21 VIII 1773
24 XI 2013


From the A90 I drive a Johnsonian ‘two miles out of [my] way to see' Monboddo, which means something like ‘tail of land’.

Here lived James Burnett, Lord Monboddo (1714–99), well known in his time but little read now; his ideas don’t have the currency of Hume, Smith, or indeed Boswell. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that he ‘believed that men were descended from monkeys, and he was also sure that every baby was born with a vestigal tail that was privily snipped off by the midwife, and that this secret was the property of all women.’ (Stucley)

 ‘I never saw you, I only heard of you’, as The Specials sang in ‘Monkey Man’; Delaney says ‘an enormous monkeypuzzle dominates the immediate skyline’, which seems an apt metaphor for his theorising.

I drive past a pair of signs in a cold late November dusk, but following the narrow road past a number of modern houses I see no trace of the ‘poor old house… [with] two turrets’ which Boswell describes.

He also writes, ‘Monboddo is a wretched place, wild and naked’, and the fields, at this time of year, are certainly naked; but, reclothed in spring and summer, surely a pastoral charm will return. It’s a Virgilian landscape, as Monboddo suggests when he quotes the Eclogues; while he and Johnson go on to praise Homer, it’s hard to imagine the mass carnage of the Iliad here. This is settled land, where disputes have long been settled by law; Monboddo is a judge, not a soldier.

Much later, on Inchkenneth, perhaps as a vestigal memory of Monboddo, Johnson will praise their practical friend Young Col by saying, ‘if any man has a TAIL, it is Col’.


Delaney, Frank A Walk to the Western Isles (1993)
Stucley, Elizabeth A Hebridean Journey with Johnson and Boswell (1956)
Mills, Barriss (trans.), The Eclogues of Virgil (1980)