The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. Summary

James Boswell


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In August, 1773, James Boswell finally succeeded in persuading his distinguished friend Samuel Johnson to accompany him on a tour of his native Scotland, a country for which the learned Dr. Johnson’s scorn was legendary. Boswell kept a detailed journal for most of their journey together, and he published it, in a version edited and revised with the help of the Shakespearean scholar, Edmund Malone, in 1785, as a companion volume to Johnson’s own account, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, that had appeared in 1775. Boswell’s original journal was discovered with many of his other private papers, giving the modern reader the opportunity to examine a considerably franker account than the one that was first issued to the public.

The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides is a fascinating travelogue, an unusually full record of life in the Scottish highlands and on the remote islands of the Hebrides, a character sketch of Johnson, and, like Boswell’s other diaries, a mirror of his personal idiosyncrasies. Boswell seems especially anxious to show the respect and the deference with which his friend was greeted by his countrymen; he wanted to prove to Johnson and to the world that the Scots were indeed capable of being scholars and gentlemen, closely in touch with the world of learning, and, being a Scot himself, he naturally felt pride in having the privilege of introducing so great a figure to the professors and noblemen of his homeland.

Perhaps the greatest appeal of Boswell’s account lies in the absolute naturalness of style and content. Discussion of the quality of the food and of the beds at every inn along the way is interspersed with Johnson’s comments on whatever volumes of prayers, sermons, or poems he was able to procure and with accounts of long conversations between the scholar and many of his hosts on religion, philosophy, politics, and literature. As the trip went on, Boswell tended to fall farther and farther behind in his account, and throughout the journal he casually tossed in collections of Johnsoniana after having forgotten the specific occasions of many of the doctor’s comments. He chose, too, to stop his narrative at intervals to give geographical and historical details.

Boswell is brutally frank, in his unpublished account, about the character of some of their hosts. He is relatively sympathetic when treating the weakness of Donald MacLeod, a young kinsman of the chief of the MacLeod clan of Dunvegan, on the Isle of Skye, who took their money to town to have it changed and squandered a portion of it on his own refreshment, much to his later chagrin and shame. The arrogance and lack of hospitality of Sir Alexander Macdonald, whose manners seemed to Boswell entirely out of keeping with his station in life, are treated much more harshly. Boswell gives a particularly amusing account of their visit to the duke and duchess of Argyll...

(The entire section is 1193 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Bate, W. Jackson. Samuel Johnson. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975. Offers an insightful comparison between Johnson’s travel account and Boswell’s journal. Explains how Boswell’s writings constitute a biographical memoir and record of conversation rather than a straightforward narration of events.

Brady, Frank. James Boswell, the Later Years: 1769-1795. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984. Brady’s coverage of Boswell’s journal is annotated, indexed, thoroughly researched, and enthusiastically written. Examines Boswell’s moral and psychological character, with fascinating accounts of his morbid curiosity.

Bronson, B. H. “Johnson, Traveling Companion, in Fancy and Fact.” In Johnson and His Age, edited by James Engell. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984. Reviews the differences between the published version and the actual journal that Boswell kept, which appeared in 1936. Underscores Boswell’s efforts to use the journal as a rehearsal for The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., which was published in 1791.

Delaney, Frank. A Walk to the Western Isles: After Boswell and Johnson. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. A chronicle of Delaney’s journey that retraced the 1773 Scotland trip taken by James Boswell and Samuel Johnson. Contains beautiful photographs and illustrations. Re-creates the time, place, and intellectual environment in which the two scholars cemented their friendship.

LaScelles, Mary. Notions and Facts: Johnson and Boswell on Their Travels. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1972. Re-creates Boswell’s attempts to capture Johnson’s response to unaccustomed circumstances. Reviews the circle of friends and contacts who arranged the tour.

Pittock, Murray. James Boswell. Aberdeen, Scotland: AHRC Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies, 2007. A detailed examination of Boswell’s published and unpublished works. Pittock demonstrates how Boswell deliberately wrote ambiguously about himself and the major events of his time; he discusses how Boswell’s writing was influenced by his sympathies with Catholicism, Scotland, and Jacobitism.

Rogers, Pat. Johnson and Boswell: The Transit of Caledonia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Focuses on both Boswell and Johnson’s accounts of their trip to the Hebrides. Rogers examines their journey from the perspective of eighteenth century travel writing and places their accounts of the trip within an intellectual, cultural, and literary context.

Turnbull, Gordon. “Generous Attachment: The Politics of Biography in the Tour of the Hebrides.” In Modern Critical Views: Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Examines the political risks that Boswell took in exposing Scotland to Samuel Johnson and in exposing Samuel Johnson to Scotland.