An Englishman in His Near Abroad

Samuel Johnson was nearly 64 when he made an unexpected journey.  One day in 1773, the internationally renowned lexicographer, essayist, poet, and novelist, who somehow combined being one of the great thinkers of Europe with being a personification of bluff Englishness, suddenly switched his great gaze north, in search of a dream of youth.  His one good eye ranged restlessly beyond the metropolis whose intellectual life he characterized and whose very language he had helped to codify, over the midlands from which he had emerged, across an echoing border and still further north and west, until it lighted at last on certain storm-swept islands he had never seen, but which had long ago taken hold of his heart.  He avers in his 1775 account, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, “I had desired to visit the Hebrides, or Western Islands of Scotland, so long, that I scarcely remember how the wish was originally excited.”

How, indeed?

The expedition took many admirers and friends by surprise, because what could there be in such outlandish outcrops to engage the interest of so lambent an intellect?  Furthermore, the Great Cham of English literature was noted for anti-Scottish squibs, such as calling Scotland “a worse England” or chortling that “The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!”  He had also been...

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