Footsteps of Dr. Johnson (Scotland)/Chapter 2

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Inch Keith (August 18.)

On the morning of Wednesday, August 18th, the travellers, accompanied by Mr. Nairne, an advocate, set out on their northern tour. They were attended by Boswell's servant, Joseph Ritter, a Bohemian, "a fine stately fellow above six feet high, who had been over a great part of Europe, and spoke many languages. He was." adds Boswell, "the best servant I ever saw. Dr. Johnson gave him this character, 'Sir, he is a civil man, and a wise man.'" At Leith they took boat for Kinghorn on the other side of the Firth of Forth. In the passage Johnson observed the Island of Inch Keith, which, to his surprise, his companions had never visited, "though lying within their view, it had all their lives solicited their notice." He flattered his pride as "a true-born Englishman" by reflecting, had it been as near London as it was to Edinburgh, "with what emulation of price a few rocky acres would have been purchased." "I'd have this island," he said. "I'd build a house, make a good landing-place, have a garden and vines, and all sorts of trees. A rich man of a hospitable turn here would have many visitors from Edinburgh." By his wish they landed, putting in at a little bay on the north-west, the same "wild, stony little bay," no doubt, into which Thomas Carlyle and Edward Irving ran their boat one summer evening more than forty years later. "We found the island," writes Johnson, "a rock somewhat troublesome to climb, about a mile long and half a mile broad; in the middle were the ruins of an old fort, which had on one of the stones, 'Maria Re. 1564.' It had been only a blockhouse one storey high. The rock had some grass and many thistles, both cows and sheep were grazing. There was a spring of water. We pleased ourselves with being in a country all our own." The ruins have long since disappeared; with the stones a light-house was built. How our travellers were affected by the beautiful scenery that was all around, if indeed they were affected, we are not told. For natural beauties Boswell hoped to be able some day "to force a taste." In the description of visible objects he honestly owned he found a great difficulty. Johnson's descriptions of scenery are almost all of the artificial school. Both men were far too wise to affect raptures which they did not feel. Happily the view that the chance wanderer sometimes sees in that lonely island has been sketched for us by the hands of a master. Carlyle thus describes what he saw: "The scene in our little bay, as we were about proceeding to launch our boat, seemed to me the beautifullest I had ever beheld. Sun about setting just in face of us, behind Ben Lomond far away. Edinburgh with its towers; the great silver mirror of the Frith girt by such a framework of mountains; cities, rocks, and fields and wavy landscapes on all hands of us; and reaching right under foot, as I remember, came a broad pillar as of gold from the just sinking sun; burning axle, as it were, going down to the centre of the world."[1]

The weather was fine, so that our travellers had a pleasant crossing over "that great gulf" which Hume "regarded with horror and a kind of hydrophobia that kept him," he said, from visiting Adam Smith at Kirkaldy.[2] In Humphry Clinker Matthew Bramble had had so rough a passage, that when he was told that he had been saved "by the particular care of Providence," he replied, "Yes, but I am much of the honest Highlander's mind, after he had made such a passage as this. His friend told him he was much indebted to Providence. 'Certainly,' said Donald, 'but by my saul, mon, I'se ne'er trouble Providence again so long as the Brig of Stirling stands."[3]

  1. Reminiscences, i. 113.
  2. Hume's Letters to Strahan, p. 115.
  3. Humphry Clinker, ii. 249.