8 IX 1773
9 VIII 2013


We sailed along the coast of Scalpa, a rugged island, about four miles in length. Dr Johnson proposed that he and I should buy it, and found a good school, and an episcopal church (Malcolm said, he would come to it), and have a printing-press, where he would print all the Erse that could be found. Here I was strongly struck with our long projected scheme of visiting the Hebrides being realized.”

There are a number of ‘fantasy islands’ Johnson imagines living on – as well as Scalpay, there’s Inch Keith in the Forth, and “Island Isa” (today’s Iosaigh) just out from Loch Dunvegan. His plans for Scalpay are quite concrete, but to complement the school we thought we should add to the local institutions an Exam Board. Here are some sample questions from its past papers:

1. If the Celtic saints are “thistledown blown across Scotland” (Chonzie’s Annals of the Early Church), compose a suitable metaphor to describe their churches.

2. Spell the name of the current culture minister for Scotland using only the letters of Gaelic tree alphabet.

3. If Highlanders are “like the Greeks in their unpolished state”, find suitable similes for
   (i)     Lowlanders
   (ii)    Londoners
   (iii)   Greeks

4. In a film version of Boswell and Johnson’s Tour, which of the regular Carry On actors would you cast in the following roles?
   (i)     Samuel Johnson
   (ii)    James Boswell
   (iii)   Donald Maclean, ‘Young Col’
   (iv)    Lord Auchinleck
   (v)     Mrs Thrale
   (vi)    Flora Macleod of Raasay
   (vii)   Elizabeth Cunning, Duchess of Hamilton, Brandon & Argyll
   (viii)  The unnamed “man black as a Cyclops from the forge”, encountered in the inn at Glenelg.

5. Draw a Platonic turnip.

6. In which of the newly authorized Gaelic translations of the Old Testament is Pharaoh’s chariot re-imagined as a red Massey Ferguson tractor?

Another of Johnson’s notions, expressed in a conversation at Dunvegan about preferred fabrics, is the keeping of a seraglio which, given the similarity of the words, we thought could well be sited on Scalpa. (The words in italics are taken from Johnson’s Dictionary.)

Scalpa Seraglio

a rugged island
about four miles in length

a good school
an episcopal church
and a printing-press

besides a house
(as Johnson defines it)
kept for debauchery

where silk is banned
and the ladies all
wear linen gowns

or cotton.


Crawford, Robert, ‘A Life Exam’ in Spirit Machines (1999)
Leonard, Tom, ‘Four Conceptual Poems’ in Intimate Voices (1984)
[ADD a book about fabrics]