27–8 VIII 1773
4 IX 2013


At Nairn the travellers heard “Erse”, or Gaelic, for the first time, sensing another demesne open to them, as Basho, at Shirakawa, opened to Minichoku.

natural grace’s
beginning found in Oku's
rice-planting singing

Johnson’s antipathy to Gaelic – “the rude speech of a barbarous people” – arose from his notion that it “never was a written language”. The oral tradition must then, he alleged, stand a state of childish arrest. The lacuna in his discourse with Gaelic-speakers is the flaw that discolours his account and, great talker that is, he cannot jettison the writer’s prejudice against speech. What are the epic songs he hears in the Hebrides if not memory systems, propelled on the air?

a language that floats in the breath
tends to song

a language that renders letters
tends to polished accounts

a language that is keyed
tends to tweets & status updates

The Gaelic they overhear is the song of a young woman, spinning the giddy wheel upstairs. In jest, Johnson teased the lyric into “one of the songs of Ossian”.

Soon the travellers would hear a Gaelic rowing song as they made the crossing to the little court of MacLeod of Raasay. Their host at Cawdor, Rev. Kenneth MacAulay, had written of such songs in his History of St Kilda

“They delight much in singing, and their voices are abundantly tuneful. The women, while cutting down their barley in a field, or grinding their grain on the handmills in the house, are almost constantly employed in that way; and the men if pulling at the oar, exert all the strength of their skill in animating the party, by chanting away some spirited songs adapted to the business in hand. The seamen of Athens practised the same custom.”

More at home with Latin than Gaelic, Johnson gifts a book to MacAuley’s eleven year-old son, “a Sallust [which he had brought] with him in his pocket from Edinburgh”, records Boswell.

At the manse they “laid the map of Scotland before [them]”. MacAulay planned a route, west, using know-how gained during his service in parishes in Lochaber, Ardnamurchan, and the Hebrides; after a voyage through Skye, Mull and Iona, they should land in Oban around 20 September. In fact, they arrive on 22 October.

On the East Beach of Nairn our fallback camera was cursed by sand. We attributed the bad luck on this trip to the sorcery of our farmhouse B&B landlady, whose CONTRO MIST scooshed each breakfast sitting with its synthetic potion to stop anything smelling of itself.





(after Delaney)


map, illustrated above, ‘A New Map of the Western Isles of Scotland’, attributed to Martin Martin, engraved by Herman Moll (1703)
Macaulay, Kenneth; The History of St. Kilda (1764)
Delaney, Frank; A Walk to the Western Isles (1993)
Johnson, Samuel; Translation of Sallust: A Facsimile and Transcription of the Hyde Manuscript (1993)
Basho, tr. Cid Corman and Kamaike Susumu; Back Roads to Far Towns (1968)