4 sleat - crossing to raasay

2-6 & 29 IX – 3 X 1773  7 VIII 2013


6–8 & 25–28 X 1773 
5 VIII 2013

8 IX 1773
8 VIII 2013


8 IX 1773
9 VIII 2013

8 IX 1773
9 VIII 2013



Back on Skye, we worked our way up from Ostaig.

At Armadale we enquired after the great ash trees that grew around the old manse – we were offered a variety of possible locations, roughly as many as the number of people we asked – and wandered in the lovely gardens of Clan MacDonald.

We visited geodisic Sabhal Mor and wondered, is it the turn of the Western Isles to instruct the urban regions?

We snoozed and read Highet, of Glasgow, on the Latin poets, lolling on the strand of Knock Bay. There was charm in his claim of Catullus as an Italian Celt. Some of the words that his poetry brought into Latin may even be of Celtic origin, including kiss, basia. Highet characterized the poet’s ‘desperate passion’, and ‘unreasonable, almost suicidal fervour’ as typically Celtic. What would Johnson have made of that?

Reading Highet’s ‘Ovid’ on Baigh a’ Chnuic


he’d the charm of saying
   wicked things

in words that shone
   like the sun


though the broad strand
   is golden

still, stuck between your toes
   the dirt shows


Ovid read
   with his feet

   with his cock

(for Harry Gilonis)

Ovid’s learnedness became mythic because, Highet tells us, he could read with his feet – a misunderstanding that arose from the statue in his home town, Sulmo, where he was posed standing upon a book.


Highet, Gilbert Poets in a Landscape (1957)
Hutchinson, Roger A Waxing Moon: The Modern Gaelic Revival (2005)



Earlier in the year, when Ken was about to visit Auchinleck, Alec had a quixotic duty to perform at Kinloch Lodge, delivering a book of old recipes gathered by Wilma Paterson to the high-class chef and hostess Claire Macdonald, who has run the Lodge hotel for 40 years.

Alec was impressed by her wally parrots. The staff were unimpressed by his muddy waterproofs.

   “there are two   Claires   but only one   LADY

Here are two recipes from Wilma’s book using plants we have already mentioned, bog-myrtle and raspberry.

Raspberry-leaf Tea

This is a remedy for chills and influenza. Use 1 oz of dried leaves to 1 pint of water. Make it as you would China tea and take sweetened with honey.

Bog-myrtle Beer

10 oz malt extract
8 0z sugar
1 dessertspoon dried yeast
1 gal water
1 oz dried bog-myrtle (a little more if using it fresh)

Boil the bog-myrtle in the water for several minutes. Strain onto the malt and sugar in a stone jar. Stir well till dissolved and, when lukewarm, sprinkle on the yeast. Cover with a cloth and leave in a warm place to ferment for five or six days. Siphon the beer off the sediment and bottle in screw-top bottles, adding 1 teaspoon of sugar to each bottle. Leave for at least a week before drinking.


Macdonald, Claire Lifting the Lid, A Life at Kinloch Lodge (2012)

Paterson, Wilma A Country Cup (1980)


Coire-chat-achan, Corrie of the Wild-cats. The travellers stayed a mile beyond Broadford at ‘Corrichatachin’ (Boswell), or ‘Coriatachan’ (Johnson). 

Their hosts, Mr and Mrs MacKinnon, had entertained Pennant, who climbed Beinn na Calliach. They gifted him ‘a curious specimen of Highland antiquity’, but we never could discover what. Perhaps a portion of the fine bread and butter pudding Boswell enjoyed so much. Boswell notes they have a number of books, including a copy of ‘Dr Johnson's small Dictionary’; and it’s here that Johnson writes his second Latin poem to the Hebrides, ‘Permeo terra, ubi nuda rupes’, the first stanza of which reads in English translation:

‘I am travelling through a country where bare rocks and stony ruins alike are clothed in mists, where the grim countryside mocks the crofter’s barren labours.’

Old Corry is long a ruin, one that we recognized in every stone in a very stony field. When Maclaren revisits the site in the 1950s – he knew it from his childhood – he writes, ‘when I had last seen the house it was a corpse, now it was a ghost’.


Johnson, Samuel The Latin Poems (2005)
McLaren, Moray The Highland Jaunt (1953)
Pennant, Thomas A tour in Scotland. MDCCLXIX (1771)


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 the Greek 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)


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 realised.’

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’ (see 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)


The singing oarsmen bladed the voyagers across to Raasay, a 4-hour crossing. As they approached the pier at Clachan, the chorus overlapped with a faster rhythm. The harvesters in the fields around Raasay House came into view and earshot, timing the modulations of their labour to a reaping song. Soon Lady Raasay will take the travellers to see the ‘wawking’ of cloth, at which the women sing in a ‘loud and wild yowl’.

harvest-songs hone
the strokes of the sickle

waulking-songs amplify
the girth of the cloth

rowing-songs modulate
the slow stroke of the oars

masons-songs raise-up
the castle walls

war-songs bring a glint
to the spear-point

quern-songs turn, turn,
the turning stone

laments keen the scattering
of earth echoing on the coffin

This year’s harvest was not long over when the ferry, renamed Castor & Pollux for the day, landed us near the same spot. ‘Ferry, cross to Raasay, for this isle’s the one I love’. 


Wilma Paterson (ed.) & Alasdair Gray (illus.) The Songs of Scotland (1996)