EXTRACT FROM SKYE HIGH
by Hesketh Pearson and Hugh Kingsmill
The boat arrived at Portree, whose houses high above the harbour and the bare hills behind reminded Pearson of Lapland, which he had never seen. They got into a char-a-banc which bowled along through the bleak country, the driver every now and then throwing a rolled-up packet of newspapers at someone waiting by the roadside - no doubt for distribution in the neighbouring shielings. Far away to their right they saw the blue line of a coast which Kingsmill believed to be the Outer Hebrides, but which Pearson insisted belonged to another part of Skye. Inquiries having shown that Kingsmill was right, he advised Pearson to confine himself to his job of estimating the depth of rivers.
They were cordially welcomed at Dunvegan by Mrs. Duncan MacGregor, whose husband had made a very comfortable hostel in this remote place. They had arrived just before the summer rush and there was only one visitor, who joined them at supper. After regarding them for some time with a mournful and rather dissatisfied expression, he relieved their feelings by explaining that the cause of his gloom was the loneliness from which he had suffered since his arrival two days earlier. He had expected to find others there, and so had been very much disappointed on hearing that the first party wasn't expected before the following Saturday, when he would be leaving. 'Be of good cheer,' said Kingsmill. 'Such as we are, here we are. May we ask your name?' 'Sterry,' he replied.
PEARSON: I used to know some Sterrys in Gloucestershire.
STERRY: I didn't.
PEARSON: You haven't missed much.
KINGSMILL: What do you think of this place?
KINGSMILL: You are from London?
STERRY: Born there. Leeds at present.
PEARSON: Pretty country outside Leeds.
STERRY: Well outside Leeds.
PEARSON: You don't like Leeds, I gather.
STERRY: You've said it.
The talk drifted uncertainly, until Pearson mentioned Cromwell.
STERRY: There's a man for you.
KINGSMILL: You like him?
STERRY: We ought to have more of that sort about. I've got no use for this Church of England bunch. I biked to Marston Moor to see where he smashed them. I ought to tell you I'm a Baptist, and I'd like to ask the Archbishop of Canterbury what Christ would say about his fifteen thousand a year.
KINGSMILL: If that question could stump the Archbishop, he'd still be a curate.
STERRY: I'd like to ask him all the same.
PEARSON: I don't think it was the Christian in Cromwell who won Marston Moor. He was the toughest disciplinarian who ever lived. A million sergeant-majors rolled into one, and I know something about sergeant-majors.
KINGSMILL: A detestable type! With the possible exception of a prison-warder, a non-commissioned officer is the most revolting thing on earth.
PEARSON: There's nothing to choose between the two. Scratch a sergeant-major and you find a prison-warder, and vice versa.
STERRY: Have either of you gentlemen ever been to prison, may I ask?
KINGSMILL: Not to stay.
The weather was overcast during most of the five days which they spent in Skye, and they put in a lot of work. Late one afternoon Pearson said he was going up Healaval More, a mountain with a flat top, one of two adjacent hills known as Macleod's Tables. Kingsmill said he meant to rest after their hard day's work, but as he was going up to his bedroom the thought of Pearson striding triumphantly up to the summit irked him; he rushed out of the house and taking the nearest route reached the top of Healaval More in two hours. The view was marvellous; to the north-west, the undulating line of the Outer Hebrides, to the south a light blue sea contrasting with the grey stretch to the north, and the island itself, with its countless inlets, looking like a number of peninsulas loosely strung together. After enjoying this scene, Kingsmill glanced across at the twin summit of Healaval Beg, expecting to see it surmounted by the gigantic form of Pearson, since there was no sign of him on Healaval More. Pearson, meanwhile, who had missed the direct route and had eaten up several miles of level road before turning back towards Healaval More, was now standing on a gentle eminence a thousand feet below his friend, waving a stick at the hostel in the hope that Kingsmill, in the intervals of slumber, might be curious enough to raise his head from his pillow and direct a glance at the mountain. Tired of brandishing his stick, and realising there was no time to complete the ascent before supper, Pearson returned to the hostel.
At supper, which was over before Kingsmill returned, Pearson and Sterry discussed
music. Sterry had been a constant attendant at the Promenade Concerts in London,
and they found that they both ranked Beethoven far above any other composer,
much as they enjoyed Elgar, Mozart, and two or three others. Sterry was also
an enthusiast for Scott, whose Old Mortality he had read eight times, and Pearson
felt that Sterry would have made a stout Covenanter and have bashed a good few
of the godless over the head. To his astonishment, Sherry told him that he was
thirty-five; with his fresh complexion and unlined face he looked ten years
younger. After supper, while they were talking before the fire in the lounge,
'I couldn't help smiling to myself yesterday, when you and your friend were running prison-warders down. I've been one myself.'
Kingsmill, returning after supper, said that he supposed his early years in Switzerland had made the finding of the right route up a mountain more or less second nature to him, and privately reflected that while a hare might cover more ground, such ground as a tortoise covered was more likely to be in the right direction.
On Thursday, June 17th, Sterry, Pearson and Kingsmill decided to visit the Coolins, and were motored by Mr: Duncan MacGregor to Elgol at the other end of the island. A mile or so beyond Broadford Mr. MacGregor halted to point out the ruins of Coirechatachan, to which Johnson and Boswell had fled from Sir Alexander and where they had spent their jolliest time on the island. Towering behind the ruins was one of the smaller Coolins, a reddish lavastained cone, looking like a volcanic slagheap.
PEARSON: This place must always have been gruesome, but now, lifeless and ruined,
it has a double desolation. It's extraordinary to think of Johnson and Boswell
being there and apparently not feeling anything bizarre in their surroundings.
All Johnson says is that there is a hill behind the house which he did not climb.
KINGSMILL: It's as if Gibbon had a villa on the Styx, and wrote to Lord Shelburne that there was a stream in the grounds which he sometimes observed with satisfaction, but in which he did not design to swim.
PEARSON: Of course, any place after Sir Alexander Macdonald's must have seemed pleasant to Boz, and however harsh from outside it was very friendly within. Hear how Boz smacks his lips over their first meal with the Mackinnons at Coirechatachan: 'We had for supper a large dish of minced collops, a large dish of fricassee of fowl, I believe a dish called fried chicken or something like it, a dish of ham or tongue, some excellent haddocks, some herrings, a large bowl of rich milk, frothed, as good a bread-pudding as I ever tasted, full of raisins and lemon or orange peel, and sillabubs made with port wine and in sillabub glasses. There was a good table-cloth with napkins; china, silver spoons, porter if we chose it, and a large bowl of very good punch. It was really an agreeable meeting.'
KINGSMILL: No wonder he didn't bother about that lava-stained cone. But oughtn't we to mention some of our meals on this trip?
PEARSON: Certainly. Porridge and eggs and bacon every day for breakfast, always declined by you on the ground that you are banting, and then accepted on the ground that it would be a mistake to start banting with nothing inside you to bant on.
KINGSMILL: At any rate we've eliminated lunch, broadly speaking.
PEARSON: Very broadly speaking.
KINGSMILL: A general statement that we ate sparingly will be all the reader will require.
PEARSON: Boswell was made of stouter stuff. He had a terrific binge at the Mackinnons. Listen! After one bowl of punch Boz was for bed but Mackinnon insisted on another in honour of his guest, the young laird of Coll, and Boz was 'induced' to sit down again. They were 'well warmed' after the second bowl and ready for a third, which was duly downed. 'We were,' reports Boz, 'cordial and merry to a degree, but of what passed I have no recollection with any accuracy. I remember calling Coirechatachan by the familiar appellation of 'Corry', which his friends do.' A fourth bowl followed and Boz got to bed at 5 a.m. Awaking at noon with a severe headache, he was much vexed that I should have been guilty of such a riot, and afraid of a reproof from Dr. Johnson, 'who of course had gone to bed before the fun began. However, Johnson called him a 'drunken dog', which Boswell describes as 'good-humoured English pleasantry', and when Coirechatachan advised a dram of brandy for his headache Johnson said: 'Ay, fill him drunk again. Do it in the morning, that we may laugh at him all day. It is a poor thing for a fellow to get drunk at night, and skulk to bed, and let his friends have no sport.' When at last Boz got out of bed, he went into Johnson's room, opened a prayer-book and read the epistle for the twentieth Sunday after Trinity, in which he found the words 'And be not drunk with wine, wherein there is excess.' Some, said he, would have taken this as a divine interposition.
KINGSMILL: But Boz, I presume, was too modest to take that view.
PEARSON: True. He decided, before the day was out, that last night's riot was 'no more than such a social excess as may happen without much moral blame', and he recalled with satisfaction that 'some physicians maintained that a fever produced by it was, upon the whole, good for health'.
KINGSMILL: I wonder what old Johnson thought as he lay listening to Boz and the rest roaring over their cups. There's something rather pathetic about his determination not to be a spoil-sport the next morning. Wasn't it at Coirechatachan that he took the young Highland woman on his knee?
PEARSON: Yes, here we are. Dr. Macdonald's wife, a bride of sixteen, sat on his knee, put her hands round his neck and kissed him. 'Do it again,' said Johnson, 'and let us see who will tire first.' She remained on his knee for some time while they drank tea. It seems that everyone enjoyed the picture. 'To me,' says Boz, 'it was a very high scene; to see the grave philosopher - the Rambler - toying with a Highland wench!' Then a bit later Johnson kissed Mrs. Mackinnon's hand, and when the company pulled her husband's leg about the whispering going on between them, she declared 'I'm in love with him. What is it to live and not love?'
KINGSMILL: I find it very difficult to believe that Johnson really enjoyed this innocent fun. It labelled him as completely innocuous, and the old man was much too vain to enjoy that, especially with Boz beaming fatuous approval of the Rambler's relaxation from his accustomed austerity.
As the crumbling walls of Coirechatachan vanished in the distance, Pearson sighed: 'Eheu fugaces!' Kingsmill obligingly suggested, 'All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.' Pearson countered with, 'We'll go no more a-roving.' Kingsmill riposted with, 'In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights.' Pearson came back with, 'Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day.' Kingsmill murmured, 'Und was verschwand wird mir zu Wirklichkeiten,' and Pearson closed the duet with a Persian couplet on the transitoriness of things earthly, picked up, he said, during his service in the East.
They drove on and Pearson pointed to a crofter's cottage on a slope. 'There's a lone shieling, if you like,' he said.
KINGSMILL: By the way, I've just been reading MacCulloch's book on Skye, and
it appears that Walter Scott was probably the author of the Canadian Boat Song.
Interesting, isn't it?
PEARSON: Very. I gave you that bit of information many months ago, when I was down at Hastings, and you flatly asserted its absurdity.
The sun was bright at Elgol, and the group of the Black Coolins looked magnificent across Loch Scavaig. Boswell had described them as 'a prodigious range of mountains, capped with rocks like pinnacles in a strange variety of shapes', and for the moment the travellers were content with that.
A boatman offered to take them across for a guinea, and the high estimate of the Highlanders formed by Pearson and Kingsmill after their tea at Mrs. Campbell's slumped heavily. Kingsmill interrogated the boatman, and on finding that he was in any case making the journey of five miles to bring another party back, remonstrated with him; whereupon the boatman halved his fee.
They climbed into a cumbrous rowing-boat and pushed off from the shore, feeling that they were at last, in Boswell's phrase, 'contending with the seas'. Sterry, seeing that the boatman was not making much progress, offered to take an oar, and seating himself beside the boatman bent to his heavy task, while Pearson and Kingsmill, at opposite ends of the boat, made themselves as comfortable as possible. It seemed to the two passengers that the shore they had just left showed no signs at all of receding, and while Pearson wondered how on earth, or rather on sea, they would be able to make the opposite shore in the scheduled time of half an hour, Kingsmill reflected that the confidence visible on the boatman's face must have some basis in reality unless the boatman were a lunatic. On the whole it seemed to both of them that this was a matter which they must be content to leave in the boatman's hands - and Sterry's.
They bumped on over the waves for some minutes and had put at least fifty yards between themselves and the shore when they struck a large object, which the boatman informed them was their motor launch. 'Thank God!' cried Pearson and Kingsmill, while Sterry, breathing heavily, looked at it in dumb relief.
As the motor launch moved swiftly across the bay, the sky became overcast, and the Coolins gradually opened out as if to engulf them.
PEARSON: I feel as if we were entering the j jaws of hell. This gaunt cave
of mountains (he clawed the air) - the lair of some huge primeval monster. We
are being drawn into it. Ineluctably.
KINGSMILL: If Dante could write his inferno from the hills round Florence, what would he have written if he'd seen this? That huge black semi-circle overhanging the withered level plain we can't see, along which Dante and Virgil would have walked towards a fissure opening into hell.
STERRY: Rum place. Glad I came.
As the launch reached the rocky shore, a figure emerged from behind a boulder, and they were delighted to see their Glenelg companion, Dr. Bamber. He looked a little forlorn, and they learnt that he had missed his way from Sligachan and had done a lot of rough, unnecessary climbing. They wondered that he should miss his way, when the map showed a straightforward route, but they soon ceased to wonder. Skirting Loch Coruisk, a grim, lifeless lake, except for a little island strangely covered with long grasses and waving bushes, they began to climb, and at once lost the track. After half an hour they reached a comparatively level valley, down which a stream flowed into a little loch. Having ascended the stream for some time over quaking bog-land, they decided at last to leave the valley, and made another ascent, from the top of which they looked over a precipice into Sligachan Glen. Before starting the descent they turned for a last glance at the disappearing Coolins. Pearson gave a sudden shout, and pointing towards the upper portion of the face of one of the larger peaks exclaimed: 'Why, there's Dr. Johnson! We've found him at last.' 'Yes, there he is,' agreed Kingsmill: 'Wig, large nose, thoughtful left eye, and watchful right.' 'Even the shape of the head is there,' declared Pearson. 'Dear old man!'
They carefully negotiated the semi-precipitous descent, and when they reached the bottom Sterry looked back and said: 'Well, if you had told me I was going to climb down that, I wouldn't have believed you.' It was a long rough walk to Sligachan Hotel. On the way down the glen Sterry talked about prison life from the warder's point of view. The thing which struck him most about prisoners was their vanity. A chap who was in for three years' penal servitude thought nothing of a chap who was in for three or six months. The old stagers threw a big chest and pretended to be master criminals, in for daring robberies. Look up their records, and you'd find they were there for pinching the cat's milk.
Half-way down the glen they met and overtook several people and Pearson remarked that their meeting with Bamber under the Coolins had been very curious. 'After all, he is probably the only person in the Isle of Skye we have ever met before coming here; and yet he is the only person in the Isle of Skye to be at that precise spot at the very moment of our landing.' Kingsmill agreed that it was very curious, and Pearson continued: 'Life is so full of strange coincidences and unexpected meetings that after a time one ceases to notice them. I remember an episode of that nature in Mesopotamia during the war. I was trying to get a motor convoy over a wide nullah and a few sappers had improvised some kind of bridge to make the going easier. At the deepest point it had been found necessary to support the bridge with - what d'you call those things?'
'Kipling would know.'
'So would Bennett. Anyhow we'll call them "things". All was going well and over half the convoy had crossed in safety when the sappers suddenly decided that the things supporting the bridge weren't strong enough and began to bung in a few more. In doing so they displaced several of those already in position and the centre of the bridge collapsed. This meant that my convoy would be held up for quite half an hour and I was on a "rush" job. So I gave vent to my feelings at some length. When I had finished speaking, a voice just behind me said: "I have only known one chap who could do justice to a situation in such a variety of forceful and picturesque terms, and his name was Pearson." I turned and faced the officer of the sappers, and our hands went out simultaneously. We had frequently played dormitory football with six other fellows at school, and his memory had gone back to an evening, about ten years before, when my head had come into contact with a water jug at the exact moment when my right foot had stepped into and overturned another receptacle.'
KINGSMILL: The oddest thing that ever happened to me, or at any rate the most rounded-off episode in which I have ever taken a part, was during the war. I had gone into Wimborne from camp - it was at the week-end - and was returning from a blameless half-hour spent in looking at the Abbey when a taxi drew up and a fellow-officer, whom I will call Baxter, pushed his head out. 'Crawling after some village virgin, Kingsmill?' he said. 'Get in and I'll take you to Bournemouth, where life is clean.'
I got in and was introduced to a pretty, fairhaired woman, who, as we drove along, told me that she was the widow of a Guards officer killed at Mons. We entered Bournemouth and were approaching the hotel at which Baxter was staying when he suddenly exclaimed: 'I say, there's my missus. Troops, prepare for action.' The taxi drew up, we got out, and Baxter, turning to his wife who was approaching with a cold expression, said: 'My dear, let me introduce Mr. and Mrs. Kingsmill.'
The Baxters went into the hotel, my newly-acquired wife walked off, and I went to another hotel, where I met a fellow-officer whom I will call Robinson. He was drunk and a little maudlin, and having introduced me to his companion, a pretty fair-haired woman, he stuttered - 'Poor, p-poor little g-girlie. Hushban' killed at Mons - Guarsh offsher.' I left them fairly soon, but met them again the following day as I was going in to lunch. Robinson asked me to join them, and after I had taken my seat I noticed that my wife of the previous day was sitting near by with an officer and that Baxter and Mrs. Baxter were also close at hand. Baxter was looking subdued and Mrs. Baxter was looking grim.
Robinson was not appreciably soberer than the previous day, but he was sober enough to be worried by the expression on Mrs. Baxter's face. 'I know Mrs. Baxter,' he muttered to me; 'wouldn't like to offend her.'
It was obvious that he was embarrassed at being surprised by Mrs. Baxter in the society of a widow of a Guards officer killed at Mons, but as I interfere with no man's unhappiness I thought no more of it. Lunch over, the three of us rose. Our way led past the Baxters' table and as we reached it Robinson suddenly stopped and stuttered, 'Mrs. Baxter, may I introduce Mr. and Mrs. K-kingshmill.'
On Monday morning, when Baxter and I met again, he said: 'My wife summed you up pretty quickly. She said: "I don't like your friend Kingsmill. He has a very sensual face." '
They had tea in the lounge of Sligachan Hotel, choosing comfortable armchairs by the fire, to the annoyance of a bald-headed Englishman who was frowning over Punch. On leaving, Sterry muttered, 'Did you see the look he gave us? That's the sort Cromwell would do a bit of good to.'
When they returned to Dunvegan, Mrs. MacGregor. told them that Mrs. MacLeod, to whom they had written, would be glad if they would lunch the next day at the Castle. Pearson felt he must have a whisky after his day among the Coolins, but was informed by Mrs. MacGregor that there was no licence in Dunvegan. It had been withdrawn twenty-six years ago by the late Chief. There had been a great deal of drunkenness before, she said, and it was a good thing it had been withdrawn.
PEARSON: I join issue there. There are only three things which matter to me
in a place: a pub, a tobacco shop and a post office. In Dunvegan you tell me
there is no pub, and this is due to the laird. Is it also due to the laird that
the Post Office holds up my letters and that the tobacconist has never heard
of my baccy? If so, I can only say that I am glad I did not arrive here when
the lairds were all-powerful.
MRS. MACGREGOR: I wish they had all their old power back. They looked after their tenants, but the Board of Agriculture leaves the tenants to shift for themselves.
KINGSMILL: The Board of Agriculture? How?
PEARSON: And why?
MRS. MACGREGOR: The Board bought a lot of land from the impoverished lairds after the war and let it out in small holdings. But they've provided hardly any transport and haven't done anything about reducing the cost of freight. And so the tenants can't market their products.
KINGSMILL: I see.
MRS. MACGREGOR: Well, I must be going now.
KINGSMILL: Many thanks for all this information. (Exit Mrs. MacGregor.) I'm glad to have all these concrete details. As they are of no conceivable interest or importance to our readers, they are sure to produce an impressive effect. I am rather worried by Johnson's pertinacity in acquiring useless information for his book as soon as he set foot in Skye. I feel we ought to do something of the kind. He appears to have informed himself about a number of matters which normally he would have entirely ignored - sheep-shearing and manufactures and all that sort of thing.
PEARSON: Padding for his book.
KINGSMILL: It was a good idea, and I suppose if he were here with us he'd dig out facts about what?
PEARSON: Revenue from trout-fishers.
KINGSMILL: Revenue from climbers.
PEARSON: Fascism in Skye.
KINGSMILL: Communism in Skye.
PEARSON: Introversion among inhabitants.
KINGSMILL: Extraversion among inhabitants.
PEARSON: Why people are suffered to clutter up travel books with this sort of thing, passes my comprehension, No one, unless he's paid to, investigates the local industries and what-not of the place he lives in. And yet everyone thinks, when he picks up a travel book, that he's getting his money's worth if this sort of stuff is chucked at his head about the inhabitants of Borrioboola-Gha.
While they were working the next morning Kingsmill told Pearson that he had now been converted to the view that the cuckoo says 'wuckoo' and not 'cuckoo' .
KINGSMILL: There can be no doubt about it, for since our arrival one cuckoo has been wucking to the north of this house and another to the south. I am glad to have added a concrete fact to my small store, but sorry to have lost my illusion about cuckoos in the Hebrides. A drearier bird than the Hebridean cuckoo I have never listened to, and for thirty years one of my favourite passages has been:
A voice so thrilling ne'er was heard
In spring-time from the cuckoo bird
Breaking the silence of the seas
Among the farthest Hebrides.
Wordsworth, I need not say.
PEARSON: I am surprised that such an old egotist as Wordsworth should have
left it to Wodehouse to discover that the sound a cuckoo makes begins with a
W. I shall now start looking for a cuckoo that says 'Puckoo'.
KINGSMILL: And I for a cuckoo who cucks with a K.
Presently Sterry came into the room and asked if they had heard the cuckoo. They replied that they had indeed heard the cuckoo and very little else since they had been at Dunvegan.
STERRY: I've just been listening to it and I've come to the conclusion that
the sound a cuckoo makes is not 'cuckoo' but 'wuckoo'.
KINGSMILL: Are you sure it isn't 'stuckoo'?
PEARSON: Sterry coming in with his discovery beats those coincidences we were talking about yesterday. Put it in a book and no one would believe it.
KINGSMILL: Well, it's going in our book whether people believe it or not.
THE PART GREATER THAN THE WHOLE
Before leaving for the Castle they talked of the great scene between Johnson and Boswell which had taken place in the drawing-room there after the ladies had retired.
PEARSON: It's one of the few scenes which is better in the published Tour than
in Boz's Journal. The introductory passage is practically the same in both versions:
'All animal substances,' says Johnson, 'are less cleanly than vegetables. Wool,
of which flannel is made, is an animal substance; flannel therefore is not so
cleanly as linen .... I have often thought that, if I kept a seraglio, the ladies
should all wear linen gowns, or cotton; I mean stuffs made of vegetable substances.
I would have no silk; you cannot tell when it is clean: it will be very nasty
before it is perceived to be so. Linen detects its own dirtiness.' Boswell continues
in the Tour: 'To hear the grave Dr. Samuel Johnson, "that majestic teacher
of moral and religious wisdom," while sitting solemn in an arm-chair in
the Isle of Skye, talk, ex cathedra, of his keeping a seraglio, and acknowledge
that the supposition had often been in his thoughts, struck me so forcibly with
ludicrous contrast, that I could not but laugh immoderately. He was too proud
to submit, even for a moment, to be the object of ridicule, and instantly retaliated
with such keen sarcastick wit, and such a variety of degrading images, of every
one of which I was the object, that, though I can bear such attacks as well
as most men, I yet found myself so much the sport of all the company, that I
would gladly expunge from my mind every trace of this severe retort.'
KINGSMILL: That scene is the best example I know of the half being better than the whole: Boswell gives us everything necessary to stimulate the imagination.
PEARSON: Johnson, a thousand miles away from Fleet Street, with a bunch of roaring Highlanders round him.
KINGSMILL: No Burke to make him too prudent -
PEARSON: Or Bishop Percy to make him too prudish.
KINGSMILL: Enraged at having betrayed such intimate fancies to Boswell of all people -
PEARSON: And still more enraged at Boswell being convulsed at the thought of him as a lover.
KINGSMILL: A horde of Scots hounded on to make game of him -
PEARSON: And a vision of the episode as Boswell will roar it round London -
KINGSMILL: And whisper it to Mrs. Thrale.
PEARSON: Think how the dam must have burst -
KINGSMILL: And all the suppressed Rabelais in Johnson come rushing out on Boswell -
PEARSON: In a cataract of super-Falstaffian imagery.
KINGSMILL: And yet all that Boswell, too shattered either to report adequately or to suggest artistically, could write next day in his journal was this: 'To hear Mr. Johnson, while sitting solemn in armchair, talk of his keeping a seraglio and saying too, "I have often thought," was truly curious. Mr. Macqueen asked him if he would admit me. "Yes," said he, "if he were properly prepared; and he'd make a very good eunuch. He'd be a fine gay animal. He'd do his part well." "I take it," said I, "better than you would do your part." Though he treats his friends with uncommon freedom, he does not like a return. He seemed to me to be a little angry. He got off' from my joke by saying, "I have not told you what was to be my part" - and then at once he returned to my office as eunuch and expatiated upon it with such fluency that it really hurt me. He made me quite contemptible for the moment. Luckily the company did not take it so clearly as I did. Perhaps, too, I imagined him to be more serious in this extraordinary raillery than he really was. But I am of a firmer metal than Langton and can stand a rub better.'
On arriving at Dunvegan Castle they were very charmingly received by Flora, Mrs. MacLeod of MacLeod,who had prepared herself for the two Johnsonians by causing to be conveyed from the library to the drawing-room Dr. Birkbeck Hill's gigantic tome on his journey round Scotland in Johnson's footsteps. Kingsmill, wishing to allay any fears Mrs. MacLeod may have felt that they were Johnsonian scholars, dismissed all scholars as a useless and wearisome class. A lady present, Mrs. Cross, challenged this, and when it appeared that she had many friends and relatives among the Oxford fellows, Kingsmill handsomely withdrew his generalisation.
After lunch Mrs. MacLeod took them over the Castle. They saw the drawing-room where Johnson fell upon Boswell, and Johnson's bedroom from which he listened with the door open to a Presbyterian service, and 'the large old-fashioned crimson bed' in which Boswell slept, and a portrait of the laird who, as a boy of nineteen, entertained Johnson - a fine rather melancholy-looking man, who in later life became one of the most distinguished officers in the Indian Service: 'A young man,' Johnson described him to Mrs. Thrale, 'of a mind as much advanced as I have ever known; very elegant of manners, and very graceful in his person.'
They were also shown the dungeon, which consisted of an upper and lower cell. A captive in the upper cell was rendered helpless by a large weight to which he was attached by a chain, the links of which, Mrs. MacLeod said, were of great antiquarian interest. Lowering a hurricane lamp through a hole in the floor, Mrs. MacLeod illuminated the cell beneath, and told them that an additional discomfort for the starving occupant was the smell of cooking which came from the adjacent kitchen through a specially-made aperture.
From the roof of the Castle there was a beautiful view over the loch and the grounds, many of the trees in which had been planted on Dr. Johnson's advice. It was a soft and delightful scene, such as the travellers had not found elsewhere in the island. The male line, Mrs. MacLeod told them, had died out with her father, after more than seven hundred years of direct descent; but she was now generally acknowledged as the Chief by the other members of the MacLeod clan and she hoped that a succession of male chiefs would begin again with her grandson.
They went on the loch in a motor-boat, with Mrs. MacLeod, Mrs. Cross and the keeper, and circled round in pursuit of black-backed seagulls. These birds, Mrs. MacLeod told them, were very destructive to young grouse and even to lambs. After an hour and a half's execution of the gulls by the keeper, the travellers felt that the risk to the lambs and the young grouse of being killed by other than human agency was appreciably diminished.
Over tea detective fiction and murders in real life were discussed. Kingsmill recounted a story, told him by a friend, of a Frenchman who informed his lawyer that he was being slowly poisoned by his wife. She wanted to marry her lover; and as her husband was devoted to her, and did not believe in interfering with anyone's happiness, he insisted that the lawyer should remain quiescent. After his death the lawyer, pardonably chafed by the whole business, searched the man's house for the berries he suspected the wife of having used, and having found some held them out in the palm of his hand when next he met the wife. She looked extremely uncomfortable and shortly afterwards left the district. In some villages in Lancashire, Mrs. Cross said, it was customary to prop up very old people in bed and then suddenly to remove the pillows-a method which was rarely unsuccessful. The talk passed to assassination and Mrs. MacLeod told them of the precautions taken to protect President Roosevelt during his recent visit to Canada. It was agreed that the percentage of assassinations among American Presidents was surprisingly high, since a successor was always immediately available. It seemed, Mrs. Cross said, to be a waste of good assassinations, with so many dictators about.
Before they left Mrs. MacLeod confirmed what they had already heard about the Board of Agriculture. The crofters had been settled on the land and then left to shift for themselves. Had no facilities, Kingsmill asked, been afforded them for transporting their produce? Had no reduction been made in the cost of freight? Practically none, Mrs. MacLeod said, and Pearson sighed.
PROPERTY AND SEX
After supper that evening Pearson noticed that his friend, who was reading Boswell's Journal looked perturbed.
PEARSON: In trouble? Anything I can do?
KINGSMILL: It's ghastly! I've often read the passage but, possibly because I can now visualise the surroundings in which Johnson was talking, its really horrible nature strikes me for the first time. It's Johnson at Dunvegan - on female chastity.
PEARSON: A horrible topic. But read it out.
KINGSMILL (reading): 'MacLeod started the subject of making women do penance in the church for fornication. Mr. Johnson said it was right. "Infamy," said he, "is attached to the crime by universal opinion as soon as it is known. I would not be the man who, knowing it alone, would discover it, as a woman may reform; nor would I commend a parson who discovers the first offence. But if mankind know it, it ought to be infamous.
Consider of what importance the chastity of women is. Upon that, all the property in the world depends. We hang a thief for stealing a sheep. But the unchastity of a woman transfers sheep and farm and all from the rightful owner. I have much more reverence for a common prostitute than for a woman who conceals her guilt. The prostitute is known. She cannot deceive. She cannot bring a strumpet into the arms of an honest man." '
From your laughter, I presume you have some comment to make.
PEARSON: No, it's funny enough as it stands.
KINGSMILL: It doesn't amuse me. To hear Johnson saying aloud what the editor of a Church paper would hardly murmur to himself, gives me no pleasure. There is not a remark in this speech which does not contradict the religion Johnson professed. His approval of public penance for a woman found with a lover puts him with the scribes and pharisees who wanted to stone the woman taken in adultery. His view that a fault is venial as long as it is kept dark, but infamous as soon as it becomes known, substitutes respectability for virtue and Vanity Fair for Christian's pilgrimage. And when he says that a woman's chastity is important -because property depends on it, he is telling the young man with great possessions that the one thing he lacks is a chastity belt for his wife. Property! I can only explain the nonsense he talked about it as a kind of mortification of his worldly desires. He wanted to be generous about something which he half despised and half envied, and he was afraid that if he condemned it people would think he was condemning what he would be very glad to have. Hence all this claptrap in the presence of these lairds. For instance that other remark: 'Influence must ever be in proportion to property, and it is right it should.' Then why didn't Christ accept the devil's offer of all the kingdoms of the world? Why did Buddha leave his palace? However the old man is himself the best disproof of all this cant. He gave away two-thirds of his pension every year, and instead of heaving a brick at the prostitute he found in the gutter he carried her home and set her up as a milliner. If he'd believed a word he said about property and public opinion, he'd be forgotten as completely as all the rich and influential nonentities of his time.
PEARSON: I can sympathise with your exasperation. If Sydney Smith had talked such twaddle, I should be just as irritated. One doesn't like one's heroes to behave like fools. But let me calm you with some sense of Johnson's at Dunvegan. On money too. Hand me the book. This is what he says about trade, and the truth of it is only now becoming apparent; 'This rage of trade is destroying itself. You and I shall not see it, but the time will come when there will be an end on't. Trade is like gaming. If a whole country are gamesters, it must cease, for there is nothing to be won. When all nations are traders, there is nothing to be gained by trade. And it will stop the soonest where it is brought to the greatest perfection. Then, only the proprietors of land will be the great men.'
KINGSMILL: The bee in his bonnet again. I can never see any difference between land-grabbing and money-grabbing. What landowner on whose property coal or oil has been found, or who could sell it for deer-stalking, has ever shown himself a hair's breadth less greedy than a godly industrialist- running Bible classes for the children not yet murdered in his factories or mines?
PEARSON: You are so heated this evening that you have missed the point of Johnson's remarks. But this is where neither Kipling nor Bennett could help you. Consult Major Douglas.
KINGSMILL: You'd better find something to cool me.
PEARSON: Wait a minute. Here we are. What is the reason, Boswell asks, that we are angry at a trader having opulence? And Johnson replies: 'Why, sir, the reason is . . . we see no qualities in trade that should entitle a man to superiority. We are not angry at a soldier's getting riches, because we see that he possesses qualities which we have not. If a man returns from a battle, having lost a hand and with the other full of gold, we feel that he deserves the gold; but we cannot think that a fellow, by sitting all day at a desk, is entitled to get above us.' 'But,' Boswell inquires, 'may we not suppose a merchant to be a man of an enlarged mind?' 'Why, sir,' says Johnson, 'we may suppose any fictitious character. We may suppose a philosophical day-labourer, who is happy in reflecting that by his labour he contributed to the support of his fellow-creatures; but we find no such philosophical day-labourer. A merchant may, perhaps, be a man of enlarged mind; but there is nothing in trade connected with an enlarged mind.'
KINGSMILL: Soothing. And I like it particularly because it blows up a very foolish remark Johnson once let fall to the effect that he could not imagine a man more innocently employed than in making money. But the old man knew his own weakness and no one can understand Johnson who does not remember his admission that no man ever talked more wildly at times than himself.
THE HOUSE OF STUART
Pearson said that as the bus started at six in the morning for Portree, it was time they were in bed. As Kingsmill was about to struggle out of his chair, Pearson asked him whether he was aware that they were yarrowing Kingsburgh, and he sank back again.
KINGSMILL: I am fully aware of it. There are places in this island -Talisker
is one, and, if I have got the name right, Ostaig is another - which I am quite
indifferent whether I yarrow or not. But Kingsburgh I am yarrowing with a full
sense of my responsibility. It is ruled out for me by the fact that Johnson
and Boswell met Flora Macdonald there, and that Johnson slept in the bed where
Bonnie Prince Charlie lay with a price on his head.
PEARSON: These are harsh words. I did not know you felt so strongly about the Young Pretender.
KINGSMILL: I have. nothing in particular against him personally, but I am exasperated by the number of pages devoted to him in Boswell's journal which might have been devoted to Bozzy and the Doctor.
PEARSON: Personally I have no use for any of the Stuarts. James the First's tongue was too big for his mouth, and Charles the First's head was too big for his hat. Charles the Second was quite witty, but he let things down badly after Cromwell had put the French and the Dutch where they belonged. James the Second fled for his life, which wasn't worth saving, and Queen Anne refused to make Swift Archbishop of Canterbury, thereby giving Christianity a new lease of life in the United Kingdom. A poor lot!
KINGSMILL: I wonder why people are so silly about the Stuarts? Not only were they utterly ineffective but they were neither loyal nor generous. Charles the First let Strafford down. Charles the Second forced Lady Castlemaine as a lady-in-waiting on his newly-married wife, who was a stranger in England, couldn't speak a word of the language, hadn't a friend in the country, adored her husband and knew that Lady Castlemaine was his mistress. No one except James the Second has ever said a good word for James the Second. Queen Anne let her father down and toadied to William the Third and the fact that the English preferred George the
First to the Old Pretender, and George the Second to the Young Pretender, seems to me to put both the Pretenders out of court as objects of anything but pity and concern.
PEARSON: And yet there are still fatheads who find satisfaction in secret conclaves where they hail some remote relic of the line of Stuart as the rightful sovereign of these isles.
KINGSMILL: I suppose, if one wants to feel heroic, there's a lot to be said for a cause which is so completely lost that there isn't the slightest, chance of anyone finding it again.
GREAT MEN STAY AT HOME
On Saturday, June 19th, they left Dunvegan with Sterry and took the boat from
Portree to Mallaig at 7.50 a.m. On their way from Glenelg to Portree they had
passed the island of Rasay, which Johnson and Boswell visited, but had not noticed
it; so now they made good this omission. 'There's Rasay,' said Pearson. 'Oh,'
PEARSON: Our thirst for broadening our minds with new scenes seems to be diminishing.
KINGSMILL: We have Johnson on our side. He says it is surprising how people will go to a distance for what they may have at home.
PEARSON: On the other hand he finishes his book on the Western Highlands with the remark that the thoughts he'd expressed in the preceding pages were those of a man who hadn't seen much.
KINGSMILL: I think he said that partly to disarm criticism. He didn't want the Grub Street gang to laugh at him for making a song over travelling a few hundred miles.
PEARSON: One's attitude to the beneficial effects of travel is different at different times.
KINGSMILL: Johnson's was different at the same time. When he was on the island of Coll he made fun of his hostess, who admitted she had never been on the mainland, and advised her to go to Glenelg.
PEARSON: Pretty sound advice. Give me Glenelg for pulsing sensations every time.
KINGSMILL: Then Boswell chipped in and reminded Johnson that he'd never been out of his native island until Boz had taken him. That roused Johnson and he bellowed that he'd seen London and that was all that life could show.
PEARSON: The truth is, one likes to have done a fair amount of travel in order to be in a strong position for pooh-poohing it.
KINGSMILL: I remember A. C. Benson, when he was an Eton master, used to plead for more culture in our public schools.
PEARSON: You mean for culture in our public schools.
KINGSMILL: He used to attack the worship of games, but was always careful to add that he'd been very good at Rugger himself. I'm not blaming him, because we all do the same. But it's a pity one has to go to Yokohama before one has the courage to say that there's no necessity to leave Balham.
PEARSON: It's an undeniable fact that nearly all the greatest men have hardly ever left their native land - Shakespeare, for example.
KINGSMILL: Jesus Christ.
KINGSMILL: And yet nowadays any half-wit who has done nothing in five continents, instead of doing something in one country, has his reminiscences boosted as the garnered wisdom of one who has touched life at many points.
PEARSON: Whereas, actually, he has been untouched by life at any point, the reverse of what experience means. Ask a hundred people who have done a bit of travelling for an account of their experiences, and ninety-nine of them will only remember a knocking-shop in Tokyo.
KINGSMILL: And the hundredth will tell you that living is cheap at Valparaiso. Experience is what one feels, not what one sees, and the chance of feeling anything deeply when one is on the move is obviously much smaller than when one is stationary.
PEARSON: Shakespeare gives us the whole of life, from Falstaff to Lear, without leaving Shoreditch. Somerset Maugham brings us back a slice of life from Honolulu.
At Mallaig they were told that the best way to Oban was to take the train to Fort Wil;iam and do the rest of the journey by boat. They acquiesced, and at Fprt William said good-bye to Sterry, who was going on to Edinburgh.
PEARSON (as the train steamed away): A great lad.
KINGSMILL: Like one of Napoleon's 'old grumblers', who followed him for twenty years, did all his hard work for him, were always grumbling, and never let him down.
PEARSON: More like one of Cromwell's lads. I'd back a Londoner against half a dozen Frenchmen.
At Fort William the travellers discovered that there was no boat to Oban, so
they entered the Macbrayne motor-coach for Ballachulish. The conductor was
puzzled by their pass, took it from Kingsmill and went to consult Authority in the office. Returning, he said it was all right; but as he seemed to have possessed himself of it for good, Kingsmill said that he would like it back again. This necessitated another visit to the office. Presently Authority pushed its
head in at the window of the coach and bawled jovially at Kingsmill: 'You keep that pass. You'll want it.'