5 raasay - crossing to coll

8–12 IX 1773
(population c.900)
9 VIII 2013
 (population 161, based on the 2011 census)

 8–12 IX 1773
9 VIII 2013

9 IX 1773
9 VIII 2013

10 IX 1773
9 VIII 2013




21-23 IX 1773
6 VIII 2013

22 IX 1773
6 VIII 2013

17 IX 1773
5 VIII 2013


3 X 1773
18 VII 2013 (Alec)
20 VII 2013 (Ken)


To Johnson this, his second island, shone like a redeemed form of the isolate mountains. It turned their ‘thoughts intirely to another world’. 

This is truly the patriarchal life: this is what we came to find.’


















An Aird




Notes: At Dunvegan SJ says he ‘tasted lotus’ and was in danger of ‘forgetting that he was ever to depart’. It is here he mentions his dream of a seraglio, which Ken places on Scalpay, along with the ideal university. The tombolo is An Aird on the east coast of Skye near Braes, and its smaller mirror point on Raasay, Àird Ghuithais.


Homer, The Odyssey, Book IX (The Lotus-eaters)


In Raasay, if I could have found an Ulysses, I had fancied a Phoeacia.’ (Johnson)

   They dance here every night,
   With no jealousy, no discontent among them,
   The elegant and beautiful
   Daughters of Rasaay

   After Boswell, & Davenport’s Anakreon

They attend their first ball on Raasay the night they arrive. Johnson writes, ‘Raasay has little that can detain a traveller, except the Laird and his family; but their power wants no auxiliaries. (…) Without is the rough ocean and the rocky land, the beating billows and the howling storm: within is plenty and elegance, beauty and gaiety, the song and the dance.’

   As evening came upon us

   the carpet was rolled off the floor
   the musician called
   the company invited to dance –

   in mansions of
   pleasure we trip

   from darkness
   into light.

   After Johnson

The ‘little ball’ provokes Boswell to describe very differing states of happiness. Sandie Macleod, on the run after the ’45, has retained his pseudonym ‘McCruslick’, a name denoting ‘a species of satyr… a sort of mountain Puck or hobgoblin”; Boswell writes of his ‘too obstreperous mirth’, and says that at the ball ‘he made much jovial noise’. Johnson is equally happy at the ball, in his own way; ‘it entertained me to observe him sitting by, while we danced, sometimes in deep meditation, sometimes smiling complacently, sometimes looking upon Hooke's Roman History, and sometimes talking a little amidst the noise of the ball, to Mr Donald M'Queen, who anxiously gathered knowledge from him.

   The stars, Raasay, praised your dances –
   The moon, Raasay, shared your glory –
   The isle, Raasay, recalls your joy.

   After Arthur Johnston, ‘On the Queen’s Dances’


For ‘Raasay’ read ‘Phoeacia’
For ‘Flora’ read ‘Nausicaa’
For ‘MacLeod’ read ‘Ulysses’
For ‘Hallaig’ read ‘Hallaig’


Davenport, Guy Seven Greeks (1995)
Homer, The Odyssey Books V–XIII

MacLean, Sorley Coire Gheal LeumraichWhite Leaping Flame


Another ‘Danish’ fort, why not? Boswell passed this on the hunt for blackcock, with Wildman M’Cruslick.



We ate our lunch on the broch. The old garden, which had been ‘plentifully stocked with vegetables, and strawberries, raspberries, currants’, was hidden in the pines. We’d a fine view of the Cuillin, through clouds of midges. We weren’t surprised their altitude appeared so much smaller than that of lofty Dun Caan.

The Errata of Ossian 

for ‘marble’ read ‘gabbro’


Armit, Ian The Archaeology of Skye and the Western Isles (1996)


‘Scotland is full of castles in ruins, poor castles in the Highlands of Scotland, and as opposed to the castles of the Rhine, which suggest an opulent life with small but more or less lavish courts, these don’t, they give the impression of a life of battle, of difficult battles…’ (Borges)

Anatomy of the Ruins of Raasay





Old Malcolm Macleod walked Boswell this far, and back home again, and they’d still the puff to dance all night.

The castle is more ruined now (even the old DANGER sign is a ruin), but it still has the odd appearance of ‘a concretion of pebbles and earth.’

We turned our back on the bulwark of history and exercised ourselves on the pebble beach, one writing down notes, the other grading pebbles by their colours, both gathering thoughts.

The sky had that especial Hebridean quality of many backlit greys, the cloud a hem on the cliffs of Screapadal. It wasn’t raining, but it wasn’t not.





Highet’s book was still on our mind – all those exiles served by the Latin poets. He invites the reader to imagine Catullus’ spell of Government service in Bithynia, as if ‘Lord Byron served as Assistant Principal for The Highways and Rivers Bureau of a small province in India’. Why not a stint as temporary surveyor on Calum’s Road?


Borges, Jorge Luis, et al Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature (2013)

Highet, Gilbert Poets in a Landscape (1957)
Hutchinson, Roger Calum’s Road (2008)


The gates had just closed, but John told us the best view was from down at the pier. 







We saw Dunvegan only from a distance – our appetite for ancestral homes has abated after Inveraray.

The hazelnuts are ripening, but it’s still too early to eat them.

An open boat chugs across the bay beneath Macleod’s Tables.


MacLeod, John, et al Dunvegan Castle: Isle of Skye, Scotland (2003)


Boswell confesses that one of the delights of the Tour is that he has Johnson to himself, like a large piece of meat which he, clever dog that he is, has carried off to the isles, away from all their London friends, and which he may now ‘devour in peace’. 

Playfully piloting the lives they will never lead, far from wives and responsibilities, they are earning their island names. This shucking off of identity that happens on northern jaunts is a recurring figure. Just as climbers have tales that nestle in particular inns, so the imagination of poetic selves has a love of islands, Berneray, Rousay, and, in a remarkable way, the lonely rock of Isay, or Iosaigh, which Macleod offered to Johnson as a gift.

The singer Donvan later bought the Isle of Isay, plus its smaller neighbours Mingay and Clett, but not for long. He writes, ‘John Lennon watched me buy the islands and bought his own. He bought a Victorian fantasy island celebrated in a Victorian piece of music, Fingal's Cave, composed by Felix Mendelssohn. This rock was not inhabitable. John had bought it purely as a romantic dream. Truth be told, I had bought my islands for the same reason.’

Islands are places of translation – in our passage to them we place the walking stick of habit into the current, and lose it. One of our main themes is translation, but with them, and us, it is a brief immersion, and there is always the danger of Donovisation. As Johnson might have said: antique Scotland being so lost from view, let us not allow the pale imitation of Ossian to fill the void.




Leitch, Donovan The Hurdy-Gurdy Man (2006)


We got to Ulinish about six o'clock, and found a very good farm-house, of two stories.’ (Boswell)

Macpherson’s Ossian is discussed again, and again Johnson takes pleasure in bettering McQueen. He says, ‘had it been really an ancient work, a true specimen how men thought at that time, it would have been a curiosity of the first rate. As a modern production, it is nothing.’ At the time most readers loved the poetry, and were uninterested in the sources; in being so critical Johnson was to some extent sticking his neck out. Nowadays, ironically, no-one reads it as poetry, but as ‘a true specimen how men thought at that time’; it has become a touchstone of mid-18th century sensibility, as revealing, if less entertaining, than Boswell’s Johnson.


James Macpherson The Works of Ossian (1765)


Edifices, either standing or ruined, are the chief records of an illiterate nation.’ (Johnson)

So long, one might add, as they are made of stone – any edifice of wood, thatch, wattle-and-daub being long vanished – and not just of ‘an illiterate nation’, when one considers all the texts that have survived from Greece and Rome as inscriptions.


Boswell, looking out from this ‘old tower’ to ‘the isles of Barra and South Uist’, envisions a more distant but to him more familiar island, when the ‘rocky pinnacles in a strange variety of shapes’ of the Cuillin put him in mind of ‘the mountains near Corté in Corsica’.

It’s another busy spot, and we’re joined by a group of tourists led by a man in a kilt. As we descend, the kiltie has climbed onto the top of the broch, and yells theatrically, Braveheart-cum-Dubya, “Freedom!”


Barbour, John The Brus (1370s)

Bush, George W. We Will Prevail (2003)


   the straths of Lydia

   convalles Lydiae

   the temples of Waternish

   templa Vaternish

The Reverend MacQueen’s speculates that a neolithic site, known as Ainnit (Annait on the current OS maps), by the River Bay in Skye, was a temple of Anaitis, a goddess of Lydia. Pausanius, writing in the second century AD, describes Anaitis as a veiled goddess whose worship consists of a ritual chanted from a book by priests wearing the tiara, in a language unintelligible to the Greeks. The celebration included the miraculous kindling of fire upon the altar of the goddess.

Johnson is sceptical, and asks McQueen the meaning of Annait in Gaelic; on being told it means ‘water-place, or a place near water’, he concludes the Skye Anaitis to be ‘a mere physiological name’, defined by its location. (Today the generally accepted view is that ‘Annait’, and the various extant place-names derived from it, means ‘mother-church’, the first Christian foundation in a particular area.)

Boswell and McQueen explore the ruins; in his journal Boswell goes to some lengths to describe it, but in his published account he writes, ‘from the great difficulty of describing visible objects, I found my account… unsatisfactory’.

We have a hard trudge over the moor from the road through bracken and heather, and steep banks down and up by the river. Ken sees nothing of the walls Boswell describes, but the attractions and drama of the site are obvious; a small rise bounded on either side by river, the two streams meeting where the land comes to a point; and it’s lush compared to the featureless moor, with hazel, birch and alder covering the riverside slopes.

Alec was drawn down to the knoll; despite the steep slopes and rough ground, he threw himself down and pulled himself up, until he sat on the saddle; the rock was flaky, as is often the case on vitrified dùns. But the midges rose in toxic clouds. There was no moment of calm and looking; a moment’s pause and the insects rose up from the heather. It is as rich a site as one could find on Skye, in the banks or the river –a vertical richness, with the falling waters, and the small trees reaching upwards.

Climbing up from the river the wee moths rose in numbers, like dark paper wishes.


Gimbutas, Marija The Civilization of the Goddess: The World of Old Europe (1991)


Prieshwell, Preshal More




Talisker – ‘The House at the Rock’ – is the name of a well-known single malt, but the distillery is at Carabost, and it’s another six miles to Talisker itself; a white house surrounded by mature trees sitting beneath the “stallion head” of Preshal. We find a parking space – just – near the house, edging our way through peacocks and guinea-fowls unconcerned by traffic. Ken heads for the shore; Alec gets kitted out in his anti-midge armour and poems in a meadow.

   conversing smoothly

   the gentle Sleadale burn
   has no ken of eternity

   for Ken & Sorley

The path to the bay runs beneath steep slopes grazed by sheep. It’s a busy route, and cosmopolitan too, as I pass families and groups speaking French and German; a guide book highlight. I know the name ‘Talisker’ from a Sorley Maclean poem ‘Traighen’ (‘Shores’), which in Iain Crichton Smith’s translation begins:

   If I were in Talisker by the shore

   where the great white foaming mouth of water
   opens between two jaws hard as flint –
   the Headland of Stones and the Red Point…

The scene and the poem deliver us, by association, south and east:

   litus ut longe resonante Eoa

   tunditur unda


   Resounding the waves

   of the western ocean

   after Catullus

   the shore where the pounding

   of the western ocean
   resounds far and wide

   variation, after MacLean

   woh sahil jahan behr-e-Oqianoos Shimali

   takrata hay, aur baz gasht bann jata hay
   duur duur talak

   Urdu version

The bay is a wide sweep of tumbled rocks, and the ‘round blueish-grey pebbles’ used, says Boswell, ‘injudiciously’ to pave the courtyard at Talisker House. The pebbles suggest an adaptation of a Boswellian footnote, late in his account after Johnson has departed south again:





It is at Talisker that they meet Donald Maclean, ‘Young Col’. The introduction seems inauspicious, as Boswell delivers to him a letter from his uncle in Aberdeen, one of the professors who so bored the travellers there; but they will relish spending most of the next month in Young Col’s company. Johnson, with his liking for old money and new ideas, introduces him as ‘a young gentleman’ and ‘heir to a very great extent of land’, notes that he has spent time in England learning from improving farmers, and then seals his admiration by comparing his new acquaintance to no less than Peter the Great: ‘If the world has agreed to praise the travels and manual labours of the Czar of Muscovy, let Col have his share of the like applause, in the proportion of his dominions to the empire of Russia.’ (Capable and charming as we find today’s inhabitants of Coll, there are none we’d compare to Vladimir Putin.)

Johnson likes the house, but not the setting: ‘Talisker is the place beyond all that I have seen, from which the gay and the jovial seem utterly excluded, but he does appreciate the enclosing trees: ‘the garden is sheltered by firs or pines, which grow there so prosperously, that some, which the present inhabitant planted, are very high and thick.


MacLean, Sorley, Poems to Eimhir, translated from the Gaelic by Iain Crichton Smith (1972)

Orme, William, A History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan from the year 1745 (1763 / 1778)


‘Quo me cunque rapit tempestas, deferor hospes’

Johnson had given The Rambler this Horation motto, which Boswell aptly applies to his account of their crossing: they were heading to Tobermory on Mull, but the gale forces them out west to Coll.

‘Just where the weather drives me, I invite

Myself to take up quarters for the night’ (Conington)

It was very dark and there was a heavy and incessant rain

It was very dark and there was a heavy and rain rain
It was very dark and there was a heavy rain rain rain
It was very dark and there was a rain rain rain rain
It was very dark and there was rain rain rain rain rain
It was very dark and there rain rain rain rain rain rain
It was very dark and rain rain rain rain rain rain rain
It was very dark rain rain rain rain rain rain rain rain
It was very rain rain rain rain rain rain rain rain rain
It was rain rain rain rain rain rain rain rain rain rain
It rain rain rain rain rain rain rain rain rain rain rain
rain rain rain rain rain rain rain rain rain rain rain rain

after Boswell

Our crossings, during a summer heat wave, couldn’t have been more different. Ken leaves Oban early on a sunny Saturday morning; the sea’s more Adriatic than Atlantic. The ferry is packed with young people, some making for Coll and Project Trust. But most are going to the Tiree Music Festival, and have a thirst on them even this early in the day; lager or Vodka Ice for breakfast, a contemporary scalch. Johnson would have been pleased to spot a t-shirt quoting Cato’s ‘Carthago delenda est’, even if the context – a critique of US belligerence – would have been unfamiliar. There’s another North African reference in the repetitive abstracts of the green plastic floor, which remind me of Moorish Grenada.


Bradford, Ernle Mediterranean: Portrait of a Sea (1971)

Johnson, Samuel The Rambler (1750–52)