Saturday, 16th October
This day there was a new moon, and the weather changed for the better. Dr Johnson said of Miss M'Lean, 'She is the most accomplished lady that I have found in the Highlands. She knows French, musick, and drawing, sews neatly, makes shell-work, and can milk cows; in short, she can do every thing. She talks sensibly, and is the first person whom I have found, that can translate Erse poetry literally.' We set out, mounted on little Mull horses. Mull corresponded exactly with the idea which I had always had of it; a hilly country, diversified with heath and grass, and many rivulets. Dr Johnson was not in very good humour. He said, it was a dreary country, much worse than Sky. I differed from him, 'O, sir,' said he, 'a most dolorous country!'
We had a very hard journey to-day. I had no bridle for my sheltie, but only a halter; and Joseph rode without a saddle. At one place, a loch having swelled over the road, we were obliged to plunge through pretty deep water. Dr Johnson observed, how helpless a man would be, were he travelling here alone, and should meet with any accident; and said, 'he longed to get to a country of saddles and bridles'. He was more out of humour to-day, than he has been in the course of our tour, being fretted to find that his little horse could scarcely support his weight; and having suffered a loss, which, though small in itself, was of some consequence to him, while travelling the rugged steeps of Mull, where he was at times obliged to walk. The loss that I allude to was that of the large oak-stick, which, as I formerly mentioned, he had brought with him from London. It was of great use to him in our wild peregrination; for, ever since his last illness in 1766, he has had a weakness in his knees, and has not been able to walk easily. It had too the properties of a measure; for one nail was driven into it at the length of a foot; another at that of a yard. In return for the services it had done him, he said, this morning he would make a present of it to some museum; but he little thought he was so soon to lose it. As he preferred riding with a switch, it was intrusted to a fellow to be delivered to our baggage-man, who followed us at some distance; but we never saw it more. I could not persuade him out of a suspicion that it had been stolen. 'No, no, my friend,' said he, 'it is not to be expected that any man in Mull, who has got it, will part with it. Consider, sir, the value of such a PIECE OF TIMBER here!'
As we travelled this forenoon, we met Dr M'Lean, who expressed much regret at his having been so unfortunate as to be absent while we were at his house.
We were in hopes to get to Sir Allan Maclean's at Inchkenneth, to-night; but the eight miles, of which our road was said to consist, were so very long, that we did not reach the opposite coast of Mull till seven at night, though we had set out about eleven in the forenoon; and when we did arrive there, we found the wind strong against us. Col determined that we should pass the night at M'Quarrie's, in the island of Ulva, which lies between Mull and Inchkenneth; and a servant was sent forward to the ferry, to secure the boat for us: but the boat was gone to the Ulva side, and the wind was so high that the people could not hear him call; and the night so dark that they could not see a signal. We should have been in a very bad situation, had there not fortunately been lying in the little sound of Ulva an Irish vessel, the Bonnetta, of Londonderry, Captain M'Lure, master. He himself was at M'Quarrie's; but his men obligingly came with their long-boat, and ferried us over.
M'Quarrie's house was mean; but we were agreeably surprised with the appearance of the master, whom we found to be intelligent, polite, and much a man of the world. Though his clan is not numerous, he is a very ancient chief, and has a burial place at Icolmkill. He told us, his family had possessed Ulva for nine hundred years; but I was distressed to hear that it was soon to be sold for the payment of his debts.
Captain M'Lure, whom we found here, was of Scotch extraction, and properly a M'Leod, being descended of some of the M'Leods who went with Sir Normand of Bernera to the battle of Worcester, and after the defeat of the royalists, fled to Ireland, and, to conceal themselves, took a different name. He told me, there was a great number of them about Londonderry; some of good property. I said, they should now resume their real name. The Laird of M'Leod should go over, and assemble them, and make them all drink the large horn full, and from that time they should be M'Leods. The captain informed us, he had named his ship the Bonnetta, out of gratitude to Providence; for once, when he was sailing to America with a good number of passengers, the ship in which he then sailed was becalmed for five weeks, and during all that time, numbers of the fish bonnetta swam close to her, and were caught for food; he resolved therefore, that the ship he should next get, should be called the Bonnetta.
M'Quarrie told us a strong instance of the second sight. He had gone to Edinburgh, and taken a man-servant along with him. An old woman, who was in the house, said one day, 'M'Quarrie will be at home to- morrow, and will bring two gentlemen with him'; and she said, she saw his servant return in red and green. He did come home next day. He had two gentlemen with him; and his servant had a new red and green livery, which M'Quarrie had bought for him at Edinburgh, upon a sudden thought, not having the least intention when he left home to put his servant in livery, so that the old woman could not have heard any previous mention of it. This, he assured us, was a true story.
M'Quarrie insisted that the mercheta mulierum, mentioned in our old charters, did really mean the privilege which a lord of a manor, or a baron, had, to have the first night of all his vassals' wives. Dr Johnson said, the belief of such a custom having existed was also held in England, where there is a tenure called Borough-English, by which the eldest child does not inherit, from a doubt of his being the son of the tenant. [Footnote: Sir William Blackstone says in his Commentaries, that 'he cannot find that ever this custom prevailed in England'; and therefore he is of opinion that it could not have given rise to Borough-English.] M'Quarrie told us, that still, on the marriage of each of his tenants, a sheep is due to him; for which the composition is fixed at five shillings. I suppose, Ulva is the only place where this custom remains.
Talking of the sale of an estate of an ancient family, which was said to have been purchased much under its value by the confidential lawyer of that family, and it being mentioned that the sale would probably be set aside by a suit in equity, Dr Johnson said, 'I am very willing that this sale should be set aside, but I doubt much whether the suit will be successful; for the argument for avoiding the sale is founded on vague and indeterminate principles, as that the price was too low, and that there was a great degree of confidence placed by the seller in the person who became the purchaser. Now, how low should a price be? or what degree of confidence should there be to make a bargain be set aside? a bargain, which is a wager of skill between man and man. If, indeed, any fraud can be proved, that will do.'
When Dr Johnson and I were by ourselves at night, I observed of our host, 'aspectum generosum habet.' 'Et generosum animum,' he added. For fear of being overheard in the small Highland houses, I often talked to him in such Latin as I could speak, and with as much of the English accent as I could assume, so as not to be understood, in case our conversation should be too loud for the space.
We had each an elegant bed in the same room; and here it was that a circumstance occurred, as to which he has been strangely misunderstood. From his description of his chamber, it has erroneously been supposed, that his bed being too short for him, his feet, during the night, were in the mire; whereas he has only said, that when he undressed, he felt his feet in the mire: that is, the clay-floor of the room, on which he stood before he went into bed, was wet, in consequence of the windows being broken, which let in the rain.