces such noble effects. A lofty oak will not bend like a supple willow.
He told me afterwards, he liked firmness in an old man, and was pleased to see Mr M'Lean so orthodox. 'At his age, it is too late for a man to be asking himself questions as to his belief.'
We rode to the northern part of the island, where we saw the ruins of a church or chapel. We then proceeded to a place called Grissipol, or the Rough Pool.
At Grissipol we found a good farm house, belonging to the Laird of Col, and possessed by Mr M'Sweyn. On the beach here there is a singular variety of curious stones. I picked up one very like a small cucumber. By the by, Dr Johnson told me, that Gay's line in the Beggar's Opera, 'As men should serve a cucumber,' &c. has no waggish meaning, with reference to men flinging away cucumbers as too COOLING, which some have thought; for it has been a common saying of physicians in England, that a cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing. Mr M'Sweyn's predecessors had been in Sky from a very remote period, upon the estate belonging to M'Leod; probably before M'Leod had it. The name is certainly Norwegian, from Sueno, King of Norway. The present Mr M'Sweyn left Sky upon the late M'Leod's raising his rents. He then got this farm from Col.
He appeared to be near fourscore; but looked as fresh, and was as strong as a man of fifty. His son Hugh looked older; and, as Dr Johnson observed, had more the manners of an old man than he. I had often heard of such instances, but never saw one before. Mrs M'Sweyn was a decent old gentlewoman. She was dressed in tartan, and could speak nothing but Erse. She said, she taught Sir James M'Donald Erse, and would teach me soon. I could now sing a verse of the song Hatyin foam'eri, made in honour of Allan, the famous Captain of Clanranald, who fell at Sherrif-muir; whose servant, who lay on the field watching his master's dead body, being asked next day who that was, answered, 'He was a man yesterday.'
We were entertained here with a primitive heartiness. Whisky was served round in a shell, according to the ancient Highland custom. Dr Johnson would not partake of it; but, being desirous to do honour to the modes 'of other times', drank some water out of the shell.
In the forenoon Dr Johnson said, 'it would require great resignation to live in one of these islands.' BOSWELL. 'I don't know, sir; I have felt myself at times in a state of almost mere physical existence, satisfied to eat, drink, and sleep, and walk about, and enjoy my own thoughts; and I can figure a continuation of this.' JOHNSON. 'Ay, sir; but if you were shut up here, your own thoughts would torment you: you would think of Edinburgh or London, and that you could not be there.'
We set out after dinner for Breacacha, the family seat of the Laird of Col, accompanied by the young laird, who had now got a horse, and by the younger Mr M'Sweyn, whose wife had gone thither before us, to prepare every thing for our reception, the laird and his family being absent at Aberdeen. It is called Breacacha, or the Spotted Field, because in summer it is enamelled with clover and daisies, as young Col told me. We passed by a place where there is a very large stone, I may call it a ROCK--'a vast weight for Ajax'. The tradition is, that a giant threw such another stone at his mistress, up to the top of a hill, at a small distance; and that she in return, threw this mass down to him. It was all in sport. Malo me petit lasciva puella.
As we advanced, we came to a large extent of plain ground. I had not seen such a place for a long time. Col and I took a gallop upon it by way of race. It was very refreshing to me, after having been so long taking short steps in hilly countries. It was like stretching a man's legs after being cramped in a short bed. We also passed close by a large extent of sand-hills, near two miles square. Dr Johnson said, 'he never had the image before. It was horrible, if barrenness and danger could be so.' I heard him, after we were in the house of Breacacha, repeating to himself, as he walked about the room,
'"And smother'd in the dusty whirlwind, dies."'
Probably he had been thinking of the whole of the simile in Cato, of which that is the concluding line; the sandy desart had struck him so strongly. The sand has of late been blown over a good deal of meadow; and the people of the island say, that their fathers remembered much of the space which is now covered with sand, to have been under tillage. Col's house is situated on a bay called Breacacha Bay. We found here a neat new-built gentleman's house, better than any we had been in since we were at Lord Errol's. Dr Johnson relished it much at first, but soon remarked to me, that 'there was nothing becoming a chief about it: it was a mere tradesman's box.' He seemed quite at home, and no longer found any difficulty in using the Highland address; for as soon as we arrived, he said, with a spirited familiarity, 'Now, COL, if you could get us a dish of tea,' Dr Johnson and I had each an excellent bed-chamber. We had a dispute which of us had the best curtains. His were rather the best, being of linen; but I insisted that my bed had the best posts, which was undeniable. 'Well,' said he, 'if you HAVE the best POSTS, we will have you tied to them and whipped.' I mention this slight circumstance, only to shew how ready he is, even in mere trifles, to get the better of his antagonist, by placing him in a ludicrous view. I have known him sometimes use the same art, when hard pressed in serious disputation. Goldsmith, I remember, to retaliate for many a severe defeat which he has suffered from him, applied to him a lively saying in one of Cibber's comedies, which puts this part of his character in a strong light. 'There is no arguing with Johnson; for, IF HIS PISTOL MISSES FIRE, HE KNOCKS YOU DOWN WITH THE BUT-END OF IT.'