Picture of Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson

places mentioned

Arbroath and Montrose

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As we knew sorrow and wishes to be vain, it was now our business to mind our way.  The roads of Scotland afford little diversion to the traveller, who seldom sees himself either encountered or overtaken, and who has nothing to contemplate but grounds that have no visible boundaries, or are separated by walls of loose stone.  From the bank of the Tweed to St. Andrews I had never seen a single tree, which I did not believe to have grown up far within the present century.  Now and then about a gentleman's house stands a small plantation, which in Scotch is called a policy, but of these there are few, and those few all very young.  The variety of sun and shade is here utterly unknown.  There is no tree for either shelter or timber.  The oak and the thorn is equally a stranger, and the whole country is extended in uniform nakedness, except that in the road between Kirkaldy and Cowpar, I passed for a few yards between two hedges.  A tree might be a show in Scotland as a horse in Venice.  At St. Andrews Mr. Boswell found only one, and recommended it to my notice; I told him that it was rough and low, or looked as if I thought so.  This, said he, is nothing to another a few miles off.  I was still less delighted to hear that another tree was not to be seen nearer.  Nay, said a gentleman that stood by, I know but of this and that tree in the county.

The Lowlands of Scotland had once undoubtedly an equal portion of woods with other countries.  Forests are every where gradually diminished, as architecture and cultivation prevail by the increase of people and the introduction of arts.  But I believe few regions have been denuded like this, where many centuries must have passed in waste without the least thought of future supply.  Davies observes in his account of Ireland, that no Irishman had ever planted an orchard.  For that negligence some excuse might be drawn from an unsettled state of life, and the instability of property; but in Scotland possession has long been secure, and inheritance regular, yet it may be doubted whether before the Union any man between Edinburgh and England had ever set a tree.

Of this improvidence no other account can be given than that it probably began in times of tumult, and continued because it had begun.  Established custom is not easily broken, till some great event shakes the whole system of things, and life seems to recommence upon new principles.  That before the Union the Scots had little trade and little money, is no valid apology; for plantation is the least expensive of all methods of improvement.  To drop a seed into the ground can cost nothing, and the trouble is not great of protecting the young plant, till it is out of danger; though it must be allowed to have some difficulty in places like these, where they have neither wood for palisades, nor thorns for hedges.

Our way was over the Firth of Tay, where, though the water was not wide, we paid four shillings for ferrying the chaise.  In Scotland the necessaries of life are easily procured, but superfluities and elegancies are of the same price at least as in England, and therefore may be considered as much dearer.

We stopped a while at Dundee, where I remember nothing remarkable, and mounting our chaise again, came about the close of the day to Aberbrothick.

The monastery of Aberbrothick is of great renown in the history of Scotland.  Its ruins afford ample testimony of its ancient magnificence: Its extent might, I suppose, easily be found by following the walls among the grass and weeds, and its height is known by some parts yet standing.  The arch of one of the gates is entire, and of another only so far dilapidated as to diversify the appearance.  A square apartment of great loftiness is yet standing; its use I could not conjecture, as its elevation was very disproportionate to its area.  Two corner towers, particularly attracted our attention.  Mr. Boswell, whose inquisitiveness is seconded by great activity, scrambled in at a high window, but found the stairs within broken, and could not reach the top.  Of the other tower we were told that the inhabitants sometimes climbed it, but we did not immediately discern the entrance, and as the night was gathering upon us, thought proper to desist.  Men skilled in architecture might do what we did not attempt: They might probably form an exact ground-plot of this venerable edifice.  They may from some parts yet standing conjecture its general form, and perhaps by comparing it with other buildings of the same kind and the same age, attain an idea very near to truth.  I should scarcely have regretted my journey, had it afforded nothing more than the sight of Aberbrothick.


Leaving these fragments of magnificence, we travelled on to Montrose, which we surveyed in the morning, and found it well built, airy, and clean.  The townhouse is a handsome fabrick with a portico.  We then went to view the English chapel, and found a small church, clean to a degree unknown in any other part of Scotland, with commodious galleries, and what was yet less expected, with an organ.

At our inn we did not find a reception such as we thought proportionate to the commercial opulence of the place; but Mr. Boswell desired me to observe that the innkeeper was an Englishman, and I then defended him as well as I could.

When I had proceeded thus far, I had opportunities of observing what I had never heard, that there are many beggars in Scotland.  In Edinburgh the proportion is, I think, not less than in London, and in the smaller places it is far greater than in English towns of the same extent.  It must, however, be allowed that they are not importunate, nor clamorous.  They solicit silently, or very modestly, and therefore though their behaviour may strike with more force the heart of a stranger, they are certainly in danger of missing the attention of their countrymen.  Novelty has always some power, an unaccustomed mode of begging excites an unaccustomed degree of pity.  But the force of novelty is by its own nature soon at an end; the efficacy of outcry and perseverance is permanent and certain.

The road from Montrose exhibited a continuation of the same appearances.  The country is still naked, the hedges are of stone, and the fields so generally plowed that it is hard to imagine where grass is found for the horses that till them.  The harvest, which was almost ripe, appeared very plentiful.

Early in the afternoon Mr. Boswell observed that we were at no great distance from the house of lord Monboddo.  The magnetism of his conversation easily drew us out of our way, and the entertainment which we received would have been a sufficient recompense for a much greater deviation.

The roads beyond Edinburgh, as they are less frequented, must be expected to grow gradually rougher; but they were hitherto by no means incommodious.  We travelled on with the gentle pace of a Scotch driver, who having no rivals in expedition, neither gives himself nor his horses unnecessary trouble.  We did not affect the impatience we did not feel, but were satisfied with the company of each other as well riding in the chaise, as sitting at an inn.  The night and the day are equally solitary and equally safe; for where there are so few travellers, why should there be robbers.

Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland (London: W. Strahan and T.Cadell, 1775) Text transcribed from the 1775 edition by David Price, including the corrections noted in the 1785 errata. Placename mark-up by Humphrey Southall.

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