Samuel Johnson's A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, published in 1775, is both an early example of travel writing and a remarkably detailed piece of cultural anthropology. It records a journey made by Johnson and his friend and biographer James Boswell, in the summer and autumn of 1773.
Johnson was then 63 years old, and had rarely travelled outside London. The Scotland he describes is a remote and alien place in which everything he experiences, from the lack of trees to the windows of Scottish houses, is seen as evidence of the country's uncivilised state:
Till the Union made them acquainted with English manners, the culture of their lands was unskilful, and their domestic life unformed; their tables were coarse as the feasts of Eskimeaux, and their houses filthy as the cottages of Hottentots.
Johnson's descriptions of a country still adjusting to the effects of the Highland clearances are vivid, opinionated and wide-ranging, encompassing subjects such as the Gaelic language, the primitive nature of Scottish shoes and the consumption of whisky before breakfast.
Boswell published his own account of this journey in 1785, and would go on to publish his famous Life of Samuel Johnson in 1791.
- Article by:
- David Crystal
- Language and ideas
David Crystal looks past the myths surrounding Samuel Johnson's Dictionary to discover a work of remarkable precision, sensitivity and attention to social and regional variation.