boswell and johnson: mull-ing the coll of the wild

” that we might there contemplate a system of life almost totally different from what we have been accustomed to see,” and “find simplicity and wildness…” But it needed a great deal of quiet diplomacy to overcome Johnson’s natural sloth. And so James Boswell and Dr. Samuel Johnson set off for the Highlands in 1773. “Who can like the Highlands?” asked Dr. Johnson after Boswell had dragged him from Edinburgh to Inverness to Skye and back to the Lowlands. Boswell could, and soon set about immortalizing the tour…

…The next morning they ran into the harbor of Coll, on which they were detained by foul weather until the fourteenth. But time “slipped along easily enough”; they viewed the ancient castle, ate delicious new-baked shortbread, and Boswell drank “pleasant rum punch soured with lemon shrub.” In this castle, as in the medieval fortress at Raasay, Boswell was again amused to notice a convenient “little house,” and “I rebuked Coll, as I did Raasay, by observing that his ancestors were more civilized than the family now is in that very essential particular…Coll promised to me he would erect one soon. Mr. Johnson and I talked of it…He said if ever a man thinks of all, it is there. He generally thinks then with great intentness…I said a man was always happy there…”

After getting drunk with his Hebridean hosts, Boswell suffers the dual agony of a painful hangover and a Johnsonian reproof. Entering Boswell’s room, Johnson accosted him, ” ‘What,drunk yet?’ …’Sir,’ ( Boswell replied) ‘they kept me up.’ He answered, ‘No, you kept them up, you drunken dog.’ ” When Boswell was offered a dram of brandy by friends to relieve his headache, Johnson snorted, ” ‘Ay…fill him drunk again. Do it in the morning, that we may laugh at him all day.’ ” Image:

Mull, whither they sailed from Coll, struck them as a somewhat less inclement place. For one thing, it was far more densely populated, and “after having been shut up in Coll, the sight of such an assemblage of…habitations,containing such a variety of people…gave me much gaiety of spirit. Mr. Johnson said, ‘Boswell is now alive. He is like Antaeus; he gets new vigour whenever he touches land.’ ” As usual, Johnson ate heartily, but he was not always in a good mood. The landscape of Mull, he complained, was even gloomier than that of Skye, “a most dolorous country!”; and the diminutive horse on which his hosts had mounted him was hardly able to support his weight. During their peregrinations he was often obliged to walk, and he had somehow lost his cherished stick. It was with considerable relief that after coasting along the island’s western shore, landing to inspect a gigantic seaside cavern passing a “tolerably comfortable” night in a barn at Icolmkill, and visiting the venerable ruins of Iona, they found themselves at Lochbuie, where a convenient ferry would take them to Oban on the mainland.

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