Hospitality on Skye

Monday, July 24, 2017


As noted in the last two blog posts, Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell often found poor food and accommodations on their travels around the Inner Hebrides. But they were pleased with their reception at Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye. The present castle, seen in the photo above, has surely been enlarged since then, but it still must have been impressive. More importantly for Dr. Johnson, it was a comfortable and elegant place to stay while waiting for the weather to become more favorable.

At Dunvegan, Johnson and Boswell were wined and dined and entertained. The host engaged them in intelligent discussion, the hostess was extremely gracious, and Dr. Johnson was reminded of the refinement he felt he had mostly left behind in London. As he put it:

At Dunvegan I had tasted lotus, and was in danger of forgetting that I was ever to depart, till Mr. Boswell sagely reproached me with my sluggishness and softness. I had no very forcible defence to make; and we agreed to pursue our journey.

Roland, Donald, and I also felt the hospitality on Skye. We had been received with equal hospitality on Mull, but it is always pleasant to be treated as an honored guest.

Fernlea Bed and Breakfast is on the main road, not too far from the Skye Bridge. It was a convenient base from which to explore the rest of the island. After our white-knuckle drive from the ferry, we tried to find a tourist information center and were unsuccessful. So even though it was way too early to check in, we headed to Fernlea to see if they would have any suggestions for spending the day.

At first Iris seemed a little flustered to have us arrive early, but she soon got into her helpful mode and made some suggestions. By the time we returned from Armadale Castle, the rooms were ready and we moved right in. Iris and John were always eager to give us information and advice and to make reservations at nearby restaurants. And the breakfasts were excellent. That’s Fernlea in the second photo.


But one of the most interesting things about Skye is the (true) legend of Flora MacDonald. Tune in next week to learn about her.

Over the Sea to Skye

Monday, July 17, 2017

 
Donald, Roland, and I shared another experience with Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell when we spent the night at Glenelg on the way to the Isle of Skye.

Glenelg is just down the road from the closest point between the mainland and Skye. That’s probably why Johnson and Boswell close it. I chose it because it because I wanted to take the historic turn-table ferry that crossed there.

The eighteenth-century scholars had a dangerous trip to Glenelg. According to Dr. Johnson:

We left Auknasheals and the Macreas in the afternoon, and in the evening came to Ratiken, a high hill on which a road is cut, but so steep and narrow, that it is very difficult. There is now a design of making another way round the bottom. Upon one of the precipices, my horse, weary with the sharpness of the rise, staggered a little, and I called in haste to the highlander to hold him. This was the only moment of my journey, in which I thought myself endangered.

I can’t remember whether we went “another way round the bottom,” but it wasn’t this part of the journey that concerned us most. I’ll get to the part that did in a minute.

Unfortunately, Glenelg is small, and there is only one inn. When Johnson and Boswell arrived, they found that the inn served whiskey but no food, and the beds were occupied. Eventually they found some hay and settled down for the night, but they were not happy.

There is still only one inn, although it is a more modern one. The Glenelg Inn served food, but I found it bland and wasn’t happy with either dinner or breakfast. The TV didn’t work, people gathered and talked on the patio outside our room after we wanted to go to bed, and there was no good place to set up my laptop. But our room did have a nice sitting area where Roland enjoyed reading.


My disappointment with the inn was a minor problem compared with what was to come. Getting from the inn to the ferry was bad enough, but after we left the ferry we had about five miles of the most harrowing mountainous driving you can imagine. Like Dr. Johnson, we felt ourselves endangered. I’m not sure if the photo at the head of this post is the landing we left from or the one we arrived at, but you can see what the terrain was like.

Still, we made it safely through. And we, like Johnson and Boswell, found hospitality on Skye. That’s the subject of the next post.


Dr. Samuel Johnson's Tour of the Hebrides

Monday, July 10, 2017


In 1773 Dr. Samuel Johnson decided to take a research tour of the Highlands and the Inner Hebrides. He was accompanied by James Boswell, and they both wrote journals. Although separated by many years, our paths crossed theirs at several points during our Scotland trip. We did not visit places in the same order, so these next few posts will follow our itinerary rather than theirs.

Those early travelers crossed the Isle of Mull on their way from the Isle of Coll to the Isle of Iona. We did not visit Coll (although the ferry stopped there on our way to and from Tiree), but we did spend four nights on Mull and took a day trip to Iona while we were there.

Johnson and Boswell landed at Tobermory. We landed at Craignure and drove to Tobermory, which you can see in the photo. I’m sure it was not as colorful in 1773, although Dr. Johnson described it as having a very commercial appearance because of all the boats in the harbor.

Travelling around Mull in the 1770s was hard going. As Dr. Johnson described the trip across Mull on their way to Iona:

Having not any experience of a journey in Mull, we had no doubt of reaching the sea by day-light, and therefore had not left Dr. Maclean’s very early. We travelled diligently enough, but found the country, for road there was none, very difficult to pass. We were always struggling with some obstruction or other, and our vexation was not balanced by any gratification of the eye or mind. We were now long enough acquainted with hills and heath to have lost the emotion that they once raised, whether pleasing or painful, and had our mind employed only on our own fatigue.

It’s still hard going. There are roads now, but they are mostly single tracks winding through the mountains, with passing places for oncoming vehicles. My brother Gordon was leaving a day earlier than the rest of us and wanted a cheaper room, so he booked a hotel in Tobermory. I booked rooms at a “nearby” castle for Donald, Roland, and me. It was only four miles from Tobermory, but the first time we drove it in the fog, and it took us 40 minutes. We got that below 30 minutes by the time we left.

Traversing the best roads on Mull (a combination of dual lane and single track), it took us about two hours to make the 58 miles from Tobermory to the Iona ferry.

Iona is known as the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland. Johnson and Boswell were disappointed with the state of the ruins at the site. By the time we got there, the nunnery was still in ruins but restoration work had been done on the abbey. Here is a picture as the abbey looked to us.


As mentioned above, Gordon left us after three nights on Mull. Donald travelled on with Roland and me, staying one more night on Mull before heading to Glenelg and from there to Skye.

I’ll pick up the saga next week as I talk about the experiences we shared with the two scholars at Glenelg on our way to Skye.


Sir Walter Scott: Friend or Foe?

Monday, July 3, 2017


The lighthouse museum at Hynish includes a short biography of Sir Walter Scott. As a Commissioner of Northern Lights, Scott had visited the site of the future Skerryvore Lighthouse many years before it was built. Here is how he described it in his diary.

Having crept upon deck about four in the morning, I find we are beating to windward off the Isle of Tyree, with the determination, on the part of Mr. Stevenson, that his constituents should visit a reef of rocks called Skerry Vhor, where he thought it would be essential to have a Lighthouse. Loud remonstrances on the part of the Commissioners, who, one and all, declare they will subscribe to his opinion, whatever it may be, rather than continue the infernal buffeting. Quiet perseverance on the part of Mr. S., and great kicking, bouncing, and squabbling upon that of the yacht, who seems to like the idea of Skerry Vhor as little as the Commissioners. At length by dint of exertion, come in sight of this long ridge of rocks (chiefly under water) on which the tide breaks in a most tremendous style.*

My brother Gordon and I were standing on the pier at Hynish (shown in the photo) when Gordon told me more about Sir Walter Scott’s history. I had to laugh because it sounded just like Mark Twain’s history. And that’s funny because Twain was Scott’s nemesis. The two men would not have known each other (Scott died three years before Twain was born), but Twain hated Scott with a passion. In Chapter 46 of Life on the Mississippi, Twain blames Scott for giving people romantic notions that kept them living in the past.

Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinessses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual who ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South, they flourish pretty forcefully still.

And yet, the two men seemed to have the same faults and the same moral code. Both were easy prey for swindlers, or at least for people promoting bad business deals; each ended up bankrupt because of it; and each vowed to pay every last one of his debts—and did.

So maybe Twain should have respected Scott rather than despising him.

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*  Quoted from Chapter 3 of Outer Isles by A. Goodrich-Freer (1902), as reprinted at http://www.electricscotland.com/history/outer/chapter03.htm.