8 IX 1773 8 VIII 2013


The crossing to Raasay was made in a birlinn, setting off from the bay of “Skianwden”, as spelt by Boswell.

Johnson sat in the bow, and they were rowed out through Caolas Scalpay and Loch na Cairidh, over the Narrows of Raasay. Malcolm Macleod captained the oarsmen and led the singing of the old standard ‘Hatyin foam foam eri’, in praise of Allan of Moidart, chief of Clanranald. Boswell says the tune went something like ‘Owr the muir amang the heather’. He gave it a go himself, on Coll, for the entertainment of Mrs M’Sweyn, who was threatening to teach him Erse.

Come, here’s a pledge to young and old,
We quaff the blood-red wine;
A health to Allan Muidart bold;
The dearest love of mine

Along, along, then haste along,
For here no more I’ll stay;
I’ll braid and bind my tresses long,
And o’er the hills away.

Johnson must class the song by the Classics: this was “ancient proceleusmatick” – from prokeleuein, ‘to drive on’ – its rhythm given impetus by a stroke of short syllables, sung by the slaves who propelled classical galleys. In his Voyage to the Hebrides, Pennant records that Gaelic oar-songs were often laments, long, solemn, and slow, “it being impossible for the rowers to keep a quick time”.

Wandering in and out of books, we explored the rocky beach and imagined the steady beat of an oar-song, as 2 canoeists paddled past, disappearing round Scalpay in no time at all. We became used to the name, Sgianadin, another overlooked place, passed by many times, in a hurry to get to Sligachan, Portree, journey’s end. Now the imprint of the Forestry Commission was on the place. Work on the plantation being lifted, the spot had been awarded a picnic bench and there was a new Nature sign in the car park.





To us, this was the place Johnson told the crew of his dream; how, the night before, he had a vision of himself setting his good oak staff into the current of a river. And how he chanced to let it go. The same staff he would later lose on Mull.

Then, rocked to-and-fro by song and sea, with a Freudian slip, his best spurs were lost overboard by Joseph. It seemed to us that the dream and the loss presaged a liminal shift. The river, would that not be the stream of conception, which flowed down Creag Lundie? The horse shied on Ratagan, but here he was, albeit spurless, still alive, still Johnson, at swim in the Isles of Bride. Had he not become his own best witness for evidence of second sight?

For now, a few miles sail away, the idyll of Raasay awaited, over the “Atlantick, in an open boat”.

sailor, take care
for darkness
will come on

the guiding stream
of constellations
will once again
be hidden

(after Horace)


Carne-Rosee, Donald (ed.), Horace in English (1996)
Hill, George Birkbeck Norman, Footsteps of Dr Johnson in Scotland (1890)