Picture of Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson

places mentioned

Ulva and Inch Kenneth

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While we stood deliberating, we were happily espied from an Irish ship, that lay at anchor in the strait.  The master saw that we wanted a passage, and with great civility sent us his boat, which quickly conveyed us to Ulva, where we were very liberally entertained by Mr. Macquarry.

To Ulva we came in the dark, and left it before noon the next day.  A very exact description therefore will not be expected.  We were told, that it is an Island of no great extent, rough and barren, inhabited by the Macquarrys; a clan not powerful nor numerous, but of antiquity, which most other families are content to reverence.  The name is supposed to be a depravation of some other; for the Earse language does not afford it any etymology.  Macquarry is proprietor both of Ulva and some adjacent Islands, among which is Staffa, so lately raised to renown by Mr. Banks.

When the Islanders were reproached with their ignorance, or insensibility of the wonders of Staffa, they had not much to reply.  They had indeed considered it little, because they had always seen it; and none but philosophers, nor they always, are struck with wonder, otherwise than by novelty.  How would it surprise an unenlightened ploughman, to hear a company of sober men, inquiring by what power the hand tosses a stone, or why the stone, when it is tossed, falls to the ground!

Of the ancestors of Macquarry, who thus lies hid in his unfrequented Island, I have found memorials in all places where they could be expected.

Inquiring after the reliques of former manners, I found that in Ulva, and, I think, no where else, is continued the payment of the Mercheta Mulierum; a fine in old times due to the Laird at the marriage of a virgin.  The original of this claim, as of our tenure of Borough English, is variously delivered.  It is pleasant to find ancient customs in old families.  This payment, like others, was, for want of money, made anciently in the produce of the land.  Macquarry was used to demand a sheep, for which he now takes a crown, by that inattention to the uncertain proportion between the value and the denomination of money, which has brought much disorder into Europe.  A sheep has always the same power of supplying human wants, but a crown will bring at one time more, at another less.

Ulva was not neglected by the piety of ardent times: it has still to show what was once a church.


In the morning we went again into the boat, and were landed on Inch Kenneth, an Island about a mile long, and perhaps half a mile broad, remarkable for pleasantness and fertility.  It is verdant and grassy, and fit both for pasture and tillage; but it has no trees.  Its only inhabitants were Sir Allan Maclean and two young ladies, his daughters, with their servants.

Romance does not often exhibit a scene that strikes the imagination more than this little desert in these depths of Western obscurity, occupied not by a gross herdsman, or amphibious fisherman, but by a gentleman and two ladies, of high birth, polished manners and elegant conversation, who, in a habitation raised not very far above the ground, but furnished with unexpected neatness and convenience, practised all the kindness of hospitality, and refinement of courtesy.

Sir Allan is the Chieftain of the great clan of Maclean, which is said to claim the second place among the Highland families, yielding only to Macdonald.  Though by the misconduct of his ancestors, most of the extensive territory, which would have descended to him, has been alienated, he still retains much of the dignity and authority of his birth.  When soldiers were lately wanting for the American war, application was made to Sir Allan, and he nominated a hundred men for the service, who obeyed the summons, and bore arms under his command.

He had then, for some time, resided with the young ladies in Inch Kenneth, where he lives not only with plenty, but with elegance, having conveyed to his cottage a collection of books, and what else is necessary to make his hours pleasant.

When we landed, we were met by Sir Allan and the Ladies, accompanied by Miss Macquarry, who had passed some time with them, and now returned to Ulva with her father.

We all walked together to the mansion, where we found one cottage for Sir Allan, and I think two more for the domesticks and the offices.  We entered, and wanted little that palaces afford.  Our room was neatly floored, and well lighted; and our dinner, which was dressed in one of the other huts, was plentiful and delicate.

In the afternoon Sir Allan reminded us, that the day was Sunday, which he never suffered to pass without some religious distinction, and invited us to partake in his acts of domestick worship; which I hope neither Mr. Boswell nor myself will be suspected of a disposition to refuse.  The elder of the Ladies read the English service.

Inch Kenneth was once a seminary of ecclesiasticks, subordinate, I suppose, to Icolmkill.  Sir Allan had a mind to trace the foundations of the college, but neither I nor Mr. Boswell, who bends a keener eye on vacancy, were able to perceive them.

Our attention, however, was sufficiently engaged by a venerable chapel, which stands yet entire, except that the roof is gone.  It is about sixty feet in length, and thirty in breadth.  On one side of the altar is a bas relief of the blessed Virgin, and by it lies a little bell; which, though cracked, and without a clapper, has remained there for ages, guarded only by the venerableness of the place.  The ground round the chapel is covered with gravestones of Chiefs and ladies; and still continues to be a place of sepulture.

Inch Kenneth is a proper prelude to Icolmkill.  It was not without some mournful emotion that we contemplated the ruins of religious structures and the monuments of the dead.

On the next day we took a more distinct view of the place, and went with the boat to see oysters in the bed, out of which the boatmen forced up as many as were wanted.  Even Inch Kenneth has a subordinate Island, named Sandiland, I suppose in contempt, where we landed, and found a rock, with a surface of perhaps four acres, of which one is naked stone, another spread with sand and shells, some of which I picked up for their glossy beauty, and two covered with a little earth and grass, on which Sir Allan has a few sheep.  I doubt not but when there was a college at Inch Kenneth, there was a hermitage upon Sandiland.

Having wandered over those extensive plains, we committed ourselves again to the winds and waters; and after a voyage of about ten minutes, in which we met with nothing very observable, were again safe upon dry ground.

We told Sir Allan our desire of visiting Icolmkill, and entreated him to give us his protection, and his company.  He thought proper to hesitate a little, but the Ladies hinted, that as they knew he would not finally refuse, he would do better if he preserved the grace of ready compliance.  He took their advice, and promised to carry us on the morrow in his boat.

We passed the remaining part of the day in such amusements as were in our power.  Sir Allan related the American campaign, and at evening one of the Ladies played on her harpsichord, while Col and Mr. Boswell danced a Scottish reel with the other.

We could have been easily persuaded to a longer stay upon Inch Kenneth, but life will not be all passed in delight.  The session at Edinburgh was approaching, from which Mr. Boswell could not be absent.

In the morning our boat was ready: it was high and strong.  Sir Allan victualled it for the day, and provided able rowers.  We now parted from the young Laird of Col, who had treated us with so much kindness, and concluded his favours by consigning us to Sir Allan.  Here we had the last embrace of this amiable man, who, while these pages were preparing to attest his virtues, perished in the passage between Ulva and Inch Kenneth.

Sir Allan, to whom the whole region was well known, told us of a very remarkable cave, to which he would show us the way.  We had been disappointed already by one cave, and were not much elevated by the expectation of another.

It was yet better to see it, and we stopped at some rocks on the coast of Mull.  The mouth is fortified by vast fragments of stone, over which we made our way, neither very nimbly, nor very securely.  The place, however, well repaid our trouble.  The bottom, as far as the flood rushes in, was encumbered with large pebbles, but as we advanced was spread over with smooth sand.  The breadth is about forty-five feet: the roof rises in an arch, almost regular, to a height which we could not measure; but I think it about thirty feet.

This part of our curiosity was nearly frustrated; for though we went to see a cave, and knew that caves are dark, we forgot to carry tapers, and did not discover our omission till we were wakened by our wants.  Sir Allan then sent one of the boatmen into the country, who soon returned with one little candle.  We were thus enabled to go forward, but could not venture far.  Having passed inward from the sea to a great depth, we found on the right hand a narrow passage, perhaps not more than six feet wide, obstructed by great stones, over which we climbed and came into a second cave, in breadth twenty-five feet.  The air in this apartment was very warm, but not oppressive, nor loaded with vapours.  Our light showed no tokens of a feculent or corrupted atmosphere.  Here was a square stone, called, as we are told, Fingal's Table.

If we had been provided with torches, we should have proceeded in our search, though we had already gone as far as any former adventurer, except some who are reported never to have returned; and, measuring our way back, we found it more than a hundred and sixty yards, the eleventh part of a mile.

Our measures were not critically exact, having been made with a walking pole, such as it is convenient to carry in these rocky countries, of which I guessed the length by standing against it.  In this there could be no great errour, nor do I much doubt but the Highlander, whom we employed, reported the number right.  More nicety however is better, and no man should travel unprovided with instruments for taking heights and distances.

There is yet another cause of errour not always easily surmounted, though more dangerous to the veracity of itinerary narratives, than imperfect mensuration.  An observer deeply impressed by any remarkable spectacle, does not suppose, that the traces will soon vanish from his mind, and having commonly no great convenience for writing, defers the description to a time of more leisure, and better accommodation.

He who has not made the experiment, or who is not accustomed to require rigorous accuracy from himself, will scarcely believe how much a few hours take from certainty of knowledge, and distinctness of imagery; how the succession of objects will be broken, how separate parts will be confused, and how many particular features and discriminations will be compressed and conglobated into one gross and general idea.

To this dilatory notation must be imputed the false relations of travellers, where there is no imaginable motive to deceive.  They trusted to memory, what cannot be trusted safely but to the eye, and told by guess what a few hours before they had known with certainty.  Thus it was that Wheeler and Spon described with irreconcilable contrariety things which they surveyed together, and which both undoubtedly designed to show as they saw them.

When we had satisfied our curiosity in the cave, so far as our penury of light permitted us, we clambered again to our boat, and proceeded along the coast of Mull to a headland, called Atun, remarkable for the columnar form of the rocks, which rise in a series of pilasters, with a degree of regularity, which Sir Allan thinks not less worthy of curiosity than the shore of Staffa.

Not long after we came to another range of black rocks, which had the appearance of broken pilasters, set one behind another to a great depth.  This place was chosen by Sir Allan for our dinner.  We were easily accommodated with seats, for the stones were of all heights, and refreshed ourselves and our boatmen, who could have no other rest till we were at Icolmkill.

The evening was now approaching, and we were yet at a considerable distance from the end of our expedition.  We could therefore stop no more to make remarks in the way, but set forward with some degree of eagerness.  The day soon failed us, and the moon presented a very solemn and pleasing scene.  The sky was clear, so that the eye commanded a wide circle: the sea was neither still nor turbulent: the wind neither silent nor loud.  We were never far from one coast or another, on which, if the weather had become violent, we could have found shelter, and therefore contemplated at ease the region through which we glided in the tranquillity of the night, and saw now a rock and now an island grow gradually conspicuous and gradually obscure.  I committed the fault which I have just been censuring, in neglecting, as we passed, to note the series of this placid navigation.

We were very near an Island, called Nun's Island, perhaps from an ancient convent.  Here is said to have been dug the stone that was used in the buildings of Icolmkill.  Whether it is now inhabited we could not stay to inquire.

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.

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