Picture of Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson

places mentioned

Skye: Ulinish and Talisker

Next Selection Previous Selection


Mr. Macqueen travelled with us, and directed our attention to all that was worthy of observation.  With him we went to see an ancient building, called a dun or borough.  It was a circular inclosure, about forty-two feet in diameter, walled round with loose stones, perhaps to the height of nine feet.  The walls were very thick, diminishing a little toward the top, and though in these countries, stone is not brought far, must have been raised with much labour.  Within the great circle were several smaller rounds of wall, which formed distinct apartments.  Its date, and its use are unknown.  Some suppose it the original seat of the chiefs of the Macleods.  Mr. Macqueen thought it a Danish fort.

The entrance is covered with flat stones, and is narrow, because it was necessary that the stones which lie over it, should reach from one wall to the other; yet, strait as the passage is, they seem heavier than could have been placed where they now lie, by the naked strength of as many men as might stand about them.  They were probably raised by putting long pieces of wood under them, to which the action of a long line of lifters might be applied.  Savages, in all countries, have patience proportionate to their unskilfulness, and are content to attain their end by very tedious methods.

If it was ever roofed, it might once have been a dwelling, but as there is no provision for water, it could not have been a fortress.  In Sky, as in every other place, there is an ambition of exalting whatever has survived memory, to some important use, and referring it to very remote ages.  I am inclined to suspect, that in lawless times, when the inhabitants of every mountain stole the cattle of their neighbour, these inclosures were used to secure the herds and flocks in the night.  When they were driven within the wall, they might be easily watched, and defended as long as could be needful; for the robbers durst not wait till the injured clan should find them in the morning.

The interior inclosures, if the whole building were once a house, were the chambers of the chief inhabitants.  If it was a place of security for cattle, they were probably the shelters of the keepers.

From the Dun we were conducted to another place of security, a cave carried a great way under ground, which had been discovered by digging after a fox.  These caves, of which many have been found, and many probably remain concealed, are formed, I believe, commonly by taking advantage of a hollow, where banks or rocks rise on either side.  If no such place can be found, the ground must be cut away.  The walls are made by piling stones against the earth, on either side.  It is then roofed by larger stones laid across the cavern, which therefore cannot be wide.  Over the roof, turfs were placed, and grass was suffered to grow; and the mouth was concealed by bushes, or some other cover.

These caves were represented to us as the cabins of the first rude inhabitants, of which, however, I am by no means persuaded.  This was so low, that no man could stand upright in it.  By their construction they are all so narrow, that two can never pass along them together, and being subterraneous, they must be always damp.  They are not the work of an age much ruder than the present; for they are formed with as much art as the construction of a common hut requires.  I imagine them to have been places only of occasional use, in which the Islander, upon a sudden alarm, hid his utensils, or his cloaths, and perhaps sometimes his wife and children.

This cave we entered, but could not proceed the whole length, and went away without knowing how far it was carried.  For this omission we shall be blamed, as we perhaps have blamed other travellers; but the day was rainy, and the ground was damp.  We had with us neither spades nor pickaxes, and if love of ease surmounted our desire of knowledge, the offence has not the invidiousness of singularity.

Edifices, either standing or ruined, are the chief records of an illiterate nation.  In some part of this journey, at no great distance from our way, stood a shattered fortress, of which the learned minister, to whose communication we are much indebted, gave us an account.

Those, said he, are the walls of a place of refuge, built in the time of James the Sixth, by Hugh Macdonald, who was next heir to the dignity and fortune of his chief.  Hugh, being so near his wish, was impatient of delay; and had art and influence sufficient to engage several gentlemen in a plot against the Laird's life.  Something must be stipulated on both sides; for they would not dip their hands in blood merely for Hugh's advancement.  The compact was formerly written, signed by the conspirators, and placed in the hands of one Macleod.

It happened that Macleod had sold some cattle to a drover, who, not having ready money, gave him a bond for payment.  The debt was discharged, and the bond re-demanded; which Macleod, who could not read, intending to put into his hands, gave him the conspiracy.  The drover, when he had read the paper, delivered it privately to Macdonald; who, being thus informed of his danger, called his friends together, and provided for his safety.  He made a public feast, and inviting Hugh Macdonald and his confederates, placed each of them at the table between two men of known fidelity.  The compact of conspiracy was then shewn, and every man confronted with his own name.  Macdonald acted with great moderation.  He upbraided Hugh, both with disloyalty and ingratitude; but told the rest, that he considered them as men deluded and misinformed.  Hugh was sworn to fidelity, and dismissed with his companions; but he was not generous enough to be reclaimed by lenity; and finding no longer any countenance among the gentlemen, endeavoured to execute the same design by meaner hands.  In this practice he was detected, taken to Macdonald's castle, and imprisoned in the dungeon.  When he was hungry, they let down a plentiful meal of salted meat; and when, after his repast, he called for drink, conveyed to him a covered cup, which, when he lifted the lid, he found empty.  From that time they visited him no more, but left him to perish in solitude and darkness.

We were then told of a cavern by the sea-side, remarkable for the powerful reverberation of sounds.  After dinner we took a boat, to explore this curious cavity.  The boatmen, who seemed to be of a rank above that of common drudges, inquired who the strangers were, and being told we came one from Scotland, and the other from England, asked if the Englishman could recount a long genealogy.  What answer was given them, the conversation being in Erse, I was not much inclined to examine.

They expected no good event of the voyage; for one of them declared that he heard the cry of an English ghost.  This omen I was not told till after our return, and therefore cannot claim the dignity of despising it.

The sea was smooth.  We never left the shore, and came without any disaster to the cavern, which we found rugged and misshapen, about one hundred and eighty feet long, thirty wide in the broadest part, and in the loftiest, as we guessed, about thirty high.  It was now dry, but at high water the sea rises in it near six feet.  Here I saw what I had never seen before, limpets and mussels in their natural state.  But, as a new testimony to the veracity of common fame, here was no echo to be heard.

We then walked through a natural arch in the rock, which might have pleased us by its novelty, had the stones, which incumbered our feet, given us leisure to consider it.  We were shown the gummy seed of the kelp, that fastens itself to a stone, from which it grows into a strong stalk.

In our return, we found a little boy upon the point of rock, catching with his angle, a supper for the family.  We rowed up to him, and borrowed his rod, with which Mr. Boswell caught a cuddy.

The cuddy is a fish of which I know not the philosophical name.  It is not much bigger than a gudgeon, but is of great use in these Islands, as it affords the lower people both food, and oil for their lamps.  Cuddies are so abundant, at sometimes of the year, that they are caught like whitebait in the Thames, only by dipping a basket and drawing it back.

If it were always practicable to fish, these Islands could never be in much danger from famine; but unhappily in the winter, when other provision fails, the seas are commonly too rough for nets, or boats.


From Ulinish, our next stage was to Talisker, the house of colonel Macleod, an officer in the Dutch service, who, in this time of universal peace, has for several years been permitted to be absent from his regiment.  Having been bred to physick, he is consequently a scholar, and his lady, by accompanying him in his different places of residence, is become skilful in several languages.  Talisker is the place beyond all that I have seen, from which the gay and the jovial seem utterly excluded; and where the hermit might expect to grow old in meditation, without possibility of disturbance or interruption.  It is situated very near the sea, but upon a coast where no vessel lands but when it is driven by a tempest on the rocks.  Towards the land are lofty hills streaming with waterfalls.  The garden is sheltered by firs or pines, which grow there so prosperously, that some, which the present inhabitant planted, are very high and thick.

At this place we very happily met Mr. Donald Maclean, a young gentleman, the eldest son of the Laird of Col, heir to a very great extent of land, and so desirous of improving his inheritance, that he spent a considerable time among the farmers of Hertfordshire, and Hampshire, to learn their practice.  He worked with his own hands at the principal operations of agriculture, that he might not deceive himself by a false opinion of skill, which, if he should find it deficient at home, he had no means of completing.  If the world has agreed to praise the travels and manual labours of the Czar of Muscovy, let Col have his share of the like applause, in the proportion of his dominions to the empire of Russia.

This young gentleman was sporting in the mountains of Sky, and when he was weary with following his game, repaired for lodging to Talisker.  At night he missed one of his dogs, and when he went to seek him in the morning, found two eagles feeding on his carcass.

Col, for he must be named by his possessions, hearing that our intention was to visit Iona, offered to conduct us to his chief, Sir Allan Maclean, who lived in the isle of Inch Kenneth, and would readily find us a convenient passage.  From this time was formed an acquaintance, which being begun by kindness, was accidentally continued by constraint; we derived much pleasure from it, and I hope have given him no reason to repent it.

The weather was now almost one continued storm, and we were to snatch some happy intermission to be conveyed to Mull, the third Island of the Hebrides, lying about a degree south of Sky, whence we might easily find our way to Inch Kenneth, where Sir Allan Maclean resided, and afterward to Iona.

For this purpose, the most commodious station that we could take was Armidel, which Sir Alexander Macdonald had now left to a gentleman, who lived there as his factor or steward.

In our way to Armidel was Coriatachan, where we had already been, and to which therefore we were very willing to return.  We staid however so long at Talisker, that a great part of our journey was performed in the gloom of the evening.  In travelling even thus almost without light thro' naked solitude, when there is a guide whose conduct may be trusted, a mind not naturally too much disposed to fear, may preserve some degree of cheerfulness; but what must be the solicitude of him who should be wandering, among the craggs and hollows, benighted, ignorant, and alone?

The fictions of the Gothick romances were not so remote from credibility as they are now thought.  In the full prevalence of the feudal institution, when violence desolated the world, and every baron lived in a fortress, forests and castles were regularly succeeded by each other, and the adventurer might very suddenly pass from the gloom of woods, or the ruggedness of moors, to seats of plenty, gaiety, and magnificence.  Whatever is imaged in the wildest tale, if giants, dragons, and enchantment be excepted, would be felt by him, who, wandering in the mountains without a guide, or upon the sea without a pilot, should be carried amidst his terror and uncertainty, to the hospitality and elegance of Raasay or Dunvegan.

To Coriatachan at last we came, and found ourselves welcomed as before.  Here we staid two days, and made such inquiries as curiosity suggested.  The house was filled with company, among whom Mr. Macpherson and his sister distinguished themselves by their politeness and accomplishments.  By him we were invited to Ostig, a house not far from Armidel, where we might easily hear of a boat, when the weather would suffer us to leave the Island.

Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland (London: W. Strahan and T.Cadell, 1775) Text transcribed from the 1775 edition by David Price, including the corrections noted in the 1785 errata. Placename mark-up by Humphrey Southall.

Next Selection Previous Selection