January 2014

Director's Blog - Highland Journeys

Anna Keay discusses the fascinating history of Boswell and Dr Johnson’s grand tour of Scotland, and their ties to our very own Auchinleck House, Ayrshire:

The first Landmark Trust building I remember knowing by name was Auchinleck House in south-west Scotland. On the family estate of the great biographer James Boswell, the house itself was built by his father, a straight-backed Scottish lawyer, in the 1760s. When I was 17, having had enough of washing-up, I swapped my apron for a tartan skirt and spent the summer as a guide at a house of similar date a few hours north of Auchinleck, Inveraray Castle. One particularly quiet Monday I was allowed to browse the Duke of Argyll’s private Library. Amid the thousands of gently decaying brown leather volumes I came across James Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson and, perched on the narrow Library steps, started to read.

The year was 1776. The travellers were unlikely friends: James Boswell, 32, energetic, ebullient and good humoured, Johnson, 63, a literary grandee who memorably felt that ‘when a man was tired of London he was tired of life’. Together this odd couple set out for somewhere more unfamiliar to two Enlightenment gentlemen than Rome or Ravenna, Constantinople or Corsica: the Highlands of Scotland. Since Bonnie Prince Charlie’s doomed uprising of 1745, which had seen such support from the Highlands, the north of Scotland had been systematically oppressed: the clan system undermined, the bearing of arms outlawed, the speaking of the Scots language discouraged and the wearing of tartan, ‘highland dress’, categorically forbidden. Together Boswell and Johnson travelled by road and then, when the roads ceased, on horse-back and on foot. They were delighted and impressed by the dignity, inventiveness and honesty of the people in this wild and depopulated land. When they reached the island of Skye they kissed the hand of  Flora MacDonald herself, now a respectable middle-aged lady , and Dr Johnson slept in the bed in which Prince Charlie himself had lain 30 years before.


After nearly 80 days the pair headed south. Their first encounter with ‘civilisation’ was at Inveraray, where they met the Duke of Argyll in the very library where I was reading. Then they pressed on to Boswell’s own home, Auchinleck. Boswell’s father, like the Duke of Argyll, was the sort of Anglicised and educated Scots who abhorred Bonnie Prince Charlie and had backed the oppression of the Highlanders. The handsome new Auchinleck House, with its classical proportions and elegant elevation, expressed the outlook of this new British aristocracy. Dr Johnson and Boswell’s father  were introduced in the Auchinleck library, a meeting that Boswell had worried about for weeks. Things went well at first until, in a discussion of Lord Auchinleck’s medal collection, a coin of Oliver Cromwell opened up the subject of politics and tempers frayed. Boswell took Johnson on a tour of the estate to clear the air, and there they clambered over the remains of old Auchinleck, abandoned for the new house, and Johnson remarked portentously that he preferred the ‘sullen dignity of the old castle’.

If Boswell’s Journal was my earliest encounter with Auchinleck, my most recent was just a few weeks ago on our annual trustees’ tour. In the pouring rain after a long and fascinating day some of us forged out in search of old Auchinleck. Under a dripping canopy, with mature trees astride the ancient remnants, their roots snaking down into the sodden ground, we found it. When we tramped back through the fields, the winking light from Lord Auchinleck’s library guiding us, I sent a silent semaphore to my 17 year old self, perched on the library steps with Boswell’s book in my hands, and smiled at the irony of the tartan skirt I could see myself wearing. 

Anna Keay