Footsteps of Dr. Johnson (Scotland)/Chapter 7

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Aberdeen (August 21-24).

Late in the afternoon our travellers drove on to Aberdeen. "We had tedious driving," writes Boswell, "and were somewhat drowsy." Though they "travelled with the gentle pace of a Scotch driver," nevertheless Johnson, much as he delighted in the rapid motion of the English post-chaise, bore this journey of five-and-twenty miles with greater philosophy than his friend. "We did not," he writes, "affect the impatience we did not feel, but were satisfied with the company of each other as well riding in the chaise as sitting at an inn." It was not far short of midnight when they arrived at Aberdeen. The "New Inn" at which they stopped was full, they were told. "This was comfortless." Fortunately Boswell's father, when on circuit, always put up there for the five nights during which he was required by law to stay in each assize town.[1] The son was recognized by his likeness to the father, and a room was soon provided. "Mr. Boswell's name," writes Johnson, "overpowered all objection, and we found a very good house, and civil treatment." A few weeks later the old judge went this same circuit. "Two men being indicted before him at Aberdeen on September 30 for petty thefts, petitioned, and were banished to the plantations for life, their service adjudged for seven years to the transporter."[2] What these poor wretches had "petitioned" was that they might be transported instead of being hanged. The "transporter," who bore the cost of shipping them to America, was rewarded for his outlay by having the use of them as slaves for seven years. At the end of that time they would have their freedom; but if they returned to Scotland, and were seized, in all likelihood they would have been sent to the gallows under their old sentence. It is not at all improbable that these two thieves were in the town prison at the very time of our travellers' visit. If so, they were separated from them merely by a wall or two; for the "New Inn" formed part of the same block of buildings as the common prison. In the central tower the ordinary prisoners were confined, two rooms in the western end being reserved for burgesses, "or any of the better rank who were committed for debt."[3] The judge in all the festivities of his circuit dinner was often close to some poor wretch whom that same day he had sentenced to the gallows, and who was awaiting his dreadful end in the gloom and misery of his dismal cell.

On the other side of the tower, but in the same block, was the Town House, or Town Hall as we should call it in England. When I was in Aberdeen, a man of whom I asked the way to the Town Hall, replied that he did not know where it was; but when I corrected myself, and asked for the Town House, he at once showed it me. Here it was that the freedom of the city was conferred on Johnson.

"At one o'clock (writes Boswell) we waited on the magistrates in the town-hall, as they had invited us in order to present Dr. Johnson with the freedom of the town, which Provost Jopp did with a very good grace. Dr. Johnson was much pleased with this mark of attention, and received it very politely. There was a pretty numerous company assembled. It was striking to hear all of them drinking, 'Dr. Johnson! Dr. Johnson!' in the town-hall of Aberdeen, and then to see him with his burgess-ticket, or diploma, in his hat, which he wore as he walked along the street, according to the usual custom."

The hall in which the ceremony was performed was a room "46 feet long, 29 broad, and 18 high, with five large windows in front, with many elegant sconces double-branched set round it, and three diamond-cut crystal lustres hanging from the roof."[4] It has been swept away with the New Inn and the prison, and replaced by the stately pile which rises on the old site. The Scotch towns last century seem to have been somewhat lavish in the honours which they conferred. Pennant was made a freeman of at least three or four places. Monck Berkeley, the St. Andrew's student, had the freedom of Aberdeen and some other towns presented to him, though he was scarcely nineteen when he left Scotland. Like the dutiful young gentleman that he was, "he constantly presented the diplomas to his mother requesting her to take great care of them."[5] George Colman the younger, who, at the age of eighteen was sent to King's College, says in his Random Records:[6] "I had scarcely been a week in Old Aberdeen, when the Lord Provost of the New Town invited me to drink wine with him one evening in the Town Hall; there I found a numerous company assembled. The object of this meeting was soon declared to me by the Lord Provost, who drank my health, and presented me with the freedom of the city." Two of his English fellow-students, of a little older standing, had received the same honour. A suspicion rises in the mind that it was sometimes not so much a desire to confer honour as to drink wine at the public expense which stirred up these town-councillors. Nevertheless, the testimony of an English gentleman, who a few years earlier had been made a citizen of Glasgow, goes far towards freeing them from so injurious a supposition. "The magistrates," he wrote, "are all men of so reasonable a size, and so clear of all marks of gluttony and drunkenness, that I could hardly believe them to be a mayor and aldermen."[7] With the distinction itself, on whatever account it was given, Johnson was greatly pleased. "I was presented," he wrote, "with the freedom of the city, not in a gold box, but in good Latin. Let me pay Scotland one just praise; there was no officer gaping for a fee; this could have been said of no city on the English side of the Tweed." In his own University of Oxford the fee for the honorary degree of D.C.L. used to be ten guineas. Cox, the Esquire Bedel, records in his Recollections of Oxford, how glum Canning looked when he was called on to pay it.[8] Wesley, who in the April of the previous year had been made a freeman of Perth, praised the Latinity in which the honour was conferred on him. "I doubt," he wrote, "whether any diploma from the City of London be more pompous or expressed in better Latin."[9]

The burgess-ticket or parchment on which the freedom was inscribed, after being read aloud in the hall, was made into a roll, and, with the appending seal, was tied on to the new citizen's hat with red riband. "I wore," wrote Johnson, "my patent of freedom pro more in my hat from the new town to the old, about a mile." In his narrative he states that it is worn for the whole day. In a town of 16,000 inhabitants—for Aberdeen had no more at that time[10]—it might be supposed that the face of the youngest freeman would thus become known to most of his brother-burgesses. But the population at the present day is seven or eight times as large, and the old custom has died out, perhaps because its use was lost. On those rare occasions when the honour is conferred the diploma is still tied to the hat. The new citizen covers himself for a moment, and then bares his head while he returns thanks. He might, I was told, perhaps wear his ticket for a short distance to his hotel or a club, but certainly not farther. The entry of Johnson's freedom in its good Latin still remains in the City Register. I read it with much interest.

Our travellers, as they passed a Sunday in Aberdeen, went to the English chapel. The word chapel, as my friend Dr. Murray has clearly pointed out in his learned Dictionary, which in England was generally used of the places of worship of the Nonconformists, and in Ireland of those of the Roman Catholics, in Scotland was properly and universally applied to the English churches. It is the term used both by Boswell and Johnson. Mrs. Carlyle in one of her early letters describes a certain Haddington Episcopalian as "a man without an arm, who sits in the chapel."[11] "We found," says Boswell, "a respectable congregation and an admirable organ." By respectable he meant what would a little later have been described as genteel. "The congregation," wrote Johnson, "was numerous and splendid." The volunteer who accompanied the Duke of Cumberland's army in 1747 described the chapel as the finest he had seen in Scotland. "The handsomest young ladies," he adds, "are generally attendants of those meeting-houses (as they call them here), and are generally esteemed as Jacobites by the staunch Whigs."[12] Wesley, who had attended the service here a year earlier than Johnson, "could not but admire the exemplary decency of the congregation. This was the more remarkable," he adds, "because so miserable a reader I never heard before. Listening with all attention I understood but one single word, Balak, in the First Lesson, and one more, begat, was all I could possibly distinguish in the Second."[13] The Aberdeen chapel was no doubt one of those licensed ones "served by clergymen of English or Irish ordination," where alone in Scotland the form of worship of the Church of England could be legally practised. At St. Andrews Boswell recorded that he had seen "in one of its streets a remarkable proof of liberal toleration; a nonjuring clergyman strutting about in his canonicals, with a jolly countenance, and a round belly, like a well-fed monk." By an Act of Parliament passed in 1747, a heavy and cruel blow had been struck at the Scotch nonjurors as a punishment for the support which many of them had given to the young Pretender. Under severe penalties all clergymen were forbidden to officiate who had received their ordination from a nonjuring bishop, even though they took the oaths. They had now to undergo some of the suffering which in their day of triumph they had inflicted on the Covenanters. They in their turn sought the shelter of woods and moors. We read of one of them at Muthill, in Perthshire, "baptising a child under the cover of the trees in one of Lord Rollo's parks to prevent being discovered."[14] Two years later one Mr. John Skinner had been sent to Aberdeen jail for six months for officiating contrary to law. He survived this persecution fifty-five years, and so was contemporary with persons still living.[15] By another act all episcopal clergymen were required, whenever they celebrated worship before five people, to pray for the King and the members of the Royal Family by name, under the penalty of six months' imprisonment for the first offence, and of banishment to America for life for the second. Many under this act were thrown into jail, and so late as 1755 one unhappy man was banished for life.[16] Others complied with the law at the expense of their lungs. An English lady who visited Scotland about the year 1778, says: "I have heard a reverend old divine say that he has read the English liturgy so repeatedly over to only four that frequently by evening he has scarce been able to speak to be heard."[17] The persecutions had come to an end by the time of Johnson's visit. The nonjuring ministers were, he says, "by tacit connivance quietly permitted in separate congregations." On the death of the young Pretender on January 31st, 1788, the nonjuring bishops met at Aberdeen and directed that, beginning with Sunday, May 25th, King George should be prayed for by name. His Majesty was graciously pleased to notify his approbation.[18] Even a tutor or "pedagogue" in a gentleman's family was required to take the oaths. This difficulty, however, was easily surmounted. They could be engaged "under the name of factor, or clerk, or comrade," as the Bishop of Moray pointed out in a letter written in 1754.[19]

In Aberdeen there were two Colleges, or rather two Universities, for each had professors of the same parts of learning and each conferred degrees. In 1860 they were incorporated into one body. In old Aberdeen stood King's College. The Chapel and its "Crowned Tower," founded by James IV. who fell at Flodden, has survived time and restorers. They are much as Johnson saw them. Of their architectural beauty and of the ancient richly carved oak screen he makes no mention: "He had not come to Scotland," he said, "to see fine places, of which there were enough in England; but wild objects—peculiar manners; in short, things which he had not seen before." The discipline of the Universities and the method and cost of instruction he examined with attention. In Scotch universities the students generally lived as they live at present in lodgings in the town, scarcely under even the pretence of control except in the hours in which they attended lectures. But in King's College a few years earlier the English system had been introduced. Dr. Thomas Reid, the famous Professor of Moral Philosophy, in a letter written in 1755 gives an interesting account of the change which had been made:

"The students have lately been compelled to live within the college. We need but look out at our windows to see when they rise and when they go to bed. They are seen nine or ten times throughout the day statedly by one or other of the masters—at public prayers, school hours, meals, and in their rooms, besides occasional visits which we can make with little trouble to ourselves. They are shut up within walls at nine at night. This discipline hath indeed taken some pains and resolution, as well as some expense to establish it. The board at the first table is 50 merks[20] per quarter; at the second, 40 shillings. The rent of a room is from seven to twenty shillings in the session. There is no furniture in their rooms but bedstead, tables, chimney grate and fender the rest they must buy or hire. They provide fire, and candle, and washing to themselves. The other dues are two guineas to the Master; to the Professors of Greek and Humanity [Latin] for their public teaching, five shillings each. All other perquisites not named, from twelve shillings to seventeen and sixpence."[21]
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Whether this reformed system lasted in its full extent to the time of Johnson's visit, I do not know; some part of it at all events remained. "In the King's College," he says, "there is kept a public table, but the scholars of the Marischal College are boarded in the town." In Aberdeen, as well as in the other Scotch Universities, students from England were commonly found. Johnson was surprised at finding in King's College a great-grandson of Waller the poet. But in the state of degradation into which the English Universities were sunk, what was more natural than that young Englishmen should be sent to places where the Professors still remembered that they had a duty to perform as well as a salary to receive? I have seen in the Royal Society of Edinburgh a manuscript letter written by Dr. Blair from that town to David Hume in 1765, in which he says:—"Our education here is at present in high reputation. The Englishes are crowding down upon us every

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Marischal College.

season, and I wish may not come to hurt us at last." Excellent though the Aberdeen Professors were as teachers, yet before the great Englishman they seemed afraid to speak. Johnson, writing to Mrs. Thrale, said:—"Boswell was very angry that they would not talk."

In Marischal College scarcely a fragment remains of the old building which our travellers saw, except the stone with the curious inscription:—"Thay haif said; quhat say thay; lat thame say." In the spacious modern library is shown, however, a famous picture which Reynolds was at that time painting. On that very morning when Robertson was showing Johnson Holyrood Palace, Reynolds began the allegorical picture in which he represented Truth and the amiable and harmonious Beattie triumphing together over scepticism and infidelity.[22] It was commonly said that in the group of discomfited figures could be recognized the portraits of Voltaire and Hume. Goldsmith, if we may trust Northcote, reproached Reynolds "for wishing to degrade so high a genius as Voltaire before so mean a writer as Dr. Beattie."[23] If Voltaire's face is to be found in the picture, the likeness is so remote that even he, sensitive though he was, could scarcely have take offence, while of Hume not even the caricature can be discovered. Feeble though the allegory is, the portrait of Beattie is a very fine piece of workmanship. In Marischal College, by the generosity of his grandnieces it has found its fitting resting-place, for here for many years he was Professor of Moral Philosophy. Here a few years earlier he had been visited by Gray, who, to quote Johnson's words, "found him a poet, a philosopher, and a good man."[24]

Slains Castle and the Bullers of Buchan.
(August 24-25.)

At Aberdeen Johnson had found awaiting him a letter from London which must have been six days on the road.[25] He did not receive another till he arrived at Glasgow, nearly ten weeks later. He was now going "to the world's end extra anni solisque vias, where the post would be a long time in reaching him," to apply to the Hebrides the words which four years later he used of Brighton.[26] It was only seven and twenty years before he drove out from Aberdeen that the Duke of Cumberland with six battalions of foot and Lord Mark Kerr's dragoons had marched forth along the same road to seek the rebels. With a gentle breeze and a fair wind his transports at the same time moved along shore.[27] Though no military state waited upon our travellers yet their fame went before them. At Ellon, where they breakfasted, the landlady asked Boswell: "Is not this the great Doctor that is going about through the country? There's something great in his appearance." "They say," said the landlord, "that he is the greatest man in England, except Lord Mansfield." They turned here out of their course to visit Slains Castle, the seat of the Earl of Errol. The country over which they drove this day was more desolate than any through

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which they had as yet passed. In one place, writes Johnson, "the sand of the shore had been raised by a tempest, and carried to such a distance that an estate was overwhelmed and lost." Sir Walter Scott, who in the summer of 1814, sailed along the shore in a Lighthouse Yacht, says that northwards of Aberdeen "the coast changes from a bold and rocky to a low and sandy character. Along the Bay of Belhelvie a whole parish was swallowed up by the shifting sands, and is still a desolate waste. It belonged to the Earls of Errol, and was rented at £500 a year at the time. When these sands are past the land is all arable. Not a tree to be seen; nor a grazing cow, or sheep, or even a labour-horse at grass, though this be Sunday."[28] The Earl who welcomed Johnson to Slains Castle had done what he could to overcome nature. "He had cultivated his fields so as to bear rich crops of every kind, and he had made an excellent kitchen-garden with a hot-house." His successors have diligently followed in his steps, and taking advantage of a hollow in the ground have even raised an avenue of trees. They can only grow to the height of fifteen or twenty feet, for when the shoots rise high enough to catch the blasts from the North Sea they are cut down the following winter. The situation of the Castle struck Johnson as the noblest he had ever seen.

"From the windows (he said) the eye wanders over the sea that separates Scotland from Norway, and when the winds beat with violence, must enjoy all the terrific grandeur of the tempestuous ocean. I would not for my amusement wish for a storm; but as storms, whether wished or not, will sometimes happen, I may say, without violation of humanity, that I should willingly look out upon them from Slains Castle."

Boswell was also impressed with the position of this old house, set on the very verge of life. "The King of Denmark," he says, "is Lord Errol's nearest neighbour on the north-east." The Castle was built on the edge of the granite cliffs, in one spot not leaving even a foothold for the daring climber. A foolhardy fellow who had tried to get round lost his life in the attempt. I was greatly disappointed at finding that "the excellent old house" which Boswell describes, with its outside galleries on the first and second story, no longer remains. I had looked forward to standing in the very bow-window of the drawing-room fronting the sea where Johnson repeated Horace's Ode, Jam satis terris. In the new building, however, the bow-window has not been forgotten,—and there I looked out on the wild scene which met his view. I saw "the cut in the rock made by the influx of the sea," into which the rash climber had fallen as he tried to go round the Castle. Below me there were short slopes of grass ending in a precipice. So near was the edge that a child could have tossed a ball over it from the window. Red granite rocks in sharp and precipitous headlands ran out into the sea. A fishing-boat with brown sails was passing close by, while in the distance in a long line lay a fleet of herring-smacks. The sea-birds were hovering about and perching on the rocks, mingling their melancholy cries with the dashing of the waves. The dark waters were surging through the narrow chasms formed by rocky islets and the steep sides of the cliffs. For the storm-tost sailor it is a dreadful coast. On a wild night in winter not many years ago one of the maids, as she was letting down the blinds in the drawing-room, heard confused sounds which came, she thought, from the servants' hall beneath. The butler in another part of the house had caught them too. Yet when they reproached their fellow-servants with their noisiness they were told that it was not from them that the sounds had come. They thought no more

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Slains Castle.

about it that night, but next morning when the day broke the masts were seen of a ship-wrecked vessel on the rocks below the Castle. The waves were breaking over it, and not a soul was left alive. Then they understood that it was the despairing cries of the unhappy sailors which had in vain reached their ears. The story, that was told me as I stood looking out on the sea, gave an air of sadness to a room which had already raised sad thoughts in my mind. For on the wall was hanging the portrait of an innocent and pretty boy who, before so many years were to pass over him, on the scaffold on Tower Hill was to pay the penalty of rebellion with his life.

"Pitied by gentle minds Kilmarnock died."

On the table was lying a curious but gloomy collection of the prints of his trial and execution.[29] Boswell's rest was troubled by the thoughts of this unhappy nobleman. He had been kept awake by the blazing of his fire, the roaring of the sea, and the smell of his pillows, which were made of the feathers of some sea-fowl. "I saw in imagination," he writes, "Lord Errol's father, Lord Kilmarnock, who was beheaded on Tower Hill in 1746, and I was somewhat dreary."

In the drawing-room was hanging that fine whole-length picture of Lord Errol, which led Johnson to talk of his friend, the great painter, and "to conclude his panegyric by saying, 'Sir Joshua Reynolds, sir, is the most invulnerable man I know; the man with whom if you should quarrel, you would find the most difficulty how to abuse.'"

In the rebellion of 1745, Lord Errol, following a plan not unknown among the Scotch nobility, had served on the opposite side from his father. At Culloden he had seen him brought in prisoner. "The Earl of Kilmarnock had lost his hat, and his long hair was flying over his face. The son stepped out of the ranks, and taking off his own hat placed it over his father's disordered and windbeaten locks."[30] The young man in his loyalty to George II., did not follow the example of his forefathers, for he was descended from at least three lines of rebels. "He united in his person the four earldoms of Errol, Kilmarnock, Linlithgow, and Callander." The last two were attainted in 1715, and Kilmarnock in 1756.[31] As we gaze at the haughty-looking man whom Reynolds has so finely painted in the robes of a peer, we call to mind the coronation of George III., where he played his part as High Constable of Scotland—"the noblest figure I ever saw," wrote Horace Walpole.[32] To Johnson he recalled Homer's character of Sarpedon.[33] At the coronation banquet in Westminster Hall, Walpole thought, as well he might, on that "most melancholy scene" which he had witnessed less than fifteen years before in that same hall, when the earl's father, "tall and slender, his behaviour a most just mixture between dignity and submission," had in vain pleaded for mercy.[34]

From Slains Castle our travellers drove a short distance along the coast to the famous Bullers of Buchan—"a sight," writes Johnson, "which no man can see with indifference, who has either sense of danger or delight in rarity." Boswell describes the spot as:—

"A circular basin of large extent, surrounded with tremendous rocks. On the quarter next the sea, there is a high arch in the rock, which the force of the tempest has driven out. This place is called

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The Bullers of Buchan.

Buchan's Buller, or the Buller of Buchan, and the country people call it the Pot. Mr. Boyd said it was so called from the French bouloir.[35] It may be more simply traced from boiler in our own language. We walked round this monstrous cauldron. In some places the rock is very narrow; and on each side there is a sea deep enough for a man-of-war to ride in; so that it is somewhat horrid to move along. However, there is earth and grass upon the rock, and a kind of road marked out by the print of feet; so that one makes it out pretty safely: yet it alarmed me to see Dr. Johnson striding irregularly along."

As the weather was calm they took a boat and rowed through the archway into the cauldron. "It was a place," writes Johnson, "which, though we could not think ourselves in danger, we could scarcely survey without some recoil of mind." lie thought that "it might have served as a shelter from storms to the little vessels used by the northern rovers." Sir Walter Scott, however, was told that this was impossible, for "in a high gale the waves rush in with incredible violence. An old fisher said he had seen them flying over the natural wall of the Bullers, which cannot be less than two hundred feet high.[36] In the Gentleman's Magazine for 1755 (p. 200), two strange pictures are given of this curious place, which must surely have been drawn in St. John's Gate, Clerkenwell, by an artist who had never seen it.

Not far off is Dun Buy,[37] a lofty island rock placed in an angle of the shore that is formed by no less lofty cliffs. The sea, with its dark waters in endless rise and fall, washes through the narrow channel, its ceaseless murmur answering to the cries of the countless water-fowl who high up on the ledges breed in safety. On one side, where there is a steep, grassy slope, Dun Buy can be scaled. I climbed up it many years ago one hot summer's day, and thought that I had never seen so strange and wild a spot. Johnson had also visited it, but his mind was not affected as was my young imagination, for he said that "upon these rocks there was nothing that could long detain attention."

  1. "In Scotland judges on the circuit are obliged to stay five nights at every town where they open their commission." Howard's State of Prisons, ed. 1777, p. 103.
  2. Scots Magazine, Oct. 1773, p. 556.
  3. F. Douglas's General Description of the East Coast of Scotland, p. 91.
  4. F. Douglas's General Description, &c., p. 89.
  5. G. M. Berkeley's Poems, p. cclxxiv.
  6. Vol. ii. p. 99.
  7. Gentleman's Magazine, 1766, p. 210.
  8. Cox's Recollections of Oxford (ed. 1868), p. 156
  9. Wesley's Journal, iii. 461.
  10. Pennant's Tour, i. 121.
  11. Early Letters of J. W. Carlyle, p. 45.
  12. A Journey through Part of England, &c., p. 134.
  13. Wesley's Journal, iii. 461. The lessons were Numbers xxiii. xxiv., and Matthew i. In these chapters Balak and begat come over and over again.
  14. Chambers's History of the Rebellion of 1745 (ed. 1827), ii. 339.
  15. Scotland and Scotsmen in the Eighteenth Century, i. 525-8.
  16. Arnot's History of Edinburgh, p. 227.
  17. G. M. Berkeley's Poems, p. dxxxviii.
  18. Scots Magazine for 1788, pp. 250, 357.
  19. Dunbar's Social Life in Former Days, i. 10.
  20. A Scotch merk was about thirteen pence of English money.
  21. Dunbar's Social Life in Former Days, i. 7.
  22. Forbes's Life of Beattie, p. 160.
  23. Northcote's Life of Reynolds (ed. 1819), i. 300.
  24. Johnson's Works, viii. 479.
  25. In 1786 the post despatched from Aberdeen on Monday reached London on Saturday. Travellers could reach Edinburgh in a day and a half by the Aberdeen and Edinburgh Fly, which set out from the New Inn at four o'clock in the morning, and arrived at Edinburgh next day to dinner; fare, £2 2s. Scottish Notes and Queries, i. 31.
  26. Piozzi Letters, i. 387.
  27. Ray's History of the Rebellion, p. 310.
  28. Lockhart's Life of Scott, iv. 186.
  29. Bound up with them were some interesting and unpublished autograph letters and documents connected with many generations of the earls of Errol. It is greatly to be desired that the present earl, to whose courtesy I am much indebted, would have them edited.
  30. Chambers's History of the Rebellion, ed. 1869, p. 309.
  31. Forbes's Life of Beattie, Appendix D. At the time of the rebellion of 1745 the Errol title was held by a woman.
  32. Walpole's Letters, iii. 438.
  33. Forbes's Life of Beattie, Appendix D.
  34. Walpole's Letters, ii. 38.
  35. Bouilloire. According to Dr. Murray the word is connected with "the Swedish buller, a noise, roar. But," he adds, "the influence of boil is manifest." I remember when I visited the place in my youth I heard it also called Lord Errol's Punch-bowl. The tale was told that a former earl had made a seizure in it of a smuggling ship laden with spirits, and had had the kegs emptied into the water.
  36. Lockhart's Life of Scott, iv. 188.
  37. Dun Buy means the Yellow Rock. It gets its name, it is said, from the colour given to it by the dung of the sea-birds.