Johnson and Boswell: The Transit of Caledonia

By Pat Rogers | Go to book overview

1
'Trembling on the Brink of his
own Climacterick': Johnson's Journey
to the Western Islands and the Onset
of Old Age

Lord! what a degree of strenth and stability, you have given to the Crutches of an Old man, who last week, climd to the very top of the grand Climaterial hill, which had three score and three small hills, to pass, before we arrive at its summit. In passing some of these, my journey has been very much chequerd with a variety of uncommon adventures. And I now consider myself at liberty to smoak the pipe of Old age, alongst with some Veterans . . . ( Sir Alexander Dick to Boswell, 1 November 1766)

Samuel Johnson celebrated his sixty-fourth birthday on the island of Skye. He had arrived with James Boswell on 2 September 1773, and was detained on the island by bad weather until 3 October. The birthday itself fell on 18 September (this was the New Style date that he observed after 1752; at the time of his birth in 1709 the day was 7 September). As we shall see, Johnson was not anxious to make much of the occasion; but his own text in the published account of his journey reveals a hidden consciousness of this especially significant date.

In the centre of his Journey, Johnson devotes several pages to a general review of the manners and mores of Skye. This is headed 'Ostig in Skye', referring to the tiny settlement in the south of the island where the travellers were awaiting a fair wind: they had reached this spot on 28 September. At one point the discussion of life in 'primitive' surroundings turns to the question of longevity:

It is generally supposed, that life is longer in places where there are fewer opportunities of luxury; but I found no instance here of extraordinary longevity. A cottager grows old over his oaten cakes, like a citizen at a

-10-

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